Nehemiah So Far
If you don’t know Nehemiah’s story, I highly recommend you give it a read, but let me give you a summary of what is going on up until this point. Nehemiah was a Jewish man who had risen to prominence in the Persian Empire to become one of the most trusted men in King Artexerxes’ inner circle. He had already allowed the people of Israel to return to their land after the 70 year Babylonian exile, but things weren’t going very well for those who had returned.
If you recall, Jerusalem was basically leveled by Nebuchadnezzar, but under Ezra, they had come back and rebuilt the temple and re-established the Jewish feast and sacrifices. They had wanted to rebuild the huge wall that protected Jerusalem, but after some opposition, the people gave up and left it in ruins.
By the time we get to Nehemiah, Ezra is the leading priest in Jerusalem, the temple is built, but the walls and buildings of the city are still in shambles, they are ruled by greedy landlords, and the hope and religious life of the people is falling apart.
The story of Nehemiah kicks off with his brother Hanani coming and telling Nehemiah about the problems in Jerusalem, especially about the walls. The problem had been around for about 50 years, but but the news hit Nehemiah in a new away, broke his heart, and he began to pray about it. As he prayed he sensed that God was calling him to be the one to come and rebuild the broken city.
One day he came before King Artexerxes, as he had many other times, but this time he looked very sad. This was a problem because it was incredibly dangerous to look sad in front of a Persian king. His presence should be so delightful to you that if you don’t look happy to see him, he could kill you! But Nehemiah’s heart is so broken he can’t hold it in any longer and the king asks what’s wrong. Nehemiah feels great fear, says a quick prayer, and then makes his
“big ask” to have some time off to go and rebuild Jerusalem.
This was an outlandish request that came out of nowhere! He wanted to leave his position as royal cupbearer to become Governer of Judah, his home nation, and rebuild the defensive walls of a city that had been conquered. This could have easily been interpreted as the precursor treason and even war – but God was with him and the king decided to help. He gave Nehemiah his position, letters of passage, soldiers to protect him, and all the lumber they would need for the project. God was clearly answering prayers!
When he arrived in Jerusalem he took a quick three-day break to rest, think and pray, and then took a secret night tour of the damage so no one could see him – especially his enemies. After seeing what needed to be done he called a meeting with the whole city and surrounding area and then told them what God had laid on his heart. He told them the plan, that God had already done miracles to provide for them, and that because of God’s help it would be a success. The people agreed and they all set to work.
As soon as Nehemiah went public, the opposition kicked into high geer. Three men named Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem lobbed their first volley. They accused him of rebellion, sedition, and implied that if they didn’t quit rebuilding that they would tell the king who would come and wipe them all out. Nehemiah wanted Jerusalem to be strong and secure, to be in a deep relationship with God, and know He is their strength. But the enemies wanted Jerusalem afraid, weak and dependent, able to be manipulated and easily threatened, and a strong governor building a new city of people with a strong faith, behind a huge, stone wall would be a problem.
Practically, this hurt the enemies pocket books too. If the city started living by Mosaic Law, then they would start keeping the Sabbath, not charging interest, taking care of the poor, sharing their goods, and generally being more content – which was really bad for business. They would lose their financial grip on the city. The moment the people started to get into a healthy relationship with God and one another the enemies became very active.
Have you ever experienced this? If you have been a Christian for any length of time, then you probably have. You feel a tug at your heart, discover something that causes you to weep, something that you know needs changing – in your life, your family, or your community – and you feel a distinct call from God to do something. God starts to provide, and things start to look like they are going the right way. You feel like you’ve found your purpose. You are working, God is active, people’s lives are changing for the better – it’s all good.
And then WHAM! out of nowhere comes opposition to your work. Your relationships get more difficult, finances start to get strained, people start to treat you unfairly, the rules seem to be against you, people seem to misunderstand you, and your helpers abandon you.
Here’s what’s happening. Maybe you’ve been told that whenever you are in God’s will things will be easy, but that’s not usually the case. Most often, when anyone attempts to do God’s work, God’s way, for God’s glory and the good of those around them, there will be opposition. I’ve faced a lot of trouble in my time, as have many of you, but never so much as when I’m working on a God ordained project. Actually, that’s one of the ways that we can know we’re on the right path – by the level of opposition. I’m pretty sure that’s why a lot of us are facing some of the struggles we are these days – because we are trying to follow God’s will and our spiritual enemies are stirring up trouble against us.
And this isn’t just for people in ministry like pastors, missionaries, elders, deacons and teachers. This is for all of us who are trying to follow God’s will for our lives – whether he called you to be a mother, husband, parent, encourager, administrator, counsellor, reconciler, worker, artist, musician, or any other kind of servant. When you find the groove God has carved for you most often, the enemy will rise up to try to discourage you and stop you.
What I want to do today is take a look at some of the ways that the enemy tried to discourage Nehemiah and Jerusalem as they tried to do the very practical work of rebuilding the walls, and draw out some points to help us know how to respond when the enemy rises up against us and our own projects.
So, take a moment to consider what God has been asking you to do lately, or what you know your spiritual gifts or mission in life is. As you’ve been praying, reading your Bible, and talking to fellow Christians, what has God been impressing upon you to do? And then let’s take a look at what Nehemiah faced and how He responded.
“Now when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he jeered at the Jews. And he said in the presence of his brothers and of the army of Samaria, ‘What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore it for themselves? Will they sacrifice? Will they finish up in a day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?’ Tobiah the Ammonite was beside him, and he said, ‘Yes, what they are building—if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!’” (Nehemiah 4:1-3)
Here’s the first attach, and it’s the easiest to spot and most relatable. As soon as we claim to be followers of Jesus, or especially when we say something like, “God’s word is true, He has given men a mission, and I’m going to do what He says.” That makes people crazy these days. So their natural response is ridicule.
If you’ve ever shared your faith or been obvious about your belief in Jesus, then you’ve probably faced ridicule. The internet and media are full of people mocking Christianity.
This is standard operating procedure for the enemy. Joseph was mocked by his brothers. Moses was mocked by all sorts of people. Goliath mocked David. Pharisees mocked Jesus. This is the first thing the enemy does. He uses ridicule and insults to hurt our feelings. Anyone who is known for having amazing faith in God has faced abuse for it.
They start by mocking their strength: “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore it for themselves?… Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?… if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!” They were a broken people in a broken city; a bunch of farmers who were mostly poor and starving. They wern’t professional wall builders. They weren’t warriors or strong men. They didn’t even have good materials! They’re trying to use broken, burned, brittle rocks to build a strong wall. It’s impossible! What a joke!
What was the enemy saying? “You’ll never be able to do it. You’re too weak, too stupid, too unskilled, too tired, too broken. You’re not the kind of people that do this kind of thing. You should quit while you’re ahead. You think God is going to magically make you a success? That’s not how it works in the real world! There’s no way God called you to that mission. You don’t have the ‘right stuff’? You’re too sinful, too ignorant, too weak.”
Were they weak? Yes! But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? As we said last week – it is when we are weak when we are strong, because it is then that God can do all the work so He can get all the glory!
You’ve probably heard this kind of thing before. I know I’ve heard it many times with the churches I’ve pastored. “We don’t have the budget. We don’t have the people. Preaching the Bible is boring and irrelevant. No one wants to listen to that anymore. No one can sit through a sermon anymore. If we don’t have the best music, a great sound system, awesome visuals, and a big church with lots of ministries, then we shouldn’t even try.”
What’s the implication? Everything is wrong with this project. All the materials are wrong. We should just give up.
Have you heard that kind of thing for your own ministry and life mission? “No one stays at home and cares for the children anymore. The job that you love doesn’t make enough money, you should quit. Families don’t just hang out anymore, you need to be busier. The people you are trying to help are a lost cause. You are too young, too old, too inexperienced, too nervous. You are the wrong stuff, and you should just quit.”
I’m sure you have heard this. We’ve all faced the insults and mocking of the enemy when we try to do what God asks us to do.
Nehemiah’s Response: Prayer
What was Nehemiah’s response? First, it was prayer. Look at verse 4-5:
“Hear, O our God, for we are despised. Turn back their taunt on their own heads and give them up to be plundered in a land where they are captives. Do not cover their guilt, and let not their sin be blotted out from your sight, for they have provoked you to anger in the presence of the builders.”
He turns the problem over the only One who can do something about it. We can’t shut the mouths of our enemies. We are not to return evil for evil. We’re supposed to be like Jesus. As 1 Peter 2:23 says,
“When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”
Romans 12:17-21 says,
“Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
This is how a person who has faith in God responds to people who ridicule, mock and persecute them. They trust that God will deal with them. In other words, don’t worry about punishing those who are causing you problems, God will take care of them. Turn the problem over to Him and He’ll see that it’s taken care of properly. God has promised to protect and defend you (2 Thess 3:3; Deut 31:6; Psalm 23, 46:1; 2 Cor 4:8-9). Your job is to do what God has asked you to do.
Nehemiah’s Response: Back to Work
Which leads us to Nehemiah and the people’s second response. They got back to work. Look at verse 6, “So we built the wall. And all the wall was joined together to half its height, for the people had a mind to work.” They turned their problems and anger over to God and got back to work. They didn’t sit and stew, didn’t fall apart, didn’t get caught up in a big debate. They just got back to work and worked even harder. They ignored the enemy who was saying they couldn’t do it and proved that God was going to give them victory.
And now, the wall was half done and things were going well right? Their success shut up the enemies, right? Sadly, no. Look at verse 7-8, “But when Sanballat and Tobiah and the Arabs and the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem was going forward and that the breaches were beginning to be closed, they were very angry. And they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it.”
Does their success cause their enemies to back off? No. It causes them to work together! Jerusalem and Nehemiah weren’t just rebuilding a wall – they were rebuilding their relationship with God and each other – and Satan and their enemies hate that.
How does Nehemiah respond? Same as before! Verse 9, “And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night.” Pray and get back to work – this time with security guards! When the enemy is coming against us, we are to pray and get back to work. When the enemy redoubles their efforts, we are to pray and do what is necessary to protect ourselves – both physically and spiritually.
What does this mean practically? Well, whatever your mission is, it means you need to bathe the mission, yourself, and your mission field (whether that’s your family, your community, or your job) in prayer – and keep working. And when the enemy steps up their game – you step up yours too.
Prayer shows that you trust God to deal with your enemies. It also says that you intend to do things His way. That means that you allow God to fight for you – but that doesn’t mean you have to be stupid. Jesus says in Matthew 10:16, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Get stronger locks. Buy a better firewall for the network. Take a long, hard look at your schedule and lock in the time you need to pray, prepare, serve, worship, eat and rest. Do the important things that make sure that the enemy doesn’t get a foothold in your life.
Let’s end with one more place that the enemy attacks. Look at verse 10-11,
“In Judah it was said, ‘The strength of those who bear the burdens is failing. There is too much rubble. By ourselves we will not be able to rebuild the wall.’ And our enemies said, ‘They will not know or see till we come among them and kill them and stop the work.’”
