God’s Presence Brings True Joy

by Erin Bird

Well, it’s here – the last gasp before the school year begins. Teachers reported back to the classroom this past Monday here in the Waverly-Shell Rock district and students show up tomorrow. Surrounding districts are starting around this same time as well. If you are a Jesus-follower, would you just take a moment to pray for the students, teachers, staff, and administrators of your local school system?

Also, Wartburg students are starting to show up. Many fall athletes are already on campus, freshmen and transfer students show up next week with returning students not far behind. Their classes begin on Wednesday, Sept 4. Would you join me in praying for the students, staff, and faculty? Also, pray God would give Riverwood the joy of loving on and investing in some Wartburg students this year.

Continuing Our Series

Last week, I began a new blog series based on a prayer found in the book Gospel by J.D. Greear. If you need a refresher, here is the prayer:

“Heavenly Father, in Christ, I know there is nothing I can do that would make You love me more, and nothing I have done that makes You love me less. Help me realize Your presence and approval are all I need for everlasting joy. Just as you have been to me, so I will be to others. And Heavenly Father, as I pray, help me measure Your compassion by the cross and Your power by the resurrection.”

Last week, we looked at the first phrase, which means this week I want to take a few moments to look at that second sentence: “Your presence and approval are all I need for everlasting joy.”

Finding Joy, Fading Joy

If you have ever been infatuated with a boyfriend or girlfriend, you know the joy you found just by being with that special person. You didn’t have to have big plans to go do something in order to have fun. Simply hanging out, eating food, and even watching stupid movies was enough to make you happy.

But even if you marry that special person, more times than not, the feeling fades. There’s a house that needs cleaned, bills that need paid, and careers that need attention. No longer is the simple presence of the other person enough. The joy you felt during the early days of dating has faded.

This leads many people to search for joy in other places. Some look for it in a hobby, others in a sports team, some through vacations, some through their career, and unfortunately some look for joy in the arms of another person.

This sad story parallels what happens in many spiritual lives. Some people, when they believe the gospel, find such joy just being in God’s presence. If you follow Jesus, perhaps that was your experience. Do you remember it? Singing to Jesus, talking to Him in prayer, even reading the Scripture were such effortless tasks because it was more about God’s presence than anything else.

But then life happened. You got asked to do nursery duty at church, or recruited to serve at the Food Bank, or your co-worker dumped their emotional burdens on you, or the kids got sick, or the bill collectors kept calling, or you got extremely tired of that one song being played over and over on the radio, and eventually the joy you felt in God’s presence waned.

For many people, when their joy in Jesus fades, they turn to other things: Netflix, shopping, dating relationships, work, substances… anything that might give them some spark of happiness. But as we all know, the joy of these “idols” wanes even more.

So what is Jesus-follower to do?

Keep Going with the Gospel

The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Jesus-followers in Colassae, writes “As you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him.” (Colossians 2:6)

Now, if you follow Jesus, re-read that verse, and as you do, ask yourself: How did you receive Jesus? The answer is “Through the Gospel!” So next ask: how are you to “walk in him” (i.e. follow Jesus)? Again, the answer is “Through the Gospel!”

In other words, as you keep peering into the Gospel, studying it, contemplating it, treasuring it, and thanking God for it, you realize the significant sacrifice Jesus made for you through the cross shows how much He loves you. And when you realize just how much He loves you, you find you WANT to be in His presence, for it alone gives you everlasting joy.

Getting Off the Approval Treadmill

But J.D.’s prayer doesn’t just say that God’s presence is all we need for everlasting joy. It says that God’s presence and approval are what we need.

You know, it’s funny: us humans spend so much time chasing joy in anything but God, yet we feel shackled by some sort of internal religiosity. We screw up – we drink too much, or blurt out Jesus’ name in vain, or think really evil thoughts against someone, or spread some unfounded gossip or watch some videos we know we shouldn’t view – so we try to make it up with God by going to church, or posting a Bible verse on social media, or spending some time reading the Bible, or even donating some money to the poor widow down the street. It makes us feel a little better about ourselves (which means God must be feeling a little better about us as well, right?). But then we screw up again, and the cycle continues.

It’s like we are caught on an approval treadmill – trying to get closer to God by earning His approval, but due to our sinful screw ups, we don’t seem to be making any progress.

If this is you, listen up: There is nothing you can do to earn more of God’s approval. God’s approval of you isn’t based on anything you do, rather it is based upon what Jesus has done. This is the scandal of grace.

Our spiritual enemy tries to whisper to us that God isn’t happy with us, and that we have to somehow re-earn His trust and affection. “If I am going to please God, I have to do more religious things,” we think to ourselves. But the doctrine of atonement corrects this lie by teaching us that when God looks at those who believe in Jesus, He doesn’t see their sin, He sees the righteousness of Christ. This is what the Apostle Paul expressed in Philippians 3:8-9:

“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”

Paul knew his religious efforts to please God fell completely short of simply knowing Jesus. Instead, he needed to accept Christ’s death on the cross for him, and allow the righteousness of Jesus be counted as his righteousness. Because of what Christ did, Paul knew he had God’s approval, and so therefore he could experience full joy.

So if you are a Jesus-follower, may you this week pray to God, thanking Him that His presence and approval is all you need for everlasting joy!

Seven and a Half Ways to Improve Your Mood

Ever had “one of those days?” (Maybe you’re having one right now!)

When you find yourself in a funk, here are some ideas to help turn things around:

#1 – Say “Thank You” To God

When I’m feeling down, I find I internally complain about things. This focus on the negative keeps you stuck. So turn it around. Look at the positive. What has God done or is doing for you? And don’t just thank Him for one thing. Keep thinking of more things. Even if you come up with 10, don’t quit. Keep finding things for which you can say, “Thank you.” The more you think of, the more your mood will lift.

