Difficult Seasons

Apparently, I’m middle-aged. At least that’s what the folks who categorize these things tell me. As I move deeper into middle-agedom, I’ve slowed down. I’ve lost hair. I talk about the good old days more and I have a growing desire to yell “get off my lawn” for no reason. In addition to all of these, I’m also learning to deal with aging parents.This past spring, my mom fell. And, while she didn’t seem to suffer any serious injuries at first, time has proven that the fall has indeed marked her life. Since June, she has been through two hospital stays, two rehab stints, and a couple of weeks in an assisted living facility. In addition, during the same period of time, my dad has also had two hospital stays, three surgical procedures, and a rehab stint of his own (sadly, my dad passed away right before I published this). It’s been quite a summer.

As I’ve walked through this journey with my parents over the last few months, I have been reminded of a few things.

Plans are great, until they blow apart. 

James writes:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will travel to such and such a city and spend a year there and do business and make a profit.” Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring — what your life will be! For you are like vapor that appears for a little while, then vanishes. Instead, you should say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” James 4:13-15, CSB

More than once over the last several weeks, I’ve made the two-and-a-half-hour trek to my hometown to be with my parents. I came with my clothes, my iPad, and a plan. And, almost without fail, those plans never worked out. I’d get dad out of the hospital only to have to put mom back in. There were falls, insurance issues, and unforeseen events at every turn. And, while I continued to try to plan out the next week, something would always happen today to completely wreck everything. As a result, I’m trying to take each day as it comes. Yes, I still like to try and plan things out, but by God’s grace, I’m slowly learning to focus on today and not be anxious about tomorrow.

In the movie Apollo 13, Tom Hanks stars as Jim Lovell. In one scene, the crew is worried about the re-entry plan to come back to earth. As the stress and tensions mount, Lovell says, “All right, there’s a thousand things that have to happen in order, we are on number eight. You’re taking about number 692.” I’m trying to learn to deal with number eight before worrying about what’s down the road.

Friends are precious. Over recent weeks, I’ve received countless texts and calls. Friends (and family) have reached out to offer their prayers, help, and encouragement. I’ve had people offer to help transport my parents to appointments or to bring them meals. I’ve walked into gatherings and had people drop what they’re doing to come and pray with me and for me. My church family has been incredibly gracious in all of this to allow me the time to minister to my parents. All of this really makes a difference. I’ve been reminded that friends are really a blessing from the Lord.

Prayer is vital. I know we all know this…or at least give lip service to it. But, I’ve been reminded anew about the importance of prayer through all of this. I like to think I can control most of the events in my life (I know, I know. Go back and read James 4 again). But, the events happening in my parents’ lives are well beyond my control. I can’t make bodies or brains heal. I can’t make bureaucracy work faster. I can’t open up beds in facilities where there are not or make resources magically appear. All of this has driven me more and more to the only One who can.

God is sovereign. The sovereignty of God is a great theological truth. We read of it in theology texts and expound on it in theological conversations. But, there are times in life when sovereignty has to become more than a concept in a book. It has to be a reality that pierces the circumstances of our lives. Romans eight tells us

We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28, CSB

This verse is meaningless if God is not sovereign. If He’s not sovereign over the circumstances of life (both good and bad), then the best we can do is hope things work out for the best. But, if God is in control and He is working and His promise is true and meaningful, then we have the confidence that He is accomplishing something. We may not understand it or even agree with it, but we know that while things are hopelessly beyond our control, they are not beyond His.

I love these words from Tenth Avenue North:

“As I walk this great unknown
Questions come and questions go
Was there purpose for the pain
Did I cry these tears in vain
I don’t wanna live in fear
I wanna trust that You are near
Trust Your grace can be seen
In both triumph and tragedy
I have this hope
In the depth of my soul
In the flood or the fire
You’re with me and You won’t let go”

As I enter this new chapter with the people who molded me into who I am, I’m resting on this Sovereign Lord. I’m looking to Him more in prayer and drawing strength and encouragement from the people He brings into my life. I’m learning to adapt to His plan for today rather than trying to force my plan for tomorrow. It’s not always easy, but I’m trying. Like they say, getting old isn’t for wimps.