What do we see here? Discouragement and Intimidation. This is “in Judah”. All of the battles, ridicule, late nights, and stress of the work caused a huge amount of emotional fatigue and depression. They were physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. They say, “There is too much rubble. [We’re] By ourselves…” Was there any more rubble on the ground than when they stared? No. It’s not like they were going out and importing more rubble to spread around. In fact, there would have been less since they were using it to build the wall. Were they alone? No! What had changed? They were tired. After so much fight and frustration, they were starting to get pessimistic, depressed and worn down. It happens to all of us.
The enemy capitalized on this by spreading rumors: “We’ll come and kill you and you won’t even see us coming!” Did they have a wall? More than half of one, yes! Did they have security guards? Yes! Was God on their side? Yes! Had He ever let them down? No!
What had happened? Some of the workers had taken their eyes off God and were only seeing the problems. They stopped looking up and only saw the mess, the enemies, and the junk surrounding them. It looked too hard and they got discouraged.
And something else was happening too. We learn in chapter 6 (6:17-19) that there were some people among them who were actually working for the enemy. Instead of being encouragers they were discouragers who were sowing seeds of discontent. They didn’t think God was going to do the work, so they kept telling people how hard the work was, how there wasn’t enough help, that the enemy was too big, that Nehemiah was a bad leader, that they were too hungry and too tired and that no one cared. They told the people around them to forget about working together and to think of themselves more. Proverbs 6:19 says that God literally hates these kinds of people.
I’m sure you’ve felt this too. Things go great for a while. Decent successes, the enemy thwarted. Sure, there’s hard work, but you are full of faith. But after a time – a few hours, a few days, a week, a month, a year – the rubble around you doesn’t get smaller, but starts to look like it’s growing, the problems seem endless, the work seems harder. People around you, who you thought were supporters, start to get tired, wander off, or fill your ears with complaints. They drag you down and you start to get disheartened. Now, instead of worship songs and thanksgiving prayers, you start to pray like David in Psalm 13:1-2), “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” This is taking forever, God. How long is this going to take? Where are you?
Discouragement is one of Satan’s favourite weapons. If he can’t knock you down with one punch, he’ll wear you down over time. If he can get your eyes off of God, away from those who are trying to encourage you, away from the worship songs that remind you of God, away from your times of prayer – and get you to skip small group, skip church, skip your quiet time, stay up too late, eat poorly, and ignore your friends – then he doesn’t have to stop us with anything huge because discouragement will take over and we’ll just quit.
He’ll wear us down until we don’t have the strength to take even a little punch. Where we would never have thought we would do that really bad thing – get drunk, do drugs, be violent, cheat on our spouse – now, after wearing us down with ridicule and mocking and rumours and constant grumbling about how hard things are – all it takes is a little push. You’ve probably experienced this.
Nehemiah’s Response: Reminders
So how did Nehemiah respond to this discouragement? What can we do when discouragement starts to take over and we feel like the job is too much? He reminded them of the truth. Look at verses 13-14:
“So in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in open places, I stationed the people by their clans, with their swords, their spears, and their bows. And I looked and arose and said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people, ‘Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.’”
Who does Nehemiah turn to? God. “I know you are discouraged and afraid. I know you are losing heart. But you need to remember the Lord, who is great and awesome! Think of what He has already done and what He has promised to do. He has brought us back from captivity, rebuilt the temple, restored the priesthood, restored the feasts, and helped us to build more than half the wall… don’t get discouraged yet! God has the resources to do this and He has proven He is on our side! Get your eyes off of the enemy, off of the rubble, and raise your eyes towards heaven. Shot your ears to the lies, insults and fear; to all those who say we are going to lose. Walk by faith, not by sight, and know that God has already declared this victory. It is our job to keep stacking stones.”
What else does Nehemiah do? He reminds them why what they are doing is so important. Why they can’t quit. Because this isn’t just about them.
The mission God has given us in this world isn’t just about our own growth and contentment. Our pain and struggles and fear isn’t just about us. Our life is not about us, but about God and those around us. We can’t quit because there are people that depend on us. “Remember the Lord”, and remember why you need to keep on fighting, keep on building, keep on striving, sword in one hand, trowel in the other: for your family.
Your life isn’t just about you. It’s about your mother and father, spouse, children, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, your church, and all those who will follow in your legacy. You don’t just fight for you – you fight for them. Your faith and obedience will ripple for generations – as will your sin. If you give up it will affect more people than you realize. You and I are not fighting merely for a prize we get to keep, but for everyone around us too.
The individualism that has overtaken our culture – where my choices, my behaviours, my beliefs, my decisions are mine alone – is not how the world works. We are part of a family, community, and what we do or don’t do ripples out and touches everyone.
Whether you’re going into High School, College, University or Post-Grad, Pastor Al gives some important reminders to students returning to school this semester.
1. Guard your reputation.
2. Remember why you’re there.
3. Find a good church.
4. Keep your devos going.
5. Try to find balance.
How Can You Help Carnivore Theology?
1. Pray for us!
3. Record a question in your voice on our SpeakPipe page! (We love this the most!)
5. Buy some cool stuff from our new Merch Store! (And check out our friend Kim’s amazing art while you’re there!)
Why is prayer so difficult sometimes and what are some practical ways to become better at it? Our first episode of Season 3 kicks off with one of the most important topics we could think of: prayer.
How Can You Help Carnivore Theology?
1. Pray for us!
3. Record a question in your voice on our SpeakPipe page! (We love this the most!)
5. Buy some cool stuff from our new Merch Store! (And check out our friend Kim’s amazing art while you’re there!)
If you’re on YouTube, then you’ve probably seen the “Try Not To Laugh” challenges where someone puts together a bunch of funny clips and you’re supposed to watch them with a friend and see who laughs first.
Well, I was watching some YouTube videos the other day and came across one where the people were doing the “Cringe Challenge”. This was a bunch of clips of really awkward, embarrassing and cringe-worthy moments that were happening to other people, that were meant to invoke empathy for that poor person. It worked.
The first was a video of a guy on a talk show trying to do a back-flip off a couch. It didn’t work and he full face-planted on the carpet. That wasn’t too bad. There were a couple others I got through without flinching, but the one that got me was the man at the outdoor concert who walked past a TV reporter over to a trough he thought was for washing hands – but it wasn’t. We all watched as he grabbed the urinal cake like it was soap, scrubbed up, dipped his hands in the pee, and started looking around for the tap… it wasn’t there. That got me.
There are a lot of things in this world that cause us to cringe – to get that inward feeling of embarrassment or disgust that ends up taking over a part of our body. Oftentimes it’s not something that physically happens to us, but something that happens around us that causes us to wrinkle our nose, clench our teeth, cross our arms, and take a step back. Even though nothing is physically touching us, we feel it nonetheless.
That’s how I feel about bad theology. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it, “I take great comfort in good theology.” I can’t remember if I heard that somewhere or if I came up with it myself, but for me, it’s a very true statement. I take great comfort in good theology. I could even switch it around to “good theology brings great comfort”. When I’m feeling sad, angry, confused, ashamed, prideful, or whatever, the thing that makes me feel better, or gives me answers, or guides me back to sanity, is good theology.
And actually, the opposite is true too. I am discomforted when presented with bad theology. It makes me cringe. Chances are, if you’ve been around me for any length of time, you’ve probably seen me cringe when someone goes off the theological rails. I can’t help it.
I was at a funeral a while ago where the speaker gave a message that almost put me into fits. It was full of wrong thinking, false assumptions, and unbiblical claims, and it made me really uncomfortable – to the point where Anita had to lean over and tell me to get control of myself. The words that were meant to bring comfort to the mourners were actually causing me pain. Why? Because they were false (or at least terribly misunderstood) claims about God.
I can’t remember exactly what they are – I may have blacked out at some point – but they said things like,
- “They’re looking down on you from heaven today.” – which has absolutely no biblical basis.
- Or “God needed another angel in heaven so He took them away.” – which is really, really bad theology.
- Or “They had accomplished all they were sent to do.” – which is probably not true.
- Or “Everyone here will see them again when they meet in Heaven.” – which was also probably not true. Each one of these phrases made me cringe.
Why? Because, as John Piper once said, “Bad theology will eventually hurt people and dishonor God in proportion to its badness.” It hurts people and dishonours God – and the worse the theology, the more the hurt and dishonour. Lying to people about sin, salvation, worship, and eternity doesn’t ultimately bring anyone comfort. Instead, it puts words in God’s mouth and causes people to put their hope in the wrong place.
Here’s the thing. Bad theology sounds comforting, but it isn’t – instead it leads to confusion and despair. Why? Because “Bad theology will eventually hurt people and dishonor God in proportion to its badness.” Let me add one more quote from JI Packer:
“Evangelical theology is precise and sharp, honed as a result of centuries of controversy reflecting the conviction that where truth fails, life will fail, too.”
Christians believe it’s important that we work hard to get what we say about God right! We have worked hard for hundreds of years, and spilt much blood, sweat, and tears, fighting for that “precise and sharp” theology, “honed” to reflect the truth, because we know that when we get it wrong, bad things can happen.
In case you’re wondering where we are in our Corinthians study, we haven’t left the passage we did last week – 2:9-12. If you remember, I said that God’s plan is a “revealed” one. Paul said to the Corinthians,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him – these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit.”
I’m still stuck on that word, “revealed”. That’s a critically important word and one I don’t want us to miss.
I’ve had a few conversations recently about why good theology is so important.
Some have talked about how divided Christians are and wondered if we really needed to split up over these issues.
- Others have asked about Catholics and Evangelicals, wondering if their Roman Catholic friends and relatives are part of the Christian family, and whether they need to evangelize them or not.
- Others have mentioned how meaningful they have found certain teachers, how much they’ve touched their lives, and wondered if them being different in a few areas is such a big deal.
- As a leadership team, we’ve had discussions about the theological direction of our own denomination and the liberalization of the churches within it, and wondered what we should do.
- We’ve talked same-sex marriage, race issues, Hollywood films, fallen celebrity pastors, the charismatic movement, the pope, women pastors, natural disasters, and more…
Each of these issues has deeply theological implications. And to even begin talking about them as Christians, we have to ask the same basic question: What does God say about this? What has God revealed about this? That’s what theology really is: it simply means to “Study God”. Biology is the study of living organisms. Archaeology is the study of ancient cultures. Bacteriology is the study of bacteria. Theology, is the study of THEOS, which is the Greek word for God.
When we are doing theology, we are studying God. It is our attempt to understand who God really is and what He wants. Yes, we will ultimately fall short, since our human capacities cannot possibly explain an infinite God, but it’s still our responsibility and privilege to try. He has given us His Word and access to the Holy Spirit and that is more than enough to understand everything He wants us to know about Himself and what He wants from us. We don’t have to make things up.
