Small Groups, Day 4

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

James 5:16-20 (NLT)

Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. Elijah was as human as we are, and yet when he prayed earnestly that no rain would fall, none fell for three and a half years! Then, when he prayed again, the sky sent down rain and the earth began to yield its crops.

My dear brothers and sisters, if someone among you wanders away from the truth and is brought back, you can be sure that whoever brings the sinner back from wandering will save that person from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins.

No guts, no glory.

That’s what I tell myself as I contemplate the most difficult part of being in a small group, the mutual Christian accountability that should develop over time. As Christians grow in love and trust for each other, they also find themselves better equipped to talk about really important, personal stuff, sins included.

When it happens, it happens in a fairly natural way. No one has to force this new level of spiritual intimacy. Someone in the group is in pain, and finds she or he loves and trusts the others enough to courageously speak about the details of the ongoing struggle.

The other group members, in turn, hear this beloved individual’s words without judgment, offering to do what they can to draw God’s healing, forgiving grace into the situation.

Once the group becomes comfortable with such moments happening, it also is time to take more seriously what has formally driven accountability in small groups for centuries, the asking of agreed-upon questions. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, provided recommended lists of questions throughout his ministry. There were 22 accountability questions in the “Holy Club” he and his brother Charles established in 1729.

These questions remain useful, and modern lists abound, too. One of my favorite accountability questions is at the end of Chuck Swindoll’s list of seven for male clergy: “Have you just lied to me?” Apparently pastors might hedge or lie in answering the first six, but surrender on the seventh.

If you don’t understand the level of trust and love that develops in a healthy small group, questions and accountability probably sound terrifying. Just remember, you won’t be drawn into mutual accountability until the group is ready and willing, and when that happens, the moment will be a joy, not a burden.

As I mentioned in Day 2 of this series, the level of closeness that develops, improperly understood, can cause a group to stop drawing new people in. Properly understood, these bonds should be the great motivator for reaching out to others.

God’s healing, forgiving love, transmitted via the Holy Spirit within the group, is the great gift we are called to share!

Lord, give us deep Christian relationships, the kind where we can grow into the people you would have us be. Amen.

Note: It has come to my attention that some people don’t fully understand how links work within an online article. You can click on places where the text changes color, and another window will open, giving you more details.

Means of Grace, Day 3

By Chuck Griffin
Editor, LifeTalk

“And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.”—Jesus, speaking in Matthew 6:16-8 (NLT).

I mentioned yesterday that Scripture and prayer work together in the life of the serious Christian. The same can be said of fasting. From a spiritual perspective, fasting is meaningless if not combined with Scripture and prayer.

Think of fasting as a catalyst. Spiritual disciplines performed while fasting should be more focused and effective.

Fasting is not a popular topic in a culture where Taco Bell once advertised, “Welcome to Fourth Meal.” As Americans, we tend to have easy access to what we want when we want it, be it food or other needs and wants. When we discover people among us going hungry, particularly children, we rightly see their plight as a travesty in a nation of relative abundance.

It perhaps is a little easier to talk about fasting now because so many people fast for nonspiritual reasons, to lose weight or improve blood work. Variations on the “intermittent fast” abound. At least the idea is now less-foreign in what can be a gluttonous culture.

The spiritual idea behind such self-denial is to remind ourselves of our fragility, and therefore, our dependence on God. As a Christian, it is important to be sure those hungry moments are filled with something other than food. In the right frame of mind, Scripture should leap to life and the prayer experience should become more vivid as we fast.

As Jesus said, “I have a kind of food you know nothing about. … My nourishment comes from doing the will of God, who sent me, and from finishing his work.” (John 4:32-24.) As followers of Christ, we similarly should focus during our fasting on aligning ourselves with the will of God and doing the work of the kingdom.

Fasting for spiritual reasons looks externally like fasting for physical reasons. The only real difference is intent. The first time I read about one version of intermittent fasting, where a person doesn’t eat after dinner until about mid-afternoon the next day, I thought to myself, “That’s just John Wesley’s 18th-century way of fasting.”

Some people have physical reasons they cannot fast from food. In such cases, it’s perfectly appropriate to abstain from other activities so as to spend more time in prayer or the Bible. Deliberately leaving the television off for an extended time would be one example.

What’s important is that we learn to put aside distractions and live in the Kingdom of God. As we fast or abstain, the contrast between this hungering world and the eternal abundance of where we are headed can be remarkable.

Lord, give us the courage to try spiritual practices that may be new to us, and please speak to us clearly as we attempt them. Amen.