This week, I talk about Relationship Simulators, share an interesting article about the Lord’s Prayer, an interesting resource about… well, also the Lord’s Prayer, and then we’ll be continuing our interesting study of John Bunyan’s classic, Pilgrims Progress by exploring the first chapter, entitled, “The Jail”.
- Article: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/stop-praying-stuff/
- Resource: https://www.gty.org/store/books/452007/alone-with-god
- Study: https://www.desiringgod.org/books/the-pilgrims-progress
- Want to Support the Podcast?: https://bit.ly/36uqn9E
This week we’re going to do something a little different. Yes, I’m aware that I’ve only done this once and that last week I told you that we’d be going through the gospel of John, but that was before I came across this amazing clip from a John Piper sermon that I really want to share. I came across it while listening to the “Ask Pastor John” podcast, but it’s originally from a sermon he preached on Dec 17, 2000, from Romans 6:22-23 called “The Free Gift of God is Eternal Life.” I’ll put a link on the website if you want to hear the whole thing.
But before we jump into that, I think I should do a bit of an introduction.
One of the troubles with preaching Romans is that you’re almost always jumping into the middle of something. The whole book is constructed as a bunch of well-built, systematic theological teachings, arguments, and connected thoughts that really do need each other to be fully understood. In other words, we need context.
And to make it worse, not only are we jumping into the middle of the Apostle Paul’s teaching – that started, like, all the way back in chapter one – but we’re also taking just a clip out of John Piper’s sermon. So that sort of makes things doubly ripe for trouble.
But I’ll do my best.
In chapter 1 Paul presents the Gospel as the revelation of the Righteousness of God and compares it to the wickedness of man. That leads to chapter 2 and 3 which speaks of how God’s Righteousness leads to a necessary wrath against those sinners… and who are those sinners? Everyone. For All have sinned. That’s the problem. We’re sinners, we can’t save ourselves, we don’t even want to, and we are all destined to stand before a wrathful God who will condemn us to everlasting torment. That’s a real problem.
What’s the solution?
In Chapter 4 we learn about how the man Jesus Christ, the son of God, was perfectly righteous, and died in our place, and that the only way we can be saved is through faith in the risen Jesus Christ. But what about people in the Old Testament before Jesus? Paul answers that too. The answer is still faith.
Then, in chapter 5, we see that that faith naturally leads to a wonderful hope, because our faith in Jesus makes it so that we can stand before God as righteous, clean, holy, perfect in Jesus. Justified by faith, at peace with God through the amazing grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Just like Adam got us into this mess and condemned humanity to the curse, so Jesus got us out of the mess, and redeemed his people from the curse. And he offers this gift for free.
Then, in chapter 6, Paul hears his detractors cry out: “What do you mean it’s free? Free? That’s madness. Then everyone will just go sin all the time, ask forgiveness, and go to heaven. That’s ridiculous. How can you go to heaven without following the law, being religious, being good, doing good things? Free salvation, this amazing grace, will lead to spiritual anarchy!
Which leads us close to our passage today…
I’ll pick up the reading in Romans 6:15 and we’ll end at Romans 6:23. Remember, the clip from John Piper is only talking about the last couple verses, but now we’ve got some context.
“What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.
For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:15–23)
You’ve got to love John Piper’s passion – and his illustrations – and so many quotable quotes!
“Satan is a liar – he even lies about his lies. … Oh how we should hate him. Oh how free you should want to be right now from this slave-master’s clutches on your lives so that you’re not a dupe and a lacky day in and day out like most people seem to be.”John Piper
As far as an application goes I can only share my own personal reflection and how this impacted me.
I think it’s easy to become friends with sin, to think it’s not that big of a deal, to keep a few favourite sins as pets. To make an agreement with the devil that you’ll keep on doing these things that kill your soul – if he’d just leave you alone.
I know that’s been my temptation. My last few years have been pretty brutal. I’ve felt pain and misery in every arena of my life, except my physical body. It’s almost like when God told Satan to do whatever he wanted to Job, but didn’t allow him to touch his body – except I didn’t remain upright and righteous like Job – but I did get miserable and start to complain like job.
And I could feel the compromise setting in where I’d start to think, “Ok, I know God doesn’t want me to do this, or I know God wants me to do this, but I’m exhausted, hurt, sad, afraid, wiped out – and, like Satan did to Jesus in the wilderness – he offered me an easier way. Just bow the knee a little, just compromise a little, just be a little more selfish, succumb to hopelessness, fear of man, the belief that the immediate comfort from sin is better than sitting patiently at God’s feet, that going through all this stress is a good excuse to avoid bible reading, avoid prayer, avoid worship, avoid thanksgiving, avoid other believers.
And, John Piper her reminds me that not only was I believing lies, but I was becoming Satan’s lacky – and I didn’t even know it. I was doing what Paul said in Romans 1:25 that unbelievers do. I was “exchanging the truth of God for a lie and serving the creature – Satan and myself – rather than the Creator who is blessed forever.”
Even today, as I sit here recording this, I’m still struggling with the motivation to do daily readings, study, journal, pray, listen to worship music. I was talking to a friend the other day and told him that I know for a fact that there’s a lot of stuff twisted up inside me, and it’s like I’m too afraid to sit down and let God unravel it – because in doing so, I’m afraid I’ll unravel completely.
But that too is a lie. It’s a lie to believe that coming to God will be worse than not. It’s a lie to believe that letting the Great Physician do some Soul Surgery will be worse than letting the cancer grow inside me. And those lies come straight from the devil himself.
I wonder if you’ve ever felt the same way – or if you do now. Are you believing lies about God, exchanging God’s truth for the lies of the devil, and becoming Satan’s willing slave, lackey, and dupe – instead of letting Jesus be Lord, friend, and saviour?
Ask yourself this – how would you know? Could it be that you are so deceived that you literally don’t know God’s truth from Satan’s lies? That all the excuses piled up in your brain, the ones that seem so good, and right, and reasonable to you – are actually just demonic traps for fools, keeping you from experiencing actual joy, actual freedom, actual peace, actual contentment, actual healing? Could it be that the food Satan keeps feeding you, the table you keep running to, that you think is so helpful and good – is actually poinsoning you and you don’t even know it?
Maybe it’s time to ask God to tell you the truth, to show you the truth, to invite him to shine light in places where you haven’t let him before, and to open your eyes to the spiritual reality in your life. That takes courage, sacrifice, trust – and it takes humility before God, and before other Christian leaders and friends to which God is going to have you confess your sins and get accountability from.
Do you feel that fear welling up inside? Do you feel that anxiety? Do you feel that anger that says that no one can tell you what to do, that you’re fine, and all the myriad excuses for why you shouldn’t be opening your heart, soul, and mind in that way….. that’s the devil trying to make sure you stay his. Don’t let him. And I won’t either.
Please open up to Luke 5:16. We’re going to concentrate our efforts on one verse today and use it as a jumping-off point for something that I believe is important for us during this difficult time.
Luke 5:16, “But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.”
The NIV translates that “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” The New American Standard Bible says, “But Jesus Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray.”
The question I want to answer today is “Why did Jesus do that?”
The Humanity of Christ
It’s astonishing when you stop to think about it, what Jesus gave up in the incarnation. Jesus, the Son of God, existed before time began, equal to and in perfect relation with the Father. He lived in perfect love, perfect holiness, perfect strength. Omniscient, Omnipotent, Omnipresent. Worshipped by angels, able to create the universe with a thought.
And then, in an act of divine grace and mercy, as John 1:14 puts it, the Son of God “became flesh and dwelt among us.” Literally, the Son of God, “pitched his tent” or “tabernacled” among us. The fullness of God within the confines of a human man. Not to get too technical, but Theologians call this the Hypostatic Union. Jesus Christ, fully human and fully divine, possessing all of the Creators attributes, but also the son of Mary (Gal 4:4-5). He had a human nature that had everything that makes us human, including a human mind, soul, and body. These two natures were perfectly united, without any confusion or division.
He did this to save us because humanity couldn’t save itself. We needed a human representative to stand before the Father, but that representative couldn’t be under the curse of sin. Only a perfect being can stand before God. And so God sent His one and only Son to live a perfect life, and then offer Himself to the Father as the final sacrificial blood offering that the Mosaic Law required. God accepts the death of His Son in exchange for anyone who would believe in Him. And, since Jesus hadn’t sinned, death could not hold him, the grave could not keep him, and He was raised from the dead. As we just read in Acts 2:24, “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.”
It’s really important that we understand the implications of that Hypostatic Union – the perfect divinity and perfect humanity of Jesus. Philippians 2:5–8 says it this way, “…Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
In His “emptying”, Jesus didn’t lose or subtract His divinity, but added humanity to His nature. Jesus chose to be born, to live as a servant, to be in the likeness of men, in human form, obedient to all that meant, obedient to the Father, as limited and frail as any human being.
The Bible records the limitations of his human body many times. He was born (Luke 2:7). He grew up (Luke 2:40, 52). He got tired (John 4:6) and thirsty (John 19:28) and hungry (Matthew 4:2). At times we see him become physically weak (Matthew 4:11; Luke 23:26).
Jesus also had human emotions. “When Jesus heard the centurion’s words of faith, ‘he marveled’ (Matthew 8:10). Matthew 26:38 says that his ‘soul is very sorrowful, even to death.’ In John 11:33–35, Jesus is “deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled,” and even weeps. In John 12:27 Jesus says, “Now is my soul troubled,” and in John 13:21, he is “troubled in his spirit.” The author to the Hebrews writes that “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7).” 
Jesus had a human mind. In Luke 2:52 it tells us that as Jesus grew up into adulthood he, “increased in wisdom and in stature”. At times we see Jesus’ showing a limitation in what he knows, but other times demonstrates supernatural knowledge – but that connected to His spirit rather than his mind.
One way that we see Jesus’ incarnation in action is that when He performs a miracle or does something supernatural, we often read that He did it “by the Spirit of God” (Matt 12:28, Mk 2:8, Luke 4:1 ). This means that part of the limitation Jesus put on Himself would be that He wouldn’t manifest His own power by Himself, but that, like any other human, would be utterly dependant on the Spirit of God, and a connection to His Father. As our perfect example, Jesus knew that He needed to demonstrate how humanity, His followers, was meant to function. And that meant that His power didn’t come from Himself, but from His connection to the Father through the Spirit of God.
This is why, at the beginning of His ministry Jesus reads Isaiah 61:1, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor; He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…” (Luke 4:18) This is why we read in Acts 10:38 that… “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” This isn’t a statement saying that Jesus was some regular, sinful guy that God gave special powers to… it is a declaration that, while Jesus was fully divine, He chose to require that which humans require – the anointing and blessing of God for the power to do good, face evil, share the gospel, and walk with God.
Now, why am I tell you all this? Because it’s critical that you see that Jesus was fully human before we get to our passage today. Why? Because you’re human too.
There’s a passage I think a lot about these days. It’s from Mark 12:28–32, and you can turn there if you like.
It says, “And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” …”
The description of holistic spirituality is captured in this very short verse, which is a quote from God in Deuteronomy 6:5. The first and most important law for humanity, the only way we can experience eternal life, is to love God with everything we are and to show that love to others. I would argue – and I think most pastors, theologians, and counselors would agree with me – that one comes before the other. We must love the Lord and experience His love before we will be able to love our neighbour.
But look at how it’s divided: Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength. I think those divisions are so critical for us to meditate on. Humans aren’t merely bodies. I don’t care how atheistic or naturalistic you are, you cannot deny that humanity is merely a mechanized concoction of chemicals and matter. You know, inherently, that humans are more than just meat creatures.
In the beginning, when God created humanity, He made us special. He made us in His image. He created our physical bodies, but that’s not all. In order to be God’s image in this world, to be His people, able to be intimately, relationally connected to Him, we needed to be more than merely physical. We needed to be a union of body, intellect, emotion, and spirit.
And so God imbued this physical body with a heart, or emotions, desires, affections. He gave us a soul, or psyche, or consciousness, our being, what makes us unique individuals. And He gave us a mind, or intellect, intelligence. It is the fusion of these four things – heart, soul, mind, and strength that makes a person.
We just covered how these divisions were represented in Christ. And it is in turning all of these areas of our lives over to God that we will experience what it means to be truly human, to know real love, to be able to do good, face evil, share the gospel, and walk with God.
With all this as our background, I want to turn back to our verse today, Luke 5:16. Let’s read it in context starting in verse 12, “While he was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy. And when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged him, ‘Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.’ And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I will; be clean.’ And immediately the leprosy left him. And he charged him to tell no one, but ‘go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to them.’ But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities. But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.”
This was a bit of a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. We read in 4:40 that Jesus would sometimes already stay up all night teaching and healing people, and that He was already growing in popularity as he went from synagogue to synagogue, but after this event, His popularity skyrocketed.
He commanded the leper not to tell anyone because He wanted to avoid crowds of people who would come for physical healing but wouldn’t care about listening to the Gospel message about all that healing symbolized. Throngs of sick and demon-possessed that would come just for a miracle – and then walk away without turning to Jesus as Lord – would lose out on the reason Jesus came in the first place. He didn’t come to merely heal bodies, but to make a way for us to get back into a right relationship with God.
So Jesus tells this man to do what Moses commands but to keep it quiet. The man disobeys – maybe wanting to help Jesus by spreading the news – and all it does is make things more complicated for Jesus and His disciples. Now, instead of Jesus having the freedom to come into towns and preach in synagogues, verse 15 says that the news about Jesus’ power spread like wildfire and huge crowds would gather every time they heard Jesus was around. This is why we read about Jesus, running away, escaping, and taking off on boats and stuff.
What I want to zoom in on right now is Jesus’ response to this newfound stress and opportunity.
Let’s consider ourselves in that position, which shouldn’t be much of a stretch. You’ve got a life going. You’re doing pretty well. Things are going along pretty steadily, with only an occasional blip of frustration or difficulty, but you’re generally able to do what you need to do every day.
Then something happens. Whether it’s a great success or a great failure, a new opportunity or a huge catastrophe, something changes. Maybe it’s a new job, maybe it’s the loss of one. Maybe you come into some money, maybe you or someone you love gets cancer. Maybe it’s becoming part of a new social group, or maybe it’s a global pandemic. Whatever the case, something lobs a grenade into your life and things change.
New stress, new decisions, new fears and worries, new challenges, new relationships, new costs – all growing beyond your capacity to understand and navigate.
Heart, soul, mind, and strength are all getting tapped. Your emotions are becoming frayed, out of control anger, deep valleys of depression, anxiety starting to drive your decisions.
Your mind is running out of resources. There’s too much data to process, too many opinions and ideas to sift through. You have to remember too many things all at once. Now you’re starting to forget things, to push away new ideas, overusing entertainment because you just don’t want to think anymore.
Your body is getting tired. Stress hormones are causing you to have headaches, your joints are sore, your stomach hurts, you can’t sleep and can’t wake up. Starving yourself has made you weaker, and your comfort foods are making you lethargic.
And your spirit is wearing thin. You’re wracked with self-doubt, regrets from the past, fear of the future. You’re having an identity crisis as you try to figure out who you are in all this. All your bad habits have started to show and you feel guilt and shame. You are stretched beyond your giftings and are starting to drop the ball on important stuff. You don’t show kindness like you used to. You don’t want to be generous anymore because you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t feel peace like you used to because so many things have been dropped in your lap.
What do you do? What do people usually do?
In truth, they usually blow up their lives. How many people do you know, personally, who went through a time of stress – loss of a loved one, financial crisis, personal sickness, a sudden move, a new career – who seemed like they were doing ok for a while, but then a huge part of their life exploded?
Out of nowhere, they cheat on their spouse.
Out of nowhere, they get caught doing something illegal.
Out of nowhere, they crash their car while drunk driving or end up overdosing and in drug-rehab.
Out of nowhere, they get divorced.
Out of nowhere, you find them covered in scars from self-harm.
Out of nowhere, they lose our gain a huge amount of weight.
Out of nowhere, they drop out of all of their hobbies, interests, teams, stop answering their phone, and go dark online.
Out of nowhere, you find that they’re suddenly interested in weird conspiracy stuff, cults, extremist groups.
That wasn’t “out of nowhere”. This is a person who was stretched beyond the capacity of their heart, soul, mind, and strength – and was stretched so far that something snapped. Maybe you’ve felt it. Maybe you’ve had something snap in you – or someone you know snapped.
It’s all too common and I know more than a few stories. I’m sure you do too. This huge thing didn’t come “out of nowhere” – it was something that built and built and built, and then that sudden change became the catalyst for their life blowing up.
I don’t want that for you. “Oh, it can’t happen to me!” I hear you say. I can introduce you to at least half-a-dozen people who thought the same thing. 1 Peter 5:8, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” Ephesians 4: 27 says, “’In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” (NIV)
The devil, your adversary, is prowling around waiting for you to get tired, weak, to do something stupid. Like an expert climber, he’s looking for that little foothold, that little crack, that opportunity, to grab hold of part of your life… because once he gets into that little crack he can start to wedge in deeper and deeper.
How do we keep from that? How did Jesus keep from that? He had the same weaknesses we do but never sinned, never gave the devil the foothold, never succumbed. The Bible says He was tempted in every way possible (Heb 4:15), that Satan literally got in Jesus’ face on multiple occasions. But He stood firm. How?
Look back at today’s verse, Luke 5:16, “But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.” That’s how. Over and over in the gospels, we see Jesus run away, retreat, sneak away, to make time to pray. He prayed when he was baptized (3:21), prayed when things got busy (5:16), prayed when he was confronted (Mt 11:25-26), prayed before choosing the disciples (6:12), prayed before he walked on water (Mt 14:23), prayed when he was transfigured (9:29), and prayed on the cross (23:46).
The answer to the question, “How did the fully human man, Jesus Christ, not utterly crumble under the weight of His mission, the disappointment of his followers, the ignorance of the crowds, the brutality of his enemies, and the scope of the plan that would become the pinnacle and fulcrum of history and eternity?” is “he would withdraw to desolate places and pray”. The verb tense in this sentence emphasizes that this was Jesus’ regular practice – which is why some translations put the word “often” in there. Jesus would “often withdraw” to pray.
So I ask you today this simple, yet critical question: “Do you think you are stronger than Jesus?” I know, that’s a brutal, heavy-handed question, but just sit in it for a second.
“If Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in whom the Holy Spirit dwelt in power and perfection – absolutely needed to get away and pray – then don’t you think you do to?” The answer is of course, “Yes, you do.” You are nowhere near as spiritually, emotionally, and mentally strong as Jesus Christ – and yet, even in the middle of work, in the morning, at night, before and after big and small events – took off to pray. Shouldn’t you?
Let me read Mark 1:35-37. After a long night of healing, casting out demons, preaching, folks finally start to go home. What does Jesus do? He gets a little sleep and then takes off. Mark 1:35–37: “And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, and they found him and said to him, ‘Everyone is looking for you.’”
I wonder how many times that scene played out during Jesus’ earthly ministry. How many times did the disciples turn around and Jesus just wasn’t there? How many times did they wake up in the morning and have to go find Jesus? How many times were throngs of expectant crowds disappointed because Jesus had completely taken off on them? How many people, expecting to be healed, came to where Jesus was, but He had already snuck away and was now miles from where they were? I bet it was often.
Let’s break this sentence down a bit and really dig into it because I think it’s critical we see what Jesus did.
I think the three most important words are “withdraw”, “desolate” and “pray”. That’s our formula. How do we keep our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, focused on God? How do we ensure that the Holy Spirit has full reign in our hearts, that God has full reign over our souls, that we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16), and give proper, God-given Sabbath rest to our bodies?
We need to “often withdraw”. The word there can also be translated “slip away”. Escape. It means that we leave work on the table. It means we leave people hanging. It means we let the calls go to voicemail. It means we leave the chores undone. It means we don’t watch the show with everyone. It means we won’t be able to accomplish everything on our lists because we have run away to occupy our time with greater things.
This goes against a lot of people’s natural instincts. Most of us feel like we’re letting God down if we aren’t always available to people, or if we don’t finish our daily list. It’s not true. What “lets God down” is when we make ourselves available to people, get our daily list done, but at no point in that day spent any time with Him. It’s not that we’re really “letting God down” though… He doesn’t need us… but He desires us.
He doesn’t want your list of things to do. He doesn’t want your religious activity. He doesn’t want you for your job, your hobby, your social platform, your skills, your abilities, talents, your ideas. He wants you.
He’s a good father that wants to spend time with His kids. Think of it this way: How do you know someone is your friend? Is it when they give you something? No. That’s charity. Is it when they do some work for you? Not really. Is it when they talk about you when you’re not there? Is it when they sit down and read your biography? No.
How do you know they’re your friend? Because they want to spend time with you and do it as often as they can. That’s what God wants. And more than that, it’s what humans need. We are not designed to do anything for a long time. God built physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual limitations in us so we might realize our need for Him.
That’s the first one – you need to “withdraw” – and the second is that you need to go to “desolate places”. The word there is for wilderness, deserts, open pastures, secluded spots. Remember how Jesus taught us to pray, right? Matthew 6:6, “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
How do you know someone is your friend? Because they want to spend time with you. How do you know that they are a close friend, a best friend, or even closer? Because you want to spend more and more time with them alone. If you want an intimate relationship with God, a deep relationship with Jesus, a strong connection to the Holy Spirit – it happens when you are alone and free from distractions.
I don’t need to tell you how to get alone. You know your own life. What I’m trying to say is that if you neglect withdrawing to be alone with God, you are doing harm to your heart, soul, mind, and strength. You are setting yourself up for failure. You are lighting the fuse, however long it is, that leads to you blowing up your life – and hurting yourself and others. You need God’s voice, God’s presence, and God isn’t loud – it’s quiet, soft, and can best be heard when you are alone, quiet, and open.
Let me close with this: You need God. Just as Jesus needed a consistent connection to the Father, so do you. But it won’t just happen. You will never find the time. You must make the time. You must run away from things, escape from things, say no to things, drop out of things, disappoint people, delete the app, unplug the tv or computer, let go of your need for accomplishment, and stop finding your value in how much work you can do.
That is the only way you are going to be able to connect to God. And it’s urgent. It’s a huge deal. The devil is prowling and you are not equipped to resist Him if you are not connected to God. The devil has a foothold in your life and you are not wise enough to see it if you aren’t hearing the voice of God. The enemy wants to cripple your heart, soul, mind, and strength – and he will succeed if you do not “withdraw to desolate places and pray”.
A Living and Active Word
Most of you know the passages I read at the beginning of service – the Call to Worship and the weekly Scripture Reading – are chosen long before I read them on Sunday mornings. Around the beginning of December each year I usually take a day to sit down with what’s called a “Lectionary of Daily Readings” – which itself was written a long time ago and is based on a Liturgical calendar from centuries ago – and I go through and read and choose each of the Sunday passages for the year.
I do this from a Lectionary mostly because it is designed to give an overview of Christian theology and important passages throughout the year – and there’s no way I would be able to come up with something better than they would. The difficult part is that each Sunday actually has 4 readings – one from the Psalms, one from the New Testament Letters, one from the Gospels, and another passage chosen based on what day of the Liturgical calendar it is.
For example, today is the “Sixth Sunday of Easter”, of “Year A” in the 3-year rotation, and the readings are from Acts 17, Psalm 66, 1 Peter 3, and John 14. But since the tradition at our church is to have only two scripture readings, I try to rotate between the bunch so our church gets a balanced diet of Old, New, Psalm, and Letters.
But what amazes me almost every week is that even though these passages are chosen long ago, and based on calendars from even longer ago – they are so often exactly what our church needs to hear that day.
God, in His wisdom and grace, has given us a book where the words don’t just stay on the page, but is (as Hebrews 4:12 says) “the word of God… living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
The Bible isn’t merely a book. It is the main and usual means by which God speaks to us today, by His Holy Spirit making the words of the Bible come alive to us, speaking exactly what we need to hear, like God was writing specifically to us. All we need to do us submit ourselves to reading it, humbling ourselves before it, and being open to what God wants to say – and then listen to what God says when He does speak!
Sometimes He speaks messages of encouragement, other times conviction – but His Word and His Spirit work together in a humble heart to tell us exactly what we need to hear.
When Suffering Comes
Turn with me to 2 Timothy 3:10 and listen to the words of Paul to his protégé Timothy. These are the words of an older servant of God who is in prison, facing his final days on earth, preparing to be sentenced to death at any moment for the sake of the gospel. And listen to what He says to Timothy:
“You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me.”
Young Timothy’s job was to try to combat the false teachers who had taken over some of the churches that he and Paul had been planting. But Timothy was a very different person than Paul. Timothy was younger, meeker, more tender-hearted. Paul was a rock – Timothy was more easily bruised. Not that Timothy wasn’t courageous and wise – he was just younger. But he’s been following Paul’s example – obeying Jesus, stepping up to speak and serve as a pastor to the church in Ephesus – and then suffering just like Paul did, just like Jesus did. And Paul says, “You’ve been following in my footsteps – and those footsteps often lead to suffering.”
And he continues in verse 12,
“Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.”
“This is the usual way of things, Timothy.” Jesus promised that everyone who tries to live like Him will face what He faced – difficult times, persecution, evil people, fake people, and liars. Obedient Christianity is not an easy road. Paul knew this. Timothy knew this.
But now, Timothy was all alone. Paul was locked up in a Roman prison hundreds of miles away. Timothy couldn’t just hide behind Paul whenever he had a problem. He couldn’t ask Paul whenever there was a tough question. When the fake people, the deceivers were spreading rumours and lies about him, and Paul, and Jesus, and God, and how salvation worked, and were successfully convincing good Christians to do wrong things, He couldn’t just get Paul to refute them. Timothy was alone.
And so Paul, who himself was very lonely in his prison cell, wrote to tell Timothy what to do.
And I think that’s where a parallel comes in for us today, right? A lot of you who are listening to me right now are alone. Either you are alone because there’s no one around you – or you are alone in your faith because you’re the only believer in your family – or you’re alone because God has called you to do something difficult that people don’t really understand – or you’re alone because your work has forced you to live behind walls, barriers, masks, and gloves – or maybe you are surrounded by family, but you feel alone because there is tension in the house, arguing and hurt feelings, and you find yourself sitting by yourself a lot.
