Ready for an Honest New Year’s Assessment?

connections

These 5 Connections Hold the Key to the Life You’ve Always Wanted

A pivotal moment in my life occurred around this time of year in 2010. My friend Don Wright and I were taking our usual walk around the track of Weddington High School, and I told him quite earnestly, “Don, some things have really got to change in my life next year.”

Don has a way of getting to the heart of a matter, and he reminded me of a sobering truth: “I think you said the same thing last year at this time, Jim!”

How terrible it was to see that many areas of my life had become STUCK. Year after year, I had complained. I vowed that things would be different in the coming months and year. Yet nothing really changed.

I hope you have a friend like Don Wright—someone able to provide a mirror to your life and hold you accountable to making the necessary changes to get unstuck. Otherwise, I have bad news: Your New Year’s resolutions are unlikely to bear much fruit.

But what if you’re not even sure about what’s wrong with your current life? Maybe you’re feeling apathetic and dissatisfied, but you don’t know where to start in diagnosing the problem or making any changes.

After years of studying what the Bible says about having an abundant and impactful life, I’ve concluded that these 5 areas hold the key:

CONNECTION TO GOD: Before you worry about any other changes in your life, this should be the starting place. Without a vital connection with the Lord as your “higher power,” your best efforts will surely fall short.

Since I work for a Christian ministry, you might think this area would never be a problem for me. Not true! I’ve discovered that even when you’re surrounded by “ministry,” your connection with God will be anemic unless you spend time cultivating your personal relationship with Him. There must be intentionality and a constant hunger to keep growing in your intimacy with the Lord.

CONNECTION WITH PEOPLE: Unless you’re a hermit, you already have a number of connections with other people. But are they the right people—those helping you become a better “you” so you can fulfill your highest calling in life? Perhaps you need to delete or minimize some relationships in your life, especially any that are toxic, negative, or overly draining.

In my case, although I have great friends, I find myself desiring to spend more time mentoring the next generation of leaders. I also would really value an older mentor in my own life. Once again, changes like these will require some intentionality on my part if they’re ever going to happen.

CONNECTION WITH TRUTH: In the early days of my Christian life, I spent lots of time studying the Bible, which helped provide me with a strong spiritual foundation ever since. However, I’ve slacked off in recent years. Instead of learning new things, I’ve been relying far too much on my previous studies.

Successful people are nearly always lifetime learners, continually reading, studying, and growing. What are your plans to keep learning and growing in the coming year?

CONNECTION WITH CHARACTER: Knowledge and hard work will only get you so far. Perhaps you need to deal with long-standing issues of character and maturity that have robbed you of joy and hindered your fruitfulness. Has an addiction been undermining your life, or do you need freedom from some negative emotion like fear, anger, or depression?

The Bible has a lot to say about the type of “fruit” coming from our lives (e.g., Matthew 12:33, Galatians 5:19-23, John 15:1-5). A new year is a great time to assess the quality of our fruit and do any pruning that may be necessary.

CONNECTION WITH SERVICE: God put each of us on this earth to make an impact in some way. An ingrown life is inevitably boring and unfulfilling, so it’s crucial to identify our place of service. Ideally, our service should flow from the spiritual gifts and passions the Lord has given us, but sometimes we’ll be called upon just to fill a need we see. As we reach out to bless others, more of God’s blessings are released in our own lives as well (Genesis 12:2, Acts 20:35).

I encourage you to assess these 5 areas of your life as you head into the new year. And if you’re in some kind of leadership or management role, you can encourage your team members to grow in these areas too.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

I’ve developed an entire curriculum around these 5 connections, complete with an assessment test to see how you’re presently doing in each area. If you make a tax-deductible gift of any amount to Crosslink Ministries by clicking the DONATE button above, I will be happy to email you some of these great discipleship resources upon request.   

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Lessons from a Woman Who Got Set Free

Freedom

Many people think of Christianity as just another religion—a set rules and regulations, basically telling people just to “try harder.” But those who pursue a relationship with God on that basis will inevitably end up even more burdened and bound up than when they started.

In stark contrast, a true relationship with Christ will increasingly remove our burdens and set us free from our hang-ups. That’s why we’re told, Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1).

