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You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound. Psalm 4:7

Every year it’s the same thing. People all over the world will gather together to cheer in another year of great, new hopes and expectations. They talk about the new opportunities before them, about how great everything will be, and, for a few moments anyway, forget the pain, the agony and the turmoil that surrounds all of us.

The unfortunate reality is that January 2 or shortly afterwards, reality returns. The credit card bills come in from the Christmas overspending, the health concerns worsen, relationships fail us and the political and economic turmoil goes on. Wouldn’t it be nice if ‘Happy New Year’ were a statement of promise and absolute truth and not a flippant statement of hope in the midst of despair?

Each one of us can have a Happy New Year. That may seem like a bold statement but happiness isn’t about what goes on around us. Happiness is based on what we put our hope on. If we put our hope in material things, or relationships, or religion or even physical health we are destined for disappointment and failure. Anything that is earthly based will fail to bring us true happiness because by its nature it is destined to deteriorate.

The Psalmist compares his happiness to the happiness of those around them. During the time this Psalm was written ‘grain and new wine abounding’ represented everything one could possible ask for in the physical realm. It was a statement that represented the most successful and prosperous things that could happen in the world.

True happiness finds its source on the inside of each of us, not in the fickle, external circumstances that surround us. As Christ-followers we can have peace in the midst of turmoil, wealth in the midst of financial despair, freedom in the midst of addictions because our peace, wealth and freedom come from our faith in Jesus Christ.

Think about it for a moment. As a Christ-follower what is the absolute worst thing that can happen to you? The person without Christ may say relational or financial or physical disaster or even death. But for the Christ-follower none of that really has a lasting impact. The ‘worst that can happen’ for most people (death) is the best that can happen for us because in the death of our physical bodies we get to be united with Jesus in heaven.

The guarantee of a ‘Happy New Year’ comes only when we put our complete faith in Jesus Christ and resolve to grow in relationship to Him. Everything we see, everything will fail, change or go away. Jesus never will. Have a Happy New Year in Jesus!

PRAYER: Dear Jesus, I thank you for the promise you have given me that you are with me in every situation. I confess that in my humanness I seek happiness measure success by what I can hold in my hand or see with my eyes. Empower me by your Holy Spirit to base my happiness on you alone and not people, religion or things. I praise you for your love and power to bring true inner happiness to me through your forgiveness and your Holy Spirit. Amen.

If someone were to ask you ‘What would it take to quit loving someone you currently love dearly?’ what would your answer be?

For example, what would it take to stop loving your spouse/significant other? Some may say, ‘if my spouse/significant other cheated on me, that would be the end. I couldn’t stand trying to live with the betrayal. After all, if he/she did it once, chances of it happening again are likely. Nope. Cheating on me would be the end of that relationship.

If you were to ask Jesus, He’d say, I’ve been betrayed before. In fact, the ones I love have betrayed me over and over again. But I still love them. I’ve forgiven them. I’ll welcome them back as many times as they ask. Betrayal won’t kill my love for them. Each new day is a fresh beginning with Jesus.

Others may say, ‘If my spouse/significant other’ abused me that would be the end. No one should have to suffer the pain of abuse from another person. Jesus understood the pain of rejection and abuse. Those that should have accepted him the most readily were constantly ridiculing him, discredit him and trying to kill him. For a time Jesus avoided them. The spoke of their abuse and called them hypocrites, but even while keeping his distance from them he prayed for them. At one point he even wept for them. Eventually they did kill him, but even then some of his dying words were ‘Father forgive them.’

Jesus knows abuse and rejection. Even though he removed himself from abusive situations, he still prayed for his enemies. Jesus knew the difference between loving the person and not the actions they take.

Would it be a child’s rebellion that ended your love for him? Jesus often called the ones who mistreated and rejected him his children and called them to his open arms. Jesus knows rebellion and while he hates to see us rebel, he refuses to stop loving us.

Paul’s prayerful desire is for us is that we know a love that is beyond our knowledge. That love is the love Jesus showed while on earth and continues to show every day for us. I don’t understand it. I can’t fathom how someone can love the abusive parent, the abusive or cheating spouse, the terrorist, or the person who cuts me off on the interstate.