Loneliness is a huge issue right now. Despite the bit of good news recently about reopening a few places, we’re still under “social isolation” rules and many people are feeling a “wave of loneliness” hitting them as COVID-19 continues to be a present reality. I don’t need to recount all the things that have been going on because you know them – but I’m sure it won’t surprise you that the mental health crisis we were already having has only gotten worse. Depression, anxiety, addiction, abuse, panic attacks, suicides, are on the rise. Things weren’t great before and they’re worse now.
In our church, I’m amazed at how well folks are holding up. If my numbers are correct, about half of our church has lost their jobs, and most are negatively financially impacted by what’s going on – and yet, when we talk, even though there are concerns and some discouragement, I mostly hear stories full of positivity, hope, and faith.
But we’re not immune to the effects of this pandemic, are we? We’re not immune to loneliness, isolation, stress, and fear. I don’t want to speak for you, but I wonder if a lot of us feel like Timothy might have. We have faith. We know God has the big-picture under control. We’re not worried about our souls because Jesus is our gracious Saviour. But moment to moment, hour to hour, day to day, we are presented with questions we don’t have answers to, people that frustrate us, fears that we can’t shake, and moments of discouragement.
Maybe it’s right after we watch the news or see some article go by on social media. Maybe it’s after a conversation with someone that didn’t go the way you thought it would. Maybe it’s when you’re standing in the grocery store surrounded by people in masks and visors and surgical gloves, where you’re thinking about every single little thing you’re touching and reminding yourself not to touch your face – and the anxiety rises. Maybe it’s when you get to the till and you wonder if there’s enough money in the bank, or for how long the money will last. Maybe it’s the quiet moments, right after you turn off the tv or the tablet, right before you go to sleep, that things start to sink in, the worries creep in, the guilt, the bitterness, the anger…
Christians aren’t immune. Timothy was a wonderful man of God, trained by the greatest missionary ever, given charge over what was, at the time, the most important missionary church in the world – but Timothy wasn’t immune to the fears, stresses, and the emotional toll.
Keep in mind that the emperor at the time was Nero, one of the most terrible people in history! We might complain that the government is being unfair to churches now, but Nero was literally feeding Christians to the lions, and lighting Christians on fire, for entertainment. That’s the environment Timothy was in.
Stay In The Word
So what does Paul say to Timothy? Paul is writing what he thinks could be the last letter he will ever write, to someone he deeply loves. What does the greatest missionary of all time, the author of the letters of the New Testament, the man who had unparalleled revelations from God, who perhaps suffered more for the gospel than any other person ever – what does Paul write in the final paragraphs of his final letter to this stressed out young man who feels the weight of the world on his shoulders?
Look at verse 14:
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
What does Paul say? Stay in the Word of God. Root yourself in the Bible. Eat, sleep and breathe the scriptures.
Timothy was raised by a Christian mother and grandmother and grew up in the faith. He’s been hearing bible stories and reading the prophets since he was little. Today, we would say that Timothy went to Sunday School, went to Youth Group, went to AWANA, took catechism, grew up in church, had active Christian role-models. The Bible, which we would call the Old Testament, was a huge part of Timothy’s Christian upbringing.
And then, when God told Paul to mentor Timothy and take him on his journeys, his family and his church laid hands on him, prayed over him, and commissioned him for ministry. Then, as the Apostles wrote more scriptures, and they were being copied and sent around, Timothy would have been part of collecting them and keeping them. He would likely have copies of the gospel of Luke and Acts, the book of James, and Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, Corinthians, and even Romans – and of course the two personal letters to himself.
When Timothy got stressed out, confused, overwhelmed, tired, sick, afraid, and attacked – what did Paul say to do? Turn to the scriptures. Read. Pray. Listen to God’s Spirit speak to you directly through the words of the Proverbs, Psalms, Prophets, the Law, and the Apostles. He told Timothy – when the difficulties come – remember what you already know, what you’ve already learned, the parts you’ve memorized and studied, all of the scriptures you’ve hidden in your heart, all the stories your grandma told you, all the songs your mother sang to you, all the stories about Jesus you’ve heard and read – bring them all to mind, Timothy!
Timothy, your faith in Jesus Christ is fed and fueled by your attention to and humility before the Word of God. They’ll connect you to Jesus Christ, increase your faith, remind you of your hope and salvation, and make you wise.
Do you need to connect to the Spirit of God? The scriptures were breathed out by Him. They have the power and presence of God in them.
Do you feel inadequate to interpret these times, confused by the slick false-teachers and need some instruction? Do you feel confused about the big questions of life, meaning, eternity… the scriptures are a spring of knowledge that will never run dry.
Do you sense that you are being lied to or that you believe lies? Do you feel like the darkness is starting to seep into your soul? The scriptures only tell the truth and are valuable for reproof, or rebuking, bringing light and clarity to and light in the darkness of this world.
Do you wonder if you’re going the right way? Wonder what needs to change in your life? Do you see someone in sin and not know what to do? The Scriptures are the best way you can correct yourself or someone else. They present the straight and narrow path, show you the walls on either side, and is the compass that will guide you to true north.
You don’t need to have the right words to say when you see someone in trouble – the Bible has them. You don’t need to wonder about your life plan – the scripture will tell you. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – 95% of what humans spend so much time trying to figure out, the most important things every human wants to know, has already been answered in the Bible! The Word of God will train you up, show you the right way, help you grow in maturity, and give you the equipment you need to do good in this world.
One of my commentaries says it this way,
“If Timothy would nurture his spiritual life in the Scriptures that he would use in his ministry, he would be fully qualified and prepared to undertake whatever tasks God put before him. What a tragedy for any Christian to be labelled as spiritually unprepared for a task when the means of instruction and preparation are readily at hand!”
I’ve always felt a sense of kinship with Timothy. I also grew up in the church. I’ve been a Christian for as long as I can remember. I have more bible stories, hymns, songs, and sermons in my brain than almost anything else. I’ve served in some form of ministry since I was asked to be a puppeteer in the Sunday School at age 13.
When I was called into ministry, I really connected with Timothy. He was a young pastor, stretched way beyond his comfort zone, taken far from his home and comforts, and dropped into a difficult church with no idea what to do. That was me in my first and second churches!
People stopped telling me how “young I am for being a pastor” about 5 years ago, but it hasn’t been that long since I felt like I was living a very Timothy-esque life. That often meant not knowing what to do, what to say, or how to help. It meant many hours of loneliness, heartache, fear, and confusion as people within the church lied to, betrayed, and hurt me and my family. There were some wonderful, beautiful times, and some amazing people too – but it also meant shedding a lot of tears.
And when I did, I would read Paul’s letters to Timothy and know that they were also God’s letters to me. Jesus spoke to me through them. When I turned to scripture, Jesus would comfort me, teach me, correct me, train me, and equip me for what I needed to do. Often hymns and scripture songs would come to my mind that I sung during church, Sunday School, or one of the Bible programs or VBS’s I went to. And they would be like a healing balm to my soul. A personal message from God, like He was singing to me personally.
I’m so glad I grew up in church and I know that some of you have had the same experiences. I’m so thankful for the Sunday School teachers I had, the AWANA leaders, the people that ran the Vacation Bible Schools, the pastors and song leaders that put the time in day after day, week after week, trying to get some little bit of light, some nugget of truth, some bit of Godly wisdom, drilling bible verses into my thick, distracted, little skull. Because those little bits of light were what God used to bring me out of some very dark times.
Sometimes, even as a pastor, I didn’t feel like reading my Bible. I got down, felt hurt, felt like God tricked me into taking a job that only made my life miserable. And I didn’t want to talk to God. I didn’t want to read something else about perseverance, or patience, or because I wanted to quit.
And in those moments, so very often, a bible song would come to my mind, an old hymn that was rich in scripture. And it wouldn’t be convicting or challenging or harsh. God didn’t send a criticism or some spur to kick me into gear. He sent me light, comfort, joy.
♫“For I am convinced, that neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers. Nor life, nor death, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” ♫
That’s Romans 8:38-30.
♫ “My God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do. My God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do. The mountains are His, the valleys are His, the stars are his handiwork too. My God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do.” ♫
That’s basically Psalm 8, 66, 147, and Isaiah 40 all wrapped up into one verse.
My message today has one point – stay in God’s word. Keep reading in 2 Timothy and you’ll see why I preach how I do.
But the Bible isn’t just for preachers. It’s not just for missionaries, teachers, and youth workers. The Bible was written in a common language, for common people, to bring everyone to God. It is not merely for studying and arguing about.
I can’t tell you how special it was when I went from studying God’s word, memorizing it, learning about it like a textbook – to reading it like it is God’s personal letter to me. When I finally realized that the “living and active” word of God wasn’t just big ideas and grandiose concepts meant to guide our lives – but that if I listened, if I asked, if I prayed, that God would actually talk to me, individually, through His Holy Spirit making the word come alive and speak to me about exactly what I’m going through, showing me something about God or myself or the world that I needed to see that day.
And that’s true for everyone. God still speaks through His Spirit and His Word today, to anyone who is willing to humble themselves and listen.
Now of course, I have to give the warning that not everything you think is correct, right? Like, that old joke where the man was desperate to know the will of God so he decided he would open up the bible to a random page and whatever it said he would do. So he opened up to Matthew 27:5 and it said, “Judas hanged himself.” Startled, the man quickly closed the bible and reopened it with his finger landing on Luke 10:37, “Go and do likewise”. Now, a lot more worried, the man tried one more time, with his finger landing on John 13:27, “What you are about to do, do quickly!”
You know that’s not how it works, right? You know you need context, study, meditation, to tell others what you think God is saying, and to get guidance from Christian friends, elders and pastors.
So what am I saying? I’m saying that during a time like we are having now. When loneliness, anxiety, worry, and stress, are starting max out, take over, become their own epidemic – that it’s critical that you commit yourself to reading the Bible, singing the Bible, sharing the Bible, posting the Bible on your fridge and phone and computer.
But most of all, when you get alone with God, when you’ve made the time to read His Word – to read with anticipation that God is present and willing to speak! To read knowing and trusting that if you have given your life to God, if you are saved by Jesus Christ, if you are a Christian, that God’s Holy Spirit will speak to you through His Word.
To come to His Word the way you come for your first meal of the day – hungry and expecting it to feed your soul, fill you up, energize you for the day, and keep you alive – knowing that if you don’t get it in you, if you starve yourself, you are going to be weak and unable to function. Come to God’s Word anticipating, expecting, longing for it to feed your soul for the day.
 Lea, T. D., & Griffin, H. P. (1992). 1, 2 Timothy, Titus (Vol. 34, pp. 237–238). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
Imagine following in the footsteps of Moses – how huge a task that would be. Moses is probably the most important person in the Old Testament. It was through Moses that the nation of Israel was delivered from Egypt. It was Moses that led and judged the people for decades. It was Moses that climbed Mount Sinai to meet with God, and Moses who shone with the Shekinah glory, terrifying the people by his closeness to God. It through Moses that God gave Israel the Law, the Priesthood, the Tabernacle, and the Pentateuch. He wrote Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and most of Deuteronomy.
Just for a moment, turn back a page to Deuteronomy 34:10–12,
“And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders that the LORD sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, and for all the mighty power and all the great deeds of terror that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.”
Those are big shoes to fill. Now, turn back to the first lines of the book of Joshua:
“After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, the LORD said to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, ‘Moses my servant is dead. Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the people of Israel. Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, just as I promised to Moses. From the wilderness and this Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites to the Great Sea toward the going down of the sun shall be your territory.”
Now there’s a big job, right? It’s no understatement to say that the people of Israel are a tough group to try to lead – and now Joshua not only has to deal with the daily problems of the nation but actually lead them in countless battles to conquer the entire Promised Land.
And Joshua has seen how this goes. He’s been Moses’ right-hand man since they left Egypt. He was there as Moses ascended Mount Sinai, and he saw Israel worshipping the Golden Calf when they came down. Joshua was one of the twelve spies Moses sent to explore the Promised Land and knew how strong the armies and how fortified the cities were. He watched as the courage of Israel fell, was there as they turned on Moses and Aaron, and saw the heartbreak in Moses’ face as the people lost faith in God. He saw that over and over. God makes a promise, the people break faith almost instantly, they blame or even try to kill the leader, and the nation suffers. I can’t imagine how trepidatious he must have been when Moses laid his hands on him, telling him he would be the next leader of Israel – and how difficult it must have been to see Moses die.
Tough for Everyone
What Joshua was feeling is something that all Christians can relate to. Like Israel and Joshua, someone enters our life to tell us God’s plan of deliverance, we then experience God’s power-saving us from our slavery to sin, and then we enter a new reality where we now live in relationship with God. And in that new reality, we are sometimes like Israel – rebellious, short-sighted, faithless, foolish – but eventually, we come around to God’s plan. And we are sometimes like Joshua – blessed to have a mentor who is close to God, get commissioned for some kind of ministry, and are released to go forth to win victories in God’s name.
But all along the way, like both Israel and Joshua, even though we have experienced God’s promise and power, it often seems unnecessarily difficult. People let us down – or we let ourselves down. The enemy sends temptations and lies that we fall for. We face a challenge – or series of challenges that look so daunting that we wonder how we could ever go through them. Whether it’s the ministry God has given you, the struggles of raising a family, or just your own, individual troubles, I’m sure you know how Joshua might have felt.
And I’m sure you wonder, as I have, just as Joshua and Israel did as they stood on the edge of the Jordan looking out over land full of enemies – how am I going to get through this? Have you asked that question? That’s not a question that God is unprepared for. God knows what’s going on in your heart, just as He knew what was going on in Joshua’s. God knew Joshua needed a message of hope and strength beyond himself, and so God, in His grace, gave him the recipe for success. And I believe it’s the same recipe for us today. It’s the same recipe I’ve been introducing for the past couple weeks as we’ve been covering the ascension of Christ.
I’ve been holding off going through the actual questions of the Heidelberg because I wanted to do some introductory stuff, but I think now’s the time to bring them in because, if you’ve been following the last two sermons they’ll make a lot more sense.
So, question 46 is,
“What do you confess when you say, he ascended into heaven?”
and the answer is,
“That Christ, before the eyes of his disciples, was taken up from the earth into heaven, and that he is there for our benefit until he comes again to judge the living and the dead.”
We’ve already covered a lot of that. Jesus, in His resurrected body, ascended into Heaven in view of many witnesses, is there “for our benefit”, and will come back again.
Question 47 comes next saying,
“Is Christ, then, not with us until the end of the world, as he has promised us?”
And the answer is,
“Christ is true man and true God. With respect to his human nature he is no longer on earth, but with respect to his divinity, majesty, grace, and Spirit he is never absent from us.”
That’s what we covered last week, right? Jesus is in heaven, but within the mystery of the Trinity, because of the Holy Spirit, He is also with us.
Brief Excurses: The Hypostatic Union
Question 48 follows up with a technical question,
“But are the two natures in Christ not separated from each other if his human nature is not present wherever his divinity is?”
In other words, if Jesus has a human body in heaven, isn’t it impossible for him to be two places, or a million places, all at once? The answer given here is,
“Not at all, for his divinity has no limits and is present everywhere. So it must follow that his divinity is indeed beyond the human nature which he has taken on and nevertheless is within this human nature and remains personally united with it.”
If you’ve been around me for the past couple weeks you know I’ve been dropping the term “hypostatic union” into conversations lately. That’s what this is all about. “Hypostatic union” is the complex term for how theologians describe that Jesus can have two natures at the same time – fully God and fully man. It’s not that we can really understand it, but that we accept it because it’s what the scripture teaches.
Keep your thumb in Joshua, but turn with me to Hebrews 1:1-4 which begins by explaining the hypostatic union saying, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”
That term, “nature” is the Greek word HUPOSTASIS, where we get Hypostatic. Jesus, the man, has the same, exact nature as God. Jesus was born fully human, died a human death, had a bodily resurrection, and still has that resurrected, glorified body right now – the same kind of body we will get when Jesus comes back. His humanity takes nothing away from His godliness – meaning in adding flesh He never subtracted from His Godliness. And His godliness takes nothing away from His humanity – meaning that His life, temptations, pain, and death were the same as any human faces. One creed says it this way: that Jesus’ two natures are perfectly unified “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation”.Hence the term: Hypostatic Union. This is a critical part of understanding who Jesus is.
Three Benefits of Christ’s Ascension
But now we come to question 49, which is the kind of question we’ve seen all along,
“How does Christ’s ascension into heaven benefit us?”
In other words, “So what?” Ok, so Jesus ascended into heaven and a bunch of stuffy theologians come up with a weird, complex term to explain something nobody really understands. So what?
Well, the answer is what we’ve been talking about for the past few weeks. It says that the reason Jesus’ ascension is a benefit to us is that,
“First, he is our Advocate in heaven before his Father. Second, we have our flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that he, our Head, will also take us, his members, up to himself. Third, he sends us his Spirit as a counter-pledge, by whose power we seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God, and not the things that are on earth.”
So first, it says that Jesus is our Advocate before the Father. If you recall, I’ve brought up the image of Jesus as a lawyer a few times lately. That’s what an advocate is. Jesus, as our Advocate defends us before the Judge of the universe (Romans 8:34; 1 John 2:1). If it were not for Jesus as our Advocate, we could never approach God – not even in prayer.
Listen to 1 John 2:1,
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”
When you blow it as a Christian, who stands up for you? Jesus does.
Listen to Romans 8:34,
“Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.”
When Satan accuses you, shames you, makes you feel guilty, and says you deserve condemnation, who supports you, advocates for you, defends you, and stands with you between Satan and God? Jesus does.
If your still in Hebrews, turn to Hebrews 4:14–16,
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
When you are afraid, tempted, weak, in need, who makes it so you can come near to the throne of God and receive the grace you need? Jesus, the Son of God. The One who can sympathize with you, who has compassion on you, because He lived a human life and faced everything you’ve faced, but can also stand before God because He is without sin. If you are a Christian today, one who has asked forgiveness for their sins in the name of Jesus, then Jesus isn’t up there judging you, angry with you, disappointed in you – He’s advocating for you.
The second benefit we’ve already covered a lot, that what happened to Jesus shows what will also happen to all those who follow Him. He died and rose again, so will we. But look at the third benefit of Christ’s ascension: That Jesus “sends us his Spirit as a counter-pledge, by whose power we seek the things that are above…”.
We’ve talked about that a lot too – that Jesus had to leave so the Helper would come (John 16:7) and what I want to close on today is how that works.
Life With/By the Spirit
If Jesus is up there advocating for us and has sent the Holy Spirit to be our Helper, how do we tap into that power? How do we get that help? How do we face all the trials and temptations and pain and battles and disappointments that are going to inevitably come – and do it in a way that we know that God is at work? How do we tap into the supernatural power and promises that God has said He would provide?
This is something I’ve been chewing on for a while now and the answer is far simpler than you might think. And the answer is to live by, or walk with, or keep in step with the Spirit of God. Now, what does that mean?
For that I want you to keep your thumb in Joshua, but turn with me to Galatians 5:16-26. It begins,
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”
There’s the problem, right? Our flesh, our sinful side, our former self, has desires that go against what God wants. Our bodies, which are still affected by sin, still have to deal with addiction, stress, fear, anxiety, depression, hunger, thirst, lust, and all the rest, and it is always pulling us in the wrong direction. Our spirits want to connect to God and live His way – to be kind, patient, self-controlled, joyful, temperate, loving – but our flesh fights against us. It wants to fulfil our desires in bad ways. Our fear fights with our faith. Our depression fights with our desire to worship. Our lusts fight with our desire for purity. Our willpower fails, we lose self-control, and we go for immediate gratification – even if it makes us sick.
So how can we win more battles than we lose? It says in verse 16, by “walking with the spirit”. That answer hasn’t changed for thousands of years. It’s the same answer that God gave Joshua. Look back at what God says to Joshua in 1:5. He was about to face a lot of enemies and was surrounded by a lot of weak, sinful, difficult people. He had his own weaknesses too.
So what was the recipe?
“No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.’”
Over and over God tells Joshua to be “strong and courageous”. In our culture that might sound like God is telling Joshua to “suck it up”, “get tough”, “try hard”, “workout”, “do it right”. But that’s not what it means. God gives Joshua lots of promises. That He will always be with Joshua, that God will secure the victories, God will make sure they get what He promised them, God will make him prosperous and successful.
But how can Joshua make sure that he gets those promises? How can he be strong enough and courageous enough to do what God is calling him to do without blowing it? By walking with, walking by, living by the Word of God. Look at verse 7,
“Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.”
The promises weren’t something Joshua and Israel would gain through their obedience – they were something they would lose by their disobedience. We often get that backwards. We think that if we do good things God will reward us. That’s not how it goes. It’s the opposite. All of God’s promises are already available to His people. The Armor of God, the Fruit of the Spirit, freedom from condemnation, the peace that passes understanding, answers to prayer and spiritual and temporal blessings are all ours already because they are promised to us – and God never breaks His promises. God secured those promises in Jesus Christ. That’s what the Lord’s Supper is about. But… but… God leaves it to us to access those promises. God told Joshua to eat, sleep and breathe His word – to read the Law over and over, to meditate on it, to remember everything that God had said – or Joshua would forget and turn away.
Now, turn back to Galatians 5 and notice how similar it sounds. Joshua wants to know how to conquer the Promised Land. God says, “Walk with me. Do things my way.” We want to know how to escape the works of the flesh, the sinful desires that keep us so messed up, and be able to live by the fruit of the spirit. God says, “Walk with me. Do things my way.”
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.”
Look back at that list in verses 19-21 and take a moment to see yourself in there. I’m sure you’ve asked yourself. How do I get rid of this fleshly desire for sexual immorality? How do I rid myself of all the addictions I run to when I get worried or stressed out? How do I stop being so angry, argumentative, and bitter? How do I get rid of my penchants for superstition? How do I stop being jealous of people? You’ve been a Christian for a while, but these things still plague you. They’re almost automatic – your body seems to jump at the chance whenever it can – almost before you can even decide to. How do you deal with that?
Now, look at the list of the fruit of the Spirit. I’m sure you’ve prayed, “Lord, how do I experience real love? How do I find real peace? How can I become more patient and kind? How do I start doing good things instead of the bad things I keep doing? How do I become gentle? Where do I get some actual self-control, because my willpower just isn’t doing the trick?”
It comes by “walking by the Spirit”. What does that mean? It means the same thing it meant to Joshua. Joshua was told that the victories are already won. Just walk in and take the land. God is with you. God will fight for you. God will make sure it happens.
What did Joshua have to do? Cross the Jordan, walk with God, and remind Himself every single day that God is with Him. I’m sure there were times he said to himself “I don’t have to be terrified. I don’t have to be dismayed. The Lord my God is with me wherever I go. I don’t have to be terrified. I don’t have to be dismayed. The Lord my God is with me wherever I go.”
In the same way, Christians can say, “I don’t have to sin. I don’t have to be discouraged. I don’t have to be afraid. Christ Jesus has crucified my flesh with its passions and desires and I have new life by the Spirit. All I have to do is believe it, ask Jesus for help, and walk where He tells me to go.”
Ordinary Means of Grace
You see, it’s not about trying harder, going through a Bible in a Year program, pulling up your socks, and white-knuckling your way into becoming more patient, kind, self-controlled. It’s about reminding yourself that God has already won those victories in your life and invites you to simply take them. These promises are available – but they do not come to those who do not ask.
In Joshua 7 we see Israel blow it big-time. After the huge success of the fall of Jericho, Joshua and the people of Israel are feeling pretty confident. So confident they forget to ask God what to do next, someone breaks God’s law, and when they head off to their next battle they get utterly wrecked. Why? Because they stopped obeying God’s word and depending on God for their victory.
God was happy to give them victory – right up until they forgot about Him and started thinking that the victory was their own. Right up until someone decided to go against His word and do what they shouldn’t. Then they lost the blessing – until they dealt with the sin. That’s how it goes, and that’s how it always will go. God will give you the victory over that sin you want to kill. He will demonstrate great power in your life – but only if He gets the credit for doing it.
But let’s get practical. How do we walk in step with the Spirit? What does that look like? What did it look like for Joshua and Israel? What did it look like for Moses and Elijah? What did it look like for Peter and Paul? What did it look like for Jesus? Same answer.
Through what Christians have called the ordinary means of grace. If the question is, “How do I, as a believer, get access to all the Grace the Lord wants to give me for all the needs I have? How do I walk in step with the Spirit? How do I find Jesus every day? How do I hear His voice, find His wisdom, feel His presence, get His protection, sense His correction when I’m going wrong, and know His comfort when things are hard?”
The answer is so very simple and has been the same one forever: It is the simple, daily obedience of talking to God in prayer every day, regularly reading and sitting under the teaching of God’s word, participating in the life of the community of believers, and reminding ourselves of what God has done through the ordinances He provided.
That’s how it worked for Israel, for Jesus, for Peter, and how it works for us. Sure, there are special times when God shows up in a unique way, but God isn’t playing a game of “catch me if you can” where we have to go looking for Him. God makes Himself available everyday all day, and is interested in every part of our life, and has given us these ordinary ways to connect with Him regularly. Talking to God every day, sitting under the teaching of God’s Word regularly, participate in a community of believers, and follow the ordinances of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism.
That sounds too simple, too easy – there must be something more complicated that God wants, something that specifically targets my own sin, my own issue, my own fears – some special book or discipline or exercise – but ask yourself how easy is it really?
How hard do you find it to read God’s Word and pray every day? How hard is it to attend church once per week, 52 weeks in a row? How hard is it to fully participate in a worship service? How hard is it to commit yourself to serve in even the most simple ministry? How hard is it to fully participate in the Lord’s Supper with repentance, reverence, and celebration? How hard is it (or was it) to submit to baptism and attend someone else’s? How hard is it to have other Christians over for a meal? Or, how hard is it to ask other Christians to pray for you?