I want to park on this word “revealed” for a moment because I think it’s so critical for us to get this concept deep into our minds. Too often, when it comes to our thoughts about God, the church, human relationships, politics, religion, or any number of other things humans argue about, we tend to trust our feelings and our ability to comprehend the situation. Last week I warned about the dangers of pursuing human wisdom and trusting our own feelings, and I’m sort of continuing that thought, but adding that when we are confronted with this, we need to pursue what God has revealed.
Last week I emphasized the importance of humbling ourselves before God, getting on our knees, and allowing God to reveal His truth to us. This week, I want to reemphasize how important it is to realize that we don’t have the right to think whatever we want about God, and assume it’s right. In other words, we don’t get to make up our own ideas about what God is like, how His plan of salvation works, how His church operates, or how we relate to Him and His creation. Instead, as Christians, we come under the Lordship of Christ, and allow Him to reorient our thinking to His revealed truth.
Allow me to drive home this idea with some scriptures:
We’ve already seen in 1st Corinthians that God’s plan for our lives can’t be figured out without Him. (1 Cor 2:10, Eph 3:5), but I also want you to see that when Jesus talks about who can know God, He says in Luke 10:22,
“…no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
We require Jesus to intervene before we can know God.
When Paul talks about the core of the Gospel in in Romans 1:16-18, he says,
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”
We can’t know the righteousness of God or the wrath of God or the salvation that God offers (which is really the whole message of the Bible) unless God reveals it to us. We can’t understand what He expects of us, or what condemns us, or how to become free from condemnation unless He tells us first – through our conscience and the scriptures. Our sin causes us to suppress the truth, even when we are presented with it.
That’s why this is such a big deal. We’re dealing with massively important things here, and we want to get it right.
RC Sproul wrote a book a while back which was cleverly called, “Everyone’s a Theologian”. His point was that everyone has some ideas about God. Everyone has put some thought into it. C.S. Lewis put it this way,
“If you do not listen to theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones.”
Remember that JI Packer quote? It said: “Evangelical theology is precise and sharp, honed as a result of centuries of controversy reflecting the conviction that where truth fails, life will fail, too.” God is the giver of life and truth. Sin leads to death and Satan is the father of lies. We work hard as Christians to study what God has said about things because when we get it wrong, when “truth fails”, when we teach “wrong ideas”, we point people towards death. That may sound like I’m exaggerating, but I’m really not!
Examples of Dangerous Theology
I said before that I take great comfort in good theology, and that bad theology causes people harm – and worse than that, it dishonours God.
Let me give you a couple examples:
I’ll start with my funeral example. I heard a preacher say once, “I’ve never been to a funeral where the person in the casket went to hell.” What he meant was that it is really hard as a pastor to stand in front of a group of people at a funeral and know that the person in the casket had no discernable faith, showed no repentance, and gave no testimony of being a believer, and is likely in hell now. It’s tempting to avoid the subject of eternity, or even try to whitewash the situation by implying that maybe they were saved, or outright stating that God lets everyone into heaven because He’s so loving, or because as a religious official you have the power to save them by saying the right holy words.
But is that really the most comforting? It’s not what God says, not what scripture declares, and God is very serious about not being a false teacher, and the danger that comes to those who listen to them. Is it better for everyone in the room to believe God saves everyone no matter what? Is it more comforting for a victim to walk away believing that there is no such thing as divine justice – that wrong will never be punished? Is it kind to lie to someone about their eternal destination, and have them live their lives thinking their beliefs and actions don’t matter? Is it better to make everyone in the room put off the question, “What will happen to me after I die?”? I don’t think so.
In the 15th century, the Reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and William Tyndale worked against centuries of bad theology that had crept into the Catholic church as it got more political and corrupt.
- They had lost the understanding of how God saves people.
- They presented God’s grace as something that could be bought for money, or had to be earned through rituals and rites.
- They added books to the Bible.
- They told people that they didn’t have the right or ability to read the Bible, even keeping their own priests in the dark about what they were saying.
- They told people to say their prayers to dead people instead of Jesus, and that they would be heard better if they also paid some money for their prayer.
- They said that Jesus’ death on the cross wasn’t enough and that God wouldn’t forgive them until they did penance, or suffered for their sin.
- They invented a whole new state after death called “purgatory” where Christians would have to go to be purged and punished for their sins, for thousands of years, before they could go to heaven, because Jesus’ death wasn’t enough – unless they or their relatives gave money to the church.
- They even refused to give Communion to believers because they taught that the elements were too special for common folk to handle.
These beliefs haven’t gone away, and cause millions of people to be not only confused, but abused by the church, and terribly worried about the state of their soul, every day.
Is it more loving for an evangelical to sweep all this under the rug? Is it right to pretend that all none of this matters and allow people to continue to believe lies about God, salvation, grace, prayer, and the Bible? Would it honour God most for us to ignore it and try to get along? I don’t believe so.
One last example, though there are many more, this one is fresh. I recently watched a “prayer” that was given by “Methodist” “Pastor” at the Democratic National Convention.He asked everyone to join hands, and then with eyes open, gesturing to the crowd the whole time, he prayed a prayer so skillfully vague that you could almost interpret it however you wanted. However, when you listen with discernment, and realize his context, you can see that it could never be addressed to the God of the Bible.
He asked everyone to join hands, and then with eyes open, gesturing to the crowd the whole time, he prayed a prayer so skillfully vague that you could almost interpret it however you wanted. However, when you listen with discernment and realize his context, you can see that it could never be addressed to the God of the Bible.
There was no mention of Jesus, of course, but instead he prayed to “the god of many names”, at least implying that all religions pray to the same God – which isn’t true.
He spoke of how he wanted God to allow love to overcome fear so we can work together with people “no matter their race, creed, sexual orientation, or colour”. He prayed that God might help humanity “end discrimination in all its forms.” which could be a prayer against racism and prejudice, but does he really think God wants people to stop discriminating altogether? To discriminate simply means to know the difference between good and bad, right and wrong. Was he asking God to get rid of all forms right and wrong?
In the worst part of his “prayer”, he claimed that God’s prophets and teachers taught us to build bridges to other faiths and not demonize them. And yet, all through scripture we are taught that there is One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism and One God and Father of all (Ephesians 4:5), and that it is the work of Satan and the demons to try to draw people away from that one faith (1 Tim 4). We are told that there are false teachers and demonic spirits in the world that will tell lies and lead people astray, and that we are to be discerning as to who we listen to (1 John 4:1). Jesus condemns false religious as dangerous, worthless, and a rejection of God (Mark 7:7-9), and warns that there will be many false Christ’s and false prophets that will lead people astray (Mark 13:22-23). In 2 Corinthians 11:13-15 we are told that those who present themselves as false apostles and prophets are literally serving Satan.
We are warned specifically not to tear down the walls that divide us from those who teach false things, who promote bad theology, or who worship God’s enemy! Now, we aren’t to take up the sword and harm people who don’t believe like us, but are to love them as much as we can – just as Jesus did – but we are certainly not to put aside our beliefs and join them.
In 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 we are commanded explicitly:
“Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.’”
Let’s conclude with this: the whole point of this message is that God is very, very clear that He doesn’t want us messing around with what He says about Himself, or His Son, His Spirit, His Word, His Worship, His People, or anything else He’s revealed. He calls us out from the world to be His people, revealing to us a portion of Himself, and then fills us with the desire to know Him better.
But there are voices all around us, and within us, that tempt us towards taking an easier, more politically correct, more socially acceptable, more personally understandable, view of God. They tempt us to compromise and change what God has said so that faith is easier. They tempt us to alter God’s truth in an attempt to bring people unity and comfort. But it doesn’t.
Listen to the words of Galatians 1:6-10. Paul says to this church,
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
Who are we trying to please when we bend theological truths, ignore what God has said, and try to comfort people with falsehoods and misinformation? We’re trying to please man, which means we are not serving Christ.
In 2 Corinthians 5:20 it says,
“Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.”
Ambassadors aren’t allowed to change the message! If God is “making His appeal through us”, then we had better get the message right! And to get the message right means that we need to realize and accept that sometimes what our hearts tell us is simply wrong. Sometimes what we think is right and best isn’t how it’s supposed to go. It means humbling ourselves before God and allowing Him to tell us how things go. It means admitting that sometimes we don’t know what we’re talking about and that we let our emotions and prejudices get in the way.
- How does He want to be worshiped?
- How does He want to be talked about?
- How did He design the church?
- What does He want us to do and not want us to do?
- How does He want us confront sin or comfort people?
God’s truth is a revealed truth. God is a God who reveals Himself. There is great comfort in good theology, and so I invite you to humble yourself and allow God’s Word and God’s Spirit to shape your thinking, instead of allowing the feelings within you and the voices around you to do it.
 A Godward Life Volume Two, pg. 377
 Keep in Step with The Spirit, pg. 173
I was given the opportunity to be a special speaker this week and as I was preparing my sermon, I ended up stopping and thinking: “You know what, the talk I just wrote for this other group really lines up to what we’re talking about in 1st Corinthians. Maybe I should just share this on Sunday.” So that’s what I’m doing today.
The next passage we are going to look at in our 1st Corinthians series is all about the importance of being united to each other because we are united in Christ. That phrase, “in Christ” is all over the New Testament, and used many times in Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church. It’s an important phrase which speaks to how we are saved, why we are kept as God’s people even after we sin again, and why God accepts us to be with Him forever. It’s because we are “in Christ”. The phrase “in Christ” or “in the Lord” occurs 20 more times in this letter alone!
- If we are “in Christ”, then we are a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17).
- If we are “in Christ” we are “sons of God” (Gal 3:26).
- The grace given to us was grace given “in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Tim 1:9).
- My favourite passage of scripture says that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).
- It is “in Christ” that we have forgiveness (Eph 1:7).
- And remember when we started studying this letter, Paul said, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus.” (1 Cor 1:2).
When Jesus was talking to His disciples during the Last Supper before He would be arrested and crucified, he used this phrase over and over. Turn to John 15:1-7 and let’s look at it together. Jesus said:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”
One big problem in the Corinthian church was that they had stepped away from being “in Jesus” and were seeking to live in their own wisdom, their own strength, their own ability, their own knowledge, and use the gifts God had given them for their own reasons. It’s not that they had lost their salvation, but had, by their disobedience, stopped abiding in Jesus. The rest of this letter is meant to call them back to living life as people who are in Jesus – to gain all they need from “the vine” and not separate themselves from the source of life.
Where’s the Fruit?
That concept, of choosing to remain, or abide, or live in Christ, holds an important key to understanding life as a busy Christian. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read them or referenced these verses in sermons, but more and more I’m finding that I have to explain them because a lot of folks don’t really grasp what it means.
At first glance, they seem to say that life with Jesus is a life where our worries are minimized, our joy is maximized, and where we are constantly “bearing much fruit”. They seem to say that life “in Christ” is always effective and joyful, overflowing with abundance.
