Listener Questions: Can We Know God? Should We Suffer More? How Different Should Christians Be? (Carnivore Theology Ep. 72)
We couldn’t find Chad, so we wandered down to the mailroom to look for him — and decided to stay and answer some questions: Can We Know God? Should We Suffer More? How Different Should Christians Be? If God Wore a Superhero Suit, What Would it Look Like?
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!)
Last week we started a new series on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and I talked about the two principle players involved , that being Paul and the city of Corinth. The two things that I hope you walked away with last week was Paul’s passion for spreading the love of God found in the true Gospel of Jesus Christ and how badly Corinth needed to hear it.
Corinth was basically the internet come to life. A huge amount of people from every nation, background and belief system, gathered in a city dedicated to spreading opinions and information (and misinformation), making money in commerce and manufacturing, religious ideas shouted from every temple and street corner, and a non-stop stream of sexual filth. Like I said: the internet, come to life.
Paul Has a Hard Time in Athens
This week we’re going to continue giving the back story to 1st Corinthians by talking about what was happening when the church was first planted. This will help us gain some appreciation for the relationship that Paul had with the church, the city, and (hopefully) establish some context for some of the things that Paul will say in his letter.
It was during Paul’s second missionary journey that he came into the city of Corinth for the first time, and was so struck by the place that he decided to stay for a year and a half. We’re going to spend most of our time today in Acts 18 today, but before we go there, I want you to turn back a page and take a look at where Paul had just been coming from – which was the city of Athens.
Athens was like Corinth in some of the ways we talked about last week: pagan and pretty messed up. But, while Corinth’s fascination was all forms of sex, Athens’ preoccupation was talking. There was nothing more that the people of Athens enjoyed more than listening to philosophers, teachers, lawyers and religious experts from around the world. And this town was full of religious opinions of every sort. Read Acts 17:16:
“Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.”
The words “his spirit was provoked” are a strong word picture speaking of a sudden and violent emotion, a combination of anger and grief. It’s the Greek word from which we get our word “Paroxysm”. As he wandered through town he was deeply troubled by how lost these people were.
It’s not that they weren’t intelligent people. Athens was a university town, at one time the centre of the political, educational and philosophical universe. Four hundred years before it had been the home of Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, and Epicurus. Now, however, it was a much small city of only ten-thousand, stuck trying to relive their glory days by spending their time doing not much more than arguing and philosophizing about the mysteries of the universe. They would generate a lot of heat – but very little light.
They cared more about talking than finding the truth. They had statues dedicated to every god in almost every religion under the sun but didn’t know the One, True God. Paul’s tour of town let him see just how lost they were.
Paul spent some days talking in synagogues and in the marketplace, trying to share the story of Jesus but met with very poor results. He had no partners in town, no fellow believers, no ministry assistants, and nothing he said or did was helping anyone learn anything more about Jesus.
“Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, ‘What does this babbler wish to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities’—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.” (Acts 17:18)
Read that with as much dripping condescension as you can muster. Such arrogant pride and hard hearts. Paul was one of the most intelligent, wisest, most skilled teachers in history, but their hearts were so hard and their ears so closed that all they heard was babbling.
But apparently his “babbling” was interesting enough to some people that they invited him to come and speak at the Areopagus at Mars Hill, the seat of the highest court and one of the most important lecture hall and discussion places in the world. The most significant conversations about law, philosophy, and religion were brought to these thirty people on this esteemed counsel. It wasn’t that they much cared about what Paul was saying, they were just interested in hearing something new.
“Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” (vs 21)
At least this was something. This was to be Paul’s moment in Athens. Surely this would lead to some hearts being changed and a church being formed. Paul preached a great apologetics sermon that day, one that has been studied by generations since. But it had almost no effect. Paul poured out his heart, soul, mind and strength before this crowd and almost nothing happened.
“Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.” (vs 32-33)
A few people responded in faith, both men and women, but the rest scoffed him out of the building – and out of town. They believed no one sane would think that people come back from the dead and Paul stood there as this counsel of the highest intellectuals in the world laughed at him. A few wanted to hear him again – maybe out of genuine interest or maybe because they were bored.
Paul Comes to Corinth Exhausted
I tell you all this because I want you to realize how Paul was feeling when he came into Corinth the first time.
Prior to coming to Corinth Paul had faced a lot of discouragement. In Philipi his ministry had started strong, but then was nearly ruined by Jewish opposition and Paul ended up beaten with rods and thrown into jail. Then he went to Thessalonica where things went ok at first, but then more opposition arose who attacked the family that was hosting the church meetings. He left town and went to Berea but the troublemakers from Thessalonica followed him and caused even more trouble, and ran him out of town – alone.
Paul had entered Athens tired and discouraged, but after this huge disappointment, facing public rejection and embarrassment, he left Athens utterly exhausted. He was physically, emotionally and spiritually done and then he travelled alone for a long while until he reached Corinth.
In 1 Corinthians 2:3 it says that when Paul was teaching in Corinth he was “…in weakness and in fear and much trembling…” He was done. He had none of his former fire left. He wasn’t the bold man standing before crowds and proclaiming the name of Jesus – he was utterly spent. His message wasn’t complex and intellectual, but simple and spoken from weak legs and trembling lips. But remember where he was – the internet come to life – surrounded by pagan temples, a tonne of false teaching, and crazy amounts of sin. I wonder what it must have been like for Paul when he stumbled into town. If Athens threw him into paroxysms, what must Corinth have done?
Oh, and by the way, Paul was totally broke too. No friends, no support, no energy, no money.
Aquila and Priscilla
Now, let’s turn to acts 18 and see what God does:
“After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.”
How cool is that? Let me explain. Paul comes into town and has absolutely no money – but he does have some skills. He’s knows how to sew animal leather together to make tents and canopies. Paul needs some money for food and somewhere to stay, so his first stop is the local trade guild. In other words, he went to the union office and asked for a job. These folks were good at taking care of their own and found Paul a job right away.
In God’s providence, Paul’s tent-making job not only gave him a way to make ends meet but also introduced him to some like-minded people who would become life-long friends Aquila and Priscilla.
Aquila and Priscilla had been through some rough times too. They had been living in Rome when Emperor Claudius had unilaterally kicked all the Jewish people out of Rome in 49AD. They met Paul in Corinth two years later.
What happened in Rome was that Emperor Claudius was sick of the constant disturbances surrounding someone named “Chrestus”. A lot of scholars believe that this was a mangled spelling of the Latin word for Christ and that Claudius had gotten sick of the constant fighting between the followers of Jesus and the Jewish synagogues. So much so that he literally banished all of them from his city!
It’s an easy leap to thinking that Priscilla and Aquila were Christians who had been kicked out of Rome two years before and had decided to go to the big city of Corinth to make some money as tentmakers. When they came to work the next day they were likely just as surprised as Paul was that they had found a fellow believer in Jesus Christ!
God Wants People Together
Let’s just pause there for a second. It’s important that we notice something important here in the life of Paul, because it tells us something about our own lives and how to get through the seasons that God sometimes puts us through.
I know you know that sometimes God puts us through some pretty difficult stuff. Paul went through all kinds of hard things during his missionary travels. This is not an exception to the rule, but is standard operating procedure for the life of a believer. All of God’s followers will go through some tough times – and that’s part of God’s plan.
Sometimes those difficult things will come from inside us as we battle with temptations, doubts, fears, depression, anxiety, or other mental and emotional issues. Sometimes difficult things will happen to us out of the blue, like a sudden death, tragedy, illness, or natural disaster. Sometimes we bring hard times on ourselves through our own actions; as a result of our own sinful behaviour or are simply a result of the choices we’ve made. And sometimes trouble comes from other people sinning against us through emotional, physical, or mental abuse, being treated unjustly, lied to, or forgotten.