It’s actually very hard, isn’t it? Those ordinary means of grace sometimes feel almost impossible! They should be easy! There are a dozen things we do every day without even breaking a sweat. So why is reading God’s word and praying every day so hard? Why is Sunday morning such a struggle? Because the enemy knows that these simple things, prayer, studying God’s word, and being here together, are the single greatest weapon we have to defeat him.
If the enemy can get you distracted with 1000 good things – but keep you from your devos, you’re an easy target for temptation and lies. If he can get you bitter against just one person at church, and keep you from attending or being able to pay attention – you’re an easy target for temptation and lies – and then he can use you to divide the church and wreck it for everyone.
That’s why Sunday morning is such a battle, why prayer is such a battle, because the ordinary means of grace are so incredibly potent that they can dismantle the works of the enemy in our lives. They are what keep us in step with the Spirit. They are what help us bear fruit in our lives. They are what allow us to hear the voice of God. And they are the ways by which we are able to conquer sin.
My encouragement to you is to commit to these ordinary means so you can walk in the Spirit, walk with Jesus, and let Him destroy those sins and strongholds in your life.
As I said a couple weeks ago, working through all the things that Day 8 of the Heidelberg Catechism wants to go through takes a lot longer than just one week. In fact, we’ve done four sermons on Day 8 and it’s going to take us at least two more weeks to get on to Day 9. What we’re working on right now is a discussion of the Attributes of God, which is an understandably complex topic and makes me very thankful for my commentaries.
Actually, we’ve been learning about this topic for a while now. It all started back at the end of August when I preached a special sermon I entitled “Bible Reading, Prayer, & The Crucible” – which on my computer is actually called “DO your devos” – and was grounded in Psalm 119:9 which said, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word.” That sermon was meant to inspire you to commit to reading, studying and praying through the Word of God more consistently to prepare you for what was to come.
With that groundwork set, I went on vacation for a few weeks hoping your heart would soften as you studied and prayed. When I came back, we had a few special weeks in a row. The first was a sermon about how to prepare for the Lord’s Supper through self-examination, the next was Volunteer Appreciation Sunday, and then came the Thanksgiving Sermon where we explored what it means that “Grace is not amazing until you know the wrath of God.”
I capped off that prep time with a sermon called “Greater Knowledge Leads to Greater Love”, which was about the importance Bible Study and how diligent exploration of God’s Word will deepen your love for and confidence in God.
Did you notice the bookends? In August we started with the bookend of the importance of reading your Bible devotionally and prayerfully, followed by some weeks to practice, the Lord’s Supper to get your heart right, a Thanksgiving message to inspire worship, and then the other bookend about not just reading your Bible, but studying theology to know God better. This was all done purposefully to slowly give you time to prepare for Day 8 of the Heidelberg Catechism.
Just four weeks ago, on October 14th, I ended that final bookend sermon by saying this:
“Next week, and for the next little while, we are going to get into a section of the Heidelberg Catechism that is going to be challenging… and I want you to be prepared for it. I will try to teach it well, but I also need you to prepare yourself for it. I need you to till up the soil of your heart and be ready to listen to whatever God chooses to sow there by praying and asking God to help you learn and understand. I need you to try to appreciate the importance of these subjects and fight against the instinct to let it gloss over you because of its technicality.”
I fear many of you didn’t take my words to heart, nor have many of you heard what I’ve been saying since August. I’m not sure why. I’m not sure what to blame for the disconnect between what I’ve been trying to teach from the Bible and the practical application I’ve been asking you to make in your life. I’m confused and frustrated that what I’ve been saying and repeating for so long has been either lost, ignored, or has missed the mark.
It’s possible that I haven’t explained it well and that the sermons were confusing or boring or poorly written and you didn’t understand what I was asking you to do. If so, I ask your forgiveness. If that’s the case, please let me know so I can try something else, or come to Overtime and ask for clarification.
My Worry: Apostasy
What I’m worried about is that there are people in this church, a church which I believe loves God and His Word very much, are growing distant from Him and don’t notice. I’ve heard reports and had discussions which have told me that many people here are not even doing the very basics of daily Bible reading and prayer. It’s not that I’m frustrated that you aren’t reading systematic theologies or books from the second century. My concern is that there are too many here who neglect prayer and rarely or literally never pick up their Bible.
I worry that you have felt the Holy Spirit convict you about reading, praying, journaling, meditating – but you have repeatedly, over and over, pretended you didn’t hear Him, kept doing what you were doing before, and are now very used to living without being fed by the Word and Spirit of God, that your knowledge has shrunk, your spirit has grown cold, and your conscience has hardened, and you hardly even notice it anymore. You are used to starving your spirit and feeding on the world. You are used to being spiritually sick and the medicine of God’s Word doesn’t taste good to you anymore.
As your pastor that concerns, frustrates, and frightens me. It makes me feel like the author of Hebrews. Turn with me to Hebrews 5:11.
Hebrews, some commentators believe isn’t so much a letter as it is a transcription of a sermon. Here, in Hebrews 5:11 we hear the preacher, right in the middle of explaining some complicated theology about Jesus, pause his whole argument to say to his listeners,
“About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” (Hebrews 5:11–14)
This describes some people here today and in many churches in North America. Not everyone, but some. These are people who have been Christians for a while – years – but through neglect of their souls, neglect of reading, prayer, study, meditation, have become “dull of hearing”. And I’m not just talking to the seniors or older people, I’m talking to the teens too who were born in Christian homes, have been part of a church for well over a decade, and have sat through hundreds of sermons and classes. They “ought to be teachers” by now, but don’t even know “the basic principles… of God.”
This isn’t because you went to a bad church or because you didn’t have access to good study materials. It isn’t because you live in a country where there aren’t any Bibles. It’s not because you didn’t have time to do it or because the persecution made it dangerous to be seen with a Bible or be caught praying. It’s simply neglect. It isn’t a priority for you.
The Cost of Neglect
And that neglect is causing problems. Notice what the cost is of the neglect of your soul in this passage. It says that those who are “unskilled in the word of righteousness” are immature – they remain spiritual babies. Why? They are malnourished. When you are a baby, it is appropriate for you to nurse, to be fed only by your mother’s milk. But some people, year after year, live on nothing but milk – the basic, elementary doctrines of the faith. They never eat meat, never delve into the complexities of a deeper relationship with God.
What would you say if you saw a 10 or 15-year-old boy nursing from their mother’s breast? What if you learned they had never eaten anything else? What would that child look like? Thin, sickly, malnourished. Why? Because their mother’s milk isn’t enough for them to live on anymore. The mother can’t produce enough.
In the same way, a weekly, 30-minute sermon cannot produce all that is necessary for you to have a healthy, growing, vibrant, strong faith. And if this is all the spiritual food you get, then your soul is going to be thin, sickly, and malnourished.
And there is a cost to that. Look back at the verse. A “mature” believer, as in one who is consistently feeding themselves good, complex spiritual food, has “their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”
What does that mean for someone who is immature? It means their “powers of discernment”, meaning their supernatural ability to know right and wrong, truth and lie, will be unpracticed and unable to “distinguish good from evil”.
It’s not even that neglecting the Word and prayer makes you spiritually weak and therefore an easier target for temptation, but that you won’t even see the temptation coming because your judgement is so clouded, your spiritual radar so gummed up, that you aren’t even able to discern the difference between right and wrong!
Jesus Takes This Seriously
Some of you may argue with me saying that of course, you know right and wrong. Some of you will argue that do lots of good things for the church and for other people and therefore how can I say that you are in spiritual danger or are spiritually immature. Some of you will argue that you have gone through a lot lately, are facing a lot of difficulties, and that there are lots of excuses for why you aren’t reading your Bible, praying, meditating or studying.
Keep your thumb in Hebrews 5, but please turn with me over to Revelation 2. If you have a red-letter Bible, you will notice that this section is red because these are the words of Jesus to a big group of believers meeting in the city of Ephesus. Let me read them to you, starting in verse 2.
“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.”
This is a good church, full of people who are patient in suffering, disciplined in their lives, working hard to be biblical in their conduct, and have shown a lot of endurance in their faith. But read verse 4,
“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”
For Jesus to “remove the lampstand” means that they would lose their status as a church and Jesus would treat them like apostates, people who only pretended to be Christians but were in fact, unbelievers. Why would He do this? Because they no longer did things out of love for God, but were just going through the motions of being a good church, and were therefore not really His people. Even though they looked good on the outside their love for Jesus was non-existent. Their private devotional life, their private prayer and study life didn’t happen, and their gathering with each other to serve and share wasn’t motivated by love. That put their church in danger of a serious judgement.
Flip over a page to Revelation 3:1 and let’s read something similar there too, written to the church in the city of Sardis.
“I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.”
Sounds similar, doesn’t it? They look alive, but they are dead. Reminds me of what Jesus said to the Jewish leaders in Matthew 23:27-28 and said,
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”
What makes them hypocrites? What’s wrong with their “works”? That’s a word used in both of these passages. What “works” are those? What made Ephesus’ and Sardis’ works incomplete? Think of 1 Corinthians 13. They lacked love. Their works weren’t done because of love for God or others. They were dead works that just looked spiritual.
The Danger of Apostasy
Please understand that I’m not saying this because I’m angry with you. I’m not saying this to try to make you pay better attention to my sermons. I’m preaching to myself as much as I am to you because I’ve struggled with this too. The enemy works hard to distract us away from Bible reading, study, prayer and meditation, and he’s very good at it.
What I want you to see is that even though I’ve been preaching and preparing you for months, giving you reason after reason, resource after resource, for how you can connect with God more regularly, many of you are in the same spiritual condition that you were before I said anything. Some even worse off.
Yes, as your pastor, I find that frustrating because I wonder what I did wrong or what I could have done better to convince you, but there’s another emotion that is even greater than my frustration – and it’s fear for you. I’m scared for you.
Jesus has some serious warnings in Revelation for people who say they are Christians and do Christiany things but lack personal, private, devoted time in prayer and study. There are threats and promises made by Jesus against those that pretend – and not just the loss of the ability to discern right and wrong. If you’ve lost your thirst for God’s word, you are in real trouble. Sin is crouching at your door, Satan is prowling around you and your family, ready to devour you, but you have no spiritual armour to protect yourself, your family, your church or your neighbourhood. How can a soldier who is starving and weak, untrained and undiscerning defend themselves or anyone else? But more than that! What if your refusal to obey causes you even more harm?
Turn back to Hebrews again, this time to the next part in Hebrews 6:1. Here we read about the dangers of apostasy, the danger of pretending to be a Christian but then falling away from the faith. You are worse off than if you had never known about Jesus, (2 Peter 2:20-22).
After talking about how hard it is to teach immature believers he describes the “milk”, the elementary doctrines or basic principles that all believers should have a good handle on and which he wants to move past. It says,
“Therefore, let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits.”
But listen to why it is so important to move past the “milk” and onto the “solid food”; why it is so important to do the work of personal Bible study, private prayer, and meditation. It is because those who neglect their souls, neglect growing mature in the faith, who remain babies, are in danger of being apostate.
“For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.”
This passage describes those who have heard the gospel but not accepted it, who know about the light of salvation but have never repented from the darkness, who have tasted what heaven is like by being around God’s people and tasted the Lord’s Supper but have never actually become a follower of Jesus, who have even experienced miracles and felt the presence of God by being part of a Christian community but have never invite the Holy Spirit into their lives, who have “tasted the goodness of the word of God” in preaching and applying the wisdom to their lives but only taste little bites – never consuming the whole of God’s word to make it part of them. These people, who experience the corona, who skirt the edges of faith but never repent and commit – once they hit some kind of wall – are in danger of making their hearts so hard towards God that they may instead come to hate Him.
You’ve probably met these people. Who once came to church, sounded like Christians, but now hate God, hate the church, hate Christians. Their familiarity with the faith, which was devoid of a personal relationship with Jesus, actually became the main ingredient that caused them to hate God.
That’s the danger of coming to church, listening to sermons, calling yourself a Christian, but refusing to submit to God’s call to repentance from your sin and commitment to Bible reading, study, meditation and prayer. You may think you are a Christian when in fact you are a hypocrite who is one push away from becoming an apostate that hates God. And if you don’t think that’s possible, ask that person who left the church. Or listen to the negative language you’ve mumbled under your breath or even said aloud about God and other Christians over the past while and ask yourself what that says about how far you are from walking away for good. Why? Because you have not repented when God told you to and you have not been attending to the needs of your soul. Your faith has no roots and is being slowly choked out (Mat. 13:21-22).
The passage in Hebrews gives hope though. In verse 9 the preacher says,
“Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”
I feel the exact same way. I look at you and I am “sure of better things” because I have experienced your love for God and for me. I have seen the energy you put into “serving the saints”, how much patient kindness you have shown me and the people around you. And it is my “desire” for “each one of you” to turn that energy, that “earnestness”, toward your private devotional time, your daily bible reading, your prayer life, your meditation and journaling and study.
It’s not really that hard to start because you are surrounded by all kinds of help. Use the free Our Daily Bread devotional guide, read any of my books which I can give to you for free. Watch some sermons on YouTube, subscribe to a podcast that reads or studies the Bible, There are 20,000 bible studies to go through on RightNow Media. Surely one of them will do the trick! Call up one of your elders or deacons and ask them what they do for their devotional time or to meet with you and help you design a personalized quiet time. Ask them to hold you accountable by calling you every week. Create a small group in your home dedicated to learning how to read, pray and study better.
Do what you must because the consequences of not following through in this area of your life are dire.
I’ve been doing something lately that I rarely do. I can’t actually remember when I’ve done this before. I’ve been reading books for myself. I know that sounds weird to say, but usually when I read, study, or watch something, it’s so that I can learn for the sake of my job. But lately, because of all the struggles I’ve been going through, my reading hasn’t been learning about other things, but about learning about myself. That’s lead me to a bunch of books, some given by my counsellor, others by my own research, that don’t just talk about a subject, but speak directly to me, and they have really been helping me to heal.
One of the books that I read was called “12 Faithful Men: Portraits of Courageous Endurance in Pastoral Ministry” and I absolutely ate it up. It was a series of 12 mini-biographies about a bunch of historical pastors who went through hard times and how they faced them.
I read about men like John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, who was arrested for preaching the gospel and spent almost thirteen years in prison. While he was in that prison cell he was not only writing one of the greatest books of all time, but also suffering incomprehensible spiritual attacks. He was deeply sad, angry, lonely, and afraid. But when he was told he could go free if he would stop preaching, he said, “If I were out of prison today, I would preach the gospel again tomorrow by the help of God.”
I read about Charles Simeon who, as a young man, was appointed to be pastor of a church that didn’t want him. The congregation responded by refusing to come and locking the doors of their pews so no one could sit down. Anyone who came had to sit in aisle seats that Simeon paid for himself. In response to his, the church wardens threw the seats out into the street and then stood outside heckling, threatening the people coming in. Then, when Simeon was leaving they threw rocks or eggs at him, or waited to beat him up. He stayed at that church for twelve years.
I read stories of pastors facing disappointment, heartache, racism, tragedy, depression, financial ruin, and political coercion – and when the question was inevitably asked, “How did they respond? How could they face all this and remain faithful? Why didn’t they quit?” the answer always came “They held onto the Word of God and Prayer.” And every book I’ve read so far has had that same resounding anthem.
The Perils of Youth
We’re going to take a little break from the Heidelberg this week, so please open up to Psalm 119:9–16 and let’s read it together:
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes! With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth. In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”
Psalm 119 is written as an acrostic love song to the Word of God, each section giving another reason why the Bible contains the very words of life and the neglect of it brings death. In this section, the concentration is on how a believer can live a holy life.
It begins with the question: “How can a young man keep his way pure?” The author has in mind to give wisdom to help people avoid the pitfalls and perils that come with youth, but I would argue that this section of the psalm isn’t merely for the young.
Consider what it’s like to be a young person, aged 15-25. What are the defining characteristics? There are good things and bad, right? Most youth are strong, virile, passionate, excitable, energetic, and want to try new things. Their bodies heal quickly from injury and are more flexible, growing stronger every day. They feel emotions with great intensity – when they are sad their world is destroyed, but when they are happy they are elated. When they find interest in something, it captivates their attention and they can spend hours and hours on it.
But there are also some bad things with youth, right? They are ignorant and are easily manipulated and fooled into believing lies. Their desire to try new things can lead them into dangerous, addictive, and destructive habits. Their youthful bodies make them think they are indestructible so they take greater risks, but their underdeveloped brain and lack of experience cause them to face unnecessary danger. Their passions, while a wonderful gift, can run wildly out of control, driving them to think and believe extreme things that simply aren’t true. “Everyone hates me! I’m the ugliest person ever! My parents are the worst people in the world!! Everyone is doing the same stupid, scary, dangerous thing – but I have to do it because acceptance from my peers is the only thing that matters, and I’ll literally die if I don’t get their approval!” (Not that they say it exactly like that…)
But, those thoughts aren’t only the purview of youth, are they? Be honest. Those of us who are older still struggle with those thoughts, don’t we? They may be more refined, with the sharp edges sanded off by the years, but they are the same thoughts.
We struggle with loneliness and acceptance. We want to live out our purpose and change the world, struggling to wonder if we are in the right job, the right marriage, the right city – and wondering if we should bug out and start over. We do stupid, selfish things with our money in an attempt to make ourselves feel better or to impress others. We experiment with ways to fix our feelings of guilt, shame, fear, anxiety just as much. Sure, we do it in more refined ways – with wine, medication, vacations, a false social media identity, bossing people around, quitting our jobs – but we also do it with food, pornography, and drugs. We get fooled by advertisers and become extreme in our devotion to things like sport teams, name brands, diets, and personal comfort or experiences. And each of those immature things corrupts our relationship with God and causes impurity to enter into our souls.
So, when we read, “How can a young man keep his way pure?”, let’s not assume that it’s not about us. Let’s restate it this way: “How can someone who struggles with immature thinking keep from corrupting their life?”
And the answer is: “By guarding it according to your word.” Conversely, how can a person make sure they corrupt their life? By neglecting, or forgetting, God’s word.
I wanted to take a quick break from the Heidelberg before I went on vacation because there has been a resounding theme to a lot of the conversations I’ve had with many of you, and that is the neglect of God’s Word and prayer. And I’m not talking about the normal, Christian humility where we all say, “Yeah, I could be praying more.”, but a true neglect of personal quiet times, reading God’s word and prayer.
My guess is that this is happening because of the many struggles that we are facing as a church. Over the past couple years the families in our church have been through physical and mental health issues, faced sickness and death, have struggled with hurting marriages, strained family relationships, and broken friendships. We’ve seen addiction issues, depression, and anxiety. We’ve seen financial problems and job loss. And of course, most of you know about the struggles we’re having as a church. My family has been going through a tough time, but the church as a whole is struggling too.
All of these struggles are a sort of crucible that we are going through together and as individuals. A crucible is a pot used by metal workers in order to melt their metal in a furnace. They are designed to withstand incredible heat when put into a fire so that the metal can get to the melting point. When the metals are melted in the crucible, a bunch of gunk and impurities separate from the metal and floats to the top (called dross), and it’s scraped off and discarded leaving the metal more pure. Leaving the dross in causes the metal to be weak.
How does God refine the impurities out of his people?
Proverbs 17:3 says, “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the LORD tests hearts.”
God purifies his people by giving them situations by which their faith and obedience and discipline and love are tested.
Isaiah 48:10–11 says, “Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.”
God sends affliction, or trials, or troubles to His people on purpose so that by them we can see our impurities, the dross that is gunking up and weakening our metal. So we can understand the ways that we are profaning the name of God and giving glory to or trusting other people and things than Jesus.
To Jeremiah, who lived around the time of the exile, when the whole nation had become hypocrites, God said that one of his mission was:
“I have made you a tester of metals among my people, that you may know and test their ways. They are all stubbornly rebellious, going about with slanders; they are bronze and iron; all of them act corruptly. The bellows blow fiercely; the lead is consumed by the fire; in vain the refining goes on, for the wicked are not removed. Rejected silver they are called, for the LORD has rejected them.” (Jeremiah 6:27–30)
God sent waves of affliction and trouble to them, gathering them in the crucible of Jerusalem, and placing them in the furnace of affliction, but they were like a bad alloy, or a metal that was entirely dross – just a bunch of bubbling junk. At no point did their trials cause them to repent, to relent from their sin, to turn back to God.
We here are going through trials in this church for a purpose. You are personally going through tough times, but they are not without cause – they are designed by God to show you something about yourself, something about God, something about your faith.
And for many people here, one of the things that has bubbled up as dross is a lack of commitment to taking time to read God’s Word and pray – which shows that we are going to other places for comfort and hope. The furnace continues, the heat of affliction grows hotter, and – I know because I’ve talked to many of your – you feel the conviction to repent, to turn to God, to read and study his word, and to pray, but you don’t. And that refusal has caused a lot of impurities to settle in your heart.
- Fears and doubts cloud your thinking.
- Lack of sleep, the need for more and more medications to stop your racing thoughts.
- Constant anxiety or depressive thoughts.
- Obsessing over work or lack of desire to do anything.
- Out of control anger and arguing more and more with the people you love.
- You don’t feel close to God, close to the church, close to your friends. You actually avoid Christian events, people and music.
- Your worship life is gone, and you feel spiritually dry.
- You drink more, eat more, sleep more, hide more, or get busier and busier to avoid thinking.
- Maybe you’ve even gotten to the place where you consider quitting your job, moving away, quitting the church, divorcing your spouse, or even committing suicide,
Why? Because the furnace has shown your dross, the impurities that are weakening your spirit, but you haven’t repented.
Road to Emmaus
Turn with me to Luke 24:13-35 (but keep your thumb in Psalm 119). This is the story of the two disciples who meet Jesus on the road to Emmaus. This story occurs after Jesus has been crucified and rose from the dead, even after Peter and John and Joanna and the Marys saw the empty tomb. And it begins:
“That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?’ And they stood still, looking sad.”
Pause there. Jesus interrupts their conversation and asks them what they are talking about – and they can’t even speak. They just stop, stand still, and look sad. Have you ever had that moment where you are doing kinda okay, and then someone asks you just the wrong question and you stop, get that catch in your throat, the sting in the eyes, and you just can’t talk? These men loved Jesus, and the subject makes them deeply sad. Keep reading:
“Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?’ And he said to them, ‘What things?’”
Ever had that experience where someone asks you how you’re doing and you just decide to tell them? “Fine, you really want to know?!” and you just verbal diarrhea everything that’s been going wrong?
“And they said to him, ‘Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.’”
Blaarghh… right? “Well, stranger, we’ve got a lot going on right now. We don’t know what happened, why it happened, and we have no idea where it’s leading. We thought God was doing one thing and then it turned out we were wrong. The plans that we thought were set, all the hopes we had, exploded in our faces. Then a bunch of things happened we didn’t expect and people started saying things we don’t really understand.” I’m sure we’ve all been there.
So, what does Jesus do? Look at verse 25:
“And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!’”
Let me translate that to modern speak: “You dummies, don’t you read the Bible?” Then Jesus says in verse 26:
“Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’”
“You know if you read your Bible more you wouldn’t have been so surprised by any of this. If you had been in the word, listening to Jesus, listening to God, then this would make a lot more sense to you. There is zero reason for you to be hopeless and sad right now.”
And how does Jesus follow that up? How does Jesus bring these sad men comfort? Look at verse 27,
“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”
He did a Bible study. Why? Because the answer to: Why did this happen? What was the purpose? What is Jesus doing? Is God still in control? Where is this all going? – is all answered in the Bible! The Bible and prayer are the means by which God communicates to His people. Jesus didn’t come up with a bunch of new theories and psychological mumbo-jumbo or memorized pat answers – He went to the source of truth: God’s Word, and explained it carefully, from beginning to end.
This is my point today: Many of you are starving your souls of the Word of God and that is why you feel such fear and sadness. You don’t have answers to what is going on, and don’t have wisdom to deal with it, because you aren’t turning to the source of wisdom. The Bible is how God speaks to His people – corporately and personally, in church and in your private times. You don’t need a pastor or priest or expert to read the scriptures to you and interpret what they say. If you are a Christian, then you have the Holy Spirit of God, the presence of Jesus Himself, with you if you ask Him to be there when you are reading.
You don’t need another book, a special formula, a prayer guide, or a podcast – as helpful as those things are. You need to find a quiet place, open your Bible, read it, meditate on it, pray about what you read, and ask God to help you apply it to your life.
Look back to Psalm 119: it says,
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.”
What keeps us from sin and helps us flee temptation? Memorizing scripture.
“Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes!”
“Statutes” means “prescriptions or “boundaries” or “limits”. How can you learn the boundaries that your life is meant to run in so you don’t smash into the wall? Ask God to teach you through His Word.
“With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth.”
The word “rules” there is the word for “judgements” or “the deciding of a case”. How can you understand the ways that God sees the world, how justice works in the world, how things can look out of control but are actually following God’s rules? Through the study and reading of the word of God.
Look at the next part:
“In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”
Look at the words “delight”, “meditate”, “fix my eyes”. The NIV translates that last sentence as, “I will not neglect your word.” (NIV)
How do you find joy in sadness, hope when afraid? How do you find reservoirs of love when you seem to be all tapped out? By finding your delight in the Word of God? How do you do that? By taking time to slow down… meditate… fix your eyes… mull over… chew on… reflect on… write about… think about… talk about… pray about… the Word of God.
“But I don’t have time!” we all cry! And I say this: You must make the time. This isn’t about learning a bit more about theology so you can answer some trivia questions – this is about the sustenance of your soul. This is as important as eating and breathing, and neglecting it is what is making you soul sick and too weak to deal with the crucible God has you in.
The only way to understand the refinement God is working in you, the only way to pass through the crucible, is to get rid of the dross, to become strengthened by praying and meditating on the Word of God often and for long periods of time. There is no substitute.
Turn back to Luke 24 and look at the effect that being with Jesus and studying His word had on those two men:
“So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?’ And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
First, it made them want more, so they begged Jesus to be with them.
Second, being with Jesus opened their eyes to the truth! If they would have let Him go down the road, and not begged for more time with him, they would have missed Him and still been in the dark.
Third, their hearts burned within them, meaning they were delighted, excited, impassioned, convicted, encouraged… all by the study of the word of God. That’s what private Bible reading and prayer can do. Being with Jesus makes our hearts burn within us.