But that’s not the way it seems to work out does it? And sometimes people grab onto these verses, and instead of them bringing peace, they actually bring guilt and shame. They look at their house, their kids, their marriage, their jobs, their failed plans, their church, and wonder why God’s promises aren’t coming true. The house is in disarray, the kids are in rebellion, the parents aren’t getting along, family life is distant, work is joyless, and worship is stagnant. The one word they would not use to describe their life is “fruitful”, and they wonder what’s wrong.
Maybe they misunderstood God’s calling on their life? Maybe their faith is too small. Maybe the married the wrong person. Maybe they’re just not strong enough to do what is necessary for God to bless them. They feel that either something is wrong with them or something is wrong with God… both of which are terrifying and depressing thoughts.
So, our question today is this: Why is it that so many feel that no matter how hard we try (whether it’s parenting, school, dieting, spiritual things, or whatever)… why do we still feel so ineffective and joyless? If we have the Holy Spirit inside of us, the God of the universe as our Father, and are saved by the amazing love of Jesus Christ, are surrounded by Christian brothers and sisters, and are trying to do what God has asked us to do, then why do we struggle with being content, happy, and at peace? Why is it so hard?
We love to quote the words of Jesus in John 10:10 to each other, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” “But, Really?”, some of us will say. “Sure, my life is full… but it’s full of problems, full of frustrating situations, difficult people, money issues, time crunches, failure and fatigue. I’m full — of problems.
Dealing with the Dichotomy
It’s times like those when it’s helpful to turn to the Bible and read it carefully.
Romans 8:31-37 helps us deal with this seeming contradiction between the promise of joy and the reality of how we feel. It begins,
“What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”
That’s what we’re counting on, right? That’s a great verse to sew on a pillow and stick to the fridge. If God was so loving and gracious to send His Son to die for us, and is willing to forgive our sins, restore us as sons and daughters, and give us eternal life – all because of the shed blood of His Son – then He’s already proven that there is no limit to the good He will do for us out of His love!
Christians believe that is true… but how can it be when our life is full of problems? It still doesn’t answer the question as to why our life isn’t overflowing with fruit and joy? In fact, it can make it worse. If can cause us to question our faith, or even the goodness of God. If it’s true that we are overwhelmingly loved by a God who has infinite resources, then why is life so hard?
The Apostle Paul lived this dichotomy. Skip to verse 35,
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’”
How did Paul reconcile these things? How could he hold the love of God in one hand, and difficult life he was living in the other and say he was being consistent?
First he says “If God is for us, who can be against us?”, and then lists some of the bad things that are happening to him… trouble, famine, nakedness, danger, swords, and death all day long. How can both be true?
The answer is in verse 37:
“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
There’s a super critical word in there that you need to see.
That little word that we don’t want to hear, but is in there anyway; the word “in”.
“In all these things…”.
That’s the answer to the question: How can I go through hardship, while still experiencing joy? Because having joy is about being able to experience the presence of God in the circumstance, not trying to find our joy because of the circumstance. Do you see the difference? If your joy is found in God, then even as the world collapses around you, the source of your joy never changes – and therefore you will always have a source of abundant joy.
So, what I want to do for the remainder of our time is show you a picture of how I believe this works practically – at least from my perspective. I’m going to give you an illustration of why you need to keep your relationship with God as your source, remain “in Christ”, and not fall into the trap of seeking joy and fruitfulness in other areas. I’m not saying it’s a perfect illustration, but it helps me remember how life works and how to keep my priorities straight.
I call it “Mind Your Buckets” and it has everything to do with being filled by God… and not having your happiness dependant on circumstance. Ready?
So here’s the first picture. Let’s start with the source: God. God is the source of life. There is life in no other. Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life…” Genesis 2:7 says that when God created humanity He breathed into him the breath of life that made him a living being. There is no life outside of that which God gives. If He withdraws His Spirit, we will cease to exist. So He goes at the top as the Source of Life.
Next comes “Me”. The bucket where I store my “life juice”, or the source of my strength, joy, peace, happiness, energy, etc. It comes from God, and goes to me.
Next comes “Priority Hill”. We all know that water runs downhill, and it’s the same with our life. There are things that need to go on top of the hill, and things that go on the bottom, and if your priorities out of order, then you won’t give enough “life juice” to the most important things in your life because it’ll be spent on other things.
So what are our priorities? They come next. Next comes the buckets that we fill up with the life-juice that comes out of us. The things that need our life, energy, emotions, physical health, time, money and skills…and they are labelled “Key Relationships”, “Life Purpose”, “Work” or “Things I Have To Do”, and then “Hobbies” or “Things I Want To Do”.
These are our priorities, in order. Our whole life, arranged as a series of 4 buckets. And this is their proper priority order. I don’t want to spend a bunch of time discussing why they are in this order, we can discuss that later, if you like.
After your relationship with God, your next most important priority are your Key Relationships – your spouse, your immediate family and those closest to you.
The next most important priority is your Life Purpose, or why you exist – God’s chosen purpose for you. Some people would put Work as their second most important priority, but that’s not the way God set the world up. God won’t judge you for how much work you did, but whether you lived out His will for your life. Everyone is designed with gifts, talents and a purpose. We know from Jesus’ Parable of the Talents that we are each given different amounts of skills, aptitude, and abilities, and we are expected to use them. Yes, we can use our gifts at work, and if we are very blessed, even get paid to work out of our life’s purpose, but our work and our purpose are not necessarily synonymous.
The gifts and abilities God gave us are not given to use only for ourselves, to make money, or just to take care of our family. God has given us each something that we are supposed to do to bless this world. Ephesians 2:10 says “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” That’s not talking about our work, but our life’s purpose. If you’ve done any reading about spiritual gifts then you know 1 Corinthians 12:7, “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” “The common good” means God expects us to use our gifts for not only our family but our church, our neighbourhood, and the world.
The third priority is Work, or Things I Have To Do. We have to work in order to eat. That’s life. We have to change the diapers, mow the grass, learn the multiplication tables, take our medicine, correct the grammar assignment, buy the groceries, make supper, fix the car, and brush our teeth. We don’t necessarily want to do these things, but we have to… and it certainly does cost us some of our “life juice”. And we know that when life becomes all about Work, or doing the Things I Have To Do… it literally sucks the life out of you.
Our Fourth priority is our Hobbies, or Things I Want to Do. Yes, unfortunately, Things I Want To Do comes after Things I Have To Do. When we switch those two around, that’s called procrastinating, and it gets us into trouble. Things like doing crafts, playing games, practicing guitar, taking a fun class, photography, computers, checking Facebook, shopping, baking, hunting, fishing, etc. They aren’t work, they aren’t our life’s purpose. They don’t really build our Key-Relationships, but they are good things we like to do, so they get a bucket too.
So now that we have our buckets… it’s time for the pipes. Out of the “Me” bucket comes the pipes that lead to each priority bucket, and one that goes nowhere… that’s the Waste pipe. Because not only does life flow from God to you, but also from you to others. And each pipe has a valve. And your life is all about constantly adjusting those little, yellow valves to make sure things are getting enough of your “life juice”.
Now, before I discuss that more, there are two more pipes I need to put in there… the return pipes. There are pipes that come back from your Key Relationships and your Life Purpose. Believe it or not, you gain some life back into your “Me” tank if you pour your life into those things. As you show love to those closest to you, and practice your gifts, you’ll feel more filled up. And as you serve others in the area that you are gifted in, that will fill you up with life too! But here’s the problem… those pipes leak!
Because people are imperfect and sinful, they can never give back to you in a perfect way. If you were to close off your relationship with God and only work on your relationships with those closest to you, and pour yourself into your life’s purpose… you would eventually run out of “life juice” because sin makes the pipes leaky. As much as you love them, people still drain you.
This is something that I think a lot of busy parents get wrong when they forget to take time to develop themselves spiritually. They think that if they keep pouring their life into their spouse, children and kids – and living out their purpose as a mom (or a dad) – then they should have all the joy and energy they need. They’re doing what God built them to do, and they’re doing it for people they love, so they should be able to do it forever, right?
But what happens? They get tired, grumpy, frustrated, sad, depressed, competitive, distracted, and resentful. They start to question whether they should have even had kids at all! They question their marriage! They fanaticize about quitting everything. Why? Because they’re life-juice is gone. They haven’t been going to God for a refilling of their tank. They’re not living in His sustaining power. They topped up a while back, and maybe got a bit during that hour at church, and maybe they do family devos, but they don’t spend time in private prayer and bible reading and aren’t connecting to God personally. – which means they run out of juice.
Why? Because they have put their family where God should be. They’re asking from their children and spouse, something that can only come from God.
The Overflow Pipes
Now take a look at the pipes that join the buckets together.… life also flows from one bucket to the next. If you do this right and get your priorities straight, then the placement of your buckets actually help you out… but if you get this wrong, they work against you. ** This is a big idea, so stay with me! **
As you keep the top priorities filled up, they actually pour into the other buckets. This is absolute truth. If you are pouring your life into your Key Relationships, then putting time and effort into your life’s purpose gets easier. If you’re using the life God gives you to work on your marriage, love your kids, make time for your friends and church, and doing the good works God has prepared for you to do, then your work – even when it’s no fun – is actually easier.
BUT if you stop pouring life into your Key Relationships by taking your spouse for granted, neglecting your kids, friends, and church… then doing what God wants you to do gets harder because you’re not with the ones you love, you’re not as encouraged or supported. Then your work gets harder because you feel lonely and distracted, and wonder why you have to do this stuff anyway since nobody cares about you…. Even your hobbies become less fun because you don’t have people to share them with, and you feel guilty because you know you haven’t been doing what you’re supposed to do. Do you see what I mean?
If you get your priorities straight, life works better. When you get your priorities out of whack, your life goes out of whack too. If you spend your time pouring your life into your hobby – you will lose your job, and probably your key relationships too. If you spend all your time at work, then you will not fulfil your Life’s Purpose, and you will harm your Key Relationships. And if you stop connecting to God’s unlimited resources, then you will be running off of a limited amount of life-juice that will eventually dry-up. I’ve been there – it’s not pretty.
The final pipe is the Waste pipe. The Waste My Time pipe – it’s red and doesn’t even get a bucket. Nothing is accomplished, no relationships are built, no ministry is done, no work is done, and nothing is created. This is where we are just being totally self-indulgent and pouring our life out onto the ground. We wasting time on the internet, or stare at another glowing box, or spend time at the mall, or some other pointless thing. Endlessly scrolling Facebook or newsfeeds or Pinterest, not even stopping to read. Shopping for nothing in particular. Binge-watching Netflix. Sleeping more than we need.
Here’s the thing: Sometimes what we call “me time” is just a waste of time. We’ve bought into believing that somehow, wasting our life is going to fill up our tank… but it’s not true. Now, I’m not talking about solitude and time with God, or taking a purposeful Sabbath rest – that’s different. I’m talking about where we turn off the valve to our Key Relationships and go away from everyone, turn off the valve to our Life Purpose and serve no one, turn off the valve at Work and do nothing… and just pour our life-juice on the ground. We’ve been sold this idea somehow wasting time will fill our buckets up… but it doesn’t really work, does it?
