What we need to do now is to look at four things: 1) what is the character of your new relationship with the living God, 2) what can you expect to happen in your life now, 3) why should you go forward from here in a relationship with God, and 4) what specific attitudes and actions can you initiate to cultivate this relationship, to nurture it, and to develop it to its fullest expression in your life? (We will also look at some of the personal and relational benefits of doing this.)
Therefore, since we have been declared guiltless through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.There are several important points to notice about this information.
"In Him (Christ) and through faith in him, we may approach God with freedom and confidence" (Ephesians 3:12)We can approach God! Without being blown away?! With 'confidence' approach the One of whom "It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!" Incredible! "With freedom and confidence"--such are the awesome results of the work of His Son! The bedrock of our relationship is this access to God.
But, as in all new relationships, you will need two things: information and interaction. You can get a tremendous amount of information about Him from His Communication, obviously, but there are other sources of data that are important as well. This 'other data' basically comes from interaction with Him and with His 'social circle.'
The first few days of this new relationship can be seriously strange! You may feel very silly, very stupid, wonder where your sanity went while you made a 'religious decision!' You may even have negative emotional, personal, or professional experiences that you will be tempted to 'blame' on your decision!
The basic reason for this is our mixed character and how 'both sides of us' are responding to this decision. What I recommend is to take your feelings with a 'grain of salt' for a few days, while you start on the action items in the section "How to Go Forward From Here...".
I know it must seem a bit bizarre for me to assert that your life is beginning to change even as you read this. You will start to see new influences, see old things in a new light, have a heightened sense of moral struggle, notice things you never noticed before, and find new strength and vision in your life. Friend, it goes on forever like this--forever growing, getting better, stronger, kinder, more gentle, firmer, wiser--more like Him with each new experience (even failures will now play their part in sculpting our characters and destiny--previous failures may have served only to open us up to considering this relationship with God).
One final point before we get into the practicalities. At the moment you first put your faith in Christ, something actually changed inside you. The Scripture is very specific in saying that God created a new influence inside you:
"If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17) "And have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator" (Colossians 3:10)(This is also called the New Birth ("born again") and the New Man--we'll discuss what actually transpired in creating that 'new influence' in a later booklet.)
What this means to you now is that you will experience a more active conscience in day-to-day events, due to this 'influence.' You will develop a heightened sense of right and wrong, although the things you think are wrong might not be so. (Our consciences are not perfect--they were developed during childhood without any serious Quality Control programs! Under God's tutelage over the decades, they will get better, more sensitive, and more accurate. But for now, they will just become more active.)
This influence will prove to be an extremely valuable asset down the road.
Think what our lives, our relationships, our fulfillment, our sense of significance would be like if these qualities filled our lives! Need we say more?!
The scripture also approaches it from the same model. Consider these passages:
A Good Translation. I recommend the NIV (New International Version) or NAS (New American Standard). Both are accurate and easy-to-read for English-speaking readers. For the first several months you will need at least the New Testament, the Psalms (in the Old Testament) and Proverbs (in the Old Testament)--if you can't afford an entire Bible. [If you honestly cannot even afford a New Testament etc., write me and I'll send you one.]
The Easiest-to-Digest Books. The Bible is a wonderfully complex and panoramic work of God, done through many authors, through many centuries, and through many ways. Much of the scripture deals with God's special relationship with historic Israel; a smaller portion deals directly with believers today. All of it is profitable for us to pay attention to, but the easiest to 'process' quickly is that part written by those sent out from Jesus to the whole world--the Apostles. I recommend for 'mass consumption' that you read the New Testament "epistles" first (the books from Romans through Jude--just look in the Bible's table of contents), then the Psalms, and then the Proverbs. Then repeat the process as much, and as often as you can. The first time through, read for speed and 'immersion'--the second and subsequent times, read with interaction.
Begin Interacting with It. This is the easy part, because it means keeping a log of the things you don't understand, the things you disagree with (!), and the things that really 'nail you.' I use a spiral-type notebook with 4 columns: date, scripture passage address, the question/ issue/ message, and one for later answers. As you read the Bible, make entries in this log. At the end of each reading session, read them out loud to God and ask for Him to guide you into the answers. Some answers will come in days, some in weeks, some in years, some in decades, and maybe even some only after death. But you will be amazed over time how faithful God is to those who seek the truth. Remember, the God of Truth is not afraid of our questions!
As you read through a passage, feel free to mark it up with a good pen. Circle words that are repeated often, draw lines between phrases that are related, and especially note the connective words (e.g. for, in, through, because, therefore, in order that, so that, without, unless, if-then) and try to understand why they are there. Constantly ask God to show you the 'so what' and 'what now' implications of each passage. Note these as action items to do or concepts to think about. This will form an important skill set for the rest of your earthly life.
Once you have gone through the process about four or five times, you can develop a steady 'diet' at a steady pace. The Psalms have 150 chapters (5 per day for a month, but do the long Psalm 119 separately). There are 31 chapters in Proverbs (one per day, right?!). There are 44 chapters in Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, First and Second Thessalonians (a subset of the New Testament Epistles), or one and a-half chapters per day. (At some point you will want to get a "One Year Bible" with the entire Bible divided into daily readings. My kids and I really enjoy having it in 'bite-size chunks.')