And fourth, it caused their faith to grow so much that they leapt into action to spread the good news to others. They were headed from Jerusalem to Emmaus, but after talking to Jesus, “that same hour”, they ran back to Jerusalem so they could tell the other disciples what had happened.
And fifth, their story caused everyone’s faith to grow. The disciples told Simon’s story, the two men told their story, and everyone gave glory to God for the amazing things that they had experienced. From sadness and fear and confusion to joy, hope, and faith – all through the presence of Jesus and the study of His Word.
I encourage you to commit to changing your habits, cutting things out – be ruthless if you have to – and make time to be in prayer and in God’s Word. Take time to repent, to study, to pray, to seek God’s wisdom, to seek Him out about your crucible, to ask Him what dross He is getting rid of, to be thankful for His love, and to be unafraid to ask Him for what you need.
The start of the year, as I said last week, is a time when a lot of people take time to evaluate where they are in life and make some decisions about making some changes, often called “New Year’s Resolutions”. They feel convicted that some area of their life needs to change, and the tossing out of the old calendar seems like as good a time as any to start.
Some people focus on their physical health, vowing they will eat healthier and exercise more. Others focus on their work life, telling themselves that this is the year they will finally get a better job, get that promotion, take that training they’ve been putting off, get a raise, or change their habits so they’ll be more effective. Some people turn towards relationships, running through the list of people on their contact list and deciding to purge the toxic people and make new friends, get reconnected with old ones, spend more time with their family, or even decide to start a family for themselves. Some decide to be more environmentally conscientious or to do better with their money. Others look more deeply at their spiritual side, vowing to meditate more, get more “centred”, pursue things that bring more meaning, and finally figure out why they have been put on the earth in the first place.
I think all of these are good things. I applaud anyone who puts down the remote and their phone, turns off the computer, gets quiet and does some self-evaluation. Introspection is usually a genuinely positive thing that is a good step towards true, substantial, life-change.
But no matter how much introspecting and resoluting we do, it often doesn’t get very far, does it? For every New Year’s Resolution there’s a breaking of that resolution. We want to be better, but temptation is too strong. Diets are abandoned, the new guitar sits dusty in the corner along with all the books to be read. Gyms are packed full in January but back to their regular clientele by February – not they care considering all the 1 year, unbreakable memberships they sold. The folks who made the resolutions feel like failures – but repeat the cycle for their birthday, when spring comes, when school starts, and then again the next year.
So, what can we do to make sure that those changes stick? Well, there are two things that we need to do before we ever make those changes. We need to talk to God, and we need to find accountability.
Bringing it to God
The first thing we need to do when it comes to these moments of resolve is to make sure we talking and listening to God. There is a real danger if our introspection and decision making is done in a vacuum. What I mean by this is that we as individuals shouldn’t be doing all this evaluating and resolving without including others in the mix. We, by ourselves, are generally not very good at either figuring out what’s wrong with us or how to fix it. We will usually err one of two ways, either toward pride, thinking too much of ourselves, giving ourselves too much credit, and making excuses for ourselves, or we’ll err too much toward the negative, beating ourselves up, evaluating ourselves too harshly, and change things we really don’t need to.
For example, we assume that people don’t like us because of our looks so we spend time changing our body and clothes, and it turns out that it’s because we’re actually a jerk who doesn’t shower enough. Or we assume that we’re amazing at drawing or singing or writing, so we figure it’s time to let the world see our wonderful works, but it turns out that we’re actually terrible at it. Or vice versa, we look at our art or listen to ourselves sing or play or write and we think we’re terrible, but if people saw it, they’d actually really like it.
So, the first thing we need to do when it comes to these things is to make sure that what we are deciding to do, or the thing we want to change, lines up to reality – and that can’t happen without including others in the mix.
And the most important “other” we need to be sure to include is God, for He is the source of all truth and the one who knows us best. Proverbs 16:9 says, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” Or Proverbs 19:21, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.” Psalm 127:1-2 says, “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.”
Non-Christians, and too many believers make these grand decisions without ever consulting God or His Word, and so everything is messed up from the very start. John Calvin once said, “Man’s nature is a perpetual factory of idols”. The Bible says it this way in Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”
When we make these resolutions or life-changing decisions without bringing them to God and listening to Him, we will almost always be listening to our own deceitful heart and feeding our idol factory. I’ll use myself as an example: I turned 40 this week so I posted to Facebook asking for any tips. Most of them were about taking care of my physical self because it gets harder from here on in. Buy a scale, watch the diet, exercise more, sleep enough, take care of my knees, start taking vitamins – only one person told me to buy a red convertible and embrace a mid-life crisis. And all those physical things are good advice I need to take, but what happens when I decide to do this without talking to God?
Well, I slip into the error of 1 Timothy 4:8 that says, “Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come.” In other words, it’s possible for me to make all these wonderful resolutions but actually miss the real problem. My issue isn’t that I eat too much sugar, not enough vegetables, and watch too much tv. If I solved all that myself, I would be healthier, sure, but God isn’t simply concerned about my weight and vitamin intake.
The deeper issue is that there are areas of my life I haven’t fully turned over to God and still believe myself to be in control of. I still believe that my way of handling stress, sadness, or temptation is better than God’s. I still believe that God won’t provide comfort or help or peace, so I go looking for it in an idol called food or entertainment. The issue isn’t sugar intake or lack of self-control, the issue is that I don’t trust God enough, I don’t fear God enough, I don’t believe God’s promises enough. Which come down to an inadequate prayer life, a stale worship life, lazy bible reading and study habits… which cause me to drift from God and leave me open to demonic temptation.
When I talk to God about this and list to His word, the problem becomes clearer, more understandable, deeper – and I see that the solution isn’t a weird diet and exercise plan or some vitamins, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ, where I decrease and He increases, where I fall at His feet and ask Him to be my greater joy, where I realize that He’s not saving me from merely bad habits, but deadly sins that leave me spiritually weak and an easy target for the enemy of my soul.
And now the solution come more clear that if I am on my knees more, read God’s word more, learn to trust Him more, believe Him more, and ask Him for more grace – that I will learn that Jesus will help me more than my idols will and I will gain more joy from His good gifts of food and work than I did before when they were my slave masters.
Do you see what I mean? It’s no different with any other resolution we may have. We feel convicted to learn guitar, build better relationships, become more successful in our work – and we think we need to simply rejig our schedule and buckle down, but when we come to God with those things He shows us so much more.
Our desire to learn guitar is a deeper desire for acceptance, love, to feel special, to fill a gap in our heart – which are all Gospel issues addressed when we realize we are already loved. Our desire for better relationships, more friends, better friends, or closer ties to family, ends up becoming a journey that shows us where we have grown bitter with unforgiveness, reveals our fear of abandonment, our habit of blaming others, or a realization that we hate ourselves and use others to distract us from that self-hatred – which are all issues that are addressed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and a closer relationship with God. Our desire for success and commitment to work more hours ends up, when turned over to God, becomes a realization that we are never satisfied, that we are addicted to adrenaline, that we’re afraid of failure, or that we have been working somewhere doing something that God never wanted us to do in the first place – which are all Gospel issues, addressed by finding our identity and purpose in Christ and the practice of listening to the Holy Spirit more.
So the first thing we must do whenever we feel that sense of conviction or are making a big decision like this, is to invite God into the conversation, but we also need to invite others. This is the greatest disadvantage of our society’s turn towards radical individualism. When the only voice in our head is ours, and the only standard for good that matters is whatever we decide, we’re in trouble. When the only people we’ll allow to talk to us is the echo chamber of people that think and act like us, we’re in trouble. Certainly the greatest form of accountability is reading God’s Word and listening to the conviction of His Spirit, but we can’t do that alone either. We were designed to be in community. When we become a Christian by trusting in Jesus as our Saviour, He gives us a lot of gifts, and one of those is to be made a member of the Body of Christ, the church. (1 Cor 12:27).
It is this community that Christians are meant to be part of most, where our closest relationships outside of that of God and our family are formed. Not our sports team, community clubs, affinity groups, or even para-church and ministries, as wonderful as those are. Christians are meant to be part of a growing, diverse, Christ-centred, church. It is with the church that we share our hopes, struggles, sins, fears, and convictions. It’s within the community of a Word-centred church that Christians experience God’s teaching, rebuking, correction and training in righteousness. It is in the church that we grow the most in our faith.
Now, there are some churches that have taken up the world’s view on things and have decided to become more and more homogeneous, more and more alike, more uniform, separating people from those that are unlike them, and that’s not good. It is in our diversity of ages, experiences, maturity, preferences, hopes, fears and struggles, that we grow most. Sure, it’s nice to hang around people that are like us – same age, same experiences, same backgrounds – and it has its place, but that’s not where we grow most. We do ourselves a disservice when we remove ourselves from the diversity of the church.
For example, say you’ve been thinking and praying about some changes in our life and have come to some resolutions and conclusions. You’ve felt God’s conviction, have read God’s word, and think you’ve got a good handle on things. How do you know you’re hearing right? How do you know you’re not stuck in an echo chamber, just hearing what you want to hear? What about your blind spots? And if you did get it all right, how will you get started? And you know you’re weak, so how will you make sure you stick to it? “God will do it for me!” is true, but God most often works through His church.
We need to listen to people that are wiser and older than us, people who have struggled with similar things and have seen God’s victories, people who have been reading the word and praying for longer than us. We need people to help us choose good books, good helps, good tools, based on their experience. We need people younger than us to give us inspiration, energy, unique perspective, to ask questions we never thought of, to introduce us to tools and concepts we’ve never considered, and to cheer us on. We need elders to lend us wisdom, deacons to visit us in our struggles, small groups to pray for us, and the presence of children to hold us to a higher standard. We need to see amazing, Godly people that give us a standard to strive for, and see a whole bunch of messed up people so we know we’re not alone in our striving.
The church is where we experience the “one anothers” of love, encouragement, spurring to good deeds, serving and being served, instruction, honour, kindness and compassion. (1 John 4:12, Heb 3:13; 10:24, Gal 5:3; Rom 15:14; 12:10, Eph 4:32)
Listen to the words of James 5:13-20,
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
James is a very practical book of the Bible. If we have issues in our life that need changing, what James calls “sufferings”, what are we to do? Bring it to God and pray. Then what? Tell the church and ask others to pray. What if you’ve sinned? What if you’ve totally messed something up? Are you to keep that secret because sinners don’t belong at church and everyone will just judge you? No. Confess the sins to people at church and pray that God will heal your heart and the situation. Why? Because prayer has power, and the prayer of many has more power. What if someone wanders away from the truth, follows lies, and gets all messed up? Someone from the church should go get them, tell them the truth, and bring them back (Gal 6:1).
All of this is God working through the church. We’re never meant to do any of this on our own.
I’m not sure what’s been going on in our heart and life over the last month or so, but I am sure that every single one of you experience some sort of conviction to change something in your life – maybe multiple somethings – and you feel you need to do something about it. Some of you are trying to ignore that feeling because you’re too lazy or too afraid of failure. Others are ashamed of their issue and want to keep it secret – either because it’s something that will get them in trouble, or something they think is too shocking to share, or they think their alone, or their afraid of being judged. Some have already started and failed at their change, and feel guilty about it. Some look at the mountain of changes they feel they need and are utterly overwhelmed. Some have physical handicaps, others emotional weakness, that make it harder. Some have spiritual and religious problems they can’t get past, others have addictions that keep them bound to failure.
My simple point today is this: Allow those convictions, those desires for change to drive you to your knees before God, into His Word, before the face of Christ in prayer – to be the fuel that runs your prayer life and makes you desperate for God’s forgiveness and healing.
And then, once you have started working with God, bring it to the church. Vow that you are going to be honest, once and for all, about what you are struggling with. Vow that you are going to drag the sin into the light so it can lose its power and finally be dealt with.
In invite you to call me so we can talk about it. Talking to your pastor is a great place to start and walking with you and helping you is one of my greatest joys. If not me, then talk with one of the deacons or a Sunday school teacher or a Christian friend. If we can’t handle it, we’ll help you find someone that can – and then stick with you along the way.
Not only that, but make the commitment that you are not only going to make sure you are at church for as many Sundays as you can get here, but that you are going to join a small group, the youth group, a study group, or some other place where Christians are invited to share, pray, and grow together. Not simply because you are supposed to, but because you believe that it is when the church gathers that God chooses to do most of His work.
“For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken.
How long will all of you attack a man to batter him, like a leaning wall, a tottering fence? They only plan to thrust him down from his high position. They take pleasure in falsehood. They bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse. Selah
For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my salvation and my glory; my mighty rock, my refuge is God. Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us. Selah
Those of low estate are but a breath; those of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath. Put no trust in extortion; set no vain hopes on robbery; if riches increase, set not your heart on them.
Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God, and that to you, O Lord, belongs steadfast love. For you will render to a man according to his work.”
(Psalm 62 ESV)
What is Your Foundation
This psalm is all about, as verse 10 says, where we put our “hope” and “trust”; on what foundation our “heart is set upon” when we are, as verse 3 says, “attacked”, “battered”, and “tottering”.
One of the amazing things about being part of a church is the diversity of experience we find among the people who come. There are some people who have had a blessed week and others who had one that felt like they were in battle every moment of every day. There are some who have had a seemingly blessed life where they grew up in a home with both a mom and a dad, warm and well fed, felt loved, safe, and secure – while others grew up orphans or children of divorce, abused, neglected, and afraid. And yet we all come and sit together, sing together, worshipping the same God, reading the same Bible, as one church. That’s no accident. We need each other and we need each other’s differences.
I don’t know what your week was like but I’m sure it had its ups and downs. There were times when you felt you had it all together and other times when you felt like it was all you could do to keep your whole life from flying apart. Some here had a week of temptation where there were so many good things happening you almost forgot that you needed God at all, while others had such a miserable week that you felt that God had abandoned you – or was actively against you. Some had a fairly normal week where nothing out of the ordinary happened, while others felt like someone stuck their schedule in the blender and hit frappe! And yet we all come here and sit together to sing the same songs and listen to the same message.
I heard a wonderful story from someone over the past few weeks where they came to me and said, “You know, Pastor Al, the more people I get to know at our church the more I see that everyone is struggling with something. I mean, there are a lot of problems in our church! And it crossed my mind that maybe I should leave this church and try to find one where people don’t have so many issues. But then I realized that I have problems too and I would much rather be in a church full of people who admit that they have problems and are trying to work it out together than a church that pretends they are perfect and expects me to pretend too.”
That was a hugely mature thing to share. And it’s true. We all have problems. I don’t know a single person here who doesn’t have some kind of big issue in their life. Physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, relational issues abound at our church. But we are not special – that’s literally everywhere. We just happen to have a group of people that, for the most part, are willing to admit it!
So, whatever your upbringing or week was like I believe that Psalm 62 has an important message for us. Whether you feel “attacked”, “battered” and “tottering” right now or not, the truth is that Jesus has promised that at some point in our life, “the rain will fall and the floods will come and the winds will blow and beat against our house” (Matthew 7:27ish) and the security and foundation of our life will be tested. That’s abundantly clear. It’s not about if bad times will come but when. And the only way that we will weather these times will be if our lives our built on the right foundation. Christians know this – we repeat it all the time. David knew this too.
In context, this is a psalm of David, who is surrounded by enemies who seek to not only kill him but to discredit and destroy him. Look at verse 3-4. He’s been attacked for so long that he feels like a wall that has taken so much punishment that it’s about to fall down or a fence that only has one post standing before it falls down altogether. This isn’t a one-time attack, but a consistent barrage of assaults from all sides. And what’s worse, is that the attack seems to be coming from people that he trusted. It says, “they bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse.” This psalm could be about the time when his son Absalom revolted against him (2 Sam 15-16) and many people whom he trusted were either lying to him, manipulating him with false information, or trying to stab him in the back.
I’m sure some of you have felt like that. I know I have. Let down by people close to you. The whole world flips over. It’s like black has turned to white, up is down, friends are enemies. But it doesn’t have to be personal, the attacks can come from anywhere or anyone – the person hurting you doesn’t even have to be human, it can be a spiritual attack. Even so, the point of the psalm still stands: When the earth shakes beneath you, and the foes surround, where do you run for refuge? David boldly proclaims that even though his entire world is shaking, his family, friends and supporters have become his enemies, and he’s gone from sitting on the throne in Jerusalem to being on the run again – just as in the days he was fleeing Saul – until he even has to go to war and kill his own son… He will still trust in God.
Jumping to the Ask
One commentary I read said,
“There is scarcely another psalm that reveals such an absolute and undisturbed peace, in which confidence in God is so completely unshaken, and in which assurance is so strong that not even a single petition is voiced throughout the psalm.” (An Expositional Commentary on Psalms, Vol 2, Pg 509. Boice)
That’s an interesting point – there are not petitions in this psalm. He doesn’t ask for anything. This is a worship psalm coming from a man who is in terrible distress. We often jump straight to the ask, don’t we. Something bad happens and we cry out to God, “God, make it stop! Fix the problem! And here’s how I want you to do it!” That’s not how this psalm works – and that’s not really how prayer works either.
Look to the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). How does it start? Does it start with “give us our daily bread, forgive us our sin, deliver us from evil”? No, it doesn’t start with the ask. It starts by putting our heart in the right place.
It starts with reminding us of our relationship: “Our Father in Heaven”. We’re not merely crying out to an impersonal force, but to our loving Father. As Paul said in Romans 8:15, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” “Abba” is the childish term “Daddy”. “My Daddy in heaven”.
Then it moves on to humbling us by reminding us of our place in the universe: “hallowed be your name.” “Hallowed” means “honoured” or “holy” or “greatly respected”. As we’ve talked about before, it’s not about you and me, everything is about Jesus. Colossians 1:16, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” Or 1 Corinthians 8:6 which we studied a few weeks ago, “…for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”
Then we are taught to say, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This is a resignation that God’s glory and God’s plan are more important than we are. This is a statement of our hope and trust in Him. “God, you are my King and I am your citizen. Your will is more important than mine. Your plan is better than mine. Your way is better than my way. I trust you to do what is best.”
And then, after we have set our hearts aright, knowing we are talking to our Father who loves us like a daddy, but is also to be respected and honoured. After we have placed our wills beneath His and declared that we trust him… do our petitions start: “Give us this day our daily bread… forgive our sins… deliver us from evil.”
This Psalm shows that David’s heart was so right with God, even while he was being “attacked”, “battered”, and “tottering” from the storms around him, that he still trusted God as his firm foundation.
Verses 5-7 really sum up the rest of the psalm well, and is an echo of verses 1-2, so let’s concentrate our study on them and pull out some application.
The first thing I want you to notice is that David takes some time to talk to himself, preach to Himself, sing to Himself. Remember, this is a psalm that is meant to be sung publically. David may have composed this while on the run and sang it to the people who followed him into exile. He starts in verses 1-2 with a general declaration of his trust in God to all who would listen. Then in verses 3-4 he states the problem by publically addressing his enemies and God. But then in verse 5 he talks to himself: “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my salvation and my glory; my mighty rock, my refuge is God.”
Why does he do this? Because he was tempted to go elsewhere, to fortify his strengths by other means. David was king and was feeling terribly weak, emotionally low, spiritually oppressed, betrayed, and very alone. The people around him, driven from their homes to follow him, must have been crying out, “What shall we do? What will you do to fix this, King David?” and his advisers were no doubt coming up with all manner of plans: “Make a pact with a neighbouring country. Hire mercenaries to fight with us. Attack the people around us and take food and weapons from them. C’mon David, we need to do something!”
And the battle was raging inside him too. He was a man of deep passions. Remember, this was a guy that almost wiped out a man’s entire household because he refused to share some food (1 Sam 25). He pretended to be insane by smashing his head against walls and foaming at the mouth to get out of a tight spot (1 Sam 21). He saw a beautiful woman and killed her husband to be with her (1 Sam 11). He was cunning enough to live in enemy territory for years, even fighting against them from within their own borders, without being detected. I have no doubt that there were a thousand plans flying through his mind as to what he wanted to do.
I’m sure you’ve felt this way too. All hell breaks loose around you and within you. You flail, grasping for something to hold onto to steady yourself. Something to make you feel stronger, in control, or at least to distract you from the pain and confusion that overwhelm you. You reach for a bottle, some food, your phone, Netflix, a razor blade, to calm the storm within for only a moment – but it never makes anything better, does it? Now instead you have your problems and guilt, scars, and sickness. You grab a weapon so you can force the situation in another direction – but it only escalates things. You reach for your wallet because your strength is in your money – but it never really fixes, it does it? You grab onto a counsellor or friend or spouse and beg them to fix everything, to give you the answer, to stabilize your life, and when they inevitably fail you, you reject them. You throw up a series of requests to God, but He doesn’t answer “yes” fast enough, so you turn away from your Bible and your church.
The situation you find yourself in, the storm that is beating against you, the earthquake that is happening within you has a very important purpose – to show you where you run to for hope and help, and then to test the strength of your foundation.
A while back, actually on Ethan’s 8th birthday, a tornado hit Ottawa. It was quite an experience as the wind destroyed a lot of places around town. After it died down we took a walk around our neighbourhood and it was incredible. There were lots of trees down all over the place, and broken phone polls, but the one place that really impacted me was the bus stop. A bus stop is a nice place for shelter when it’s raining – but isn’t much good in a tornado. The walls collapsed, the foundation moved, and it was utterly destroyed.
A lot of the destructive things we turn to during times of crisis seem fine to us – that’s why we don’t deal with them. They’re like the bus shelter. Lust, gluttony, addiction, violence, money – all seem to work fine when there’s a bit of rain – but when the storm really hits, they utterly fail us. I fact, when the storm hits, that refuge becomes dangerous. It no longer works for us, giving us a momentary high, but works against us, corrupting our souls, hurting our bodies, ruining our relationships, separating us from God, and damaging our lives. Many of you know what I’m talking about. Imagine taking shelter from the tornado in this bus shelter. What would have happened to you? That’s what you’re doing when you keep going back to whatever it is you run to in crisis… and it’s dangerous… and potentially spiritually and physically lethal.
So what does David do here? He does what you should do during those times of crisis. He stops himself, preaches to himself, and asks the question, “Ok, I know I have a thousand places I want to turn to and a hundred plans in my mind – but STOP…” and he speaks to himself… “Ok, David, ok, my Soul… where does my hope come from? Who is stronger, my enemies, myself, or my God? Who is going to save me? Where should I run?” And his answer to himself was, “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress…”
You’ve tried all these other things and they have all failed you. From where does your salvation come? The word “only” or “alone” occurs 5 times in this psalm. God only. God alone. “My King Daddy in Heaven knows what is happening. I will run to Him. “On God rests my salvation and my glory; my mighty rock, my refuge is God.” (vs 7)
Wait in Silence
But there is one other part I want you to notice. In fact, he says it twice in verse 1 and 5. He says, “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence…”.
Do you remember what Pastor Willie said about Romans 1-3? That it was meant to tell people to “shut up” – to decimate their excuses and force them to realize that they are sinners in need of a saviour? There are a lot of “shut up” passages like that in the Bible, and this is one of them. When the storm is raging, the earthquake shaking, when you feel like “a leaning wall”, “a tottering fence”, about to fall over, the best thing you can do is to withdraw into silence and wait. You actually need to be doing this every day, not just during times of crisis, because it prepares you for the storms to come – but if you haven’t been doing that, then this is something you must do.
The only way you will be able to preach to yourself and to reset your faith, to run to God for refuge, is if you “wait in silence”. That means you need to get away from people, get away from TV, from the internet, from the cell phone, from work, from play, and put away all the distractions and temptations that are trying to pull you towards them – and stop and wait for God.
Did you know the Canadian Government has an official pamphlet detailing what we should do during an earthquake? I didn’t. But here’s what they tell you to do during a major earthquake – and it’s exactly what every other country says. They tell you to make sure you prepare your home before hand – which none of us do – but this is what we’re supposed to do when the big one hits: “Drop, Cover and Hold On!” Go sit under a heavy piece of furniture like a table, desk or bed, tuck in all the parts of your body, and hold on tight to whatever you are under so you will move when the furniture does. And then stay there until the earthquake stops!
Why? Because during that time you need a refuge that is stronger than you and protection from things you can’t see. That’s what this psalm is about. It’s David’s song to a group of people who are facing a terribly difficult time in their life, and a reminder to himself, to stop, be quiet, and trust in God’s strength.
Can you imagine someone going through a big earthquake, looking at their oak table and thinking, “Hmmm… that’s a good spot, but before I get under there, I really need to grab a snack, my phone, a couple friends… no way! Can you imagine them standing in the middle of a store, with things falling all around them, and them saying, “I’m in an earthquake, surrounded by glass smashing all around me, but it’s ok. I’ve got my stress ball, anti-anxiety pills, and I’m trying to think positive about it.” Or can you imagine someone calling you in the middle of an earthquake and asking for advice about what to do? What’s your answer: “Have you tried yoga? I can forward you a really uplifting email I got today. Let me text you a YouTube link to a song that I play during those times…”
No way! You tell them to Drop, Cover and Hold On! Stop talking, get away from the dangerous stuff in your life, drop to your knees, crawl to Jesus and hold on with everything you have! Songs are great, fidget toys are fine, medication is ok, exercise is helpful – but when your life is falling apart, you need to run to a secure foundation and hold on! Jesus only, Jesus alone.
Great Fear, Great Calm
One day Jesus and the disciples were in a boat crossing the sea when a great storm came out of nowhere. The boat was crashing against the waves, it started to fill with water, things look dangerous and the disciples were scared. Where was Jesus? Asleep on a cushion. Jesus wasn’t afraid. He knew that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that would stop Him from crossing that sea, and certainly nothing that could take His life. He was so totally secure, totally trusting in His Father that He slept. But the disciples shook Him awake yelling, “Master, Master, save us! We’re all going to die! Don’t you care that we’re all going to die?” What was His response? “Why are you afraid, o you of little faith? Where is your faith?” And Jesus stood up, rebuked the storm, told it to be still, and then there was a “great calm”.