Maybe you too are in a season of struggle. Perhaps your season, like mine, involves helping the people you love navigate the difficulties of aging. Or, maybe your struggles fall into a completely different category. Whatever the context of your life right now, I imagine the lessons above still have relevance for you. Learn to focus on the step in front of you. Be encouraged by the people around you. Dive deep into the pool of prayer and trust confidently in a sovereign God. May He help each of us move manage the difficult seasons of our lives.

You Mad?

angry-mob-pitchforks-torchesLike many, I’ve watched the news over the past few weeks with a bit of amazement. Without making any commentary on what has been done by our new president, it is a bit surreal to watch people react. Every day there is a new angry outburst of one kind or another. This anger isn’t new. During the campaign season, commentators kept speaking about the anger of the American people. If anything, that anger has only intensified. It seems as though many are angry without even knowing why they’re angry. We’re like little children throwing a tantrum and when asked why by our parents, we cry out “I don’t know. I’m just mad!” The volume is turned up, the shouting is more intense, and the barbs are more pointed and personal.

How do we are Christians respond in an age filled with such hostility? Obviously, we should be praying, loving, and sharing the gospel. But, I want to go beyond that to one specific admonition from James for us as believers. James writes, “My dear brothers and sisters, understand this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness” (James 1:19-20, CSB).

Perhaps in this age of shouting and tantrums, we as Christians would do well to listen more, take time before we speak (or post), and ask God to help us lengthen our fuses just a bit to keep from being angry all the time. When we listen less, talk more, and are angry all the time, it just seems to make matters worse.

I’m reminded of an old episode of the original Star Trek. An alien entity took over the Starship Enterprise and trapped Klingons (enemies of the Federation for all the young, non-nerds out there) on board. The alien then fed off the anger and the hostility between the Enterprise crew and the Klingons. The anger-fueled alien could not be defeated until the hostility between the two subsided.

I wonder what might happen in our circles of influence if we listened a bit more, took a little more time to speak, and got angry a lot slower than we do now? I’m sure it wouldn’t solve all the problems nor make the disagreements go away, but I have a feeling it would be an awful lot easier for those around us to see Jesus.

 

Don’t Go Back

you-cant-go-backPatton is one of my favorite movies. The 1970 biopic won an Academy Award for Best Picture, and George C. Scott won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the controversial general George S. Patton (although he had it returned the next day). Patton was a advance at all costs kind of guy. He challenged his commanders to be audacious and to keep moving forward at all times. In one scene, Patton is encouraged to stop his advance in order to allow his men to regroup. He replies, “Not me…I don’t like to pay for the same real estate twice.” Patton understood that retreat is not usually the best option.

In the opening book of the Old Testament, God calls Abraham to leave his homeland to follow Him. Abraham did so, and God eventually fulfilled His promise to Abraham and gave him a son named Issac. Years later, Abraham is lying on his death bed and making arrangements for his son to secure a wife. As he does, he instructs his servant to “go to my land and my family to take a wife for my son Isaac” (Genesis 24:4, CSB). He then issues this stern command: “Make sure that you don’t take my son back there” (Genesis 24:6, CSB).

Abraham’s words remind us of the danger of retreat when we are following God. It is so tempting for us to go backwards…to return to the familiar and the comfortable, particularly when God is pushing us beyond our comfort zone. As He moves us forward, it’s easy for us to want to go back. But, we can’t. We can’t go back. We can’t walk away from all the new things God is doing in us and through us. We can’t settle back into the comfortable when God has so much more in store for us. We must fight the urge to retreat into the familiar. We can’t return to our old way of thinking and doing. We must continue to press ahead. We must continue to advance by God’s grace and by His power.

The Apostle Paul writes, “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead, I pursue as my goal the prize promised by God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14, CSB). Don’t pay for the same real estate twice. Keep moving forward. What ever you do, don’t go back.