All these things happened to Paul and other faithful followers of God. A lot of theologians believe Paul had a natural predisposition towards depression, and we know of many others in scripture who suffered the same way. He faced shipwrecks and famines that he had no power over, and often found himself facing struggles that he brought on himself through his own decisions. And of course, he faced persecution and abuse from many people – and was often forgotten or betrayed by his fellow ministry workers.
This is normal. Jesus Himself, the One whom we are to follow and pattern our lives after, went through some incredibly difficult times too – on all these levels. Temptation was His constant companion and we know He had times of deep sadness. He lived through tragedies and disasters. The decisions He made often brought Him more and more trouble and made Him more enemies. And we certainly know that He was abused by others and abandoned by those closest to Him.
Sometimes, this is what the life of a believer looks like – a life of suffering. Sometimes God puts us through seasons in our life where everything gets darker and harder and more painful. So what are we to do?
What did the faithful of God do? What did Jesus do? What did Paul do? He did two things. He kept talking to Jesus and He kept walking with other people. The reason that Paul was alone in Athens was because he got run out of town and left Silas and Timothy to take care of the brand new church he had just planted. He would have done it himself, but his presence was causing more harm than good, so he left.
His time alone clearly had a difficult effect on Him. His strength failed more quickly and his energy became low. He preached in Athens, but had no effect, and no one to share the experience with. When he came to Corinth he was totally wrecked – but what did God do?
God miraculously provided Paul with a couple of Christians to talk to – in the middle of Corinth! There were no Christian churches in Corinth, and the Apostle Paul had never been there! These three believers coming together was no coincidence. It was the Holy Spirit of God drawing His people together to care for one another.
Paul kept praying and talking to Jesus, but he wasn’t meant to be alone and God knew it, so He worked it out, two years before, that there would be a couple of Christians in Corinth waiting for Paul to show up during a very low period in his life.
We all need people. We all need the church. When the author of Hebrews writes to the believers who were going through great persecution he says:
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Heb 10:24-25)
Some people’s response to stress is to tell the world to go away. They drop their friendships, stop going to church, avoid deep conversations and refuse invitations to meet. But that is a trap of the devil. God knows we need one another, which is why He provided Aquila and Priscila for the exhausted, discouraged and lonely Apostle Paul – and provided Paul for the hurting and spiritual lonely Aquila and Priscila.
Once church father named Ignatius says,
“When ye frequently, and in numbers meet together, the powers of Satan are overthrown, and his mischief is neutralized by your likemindedness in the faith.”
Satan wants to get you alone, God wants you to meet together regularly with fellow believers! All Christians are a member of the body of Christ, and it is unhealthy for us to amputate ourselves from the body!
This theme continues as we read Acts 18. We are going to see opposition pop up, and then God provide more and more people to partner with Paul, Aquila and Priscilla, to keep their spirits up and the Gospel message flowing through Corinth.
More Opposition to the Gospel
“When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus.” (Acts 18:5)
Another translation says that when Silas and Timothy arrived, it gave Paul the chance to “devote himself exclusively to preaching”. We can already see Paul’s strength coming back.
He took some time to rest and work with his new friends, preaching some Saturdays at the local synagogue, but when Silas and Timothy came to town, Paul was finally ready to go again. His friends had helped him and now he had even more support. And his support system was even greater than just those around him since Silas and Timothy had likely brought Paul some money from the other churches so he could devote his full time to preaching. The wind was at Paul’s back now and He was ready to go and buckled down to convince the local synagogue that Jesus really was the Messiah – but it wasn’t going to go well.
“And when they opposed and reviled him, he shook out his garments and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.’” (Acts 18:6)
As usual, the stubborn Jewish leaders wouldn’t listen and stirred up trouble against Paul. They started to abuse him verbally, and maybe even physically.
Can you imagine the flashbacks Paul must have had? “Oh no… this is Philipi and Thessalonica and Berea all over again!” His heart starts to beat hard, fear begins to grip him, and – based on what we are about to read – I think Paul was about to quit. He was done.