A lot of Christians are like this. They have Jesus in their boat. They know Him, they say they trust Him – right up until the wind and waves start to hit. Then they accuse Him. “Don’t you care? I’m dying! I’m going to drown! My whole family is going under!”
And what does Jesus say, “Do you really think that I’m not in control of this situation? Do you really think that I don’t care? Do you think I’d let you down? Do you think My Father is absent? That He doesn’t see? That there is no purpose for this? Do you think this storm is an accident? This storm is here to show you something…”
Mark says something really interesting in his telling of this story. It says, “And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’” (Mark 4:39-41)
They thought they were afraid of the storm, afraid of drowning in the middle of a sea. But the moment Jesus showed His power, “they were filled with a great fear”. Of who? Jesus. From that moment the experience of going through the storm meant something completely different. It became the moment that they started to fully understand who Jesus really is, the extent of His power, and what it means to have Jesus in your boat. The fear of the storm were gone. All that was left was “great calm” and “great fear” – as they stood in the presence of Jesus full of awe at what He is capable of.
I believe this is the message of this psalm, and one we need to hear today. I know you have storms, but allow those storms to drive you to Jesus. Let it be the means by which you learn to let Jesus be your only refuge, strength and salvation. Get quiet before Him. Trust He will protect you. Ask Him to calm the storm – and then wait to see how He will save you.
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…”
Doing your devos discussed! We talk about what devotions are (and are not), why they’re important, and some practical ways to spend time with God.
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My kids have been in swimming lessons for quite a while. I took them when I was a child, as most people do, but I’m nowhere near as good at swimming as my kids are. Even my littlest, Eowyn, knows more strokes and techniques than I do. To be totally honest, I only ever made it to the third level – which they called “RED” at the time – because I failed it over and over and over. Eventually my mother got tired of paying for me to fail and said, “Well, you won’t die if you fall out of the canoe, so I guess that’s enough.”
Our intention, right now anyway, is to have all of our kids take enough lessons that they will be certified lifeguards and instructors. Ethan has already completed Bronze Cross and has First Aid and CPR, training – which is good, because that allows me to eat as much poutine as I want, with total impunity, knowing if I choke on a cheese curd or keel over with a heart attack, Ethan will be there to save me. Eventually, I will be surrounded with children that will not only be able to save me, but also teach others how to save their poutine loving fathers.
As I’ve watched my children develop in their swimming abilities, I’ve seen them take on bigger and bigger challenges. At the beginning of their training, the instructors have them jump into the shallow end of the pool, always within arms reach, and then hold them up by their tummies to practice their strokes, whispering nice, encouraging words in their ears the whole time. They tread and splash for a few moments and then sit on the side and watch others do the same. It’s very sweet.
However, as the lessons continue, it gets a lot less sweet. My boys, who have been doing this for a while, come home from swimming lessons with some very interesting stories. I’ll ask, “What did you do today, son?” and they will relate quite a grueling regimen of exercises. Long gone are the days of tummy holding and whispered encouragement.
“Well dad, during my three hour class, we started with an hour of book work, memorizing acronym after acronym after acronym, and then moved on to oral and practical quizzes. Then we were told to get in the water and swim 24 laps in under 12 minutes. After that, they told us to tread water in the deep end for five minutes – but THIS time, they dropped a 10 pound weight to the bottom of the deep end and had us retrieve it and then tread water while passing it around to each other. Then it was time to practice some rescues, which means dragging my classmate’s limp bodies out of the pool over and over – and if I didn’t do it perfectly I would have to do it again. And when we finally got them out, it was time for ‘land rescues’ where we practice saving people from choking, bleeding, passing out, having a stroke, and more – sometimes as they attack me! Oh, and by the way, the test is next week and if I make one mistake –their head goes under water, I misdiagnose, or I take my eyes off of them – I fail immediately and have to take the class all over again.”
Drowning in The Deep End
To their credit, my kids rarely complain about the work they are required to do during their classes. They know that what they are learning is important and that it takes dedication and skill to do it right. And of course, my response as a Dad is never to say, “Oh, that’s too bad! I wish they would take it easier on you.” No way, It’s “Good! I hope next week is even harder! That’s building some character! Now drop and give me 20!” (It’s a tough life at my house…)
Now, would any of us here criticize the instructors for being too hard on the students? Sure, we can’t take the toddlers and drop them in the deep end, tied to 10 pound weights, right? That’s not only inappropriate, but probably illegal.
But if we are going to give people the title of “LIFEGUARD” and give them a little piece of paper that says they are “LIFESAVERS”, then I think it’s right that they be rigorously trained and tested!
It’s no different in the Christian faith. I don’t say this lightly, but most Christians do not have a very strong faith. There are a lot of folks in our churches that are content to spend their lives paddling around the shallow end of the pool. They’re like me when it comes to swimming lessons: they think they know enough not to drown, but that’s it.
The problem is that this world isn’t a good place right now for people who don’t know how to swim in the deep end. The issues that are pressing against us are incredibly complex and go far beyond our human ability to contemplate, let alone, attempt to address. We are living in the deep end right now and there are a lot of people who call themselves believers that are struggling to stay afloat. They don’t know what to do when the waves of change crash against them and they are pulled down into the riptide of popular culture. As they sputter and flounder, they do foolish things like trust their emotions and seek wisdom from pagans. They don’t know how to pray or read God’s word and are leaving the church in droves.
It is my deepest desire that we don’t make that mistake. Even our little church out here in the middle of nowhere feels the crash of the waves of change and the pull of popular culture. We can’t avoid it – so we’d best be prepared. Not just for ourselves, but so we can help save others.
When we or someone else at our church gets nailed by crisis – whether that’s crisis of health, finance, or faith – don’t we want to be a group of well trained lifeguards that know our stuff and can jump in and save them? Rather than being like the untrained and useless masses of people that simply stand on the sidelines muttering how they wish they could do something, but not knowing how – or worse, throwing stones at the one that is hurting, hoping it might help.
It is my belief that the issues that strike the deepest part of our hearts are addressed by God in His Word. God may not answer every question that interests us, but He has certainly answered all the ones that we need to know. That’s why we need to know God and His Word. Because we and everyone around us – our children, friends, coworkers, strangers, and enemies – have big questions, and most of us are ill equipped to give any answers.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not talking about having a bunch of pat answers under our belt so we can be the smartest person in the room or win debates with unbelievers. No, far more important is that we need to know these things so we can know God.
The problems of this world, those that happen inside and outside us, make so much more sense when we know in our heart, soul and mind that God is always good and always just. As long as we wonder if God cares about us, wonder if He even sees the problem, wonder if He’s punishing us, wonder if He’s being unfair, unjust or unkind, then we will forever live in fear and doubt. Uncertainty about God creates a life filled with anxiety.
That’s the normal life of the pagan, the atheist, and the immature believer. They live in anxious fear. They always feel insecure. Below their feet is shifting sand. They try to find security in all sorts of places: politics, money, healthcare, military power, personal relationships, new technologies, scientific progress, counsellors, teachers, entertainment, religion… but the problem is that every foundation they try keeps changing! Almost nothing the same as it was 10 years, 100 years, 1000 years ago. So they live in fear. It’s only a matter of time before the next wave hits, their foundation fails again, and they are set adrift on seas that they can neither navigate nor swim.
Have you felt this? All hell breaks loose around you, and you realize that your foundation is uncertain. Life gets very unfair and you realize that the things you thought were going to get you through, simply let you down. That’s life in the deep end. We all feel it, but I don’t want any of you to drown. No believer should live in constant fear that God has forgotten them or is going to abandon them. No believer should be crushed under the weight of this world. No believer should feel like they will drown in their sorrows.
Yes, we will feel the fear. Yes, we will feel the burden. Yes, we will feel the pain of loss. Yes, we will feel the frustration. But when those feelings come, believers have access to something greater, an off switch to the emotional roller coaster. We know that our lives are built on the unchanging Word of our immutable God, who always keeps His promises, and will always see us through.
Habakkuk’s Follow Up Question
Last week we talked about Habakkuk’s first question, “Why does God let bad things happen?” and this week we are going to look back at the conversation to see that Habakkuk isn’t done with his big questions yet. God just dropped a bomb on him saying that his plan to take care of the sin of the nation is to have the people and the cities utterly wiped out by the Babylonian army, and so now we get to the follow up question:
“Are you not from everlasting, O LORD my God, my Holy One? We shall not die. O LORD, you have ordained them as a judgment, and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof. You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?
You make mankind like the fish of the sea, like crawling things that have no ruler. He brings all of them up with a hook; he drags them out with his net; he gathers them in his dragnet; so he rejoices and is glad. Therefore he sacrifices to his net and makes offerings to his dragnet; for by them he lives in luxury, and his food is rich. Is he then to keep on emptying his net and mercilessly killing nations forever?” (Hab. 1:12-17)
There’s a lot of emotion in this section. As I said, these are HUGE questions. They get to the deepest part of humanity’s problem with evil, and seek to understand the most complicated details of God’s plan of salvation.
But I want you to notice something first. I want you to see something critically important. If there’s one thing you get out of this sermon, let this be it: Habakkuk begins his prayer with humility and faith. There is no doubt that Habakkuk believes God is greater and more righteous than he is. He may have no idea what’s happening or why, but his prayer starts in the right place. This is where we must start as well. We must not start our prayers thinking we are equal with God, that we get to argue with His Word, or that can come up with a better plan. We are not there to debate or negotiate. Whenever we come to prayer or study, we must come humbly, or we will have wasted it.
“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6)
Certainly, Habakkuk is BOLD in his prayer, asking huge questions of God, but he does it in a way that is humble and trusting. Look how many titles he uses for God! He uses God’s names, “YAHWEH” and “ELOHIM”, or “LORD” and “God”. He knows He’s addressing the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe! He’s not talking to “the big guy in the sky” or “his buddy Jesus”. He’s not coming to the conversation as an equal. He knows what he’s doing is audacious. He’s asking GOD to explain himself! That’s ridiculous on its face, but such is the God we love and serve to allow us to approach His throne of grace! He is the Father and He wants to talk to his children, but He’s also GOD.
Next he calls God, “My Holy One”, intimating a personal relationship with Someone who is not only unique, but special to Habakkuk’s heart. He calls God his “Rock”, which is a term from Deuteronomy 32:4, which calls God “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.” He sees the Lord as the highest Judge in the highest court, who is perfect in His decisions.
That’s where Habakkuk starts his prayer – on His face before God – and it’s where we must start our prayers. Yes, we can be angry, confused, broken hearted, weeping, pacing, broken, on our knees our shouting aloud. All of those feelings are represented in the prayers of scripture – even the prayers of Jesus. But while we pray, our hearts must be humble.
I believe that if we want answers to big questions, if we want comfort from God in the midst of our trials, then we must come to prayer with the right heart. We start with the belief that God is our unmoveable rock, the worker of our perfection, the upholder of our justice, and the keeper of our faith. It’s personal, and it’s humble.
If we start our prayers thinking that God is weak, out of control, or unfair, then our whole prayer life and relationship with Him will be skewed. Instead of finding comfort, we will be hardening our hearts to Him! But if we come in humbly, knowing who God really is, then even if we have deep hurts, doubts and questions, we’ll at least be in the right place to ask and start to find answers. During these tough times, when questions abound, check your heart before you start to pray.
If you believe in God, then I know you’ve shared these thoughts with Habakkuk. Everyone has. We look at ISIS running around harming more and more people and we say, “God, who is going to stop them?” We look at abortionists and think the same thing. Or pornographers: “They drag their hook through campuses and catch young women and men, gut their souls, and walk away smiling. How long will that last, God?” We look at the global church and see it grow more dysfunctional as it fractures and falls away from the faith of our fathers – and then watch as atheist churches take their place – and wonder how much worse it can get.
We look to our own lives and our own problems with sickness, death, trial, temptation, work, finances, relationships, and everything else – and when we finally hit our knees, our prayers sound very much like these words from over 2500 years go. Nothing is new under the sun.
The Bible word used to describe this type of prayer is “Lament”. We would use the term mourn or grieve, and it’s something we’re not very good at as a culture. We tend to run from our problems or pretend they don’t exist, rather than face them and let them break us down. We’ve lost the ability to lament, and it shows in our culture. Jesus lamented, as did many of the faithful in the Bible, and faithful people that have come since. They faced the difficult things in their life and let their hearts break, so they could bring the pieces to the One who could put them back together.
Today, instead, we usually pretend our heart isn’t broken, make excuses for it, pretend to be healthy, or medicate our feelings away. It’s terribly unhealthy. We need to lament things.
Now, lamenting isn’t just feeling sad. “Lamenting” has a more formal meaning and goes beyond emotion. What it means is that we take our heartache TO Someone who will listen, and, hopefully, do something about it. The Bible is full of laments, most often songs – which means they’ve been given some thought and inspiration. A lament isn’t merely raw emotion, but are the well-considered, meditated upon, thoughts of a believer, brought before God.
It’s not that raw, emotional prayers are bad. David’s psalms sometimes seem very raw and emotional, as though they were written in the middle of a battle – and perhaps some of them were – but Habakkuk’s writing here (like many other laments in the Bible) is of incredibly high quality, with well chosen, deeply poetic words.
That doesn’t take away from the heartache. Perhaps it even adds to it. He may have chewed on these thoughts, this prayer, this lament, these questions, for a long time. He prayed these thoughts over and over, finding new, better and and different ways to express his grief to God. And since this is inspired scripture (listen carefully), God HIMSELF was working with Habakkuk on this prayer poem. These are words written by Habakkuk and God given to believers to help us express the intense feelings that we sometimes don’t have words for.
Let’s go through Habakkuk’s prayer verse by verse and take it apart a bit so we can see how much it often reflects the prayers of our own hearts
In verse 13 we see Habakkuk’s follow up question of “Why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” The rest of this section expands on this question. God, how can you use an evil nation like the Babylonians, who are doing more evil than we are to discipline your people? That seems unfair. They get blessed with more land and victory – even though they are worse than us! How can You, the perfect Judge, stand there and allow a greater evil to swallow up a lesser one?
In verse 14-15 Habakkuk uses an illustration that we understand today. He says to God that it almost feels like there’s no accountability in this world. Like we’re all just evolved animals doing whatever we want – that the real rule of life is simply survival of the fittest. The biggest fish rules the pond. Is that how Your world is supposed to work? That doesn’t make sense at all! Aren’t you the God that defends the widow and orphan, helps the helpless, frees the captive? Then why are we living by the law of the jungle right now? The Babylonians are clearly the more evolved and stronger than we are! They are going to chase us, catch us, gut us, eat us and then smile. And are you there… just watching?
In verse 16 Habakkuk keeps arguing his case for why this doesn’t make sense. He points out to God that to make it worse, this wicked nation then turns to give the credit to demons and false gods! Actually, it’s even worse than that. The picture here is of a fisherman catching a fish and then giving worship offerings to HIS NET! He’s giving all the credit for his great victory to his fishing rod. How ridiculous! God, that’s how stupid Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon are! They don’t even know who to thank for their victory! They put their faith in demons and horses and spears rather than the One who Created the Universe! God, you don’t even get the glory! And to make it even WORSE… after they’ve slaughtered us little fish… they will be richer and more comfortable. God, this nation will NEVER turn to you because all the evil plans they come up with are doing so well!
And then verse 17 really strikes home: “Is he then to keep on emptying his net and mercilessly killing nations forever?” I can imagine that there are a lot of people living in in the world right now who have prayed this prayer – and it has echoed through ages past. The persecution and genocide of Christians around the world now, the Jews during World War 2, the African slave trade, the Acadians… and it goes on throughout history.
God how long, exactly, are you going to let this go on? This can’t last forever. It just can’t! Can it? This seems totally backwards. This seems so wrong. Evil is winning and good is losing. The victory is going to demons and fools. You get no glory, no praise, and the faithful are punished. This is so confusing. This is heartbreaking. The pain is excruciating and I don’t know how much longer I can take it. How can you stand it?
In some ways, though we’ve never been through the extreme persecution of some, we’ve all asked that question, right? Do you realize how much differently this prayer would have gone if he wouldn’t have started out humble? These are not accusations. These are big questions, but they are not accusations against God. This is a person with deep hurts and confusion, pouring his heart out to God. I know many of you have been in this situation.
Sitting in the Watchtower
Habakkuk ends his prayer in 2:1 by saying, “I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint.”
“Ok, God. I’ll be quiet now and listen. I’m going to watch for your answer.” We could learn a lot from that. How often do we pray and then forget to listen?!
He trusts that God, His ROCK, won’t let him down, but will make His will known. Habakkuk’s plan is to go to the watchpost, sit in the tower, and wait for what God will do. He knows Babylon is coming and will see them from the tower. He will witness firsthand the fulfilment of prophecy, the justice of God. But, as he watches for what God is doing… he’s also waiting to see what God will do.
Remember last week’s helicopter view of life that God gave him. Now we see Habakkuk choosing to find a higher vantage point where he can watch not only what God is doing, but what He will do. God has given him a bigger perspective of life, and now that’s the lens he’s using to see the world.
God does that sometimes for us too. We come to him in prayer, we lament before him, and He raises us up higher, shows us some scripture or gives us a special message from a friend or a sermon, that allow us to see more of what is happening. And then He gives us a chance to chew on that knowledge for a while.
We are left to meditate on what God has said, and it requires discipline for us not to slide back down to the ground and forget all that God has shown us from higher up. What we must do is choose to climb the tower and wait for God – again – but now from a different perspective. We climb the tower and look out for what God is going to do. How will He work this out for my good and His glory? In what ways will He use this? How can this make me or others more Christ-like? This is God’s plan, and though it hurts, I’m going to watch and wait.
Remember the back story. King Zedekiah sends for Jeremiah to get some advice. Jeremiah says he should surrender to Babylon so that they don’t get slaughtered. That’s God’s GRACE in action! That message was God saying that He would be merciful even as He was punishing them, if they would only accept what He is doing. Yes, they would still go into captivity, but He would do it more gently. All Zedekiah had to do was relent to God.
If Zedekiah were up on the tower with Habakkuk, perhaps he would have made a better decision. Instead, like a fool, he chose to fight against God’s plan. He didn’t have the helicopter view. He wasn’t in the tower. He wasn’t listening to God. He didn’t see God as sovereign. He didn’t believe God was his rock. He didn’t trust God’s plan. Instead, he fought God’s plan and that choice brought terrible pain and misery to everyone around him.
That’s as far as we’re going to get this week. We’ll pick up God’s answer next week, but I want to just remind you of a few things that we’ve learned today.
First, remember that Christians have a responsibility to take their spiritual training seriously. This world is a terribly deep and treacherous pool and we will drown if we don’t make the decision to learn how to swim well and help others. Get into God’s word, stay in prayer, and do the works of a Christian. Yes it’s hard. But as Paul said to Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Tim 4:16)
Second, it is good for us to bring our heartaches to God, but we must make sure that our hearts are in the right place. Don’t start your prayer with a laundry list of requests. Start as Jesus taught you to start your prayers, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” (Mat. 6:9) God is your Father, God is in Heaven, God and his name is to be hallowed (or made high and worshipped exclusively). Start your prayers there.
Third, don’t be afraid of Lamenting. Lamentations are important – it is one of the ways that we show that we are relenting to God’s plan. It is good to bring our grief to God. It is good for us to wait for him because He will come. Isaiah 30:31 says, “They that wait upon the Lord will renew their strength.” And when He does come, trust that He will raise you up to a heavenly perspective of what is happening. And then, when God has shown up, climb the watchtower and wait to see what He will do next.
That’s where I’m going to leave it today.
We just had Halloween a couple weeks ago, and of course that strange season is one where people talk about scary things like ghosts and vampires and zombies. Who here went trick-or-treating? Did you see anything scary?
Well, I went digging around on the internet to learn about some different things that people are afraid of. So what I’m going to do is put up a list of things and we can say scary or not scary to all of them, ok? Now, I’m not going to make fun of anyone here because we can’t really pick what we’re scared of, can we?
For example, I’m scared of heights. I don’t like being high up in places, but I don’t know why (Acrophobia). Anyone with me? Here are some others::
- Fear of Spiders (Arachnophobia)
- Fear of taking a bath (Ablutophobia).
- Fear of Loud Noises (Acousticophobia).
- Fear of Needles (Trypanophobia).
- Fear of snakes (Ophidiophobia).
- Fear of Chickens (Alektorophobia).
- Fear of Peanut Butter sticking to the roof of your mouth (Aracibutyrophobia).
- Fear of slime (Blennophobia).
- Fear of clocks (Chronomentrophobia)
Tonight I want to talk about something that might also be a bit scary. Sharing our faith with others can be a little scary too. A lot of questions go through our minds: How do we start talking about Jesus with someone that knows nothing about Him? We’re supposed to be kind and say kind things to our friends, so how can we tell them Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” or Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death…” when that means that they are a sinner who will die and can’t go to heaven because of their sin? That doesn’t sound very nice. What if they misunderstand and get upset with us?
And when should we do it? Should we wait for the right moment? Should we just blurt it out whenever we want to? You know… get invited over to their house for dinner and say, “This meal is very nice, please pass the ketchup – oh and by the way you’re all sinners who are doomed and need Jesus.” That’s a little weird, right?
Should we invite them to church first, or tell them about Jesus first? Maybe we should wait for them to ask. But what if they never ask? Then what?
Sharing our faith can be a little difficult sometimes – and sort of complicated when we think about it – so I want to tell you four things to remember when you want to share your faith in Jesus Christ with someone.
First Show Them Love
The first thing I want you to know about sharing your faith is that you need to show them love before you tell them the Gospel. This is something that a lot of people – including adults – get wrong. We all know the Great Commission Jesus gave in Matthew 28:19-20 that says,
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”.
Sometimes we think that means that it’s our job to simply go out and tell the gospel to people wherever they are, even if we don’t know them. Sometimes God calls people to do that, but that’s not usually how He works.
Jesus says something very important in John 13:35 that we need to remember, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Loving the person comes before we teach them the Bible or bring them to church. The way that they know that we have Jesus in our hearts, and the way that they will know that Jesus is real to us, is by the love we have for them and others. So that’s where we have to start – loving.
So ask yourself some questions: Do I love this person? How am I showing it? Do I want to tell them about Jesus so they will be nice to me, or because I love them and want the best for them? Have I shown them love by helping them, caring for them, sharing with them, eating with them, telling them the truth, and being their friend? We have to love them first, because it is by our love for them that they will know that the love of Jesus is in our hearts.
Remember to Pray
The second thing I want you to remember to do when you share the gospel with someone, is to pray. You must pray first. God promises in the Bible that He will give you the words you need, the wisdom you need, the timing you need, and the help you need when you come to talk to your friend about Him. But even more important is that God says that the Holy Spirit must do the work in your friend’s heart before they can hear anything you say!
You probably remember the Parable of the Four Soils that Jesus told. It’s the story of a farmer who goes out and spreads seeds on all kinds of different ground – hard ground, rocky ground, thorny ground, and good ground. The seeds represent the story of Jesus and the different grounds represent different types of hearts.
Many people have hard hearts, like the hard ground. The seeds of our message just bounce off and never grow. God says in the Bible that it is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict people of sin (John 16:8) and change their hard heart into a soft one (Eze 36:26). We can’t do that. We can’t yell at someone, or argue with someone, or bribe someone, or do anything to someone to make them believe in Jesus – only the Holy Spirit can do that – which is why we must pray.
So first we show them love, and then we pray that God will make the person’s heart soft so they can hear the words that God gives you to say to them.
Tell Them YOUR Story
The third thing to remember about sharing your faith is that you need to start with your own story. Tell them that you know God and His Son Jesus and what you know from the Bible. Tell them what it means to you that you are a sinner who needs a Saviour. Tell them what it’s like to be a Christian.
You don’t have to make anything up, or tell missionary stories, or try to copy what your pastor or parents say – just tell them what it’s like for you.
- What does it feel like to know you’re forgiven from sin?
- What’s it like to talk to God in prayer?
- What’s it like to know that you are loved no matter what you do?
- What’s it like to have the Holy Spirit inside of you telling you right from wrong?
- What’s it like to be afraid of something, but then pray and know that God is taking care of you?
- What’s it like to know that Jesus has a plan for your life, and that even if bad things happen, He will still take care of you and help you be more like Him?
- What’s it like to be part of His church?
- What’s it like to sing worship songs?
- What’s it like to memorize Bible verses and know that His Word is in your heart?
Tell them your story. God is writing a story in your life and that’s the one that He wants you to tell.
And the fourth thing I want you to remember is that you need to be patient and keep talking about it. They may not get saved the first time you tell them. They may not be ready to turn from their sin. They might be afraid, or confused, or have more questions, or something else. So be patient with them, keep loving them, keep praying for God to open their hearts, and keep talking to them about what God is doing in your life.
There may come a time when you think that you’ve said it too many times – don’t believe it. I know people who heard the gospel for the first time and then gave their life to Jesus right there – and I know people whose friend told them about Jesus for 20 years, 30 years, 40 years before their heart was soft enough for the seed of Jesus’ story to take root. So keep on praying for them. God isn’t finished with them yet.
Yes, sharing our faith can be a little scary sometimes, but some of you have non-Christian friends, or family, or even parents. So my message to you today is to keep loving them, keep praying for them, and keep talking to them about Jesus. That’s what God wants us to keep doing, and that’s how people get saved, so that’s what we should do.
The 35th episode of “Carnivore Theology”.
Civic Prayer and the Supreme Court Ruling in Canada
The Supreme Court recently outlawed civic prayer. How should Christians respond?
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Why Should Believers Today Care About the Psalms? (Feat. Special Guest Wyatt Graham!) (Carnivore Theology: Ep. 31)
The 31tst episode of “Carnivore Theology”.
Reading & Praying the Psalms Today
What can a bunch of weird, old poems from ancient Israel do to help us with our prayer life? A lot, as it turns out. Our special guest Wyatt Graham helps us understand the amazing relevance of the psalms to our daily walk of faith today.
Wyatt’s Book Recommendation Link:
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Please Consider Partnering with Us!
Let us know what you think of our podcast by commenting on our Facebook page, connecting on Twitter, and rating us on iTunes! We’d also really appreciate if you’d pass them around to your friends. Sharing is caring!