The Drain Gremlin & “Balance”
So here’s our buckets, our pipes and our valves. But there’s still two missing things. So let’s put that next one in. The final set of valves go right here at the bottom of the tanks. They are the release valves. The drains. And there’s a little gremlin out there that keeps messing with your levels. You’ve probably met him.
How many times have you heard, or even said, that all your life needs is “balance”? We think that if we finally get the right balance in our life that everything will run smoothly. We say it all the time… what we need is “balance”.
We are all seeking this perfected world where it’s possible to get our priorities perfectly straight, our valves set, our life on track, our calendar perfect, our budget exactly right… and then we’ll have no problems. We’ll have balance. Have you told yourself that? Have you believed it?
But the problem is that this world is out of balance because of sin and error. And our enemy, the Devil, is constantly trying to mess up our buckets! We will never be able to just set the valves at the right place and then walk away knowing the system is secure forever because there’s always something that will mess it up.
Something will happen in one of your Key Relationships… someone gets hurt, or dies, or needs help, or gets depressed, or moves out, or gets born… and it’s like someone took that drain and cranked it wide open! All our life juice is flowing straight into that Key Relationship, and it’s taking a lot more of our energy, time, emotions and life than before. Everything else starts to suffer because one of our Key Relationships is more of a draw than before. Perhaps it’s a sick spouse or a broken relationship with a family member or friend – it becomes a drain on us because we have to put more effort and energy into that relationship.
Or your life’s purpose gets hard. People won’t join in your group, the finances aren’t working out, it’s a lot harder than it used to be, there are too many things going on. Or Satan ramps up his attacks on you and even though you know you’re doing the right thing, and working in your area of giftedness, it’s a serious drain on you.
Or there’s a huge project at Work, or something goes crazy at the office, or the computer crashes, or the car blows up, or supper gets burned, or there’s more bills than usual, or there’s a huge snow-storm or cold snap, or there’s a giant fire that burns down a third of your city… totally beyond your control. Sometimes the Things I Have to Do gets harder and the drain is pulling more than usual. It’s not our fault, but it happens and it effects everything else.
Dealing with the Drain
So what do we do when that happens? Well, people generally have a few responses. Maybe you’ll see yourself here:
Some people’s response is to turn off the other valves and just pour our life into the one place that needs us most. If it’s a Key Relationship that needs more, then we shut off the valve going to our Life’s Purpose, Our Work, and Hobbies… and just concentrate on that one. If it’s Work that needs more, then we shut out our Key Relationships and stop doing what God put us on earth to do and spend our time at work fixing it. It makes sense to some people, right?
The problem with that is you can’t really do that. You can’t tell everyone you love to go away for an indefinite period of time. There will always be work that needs to get done. And you still have to keep your ministry commitments and do good deeds. And sometimes even your hobbies are such that you have to keep a drop or two going that way. So you can’t really just shut off the rest of your life. It’s not a good option or you’ll do more damage than what you’re trying to fix.
The next option is to shut off that problem valve and just let it run dry. If it’s a Key Relationship, just forget that person, or those people, even exist and pour your life in to our Work and Hobbies. Give your spouse the cold shoulder, stick the kids in school and programs, block that person’s posts and don’t take their calls… pretend that relationship doesn’t exist.
Or, if it’s another issue… then quit your ministry, leave the church, stop putting in effort at your job, burn your hobby. Just shut off everything in your life that needs attention.
I know many who have tried this method, and it also doesn’t really work. The people who deal with their problems by cutting off relationships and pulling the parachute become lonely, bitter, and sad people. We are built for relationships, for doing good works, for work and for enjoying this world, and shutting them off when these things get difficult doesn’t make us more joyful, but instead causes serious problems later. That’s where we lose our marriage, our kids, our friends, our parents, our jobs, and our joy. God didn’t build us to shut out our problems, but as our verse said – we are to exist and become conquers in them. We need to stay in.
The “Me” Level Check and Shut Off Valve
But, that bucket is still pouring out like crazy, right? What should we do? We can’t just let our Me tank run dry, can we? Let me introduce our two pieces…our level check and our shut off valve.
The Level Check is located on our “Me” tank and it’s linked to a valve right at the bottom — and this is an automatic valve. If your Me level gets too low, then it shuts down the flow to everywhere else, and we just shut down. This is our life-saver valve. It makes sure we don’t run out of life juice and die. It keeps a little in the tank, just for us to exist on. I know this valve exists, because I’ve tripped the Level Check before and I’ve felt this valve snap shut.
It’s kind of like one of those teapots that whistle when the water boils. It starts out quiet, but gets louder. You can hear this system, and also feel this system, and even see this system. Your body starts to ache. Your stomach is tied in knots. Your head hurts, your ears ring. Tears come easily. You hear yourself yelling more. It’s harder to get up in the morning, and you can’t go to sleep at night. You find yourself eating way too much and gaining weight, or not eating at all and losing it. You get canker sores, and get sick easier. This is your life-saver system sending signals that your “Me” bucket is really low and you’re about to shut down.
This all happened to me in December 2009. I had a bunch of these symptoms, and my whistle had been going off for the whole year, but I was stubborn, didn’t listen to my body or my spirit, and I was almost out of life-juice. And then one day, my valve snapped shut and I was gone. Zombified. Total protection mode. Nothing else in my life got anything. I couldn’t make any decisions. I pushed everyone away. I was constantly exhausted. I was just running on auto-pilot. I was there only in body, doing the bare minimum – but Al was gone. You could have done anything to me and I wouldn’t have cared. The whole of my conversational ability was down to one word: “Whatever.”
At the time, I was getting it on all ends. My Key Relationship valve was wide open. Anita was very sick and the kids had weird problems happening, I had issues with my parents, and a bunch of other stuff.
My Ministry was really draining too. While some in the church were verbally abusing me, the leadership boards felt they needed to vote a couple times about whether to fire me or not. This necessitated dozens of very difficult meetings, some lasting until midnight.
The Things I Have To Do valve was wide open too as life got more complicated.
And, of course, I had turned my Waste Valve open because I just wanted to get away from everything and escape. So I watched movies, surfed the net, read lots of books, and just wasted time.
And then, my system crashed. I ran out of juice and shut down. Since then, I’ve taken a lot of time to ask myself why that happened. What brought me to that point? What was I doing wrong, and what should I have been doing instead?
The answer is pretty obvious, actually. If this was a water system, and it’s running out of water, then what needs to be done? Add more water!
Pouring Sugar in the System
That’s what I wasn’t doing. But it’s is the only solution. When the buckets are draining and life is pouring out of you, you can’t just shut things down. You can adjust for a period of time… give a bit more to Work when it needs it, a bit more to the Family when it gets low… but that’s just robbing Peter to pay Paul – it doesn’t add to the system.
What I needed, and still need, and what we all need, is more life in the “Me” tank. I needed to go to God and ask for more water for the system. It’s not about turning off all of the tanks and running away. It’s not about Wasting it in an attempt to feel better. It’s not about just keeping one bucket going and hoping for the best. It’s about going to the Source of Life, connecting to the Vine, seeking first His Kingdom and His Righteousness… trusting and knowing that everything you need will be given as He fulfills His promise to pour more life into you.
It’s almost counter-intuitive to our sinful nature. We want to control the valves, and think we can handle it, and somehow don’t want to impose on God for more. Or, in a perverse thought, we start to think that it is God who is draining the life from us. We get bitter with Him, complaining that He’s not giving us enough to get by, so we try to find other sources, and other gods to get life from… like pornography and sex, or substances like food or alcohol, or doubling down on our willpower and trying to control the situation, or we throw money at the problem and hope that will solve it, or we try to boost our popularity and do things to make people look at us so we feel better, or we try religious moralism, or whatever… but they don’t provide life, they only mask the problem and harm the system. Doing those things is like pouring sugar in the tank. It feels like we’re filling it, but instead we are destroying ourselves and end up feeling emptier and emptier. Our system gets more and more messed up. Satan offers those quick fixes so that we will damage ourselves. God promises that He came to give life – and offers it freely to those who would come to Him.
Connecting to the Source of Life
Scripture says that the life God wants to give us is rooted in our relationship with Jesus Christ our Lord. Romans 8 reminds us that there is nothing that can disconnect us from our source – no amount of trouble, or distress, or famine, or danger, or death or demons, or time, or height or depth, or any other created thing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
It is only we who can choose to move further from our source. We can choose to disconnect from the vine, to seek things other than His Kingdom and His righteousness. He leaves that option open to us. Just like in the Garden of Eden, God leaves the option open for his children to seek other forms of knowledge and strength. But God promises that He will give more when we need it. Look at Philippians 4:19, “And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.” There it is again! Remaining in Jesus.
A Few Practical Suggestions
Let me close with a couple practical suggestions for how to connect to our source and meet God afresh. Maybe one reason you feel stagnant and drained is because your relationship with Him has become commonplace, more drudgery than refreshing.
Of course, you know by now that you need to read scripture, have time in prayer every day and go to church every week. Doing those things are like getting your regular meals. They’re not optional. But what about reading scripture and praying in a new place. Go to a coffee shop, sit on the patio, find a park bench, or just go to a different room in the house. The other day I changed the direction that I sit in my office and found a bit more energy in my devotional. Same thing with prayer. Pull a “War Room” and go sit in the closet. Put on a short tv episode for the kids and go to the backyard and sit in a lawn chair. Take a walk during lunch instead of going where you’d normally go.
Another way to meet God is to spend time with mature Christian friends. Make a point to have some strong believers over to your house and talk to them for a while. Not merely good friends you like to hang out with or new believers who share your struggles, but mature believers who will listen to you and speak Godly wisdom into your life.
Another way is to turn on worship music and have it playing in the house. Or, if you’re into it, find a sermon online and play it in your headphones after you go to bed.
Go for a walk and experience God’s presence in nature.
Write a list of things you are thankful for.
How about this: Tell your pastor or leadership team that you want to spend the next month connecting to God instead of serving in your church. Tell them that you are going to step away for the next four weeks and work hard to be proactive and present in the church service. Go to bed early Saturday night. Wake up on Sunday and prepare your heart. Pay attention to all the words of the songs you sing. Read and reread the bible passages used that week when you go home. Learn and sing the songs and hymns during the week. Choose to fully engage so you can meet God in a special way at church.
The whole idea is simply to connect with God in a way you never have before.
That’s what I have learned about myself and God. When things get hard, more and more I’m choosing not to shut people out or shut myself down, but instead to go to God and ask for more life.
More life to deal with what I have to deal with, minister to those He has given me to minister to, take care of my family, do the things that I have to do, forgive those I need to forgive, find joy in tough circumstances, and have my bucket overflow into others. He’s promised to be my source and make me a conqueror over all the difficult things that come at me in this life. He’s promised to give me what I need to do what I need to do. And I promise that He does each and every time I come to Him.