The New Testament Epistles will contain important information as to what resources are available to you, what hidden elements exist in our worldview, what attitudes you can expect to develop, and what major challenges will confront you as you make progress. The Proverbs will teach you to be practical, shrewd (in a positive sense), and to learn from other peoples' mistakes rather than your own! The Psalms will teach you to carry every problem, every worry, every success, every failure, every positive and negative emotion to the Lord in prayer. You will see your life completely reflected in the experiences of the writer. It's incredible--every situation I can think of in life: elation, treachery, rejection, envy, promotion, etc., can be found in this book of the Bible. It will become a major, major source of comfort, strength, and even companionship in a sense, as you began to work this new life out into your experience.
A Starter-Kit on How to Study the Bible. There are many excellent books that can help you learn to study the Bible effectively. [For example, two I recommend are Living by the Book by Hendricks and Hendricks (Moody Press, 1991) and Dynamic Personal Bible Study by Barber (Loizeaux Brothers, 1981)]. But let me give you a 'five-minute' starter-kit for your first use.
The basic method is two-fold: answer the "W"-questions and then construct a word-by-word 'test' for students. The "W"-questions are simple--we learned these back in elementary school. Read the passage and answer the basics: who, what, where, how, when, why, why not, wherefore, and 'so what?' These are especially useful for historical passages such as the Gospels, Acts, and much of the Old Testament. Often you will need to construct the questions in more detail, such as in the account of the Widow's Offering in Luke 21:1-4:Let's Talk about Wiggling. Wiggling in the life of an infant is fascinating to watch and to think about. They are subtly obeying an ancient, in-built command of God to 'subdue the earth and rule over it' (Genesis 1-2). The first part of the 'earth' an infant has to rule is his or her little body. The wiggling is simply 'practicing until you get it right.' For people just beginning to grow in their spiritual life, this amounts to practicing the basics of a personal relationship with the Father, without understanding all of how it works, or where it's going, or even how it's possible. It's learning how to talk to God, how to 'look for' God in the day-to-day, how to develop spiritual skills.As He looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. "I tell you the truth," he said, "this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on ."Let's list all the "W"-questions we can come up with. (We may not have enough data to answer them from the passage or from the surrounding context, but the exercise of asking will make us more sensitive to the details of the story.)Who was watching?The second part is to build a word-for-word 'test' from the passage. This works especially well on paragraph-sized chunks from the New Testament Epistles. Look at Ephesians 5:1.
Who was being watched? Who else?
Who does Jesus say this to?
What did the widow do?
What were the copper coins worth?
Where did this take place?
When in Jesus' life did this occur?
When in the day and in which month?
How many coins did the widow put in?
Why did the widow give all she had?
Why did Jesus point this out?
What is the basic message of the story?
So what does that mean to me, concerning my attitude toward any gifts I give to the Lord's work?Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly beloved childrenWhat we do now is to pretend we are a teacher designing a 'comprehension test' to build skills in our students. We will try to make a question out of each word in the passage. Examples:Is "be" a command word?In this process of asking questions of the passage, you will begin to notice details and connections that will be used of God over time in bringing you to fulfillment.
What are we supposed to be?
Who are we supposed to imitate?
What is the 'therefore' referring to (you have to check the context for this question)
What kind of imitation are we to do? (as children or as actors, etc.)
Do we imitate as estranged children or as loved children?
Are we just creatures (or children)?
Are we just regular children (or loved children)?
Are we just regularly-loved children (or dearly loved)?
The most important one of these skills to develop quickly is that of prayer, or talking to God.
What does one talk to God about, actually? Let's look at some examples and instructions from the Scripture.
"I pour out my complaint before Him; before Him I tell my trouble" (Psalm 142.2)We see everything from complaining to thanking, confession to requesting...all from a child to the Father. Anything is fair game! It's an open, honest relationship ("access with freedom and confidence" remember?). Let's look a little closer at each of these.
"You are my God, and I will give you thanks." (Psalm 118.28)
"Cast all your anxiety on him, because He cares for you"(I Peter 5:7)
"Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not hide my evil. I said 'I will confess my wrongdoing to the Lord'--and You forgave the guilt of my sin.'" (Psalm 32.5)
"Do not worry about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition (while giving thanks), present your requests to God" (Philippians 4:6)
Complaining. As long as it's done in respect, complaining is on-target. Throughout the scripture, God's people often complained of sickness, political and military enemies, domestic problems, financial woes, love troubles, persecution, rejection, betrayal, misjudgment, 'bad luck', and the seeming inequities in life. It was all done respectfully, as a child might ask a Father to help him out with a local bully or a onerous math assignment or a frustrating social situation. "Pour out your heart to him at all times" -- the image of a hot, steaming, bubbling cauldron of trouble (does this describe your life ever?) poured out on the ground before the Lord for inspection! (Psalm 62.8) Nothing is too big or small, but do it often and with awe (remember Who you're talking to).