Carnivore Theology is free for everyone, but it does have a cost to produce. If you’d like to help us with our hosting and equipment costs, you can send us a financial gift through PayPal by clicking here. We are not a registered charity, so you won’t get a tax receipt — but you will have the good feelings that come with helping out a friend!
We’re continuing a series on the final week of Jesus’ life. We’ve already covered the events of Palm Sunday, and Monday where He cursed the fig tree, cleansed the temple. Last week we talked about Tuesday, a day where Jesus was attacked on all sides by every group in Jerusalem who wanted to trap Him in His words, so they could arrest Him as a traitor or a blasphemer. But none of it worked.
He spent the rest of the day as a sort of teaching tour-guide of the Temple, walking throughout and explaining many things, even taking time out to pronounce seven woes upon the Pharisees, eventually ending his tour with just his closest followers seated on the Mount of Olives with a spectacular view of the entire Temple. One of them comments on how beautiful it is and Jesus spends a long time telling them about the soon coming destruction of Jerusalem and expands his teaching all the way until the end of the world.
They leave the Mount of Olives and return for a well-earned sleep to the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. We don’t know much of what happened on Wednesday, but there is one event that cannot be missed – Judas’s bargain with the leaders the Temple Police, who report to the Sanhedrin, to betray Jesus.
Though there has been much speculation as to why Judas did this, scripture doesn’t really give us a specific answer. We know that Judas was never really a follower of Jesus – and Jesus knew that (John 6:64, 70) – though the disciples didn’t seem to notice.
One solid theory was that it was for the money. Judas’s name is often associated with wanting money. He kept the purse for the group and liked to dip into it for personal reasons. This seemed to give the devil a foothold in his life and was what Satan leveraged to turn him from Jesus. Just a few days before Judas was very upset when Mary had anointed Jesus feet with an ointment that would have cost a year’s wages. He saw it as a waste and would rather have sold it and kept some of the money.
On Monday Jesus overturned the marketplace tables of the money changers. On Tuesday Jesus told them that everything was God’s and that they had to honour the government with their taxes. On Tuesday evening Jesus warned them that because of their faith, they would lose everything, be hated by all, and go through great tribulation on account of Jesus.
No doubt all of this sat very poorly with Judas. Jesus was supposed to be his key to an easier life, not a harder one. The plan was to ride into Jerusalem, conquer Rome and set themselves up as lords of all the world – and all this talk of loss, suffering and pain wasn’t what Judas had bargained for.
In Mark 14:1-2 we get a glimpse of what’s going on behind the scenes:
“It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, for they said, ‘Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.’” (vs 1-2).
Mark places some of these stories thematically and next tells the story of Jesus’ anointing by Mary the night before Palm Sunday, emphasizing Judas’ problem with it and contrasting his heart with Mary’s. This gives us insight into what is about to happen next:
“Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. And when they heard it, they were glad and promised to give him money. And he sought an opportunity to betray him.” (Mark 14:10-11)
Perhaps when he walked up to the Temple Guard, Judas was simply looking for a payout. He figured things were about to go sour and he needed cash-out ASAP. He is given 30 silver coins – not an insignificant amount – maybe $10,000 in today’s money. With that action, Judas sets in motion the final day of Jesus’ life as a free man. He comes back to sit with Jesus and the Twelve, waiting for his moment.
Thursday is an incredibly busy day, by biblical standards. And, to get technical, we have to remember that the way that we mark days, and the way that the Jews marked days, is different. The Jewish understanding of a “day” is almost opposite to ours. The day begins when the stars come out at night. So technically, the events of Thursday mostly happen in the Upper Room during the Last Supper. Then when Jesus and disciples leave the room, it’s already Friday when they get to the Garden of Gasthemene – which we will talk about next week.
So the events of Thursday also bleed a little into the events of Friday, and lots happens. Mark’s Gospel whips through Thursday in only a nineteen verses, Matthew takes 32, Luke takes 38, but Gospel of John takes five chapters to go through it, 154 verses, most of which is Jesus talking. It’s almost all red letters.
Let’s read how Mark speaks of the events of Thursday, and then we’ll fill in the gaps from the other Gospels.
“And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, “Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?” And he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; there prepare for us.” And the disciples set out and went to the city and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover.” (Mark 14:12-16)
So here’s what’s happening: Jews were expected to return to Jerusalem and stay there for the Passover meal, and plans had already been made for where they would take it together. So now they make their way to the room where they will spend the evening, and during supper Jesus does something remarkable. John 13 tells us what happens next:
“Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.” (John 13:1-5)
Jesus is teaching them about humility and the importance of serving one another by doing something only a servant would do – wash their dirty feet. This is where we get the term Maundy Thursday, by the way… Maundy is the traditional term for Footwashing. Him doing this proves to be somewhat ironic since in about half-an-hour they’ll be arguing about who is the greatest among them. But He does try to explain it to them.
“When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, ‘Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.’ After saying these things, Jesus was troubled in his spirit, and testified, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.’” (John 13:12-21)
Jesus washes the disciples’ feet – including Judas’. He speaks of His love for them and demonstrates His willingness to serve them. He implores them to serve one another in humility, but He knows the heart of the one who has already sold Him out. Jesus gives every possible invitation to Judas to change his mind, and every reason to turn from the path He was set on… but he would have none of it.
And then they return to the table, each disciple confused about what Jesus had just said about being betrayed. They sit down and only the one closest to Him, John, has the courage to quietly ask who would do it. Jesus says that it was the one sitting so near Him that they were even sharing the same food at dinner. Jesus then tears off a piece of bread, dips it and shares it with Judas. More irony. Judas sold Jesus out for a pile of money, and was being offered food from Jesus’ table, a sign of friendship.
“Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, ‘What you are going to do, do quickly.’ Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the moneybag, Jesus was telling him, ‘Buy what we need for the feast,’ or that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the morsel of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.” (John 13:27-30)
Many theologians wonder what happened when Judas took that piece of food from Jesus’ hands. Why was Satan able to get a hold of his heart right then? You’d think that would have been the time when he felt closest to Jesus and least likely to betray him. We know that Satan had been working on him already, but what made this the moment of decision?
Perhaps it was that Jesus seemed to already know what Judas had done. He had announced someone would betray him. Perhaps Judas was close enough to hear what Jesus had told John. I wonder if what pushed Judas over the edge was the very fact that Jesus had offered to wash his feet, be his friend and a share his meal. Judas didn’t want to serve a servant – he wanted servants! He didn’t want a friend, he wanted a conquering king! He didn’t want scraps from the table, he wanted to rule nations! He didn’t want a small purse, he wanted a treasury! Perhaps it was the very act of offering friendship that tipped the scales. And Jesus knew… and sent him out to get it over with… His heart growing heavier every minute.
Jesus Comforts His Disciples
The rest of the meal is an amazing series of events. Judas gets up and leaves to find the Temple guard, and Jesus begins to speak to the disciples for a long time. And his speech begins like this in verse 31:
“When he [Judas] had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once. Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’ A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’” (John 13:31-35)
Jesus will speak a lot about love this evening. The word “Love” will come up 31 times before the end of Jesus’ lesson. Next, Jesus will institute the Lord’s Supper and tell Peter that he will betray Him three times.
“Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, where are you going?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.’ Peter said to him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’ Jesus answered, ‘Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times.” (John 13:36-38)
The disciples are visibly upset. Jesus has been talking about his death a lot this evening, he has said someone will betray him, Judas got up and left, and they just watched Jesus and Peter have a very disturbing conversation. I can’t imagine what was going through their minds.
But Jesus speaks words of kindness, strength and promise to them. It is from this discourse, in the final hours before Jesus is arrested, that we get some of the most amazingly helpful and comforting quotes of our faith. He’s agonizing inside, but Jesus begins by saying:
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.” (John 14:1)
When they panic that they don’t know how to get to the Father to be with Him again, He says:
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
When they worry about how they will be able to go on without Him, what if they forget his teaching, what if they don’t know what to do, Jesus says:
“These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you…” (John 14:25-27)
He reminds them of the critical importance of depending on Him for everything — because He loves them:
“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…. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends…” (John 15:5, 8-14)
He prepares them for what is about to happen, and what will happen for the rest of their ministry:
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you…. ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:18, 20)
Yhen He makes them a promise:
“…you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” (John 16:22-24)
At the end of this teaching time, after He has tried to prepare them for what will come, the disciples look at Him and say:
“‘Ah, now you are speaking plainly and not using figurative speech! Now we know that you know all things and do not need anyone to question you; this is why we believe that you came from God.’ Jesus answered them, ‘Do you now believe? Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.’” (John 16:29-33)
His concern for them, despite the fact that they have such little clue about what He is feeling – no one asks Him – and despite the fact that in only a few hours, they will scatter in fear and leave him alone to face a false trial and then death at the hands of their enemies – is staggering. He really, really, loves them.
And then Jesus prays. He prays for Himself, His disciples, and all of us believers that would come later. All of chapter 17 is a prayer Jesus spoke in the Upper Room during His last meal with the disciples. He’s only a short time away from His betrayals, arrest, false trials and crucifixion, and He calls out to God.
First, Jesus prays for Himself:
“When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” (John 17:1-5)
Next He prays for his disciples, staring in verse 6:
“I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.
But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.” (John 17:6-19)
And then, Jesus prayed for you, me, and all believers who came before and will come after us:
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.
Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:20-26)
After His prayer, He looked at them, and got up to leave. He warns them again that they will all fall away from Him, and Peter again states the He never will… and Jesus reminds him that He will deny Him three times. Words spoken in love, knowing what will come – and the disciples are starting to understand how much pain their Lord is in.
They leave the Upper Room and walk to the Garden of Gethsemane in the Kidron Valley, where Jesus wants to go to continue to pray and prepare His heart for the immense trial and suffering that would come very, very soon. And He wants His followers to pray for Him and to pray that they might not be afraid or betray Him that evening.
“Jesus went out [as was his custom] to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. On reaching the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you will not fall into temptation.’ He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’ An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. ‘Why are you sleeping?’ he asked them. ‘Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.’” (Luke 22:39-46 [from the NIV])
In moments, Judas will come with a group of armed guards from the Sanhedrin, and return Jesus’ act of friendship from earlier that evening – He will give Jesus the kiss of friendship, which was designed to tell the guards exactly who to arrest.
Drawing an application from Thursday is no easy task. There is so many places we could go. A whole series’ of sermons couldn’t mine out all the wonders of what was said and what happened on Thursday. But I take this away:
Jesus loves His people so much. All the promises of Thursday are promises to us too.
He loved them enough to prepare a place for them in heaven.
He loved them by washing their feet and humbly serving them.
He loved them by preparing their hearts and minds for the trials that would come, and never lying about how hard it would be.
He loved them by warning them about the weakness of their hearts and convicting them of their sins.
He loved them by making them not only His followers, but His friends.
He loved them by promising them the Holy Spirit, a union to Him and the Father, that would never leave them.
He loved them so much He would be willing to listen to and answer their prayers when He went away.
He loved them by giving them each other to lean on.
He loved them even though He knew they would keep turning away from Him.
He loved them though they would betray Him.
He loved them though they would scatter.
He loved them even though they didn’t understand and were often disobedient and argumentative, grasping at power and refusing humility.
He loved them by praying for them and interceding on their behalf to His Father.
And, in His most amazing act of love, He loved them so much, that He was willing to take all of their sins, to suffer and die in their place, taking the wrath of God on Himself, exchanging His Righteousness for their sinfulness, so they could inherit eternal life and be with Him forever.
That’s the love of Jesus for us.
A couple weeks ago we started a series going through the final week of Jesus life His resurrection on Easter Sunday. We’ve already covered the events of Palm Sunday and Monday where we saw the Triumphal Entry, the Cursing of the Fig Tree and The Cleansing of the Temple. Today we will talk about what happened an even more eventful day – Tuesday.
Many people call the this time in Christ’s life “Passion Week”. It is so named because of the passion Christ showed during His march toward the cross to pay for the sins of His people. It could be argued that it was during Passion Week that Jesus preached the most stirring, emotional, difficult, and controversial teachings of His entire ministry. But He wasn’t the only one showing passion – so were His enemies.
I’m a child of the 80s and 90s, so the events of Tuesday remind me of when I used to watch the Royal Rumble during WrestleMania as a kid. For the uninitiated, the Royal Rumble is when they take a whole bunch of very large men, dressed in tights and other forms of weird clothing (and who call themselves “wrestlers”), stick them in one ring and let them pretend to beat the tar out of one another until one man remains. The rules were that two men would start in the ring and then every couple of minutes they send in wrestler after wrestler, 28 more, until one man stands victorious.
That’s what Tuesday is to Jesus. He’s taking on all comers. We read about group after group lining up to try to trick, trap and publically scandalize Jesus through all sorts of devious questions. But when the day comes to an end, He’s the only one standing.
Mark 11:20-13:37 give us the events of events of Tuesday, but I would like to park on the section where Jesus is confronted in the Temple, starting in verse 27. Before we dig into any application, I want to look at the attacks that come against Jesus, and who from:
“And they came again to Jerusalem. [that is, Jesus, His Disciples, and probably a growing group of followers] And as he was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him…”
What we see here is the group called “The Sanhedrin”, which was the Jewish executive, legislative and judicial council. It consists of 70 members, plus the High Priest. Now, this wasn’t the entire Sanhedrin, but probably a delegation sent from it. They met every day (except on Festivals and the Sabbath) and had a lot of power in Jerusalem. They were the ones to whom all questions of the Mosaic law were finally put.
To understand what’s going on here, picture Jesus walking into church only to find a delegation of lawyers, judges and politicians, sent from the Supreme Court of Canada, standing in his way. Remember, Jesus had just caused a major scene the day before by throwing out the merchants and money changers from the day before. This was a group of powerful, angry men who were sent to question Jesus regarding His actions.
The First Volley
We already know from verse 18 that this group was planning on killing Jesus, but they couldn’t figure out how to do it since they were afraid that the crowds would turn on them if they did. Jesus was still immensely popular. They needed to turn the crowds against Him before they could eliminate Him.
“…and they said to him, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?’” (vs 28)
Jesus has only taken a few steps into the Temple, surrounded by a group of disciples that is growing every minute, when these men stop Him and ask Him for His credentials. There’s almost no doubt that after Jesus’ actions of the day before, they had convened a council to try to figure out what to do with Him, and they had come up with a plan: publically discredit Him so most of the crowds would stop following Him, capture him during the night when no one was watching, and then trump up some charges against Him – a plan that eventually succeeds, with Judas’ help.
Their first attempt was a well-laid trap. They wanted Jesus either to publically admit that He believed He was the Messiah, the Son of God, and that His authority came straight from God so they could accuse Him of blasphemy which was punished by death – or say that everything was by His own authority so they could accuse Him of being a megalomaniacal fanatic.
But Jesus knows their hearts. He knows they couldn’t care less about what authority Jesus speaks and performs miracles by and so He turned the question back on them to expose their cowardice. Verse 29:
“Jesus said to them, ‘I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.’ And they discussed it with one another, saying, ‘If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But shall we say, ‘From man’?’—they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John really was a prophet. So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.’” (vs 29-33)
He reveals their motives and weakness to everyone around, and then Jesus goes even farther. Keep in mind that they aren’t in a private place with only 12 disciples and the delegation from the Sanhedrin. They are surrounded by a large, and ever growing, crowd. Jesus was already very popular, and now he’s in a Title-Fight with some of the most educated, influential and powerful people in their whole culture.
Remember high-school when kids would start to pick on one another, and then one would push the other? It wasn’t too long until the whole school found out and came running. Imagine Jesus vs The Sanhedrin. That would draw a crowd.
The Parable of the Tenants
“And he began to speak to them in parables. ‘A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower, and leased it to tenants and went into another country. When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’” (12:1-6)
It’s almost impossible for the crowds and the delegation to miss the point of this story — this is a parable of judgement. As soon as Jesus says the word “vineyard” they know that Jesus is talking about all of Israel, because it was a well-known metaphor in the Old Testament.
Jesus uses this story to not only to illustrate the tension between Him and the leaders of Israel, but to break it wide open. This story is a condemnation of all of them, and a prophecy of what would happen in only days.
The Landlord who planted and owns the vineyard is God – and it’s a good one. It is protected by a stone wall, built by the owner himself. He cultivated it and made it fruitful enough to need a winepress. He set up a tower as a lookout for trouble and a shelter for those who gathered the grapes. The owner of the land knows what He’s doing, and has created a great vineyard.
He steps aside and leases it to some tenants to run for a time. He’ll be back, but until then He wants them to care for and grow His vineyard – which should be pretty easy since He’s already done all the hard work. All they have to do is keep it up.
And they do. They sit back and enjoy the fruits of the owners labour. Sure, they had to pull some weeds, but it was the owner’s wisdom and strength that made it grow so well.
And when all the grapes were ready to be picked, and the owner comes back to collect some, the tenants won’t give it up. Those who remember the story of the cursing of the fig tree know what the fruit is meant to represent here: worship and obedience.
They want the grapes. All of them. The tenants, who here represent the Sanhedrin and other Jewish religious rulers, won’t give them up. They want the worship that is due to God. They want the praise. They want the power. They want the glory. They want to be obeyed. They want to have what God is rightfully due – the worship of His people.
God sent His angels, prophets, kings, judges, to tell them to give up what is only for Him, but they won’t have it. Finally God sends the Messiah, the very Word, the voice of God, the face of God. The One whom Hebrews (1:3) calls “…His Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” And soon, they would reject and kill Him.
Jesus looks them in the eye and knows their heart. He looks at the leaders of Israel and knows what they have been plotting. He says in verse 7:
“But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this Scripture: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes?’” (vs 7-10)
The Sanhedrin, the elders, teachers of the Law, Pharisees, Sadducees, and the entire crowd catches on. Jesus says that “the vineyard”, which represents all the promises God made to Israel, will be taken from them and given to non-Jewish people. He will come and wipe out the Temple, the Sacrifices, and the Old Laws, and give the entire blessing “to others”.
Why? Because they rejected Him. He offered salvation – a sharing of the fruit – if they would humble themselves. But they saw Jesus as a stone that was in their way, that needed to be removed so they could build what they wanted to build. Jesus said, “No, I’m not in your way… I’m the cornerstone… and unless you build on me, everything you build will fall apart.”
If you read the accounts in Matthew and Luke you can read even more parables that Jesus told them, where He speaks of God as an enraged King who will dispatch His troops to destroy the leaders of Israel and invite gentiles into His wedding feast. Over and over Jesus issues warnings to the people and the Jewish leaders that they are on the edge of hell, and warns them against rejecting God’s plan of salvation through God’s chosen agent – Him.
See their reaction:
“And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. So they left him and went away.” (vs 12)
Exasperated and defeated, they walk away – but they’re not done. Their cronies are going to spend the rest of Tuesday playing the same hand over and over, trying to discredit Jesus and make him trip over his words. Just like in the parable, they are going to throw fist after fist, stone after stone, trying to get Jesus out of their way so they can take over the vineyard – but it’s not going to work.
Attack after Attack
“And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk.” (vs 13)
Next they send in the B-team of wealthy businessmen try to discredit him – the movers and shakers of the community. They thought they had come up with a great trap about paying taxes to Rome, where they thought they could get Jesus arrested as a traitor for saying not to pay taxes, or rejected by the people as a Roman sell-out by saying you have to support Rome. But it doesn’t work and they scurry away defeated.
Next they throw out a Hail-Mary by sending in the least credible of their ranks – the wealthy, aristocratic, smart-mouthed, materialist-minded politicians: “And Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection. And they asked him a question…”. (vs 18) But their question, which was about who would be married to whom after the resurrection, is so ridiculous, and so poorly framed, and so unbiblical, that Jesus easily points out to everyone that they knew “neither the Scriptures nor the power of God”. (vs 24)
Finally, we see one man, a scribe, which we would call a Lawyer, who had been impressed with Jesus’ answers, come up and asked: “Which commandment is the most important of all?” (vs 28) Jesus answers Him, and they have a discussion about the importance of loving God and loving our neighbours, and it goes well, but this man still lacked something. He knew the right answers, was an expert in the scriptures, and understood God desired not only obedience but love – but had not yet put His faith in Jesus. “And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’” (vs 34)
I think Jesus spoke tenderly to him, rather than with the intensity He had been showing defending Himself to the other groups. This lawyer was almost there, but had yet to take the step of faith in Jesus that would lead Him to the Kingdom. And Jesus was pleased with Him, but wanted Him to know that He wasn’t there yet.
Mark says at the end of verse 34: “And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.”
“Ding-ding! Knockout! Presenting the undisputed, heavyweight champion of the woooorld!” Delegations from every Jewish leadership group had come to Jesus with some incredibly tough questions, and He faced them all down. Their efforts had been fruitless and they had been the ones who ended up looking foolish. Their hatred grew and they would have to come up with a revised plan for how to kill Jesus.
And that plan would be handed them on a silver platter in only a couple of days as one of Jesus’ own followers, who had had enough, came to them to sell Him out.
When I think of what applications we can pull from what was going on in Jesus’ life on this Tuesday, I can see two important things for us to remember:
First, Jesus knows what it’s like to be under attack from all sides. Remembering that helps us in our prayer life.
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)
The people and families in our little church are under attack these days – and from many different angels. Jesus was challenged about all sorts of matters from all sorts of people, so we are also being challenged. Some are struggling with physical temptations to sin with their bodies. Others are being attacked by their family and friends. Some are under spiritual oppression that is trying to drive them into a dark place. Some are feeling it financially. Other are beset with fears of loss, confusion over the future, anxiety over decisions, or the pressure to be perfect.
The first application I see here is to remember that Jesus knows what it’s like to be hit on all sides. He was tired, had only ever done good and told the truth – but they were still attacking Him. Why? Because He was Son of the rightful owner of the vineyard. Just like you are.
If you’re a follower of Jesus, then you are going to be under attack. You are a son or daughter of the king, and you are hated by His enemies. In His final meal with the disciples before He is arrested and crucified, Jesus says to them,
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
And that’s the second thing to remember. No matter what came at Him, Jesus overcame all of His adversaries. Even in the end when they crucified Him, He came back from the dead. There was no temptation, no clever trick that, no theological or religious question that he couldn’t perfectly answer.
The message of the world is “Try harder, work more, be better, and you will over come the world.” The message of Jesus is, “I have already overcome them all. Trust me. Listen to Me. Follow my Words. Those who are in my Kingdom are already victorious.”
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose…. If God is for us, who can be against us?…we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:28, 31, 37)
That requires us to depend on Jesus. To put down our own wisdom and strength and pick up His. He is stronger, wiser, kinder, more loving, and more helpful than anything else we can turn to. Not only does He know exactly what you’re going through, but He’s been through it Himself, and He knows the way out — and He’s willing to share it with you, if you’d only submit yourself to His Lordship and listen. He will forgive you because He loves you. He will guide you because He is good.
To the scribe He said, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God” because he had knowledge but had not exercised faith. I implore you to allow your relationship with Jesus to take that eighteen-inch journey from your head to your heart and to make Him your true Lord and Saviour – in all areas of your life. Go to Him with everything.
Last week I gave you a brief introduction to Spiritual Journaling using Scripture as your Guide. (If you haven’t read that yet, I suggest you start there.) I said that the system I’m teaching isn’t the only way to meet with God, but it is one way that has worked for me and I want to pass on to you.
What I’m going to be teaching today is how to have a conversation with God every day. Not a one-way prayer, but a conversation. I’m not talking about a type of mysticism where we hear special revelations from God, but a system where we bring our sins and needs, cares and concerns, desires and fears, before God, and then listen to Him as He talks to us from scripture.
This isn’t a free-flowing, off the top of your head, whatever you feel like saying, prayer – it’s a conversation. It’s not us trying to shoe-horn God’s Word to say whatever we want it to say either. It’s us speaking our heart to God, and then opening ourselves to hearing what God wants to say to us.
Last week I introduced the concept by looking at some practical tools to get us started. The majority of our time was spent talking about why there are so many kinds of bibles and which one would be best to use, so this week I want to look at the rest of the story. First, why journaling is important, second, how to set up your Bible to get a balanced scriptural diet, and then third, I want to share the technique of using scripture to guide to what you are going to say to God and then listening to what He wants to say to you. Ready?
So let’s start with the question, “Why Journaling?”
Let me start with the assumption that you have agreed with the last 5 sermons. You agree that God’s voice is available and that you want to hear it. You agree that your heart is hard, twisted and deceptive and you need God to give you a new one and then explain how it works. You agree that God’s Word is more important than your daily bread and that without connecting to Him in a meaningful way, you will spiritually starve. You agree that the Bible is like our umbilical cord to Jesus, the way that God has given us to connect to Him. You agree that the Bible has supernatural power, and that God uses the reading of it to reveal our souls and make us more like Jesus.
You agree that you’ve struggled with forgetting that being a Christian means being in relationship with a real person named Jesus Christ, and that you’ve sometimes slipped into perfectionism (trying to “do your devos right”) or carelessness (where you shortcut your time with God). And you agree that you want to connect with God in a consistent, meaningful way, and are open to trying something different to see if that helps you grow closer to Him.
So, beginning there, the question is this: Why can’t I just say it in my head? Why do I need to write it down? What’s so important about writing my prayers?
Let me start with this. You don’t have to write your prayers, but I encourage you to try it. I said that this is my system and that you should try it, and then adapt it. If you find it helpful, then keep it. If not, then try something else. There’s nothing in scripture that says that writing out your prayers is more holy, or more effective, than speaking them aloud or in your mind. However, I believe there are some benefits to journaling your prayers. (I really appreciated Stephen Eyre’s section on journaling in his book “Drawing close to God: the essentials of a dynamic quiet time”)
People of the Book
First, Christians are people of The Book. We love the Bible. For centuries people have used Scripture as a key text in their spiritual, moral, family, governmental, and educational lives. For a lot of people in the world, as missionaries translate the bible into more and more languages, the Bible is the first book they ever read. As we’ve said before, we believe God gave us the Bible and that His written word has power.