It’s not an exaggeration to say that you can measure how far you’ve come in the life of faith by measuring the degree to which you’re truly walking in freedom—not held back by destructive forces such as sin, unbelief, toxic emotions, or the negative opinions of other people. Yet this is an ongoing process, for we’ve all experienced encumbrances that must be cast off so we can run life’s marathon with endurance (Hebrews 12:1).

What area of your life is still holding you back from the freedom you need to fulfill your God-given destiny?

One Sabbath day, Jesus was teaching in the synagogue, and the Bible says, “A woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years” (Luke 13:10-13 NIV). Can you imagine how hopeless this woman must have felt? For 18 long years, she had endured this debilitating condition.

Perhaps you are struggling with some issue in your life today that has persisted for a long time. You feel as though you’ve tried everything, but to no avail. Like the woman in this story, you still find yourself “crippled” by something out of your control.

It’s no fun being “stuck,” but it’s something we’ve all faced from time to time. Sometimes it’s a medical condition the doctors can’t remedy. At other times, the bills are coming in faster than the income. And many of us have found ourselves stuck in an unhealthy relationship we seem powerless to change.

Thankfully, the Bible says, “With God ALL things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). When you’re unable to help yourself and no human has a solution to your problem, GOD can break through your troubling circumstances and set you free!

The story goes on to say that this woman was bent over and could not straighten up at all.” This is such an apt picture of what it’s like to be burdened down with sins, sicknesses, or other situations that seem overwhelming. Sometimes the cares of life are simply too much for us to handle, and all we can do is cast our burdens on the Lord (Psalm 55:22).

Notice that the woman was unable to straighten up “at all.” Sometimes we still have hopes that we can straighten things out by our own strength and ingenuity. But this woman had come to the end of her own devices. She needed a miracle—something only God could do!

However, despite years of suffering, everything was about to change for her in mere moments. Verse 12 says “Jesus saw her” and “called her forward.”  Friend, I don’t know what you are going through today, but I do know this: Jesus SEES what you are going through. He CARES about you. And He’s calling you FORWARD to draw near to Him and receive His healing touch.

After 18 years of suffering, this distressed woman heard Jesus tell her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity”  (v. 12). The Greek word for “infirmity” is astheneia, which means to be feeble or have a lack of strength. Perhaps you can relate!

Actually, the Bible teaches that we ALL were “without strength”  before Christ came into our lives. However, when we were powerless to save ourselves, Jesus demonstrated His love and rescued us (Romans 5:6-10). And just as He forgave us and rescued us from sin at our conversion, He’s ready to deliver us TODAY from whatever situation is still hindering us from our calling.

How long does it take to be set free? It doesn’t have to take long at all! In this story in Luke 13, Jesus put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God”  (v. 13).

Isn’t that beautiful? Can you imagine the joy and amazement she felt? After being bound for 18 years, this woman received an instantaneous deliverance when Jesus touched her. He straightened up her life in a mere moment, just as He can do for you and me when we come to Him in faith.

You may have endured some illness, addiction, financial lack, or other problems for a long time. But remember: Jesus specializes in miraculous turnarounds. He is speaking His Word to you and reaching out His hand to give you the breakthrough you need. This may be your moment to rise up and praise God for loosing you from some infirmity.

I encourage you to pause and insert your own name into this powerful statement Jesus made to the crippled woman: “[Your Name], you are set free from your infirmity.” As you allow those words to sink deeply into your heart, faith will rise. Troubles that have persisted for years will melt away quicker than you can imagine as you’re set free in Jesus’ mighty name!

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The Perils of a Fat Faith

A few months ago I had a horrifying epiphany that will impact me the rest of my days. In a moment of time, I caught a glimpse of all the teachings and insights God had poured into my life—most of which have never been shared with anyone.

I saw my large filing cabinet of sermons that have never been delivered…my books never completed or never published…my discipleship materials and leadership tools that few people have ever seen.

It was a sickening sight. What a tragic waste, I have murmured to myself ever since.

This caused me to reflect on the great model presented in Ezra 7:10, where we see God’s desire for us to Learn, Do, and Teach.

By God’s grace, I’ve learned a lot over the years, and I’ve also endeavored to put His Word into practice. But what about the final leg of the stool, teaching others the things He has taught me? Of course, I have done that to some degree, but it’s distressing to see how much of this content has never been fully utilized and shared.