I don’t understand how he can love someone who he knows will betray him or wants him dead or speaks evil of him, or fails him time and time again. I don’t understand how he can overlook someone’s past and present sin and love them anyway. I don’t understand Jesus’ love, but I’m eternally grateful for his love for me. For you see it’s the love of Jesus that keeps me going when others mistreat me, discredit me or betray me. It’s the love and forgiveness of Jesus that keeps me sane when, once again, I’ve done something, or said something that displeases him because I know that even when I hurt him deeply by my thoughts, actions and words his love is deeper still.

PRAYER: Dear Jesus. I’m in awe as I consider the great love you have for us mere mortals. We fight and bicker. We betray and abuse. We neglect or destroy the most important relationships we have. Still, you love me. This is too wonderful, too awesome to comprehend. Help me this day to consider, with each step I take, the great, unending love you have for me. In your holy, loving name I pray, Amen.

If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good things of the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.” For the mouth of the LORD has spoken. Isaiah 1:19-20

Some see God as being a tyrant; some see him as being an old man who is either unable to change things or unconcerned about others pain; some see him as an angry father who will, at any moment take revenge on us for the evil deeds that we do.

When people see God in one of these roles it’s no wonder they become disillusioned, fearful and question His very existence. Most of us have plenty of people in our lives that are at the ready to remind us of our failures. What we want is a God that will tell us we are okay when we aren’t and take revenge on those who have hurt us. What we need is a God that will comfort us in our time of need.

We hear it said that God is a loving Father but then see children starving to death, women and children being abused, and medical and natural disasters running rampant. In all that we question God: “If you are a loving Father, then why?”

There are no easy answers to the why in life because as mortal, human beings we have a natural tendency to this earthly life as all there is. We have this mistaken idea that God promised us that we could have lives of peace and prosperity. Since God is love (we say) then it makes perfect sense that an all-powerful, all-loving God would make everything work out happy.

God has never promised that we’d see life without adversity. From the moment that Adam and Eve sinned in the garden, God told us we would see emotional, spiritual and physical pain ending ultimately in death.

These verses in Isaiah tell the tale of two people. On the one hand we see a person who obeys the word of God and enjoys prosperity. On the other hand we see the person who has decided to go his own way and reject the message of God. The former person enjoys peace in the midst of the storm because he/she knows that this pain may last throughout our physical lives, but is well worth the reward we receive on ‘the other side’ when we join our Lord and Savior in Heaven. We live with peace in our hearts because our sins are forgiven.

The latter person, the one who rejects God may have earthly wealth and great physical health most of their lives, but inside they are empty and seeking to fill a void that only God’s message of love and forgiveness can fill.

God’s message through the prophet Isaiah is one that a loving father would tell his children. He says to us, listen to my advice. I know what I’m talking about. If you obey my word and follow Jesus you will experience pain here on earth, but one day join me in eternal joy and happiness.

If, on the other hand, you reject me, then the natural consequences of life will lead to emotional and spiritual emptiness here on earth and life separated from me in a place of torment for eternity.

The life you live in obedience now is the only way to assure a life of victory in the future.

PRAYER: Father I confess to you that at times I act like a spoiled two-year-old. I want everything for me. I want to be comfortable, be in charge and have my own way all the time. Forgive me for choosing my own way. Help me grow in relationship to you so that I can find inner peace here on earth and eternal life beyond the grave. In Jesus name I pray, Amen.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Galatians 5:22-23

Allow me to vent a little bit! If you have followed Christ or been involved in church and Bible Study for any length of time you have no doubt heard the verses quoted above. We’ve been ‘reminded’ through books, sermons and Sunday School lessons to ‘be filled with the Spirit’ and that if we are our lives will be marked by all the good things in life. Things that there is no law against.

After all, who is going to go to jail for being guilty of ‘love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness or self-control?’ No one of course. In fact, just the opposite will happen. We’ll be respected (although some may call us weird), loving people.

So, here is my vent. I agree that we should all strive to be filled with the Holy Spirit of God. If we have asked Christ to forgive us and desire a close relationship with Him, reliance on the Holy Spirit isn’t optional, it’s imperative.

However, as someone who, admittedly, isn’t always very loving,, joyful, peaceful, forbearing, kind, good, faithful, gentle or self-controlled I struggle. Sometimes it seems like no matter how hard I try there just isn’t always a healthy crop of ‘spiritual fruit’ hanging from the branches of my life.

If you have ever felt like an apple tree with more branches and leaves than crisp red fruit then you know how I feel. Then, again, as I thought about that I got thinking more about what goes into a healthy crop of fruit and was encouraged by what I learned. Hopefully, my ‘vents’ will help you in your walk as well.