He had a few Christian friends around, but once again he was the focal point of trouble for them. People were getting hurt and his preaching was the reason. How much more could he take? But keep reading and see what God does: “And he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. His house was next door to the synagogue. Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized. And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.’ And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.”
“And he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. His house was next door to the synagogue. Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized. And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.’ And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.” (Acts 18:7-11)
When Paul was at his weakest, utterly dependent on God’s Spirit to do all the work, God broke forth in Corinth! Titius Justus gets saved and just happens to have a great big house, likely an entire compound, right next to the synagogue. Then, Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue that had just kicked Paul out, and a very influential man, sucks up his pride, gets saved and starts coming to church at Titius’ house. That’s a huge win! But not just Crispus, his entire household! The Christian church and Paul’s support system is really starting to grow now, but Paul isn’t seeing it.
Next, we read that the Corinthians start to hear about Paul’s message and start to flock to this new church in town and listen to Paul teach about Jesus. Paul is steal preaching from great weakness, keeping it simple, but after he says amen and looks up to see all the new people, Paul isn’t excited about this growth – he’s going home to Priscilla and Aquila’s house terrified. Anxiety wracks his mind. His health is failing. The encouragements of his friends aren’t helping. He’s ready to bug out. Along with all this growth is a lot of opposition from the Jewish synagogue next door, and Paul’s very worried. Soon that controversy would reach the ears of the proconsul Gallio, the leader of the whole province of Achaia.
Not Just People, But God
And here we learn our second lesson today. We don’t just need people – we need God. You likely know the feeling of being surrounded by people that love you, but feeling sad and alone anyway. Maybe you even know the feeling of having success in life and work, but feeling terrified that it will all come crashing down around your ears.
Paul knew that feeling, which is why God showed up like he did. Paul didn’t just need people in his life, he needed the voice of God. We all need both, don’t we? And yet, some of us fight against one or the other – or both!
We fight against our need for others and try to take on the world alone, and that sets us up for all kinds of difficulty, so God tells us to make sure that we are in a relationship with others. Alternatively, sometimes we even fight against our need for God. Our whole being cries out that that there is something bigger than us in this world and we need something greater than ourselves to make it through, but for some reason we refuse to get down on our knees and admit we need Him.
We refuse to ask God for help believing we must provide for ourselves. We refuse to read the Bible thinking that we have all the wisdom we need to make decisions. We refuse to submit to the Lordship of Jesus because we think we know better than Him. Our souls say we must yield, but we don’t. Why? Pride. Selfishness. Our love of sin.
But we are designed for both. We need to love both vertically and horizontally. We need to love God and be loved by Him. And we need to love others and be loved by them. That’s the power of being part of a good, Christian church family. We are a people who have committed to love vertically and horizontally: to love god and each other.
I believe that’s why God appeared to Paul in that vision. He wasn’t going to hear it any other way. It reminds me of another prophet that was overwhelmed with his job – a young man named Joshua. God said to him something very similar to what Paul heard:
“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.” (Joshua 1:9)
God message to Paul, Joshua, and all of us is the same. You need not fear because you are not alone. I’m with you wherever you go.
Everyone needs to hear this, though precious few will accept it. Perhaps today we need it more than ever.
- Marriages and families are crumbling to adultery and divorce.
- Fatherlessness is epidemic.
- The proliferation of materialism and pornography has created a culture of shallow people who no longer have deep relationships.
- Men are afraid of having deep, male friendships for fear of being labelled as weak or gay.
- Men can’t have friendships with children for fear of being labeled as pedophiles.
- Women are afraid of other women out of fear of being betrayed.
- Young people no longer respect and seek wisdom from their elders, and older people have written off the next generation.
- Men and women, both young and old, because of the gender wars of feminism and chauvinism, have almost lost the ability to talk to one another.