My epiphany came into even clearer focus recently when my pastor gave a sermon about the frequent comment in Leviticus that God wants us to give Him “the fat” of our offerings. For example, Leviticus 3:16 says, “All the fat is the Lord’s.” Over 50 times, God refers to “the fat” in the book of Leviticus!

While listening to this message, I suddenly saw what fat really is: unutilized fuel. Our body puts on fat when we ingest more fuel (calories) than we burn. It’s a hoarding mechanism, our body’s method of storing fuel for another day. And anyone who’s tried to lose weight knows that once the body stores unutilized fuel as fat, it’s extremely difficult to get rid of it.

Finally, I had a framework to explain my epiphany. Put simply, I’ve ingested a lot more spiritual calories over the years than I’ve burned. And while it’s a blessing to be so well fed, the downside of this situation is spelled F-A-T.

It would be one thing to store fuel for your future if you knew you had to make it last for many decades to come. But it doesn’t work that way. You must “use it or lose it.” The fat does you absolutely no good—and instead does you harm—if you store it instead of burn it.

I can’t think of a more repulsive word picture than a morbidly obese person lying motionless in their coffin. What a tragedy. All that unutilized fuel going to waste.

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So, You Think You’ve Died Enough Already?

I recently had an experience that forced me to die to myself. It was a “Who Moved My Cheese?” type of moment, when I made my wishes known on a matter but was overruled.

In the overall scope of things, this incident was clearly no big deal. But I hadn’t gotten my way, and it hurt. I felt disrespected…disregarded…undervalued.

Yet what hurt the most was realizing I had overreacted, blowing up the whole thing much bigger than it actually was.

Thankfully, God graciously showed me what had happened during this strange emotional meltdown. The incident that triggered my flood of ugly emotions was relatively minor. But like the tip of an iceberg, it was meant to alert me to the fact that a much BIGGER hunk of the iceberg was still lurking beneath the surface.

You see, the small incident in question had a very strange effect, causing me to experience flashbacks of numerous other times in my life when I had felt rejected or unappreciated. I thought I had long since forgiven and been healed of these past experiences…but some of the wounds apparently remained.

Ouch. It was painful to see the ugly sense of pride and entitlement hiding deep within my heart. But I also was grateful to the Lord for exposing it. I saw that the real issue wasn’t the tip of the iceberg that was in view, but rather the hidden iceberg in my heart.

I surely don’t like dying to myself. None of us do. And in my case, I felt like I had already died to myself enough to last a lifetime! Why did I have to do so again?

At that point, I remembered a time in the 1990s when I was a senior pastor facing a horrific wave of rejection due to a massive church split. It was excruciating to be rejected and lied about by people I loved and had endeavored to pour my life into.

Finally, I reached my limit. I’d had enough.

So one day I told my pastor friend Duane Flemming of my decision to resign. “I don’t need this, Duane. It’s just not fair, and I don’t have to take it anymore.”

Duane is a man of great wisdom, and he listened intently as I went on and on about how I had been mistreated. Finally, he asked me a simple question that still haunts me today:

“So Jim, are you saying you’re enough like Jesus already?”

How could I answer a question like that? Of course I wasn’t enough like Jesus yet. Jesus bore the cross all the way to His death on Calvary, yet I was ready to jettison my cross at the first sign of pain or injustice.

Forgive me, Lord. You’ve helped me see that I’m not entitled to bypass the cross today, just because I died to myself on some occasions in the past.

What about you, my friend? Are you able to relate to my story today? Is there some issue in your life where you are being forced to embrace the cross…die to yourself…and extend forgiveness to those who may not deserve it? Do you find yourself squealing like a pig, just because you aren’t getting your own way?

Amid the trials and disappointments of life, let me encourage you to fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:2-3).

Yes, I know, you probably have already died to yourself a million times before. But the life a disciple requires dying daily (Luke 9:23, 1 Corinthians 15:31), not just in the distant past. That’s the only way to experience more of Jesus’ resurrection power, after all, and it’s a process that’s not going to change until He returns.

 

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Transitions…or Not?

I have a love-hate relationship with transitions. Whenever friends tell me they are going through “transitions” in their life, my heart goes out to them. I’ve been there and done that—and transitions are seldom fun or easy.

However, I also feel sorry for people who aren’t going through any transitions at all. Too often, such folks are dealing with a situation far worse than transitions. They’re stuck in place, locked in an unhealthy coffin of contentment and apathy.