Thanks. This is so essential to a joyous life. If God were just a cold creator who made us just to 'show off' His power, then our fundamental relationship to Him would be obedience. But...God created us to 'show off' His kindness(!), and our fundamental relationship is to be that of thankfulness! (Not a bad deal for us, eh?!) The Bible talks about thanks over 150 times! Compare Psalm 50:23:
"He who sacrifices thank offerings honors me, and he prepares the way so that I may show him the deliverance of God."Our dear Father focuses on the heart that gives thanks, and He delights in involving Himself in that life ("show him the deliverance of God"!)
But giving thanks is not just a 'feeling good' experience. The scripture is clear that we are to thank God (in an attitude of trusting Him) for everything in our lives, even the unpleasant, the debilitating, and the difficult.
"Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (I Thess 5:18)We'll see later that nothing happens by accident in the life of one of God's children, but that everything is somehow calculated to produce a stronger character, a more gentle and kinder spirit, a wiser and more gracious heart, a more committed will, and a greater potential for enjoyment and significance. (We just don't know very often how it all fits together, on this side of death!) To see how clear the scripture is on this, look up and study (using the above techniques) James 1:2-4; Isaiah 48:10; I Peter 1:7.
Sometimes the difficulties are 'spankings' to keep us from playing with the stovetop:
"My son, do not despise the Lord's discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in." (Proverbs 3:11-12)Sometimes the hardships are more like an obstacle course or a difficult exercise regimen:
"No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it." (Hebrews 12:11)There are other reasons for hardships in the lives of His children, but in any event, GIVE THANKS! He knows so much more about us and what we really need, than we ever possibly could--trust Him!
The Psalmist knew this well: "It was good for me to be afflicted, so that I might learn your laws" (Psalm 119:71)
Confession. (Sounds threatening, doesn't it--but it shouldn't be if you understand what's going on when you do it...) Confession between a child and his father is nothing more than a reverse "I told you so"--a "You told me so". Confession in the Bible literally means "to say the same thing as"--to agree with. When we do wrong, we simply tell God that we did wrong, and that the wrong was destructive (like He told us). It's not a matter of 'whipping up enough sorrow' or some weirdness like that --it is a matter of 'whipping up some honesty' about the wrongdoing. It's being honest that this sin has no place in our lives, that it always further complicates matters(!), that its pleasure is outweighed by its consequences and cost, and that it took the death of Jesus Christ to cover its legal penalty.
You see, when someone in the universe does evil, there are always two aspects--the legal and the natural. The legal is the 'justice' part of it; the natural is the 'damages' part of it. When a murderer kills someone, there are legal results (he is guilty and should be punished accordingly) and there are natural results (a person is dead). The legal results can be 'undone' (he may be pardoned), but the natural results are almost never 100% reversible (the person does not come back to life).
When a believer sins, there are only natural consequences, because the legal aspects were taken care of by Christ on the cross. He took our legal consequences in full. The result is that when a child of God sins, what needs to be dealt with are the destructive forces unleashed by that act.
These destructive forces have two directions in which they move--internal within ourselves--and external--into our relationships with others. The internal damages typically show up in weaker wills, more prone to 'sin again' in the future, decreasing sensitivity to the real horror of sin, complacency, compromise, etc. The external damages vary considerably: mistrust, rejection, rebellion, apathy, hostility, damaged reputations, etc.
The cure for the internal is very easy--I John 1:9:
"If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all moral blemishes"Notice that it's 'confess', not 'agonize over' or 'confess over and over again' or anything like that. It is a simple Father-child conversation:
"I did X, and I agree with you that it was wrong. Stop the damages in my life--don't let it weaken/overpower me. And show me how to minimize the damages in the lives of others. Thanks you for taking care of the legal aspects through the death of your Son Jesus."The external consequences, if reversible at all, must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Scripture gives several examples of what might be needed to fix the outside results: restoration of property with penalty, public apology to someone, a gift, etc.
The critical element in confession is to deal with wrongdoing quickly! When you sin, don't let it work for a long time like yeast slowing changing dough. Stop the internal weakening (through confession to God) as quickly as possible. And then...start the strengthening spiral again (eating and watching).
Requesting. This is what most people think about when they think of prayer--approaching God with a grocery list of things they want to have. But the scripture paints a much richer and warmer picture of what we are to pray for.
We ask God for our daily necessities, like food and clothing. (Matthew 6:6)And many, many more...But can He meet those needs, if it makes sense for our true welfare? "Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or even imagine..." (Ephesians 3:20). Does that clear it up?!
