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First Steps

What do I do now? I understand how far away from God I am. I have put all my faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus, God become man, to forgive my sins and declare me perfectly righteous. I have handed my life over to Him. Now what?

If this is anything like where you are, then read on:

Everything that I am about to talk about revolves around a simple truth: You have now entered into a relationship with the one and only God of the Universe. Words simply cannot do justice to describing what has just happened in your life. Through your simple act of faith, you and He are now friends. By putting your faith in His blood, He has destroyed the wall between you and Himself.

Imagine that for a moment. Right now, as you read this, there is someone else in your room, someone whom you cannot see. Though He is invisible to your senses, He is nevertheless here. He is as real as you and I. He is God, Himself. It is Jesus. It is His Spirit. He is here.

Long before time even existed, God knew about this moment. And everything that He has done in bringing you to this point in your life is for a purpose and part of a magnificent plan.

Listen to these words from the letter to the Romans:

"And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to likeness of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brothers."1

Meditate on these words for a moment. God is working. He is working for your good. He has a purpose. And God’s purpose for you is that you would become like Jesus. That’s it. He wants us to think like Jesus, to act like Him, and to be like Him in all that we do. God intends that our character would reflect Jesus. He wants us to live our lives like Jesus lived His. He wants us to love Him and others like Jesus did. Plain and simple. That is the end and the goal.

So, with that end in mind, we begin.

One with Jesus

When the first Christians began to follow Jesus, all of them took part in something called baptism. The ritual was simple. The new believer was led into some body of water by the one who baptised him. After a simple prayer, the leader would say, "I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." Then, the believer would go down into the water for a moment, and then come up again. Done. That was it.

It meant several things to the new believer.

First, he was being obedient, for this was what Jesus commanded all his disciples.

Second, he was publicly expressing his inward faith in Jesus. He was telling everyone watching, "I have put my faith in Jesus and have given Him my life. This life of mine now belongs to no one else, but Him."

Third, he was identifying with the death of Jesus. The moment he believed, the penalty and power of sin and the sinful nature in his life was broken. When he went into the water, it was as if his old sinful life was now being buried. He was, in a sense, coming out of the water a brand new person.

Did you know that Jesus was also baptized? We know it was the first thing He did publicly, before he began His work of teaching and healing. I always wondered why He, of all people, did it. So did John, the man who baptized Him. But think about it. If God’s purpose for each of us is to spend our lifetime becoming like Jesus, then isn’t it fitting that the first step of our journey should begin with the first step of His.

If you spend any time reading about what Jesus did in His day to day life, you’ll notice a few things about him that seem to stand out. Of course you see him travel from village to village teaching and healing and doing the work of the Father. Astonishing and powerful things, yes, but notice something else. You’ll see that early in the morning, Jesus would get up, and He would pray. He would seek some solitary place and be with His Father. You’ll also notice that He knew the Scriptures very well. He almost breathed the Scriptures. Finally, you’ll see that Jesus lived in a travelling community. He was making disciples, whatever He did, wherever He went.

So, if we’re on this journey to conform to the image of Jesus, we must be about following His patterns in these areas:

Learning to Pray: The Key to Friendship with God

Learning to Read the Bible: The Key to Knowing God

Learning to Live in Community: The Key to Experiencing God

Learning to Pray: The Key to Friendship with God

My children are great teachers. Though they don’t know it, they have taught me invaluable lessons about my relationship with God. Here’s one of them: One morning, I was sitting on my living-room sofa studying my Bible, trying to spend some time alone with God, wrestling with thoughts of the day’s tasks, when one of them, freshly awake, comes in yawning. He then finds a couple of toys lying around and his imagination wakes up. I wish him good morning, get a quick kiss, and then he begins to play quietly at my feet. I, already struggling to concentrate, decide not to interrupt his play, and quietly leave the room to find another one. A few moments later, I’m settling down on an empty bed, again trying to concentrate. The next thing I know, he’s there again, at my feet. With his toys still in his hands, he now starts to talk to me about the first thing that comes to his mind.

"Papa, guess what?" he says, "I got bitten by a mosquito last night," pointing to the red sore on his leg.

"Hmm. Ouch, that looks itchy," I reply, and then close my eyes tight to try to concentrate.

"Papa, guess what?" he asks again.

"What," I reply, opening my eyes wide to look at him, trying to be patient (and failing).

"There are twelve more days until my birthday."

"Really?"

"Yes. And guess what?"

"What?"

"Tomorrow it will be eleven. But it feels like the days are really long."