If you’ve ever been through major transitions, you know they’re uncomfortable, and sometimes even terrifying. They typically feel akin to a whitewater rafting trip where you’ve lost your oars and have absolutely no control of where you’re going.

Yet again, the opposite is not so great either. If you aren’t experiencing any transitions at all, it feels like your raft is dead in the water. Just sitting there. No progress in any direction. What a dreadfully boring life…

Sometimes we have a choice to make in whether or not to allow a transition. One day Jesus challenged some fishermen: “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). He was giving these men a choice, and certainly not an easy choice at the time. It was a choice to engage in a lifetime of self-denial and constant transitions—but the world would ultimately be transformed as a result of their decision.

Another great story about transition involved four lepers who were sitting on the edge of a city on the brink of starvation because of being surrounded by an enemy army, the Syrians. Things were looking bleak, when finally one of the lepers pointed out an obvious fact: “Why are we sitting here until we die?” (2 Kings 7:3-9)

What a profound observation! Like these lepers, if we just sit in place, refusing to take bold steps of faith, we will surely die. In fact, I’ve met people who are already dead in some ways. Although they are still walking around, their hopes, dreams, and visions have died long before.

No, I don’t really like transitions. I would prefer to just find some comfortable oasis and camp out there until Jesus returns.

And one thing I especially dislike about transitions is the feeling of being “in-between.” It’s like being in limbo—knowing you’re not where you used to be, but not where you’re going to be either.

But I’ve discovered that I’m even more afraid of getting stuck than I’m afraid of transitions. Like every other believer, I know I’m called to be increasingly conformed to the image of Christ, and that process will be thwarted if I’m unwilling to grow and change.

So, whether you are going through a difficult transition or feel stuck in place, my heart goes out to you either way. Yet I’ve concluded that transitions are preferable after all. They are an indispensable part of God’s plan to take you from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18, Proverbs 4:18).

So if the white waters of transition are raging all around you, don’t panic. Hang on to the Lord and try to enjoy the ride. You’ll be better for it in the end.

 

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Lessons From a Trapeze Artist

I recently found myself humming an old tune, which is an apt prophetic picture of where many of us presently find ourselves:

He flies through the air with the greatest of ease,

The daring young man on the flying trapeze.

Just as a circus trapeze artist must let go of one trapeze and fly through the air until grabbing the next one, I often have found myself in a similar position—flying through the air in transition between the trapeze left behind and the one still to come. We know we aren’t where we used to be, but we’re not where we’re going to be either.

It must be an exhilarating experience for a trapeze artist to fly through the air like that. But I’m sure it’s also a bit terrifying to know that the force of gravity will take its effect if the next trapeze doesn’t come within reach soon.

Much of the church is in a similar place, it seems. We have been propelled by many wonderful trapezes, past revivals and moves of God. But now many of us are flying swiftly through the air, on our way to a coming trapeze that is not yet altogether visible.

If we recognize that God’s plan is to take us “from one degree of glory to another” in this process (2 Corinthians 3:18), this can be an exhilarating experience. However, it’s easy to feel apprehensive as well, with nothing to hang onto except the Lord Himself.

Experienced trapeze artists realize they dare not look down or they will surely miss the next trapeze. Big mistake! Instead, the Lord’s intention is not only to keep us from falling (Jude 1:24), but to enable us to soar on eagles’ wings (Isaiah 40:31).

Despite the dangers, this is no time to play it safe. If we insist on clinging for dear life to our original trapeze, we are certain to make no progress at all. We’ll never go any higher unless we exhibit the courage of “the daring young man” who was willing to defy gravity and fly.

Be bold and courageous, my friend. As you let go of the past and press forward, I pray you will be strengthened for exciting new transitions on God’s flying trapeze.

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Whatever Doesn’t Kill You…

 

When I went through a rather traumatic experience recently, I found myself reflecting on a commonly held maxim of today’s pop culture: “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!” Depending on your taste in music, you can find this statement in recent songs by Kanye West or Kelly Clarkson.

I’ll have to admit, there’s something rather uplifting about this premise. It’s great to hear that you can be made stronger, instead of weaker, during the storms of life.

But is this axiom truly Biblical, or just wishful thinking?