When crisis hits – whether it happens to us, our family, our friends, or we just hear about it on the news – our first instinct is to ask a lot of questions. Why did it happen to me/us? What will happen next? Is it over now or will it get worse? How far do the effects reach? Who is going to fix it? What needs to be done? How can I make sure this never happens again?
If you live with a Christian worldview, then the questions go even deeper. Was this a spiritual attack or simply the result of living in a fallen world? What is God trying to show me here? What does the Bible say about this? How have believers dealt with this in the past? What is my responsibility here? Who should I tell this too, and who should I not?
I think part of the reason that crisis brings questions is because humans have an instinct to try to understand and control everything around us. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. When God first created us He told us to “fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over [it].” God is the Creator and Owner of the universe, and He has made us managers of it. Implicit in that divine command is the need to understand our world and exert our energies to control what’s going on. So it’s not a bad thing that when something bad happens we want to understand as much as we can and then try to deal with it. Doing so is our God-given nature.
However, when sin came into the world it corrupted everything – including our God-given our curiosity and management duties, now, instead of working with God to discover more about His nature as it is found in creation, and then partnering with Him to accomplish His will, we believe that we can know everything there is to know without His input and can solve all our problems by ourselves.
This is why, though problems abound and questions flood our minds, many of us do not pray. Our inherent sin has told us that we are alone, that we can’t trust God, that we don’t need God, and that we can do a better job of fixing our problems without him.
The book of Habakkuk is all about a man of faith asking questions and seeking solutions during a time of crisis. Like some of us here today, Habakkuk looked at his nation and saw some hugely troubling issues. The number of faithful people was shrinking and paganism was taking over the land. The people weren’t working together for a greater good, but instead were more divided than ever. Violence ruled the streets
He looked to the religious leaders to do something, but they seemed both powerless and corrupt – and any of the good ones were ignored. He looked to the politicians, judges and lawmakers to do something, but they only cared about keeping their own power and lining their pockets. If a good person finally did stand up and challenge the system, it wouldn’t be long until the bad guys would corrupt him or eliminate him. Habakkuk was losing hope that his people would ever find a way back to living good lives of Godly peace and prosperity.
Habakkuk was getting angry and had had enough. But, instead of doing what so many of us do, where we start trying to find a way to control and fix the problem, Habakkuk started to pray.
The book of Habakkuk is a record of Habakkuk’s prayers and God’s answer to them. Habakkuk asked some huge questions, the main ones being: Why is this happening to us and what are You going to do about it, God?
God’s answer was that He had been at work raising up the Chaldeans, later called the Babylonian Empire, to be His weapon against evil in the land. They would come in, decimate the nation, wipe out almost everyone, and drag the rest off as slaves. This would be how God would discipline His people and force them to re-evaluate their lives.
Habakkuk’s follow-up question was to ask how that could be fair? Why would God allow a much worse, pagan nation to conquer His chosen people? God’s answer was that no one would be getting away with anything. The corruption in Israel would be rebuked, punished and then the people would be restored – and later the Babylonians themselves would be destroyed.
What happens next in chapter 3 is remarkable, and that’s what I want to talk about today.
Habakkuk has just asked some huge questions, and God has been good enough to answer him – but the answers were not what he expected. No doubt, Habakkuk wanted God to work some miracles, change people’s hearts, send the Messiah to replace the corrupt leaders, or just zap all the bad guys with bolts of lightning. God’s answer wasn’t what He expected at all, but involved an evil nation, the death of his countrymen, the destruction of God’s temple, the loss of everything He owned, and the requirement to be dragged off into slavery for 70 years. He would die well before any Israelite would come home.
How Do You React?
How would you react? Or, more accurately, how do you react? I ask that way because this isn’t a theoretical question – you’re all living this right now. You currently live in a world where you are surrounded by bad news, and on occasion, that bad news hits you directly. You know that this world is full of poverty, corruption, violence, death, misery, starvation, and evil – but it’s not too hard to pretend it doesn’t exist as long as you stay pretty healthy, keep paying your bills, talk to your friends, and watch the occasional funny movie or video on YouTube. It’s easy to pretend that it’s all someone else’s problem, until it suddenly isn’t.
All of a sudden you’re the one who is in pain, facing financial struggles, is treated unfairly, has been a victim of violence, comes face to face with mortality, or has been touched by evil in some way. Suddenly it’s not just on the news, but it’s at your work, in your home, in your bedroom, in your body.
So, how do you react? Of course, as I just said, our first, instinctual reaction, is to ask a bunch of questions. And a Christian turns to God for answers to those questions, and we believe Scripture reveals to us many answers to these questions: Where did evil come from? How should we respond to crisis? What is God doing about the problem of sin? How can we live through it and come out better on the other side?
The whole series has been answering those questions, but we’re not done yet. The next questions is this: How are you going to react to God’s answer? .
A favourite atheist reaction is to use the misery of the world as a proof that God doesn’t exist or to question His goodness. After all, if God is good and wise and holy and loving, then how can bone cancer and tsunamis and ticks exist? Or, as Habakkuk asked, “God, if you are good and wise and holy and loving, then how can evil Israelites and evil Chaldeans and Babylonians exist?” Or as we ask today, “God, if You are good and wise and holy and loving, then why do that bad thing happen?”
A Christian reaction is to bring these questions to God, read His answers in the Bible, and then listen to His answers as He speaks to our spirit. My intention right now is not to rehash the last nine sermons and try to convince you to bring these questions to God, but instead to get you to ask yourself how you react when God answers your prayers in ways you don’t expect.
Habakkuk’s Relenting Prayer
Habakkuk gets it right. He hits his knees, asks some questions, and then waits for some answers. When God shows up and tells Him what’s going to happen, it’s not even close to what he expected, but what does he do next? He relents to God’s will and continues to pray.
Let’s read his prayer together and then we’ll take it apart a bit, but first I want you to notice one thing… this is a song meant to be sung by God’s people year after year. The words “according to Shigionoth” and “Selah”, and the comment at the end about instrumentality tell us that this isn’t a one-time prayer for one man during a crisis, this is a prayer given by God to His people to remember and sing for ages to come. This isn’t just a historical song, there is something here for us today.
“A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, according to Shigionoth.
O LORD, I have heard the report of you, and your work, O LORD, do I fear. In the midst of the years revive it; in the midst of the years make it known; in wrath remember mercy.
God came from Teman, and the Holy One from Mount Paran. (Selah) His splendor covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise. His brightness was like the light; rays flashed from his hand; and there he veiled his power. Before him went pestilence, and plague followed at his heels. He stood and measured the earth; he looked and shook the nations; then the eternal mountains were scattered; the everlasting hills sank low. His were the everlasting ways.
I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction; the curtains of the land of Midian did tremble. Was your wrath against the rivers, O LORD? Was your anger against the rivers, or your indignation against the sea, when you rode on your horses, on your chariot of salvation? You stripped the sheath from your bow, calling for many arrows. (Selah) You split the earth with rivers. The mountains saw you and writhed; the raging waters swept on; the deep gave forth its voice; it lifted its hands on high. The sun and moon stood still in their place at the light of your arrows as they sped, at the flash of your glittering spear. You marched through the earth in fury; you threshed the nations in anger.
You went out for the salvation of your people, for the salvation of your anointed. You crushed the head of the house of the wicked, laying him bare from thigh to neck. (Selah) You pierced with his own arrows the heads of his warriors, who came like a whirlwind to scatter me, rejoicing as if to devour the poor in secret. You trampled the sea with your horses, the surging of mighty waters.
I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us.
Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.
To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.” (Habakkuk 3 ESV)
I Have Heard and Remember
This prayer has only one theme: Habakkuk’s relenting to God and His plan.
The first section is an introductory phrase where Habakkuk turns the whole problem over to God. Do you remember the very first verses of Habakkuk? He asks these opening questions: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?” At the very beginning of his final prayer we see that Habakkuk has received his answer. God has heard, God is at work, and God is not idle.
The implicit accusation behind “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?” is that God is seeing all the evil going on around him, but not doing anything. And now, after hearing from God, Habakkuk’s prayer begins… and I much prefer the NIV’s translation here:
“LORD, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, LORD. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.”
Habakkuk, as he prays, is remembering and talking to God about what He has learned about how God does things. He’s processing how God operates in this world, the reminder that God is patient and kind, but also has a great wrath against sin. And while that knowledge blossoms, he’s recalling some of the times that God has chosen, because of his wrath against sin, to put his people through difficult times, and then later, restore them with acts of His great power. After talking to God and hearing His answer, He’s now convinced that God has been doing exactly what He’s always done – being patient, offering salvation, and then judging evil. This is Habakkuk’s prayer, relenting to God’s plan.
He has gained wisdom. He no longer believes, as some do, that God’s perfect will must always be happiness and comfort for everyone, but sometimes – as we’ve learned in Pilgrim’s Progress – that He sends His people through the Slough of Despond, and requires them to face the fiery darts, before they reach the Hill of the Cross. Wisdom knows that the straight and narrow path a pilgrim must follow always leads over the Hill of Difficulty, through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, across the streets of Vanity Fair, and past the Giant Despair before they can reach their rest in the Celestial City.
Habakkuk now knows this, and has decided not to fight it – and as He does, the stories of scripture come flooding into his mind:
- He remembers the fear and awe that came upon the people as the earthquakes and lightning and smoke poured out of the mountain, as God descended during the giving of the Law. (3:3)
- He remembers the pestilence and plagues that came upon both their Egyptian enemies and upon Israel when they broke God’s law. (3:5)
- He remembers how great nations feared the people of God because He was with them. (3:6)
- He remembers how God used His power even over nature – turning the Nile to blood, crushing the perusing armies in the Red Sea, and making a dry path through the Jordan River for his people to come to the Promised Land. (3:8)
- He remembers how, though they have been at war for so long, that when they have been faithful, God has always defended them in miraculous ways; even stopping the sun in the sky – but has brought terrible justice and wrath upon the whole earth; from global floods to plagues to enemy armies – when His people broke their covenant with Him. (3:11, 15)
Habakkuk says in verse 16, “I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us.”
He’s not denying his disappointment, nor his fear, at what is coming. He’s not looking forward to seeing God’s wrath come upon His people, and he knows that it’s going to be a terribly hard road. BUT, he says, “Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon the people who invade us.” In other words, “God, I trust you. I know how you operate. I know that you don’t always do things that are comfortable for me. But I also know that you are just and good and that in the end, all evil will be repaid. I may not look forward to the immediate future, and I know it’s going to be hard, but I look forward to your end game, where all of Your enemies are brought to justice.”
Palm Sunday Application
The application, or rather, the final question today is this: Can you pray that prayer with Habakkuk? All through this study we’ve read how the Bible makes the case for the importance of bringing our questions and fears to God in prayer. We’ve seen how God’s plan of salvation often leads through difficult times, and how our response needs to be to run to God, not away from Him. And we’ve even had God explain how His long-term plan is to bring salvation to believers, wrath against evil, and glory to Himself.