- And most of us, even self-proclaimed Christians, have written off God and rarely speak to Him, listen to His Spirit speaking to our hearts, or read the book He wrote for us.
We have a deep need for God and each other and very few are willing to take the risk to build those relationships. But we need to.
God Secures Safe Passage for the Gospel
Let me close with the end of the story of the planting of the church in Corinth. Let’s read the last few verses together, starting in verse 12:
“But when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him before the tribunal, saying, ‘This man is persuading people to worship God contrary to the law.’ But when Paul was about to open his mouth, Gallio said to the Jews, ‘If it were a matter of wrongdoing or vicious crime, O Jews, I would have reason to accept your complaint. But since it is a matter of questions about words and names and your own law, see to it yourselves. I refuse to be a judge of these things.’ And he drove them from the tribunal. And they all seized Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the tribunal. But Gallio paid no attention to any of this.” (Acts 18:12-17)
What happened? God was at work again. Gallio’s ruling that Paul’s planting of a Christian church wasn’t breaking Roman Law stood as the precedent for the next ten years. God, through all this trouble at this little church in Corinth, and all of Paul’s heartache, was securing a strong foundation for the Christian church to spread all over the Roman Empire. Christianity, from that point on, would be considered a sect of Judaism and protected under Roman Law. Had Gallio found Paul guilty, every governor in every province where the missionaries would go would be under arrest for being Christians. Instead, God used this controversy to secure safe passage for the global missionaries of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the next decade.
So there’s my closing points today. When Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) this is what he meant. You will have trouble and you need help from God and others to get through it! Even the troubles we face will be used for God’s glory and the building of His kingdom. And even in those troubles God will bring people together and bring more people to Him. That’s what God does and I encourage you from the bottom of my heart to relent to how God does things.
- Accept that this world has trouble, but also accept that God doesn’t want you to face that trouble alone!
- Embrace the community of believers around you.
- Learn to learn to love and depend others.
- Meet often in each other’s homes and take care of one another.
And as we do all of that, let us always stay in faithful contact with Jesus Christ, who is ultimately the One who saves us and brings us into relationship with God and others.
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…”
Kickstarter Update: The Kickstarter has stalled at $2400 and it’s been a few days since it has seen any new hits or pledges. The goal is $3000 and there are 9 days left. Please consider pledging towards the goal so I can make this new book a reality. If you can’t pledge, or have already, would you please consider sending the Kickstarter link to your pastor, youth pastor, small group leader, book store, or any friends and family that might be interested? It would help me a lot if you would! God bless!
We live in an age of expectancy, selfishness and pride. We live in a darkened world that refuses to thank God for His provision and will not acknowledge His grace. The world came into being by chance, everything is a collection of random atomic accidents, and we are only here by coincidence. Everything we see – for good or ill – we have achieved on our own and there is no guiding hand or purpose to anything in life. We are all merely highly evolved animals – of no more value than a virus or a pinecone.
If you are successful, then it is because you either lucked out in the genetic or economic lottery. If you are not successful, then you need to try harder and fight more to get what you deserve in this world. Sadly, none of it matters though, because all you have – your home, money, and relationship – are merely forms of reorganized dirt that will be long forgotten within a few generations anyway. “Meaningless, meaningless… Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless” — or so goes the opening lines of Ecclesiastes, setting the theme of the entire book – that nothing matters and no matter what we do, we all die anyway.
Depressing, isn’t it?
That’s a world without thanksgiving – without gratitude – without the understanding of grace and mercy. That’s the secular world that doesn’t understand James 1:16-17 that says, “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” They are deceived. Or the words of John the Baptist in John 3:27, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.” Or 1 Corinthians 4:7, “Everything you have was given to you. And if this is so, why do you brag as if you got these things by your own power?” (ICB).
Everything we see, have and experience comes through the Father’s hands – all of it. Good, positive, happy, joyous experiences – and painful, confusing, hurtful, frustrating experiences. None of it happens without God’s consent.