Therefore, reading and writing have always been an important part of Christianity. God introduced us to Himself by asking prophets to write down what He was saying. Throughout the years Christians have written more and more books to help believers grow closer to God. And, although in our journaling we are not going to be writing scripture, and perhaps no one will ever read our journal, humanity’s relationship with God has been indelibly tied to the written word.
Writing Helps Us Process
Second, writing things down helps us process what is going on inside. You’ve probably experienced trying to pray and having a log-jam of thoughts and emotions all come crowing to the front. Or, sitting down to pray and realizing you have absolutely nothing to say. You know you should. It’s not like your life is perfect and you know everything – but you don’t know what to say.
Having to form sentences and choose words – and then write them down – helps our brains to process the complex thoughts and emotions that are rolling around our hearts and minds. It might be hard to start writing sometimes, but as you start, you’ll find that more thoughts start to come. Maybe you start with a question or a request. It doesn’t matter how you start writing because what you are doing is beginning a conversation with God. He’ll take you where He wants you to go. You’re obedience to sitting down, concentrating and opening His Word gets the ball rolling and gets you set to both speak and listen.
My journal entries more often or not start with either the words “Good Day, Lord.” Or “Bad Day, Lord.” And it starts to flow from there.
Writing Makes Our Prayers Feel More Solid
Third, writing out prayers makes them feel more concrete to us. Our prayers are always heard by God, but sometimes our prayers feel like they float away into the ether – they don’t feel very solid. Sometimes after we’ve said amen, we don’t remember what we’ve just said, we’re not really sure what to expect an answer to, and we can’t remember what God had been saying. Certainly, if you were to ask a week later what our heartfelt conversation with God was about, we wouldn’t remember hardly any of it.
However, once you start to write out our prayers you are able to see a record of what you’ve been thinking, feeling and experiencing with God. You’ll be able to look at a transcript of your conversations with Him, see patterns in your prayers over a period of time, and be able to see how God is answering prayers in specific ways. You’ll see that when you ask questions, someone is answering those questions. You can look back, even after a year, and see how God has given you new perspectives, new understanding, and changed you into a different person. You may not have even realized it, but God had been doing some really good work in and through us, incrementally, in small steps – and when you are consistent in meeting Him every day, and writing down your conversations, you can see His work in a tangible way.
Let me give you an example from my own journal of what I mean. This is an actual entry in my Journal from April 22nd this year. This is how it started:
“I don’t feel very good, Lord. Not sure what’s wrong. Too much uncertainty of good and near certainty of bad, I suppose. That and changing my diet, the spiritual attack of Holy Week, my constant distractions, and all the rest… I’m not angry, just… I don’t know. So, God, I just need a rest in you. I’ll take what you give me, but I just need a rest in you for a bit.”
You can see that I didn’t really know what to write, or where to start, or what I was feeling – I just knew I needed God. Then I got into my Bible reading. I’ll explain my Bible Reading System in a moment, but let me first show you what God did so you can see some of the fruit. Remember, this isn’t me choosing my favourite verses or searching through my concordance for certain words. This is just me reading whatever came next in my plan.
First I came to the book of Philemon. It’s only a chapter long, so I read the whole thing. And verses 6 and 20 jumped off the page. Verse 6 says, “I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.” And verse 20 ends with the words, “Refresh my heart in Christ.”
Here’s what I wrote:
“That’s what I need, Lord. And you remind me that being active in sharing my faith will give me an understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. God help me share my faith and please refresh my heart.”
I then turned to Luke 18:33-43 which tells the story of the blind beggar who receives his sight from Jesus. I wrote this: “Lord, in the same way as the beggar, I have no idea how you can do it, but I need your help. God, changing things isn’t much fun and I’m already facing resentment for it. God help my attitude. Help me be a better husband, father and Christian.”
Then I read Isaiah 40 which starts, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God…” and ends with:
“Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God’? Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
I didn’t go looking for these passages. They were just next in line in my reading plan. I wrote in response:
“God, I’m weary, give me strength. I’m weak (so weak, Lord), give me power. I’ve stumbled and fallen and I don’t know where to walk, renew my strength. Help me to live in your promises.”
Then I opened to the next bookmark which was at Psalm 146 and says,
“Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord, my soul. I will praise the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live. Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing. Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God. He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them—he remains faithful forever. He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked. The Lord reigns forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord.”
And I wrote:
“God, you are hearing me, I know. Another reminder of your goodness to the weak. I fear, that when I close this book I will go back to sadness, but for now I’m so thankful for your words of hope.”
And then I read 1 Chronicles 17 which has the prayer of David where he says,
“Who am I, Lord God, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far? And as if this were not enough in your sight, my God, you have spoken about the future of the house of your servant. You, Lord God, have looked on me as though I were the most exalted of men. What more can David say to you for honoring your servant? For you know your servant, Lord. For the sake of your servant and according to your will, you have done this great thing and made known all these great promises…. You, my God, have revealed to your servant that you will build a house for him. So your servant has found courage to pray to you. You, Lord, are God! You have promised these good things to your servant. Now you have been pleased to bless the house of your servant, that it may continue forever in your sight; for you, Lord, have blessed it, and it will be blessed forever.”
I simply wrote:
“God, you bless and protect your people out of your love and generosity. I trust your love and generosity today. God, help me live in it.”
I remember feeling then, and still feel, so very overwhelmed by how specifically God was speaking to me. Gently reminding me of his love, showing me how to find strength, and then closing by reminding me of this promise that my salvation and blessing is secure because He is God. He has promised me great things and though it is sometimes hard – just like David’s life was blessed, but hard – I am one of His children.
I don’t tell you this to show off or make myself seem super spiritual, but to show you that Spiritual Journaling using Scripture as Your Guide has deeply affected me, and it is my great prayer that passing it along to you will help you as well.
I needed to hear from God so badly that day. And God was there, just as He always is. And I can look back over and over to read that promise, and it is just as precious to me today as it was the day when I had that conversation with God.
5 Bookmarks for a Balanced Spiritual Diet
This all comes from scripture, so what I want to do now is explain to you a way that you can set up your Bibles in a way that I call “Five Bookmarks for a Balanced Spiritual Diet.”
The Danger of Only Reading Favourites
Let me start with a picture: A friend calls you up sounds pretty desperate to have a conversation with you. You suggest that they come over to your place, or go out to a coffee shop where it’s quiet, so you can talk. A short time later, you’re together and they say to you, “I really appreciate your friendship, and I value your advice. You know me better than anyone, and I have a few problems right now that I want to run past you.”
You take a sip of your coffee and look at your friend, concerned and full of love for them, and say, “Ok, sure… what’s on your mind?”
And as they begin, they reach into their back pocket and say, “Well… before we start, I’ve got a few recipe cards here that I’ve written some of my very favourite things you’ve ever said to me. They are so powerful, easy to remember, and really wonderful to hear. So, I’m going to tell you everything, but when you answer me, it would be great if you’d only answer by reading from these cards, ok?”
That doesn’t give you a lot to work with, does it? But that’s what we do with God when we choose only a small pile of verses to read or live our life only reading certain parts of the Bible.
I love memory verses and we all have our favourite passages of scripture. Some people even have a life-verse that they hang onto and is special to them. But, to hear from God in a balanced way, we need to be reading the whole book, not just our own favourite parts. In order to have a conversation with someone, we need to let them speak to us freely, not assuming what they are going to say and then giving them a multiple-choice answer sheet to pick from.
RE: Bible Reading Plans
So what we need, to make sure we are reading the whole Bible, is reading plan. There are lots and lots out there. Some go through the Bible in a year, others in 90 days, others in 3 years. Some take you through the Bible from cover to cover, others jump around, others go through it chronologically.
I don’t think it matters which one you use as long as you remember that a bible reading plan is guide, not a rulebook. Stick to the plan as much as you can, but if you find yourself getting behind, don’t stress out, just keep going. Remember, you’re not in a race to get to the end, but having a conversation with God.
I’m sure you would find it frustrating to talk to someone who kept telling you to hurry up and talk faster so you can get to the end. And you wouldn’t want your friend to feel the need to talk to you for 17 straight hours because they forgot to call you last week. Just go at the same rate and you’ll either catch up, or you won’t. Getting to the end isn’t the point anyway.
So here’s my method for setting up your “Five Bookmarks for a Balanced Spiritual Diet”.
This plan is setup to be done 6 days out of the week and requires putting bookmarks in five different sections of the Bible. When you get to the end of a section you just put the bookmark back at the beginning and start over.
Bookmark 1 goes into the Stories of the Old Testament, also called the “Law and History” by some people. It starts at the beginning of the book of Genesis and goes to the end of the book of Esther. That’s 436 chapters, and if you read it 6 days out the year you’ll get through the whole thing in about a year and a couple months.
Bookmark 2 goes into the Poetry of the Old Testament, also called the “Wisdom and Worship” books. It starts at the beginning of Job and goes to the end of Song of Songs. That’s 243 chapters, and if you read it for 6 days a week, you’ll get through it in around 9 months.
Bookmark 3 goes in the Prophecy of the Old Testament, also called the “Major and Minor Prophets”. It starts at the beginning of Isaiah and ends in Malachi. That’s 250 chapters and if you read it 6 days per week, you’ll get through the whole thing in around 9 months.
Bookmark 4 goes at the beginning of the New Testament in a section about Jesus and His Church, also called “The Gospels and Acts of the Apostles.” It starts at the beginning of Matthew and ends in Acts. It’s 117 chapters and if you read it for 6 days per week you’ll have read it almost three times in a year.
The last Bookmark, number 5, goes in the Letters of the New Testament, also called “Theology and Eschatology”. It starts in the book of Romans and goes to end of the book of Revelation. It’s 143 Chapters and if you read it for 6 days out of the week, you’ll have read it more than twice after a year.
Doing this has a couple advantages:
First, it will keep you from getting bored. Maybe it’s just me, but reading 4 chapters of Leviticus in a day – and knowing that that’s where I’ll be for the next month – and only looking forward to the book of Numbers – isn’t much fun.
That’s why I set it up this way. So when your slogging your way through Leviticus, you only have to read one chapter and you know that you’ll be getting to a story in Kings and the Gospel, and you’ll be able to read a Psalm. When the Prophecies get confusing and you’re not getting much out of the Psalms that week, something in the Letters will be a spark for you. Not every chapter of every reading will be mind-blowing. Sometimes it’s about just reading and seeing the big picture of the story of the Bible.
Second, you’ll be amazed how the themes and history of scripture come together. You’ll read things in the Old Testament that will make passages in the New Testament make so much more sense. The names of Jesus, or some of Paul’s illustrations for the church, will come alive as you see that theme in Genesis, and the Psalms and Prophets. Stories you read in the History books will make all those weird prophecies start to make sense. The stories you read about the life of David will bring so much more meaning to the Psalms he wrote.
So, now that you have your bookmarks in the right place, your Bible is open, your pencil is in hand, and your Composition Book is sitting in front of you, what do you do? Here’s the technique and it takes me about half an hour to finish – sometimes more sometimes less. And this is where the importance of the margins I talked about earlier comes in.
1. Write the date and the day of the week on the top corner of the page. Why? Because when you look back on it, you’ll be able to get a lot more out of it if you can see when you did it. You’ll see things like “Oh, that was close to my birthday and I didn’t even notice how much it was bothering me.” or “I seem to get tempted in the same way on the same day of the week.” or “I can’t believe how much the winter affects my attitude. I’m such a different person in the springtime.” or “God was really preparing me for the Easter season, or for that tough thing that was coming in my life. Even months before I can see him getting me ready.”
2. Write what’s going on in your heart at the top of the page. God is there and He’s listening. You are going to talk to Him, He will talk to you and you will listen. This is where you start the conversation. The rest of the journaling may not go where you expect it to because maybe God has something different for you, but many times you’ll find that God meets you exactly where you are at and gives you what you need. And it all starts here.
So just start writing, as we talked about before. You don’t have to be eloquent, but you do need to be honest. Write from the top of your head and just begin. What is your most pressing concern, need, fear, praise, hope, desire… start there. What question do you need an answer to? What series of questions are bugging you? It can be a short sentence or two, or a whole paragraph. Sometimes mine takes more than a page because there’s a lot on my mind, but as you saw in my example, sometimes it’s only a jumble of thoughts and feelings in a short couple sentences.
3. Read the first bookmark and talk to God about it. Sometimes I start from the Old Testament and go to the New, other times I start with the New Testament and go to the Old. It doesn’t really matter. You’ll be amazed how whatever you’ve just read connects to the paragraph you just wrote off the top of your head. Or, you’ll see something else and God will start to build a new idea in your mind.
You’ll begin to realize that he’s answering the question or concern you just raised in a way that you would have never seen before, and that is far more than coincidence.
Now remember as you read, that it’s not a race. There will be times that you’ll read a chapter from beginning to end and that’s good. Other times you’ll want to continue the story and you’ll read a couple. Sometimes it’s a list of names, so you skim them over for a few chapters. By the way, when you get to those lists of names, don’t go too fast or you’ll miss some good stuff. Look for descriptive phrases like “he was a mighty man” or “they cried out to God and trusted him” or “they broke faith with the God of their fathers.” They are little nuggets that speak volumes about these names, and that God can use to speak to our own hearts.
Sometimes (and this happens to me in the Gospels a lot) you read only a couple of verses and they hit you like a two-pound hammer, and that’s more than enough for the day. That’s ok. Just leave your bookmark there and come back tomorrow!
Once you’ve read your section for the day – whatever the length – write down what you see there.
- What did God just tell you about Himself?
- What did you just learn about humanity?
- What sins where there? What blessings?
- What kind of promises di you just read?
- Were you convicted of anything, or did you learn anything?
- Did God bring to mind something you need to do?
Write it down as a prayer to God.
- “God, I see this in here…”
- “Lord, I see a mistake that this person made and I’ve done that too…”
- “Jesus, I hear your promise here, and it means this to me…”
- Sometimes I’ve just written: “I have no idea what this means, and I don’t know what’s going on, but I am reminded that you are God and I am not.”
And as you’re writing, that’s a good time to highlight the specific passage that God spoke to you through. Maybe you don’t have one for each chapter, and that’s ok. But there will be sometimes that God really speaks through a specific verse or section. Highlight it, make a note next to it, circle it. Interact with the text and your journal as you are having a conversation with God.
You’ve probably had conversations with people who like to draw things out, right? They grab a napkin or a piece of paper or they set-up the salt-shakers and spoons to explain what they’re talking about. That’s what I’m talking about. God is there talking to you. Highlight the text, circle the word that jumps out. Draw a line under the sentence and then draw a big line across the page to the verse it connects to, and a star next to it. It doesn’t have to have any more rhyme or reason than that it is your interaction with your Bible as you are interacting with God.
4. Work your way through the bookmarks. Then move to the next bookmark and do the same thing. Watch for themes as God starts weaving His message out for you. Listen for God’s voice to speak to you. Don’t try to shoehorn meanings in there, just take what is naturally in the text, and write down what you are hearing God say. Have a conversation with God. You speak, He speaks, You reflect and speak, He speaks some more…
5. Look back through your conversation. When you get to the end, take a moment to read what you just wrote and look over the highlights in your Bible. See the conversation as a whole and realize that God was speaking to you. I’ve even taken to circling some of the things that connect together and have drawn a line from point to point as God spoke.
6. Optional: Write a Title for the day. At the very top of the page, if your time with God was especially meaningful that day, and it’s something you just know you’re going to want to look back on later – either to remind yourself or share with someone else (because sometimes God gives you a message for someone else and it’s way easier to give the message if you’re reading it!) – then write a title on the top of the page. It doesn’t happen very often, but I’ve written things like “this is how to pray” or “the dangers of sin” or “God wants humility” either as a title, or right in my bible.
7. Pray through your prayer list. The last thing you do, before you’re done, is to pray for others. In the little margin, on the left side of the page is a perfect little section to keep the names of people you’re praying for. Start with your immediate family and work outwards to your friends, church, neighbourhood, country and the world. Write down each name. Then, when you come back the next day, you’ll have a list to start with and to add to.
So there’s the system. If you have any questions or comments, please leave it in the comments section below or contact me personally.
How Do You Devo?
Devos, Daily Devotionals, Quiet Time, Private Meditation, Time with God, 1-on-1 with Jesus, Daily Prayers — there are lots of names for it and likely as many ways to do it. And I want to know yours!
I recently filled my very first prayer journal and got a shiny new one to celebrate (pictured above). God has been doing amazing things during these times with Him. Every day God answers my concerns, points out new insights, convicts me of sin, reveals my heart, and gives me comfort. My time with God is very important to me and I want to spread the joy by sharing what I do.
But not only that, I want to know what you do! I searched for years to find a personal way to connect with God. I tried dozens of guides, systems, studies and techniques, but none captured my heart. Eventually I came up with my own and it has been truly incredible.
I know I’m not the only one who has struggled with this. Many Christians struggle to have a consistent, daily time with God, and one repeated reason is that they “don’t know how”. The mission of this blog is to “give you the tools and inspiration you need to pursue a deeper, consistent and more meaningful relationship with God” and I believe that sharing how we do our personal devotions is a way to help accomplish that mission. Once I gather some I intend to put together a special training night on “How to Journal Using Scripture as Your Guide” using insights from those who share! Then, for those who can’t be trained in person, I’ll post it on my blog.
Will you join me in helping others to spend more time with God?
My Devo Setup
I’ve made a commitment that the first thing I do when I sit at my desk is to take away the wireless keyboard, put on the isolation headphones (playing classical and jazz music), and open my prayer journal. I begin by writing out the prayers on my heart, asking forgiveness for sin and sharing the troubles that are on my mind. Then, I open up the Bible. I have 5 bookmarks in my tattered NIV and I journal a reflection after each chapter. As I read and pray I search for what God is saying to me for that day. I believe He will speak through His word, and He does!
Sharing Your Setup?
So, what’s your setup?
To share, follow these steps:
- Write a brief synopsis sharing where you are and what tools and methods you use.
- Take a picture of your environment and tools.
- Use the comment section below and link to your picture OR Send the comment and picture to my email (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Pass this post along to your Christian friends so they can contribute too!
Thanks in advance to all who participate.
You are the life-giving God.
and give us the energy to call upon Your name,
for our minds are not enough to understand,
our thoughts are wayward
and we are easily distracted.
We love the world too much
and within our heart is still the struggle with unbelief and doubt.
It is only by Your Holy Spirit that our many weaknesses
can become strengths.
We approach You as our Father
and our Friend.
You are our portion forever,
the person from whom we get exceeding joy,
and from You comes the strength of our hearts.
We believe in You as the God of nature,
the God of all things,
the great Creator,
the one who set everything in motion,
the one who sustains the universe,
the one who controls providence,
and the one who sent Jesus to be our Saviour from Sin.
Inside each one of us today is a voice that makes us feel too guilty to come before You,
or too proud
to call upon Your name
– but today we choose to praise You
because of the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,
that we are able to be reconciled to You
because of Him.
May the truth that is in Him
illuminate in us all that is dark,
firmly establish in us all that is wavering,
still within us all of the storms of our hearts,
accomplish in us and through us all of the good plans that You have set before us,
and glorify in us the name of Jesus Christ.
Some of us are passing through a vale of tears,
through a difficult, almost impossible time
– but we choose to thank You
and bless You
for opening the gate to glory at the end of it.
Help us to realise that in You is something better than what we see before us,
help us keep heaven and eternity with You ever in our mind.
Prepare us for the journey You still have for us to walk.
Uphold our steps by Your word.
Keep us from any sin that would dominate us.
Teach us that if we put ourselves first,
then we are not walking towards Jesus.
Teach us that if we are trying to save ourselves,
then he cannot be our Redeemer.
Help us see the kinds of idols we are setting in our hearts
so we may have a better relationship with You.
Give us a strong faith that accepts Jesus as our Redemer
and Lord and our God over all.
In Jesus name we pray, Amen.
(Inspired by “Truth in Jesus” from “The Valley of Vision“)
O Lord of Grace,
this is the beginning of a new week and the whole world is before us this day.
As we look into it we realize that we are weak,
and ill-equipped to handle all that we will face
– but we look to you for strength. Read the rest of this entry »
“Lord, you have been out dwelling place throughout all generations.
Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting,
you are God.” (Psalm 90:1-2)
Life and death are in your hands, Lord.
Thank you for your long-suffering patience,
because we know that when you become angry, people are consumed and terrified. Read the rest of this entry »
God, you are good to Your people and to those who are pure in heart. We praise you for your goodness.
We must acknowledge that despite your goodness, we have sinned.
Our feet have slipped and we have almost lost our foot hold.
We looked at the arrogant and we have envied them,
wanting to be like people who do not even acknowledge you as Lord.
We have envied the prosperity of the wicked,
thinking that we would rather have material things than the Saviour of our souls.
It is difficult for us to look at sometimes, Lord.
These wealthy, powerful people look so healthy,
so free from the burdens that are common to us.
They are evil,
– and yet they don’t seem touched by human ills.
They wear pride like a necklace and they cloth themselves with violence.
They have callous hearts and they bring forth sin.
The evil conceits of their minds know no limits.
And yet for some reason…
they seem blessed, happy, rich and strong.
Forgive us for wanting to be like them.
We are confused about these people, Lord.
They scoff against you,
and have far more than most.
They hurt others and get rewarded with more riches!
“Do you even know about these people, God?
Do you, the Most High, know how evil some of these people are, and how evil they are acting?
Why have you not done anything about them?”
You don’t seem to.
They are getting richer and they seem carefree.
It’s like all of the good that we do is in vain.
It’s like all of the work we do to stay pure is in vain because they are prospering and we are suffering.
We don’t talk about this much, Father.
If we bring this up we might harm some people’s faith,
so we don’t bring voice to our complaint in public.
We’ve tried to understand it, but we just can’t…
it breaks our hearts and muddles our minds.
But then we came to church.
We entered your sanctuary,
we sang songs to you,
we heard your word,
we remembered your Gospel
and their final destiny.
You opened our eyes to see what is really happening.
Their feet are on slippery ground.
They are already cast down into ruin
and all of the worldly collections they have will be destroyed.
Their life is like a dream and all that they have done,
all that they have,
all of their wickedness and ill-gotten treasures
will be completely swept away and they will have nothing.
When you finally deal with them, they will be nothing more than a fantasy
– an old story long forgotten.
Our bitterness and grieving at our lack of riches was foolish, Lord.
We were ignorant to be jealous of the wicked.
We were as dumb as a wild animal.
And so we resolve to stay with you.
Keep holding us by our hands.
Give us your guidance and your counsel,
and then after this world has passed away,
take us into your glory.
In all the world, there is really nothing better than you.
When we get to heaven, our greatest treasure will be you.
Our flesh and our heart might fail us, but God,
you are the strength of our hearts
and our portion forever.
We stay close to you because those who are far from you will perish.
You will destroy all those who do not have faith.
Lord God, no matter what…
no matter what happens in this world…
it is good to be near God.
We have made you the Sovereign Lord of our refuge
and we will tell everyone of your wonderful deeds!
We pray this in the name of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
(Adapted from Psalm 73)
with confidence we draw near to Your throne of Grace,
that we might receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)
“We are yours, as you have said,
O Lord of Hosts,
and you have made us your treasured possession
and have spared us.” (Malachi 3:17)
Lord, in your word you showed us the most excellent way.
We have sought to speak in the tongues of men and angels –
using technology to spread our voice and our desires far and wide, Read the rest of this entry »
“The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of His hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.” (Psalm 19:1-2)
We are in awe of your creation Lord,
and we thank you so very much for the blessing of knowing you through it.
Truly, when we look at a powerful storm,
the calm of a blue sky,
a sunrise or sunset,
or the majesty of the stars and planets at night,
we are reminded of your power,
and your beauty.
You are worthy of our praise Read the rest of this entry »
What we are going to study today is a deeply convicting passage of scripture for me. Though this passage is short, the concepts, teachings and applications found in this little section is both overwhelming and humbling. That makes it very tough to preach because there is no way I can feel like I’ve ever done it justice. So today I’m going to focus on one topic that is presented here: Prayer.
The topic of prayer, and especially this passage, speaks to my heart in a very powerful way because this is the area of my Christian faith that needs the most work. This may be my chief area of immaturity, the place I fall short the most. My prayer life is my greatest area of spiritual failure. And I’m not saying that because everyone says that even when their prayer life is pretty good. No, if there is one area of my spiritual life that has been a struggle – for years – it has been having a consistent prayer life. I know some here struggle in the same way – and I’m very thankful that there are some who don’t. Read the rest of this entry »
Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise!
Out of the depths we cry to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear our voice and let your ears be attentive to our cry.
If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
who could stand.
But with you there is forgiveness.
Therefore you are feared. Read the rest of this entry »
After being challenged by the elders to study and pray about Pastoral Prayers I have decided to write and give a new prayer each week during the church service. I’ve thought a lot about posting them here and have decided to do so in hopes that people will experience a new way to pray and be encouraged through them. Feel free to use them privately or in your church’s worship time. This prayer is from July 7, 2013.
“[We] will praise you forever for what you have done;
in your name [we] will hope, for your name is good.
[We] will praise you in the presence of the saints.” (Ps 52:9)
It is our desire to praise you Lord, because you are so worthy of our praise.
We worship you and give you glory for what you have done:
the majesty of your creation,
the plan of salvation,
the furtherance of your kingdom,
the hope that is within us,
the rebirth of our souls,
and the revival we have seen in our lives.
And we worship you and give you glory for who You are:
If you had done nothing, your glory alone would be cause for us fall down before you.
Your very nature makes you worthy of our songs.
You are good,
Accept our praise today.
We confess that we have been hypocrites this week.
We have said one thing and done another.
We have proclaimed to be Christians and acted like pagans.
We have been like the teachers of the law and the Pharisees (Matthew 23) who were bad examples to others and did not practice what they preached.
We have done things for the glory of men,
wanting their acceptance and approval above yours.
We have been greedy
willfully walking towards temptation
and jumping head-long into it.
We have strained out gnats and swallowed camels as we have messed up our priorities, neglecting the more important matters of our faith –
– and focused on less important matters
like getting our tithes right to the penny,
reading our bibles for the right amount of minutes,
and saying just enough prayers to abate our conscience.