#2 – Encourage Someone

When I’m down, not only do I internally complain, I also tend to retreat within myself, having a little pity party. But sometimes, getting outside of myself actually begins to change my bad mood. So call someone, text a friend, give someone a gift, or just walk across the room and tell someone you appreciate them.

#3 – Pray For Wisdom

One of my “go to” verses is James 1:5, which says if we lack wisdom we can ask God and He will give it to us. When I am feeing down, I often feel like I don’t know what to do. So I ask God for wisdom.

#4 – Pray through Scripture

If you follow Jesus, then turn to the Bible when you’re down. But don’t just read it, pray through it. Just this week, I found myself reading through Isaiah 11. Even though the passage is a prophecy about the coming of Jesus, I found myself praying verse 2 for myself – that God would give me a Spirit of wisdom and understanding. The Psalms are a great place to pray through Scripture! Let God’s words guide your words.

#5 – Eat Wisely and Get Some Sleep

Sometimes I feel down if I’m not taking care of myself in simple ways. Junk food and 5 hours of sleep rarely does my emotional state good! So eat your fruits and veggies, down that protein, and get to bed at a reasonable hour. An apple a day (and 8 hours of sleep!) may just keep the funk away.

#6 – Go do something fun!

Sometimes life feels like a treadmill or stationary bike. You’re doing lots of work, but not getting anywhere. So engage for an hour or two in a hobby, read a good book, go for a walk, play a game with the kids… do something that will remind you that life can be fun.

#7 – Listen to worship music (or just really happy music!)

A pastor friend of mine confessed that years ago he was in a deep funk because of some really bad church politics. He felt like he could barely read even Scripture. The only thing that would lift his spirit each day was to listen to worship music that would remind him of the goodness and sovereignty of God.

#7.5 – Invite someone to Riverwood’s Worship Gathering

This bonus idea comes from my own experience. My own worship of God is enhanced when I am standing next to someone I invited to church. I find myself more engaged, praying for my friend, and seeing things in a new way. And nothing gets me going than seeing God work in the life of someone else!

Like a Fly with a Death Wish

By Erin Bird

Last November, I slipped away from my daily routine to have my annual overnight spiritual retreat. I remember the sun streaming through the windows while a heavy frost lie upon the cold ground outside. My van was completely frosted over, yet I happily sat inside with a blanket on my feet, a hot tea on the table before me, and my Bible in my lap.

It was so refreshing. It was so peaceful. It was so quiet…

…except for the fly.

There were several dead flies lying in the window sills of all the front windows, but one had managed to outlive his compatriots. His constant buzzing and slamming into the wind revealed that he felt trapped. He wanted nothing more than to return to the outdoors from where he came. He longed for food, he longed for the fresh air, he longed to find some dead raccoon carcass to feed upon. And so he repeatedly buzzed, “let me out of here!”

What he didn’t realize, though, is that the escape he longed for, what he thought would give him life, would actually be the death of him. He unknowingly had a death wish.

Frozen Fly, Frozen Lives

I think humans are a bit like that fly. We often think that our happiness will be found in something else. We think if we can just escape the confines of our job, or marriage, or ministry, we will find freedom. But instead, what we find awaiting us is death – or at least a worst place than our previous spot.

[list type=unordered extra=]
[list_item]The husband has an affair because he thinks he is confined in his marriage. He wants to find joy and awe and freedom, and thinks that will be found in the arms of another woman, but soon he is trapped in trying to keep the affair hidden. And eventually it leads him to feeling emotionally cold or dead.

[list_item]Or the woman who betrays all of her friends through gossip thinks she just needs to escape to a new set of friends. But when she destroys those relationships as well, she is left emotionally frozen and lifeless.

[list_item]I see this in myself. Too often I think my enjoyment of life will come through pleasure. I long for the next movie or game or moment of relaxation or sex or dessert (yes, I’m looking at you ice cream), thinking THAT is what will make me happy and free. But I’ve noticed that the movie ends or the bowl gets emptied… And life goes on. I didn’t find freedom. In fact, I may feel may frozen than before (especially when the movie is a major disappointment… Yes, I’m looking at you Godzilla).[/list_item]

Psalm 145, though, makes it so clear where true life, true freedom, true enjoyment comes from. In fact, verse 19 sums the Psalm up:

[God] fulfills the desire of those who fear him;
He also hears their cry and saves them.

When I make something other than God my escape (whether movies or games or food), those things are like wintry air to a fly. They can’t give me what I truly need and long for. They will only contribute to inner petrification.

But when God is my cabin, when I find my safety and joy in him, I realize He sustains me. It is He who fulfills my desires. And when He is my source of joy, then I can enjoy a movie, because it actually leads me to worship and be in awe of the Creative One. I find food not something designed to satisfy my soul, but rather a conduit of worship to the one who gave me the food.

So to the husband who feels trapped in his marriage: may you not escape to the frozen arms of another lover, but may you run to the One who can fulfill your desires and change your marriage into something that causes you to worship Him.

To the gossiping woman who has damaged her relationships: may you lose the “awe” of the bad things everyone else has done and replace it with an awe of the One who completes every relationship you have.

And to people like me, who long for pleasure and comfort: may you cry out to Jesus, knowing that only He can truly fulfill the desires of your heart. May you stop buzzing against the window of games or sex or drink or money, but rather find life in the safety of the cabin of the gospel, through which everything else leads you to be in awe of God.

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