- The creation of the world in all its wonder and perfection – and the fall of Adam and Eve that brought the curse upon it.
- The choosing of elderly Abram and barren Sarai to be the father of a great nation – and the children of that nation being enslaved by Pharaoh for 400 years.
- The building of the glorious Temple of Solomon – and it’s destruction by Nebuchadnezzar 400 years later.
- The calling of the Prophet Jeremiah when he was about 17 years old to bring messages of God to the people of Israel – and when these same people hated him so much that they stoned him to death 50 years later.
- The golden years of the Great Kings David and Solomon and the evil times of King Ahaz and Queen Jezebel.
- The writing of the Law of God, and the losing and forgetting of it.
- The rise to power of evil Haman and the rise to power of Queen Esther.
- The advent and birth of Jesus Christ, and the slaughtering of the babes two years later.
- The coming of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, and his beheading under a pagan king.
- All of the amazing life of Jesus, His miracles and teachings – and His betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion.
- The rise to power of Saul, the persecutor of the church, responsible for killing Christians – and his conversion to faith which resulted in the writing of most of the New Testament and the spread of Christianity all over the world.
He allowed the earthquakes in Haiti and Pakistan, Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami in Japan, the droughts in Africa, the Flood of the Yangtze River, the Halifax Explosion, the Black Death, the Bubonic Plague, and the Spanish Flu. He’s also overseen the organization of the United Nations World Food Program, the Red Cross, Compassion International, World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse, UNISEF.
God ordained the birth and lives of Nero, Caligula, Genghis Khan, Josef Mengele, Adolf Hitler, Adolf Eichmann, Pol Pot, Kim Il Sung, Ayotollah Khomeini, Joseph Stalin, and Osama bin Laden. He also ordained the lives of Constantine, Saint Augustus, Saint Patrick, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, William Wilberforce, Corrie Ten Boom, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Schindler, Mother Theresa, and Billy Graham.
All of these people and things have been decreed by God. None of them were an accident. Every action was an act of His will and His design.
A believer recognizes that everything – everything – happens because of God’s plan and His design. A Christian trusts that God knows what He’s doing. They believe that God’s plan is better than what they can come up with and refuse to sin in order to get their way (Ecc 8:12). They believe that “for those who love God, all things work together for good” (Rom 8:28) – and they don’t define “good” as “comfortable, healthy, and wealthy”. They know that the greatest good is a closer fellowship with God, a closer likeness to Jesus Christ, the bearing of fruit for His Kingdom, and our final glorification as we go from this life to the next. We have a big picture – not a small one – of God and His plan.
This morning I want to talk a little about the importance of having that big picture – and how we can gain that kind of big picture by doing something very important: giving thanks. And I want to start with a quick survey of thanksgiving in scripture so we can see how incredibly pervasive has been for the people of God.
In the Old Testament we find believers who knew that the only condition under which life could be enjoyed is the life of gratitude. For the Jewish believers, everything under God – both good and bad – was a reason to give God thanks, because they knew that their thanksgiving was an act of trust that God would deliver them. These believers breathed thanksgiving with every breath.
The psalms are full of thanksgiving, of course. The praise book, the emotional book of the Bible, interplays suffering, fear, doubt, anger and loss with thanksgiving, worship, deliverance, confidence and joy – sometimes in the same verse!
David, the author of many of the Psalms was a man who gave thanks to God. When the Ark of the Covenant was finally coming into Jerusalem, He appointed a special group of Levitical priests that had the singular job of remembering, thanking and praising God. It was an official title that day – the official ThanksGivers. It was seen as a requirement for all of God’s people – but David went a step further and made sure that God was thanked by people dedicated to nothing else.
Job, even after his great wealth and large family was destroyed in a series of sudden and terrible accidents, chose to acknowledge God and worship. In the midst of great pain and struggle, it says “Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.’” (Job 1:20-21). He was in agony. He “tore his robe and shaved his head” (acts of intense grief and emotion), “fell to the ground and worshipped”. Why? Because he knew that all things come from God’s hands and chose to react with thanksgiving – which was an act of hope for deliverance and of humility before God’s plan.