And so went our conversation. And, of course, I gave up on trying to be alone. But as he talked with me, I realized something profound. I loved being with him and he loved being with me. It didn’t really matter what we were talking about, we were just with each other. And that was joy for both of us.

A moment ago, I said that all walls between you and God have been torn down. That was no mere illustration. A doorway has been opened for you to walk into the very throne-room of the living God. That is a fact. And all who have known God as friend and father have lived in the reality of that truth. Imagine at this moment, God is right in front of you, right next to you. Invisible though He has chosen to be, He is here. He sees all your thoughts as clear as day. He knows all the voices echoing in your mind.

The first real lesson of learning to pray is just being in His presence as a child with his father, as a friend with a friend. Enjoy sitting at his feet, in peace. Feel the rest that comes from being at peace with Him. If there is anything that keeps you from that rest, tell him. If there is something you can’t pinpoint, ask Him to help you. Here’s a prayer from a Psalm in the Bible: "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting."2 Speak it to Him! And He will answer. He will let you know what is keeping you from that peace. Sometimes it is a sin that you haven’t confessed. Sometimes it is just something that you are struggling to give over to Him. Whatever it is, let it go. Seek the peace of being with Him in His presence and you will be taking you first steps in walking with God.

Guard this peace carefully. If anything begins to take it away, do battle until you have His peace again. A simple test I have is this. I imagine Him in all His glory in front of me, seeing through to the depths of my soul. If I cannot look Him in the eye, I know there is something wrong that I have to deal with.

Very practically, I have also found that meditating and speaking a prayer Jesus once taught his followers3 has been extraordinarily helpful. Here it is:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins, as we also have forgiven those who have sinned against us.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

And as I slowly pray this prayer, I meditate:

Dad!
May your reputation be honored, considered holy, unblemished, sacred and pure in my life and words and actions.
Just as it is true in heaven, may You be absolute Emperor of my life here on earth. Give us all that we need to live, today.
Forgive me my pride and greed and selfishness and all these things that dishonor you as I have forgiven those who have dishonored me and hurt me and slandered me.
Keep me far away from that which tempts me to evil and the Evil one.

Of course, the journey you take in prayer will lead you through many places. There are many songs and hymns that have pointed people to honor God, to thank Him and praise Him. Singing these songs truly help me in quieting my heart before Him and placing my gaze upon Him. Here are some of my favorites to get you started:

Be Thou My Vision

Holy, Holy, Holy

Amazing Grace

And Can it be that I Should Gain

Psalm 23

Psalm 103

Psalm 91

Psalm 121

There are many more.

These are first steps. As you take them, you will begin to see the heart of our Father is for so many of His children. And He longs for us to bring others before Him. As a father, I completely understand that. Can I tell you how thrilled I am when one of my children comes to me and asks me to help one of their brothers or sister in some way. They wanted to help, but couldn’t. So they have come to me. This brings our Father great pleasure, when it (as in all things) is sincere.

So enough reading about prayer. Just go and pray. Spend time with Jesus. Rest in His presence. Enjoy His company. Sing to Him! Talk with Him about His desires, about others’ needs, and of course your own. Begin to walk with God!

Learning to Read the Bible: The Key to Knowing God

Before we were married, my wife and I got to know each other through good old-fashioned letters. I was in Chicago. She was in Delhi. Email was in its infancy. Mobile phones? What were they? The phone was expensive. So, we wrote. And before we wrote, we considered what to write. It took time and effort and thought. So when I received a letter from her, I read and re-read it and then read it again. I pondered it. I thought about it all week and then waited for the next one. In fact, every time I opened a letter, I would smell Stef’s perfume and my heart would double it’s beat. How I missed her! I longed to see her, to be with her. And these letters were the lifeline for me that gave me a picture of all that she was. Fifteen months of letters with one two-week visit in between when we were engaged were the sum of all our communication. Could I imagine ever leaving a letter unopened? Impossible! Why? Because I loved her. She meant the world me.

So let me ask you: What if you knew that God had written a letter to you, for you, with you in mind, being absolutely in love with you? And you, understanding His love, loved Him back in profound gratitude? Can you imagine leaving it unopened, unread, sitting on your desk?

Spending time with God in prayer is vital to walking with Him, but it is not the primary way God has chosen to speak to us. There are a few times when those of us who walk with Him hear His voice, mostly as whispers in our hearts, nudging us to a certain decision or path. But He has wisely chosen to give us something that is more objective.

What we call "the Bible" is a collection of sixty-six books and letters written by over 40 authors over a span of two and a half thousand of years. Without going into too much detail about how they were recognized as the final authoritative special revelation of God, I hope it’s enough to say, the earliest leaders of the believing community accepted and believed it.4 They recognized them as His love letters, albeit through human authors, and accepted them as His own.