But, are you willing to relent to God and have Him save you His way?
Today is Palm Sunday. It is on this day that Jesus came into town, riding on a donkey, fulfilling Messianic prophecy and declaring to all of Jerusalem that He is the Son of David, the Chosen One, the Messiah, the Saviour. That’s why they called out “Hosanna! Save us!” They knew what Jesus was doing.
But within five days the citizens of this same city would be shouting “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” What changed? Part of the reason was that He refused to save them the way they wanted to be saved. He was supposed to come in and use His divine power to overthrow the Romans, set up a new kingdom, and distribute their wealth to the Jews. But He didn’t.
Instead, He came and preached against the Jews! He preached against the religious elites of the day, pronouncing woes upon them and calling them blind guides. He preached against the hypocritical worshippers who had turned the temple into a shopping mall. He taught that they were supposed to pay taxes to Caesar! He said that God doesn’t prefer the rich and happy, but the poor, the humble and the outcast! He said that Jerusalem would be encircled by armies and then destroyed. He said it was never His intention to create a worldly kingdom, but a spiritual one – and everyone who followed Him would be persecuted and hated. He said the only way for anyone to be saved would be to believe that He, the Son of God, had to die on an accursed Roman cross, taking the punishment for their sins.
That wasn’t what they wanted. They didn’t want to admit they had a sin problem. They didn’t want a suffering saviour. They wanted worldly comfort, not spiritual salvation. Jesus wouldn’t save them the way they wanted to be saved – and so they turned from laying palm branches before Him and shouting “Hosanna in the Highest” to trading him for the terrorist Barabbas and shouting “Crucify Him!”.
The Final Prayer
Let’s close by re-reading the final part of Habakkuk’s prayer, but as you read it, I want you to ask yourself: “Can I pray this prayer honestly?”
“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.”
If you can pray that prayer, then praise God, because that’s an uncommon faith.
But if you are struggling to pray that prayer today – knowing honestly that you would prefer God save you on your terms rather than His – then let me encourage you to do a few things so you can grow in your faith and trust in God’s plan:
- Start praying that God would increase your faith, teach you to trust Him, and show you how He provides for you in ways you’ve never seen or expected.
- Get into your Bible so you can know what He has done in the past and let that inform for you how He works.
- Surround yourself with people that will help you grow in your confidence in God. Get into a good church, join a small group, find a study group.
Most of you who have been here for the whole series knows that the book of Habakkuk is essentially a prayer conversation between God and one of his priests. Habakkuk’s country is going through some difficult times and as he’s bringing his concerns to God, the Lord inclines to answer him – in surprising ways.
The third and last chapter of Habakkuk is a little different than the first two in that though it is still a prayer, God doesn’t respond. What we see in chapter 3 is the prayer of a man of faith, who has chosen to trust God even though God’s answer to his prayer means that there will be more difficult times ahead.
My intention when I sat down to write the sermon this week was to go through this prayer together, but as I wrote, I realized that I needed back up the conversation a little. So instead of outlining this prayer together, I want to pull back and talk more generally about prayer itself. So, we’re going to take a little break from Habakkuk and do an extended introduction , by looking at a section of scripture in the New Testament where Jesus teaches about prayer.
Why Don’t We Pray More?
Prayer, though practiced around the world, and absolutely vital to the Christian life, doesn’t seem to come easily for people. If you ask any believer about their prayer life – and I would imagine this applies to any of us here today; me included – the most consistent evaluation would probably be “It could be better…”. Right?
It’s a bit of a strange thing though, isn’t it? Prayer seems to be something of a human reflex. When something either good or bad happens, whether it’s sickness and pain or a sudden piece of good news or uplifting experience, there’s something in the human spirit that wants to take that moment and connect it to something greater than ourselves, even if it is only a quick, “Thank God”, or “Oh my God”, or “Good, Lord”. These are often said in an almost instinctual way – not really prayers of the mind, heart or soul, but more of an unthinking impulse to raise the significance of that moment to God.
And yet, as instinctual as prayer seems to be, there’s also something incredibly difficult about fostering and developing what might be called a “deep prayer life”. Humans have been trying and failing at it for millennia!
Which is sort of ironic. The same people that will claim to be such ardent believers in God and the Bible, defending their faith and their right to worship, don’t actually dedicate time to talk to the Person they say they worship and obey. I’m not trying to guilt trip here – at least not yet. I’m lumped in here too. I’m merely stating that it’s a little surprising that we are a people who claim that God is the Source of all there is, the One who gave His Son to save us from eternity in Hell, is the great provider of all good things, performs miracles, knows us better than we know ourselves, and the One whom we are looking to spend eternity with… but most of us struggle to spend even 10 minutes, one-one-hundredth, of our waking hours talking to Him.
It’s not that we don’t need to. If we take a minute to think about it, there are lots of reasons we should be coming to God for help. We have struggles with our faith. We need direction and advice for how to make decisions. We are beset by temptations and keep falling into the same destructive patterns of sin. We lack resources and need help. We have physical sickness and pain. We have worries about the future, and baggage from our past.
Most people, when you get to know them – believers included – are lonely, afraid, confused, angry, bitter, depressed, and worried about a good many things. And if you to talk to them about their concerns for their spouse, parents, children, extended family, friends, church, work, neighbourhood, country and world, their list grows and grows and grows.
We Christians, though we know all of this – most of us pray very little. And worse – this is one of my pet peeves – when we finally do get together to pray and someone asks for prayer requests, a lot of people will say, “I’m good. You don’t need to pray for me.” That boggles my mind! Really? Nothing? Your physical body, spiritual life, finances, personal relationships are all exactly how you want them and there is nothing that you think the Saviour of your Soul, the God of the Universe, could do about any of them? Are you sure?
I know part of it is that people don’t like looking weak, admitting they have needs, or letting others in on their business. I get that. But why should that stop us from getting as many people to bang on the doors of heaven for our sake as we can? If prayer is as universal and important as we believe, or at least the Bible says it is, what is preventing us from doing it?
Reasons Not to Pray
There’s a few answers, I think.
First, some people think God doesn’t care about them. It’s not that God doesn’t carea bout anything – it’s just that they’re assumption is that God doesn’t really get involved in the minutia of their life because He’s only worries about big things like war and plagues, and helping widows, orphans and struggling missionaries. So, they conclude, why bother praying since if my prayers aren’t important enough?
Others think that God is like Mr. Scrooge; a penny-pinching, stingy, miser that doesn’t want to help anyone even though He could. They see God’s preferred method of dealing with His people as making them suffer, so if they want anything good out of life – any help, comfort or peace – then they have to go get it themselves. If they pray, God will just tell them to suck it up or make it worse. You’ve probably heard people say things like, “Don’t ask God not to send you to that country, because He definitely will!” “Don’t ask God for patience, or He’ll make your life worse!” So, they think, why pray if God’s just going to say no anyway?
Others think that getting answers to prayer is more akin to winning the lottery. Sure, some people get answers to prayer, but most people just pray and pray for their whole life and get nothing. So, why waste time praying if the chances of getting an answer are so infinitesimal?
Some believe that there’s no point in praying because they are too sinful to be listened to. They say things like “I don’t pray because I haven’t been much of a pray-er, and God only listens to people that pray, so I can’t pray because I don’t pray.” Or, “My life is too messed up for God to take me seriously. And every time I do pray, I just end up going out and messing up again and proving to God that I don’t deserve whatever I’m praying for. So I just quit because praying just made me feel guilty all the time.” They think, what’s the point in praying if He’s either not listening, or thinks you are a constant disappointment?
Others think that they do it wrong, so God’s not happy with their prayers. They’ve heard other people pray and it sounds so sincere, so intimate, so beautiful – and when they do it, it just sounds weird and fake. They’re not using the right words, they can’t quote the bible, they don’t even know whether to use “God”, or “Jesus”, or “Father”, or “Lord”, or “Sir”, or what! The whole concept of prayer is confusing and overwhelming to them. So, why bother praying if you don’t know how to do it and you just sound like an idiot, right?
I could go on, but you get my point, right? There are a lot of internally generated reasons why we don’t pray. That’s what those all are – internally generated reasons why we don’t pray. Things we’ve come up with to prevent us from praying. They don’t come from outside us. We are blessed to live in a country where we can pray anytime and almost anywhere. No one is stopping us from praying – most of the problem comes from within us. It’s all about the guilt or inadequacy we feel, or the false perception we have of God.
If any of those reasons resonated with you, what I want to do today is challenge you to consider that you are wrong about God and about what God thinks of you? I want you to consider one of the main ways that the Bible describes God: as a Good Father.
Talking to God, the Good Father
Turn with me to Luke 11:1-13 and I want to show you something about how Jesus talks about prayer. Let’s read it together, but we’ll take it apart on the way:
“Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’”
Two quick things here: First, notice that Jesus prayed. Our perfect model for life and faith is the Lord Jesus Christ. We want to pattern our lives after His. He prayed quite a lot. If for no other reason than to obey God and follow after our Lord Jesus, we ought to be a praying people.
Second, the disciples asked to learn how to pray because prayer is something that can be taught. The disciples were asking Jesus to teach them how He prays, so they could model it, and could be sure they were getting it right. They saw the power He had and knew it must be because of His close relationship with God, and they wanted a piece of it. That came through prayer.
And so, in response to their desire to learn, Jesus moves from modeling how to pray to teaching them how to pray, and does it in the form of “the Lord’s Prayer” and a couple of teaching stories. His lesson starts in verse 2:
“And he said to them, ‘When you pray, say: ‘Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.’”
Now, this prayer isn’t necessarily meant to be the only way to pray, repeated verbatim, word for word – though it is absolutely fine to do that. It’s also not an incantation or magic spell that forces God to do whatever you want. What the Lord’s Prayer is meant to teach us is the pattern for all Christian prayer. It contains the pieces, or the categories, that make a complete prayer. And so, in the interests of learning how to pray, let’s look at them a piece at a time:
Our Hallowed Father
First you have the word “Father”. Notice that this prayer doesn’t start with a list of problems or requests, but with acknowledgment that this is a conversation between a Father and His child. This is hugely important for us to realize today. All of our prayers, indeed our whole experience as a Christian, needs to start here. We must ask ourselves, before we pray: Who is God? Who is God to me? What’s He like? Who does scripture reveal Him to be?
It is crucially important that when we pray, we pray to the right God! What do I mean by that? Remember last week when we talked about idolatry. It is entirely possible for us to be praying to a god of our own design. All those things I listed before that block our prayer life – that God is absent, greedy, random, hard to talk to –come from our understanding of who God is. But, do they line up with who God really is? Or, are those ideas things we’ve made up in our own minds? We have to ask ourselves, where we got those ideas, and whether they line up with reality? Am I praying to the God of the Bible, or a God I made up for myself?