Before interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, Daniel gave thanks to God. He was standing in front of the ruler of the whole world, who wanted an answer to an dream, and instead of jumping to the end, he stood right in front of him and said a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the ability and opportunity to interpret the dream (Dan 2:23). Later, after King Darius had made the law against praying to anyone but him – on threat of being torn apart alive by hungry lions – Daniel went to his room and continued to “get down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God.” (Dan 6:10). He was a champion of thanksgiving and wouldn’t stop for anyone.
Paul had a lot to do, and much to say in his letters, but he very often takes time and space to not only give thanks not only for his salvation, and teach thanksgiving to the other believers, but to relate to the people receiving the letters how thankful he is for them. (Rom 1:8, Eph 1:15-16; 1 Cor 1:4; Eph 1:16; Phil 1:3-5) His letters drip with thanksgiving. Why? Because Paul was truly thankful that he had been saved by Jesus from a life headed to hell and brought into a life of service in His Kingdom. Everything else compared to knowing Jesus was “rubbish” (Phil 3:8) – and Paul was thankful.
And this thankful man, over and over, commands the followers of Christ to be thankful themselves – and to remind others to be thankful. Over and over we are not only encouraged, but commanded to remember to be thankful for our salvation through Jesus Christ For example, Colossians 3:17, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Or Ephesians 5:20, “…giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (See also 1 Cor 15:57; 2 Cor 2:14, 9:15)
And finally, we know that Jesus had a regular habit of giving thanks before almost everything. Jesus Christ, Son of God, was thankful. Let that sink in for a minute. Through Him it was all created. He was on earth, surrounded by fools and enemies, there to suffer and die… and yet he spends a lot of time thanking God. Why? Because it was commanded of Him as an obedient son, and also because He was truly thankful to His Father for all that He was experiencing – both good and bad. He thanked God before the feeding of the 5000 (Mk 8:6-7), and again on the night of His arrest before He instituted the Lord’s Supper (Lk 22:19). He thanked God in public prayers that everyone could here (Mat 11:25).
He thanked God aloud, as His voice choked and with tear stained eyes, as He wept at the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:41). His weeping didn’t cancel out his thankfulness. His pain didn’t mean he was faithless. He was moved by loss, grief and the sorrow of death and yet at the same time He thanked God.
Why is Gratitude Such a Big Deal?
Why is this such a big deal to God? Why do we see gratitude in the face of trials and blessings, over and over throughout scripture? Why have thousands of Christian preachers, teachers, elders, writers, mystics, puritans and saints stressed the importance of having a heart filled with praise and gratitude? Because Thanksgiving has a lot of power behind it.
I think I know two important reasons: Our capacity to thank God shows the condition of our heart – and our willingness to thank God is an antidote to poisoned thinking.
Thanksgiving Shows The Condition of Our Hearts
We’ve already seen that thanksgiving is a choice to worship to God – but our choice to thank God shows what’s going on inside of us. It shows what we believe about ourselves and our relationship with God. It is a litmus test of our faith and an acknowledgement of who we think our provider is “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?” says the psalmist in Psalm 121:1? Is it in my fields, my finances, my strength, my army, my country, my abilities, my knowledge, my relationships? No, “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” The question is a heart check.
One of my commentaries had a great quote:
“Gratitude is a joyful commitment of one’s personality to God.” (Baker encyclopedia of the Bible, p. 900)
When we are being thankful, we are committing our personality – or who we are, what we think, and what we find important, our source of joy and security and self – to God. We will not be thankful if we are full of pride, thinking all we have is ours. We will not be thankful if we are grumbling beause we believe we deserve more. We will not be thankful if we are coveting other people’s things, jealous of what they have. Thankfulness shows what is happening in our hearts – and a lack of thankfulness shows that there is something wrong.