God Remembered

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On more than one occasion in my life, I’ve had to confess that I’ve forgotten something. I forgot about a deadline or an appointment or an assignment of some kind. More and more, I find myself having to use the reminder app on my phone to help me remember what to take where and who to call when. In our busyness and frailty, we often forget. We forget dates, events, promises and sometimes even people.

Frailty and forgetfulness seems to go together. We know that deep down. After all, we forget…and we have been forgotten. Someone has let us down in one way or another. A forgotten anniversary or birthday. A forgotten lunch date. A forgotten promise. We are not only forgetters. Sometimes we are forgotten too.

When we read the story of Noah and the great flood, we read of a man named Noah and his family building an ark, loading up animals, and surviving a deluge. After the rain falls and the storm subsides, the Bible says, “God remembered Noah” (Genesis 8:1). God remembered. What comforting words.

Those words struck me one morning as I was reading this text. In the face of all the fears we have, we do not need to fear that we are forgotten. We’re not. The God who created everything has not lost track of us. A hectic schedule and a full calendar have not squeezed us out of God’s mind. His omniscience is not impacted by the frailty that robs us our memory as we age. God had promised Noah to bring him through the storm safely. God not only remembered Noah, but He also remembered His promise to him. The winds came. The waters receded, and Noah stepped out onto dry land. And as God remember Noah, He remembers us. As God remembered His promise then and He remembers His promise now. In Christ, we are not alone. We are not forgotten. When those fears arise let these two words encourage you. God remembered.

Bug Control

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One of these things is not like the others. One of these things just doesn’t belong. If you have ever paid a visit to Sesame Street, you’ve heard that song. It’s a catchy little jingle. So catchy in fact that I still recall it to this day. I imagine that if you’ve ever heard it, you do to. As a matter of fact, it’s probably playing in your head right now.

Back in the day when Oscar, Grover, and the gang sang about differences, they did so to help children learn to compare similar things. And, as we sang along, we learned that one bowl was bigger than the other three. A triangle was different than a square. Blue was not green. So on and so forth. We learned to compare.

In some ways, comparison can be a good thing. We compare products before we purchase them to determine the best deal. We read reviews and take test drives before we buy a new car. We check out the blogs and the online reports before we pick up a new computer. We compare neighborhoods before we buy a new home, and we visit colleges with our kids before we send them off to campus. Comparisons can be a good thing.

But with that said, comparisons aren’t always good. As a matter of fact, there are times when they can be downright unhealthy. We see this when our young girls start comparing themselves to the idealized women of movies and magazines. We see it when our young athletes start taking shortcuts and put themselves at risk because they are comparing themselves to mature, world class athletes. We see it when we start looking around at everyone else and what they have and become dissatisfied with our own lots in life. And, we see it when we start comparing ourselves with others in a way that devalues who we are.

It’s easy for us to let comparisons rob our sense of worth. And sadly, this happens to us more than we like to admit. We look at supermom and all she does for her kids and we feel like complete parental failures. We see that guy at the gym and determine we’ll never be anything more than a slightly more attractive version of Jabba the Hut. We visit with friends and hear of their trips and see their new cars and we sink into despair because we’re such losers.

The destructive power of comparisons gone too far impact our ministries too. I’ll never be as good a teacher as that guy is. I can never sing like her. My devotion life is nowhere near theirs. I’m such a failure. Sound familiar?  Even pastors and ministry leaders get in on the action. I can’t preach like that guy. My church will never be as good as their church. I’ll never be as smart or as talented as that person is. I could never write or get published like they did.

We’re not the first people to do this. In the book of Numbers, the children of Israel sent spies into the land God had promised them to check it out. When the came back, they said,

“And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them” (Numbers 13:33, ESV).

In other words, they said, “They are so great and we are tiny little bugs. We’re nothing compared to them.”

Now, here’s the problem with their assessment. All they saw were people bigger and more capable than themselves. They had forgotten who they were. More importantly, they had forgotten whose they were. The belonged to God. He had created them and set them apart as His people. He had delivered them from bondage in Egypt. He had provided for them every step of the way during the exodus. And, He had promised to be with them as they claimed the land He had promised them. Simply stated, they had taken God out of the equation.