Forgive us for inverting our priorities and grieving your spirit within us.
Forgive us again this week Lord.
We repent of our sin again, and as you to increase our desire to obey you.
We trust in your word, in your Holy Scriptures, that teach us that “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.”
We fall on that mercy today,
on the shed blood of Christ,
on your abundant grace.
Not presuming upon it, but trusting in it.
Accept our confession and repentance.
Create in us a clean heart.
Renew a steadfast spirit within us.
Restore the joy of your salvation.
And grant us a willing spirit to sustain us. (Psalm 51)
We pray for those in authority over us as you have commanded us to.
We pray for the Federal, Provincial and Civil government leaders in our country and around the world who have been given power,
to make decisions that affect so many people.
Grant them wisdom and humility.
We pray for the persecuted church around the world who are being mistreated
because of their unwavering faith in you.
Help them be a good example to all of us,
to remain strong in the faith,
and to trust in you for their deliverance
– either here, or in eternity.
We pray for the Christian community of Beckwith, Montague, Tay Valley, Mississippi Mills, Carleton Place, Lanark, Lanark Highlands, Drummond/North Elmsly, Smith’s Falls, Perth, Delta, Athens, Brockville, Arnprior, Renfrew, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada and the US.
Help them to be passionate in worship,
strong in fellowship,
disciplined in study,
effective in prayer,
full of miracles,
and to grow in number and in faith.
We pray this in the name of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen
After being challenged by the elders to study and pray about Pastoral Prayers I have decided to write and give a new prayer each week during the church service. I’ve thought a lot about posting them here and have decided to do so in hopes that people will experience a new way to pray and be encouraged through them. Feel free to use them privately or in your church’s worship time. This prayer is from June 30, 2013.
“Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise!…
Within Your temple, O God, we meditate on your unfailing love.
Like your name, O God, Your praise reaches the ends of the earth;
your right hand is filled with righteousness.” (Psalm 48:1a , 10)
We come before you in song,
in our tithes and offerings,
and by giving attention to your Word
because you are worthy of our attention, our praise, our faith, our prayers and our lives.
We praise you this morning as a community of people in need of your mercy,
We confess to you that we have not lived as we should have this week.
We have idols in our hearts,
have grieved your spirit,
have trusted in our own strength,
and, at times, have forgotten your very existence by not being mindful of your presence.
We have indulged our own selfishness and have not loved one another as we are meant to.
We have indulged addictions that you have told us to give up.
We have indulged feelings that you have told us were harmful as we wallowed in bitterness,
We have indulged Satan and given into temptation willfully and mindfully.
You gave us the way out, and we didn’t take it.
We confess our sin and our error, and once again we repent from it.
We need your forgiveness Lord.
We need to be cleansed.
We need your supernatural strength to live a holy life.
As individuals and as a community we come before you trusting your promise that “if we confess our sins, [You are] faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
We trust in your faithfulness.
We know that as a just God you poured out the punishment for our sins onto our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
We know that because of His sacrifice we can be purified.
Purify our church.
Purify our souls.
Purify our community and our city.
Make us clean.
We pray for those in authority over us,
those you have raised up to lead this community, city, province and nation.
Help them listen to you and govern well.
We ask you to bless the other churches in our area as they praise you and listen to your word.
Grow them in number, and deepen them in spiritual maturity.
And for us here this morning Lord, illuminate your word and draw us into a deeper, stronger faith.
Build up our relationship with you and each other.
Give your special attention and healing to the sick who cannot be with us.
Give your supernatural joy to those who are grieving and hurting this morning, Lord.
Lay a heavy hand on those who need to feel your presence today.
Bring conviction to the prideful and elevate the humble among us.
We pray this in the name of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen
We’re here! We’ve made it to the How-To part of the series! We’ve been working hard to get here, deliberately laying the foundation of making sure the motivations of our hearts are right with God. But now, we press forward to the practical outworking of the Four Core Christian Disciplines. Can you remember what they are? Prayer, Bible Study, Church Attendance and Serving Others. Right!
Why Study Prayer?
Some of you might be thinking, “Great! Finally! I’ve been struggling with this for a long time now and I can finally get some tips on how to strengthen these parts of my spiritual life.” Others here might be ready to tune-out thinking, “Why on earth would we need to learn how to do this? It comes naturally to me. I’ve been doing it all my life!” And there might be some here that are thinking, “How dare Pastor Al even think of telling someone how to do this. This is personal. There’s no right way to pray or read the bible. There’s no right way to attend church. It’s arrogant to think that one person’s way is going to work for everyone.”
Let me explain quickly why we are going through this how-to section:
While I agree that each of these Core Christian Disciplines are very personal, there really are practical ways that we can improve how we do them, and ways that we can get them wrong. Think of Luke 11 where the disciples had been watching Jesus at prayer. They saw something that He had been doing, an effect or some kind of power they didn’t have. They saw a lack in their own prayer and so they went to Jesus and said, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” They wanted a distinctively Jesus-style, a Christian prayer, that would set them apart from others and would let them access God the way Jesus did. They had to be taught how to pray, and I believe so do we.
There are a lot of people who don’t know how to do these things because they didn’t grow up in the church. For them prayer is mysterious and difficult, bible study is boring and confusing, they don’t know how to get the most out of attending church (which is probably why attendance is in such decline across North America), and while many desire to serve others, they don’t know what their spiritual gifts are, they have a packed schedule, and have so many personal needs that stepping into someone else’s problems sounds like a terrible idea! I know with absolute certainty that many people here desire to have a better prayer life, to know more about God, to have powerful corporate worship experiences, and to share the love of Jesus with others in practical ways – and I believe part of the way to get there is through training.
What Is Prayer?
What is Prayer? So many people have defined prayer in so many different ways. Some with complex theological language, other’s very simplistically. The famous Dutch pastor and theologian Hendrikus Berkhof wrote a great book introducing people to the Christian faith. But, when he came to the subject of prayer he found that he didn’t know where to put it in the book! He said,
“The nature of prayer happens to be such that its place in the study of faith is uncertain and therefore varying. The reflection on prayer would fit in with the doctrine of God, the doctrine of man, preservation, the covenant, the Spirit, the Church or man’s personal life.”
That tells us something important. It tells us that prayer is not just something a Christian does, but is the root of all Christian theology and practice. It’s overarching. It’s not just a part of the Christian faith; it is the very essence of it. Prayer is part of many other religions, but Christian prayer is the expression of a specific relationship with Jesus Christ, and is a response to His work in us, for us and through us.
I’ve read a lot of definitions of prayer:
- John Ortburg in The Life You’ve Always Wanted said, “Prayer… is the concrete expression of the fact that we are invited into a relationship with God.”
- Dallas Willard in The Divine Conspiracy said, “Prayer is talking to God about what we are doing together.”
- Patrick Morley in his book A Man’s Guide to the Spiritual Disciplines said, “Prayer is the conversation that turns salvation into a closer, personal relationship with God.”
So in light of all of this, I’ve come up with my own definition that we can use today.
Prayer is multifaceted, perpetual communication with God through Jesus Christ with the intention of seeking a closer relationship with Him through confession, worship, thanksgiving and supplication.
So let’s take this apart piece by piece to help us define prayer.
First, is the word “multifaceted”. There is no one kind or formula of prayer just as there is no one kind of marriage, friendship, or partnership. Our relationship with God is multifaceted. In the Bible He’s called our Saviour, King, Commander, Brother, Father, Priest, Prophet, and so much more. And we relate to Him on multiple levels in multiple ways.
This is good news because it means that the guilt you are feeling for not measuring up to someone else’s prayer life doesn’t need to be there. Sometimes you look at someone else who spends a lot of time on their knees, with their eyes closed, at five o’clock in the morning, and say, “Wow, that person has a way better prayer life than me.” And you feel guilty because every time you’ve tried closing your eyes at 5 AM to pray, you end up waking up at 7AM wondering what happened.
Perhaps for you, a focused prayer time happens with your eyes open, walking around, at 9 PM. Maybe you’re perfect prayer place is outside, or inside, or sitting, or standing, or lying down on your face. Sometimes it changes depending on the content of your prayer. If you are crying out to God after a car accident, your posture will be different than when you have just done something sinful and you are repenting before Him.
Someone may have told you that you need to always be quiet, and gentle, and sweet, or talk to God politely, like He’s your boss or He’ll fire you. That’s not the kinds of prayers we read about in the Bible. Prayers are “multifaceted” because people have a wide range of emotions.
This leads us to our next word. Prayer is multifaceted because prayer is “perpetual”. Ephesians 6:18 says we should “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” It’s not a one time shot we do in the morning to check in with HQ and then walk out the door on our own. Prayer is intended to be an ongoing communication with God. And because a lot happens to us in the course of a day, we are going to change our tone. We wake up in the morning, and it’s a good day. We have warm water in the shower. We look in the mirror and like what we see, get to work early, and the boss gives us a coupon for a free lunch at our favourite restaurant. “Thanks God! What a great start to the day!”
Or, we wake up in the morning, and our alarm didn’t go off. So we jump in the shower to find that there’s no more hot water left. We look in the mirror and it looks like we fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down. And when we finally do get to work the boss chews us out for being late and asks us to work through lunch. That’s going to be a different prayer! But God is there through it all, and desires to have us talk to Him all the way through it.
This is a very difficult thing to do, and I don’t think that any of us will achieve this kind of relationship with God on this side of eternity. But the that is set for us is to be naturally talking to God about everything that’s going on in life.
Which leads us to our next phrase, “communication with God through Jesus Christ.” This is key.
God wants to talk to you, and for you to talk to Him, and He’s done everything possible to make that happen because He loves you very much. Love requires communication. To build any relationship – marriage, friendships, family –requires honest, ongoing, open, long-term, intentional communication. If I told you I loved someone but never talk to them except occasionally when there’s a problem and I need something from them, you would question my loyalty and love for that person. Right? That’s the relationship I have with my mechanic, not my wife, kids or God.
I hope you realize that God wants to be in a relationship with you. We gloss over this so many times that it has become part of the background noise of our faith. We take this for granted, but we shouldn’t. God knows your every deed, every thought, and every word you’ve ever said… and He still wants to have you around Him!
We shouldn’t be allowed to pray. According to the bible, if it wasn’t for God sending Jesus to die on the cross in our place, we would still be dead in our sins, and totally committed to living by our sinful natures (Ephesians 2:1-4, Colossians 2:13-14) . James 4:4 says that before we are saved we are an “enemy of God”.
But God loves you very much, and wants to be in relationship with you. He desires to communicate with you, and for you to talk to Him. The Bible says in Romans 8:34 that Jesus is continually “interceding for us.” That means that Jesus is talking to God on our behalf and making the case for why we should be forgiven and ushered into His presence and allowed to speak. The Devil, the accuser, stands there saying, “This person is a sinner that turned his back on you, and He should be sent to Hell and punished forever. That’s your rule God and you need to stand by it!”
But Jesus defends us saying, “Father, you chose that person to be saved. They called out to me and believed in me, and I took their punishment. Their debt has been paid because I paid it. They’re one of mine. That person has been washed clean and has been given the gift of purity because I took all of His shame and have washed them myself. Father, allow this one to come before just I come before you.”
And this leads us to our next phrase, “with the intention of seeking a closer relationship with Him.” That’s what prayer is all about. God has opened up His heart to us and has made a relationship with Him possible. He bought us back from Satan, death and eternal damnation in Hell. He loved us so much that He sent His one and only Son to die in our place because no one else could. And therefore, when we become a Christian, we live with that in the forefront of our minds, and we make the intention of our lives to grow closer to the one who loves us so much. Why do we pray? We pray in response to God’s love for us! 1 John 3:1 says:
“How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!”
We pray to build a relationship with our Father whom we love and who loves us.
Have you ever walked into your home and smelled an apple pie baking in the oven? Or went into someone’s house in December and it just smelled like Christmas? Or you smell the scent of the person that you love when you are near them? Then you understand the feelings of pleasure associated with a wonderful smell. That’s what we are told our prayers are like to God. Throughout the Bible it says that our prayers are like a fragrant incense offering to God, something pleasing to Him. They are like a gift we give Him.
The Four Components of Prayer
And the final part of our definition gives us the Four Components of Prayer, “confession, worship, thanksgiving and supplication.” How do we express our love for God? How do we build our relationship with Him? There are things we do in prayer that will build up this relationship. At different times and in different ways all of these should be a part of our communication with God.
People sometimes struggle with what to say to God. These Four Components of Prayer will give you good guidelines on where to start your prayers, and what to say.
The first of the four is Confession which is a key part of building our relationship with God. In one sense, it is the beginning of our relationship with Him… though not exactly, since He created us and knows us before we ever acknowledge Him. But when we finally do acknowledge Him, the first thing we must do is confess our sin and need for His Lordship, presence and salvation to Him. We talked about that over the past couple weeks.
Confession and Repentance are the first things we do when we come to God, but they is also something we do throughout our lives to show our desire to walk away from sin and towards Jesus every day.
Next, as a result of our confession, repentance and forgiveness… we are naturally lead into Worship. If you struggle with worshipping God in your prayer life, then you probably struggle with confession, repentance and understanding your forgiveness. The songs on Sunday morning are actually prayer because singing is one of the many facets on the diamond of communication that we have between us and God. We are speaking words to God in song, and we are calling back to Him is attributes.
Worship is simply talking to God about who He is. It is telling God His attributes the same way that we do for someone we care about or are impressed by. We tell them about themselves as a way that we show love and devotion to them, or awe and fear of them. “You are special.” “You are beautiful.” “You are overwhelming!” “You are strong.” “You are skilful.” “You are so creative.” .” “You are powerful!” Worship is a natural response when we get a glimpse of God. We do this with each other naturally, and that’s what good worship music, and worshipful prayer is.
In Revelation 4:8 the angels worship God by saying “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!” Holiness is one of God’s attributes.
Next comes Thanksgiving. Worship is talking to God about who He is, thanksgiving is talking to God about what He has done. The blessings and mercies that He has given, especially those we so often take for granted like sleep, food, health, family and the like, but most importantly, for salvation through Jesus Christ.
Listen to how the Psalmist gives thanksgiving to God:
Psalm 66:5, “Come and see what God has done, how awesome his works in man’s behalf!”
Psalm 139:14, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.”
When we read about the worship in heaven in Revelation 4:6-11 we read them saying, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”
Finally, the fourth aspect of prayer is Supplication – asking God for what we need. This is a huge stumbling block for some people because they don’t understand why their prayers aren’t being answered. They have asked God for things, made requests, and it’s not happening. So they get discouraged.
This is why I prefer the word “supplicate” to “request”. Supplicate is made up of two words: “supple” and “placate”. When something that is “supple” it is able to bend. To “placate” means to “please” someone. So literally, when we come to God and ask for something, we come humbly, bending our will to His, so we may do that which pleases Him. This is as much about bringing our requests to God as it is about Him teaching us to be humble before Him.
The key to understanding supplication is found in John 15:5-8. Jesus is talking to His disciples about how we relate to Him uses the picture of a grape vine and the branches that connect to that vine and bear the fruit.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
When we come to God in supplication… when we ask God for things… Jesus says there is a qualification to all our requests: we need to be connected to the Vine. If we expect to have any grapes, then we’d better be getting food and nutrients from the Vine. If we disconnect ourselves from our source of life and think our little branch is going to do anything apart from the Vine, then we’re crazy.
What does it mean to be connected to the vine? Are you ready to come full circle? It means we are faithful to the Four Core Christian Disciplines. Jesus says, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.” The opposite of that is to say, “If you ignore me, push me aside, do your own thing, and don’t bother listening to or studying my words, distance yourself from my people, refuse to listen to me as Lord, serve only yourself… no matter what you ask for, it won’t be given to you.”
Why? Because if we ask for things without listening to God, we’ll be asking with selfish desires and destructive motives! We will want things that glorify me, comfort me, meet my wants, fill my desires, make me feel better, make my life easier, punish those that I don’t like. We won’t be concerned about praising God, learning more about Him, building our character to become more like Christ, or serving and taking care of anyone else. When we stop pursuing Jesus through the Four Core Christian Disciplines, it’s becomes all about us.
James 4:1-3 says:
“What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”
If you have been praying for something for a long time and it’s not happening, check your motives. Why do you want that to happen? Do you trust God enough to believe that He already knows what you need before you even need it? Do you trust that God knows what He’s doing? He will answer every prayer you bring to Him. Sometimes “yes”, sometimes “no”, sometimes “later”. God is gracious enough not to give us those things which will harm us, or will not lead to His glory. Can you imagine what would happen if God said yes to everything everyone asked for? What a world we would live in! Praise God that sometimes He doesn’t give us what we ask for.
Let me close today with a few final, practical point about how to do this. We’ve talked about what prayer is, and the importance of it. We’ve discussed the motives of our hearts, and our need to humble ourselves before Him when we ask for something. I want to close answering a few practical questions about prayer that you may have:
What do I need to do to get started? (Or… How can I be more consistent?)
The simple answer is the one you have probably already heard, and is good advice for a lot of things. If you want to be a better writer, find a time and a place and show up and write. If you want a healthy marriage, set consistent and regular times to be together. If you want a strong family, consistently be together at meal times and at other times too.
The best thing you can do is find a time (morning, afternoon, evening, coffee break, lunch-time, before bed, before anyone gets up) and then set an alarm, put it in your calendar, and make that time sacred.
Then find a spot. A place were you know you can be alone, quiet and uninterrupted for a period of time. It may take some practice. You may have to get up earlier, stay up later, leave the house, or go sit in the car. Find a time, find a spot and be there.
I start praying but I don’t know what to say. What should I say?
You’re not alone in this struggle, a lot of people struggle with the words of their prayers. Some have been to prayer meetings with old saints who can pray for 15 minutes straight, in King James English, without even pausing to think or repeating themselves – and that’s a daunting thing to try to keep up with.
A lot of people struggle with what to say so they just keep saying the same word over and over hoping something will pop-out. “Lord Jesus, thank you Jesus for being my Lord, Jesus. I just want to, Lord Jesus, thank you, Jesus and just want you, Lord, give you my thanks, Lord Jesus just for being my Lord.” That can get very discouraging.
Here’s my suggestions. First, start with the Four Components of Prayer: Confession, Worship, Thanksgiving and Supplication. What do you need to confess to God today? What have you learned about God’s attributes in the past while? What has God been doing for you lately that you can thank Him for? What are your needs?
Second, if you struggle with what to say, bring your Bible with you. You’re already committed to studying it, now use it as the jumping off point for your prayers. There are lots of prayers you can pray – the Lord’s Prayer, Psalm 23 are two famous ones. Use their words as a starting point for talking to God.
“Our Father in Heaven” – “God you are my Father, and that means a lot to me because I need a father right now. I need advice, and help, resources, and someone to discipline me..”
Third, bring a prayer book with you. I highly recommend “The Valley of Vision” which is a collection of puritan prayers and devotions. It has helped me for years to find to express what was inside my spirit. There are lots of prayer books, and prayers online that can help to give you a starting point.
How long do I need to be there for?
I’ve already said that the hope is that we would pray without ceasing, but the question of how long we need to be in prayer during our quiet times is a valid one.
Here’s my answer: God is pleased with whatever short time we give him, even if it’s a few minutes of prayer. However, God will always ask for more time, and no matter how much time we spend during that set-aside quiet time, if our hearts are connecting to God, it will never feel like enough. His intention isn’t that we have hour long quiet times – it’s that we would eventually be so used to talking to Him that our whole life, when we are at work, talking to someone else, resting, playing, or whatever, is spent in constant communication with Him.
Start with a short quiet-time – 10 minutes of Bible Reading and Prayer, and as you do that consistently, you will need it to lengthen and it should naturally happen. As you mature, you will need more time, and then you will learn to pray more often, wherever you are, and be mindful of the presence of God in every situation.
Do I stand, sit, kneel? What should my posture be?
Why do we fold our hands and close our eyes? It’s more tradition than anything. I teach my kids to bow their heads out of respect for God, to close their eyes to keep from being distracted, and fold their hands so they’re not doing anything else with them!
In the bible we see people Bowing (Ex 4:31), Kneeling (Psalm 95:6), Sitting (Judges 20:26), Face to the Ground, (Matt 26:39), Standing (Mark 11:25), Lifting up Hands (1 Timothy 2:8), Looking upward (John 17:1), Heads between their Knees (1 Kings 18:42), Pounding on their Chest (Luke 18:13), and Looking out a Window (Daniel 6:10).
John MacArthur says something very important about the question of prayer posture. He says, “Rather than external positioning, the Bible emphasizes the posture of the heart. Whether you are standing, sitting, or lying down, the important thing is that your heart is bowed in submission to the lordship of Christ. False religion places a premium on external behaviour, while true Christianity is concerned with the heart. And true prayer is characterized by an attitude of humility before God-not the physical posture of the person praying.”
Practically speaking: be in a position where you will be comfortable, but not so comfortable you’re going to fall asleep. Change your posture based on what kinds of prayer you are praying. If you are requesting, open your hands to show you are receptive. If you are repenting, place your hands palms down as though you are putting something down. Our mind naturally follows our body, so we can change how we are relating to God just by changing our posture.
Why aren’t my prayers being answered?
We’ve already addressed this when I talked about the motives of our supplication, but here’s a list of scriptural reasons why God wouldn’t be listening to our prayers and answering them. Essentially, these are ways that we separate ourselves from the Vine:
Unrepentant Sin, Secret Sins or Sinful Motives – Sin is like cotton in the mouth of our prayer life. God will stop listening if we have sin in our lives that He wants us to get rid of. We also can’t fool God into giving us something that we’re just going to use to further our own destruction or sinful wants. You may be able to convince me to give you 50 bucks to buy something you say you need … and then go turn around and buy alcohol, or drugs, or porn, or something else… but we can’t fool God. He knows what we want to do with it.
Stubbornness and Pride – This is the prayer that goes, “God, I know what I’m doing… and I’m not really asking your advice… but I could use some supernatural help to get it going. If you could just bless what I’m doing… instead of messing with the why’s and how’s… then that’d be good.” God says that people who won’t ask God what He wants, but just want Him to bless their own plans will “eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes.” That’s bible talk for “they’ll get what they’re asking for.” Which isn’t good.
Half-Heartedness – God’s not a big fan of half-hearted people. We talked about luke-warm believers before. He spits them out (Rev 3:16). James 1:8 talks about the double-minded man who is “unstable” because he’s not seeking God, or himself, or anything else with his whole heart. He’s half in the world and half out.
I’m often convicted by the story in 2 Kings 13:18-19 where Elijah tells the king of Israel to take his arrows and strike the ground with them to show that the Lord will bring victor over his enemies. The king took the arrows, struck the ground three times and stopped. Elijah gets furious with him and says, “You should have struck five or six times; then you would have struck down Syria until you had made an end of it, but now you will strike down Syria only cthree times.” The problem? The King’s lack of enthusiasm, his half-heartedness about being obedient and seeing God work. God doesn’t desire half-hearted prayers.
How can I pray for others?
I really appreciate the person who asked this question because it reminds me that our prayer life isn’t just about us and our own spiritual development, but is one of the key ways God has decided to work in this world. He has decided that He will work in this world in response to our prayer life. He desires us to pray, and He wants us to pray for others, so that we can see His hand working in our lives and theirs, and then give Him glory for what He does.
My favourite method of praying for others is what I call Praying in Concentric Circles. This all happens during the “supplication” part of your prayers. Here’s how it works: Start with yourself and your own needs. Then pray for the needs, comfort, salvation, and challenges for the people who are closest to you – your significant other, your kids, your family. Then work your way out a little farther – your friends, your church, your coworkers. Then a little farther – your community, your neighbourhood, your city, province, nation. Then pray globally for world missionaries, for the world events you know about on the news. If you pray in concentric circles, then it’s a little easier to frame your prayers.
I feel some of you may need to hear the advice I recently gave a friend who is going through a tough time:
“Sometimes we feel bad after praying that God would take our burdens and then picking them back up again after we say “amen”. We think that there might be a limit on the times we can release our pain to Him and retract it, absorbing back into ourselves. There isn’t. He will let us put it down and pick it up as many times as it takes until we are ready to walk away without it. Just remember to keep putting it down.”
Here’s a powerful song by Kathryn Scott that brings me encouragement during these times:
I’ve always loved watching and playing sports. And anyone who does knows that there is one word phrase that pervades all sportsdom — “We’ve got to get back to the fundamentals.”
If our team is on a losing streak, the answer is always getting “back to the fundamentals.” If you are practicing, you spend time “working on the fundamentals.” If you go to training camp, or a draft, do you know what they look for? “The fundamentals”. They are where everyone starts, and what everyone must master.
That being the case, what are “the fundamentals” of discipleship? Sometimes, just like when I was playing baseball, I start to get too fancy with my Christian walk. Instead of simply trying to learn more about Him, and making space for God to speak, I try to get fancy by reading a lot of books, trying exotic prayer techniques, moving around different locations, or trying to multitask by doing devos while working out, driving, or doing the dishes.
Not that any of that is bad (in fact, my earlier article was all about meeting God in every part of our lives) — it’s just that fancy techniques can be distracting and sometimes cause me can drop the ball.
So my challenge over the next while is to “get back to the fundamentals”. What does that mean?
- To allow God to inhabit every part of my day.
- To read less scripture, but meditate on it more.
- To find a regular place and time to pray.
- To come to church simply to meet God there.
What about you? Do you struggle with the fundamentals? Do you ever get too “fancy” with your spiritual life? What ways can we “get back to the fundamentals”?
Connecting with God in a meaningful way is so much more than sitting in a quiet room with your hands folded, head bowed, eyes closed. Relating to God is unlike any other relationship in your life, and the ways you can meet Him in your daily life are nearly unlimited. This blog intends to explore as many of those ways as possible.
Do you believe that you can have the presence of God with you throughout your day? Can you use any of these words to describe your relationship with Him?
Or is your relationship to your Creator and Saviour limited to fifteen minutes in the morning and evening, and a prayer before you eat?
Have you ever wondered if there could be more to your spiritual life? There can. Let’s explore how together.