We ask God to guide our governments. (I Timothy 2:1-2)
We pray for those who have not trusted Christ as their substitute. (Romans 10:1)
Pray that you won't be put into morally awkward situations (Matthew 26:41)
Pray for health (James 5:16; 3 John 1:2)
Pray for people to know God better. (Ephesians 1.17)
Pray for other believers to share their faith more (Philemon 1:6)
Pray for anything you might worry about! (Philippians 4:6)
Pray for your enemies. (Matthew 5:44)
The issue is never can He, but will He. Many of our requests will be answered "no," but not because He cannot do them. Answers of "No" can be because it is simply not in His best plan for our lives (2 Corinthians 12:8, Exodus 33:20). And sometimes a "No" only means "Not Yet." But a definite "Absolutely Not" is most often due to our failures to approach the matter correctly. Use your Bible study skills and look at these passages: I Samuel 14:37; Psalm 66:18; Proverbs 1:28; Proverbs 21:13; Proverbs 28:9; Micah 3:4; Zechariah 7:13; James 4:3. You'll find reasons like selfishness, or apathy toward His communication, or stubbornness--things that interfere with all personal relationships and communication.
One thing I have learned over the years is that God delights in showing His children how faithful, loyal, kind, and active He is. The people of Israel kept a record of God's special intervention in their history and celebrated it in church regularly. I have used a similar approach for the last 20 years -- the "I ask, He answers" Log. What you do is get a notebook or 3-ring binder. You take some notebook paper and draw a line down the middle. Then label the left side at the top "I Ask" (or "We Ask" if you do this as a family) and the right side "He Answers." Then, over the years, you record your requests (with the date) on the left side, and as He answers them (even with "No's") you make the entry on the right. This "Audit Trail of Grace" can be used at special times of thanksgiving and honor to reflect upon His demonstrated and active involvement in our lives. It will also encourage you in dark times. Whenever I get overwhelmed by a problem in the family or at work, I simply go back in the Logbook to the last jam He got me through--and I calm down a little, and trust Him a little more! If you do this, make the entries as specific and measurable as possible ('3 Christian books read by Christmas' vs. 'More Reading'). Some answers will come in days, some in months, some in decades--but the steady stream always continues!
Another thing I have to do sometimes (when the challenges I face either are too numerous or too powerful) is to 'cast them' upon the Lord. I Peter 5:7 says "Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you." I use a technique of doing this that probably originated with a Jewish king in 700 B.C. Israel was being attacked from the east by an overwhelming army (the "hopeless battle against impossible odds" kind of army) and the enemy commander writes a letter telling what destruction he is about to do to Jerusalem, how the people should not trust God, how other nations' gods did not deliver them. Talk about anxiety! But King Hezekiah 'turned it over' to God:
"Hezekiah received the letter from the messengers and read it. Then he went up to the temple of the Lord and spread it out before the Lord. And Hezekiah prayed to the Lord..."He basically took his 'anxiety list' and laid it out before God. In today's world, we can do something very similar. I remember the first time someone showed me how to do this. You simply take a sheet of paper and list on one side everything you worry about--big, little, immediate, in the future, etc. And then you 'spread it out before the Lord' -- you write "I Peter 5:7" and then the verse in big bold letters on top of the worry list. Then tear it to little shreds. You 'cast them' upon Him, because He cares for you. Talk to him about the worries, how they got there, specifically what it is you fear the most, what are the possible outcomes that you can think of (He can think of more, in most cases!). Lift the bills up to Him, the grades, the medical report, the eviction notice, the pink-slip, the IRS notice, the legal document, the orders to move, the 'downsized' headcount number for your department. I use this often and I have two phrases I consistently say: "See this, Lord?" and "HELP!" (He's your Father, remember--and a good one at that).
Committing. This is one surprisingly few people do (and often their results show it ). Proverbs 16:3 says
"Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and your plans will succeed."This 'commit' means something different than the 'commit' in 'commit sin.' In this case it means to 'entrust.' We formulate our plans, goals, targets, etc. and then 'entrust' them to God to "see them through." We entrust the plans--they are still our plans--to God. We then, with a calm confidence in His Omni-Competence, diligently proceed with the work. This promise guarantees us success (assuming that we have picked a worthy goal, of course).
I need to digress here for a moment and deal with an issue. What I basically said above was to "entrust it to the Lord" and then to 'get busy doing it.' And when the success comes, there are skeptics who will say that it was 'you and not the Lord' that made it happen. This is a rather naive position to take on any significant set of plans. The number of things that can go wrong (outside of the plan itself) is astronomically high: power outages, deaths in the family, sickness, changed economic situations, natural disasters, memory slips, transcription errors, traffic jams, priority shuffles--tons and tons of variables are caught up in every thing we set out to do. (How He invisibly orchestrates these things in history, I will not know for probably another 30-40 years, if then, but He just does it.) When I finish a big project at the office, I give thanks!
This also applies to goals. I do 6 month, 1 year, and 3 year goals. And I write them up while talking to God. At the end, when I have asked Him for sensitivity to His priority scheme, I write Proverbs 16:3 on the top of the sheet. I save these in a file folder, for later reflection and appreciation of His working behind-the-scenes.