It turns out that the originator of the “Whatever doesn’t kill you…” statement appears to be nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. He is more famous—or infamous—for launching the “God Is Dead” movement. But that alone doesn’t mean we should totally dismiss his view that whatever doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.

As I’ve pondered this, I’ve concluded that Nietzsche’s statement is a half-truth, something that can be either true or false depending on other factors. Let me explain…

There’s no guarantee that you will be strengthened by the traumas of life. We’ve all known people who experienced traumas and didn’t end up stronger—they just ended up traumatized. However, I bet you also can point to people who truly did become stronger as they overcame adversity.

You see, the evidence is pretty clear: Some people become BITTER when dealing with adversity, while others grow BETTER.

So what causes this stark difference in outcomes? Basically, the key is how we respond to the trauma. When faced with hardship, we have a fantastic opportunity to be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might” (Ephesians 6:1). Instead of being destroyed by our trials, we can “go from strength to strength” (Psalm 84:7). When the flood waters come, they can lift us higher instead of drown us.

However, there’s nothing automatic about this. It’s a choice. A lifestyle. A recognition that God’s strength can be revealed amid our human weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Jacob wrestled with God one night and ended up limping as a result (Genesis 32:24-31). Was he stronger after that experience? Certainly not physically stronger.

But spiritually Jacob was infinitely stronger after this divine wrestling match. The transformation was so great that his whole identity shifted from “Jacob” (the scoundrel and deceiver) to “Israel” (a prince with God).

Ironically, the traumas of life ARE supposed to “kill” us, in a sense. But this doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll immediately exit this world for heaven. Rather, it means we’ll increasingly die to ourselves and then experience more of God’s resurrection power.

The apostle Paul said it this way: I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). You can’t get any stronger than that.

I don’t know what you’re going through today. But I DO know this: God is faithful. He has a good plan for you (Jeremiah 29:11). And if you look to Him in your adversity and weakness, He will fill you with His supernatural strength.

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The Parable of the Too-Short Bed

I once inherited a bed that was too short. Ordinarily, it’s not a big problem if you have a short bed, because you can always dangle your feet over the edge. But this bed came with a troublesome railing that prevented me from exceeding its length.

So every night I huddled in an uncomfortable, contorted position, unable to fully stretch out or extend myself. This wasn’t quite a fetal position, but it had pretty much the same effect.

I wonder if I might be a few inches taller today if it hadn’t been for my years spent on that too-short bed.

But it turns out I’m not the only  one who has faced such an experience. The prophet Isaiah describes exactly this condition: “You will be like the person in the proverb, who tries to sleep in a bed too short to stretch out on, with a blanket too narrow to wrap himself in” (28:20 GNT).

If you’ve been feeling restless lately, this may be the reason. Perhaps you’re trying to fit into a place you’ve inherited from someone else—a “bed” that is too small for you. Or maybe you’ve been like the frustrated baby who simply has outgrown his once-perfect crib. Or perhaps the doctrinal “blanket” that once kept you so cozy is now too narrow to cover your expanding insights.

You are not alone in your restlessness. But you can’t stay  in that kind of bed…or try to cover yourself with that kind of blanket.

One day a group of men from Elisha’s prophetic team came and complained to him: The place where we live is too small! Give us permission to go to the Jordan and cut down some trees, so that we can build a place to live  (2 Kings 6:1-2 GNT).

“One day” these men finally realized something that must have been simmering inside them for a long time. Their growth and fruitfulness were being confined by the place they had inherited. It once had been a wonderful  and comfortable  place for them. But now they had outgrown it, and they realized it was time to branch out and build a place of their own.

It’s interesting that these spiritual men felt they had to ask PERMISSION from Elisha before setting out on their new endeavor. Do you feel you need to get someone else’s permission  before you can fulfill your calling in the Lord? If so, don’t delay!

As this story progresses, we see that these men had the wisdom to take Elisha with them  on their journey to expand their territory, as Jabez likewise had done (1 Chronicles 4:9-10). Instead of rejecting their original place of covering, they were honoring it.

What is your  story today? Have you outgrown a situation where you once thrived?

Take time to assess the bed you’ve been sleeping on…the blanket you’ve been wrapping yourself in…and the place where you’ve been dwelling. If you’ve been tossing and turning, cramped in a near-fetal position, it may be time for a change.

 

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