So, where do we begin? Well you can certainly start wherever you’d like, but it’s wise to heed a little advice as you begin.

If you have never read the Bible, then I suggest you begin with what we call the New Testament. Start with one of the first four books (called Gospels). Each of the four are going to give you a different perspective of the same story- the story of Jesus. The Bible is generally divided into two parts: the Old and New Testament. The first thirty-nine books are part of the Old. The last twenty-seven are the New. They are divided by roughly four-hundred years of silence where God’s people heard nothing from God. Starting there will give you a solid picture of who Jesus is and what He taught. My recommendation is to start with Mark. It is written like a news story: short, clear, and to the point. Then the New Testament starts getting deeper with letters to various groups of believers and some individuals. Finally, it closes with a very special book, that may be quite difficult to understand, but is definitely worth reading.

If you have a bit more time, I would make it a goal to read through the whole Bible. Here’s a one-year Bible plan that’s a solid start. If you have even more time, this is a powerful plan to do it in three months. Most of us, however, don’t have that much time. So start with baby steps.

By the way, don’t believe the lie that you need some higher authority to read the Bible. The only Higher Authority you need is God Himself and every time you open the Bible He is there helping you to understand what He has written for you. You don’t need to know Greek or Hebrew or Latin. Smarter people than you or I have spent their lives diligently working to give us the best translations.5 It’s wise, of course, to seek help when you encounter difficulties as you read, but try as hard as you can to rely on the Spirit of God, as you read and study. If you are struggling with some verse or passage, ask Him for help. Ask Him to show you what it means. Meditate on it. Wait on Him. And He will reveal it you, perhaps at an unexpected moment. That has been my experience.

A Pen and Paper

The Bible is sacred, in the sense that it is the one body of knowledge we have in this world that we can completely trust, because it is from God. It is holy. But it is meant to be studied and understood. The paper on which it is printed does not make it holy; the Author, His content, the message behind His words, His principles, His worldview, and His thought does. It is God, organizing His ideas and, through His people’s history and experiences, communicating with us.

So, feel free to take a pencil or pen and underline what stands out to you. Make notes to yourself about what moved you. Keep a journal just for your study of the Bible. Respond to a passage by writing out your thoughts. I find that when I am fully engaged with the Bible, in this way, my times with Him, in His Word and in prayer, become real. It is as if He waits for us to take Him seriously, before revealing Himself seriously to us. That’s how I learn. You may learn differently. Take what’s useful from this. Discard the rest.

Place it in Your Mind and Heart

I forget very easily. As I study a passage on a particular day, I am struck by a Truth I never saw before. I talk about it with my wife and family. My friends get the brunt of my excitement. It has touched me deeply. But then, a week passes. Two weeks. And my memory begins to fade. That first week, I had applied that truth diligently. The second week, I began studying something else. By the end of the month, I hardly remember what that profound truth was.

So here’s a solution. I commit the key verse or passage to my heart. I memorize it. I have a list of verses and passages that contain solid Truth that I have discovered in my daily studies. I can certainly give you that list. But it would serve you little purpose. The best place to be is in creating a list of verses and passages, perhaps chapters, memorizing them, and then repeating them often to keep them fresh. Just start with your daily reading. You’ll come across a verse that hits you. You underline it. Perhaps you think about it all day. At this point, put it on your list because, in my experience, you will forget it.

A friend of my wife’s told her once, that if you practice a memorized verse once every day for forty days after you’ve memorized it, it is now forever imprinted on your mind. I’m not sure of the science behind it, but I’ve found it true.

Maybe I’ve said too much. But I hope that whatever you do, you will take the Bible off your shelf and dig into the greatest treasure we have in this world!

Learning to Live in Community: The Key to Experiencing God

When I first understood that God- knowing how much I had strayed- really loved me, I fell in love with Him. I mean, I was completely floored! "Of all people, how could You love me?" I wanted to know everything about Him. I told Him I’d do anything for Him. And I began to talk about Him. I was in college; it was my first year. Of course, I knew nothing about the Bible, but I started to devour it. I had truly talked with God for the first time in my life a few weeks earlier and loved the fact that I could just come to Him- anytime. But if this was who He really was, everybody had to know. And so I fumbled around trying to explain to my college-mates that God actually loved them, and that regardless of how weird it sounded, He had really become a man and had died for them, too!