There is one other 'wiggling' habit that is a good one to develop--a 'quiet time.' This is a period of time set apart for spending one-on-one with God, in a very quiet setting. Most people set aside a few minutes in the morning before their day 'cranks up the volume' to talk to God, give thanks, plan the day out before Him in prayer, and read His word. Other people prefer bedtime for this, focusing on the next day. It makes no difference--the issue is daily (or as close as you can come to it). It is important to get as isolated as possible to concentrate on Him, His goodness, His directives for your life, and to pay attention to the scripture with as little distraction as possible. There is no magic formula or set agenda for this (remember, it's a relationship not a religion!), but most people find it helpful to start with confession, then go to thanks, then to Bible study, on to 'requesting', and finally to planning the day while praying about it. Some people can do this in 10-15 minutes; others take 1-2 hours! Make sure you start with something that is reasonable for you!
Let's Talk About Watching. It's really fascinating to watch babies grow up. As their little personalities begin to unfold, mannerisms and characteristics of Mom and Dad (good, bad, and indifferent!) begin to show up. They are imitative by nature, and they imitate what they see Mommy do, big brother do, the TV character do, etc. If their parents are always angry around them, guess what they grow up to be like. If their parents are always gentle around them, guess what they grow up to be like. We are built to become like those we interact significantly with.
(There is a reason for this. Without getting too far into theology, the human race is patterned after the Trinity. There is one God and He has three separate personalities: The Father, The Son, The Holy Spirit. They all 'look' identical. How many times did Jesus say things like "He who has seen Me has seen the Father.?" Plenty. The human race was created in that 'plural' image. We are different persons, united by a common nature. As such, we tend to 'gravitate' to becoming like the other 'persons' with that nature--after the model of the Trinity. Babies are very quick at this, but everyone is subject to these influences.)
The Scripture points out that this imitation can be for good or bad:
"He who walks with the wise will grow wise" (Proverbs 13:20)The message is clear: to grow more like our Father, we have to "watch Him" more. We have to 'hang out' with Him in the garage, go to the store with Him, listen to Him tell His stories, think about His comments on the news, and on and on...we need to look at Him and watch Him.
"Do not make friends with a hot-tempered man, do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn his ways and get yourself ensnared." (Proverbs 22:24-25)
"Bad company corrupts good character" (I Corinthians 15:33)
OK. How do we 'watch' God?
The first answer is both easy and obvious. We pay attention to the Bible--what it tells us about God. What does He like? What does He hate? What does He love most in the universe? Why does He do some things and not others? Why does He work in our lives at the rate He does? What characteristic of God is prominent in this passage? Ask every passage "what are you telling me about my Father?"
The second answer takes time for people to develop, but start practicing now. It is seeing His work in the events and circumstances of your life. (This is called Providence.) You may have already seen His work in however you came to trust His Son and start the relationship with him. Make a habit of going over each day and asking Him to show you His working. At first it may be difficult to see any patterns, but over the years you will begin to see unmistakable 'fingerprints' in the "statistically improbable" circumstances of your life. Write them down.
The third answer is obvious, but may not be easy--depending on your personal situation. It is to watch Him in the lives of others who have grown to be like Him. Just as a younger kid can learn from an older sister what Mom is like, so also can we see the Lord in the lives of mature and solid followers of our Lord. We can see their gentleness, kindness, and firmness. We can see them forgive others and bear witness in difficult circumstances. We can see the image of the Father as reflected in their lives.
The reason this can be difficult at this stage is that finding these individuals may be hard. You may not have enough data or experience yet to distinguish between the 'wheat and the chaff.' There are many people who do religious things (some very impressive--cf. Matthew 7:22,23!) but who do not know God. Indeed, there is much material in the New Testament letters devoted to helping Christians distinguish between good and bad leaders.
The fastest way to do this from scratch is through the local church. I always start at the Yellow Pages under "Independent, Non-denominational" (I'm just more familiar with that 'brand' than with the mainline denominations). Then pick the 5-8 closest to you and call and ask them to send you their doctrinal statement ("what our church believes..."). When you get these, weed out those that don't talk much about Jesus paying for sin, or about the Bible being God's truthful Word. If the statement talks more about the Holy Spirit than about Jesus, dismiss it as well (John 15:26; 16:14). [If you cannot find anything, write me with your area and zip-code and I'll try to send you some names/numbers.]
At this point you are ready to visit the churches. I recommend 'scanning the crowd' before you actually go in. If a good number of the people are carrying Bibles into the church, it's a good sign--the preacher may be Bible-centered. [Some churches keep bibles inside the church, though, so just because no one IS carrying a bible, that doesn't necessarily mean that they are not bible-centered.] If they don't use/interact with the Bible in the service (e.g. bibles in the pews, or significant bible reading sections in the bulletin/service)--don't waste your time--try another one.
If you do attend the church service, and it seems to line up with what you know to be the case (and hopefully the preacher showed you in the Bible), then you are ready for the next step. At this point, you want to find an elder, deacon, pastor, or usher and ask them this question:
"I'm a new believer and I'm looking for a lay person in your church here to help me learn to share my faith and witness. Can you recommend a church member who regularly leads people to Christ?"You may have to ask two or three of these 'officials' to be sure, but if nobody knows even one, give it up--something is wrong with that church. If they do give you a name, write it down for later, and start attending the church. Later, you can look that person up and ask for some names of people who you could meet with, to learn from their Christian experience.