When you and I look around at everyone else and we take God out of the equation, we too will see ourselves as grasshoppers. Like the Israelites, we forget that God created us and set us apart as His people. We forget that He has delivered us from the bondage of sin (Romans 6:6-7). We forget that He has given us everything we need in Christ along the way (Ephesians 1:3). And, we forget that He has promised to be with us until He fulfills His promise to us (Philippians 1:6).

In Christ, you are not a grasshopper. You’re not some tiny insignificant bug less valuable or less cherished than someone else. You’re not inferior to someone who is bigger or more successful. You’re not worth less because you have less. So, quit with the unhealthy comparisons already. It’s fine to look around and let others inspire or help motivate you to grow or improve in some way. But, stop letting your comparisons to others rob you of the worth you have in Christ.

Perhaps you’re not like the others and maybe you feel like you just don’t belong. That’s okay. So, you’re not as big or as talented or as popular. Forbes doesn’t know your name and you’re not going to make the cover of Sports Illustrated. You won’t be leading any seminars on managing an unruly preschooler and the Ivy League isn’t calling begging your kids to come. Your church isn’t the most prominent in your state or your city…or your street for that matter. Your house is small, your car is old, and you weigh more than you did in high school. It doesn’t make you a grasshopper. It doesn’t mean you lack worth or value in God’s eyes. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure. The Scripture is filled with ordinary people who are loved and used by an extraordinary God. Let Him count you among that group.

Getting There

20120930-201318A couple of weeks ago, I had a meeting in a place that was new to me. I typed the address into my iPhone and let that digital voice lead me to my destination. When I left, I tapped home on my maps app so my digital guide could get me home. I was surprised to find out that I was going home via a different route. I’m not sure why my phone made the change. I don’t know if the traffic patterns changed or the second route was slightly quicker than the first or what. All I know is that I got where I needed to be by following the directions, even when they took me to a route I did not expect.

Life is like this. It seldom goes the way we plan. It’s filled with twists and turns and unexpected routes. We plan on going one way only to find ourselves headed in the opposite direction. Circumstances change. Stuff happens. Detours abound. Our direct route ends up looking like some obscure geometric design with a name no one can pronounce.

When life hits us with its inevitable route changes, we can respond in a number of ways. We can get agitated and lash out. We can pout and just pull over. We can stubbornly take control and try to forge our own way. Or, we can trust that God is guiding us and He knows more than we do.

The Bible tells us “All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the spirit. Commit your work to the LORD, and your plans will be established” (Proverbs 16:2-3 ESV). It is far more productive for us to surrender to the guiding hands of a loving God than to defiantly insist on following our own directions. We do not know what lies ahead, but He does. He has far more insight to the productivity of His path and the peril of ours.

Years ago I was asked to take someone to the airport. As I dropped him off at his hotel room the day before, he asked me if I knew how to get there (this was before the days of smart phones and GPS). “I don’t,” I said, “but I’ll find out.” The next morning I picked him up and he told me he had gotten directions to the airport. When I told him I didn’t need them, he said to me “You’re a real man. Not only will you not ask for directions, you won’t follow them when you get them.”

Many of us are like that. We stubbornly hold onto what where we want to go in life despite the fact that God may be leading us in a different direction. Let go. Listen to His guidance. Surrender to His direction and commit your way to Him. He is far more knowledgeable and far more able than we are. He is the one that weighs our spirits and establishes our plans. We can trust Him to take us the right way.

Just Keep Running

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The other morning, I went for a walk around my neighborhood. As I made my way down the street, I noticed a couple of runners coming towards me. I stepped aside as they passed and I noticed they were teenagers. I didn’t think anything of it until a couple of minutes later when three more headed my way. I again stepped aside and put two and two together and realized it must be track practice or something. As I kept walking, I noticed one last runner. He was a bit behind all the others and all by himself. His running was much more labored and his facial expressions revealed his struggle. For a brief second or two I felt bad for him. But then his dedication inspired me. Although he wasn’t as fast or as smooth as the others, and even though he lagged behind his teammates, he kept running.