The most important aspect of growing healthy fruit is time. I think many of us expect that once we decide to follow Christ, or renew a relationship with him, that we will instantly become healthy fruit-bearing Christ-followers. While there may be some miraculous exceptions to the rule, most fruit takes time to mature.

Don’t give up on yourself when you don’t see instant success in bearing fruit. Fruit trees have to weather many storms and harsh winters before they see an abundance of fruit hanging from their branches.

Secondly, healthy fruit trees are a result of intensive, consistent care and nurturing. That’s a two-fold challenge for us. First of all, take care of your ‘tree’ by spending time learning from God’s word, developing a consistent prayer life and instilling accountability with other ‘trees’ who have weathered the storms. You have to be healthy to have healthy fruit.

The second challenge in healthy fruit is that you can’t expect results in others overnight any more than your changes happen over night. To bring others into relationship with Christ can take a long time because there are hurdles of the past, current situations and self-esteem issues to overcome. Be patient with the blossoms and young fruit in your care. Slow growth and time are crucial in healthy fruit.

Lastly, remember that ultimately, the healthy growth of fruit is out of your hands. The orchard grower knows that he can only do so much to bring a healthy crop. Some things (like nature) are out of his control. Do what you can in your own life, and in the lives of others to make growing conditions the best they can be. But remember that only God can really change you or others. Healthy, mature fruit is ultimately in His hands alone.

PRAYER: Heavenly Father, much as I want to be a healthy producer of fruit in my life and the lives of others, I confess that I fall short on a daily basis. There are times when I have just given up on trying to live a life that shows the power of Your Holy Spirit because I’ve failed so many times. Forgive me for the failures, empower me to keep trying, give me patience as I let time and reliance on you work in my life and the lives of others. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.

In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. 1 John 5:3-4

There is an old Native American legend regarding evil and good. Evil is portrayed as a dark dog that lives within each of us; good is a white dog that also lives within each of us. The two are at constant battle for control of our lives. The dog we choose to feed the most is the dog that wins control of our lives.

In a sense, the legend isn’t far from being wrong. Paul describes a similar scenario in his own life when he says, in Romans 7, the good that I want to do, I don’t do. Instead, the very things I hate, the very things I despise, I find myself doing over and over again. Paul, like the rest of us, want to see the ‘dark dog’ die, yet we continue to feed it at least enough to guarantee power to wage war in our lives.

Any of us who have walked the journey of life at all are well aware of the battle within. There are so many things out there that cry out to us. Things that make us feel good (for awhile at least), things that ‘seem right’ (even though they contradict God’s law), things that sneak up on us and attack us at our weakest moment.

For some of us it’s an addictive habit like smoking, drugs or alcohol, or lust. For others it’s anger, language or food. Still others battle daily with feelings of failure, insecurity, fear and doubt. We work hard to build or salvage broken relationships, save our homes or jobs and rescue our children from harm. It’s draining just to think about it!

The Apostle John gives us a formula for victory. It’s a lesson he learned at the feet of Jesus himself. The secret to victory over the world isn’t found in religion. It’s not found in social action, counseling, self-help books or volunteering at the local soup kitchen. Recovery groups and fitness programs won’t help either.

The secret to victory over whatever you are struggling with is love. Not love as the world gives, but love that comes from a growing relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Many of us know that but few of us see victory. One reason may be that we forget, or have never learned, that relationship takes time. Victory won’t come over night. The bad news is that we are responsible for every bad decision we’ve ever made. We can choose. The good news is that even if we’ve made a boatload of bad decisions in life, Jesus Christ will forgive us and help us back on the road to recovery.

Don’t expect to win every battle every day. Take little steps. Relationship comes as we read God’s Word on a daily basis, pray for guidance and strength and refuse (one decision at time) not to listen to the enemy voices that want to bring us to defeat.

People who are victorious over the things that bring them down are the people who determine every day to walk just one step closer to the light. The are the ones that have learned to celebrate the small victories in life and bounce back from the occasional defeats as they learn to love Jesus Christ above all else.  

PRAYER: Father, from this day forward I have resolved to move closer to you in relationship through the love and forgiveness only Jesus Christ can offer. Forgive me for the times I’ve made wrong choices. Empower me with your Spirit to learn to walk closer to you and love you more. In Jesus name, Amen.

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