Once you begin associating with these folks, your learning will greatly accelerate. With this comes a danger of accepting everything a godly man says as true. Develop the habit early of "Test everything. Hold on to the good." (I Thessalonians 5:21). But...make sure your 'testing' is done with graciousness: "Thanks for that, Bob. Now, if I had to teach that to someone else, which two or three scripture passages would be the best to use?" If they have no clear passages, then suspend judgement on that teaching until you can get more information.
The other thing to find within the church is a weekly Bible study. Good churches (of both mainstream denominations and of non-denominational varieties) will always have a small group Bible study somewhere. This will be an important source of both Bible teaching, as well as a source of like-minded friends that are serious about growing their relationships with God. Find one and plug in quickly--it will provide many dividends in the future.
Make sure you Read-out instead of Read-in. In your experiences of 'watching' for God in your life, you will learn over time what He is like, how He operates, what His priorities are, and so on. At the beginning, you will bring assumptions (read: "baggage") with you in your expectations of what He is like. You (like everyone) will have a backdrop against which you will interpret and understand His actions. Sometimes we bring the backdrop of our earthly fathers, or of a godly teacher, or a wise friend. This can sometimes be good and sometimes be bad. For example, if our earthly father was harsh or distant or weak-kneed or violent, we will be tempted to see God as this kind of person, initially. It is as important to focus on what God is not like, as it is what He is like. (This can sometimes be dealt with by thinking about any negative characteristics in your "father-type" role models and thanking God that He does not have these limitations.) You will need to consciously practice this at first, but over time His character will become clearer in your mind.
A helpful starting point in this 'correction process' (which we all have to go through continually) is a study of the attitudes/qualities of God. While reading your Bible, jot down in a journal all the verses that tell you something about what God likes, hates, loves, gets angry at, grieves over, gets excited about, smiles at, etc. This will greatly facilitate forming an accurate view of the One who loves you beyond comprehension. (I'll start you off--What do you think He loves/delights in most in the universe?! And is also incredibly proud of?! -- My guess is His Son Jesus! Check it out--Matthew 3:17; 17:5; Mark 1:11; 9:7; Luke 9:25; John 3:35; 5:23)
Growth is change and transformation. At its core, growth is change from within, from some 'blueprint' inside us. Consider these bits of data:
"Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." (Romans 12.2) "Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day" (Ephesians 4:23) "...and have put on the new self which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator" (Colossians 3:10) "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." (2 Peter 3:18)There is a definite emphasis on 'mental renewal' in these verses. Seeing things as He does, thinking about things He does, loving the things He loves are the central means of change and transformation. When you start thinking the 'old things' or the 'old way,' quickly confess it and 'put on' the new viewpoint toward those things (as best you know how at this stage). If you don't know the 'new view,' just abandon the old and postpone thinking about the issue (but ask God to teach you over time the correct view). Then ask someone older in the Lord how they deal with the issue. Sometimes they may have some insight which will help. But transform, transform, transform.
Growth is temporary imbalance. Pre-schoolers and adolescents are often good examples of this principle. Precious growth in one area is often out of balance with the other areas of a person's life. They are in disequilibrium. There are 'growing pains' and embarrassing moments of awkwardness. This is normal. In a Christian's life, this might show up as someone who has rapidly learned a lot about the Bible, but who doesn't share their faith much yet. Or a person who is a prayer 'warrior' but who shows little compassion for hurting believers. Or people who tell everybody they meet about Jesus, but who have not learned to enjoy Him in praise or singing. Be patient, God will grow them in those other areas too (Philippians 1.9). And be patient with yourself, too! Stretch yourself, reach for growth, reach for maturity, but expect the disequilibrium of growth. (Actually, rejoice--it's proof of His work in your life!!) There are also stages of growth (I John 2.12-14)--a neverending adventure of achievement and self-realization!
Growth is like compound interest. Growth (both positive and negative) is like a spiral--the more you 'do,' the easier it is to 'do' the next level. For example, Galatians 5:22-23, teaches us that self-control is one of the results of 'saying no' to evil desires in our lives. As we fight temptation and win, we 'grow' the ability to fight and win farther. Conversely, when we choose the way of moral failure, our wills weaken and we become more likely to fail again (Galatians 6:8). The implication of this is clear: we need for our positive 'spiral' to outrun any negative 'spiral' we start. In other words, we need a life that is full of quality acts and wise decisions and kind perspectives and frequent 'check-ins' with our Father. Confession of sin stops the destructive spiral, but we immediately need to re-start the positive one. (Actually, we do not re-start at zero every time, because the positive 'spiral' changes our character, and not just our enjoyment of that character.) We can overcome any bad habit in our life over time, by a combination of confession and positive action/attitudes.