As I passed him, I couldn’t help but see a picture our lives in his morning run. As we run the race of life, many run faster than we do. They run smoother and more eloquently than we ever could. They seem to stride effortless and keep moving forward while we stumble and stagger around. And, as they glide ahead, we labor and struggle as we try to keep moving forward. We fall way back of the pack all the while wondering if the race is worth it. But, we have to keep running.

The author of Hebrews writes, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1 ESV).  His words remind us that the Christian  life calls for endurance. It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon. It’s a cross country race with hills and valleys and twists and turns. The terrain is difficult. The challenge is real. Our lungs burn and our legs ache. But, we must keep running. Don’t worry about how far behind the others you are. Don’t give up because your pace is slower. Don’t quit because your form isn’t as good or your stride isn’t as graceful. Don’t stop. Dig deep. Breathe hard. Put one leg ahead of the other. Just keep running.

Getting Things Done

7e67fc67bcfd578da574731d43df9dd5Business leaders talk about productivity. Politicians talk about advancing their agenda. Students talk about finishing their homework and parents talk about just getting through the day. At heart, they’re all saying the same thing. They’re talking about getting things done.

When it comes to this idea of getting things done, I was struck this morning while reading my Bible by the contrast between the stories I read. Three stories about three different sets of people separated by time and contexts. Yet, all of their stories intersected in my mind at a single point.

In the book of Genesis, we read the story of Joseph. He was a young man sold into captivity by his jealous brothers. Upon arriving in Egypt, he became the household manager of a man named Potiphar. And, despite his circumstances, Joseph flourished in that role. The Bible tells us why. It says, “His master saw that the LORD was with him and that the LORD caused all that he did to succeed in his hands” (Genesis 39:3, ESV).”

Moving forward several pages and hundreds of years, we come to the book of 1 Samuel. There, Samuel tells us the story of David, a young shepherd boy who was anointed the future king of Israel. In between his shepherding and reigning, David served Saul, the present King of Israel. And, like Joseph, David was very successful at it. The Bible again tells us why. It says, “And David had success in all his undertakings, for the LORD was with him” (1 Samuel 18:14, ESV).

Moving forward yet again, we come to the life and times of Jesus as presented in the gospel of Mark. While Jesus was revealing His glory as God to Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration, His disciples below were failing to heal a young boy. As Jesus came down from the mountain, He did what His disciples could not. They later asked why they had failed to do something they had been called and equipped to do. Jesus tells them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” (Mark 9:29, ESV).

Three sets of characters in three different times in three different contexts, yet one recurring theme. Our successes come from God. When we live yielded and surrendered lives, dependent upon God and His power, we achieve far more than we can in our own power and strength. Joseph prospered because God was with him. David succeeded because God was with him. The disciples failed because they relied too much on themselves and not enough on God.

So, let us rest in the power God provides. Let us lean on Him for guidance and strength in the daily affairs of our lives. Let us look to God rather than trust in ourselves. After all, He is far more able than we are, and it’s through Him that we really get things done.

 

Tips to Improve Your Prayer Life

prayer20on20rock20silhouetteWe see throughout Scripture the importance of prayer. It is called for and modeled by Old Testament saints and prophets alike. Likewise, Jesus not only calls us to prayer, He also teaches us to pray and models for us a life of prayer. The early church was filled with praying believers.

So, with that said, let’s take a moment to look at some simple steps that can help strengthen our prayer lives.

Establish a time and place so you can get alone and eliminate distractions. It’s best if we can carve out some time each day to spend alone with God free from distractions. So, find the time that works best for you. People are seen praying throughout the Bible at different times and in different postures. God is more concerned that we spend time in prayer than what time we pray and He’s more concerned with the posture of our hearts than our bodies. Whatever hour might work best in your life, set it aside and make it a priority. Turn off the television and put your phone away. Try to eliminate as many distractions as possible so you can spend some time connecting with our Heavenly Father.

Remember that prayer is communication. It’s a conversation with God. For many of us, we try to find a balance between conversation and reverence/respect. Because we do, we tend to drift into “prayerspeak.” Through the years I’ve heard many people talk one way and then pray another. It’s like they’re speaking an entirely different language. Try to avoid this.