A few friends of mine have had similar stories, but not all. Some, who understood His profound love and put their faith in Him, felt this deep desire to serve others, to help the poor, and give of themselves to others. One stock-trader friend sensed that he should begin to give away most of his salary and live on ten percent of his income. Others I’ve known felt compelled to teach, to lead, to guide and help others to know and walk with their new Lord.

All of us had something in common. We knew that this Gift of love that we had freely been given was not just for ourselves. We were loved in order that we may, in turn, love.

Needless to say, a person cannot love (or be loved) in isolation. Paul tells the Romans, "...In Christ, we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts according to the grace given us."6 That "grace given us" is His choice. He puts something in each of us, in His wisdom, so that we may lead others to become more like Him.

It is, of course, nice to be around like-minded people. That’s why we have clubs and parties and friends. It’s fun! Being around others who belong to Jesus is a joy and a strength. But it is only the beginning. It’s the surface. Dig a little deeper and you will find that you (and they) have been placed exactly where you are for purposes that are greater and higher than you can imagine. There are no mistakes or accidents.

If you have not become part of a church community, I urge you to do so. I know some good ones and I can point you in the right direction. There are no rules or laws in the Bible that command you to be a part of one. But you have been given something to give to others and they have likewise been given other things to give, at least in part, to you. By staying away from a Christian community, you and others are missing God’s best plans.

By the way, you will find that there will be people in churches and Christian communities that you would never naturally be friends with. They may not be in your social class or they may seem odd to you or different. You won’t want to meet with them or be with them. That’s normal. Go against your natural instinct and spend more of your time with them. They are probably the reason God has put you there: not so that they might become like you, but that both you and they might become like Jesus. This is why Christians together are so different from any other social group. Something supernatural is happening every time they are truly together. It makes no sense to those who have not believed, but when Christians really meet, Jesus is somehow building His country. He is breaking down barriers and showing the world the meaning of love.

This is greatest way we experience God in our daily life- through each other. John, Jesus’ closest disciple said, "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us."7

One last thing. When the first believers met together, they would sing songs, pray together, and study the Scriptures. But they would also partake of a simple ritual, involving bread and wine mixed with water. These symbolized Jesus’ body and blood. They called it the Lord’s Supper or the Thanksgiving. A leader would pray, thanking God for what the symbols represented. The group would remember what Jesus did on the cross and confess their sins before Him. And then each would receive a part of the bread and a sip of the wine. It was at the heart of their fellowship and a symbol of their unity under Jesus.

If you’re not comfortable with going to a church yet, that’s alright. You’re not alone. Churches are sometimes very different from what you expect. Don’t look down on or condemn them for that. They, too, are on a journey to become like Jesus and their path may look very different from yours. Nevertheless, if you would rather meet with a small group of people rather than in a formal church, every Friday night, we have a Bible-Study in our home. On Sunday mornings, we spend time together, again as a small group in our home. You’re welcome to come. If you’d like some advice on some good churches, I would be happy to offer some.

Whatever you do, seek the company of others who have given their lives to Jesus. One particular verse summarizes it well: "And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another-- and all the more as you see the Day approaching."8

1 Romans 8.28-29
2 Psalm 139.23-24
3 Matthew 6.9-13
4Here are the prerequisites in deciding each book or letter’s authority (New Testament): 1. Was the author a person who knew Jesus or who knew one of them? 2. Is the book or letter accepted by the body of believers at large, used as part of their common growth? 3. Was it consistent with what all agreed as authoritative truth? 4. Did it have the tenor or signature of the Holy Spirit of God? Paul considered Luke’s work Scripture (I Timothy 5.18), Peter considered Paul’s letters as Scripture (2 Peter 3.15-16), Jesus considered the Old Testament Scripture (Matthew 10.10, Luke 10.7), and Paul confirms that all Scripture is God’s authoritative Word for us (2 Timothy 3.16). If you’re really interested in the process of how these books were assembled, let me know and I’ll spend more time in an article. For now here’s a good book to help you.
5I personally use the New American Standard Bible (NASB) for my study, though this is a recent change. The NASB translators worked with a goal of giving us an "as literal as possible" translation that remains readable. Since I believed in Jesus, I have used the New International Version (NIV) and have found it a great help. I use this Bible to teach and memorize verses from. As for the Biblical languages, there is, of course, nothing wrong with learning them. And it may be a great aid to you (and others through you). But don’t believe that it is key to unlocking the Bible. God, who inspired the writers, is. And He is with you to help you understand.
5I recommend the Easy-To-Read Version. You can buy one here or contact me for one.
6 Romans 8.28-29
7 I John 4.10-12
8 Hebrews 10.24-25