(One of the things I do in this area to keep focused may be of value to you. It's a bit simplistic, but it helps me. I keep a journal/diary ["Another journal?! When does this guy have time to work?!"] of what I did each day for the Lord. It is very small, because I only make brief entries. My typical entries include leaving a tract with someone, praying for someone special, writing some on my books, reading some pages in a Christian book, talking to my kids about the Lord, putting a tract in with a bill payment, mailing a Christian book to a friend, extra time in the Word, getting a brief Christian 'twist' into a conversation at the office, going to church, calling another Christian to encourage them, etc. But I look at it every night at bedtime--as a reminder--"what did I do for Him today?")
One of the most profound changes that occurred the moment you put your trust in Jesus Christ is that problems are now constructive, rather than destructive and/or random in your life. They now 'fit' in your life, for your development. Problems do not go away (some do) but they will now be changed into 'challenges' and 'opportunities' and 'exercise.' Even though they are now constructive, they are not 'fun.' Let's look at this very important component of our lives.
The Good News: Their Limitations. The first thing to get down is that the problems (and the inherent temptation to sin by abandoning God's way, compromising standards, reacting in arrogance, etc.) are limited in how powerful they can be. I Corinthians 10:13 is a life-saver here:
His faithfulness means that we can always deal with it. It will still be difficult (or else it would not stretch us) but it will not be so intense as to be destructive. To use a weight-lifting metaphor, if you can lift 100 pounds, it will be 120-130, but it will not be 200--which could damage muscle tissue.
"No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it."
For example, when I was a new believer I was petrified that Satan himself would appear to me in person and overpower my will with his presence, 'forcing' me to do something terribly evil--murder, rape, theft, blasphemy, etc. I did not understand that this would have been a temptation 'beyond what I could bear.' When I learned the truth of this verse, I breathed a sigh of relief and knew that I could trust my Father to keep me safe while He allowed my skill level to be tested.
The Good News: Their Results (when done right). When we keep our calm, our faith, and our actions on target through one of these 'trials,' the result is accelerated growth in our character and relationships. Compare:
"Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word" (Psalm 119:67) "For our momentary and light troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all" (2 Corinthians 4:17) "No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it." (Hebrews 12:11) "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance." (James 1.2-3)Notice that it is 'painful'--it is training. But it produces health, life, growth in us.
The Issue of Doubt. Many new believers agonize over their multitude of doubts about God, Jesus, the Bible, sin--in fact everything! In many cases, they did not even think about these things earlier--much less, have the teeming doubt-life they feel guilty about now!
This too is perfectly natural, and will slowly subside as you grow and get to know Him better. Faith is not an either/or proposition, but rather something that grows from one level to another to another (just like love, patience, joy, self-control):
"We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing." (2 Thessalonians 1.3) "our hope is that, as your faith continues to grow..." (2 Corinthians 10:15)The implication is this: be patient with yourself. Rejoice and be thankful that you are as far along as you are, and tell God you're excited about growing more, so that these 'doubts' will occupy less and less of your thought life. Remember, time is on your side!
A Special Case of Doubt: Intellectual Questions. Some people develop a heart for God, but are in a constant state of turmoil because of intellectual questions about the faith. Sometimes these questions come from professors or intelligent friends or literature, but they often cause a lack of peace in one's heart. I experienced this early in my Christian life, especially in University settings. The intellectual strength of the Christian worldview is one of the best-kept secrets in the universe! When I dug into the rational/factual basis for my faith, I was amazed at the 'audit trail' my Father left in the universe--to document His truth.
There are reams and reams of quality material in this area (generally called 'Apologetics') that can be found at most Christian bookstores.
It is important to remember several things when dealing with these kinds of issues:
Sin and Illusion. We've already talked about how a sin-spiral will weaken you, sap your strength, stunt your growth, rob you of joy and peace, and introduce decay and destructive forces into your relationships. Here I want to focus on another major damage-type: deception. Sin 'tricks' us. It changes our minds and 'tilts' our worldview. It is to be avoided at all costs, for this reason especially. Look at these:
"For sin...deceived me" (Romans 7:11) "put off the old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires" (Ephesians 4.22) "At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures." (Titus 3.3) "...so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness" (Hebrews 3:13) "...and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing." (2 Thessalonians 2:10)The Bad News: The Struggle. One of the most impressive evidences for the serious consequences of sin is the daily struggle within ourselves that we experience as believers. Men and women were created perfect originally, without a 'bent toward' evil. When sin was allowed to break into human history, it introduced disturbances and defects into human nature. We are all descended from those original natures, and sin has taken its toll on our spiritual "DNA"--we now have an aspect of our nature that aggressively tends to evil. The Bible calls this a sin 'nature,' which we do not shed until death. The consequence is that our lives are lived in a constant struggle between this 'old nature' and the 'new nature' which God placed in our hearts/lives when we trusted Him (remember the new influence we talked about earlier?). The scripture is very frank about this:
"For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want." (Galatians 5:16-17)As you grow in this relationship, your love for Him will increase and increase. The consequence of this is that your moral failures will grieve you more and more intensely over time. The struggle (and our 'losses' therein) could become a major source of discouragement in your walk with the Loving Lord. Let me give you a few things to think about, that may arm you against this.