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original carton can be found here and is from the site Adam4d.com

As you pray, spend some time in silence. Allow God to stir in the stillness of the moment. It’s often in our quiet moments of reflection that God brings things to our mind to challenge and comfort us.

Speak openly and honestly with God. Don’t try to impress Him. He knows our feelings and emotions. He knows if we’re afraid or anxious. He knows if we’re angry. Acknowledge to Him and ask Him to help you move through those feelings. When we read the Psalms, we see the struggles of the psalmists. We also see the struggles of the prophets as they confessed they didn’t understand what was going on around them. Let’s strive to avoid the dangers of pretentious praying (Matthew 6:5-8). As we do this, it is helpful to remember that the Spirit prays with us and for us (Romans 8:26).

If we’re honest, we know that sometimes our prayer life becomes stale. We run out of things to say or we just repeat the same things over and over. Here are a few suggestions that can help us move beyond this.

  • Use the ACTS acronym – Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication
  • Follow the pattern Jesus puts forth in The Model Prayer (Matthew 6:9-15)
  • Pray Scripture, particularly Psalms – Donald Whitney has written a marvelous book on this entitled Praying the Bible (as a matter fact, anything by Donald Whitney is worth reading).
  • Perhaps it might help you to write our your prayers or to record them in a journal. You can do this in a hard copy or digitally. Day One, Evernote, OneNote, or any word processor (Word, Pages, Google Docs) can be a great tool for this.
  • Learn to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Take advantage of the moments here and there and pray whenever something…or someone comes to mind.
  • Pray through your calendar.
  • Prayer walking. Walk through your neighborhood praying as you go. This is a great way to pray for the people around you. Pray 4 Every Home is a great resource you can use in this endeavor.

Whatever method or plan, time or posture, tool or resource, the important thing is to pray. So, spend some time today connecting with God through prayer.

How to Study the Bible

We all want to grow in one way or another. And, many of us look at the new year as an opportunity to make a some changes in our lives. So, with that said, it seems like a good time offer a few suggestions to help us grow in our spiritual walks.

A great place to start deepening our relationship with God is by spending time in His Word. We know that the Scripture provides what we need for spiritual growth (2 Timothy 3:16-17). In the pages of the Bible, we learn about Jesus and the plan of redemption (Luke 24:27). We learn how we need to live and move forward in life (Psalm 119). We grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord (2 Peter 3:17-18). We learn to distinguish truth from error and we see more clearly the areas of our lives that need changing (Hebrews 4:12).

First thing to do is to get a Bible. By that, I mean get a Bible you will use. Get one with print big enough you can see. Get one you can understand. There are a number of really good translations available. I usually recommend the English Standard Version (ESV) or the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB). In addition there are a number of digital options that are good as well. Olive Tree, YouVersion, and the ESV app are all great tools you can use on your phone or tablet. Furthermore, you may find a study Bible a helpful resource and once again the ESV Study Bible or the HCSB Study Bible are hard to beat.

Second, get a plan. You can find a number of reading plans tailored to your goals. You can read the Bible through in a year or over the course of two years. You can read the New Testament through in a month or two. There are no limits to the suggestions. A month or so ago, Justin Taylor wrote about a number of great options on the Gospel Coalition Blog.

Third, set a time where you can minimize distractions and invest your time in reading. Find the best time for you whether it’s morning, evening or late night. To start, the length of time is not as important as the consistency.

Fourth, pray to seek the Lord’s help in understanding and applying what you read. The Holy Spirit is our helper as we spend time in the Word (John 16:13; 1 Corinthians 2:12).

Fifth, read. As you read, interact with the text. Ask questions like who, what, when, where, why, and how as you move through the text. Underline things and take notes. Jot down your questions, observations and insights. Converse with others about your readings, including your questions and insights. Get their input and seek their prayers about what God has laid on your heart.

Finally, live out what you learn. Reading the Bible is not primarily an intellectual exercise. By God’s grace, we are to apply the things we’re reading to our lives every day.