The word that Jesus uses, “Father”, is the Greek word PATER, but would have been spoken as the Aramaic word ABBA. That’s a hugely important word, and is used in other parts of scripture that teach us how to pray (Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6), because even the early Greek believers used that Aramaic word to talk to God. The Jewish people would never have used that word– in fact, it was only the pagan nations that called their god’s “father”, so it was even less palatable for them. Yet Jesus introduces God not as YAHWEH, the One you cannot look upon and the Name you must not say, but as ABBA, a special, intimate term only used by family members.
Think of it as the way we use “Dad”. The only people in the world that call me “Dad” are my kids. No one else. That’s what Jesus invited us to call God. Not just “GOD” or “LORD”, but “Dad”. Keep that in mind because Jesus comes back to it.
In the next part of the prayer Jesus moves from our relationship with God to our first request of Him… and what is it? For food, safety, health? No: “Hallowed be Your Name”. Our first request, and the beginning of all Christian prayer, is not for God to meet our needs, but that we would partner with Him to bring Him glory.
We start by asking our Father in Heaven to cause His name to known as holy, special, unique and worshipped as the One, True God. In this request we acknowledging that the chief end of this world is not to fill our bellies or bring us comfort, but to bring glory to our Father.
This is the flip-side of addressing God. We call Him “Dad”, but we also call Him “God Almighty”. It’s sort of the ultimate “My Dad can beat up your Dad”. God Almighty is my Father. He’s perfect and sinless, but loves me anyway. He laid out the plan for the entire universe, and brought everything into existence with the power of His Word, but He also knows my heart and takes time to listen to me. He is in Heaven being worshipped by angels, but He also speaks to me with patience and love. We want everyone to know about this Father God we hallow!
Those thoughts naturally lead into the next part that says, “Your Kingdom Come.” In other words, “We can’t wait until we can be with You! Father, may your Kingdom Come to more people as you grow your Kingdom on earth! May our whole lives be lived sharing Your love and bringing You glory, until you establish your perfect kingdom forever!”
Asking For Our Daily Needs
The whole first section is about getting our hearts in the right place, realizing who God is, who we are, what He’s done, and what we’re here to do. It forces us to lift our eyes off of our problems and gaze upon the splendor of our Father the King. It changes our perspective of our problems and places God in charge of everything. It reorients our priorities. In short – these are words of worship and praise.
Next Jesus turns to teaching us to ask for our needs. Remember, Jesus isn’t teaching us an incantation that gets us whatever we want from God, but showing us the categories of prayer. And the two things we need to pray for most are our physical needs and our spiritual needs:
“Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins… and lead us not into temptation”.
This part of the prayer is an acknowledgement that we are utterly incapable of doing life ourselves. We are the receivers of God’s necessary care. We cannot fulfill our own physical or spiritual needs. We may think we can – which is why a lot of people don’t pray – but we can’t. The body you have, the time you get, every breath you take, your physical strength, your mental capacity, your emotional stability, your ability to talk and move – they are all gifts from God.
In this part of the prayer you are telling God that you believe He is the provider of your physical needs! You are alive because God kept you alive. He gave you what you needed yesterday, and you are coming to God to say “Thank you, Father. May I have what I need for today?” You pray in expectation that your Dad will certainly feed you.
When kids wake up every morning, it likely doesn’t occur to them that I might decide not to feed them that day. Why? Because when my kids are hungry, I am concerned. Their lack causes me to do something, and I want them to have what they need.
Secondarily, we are acknowledging our spiritual needs. We don’t just need “daily bread”, but daily forgiveness for our sins and protection from our spiritual enemies. Again, we are acknowledging that we cannot forgive ourselves or protect ourselves. We cannot excuse our own guilt and we are not strong enough to fight temptation. We cannot make peace with God by ourselves, but need Jesus for that, and we know that we are in a spiritual war and need His help. This part of the prayer is a form of surrender to Him. “God, ultimately, I can’t do anything without you and anything I do myself is pitiful in comparison to what You can do through me.”
Don’t miss this point! As we pray, “forgives us our sins”, we are telling God that we believe we are sinners, people who don’t deserve His grace! We’re not coming to “the big guy in the sky” as equals, marching up and demanding things, or arguing with Him and trying to prove a point. We are simply saying, “I’m wrong. I’ve made mistakes, hurt people, fallen for Satan’s deceptions, stolen Your glory, broken my promises, taken what isn’t mine, abused my body, and neglected to do the good things I was supposed to do. And I’m not worthy of your presence – but here I am anyway, Dad… because you said you’d forgive me and help me.” It’s an admission that we are fallen and need Someone greater than ourselves.
But, the question remains for many, will God give us what we need? The answer to that question is what keeps a lot of people from praying. They’re not sure if God will forgive or give them what they need. They don’t want to be disappointed by yet another person who says they will do something and then not follow through. They don’t want to come to God, ask Him to forgive them, ask Him for help, and then be told “No.” It would hurt too much to be rejected by God, too.
What Kind of Father is God?
Jesus knows that’s how a lot of people feel, and He addresses it right away. Look at verses 5-13. The unspoken questions are: “What kind of Father is God, because there are some really terrible fathers out there? Is he the stern kind? The stingy kind? The abusive kind? The angry kind? Is he the kind that lets people get away with anything and everything? Is He the absent kind? What kind of father is He?”
In answer to this, Jesus tells two stories that are meant teach us something about God. The first is from verses 5-9,
“And he said to them, ‘Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs.”
What’s the point of this story? Simply this: God is a better friend than we are. In the story, you have a whole bunch of friends. One friend drops by unannounced and wants a midnight snack. Another friend runs out in the middle of the night to ask his friend for bread.
Everyone in the story is annoyed. The first friend is going hungry, the second friend is running around at midnight trying to get a snack together, and the third friend has been woken up by someone who won’t stop knocking on his door asking to eat what was going to be his breakfast.
And yet, what happens? The man gives up the bread and the host gets to feed his guest. The question is this: Do you believe God is a better friend than those guys? The reason that the third friend finally gave up the bread wasn’t even because they were friends, but he was impudent, or persistent, or bold enough, to bang on his door at midnight.
Now keep reading in verse 9:
“And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
The implication of these stories is this: If that’s how it works here on earth, among sinful, selfish people – how do you think it works with God? God doesn’t just provide the basics, but is willing to go all out and even give the presence of His Holy Spirit to live in the hearts of everyone who asks! God Himself, living in each one of us, speaking to us, helping us, convicting us, guiding us – that’s the greatest gift God can give!
These story lessons from Jesus are meant to shake up our understanding of who we think God is and tell us that God loves it when His people are bold enough to come to Him and ask Him for what they need, because they know they are His children and they love their Father in Heaven.
- Moses and the nation of Israel are thirsty and God has him hit a rock with a stick, and BOOM! water.
- Samson completely ruins his life, and yet at the end he prays for strength and God answers it.
- Elijah is hungry and a widow is starving. He prays that the oil and flower never run out, and they don’t.
- Elijah asks God for a public miracle where God would bar-b-cue an entire bull by blasting it with fire from the sky. Before God answers, Elijah douses the whole thing with buckets of water. And God not only answers, but does so in such a fashion that the fire totally consumed the wood, the bull, the rocks and the water!
- Countless people came to Jesus and asked for help with disease, demons, and death and He stopped what He was doing to help them. More than once he saw that people were hungry and fed them before they even asked.
God’s answers to prayer aren’t just bound to scripture! There are lots and lots of accounts of God providing for people throughout history. One of my favourite stories is about a man named George Mueller. He died in 1898, but was a man of great influence during his time. For those who know the names, he worked with DL Moody, preached for Charles Spurgeon, and inspired Hudson Taylor to be a missionary! (source)
He spent most of his life in Bristol, England as a pastor, but this story comes from his time as the patron of a series of orphanages. He refused to go into debt by borrowing any money and truly believed that God would meet the needs of the children if they just prayed. The story goes like this:
One morning the children woke up and came downstairs for their morning meal, but the plates and cups and bowls were all empty. There was no food in the cupboards and no money to buy any. The children were standing and waiting for breakfast, wondering what to do, when Mueller said, “Children, you know that we must all be in time for school.” He then lifted his head and prayed, “Dear Father, we thank you for what you are going to give us to eat.”
As he sat the children down at the empty table there was a knock at the door. There stood the baker who said, “Mr. Mueller, I couldn’t sleep last night. Somehow I felt you didn’t have bread for breakfast and the Lord wanted me to send you some. So I got up at 2am and baked you some fresh bread.” Mueller thanked the man and no sooner had he closed the door than there was another knock. He opened the door and there stood the milk man who announced that his milk cart had broken down right in front of the orphanage and he would be happy to give the kids his fresh cans of milk so he could empty his wagon and repair it.
This was no isolated incident either. This type of thing happened over and over in his life. In his life he claims to have seen over 50,000 answers to His prayers for help. So much so that he became known as “the man who gets things from God!”
God still answers prayers today: I personally know what it’s like to have my prayers answered. I’ve been in ministry for almost 12 years now and I’ve never gotten a job by sending out a resume. He has always brought me to places through mysterious means. I’ve seen God literally provide my family with money out of nowhere when we only had ten cents in the bank and prayed for help. I’ve asked God for guidance on decisions that would alter the course of my family’s life, and then flipped open my Bible and received the exact answer. And I believe that every day, as I read His Word and talk to Him in prayer, that He not only listens to me, but also speaks, and meets my physical and spiritual needs.
Are You Praying About That?
I wish I could get into more scriptures about God and prayer, because I think this is an incredibly important topic, but I’ll close with this: There’s a reason, throughout all of the thousands of years that believers have been around, that there have been faithful men and women who have been repeating the same thing over and over and over to those who come to them with their struggles. Prophets, priests, elders, deacons, and pastors have been asking the same question and giving the same advice forever: “Are you praying about that?”
Why do mature Christians always go back to that question? Because we know that so many troubles come from messed up prayer lives. James 4:1-3 says this:
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”
Your fighting and worrying and arguing and desire to sin has got you all messed up… why? Because you aren’t talking to God. Your passions are out of control because you won’t get on your knees and say “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done.” “Not my will, not my name, not my kingdom… Yours.”
You covet and quarrel to get things that you think you need, terrified you won’t have enough, worried to the point of hurting those around you to get it. Why? Because you’re not talking to God and saying “…give us our daily bread. Forgive us our sins. Lead us not into temptation.”
James says, “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly…” In other words, your life is messed up because your prayer life is messed up. You have real needs – but your desires are all wrong. Your Father wants to help you, but you want all the wrong things! God offers forgiveness and daily help, but you won’t humble yourself enough to ask. “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly…”
Let me encourage you to take a very close look at your relationship with God by taking a very close look at your prayer life. Your beliefs about prayer will tell you a lot about your faith in God.
And after you’ve looked at your prayer life, make some changes. Commit that you will pray every day this week, that you will read the Bible, and get to know who God really is – not content to believe who you think He is. I promise you that He will speak to you, meet your needs, and draw you to Himself.
“You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly…”