"...but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members." (Romans 7:23)
First, "pour it out before the Lord." Take a notebook and write a letter to your heavenly Father about the problem. Describe everything you can think of about it on paper: how it started, the course it took, why it happened, what forces make it continue, what consequences you are currently experiencing, what a 'best case' scenario would be, what your role is in it, who else is involved, and what your godly options might be. This is just a starter, but begin to think through (prayerfully, while talking to him) what your options for recovery are. Be totally honest with Him (as if you could fool Him, right?!) and yourself. "Pour it out"--record it all on paper, date it, sign it, address it to Him. Then write the I Peter 5:7 verse on it, and put it away somewhere for safe keeping.Take the Longer View of Problems. All problems try to get us to focus only on the next 5 minutes, but the Christian is not limited to this narrow perspective. I try to put my challenges into perspective using a habit I developed based on Psalm 42: 11:
Second, break it down into sub-problems and go for some 'early wins.' Most big problems have lots of little ones hidden inside. Try to identify these and focus on solving the easier ones first. Get a positive 'win' spiral started so some of the benefits will bleed over into the more difficult areas. Fix as many small/easy ones as quickly as you can, to get some 'health forces' working in your life. This will grow your wisdom, insight, and strength and allow you to tackle the next level of difficulty and so on.
Third, do not try to do it all by yourself. Ask for professional, mature help in and through the church, or Christian service organizations. God created the church (a group of people) with different talents, training, and abilities so we would not have to 'know it all.' Get an expert involved.
"Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him, my Savior and my God."In this Psalm, the psalmist is faced with some kind of problem. But he/she has been through problems before and remembers that God delivered him from those problems. This 'pattern' of problem/deliverance is applied to the then-current problem, and the psalmist expresses confidence that he will 'get through it' ok.
I have adapted this perspective for myself in this way. Whenever I get hit with a big challenge (to the point of being worried or downcast) I get out my daily pocket calendar and find the date exactly 6 months from the current date. Then I write a note to myself on that date to thank God for how He got me through this problem! "I will yet praise Him" in exactly 6 months! He will get me through it--He's done it so many times in 20+ years!
So put problems into the perspective of God's sure deliverance. Begin thanking Him now for how He's going to do it. Look forward to learning more about how He works through this specific experience. Relax and trust His wisdom and careful, tender love for you. He loves you more than you could possibly understand.
"And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge" (Ephesians 3:17-19)
At the same time, it is important to remember that this relationship is built on trust and confidence. Just as you began your relationship with God by trusting His Son and His work on your behalf, in the same way the relationship will grow--by faith.
"So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness." (Colossians 2:6-7)Just as you did not earn His acceptance into His family, so you cannot earn His continued acceptance--both of these were secured for you by Jesus Christ. (You can earn His approval for what you become and for what you do, and can earn His smile and pleasing Him with your life.)
And faith is not something magical or mystical or something we 'close our eyes, grit our teeth, and whip up in our heart.' The scripture has a much calmer and peaceful approach(!):
"Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." (Hebrews 11.1) "And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him." (Hebrews 11.6)It is simply a quiet, calm, confidence in an awesome, kind, gracious God.
(Now, to be sure, sometimes we do have to grit our teeth and hold on, like we have to do in human relationships when troubles/ misunderstandings arise. But the majority character of faith is a restful trust in the One who is committed to our welfare, growth, fulfillment, and joy.)
This relationship on earth is so important in history that I highly recommend everyone to 'nail it down for success.' By this I mean to entrust the relationship to His care, to His responsibility. I know better than to trust myself to hold up my end of the relationship (over the remaining years of my life), but I know I can trust Him to make me! (Cf. 2 Timothy 1:12 and Proverbs 28:26). Just as I have entrusted my eternal destination to him, so have I entrusted our historical relationship. I highly suggest you do the same. A simple prayer-blueprint might be like this:
"Father, thanks for all you have done and have started in my life. I want our relationship to grow, develop, and be fruitful. But I do not trust myself to accomplish this. I entrust our relationship, especially my part, to Your care. Protect it from outside forces, from inside influences, and from apathy or indifference. Keep it moving and vibrant. Keep me growing. Keep me from actions and attitudes that will retard progress. Thanks."I have learned over the years what a beautiful, delightful, and enjoyable character is our God. I encourage you to enjoy Him, and delight in Him, and just generally to fall in love with Him. He can make this happen for you, believe me! Compare I Peter 1:8-9:
"Though you have not seen Him, 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, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the deliverance and freedom of your souls."Walk this walk and you will see this in your own life--steady by steady. God will share Himself with you as you grow in your ability and commitment to Him. Personal relationships are based on trust. As we prove trustworthy, friends and partners 'open up' to us and confide in us more. Incredibly, this is also the case with our Great God!
"The Lord confides in those who warmly respect Him." (Psalm 25.14) "for the Lord detests a perverse man, but takes the upright into His confidence." (Proverbs 3.32)I pray for you, my friend, that you will find the incredible Friend and Love that I have found in the arms of our Jesus, and that you would serve Him and enjoy Him forever and ever.