If you can’t give thanks, then there’s something wrong with your heart. It means that you no longer remember the amazing grace of God, His salvation through Jesus, and you have forgotten all the other gifts you have already received. If you cannot give thanks, then you’re not seeing straight, and there is something wrong.
Do you remember the story of the The Pharisee and the Tax Collector from Luke 18? It’s a story where two men walk up to the temple to pray at the same time. One man, the self-righteous Pharisee says, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”. The other man, stood far off “would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Jesus says it was the second man whose prayer was received. The way that the Pharisee gave thanks showed the condition of his heart – as did the tax collectors humility. Thanksgiving shows the condition of our hearts.
An Antidote to a Poisonous Thinking
The second reason I think scripture keeps reminding us about gratitude is because making the choice – as in, putting the time, energy and effort into giving thanks – is actually an antidote, a medicine, for a broken, darkened, sad, hopeless heart. Romans 1:21 gives one of the signs of us hardening and darkening our hearts as a lack of thanksgiving. It says, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” They didn’t honour God or give thanks to him – which showed the futility and darkness of their thinking.
But the opposite of that is true as well! We can fix our foolish and dark thinking by choosing to give thanks to God. Turn with me to Philippians 4:6-7. It says, “…do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
The “and” clause there seems to me to be a promise. It’s an “if, then” statement. If you pray and give thanks, then you will receive the peace of God. If you want a guarded heart, then pray and give thanks.
Look a little further and see that this verse comes right before a verse that address something we’ve been talking about for a couple weeks: taking charge of our thinking :
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Thanksgiving and taking control of our thought life – and even choosing to rejoice if you look up at verse 4 – are all tied together. If you can’t rejoice, then start giving thanks. If you are not at peace, start to give thanks. If you are anxious about something, start giving thanks. If you feel like your mind is out of control and you need divine guarding, start giving thanks. Thanksgiving is an antidote to poisonous thinking.
Examples of Thanksgiving
But how do I start giving thanks? If you’re really in the dumps, and really down, and frustrated, it’s really hard to start just – giving thanks. You don’t feel like it, right? Well, that’s where taking control of your thinking comes in, and I’ll give you a tool to help you out. Look again at Philippians 4:8 and let’s ask some questions. If you can’t think of what to give thanks for, then turn that list into a series of questions:
What is “true”? What is the truth about my salvation, my God, my hope, my assurance? I’ll tell you again to go read Romans 8! What “true” things can I thank God for? The scriptures are true. They are a fount of cool water in a world filled with dark lies. We all know people who are truthful – people we trust – let’s thank God for them. What else is true in this world?
What “honourable” (dignified, reverent) things can I thank God for? For me, I think of some of the great preachers and teachers of the past that stood for God despite great pressure to conform. I think of the martyrs who suffered for their faith. Of heroes past and present that stand for the name of Jesus. Of men and women I know who worship God with reverence and faith.
What about thinks that are “just”? What kinds of “justice” can I thank God for? We know God is just and will make everything right in the end – evil will be punished and goodness rewarded. But we also see justice in this world if we look. We live in a nation with law and order, police protection and military force that seeks to bring justice to those who have been wronged both here and around the globe. I am also thankful for all the people I know who live rightly, fairly, and don’t compromise. For the stores that don’t cheat me and for missions organizations that are fighting for the protection of those who can’t fight for themselves.
What does the word “purity” bring to mind that I can be thankful for? I think of the amazing joy of teaching eager children the gospel, and how open their minds are to it. I think of the scene of a land covered in new-fallen snow, all white and perfect. I think of how God is perfectly holy and can never be corrupted, and how, because of Jesus I am pure in His sight, and each day He is making me more like Him.
What around me is “lovely” or beautiful and causes me to praise God and give thanks? This one is easy. Just take a look outside. Fall is my favourite season. But there are many other things. Art, photography and music have a lot of beauty in them. A well designed building, car, technology or even appliance can be an object that allows us to thank God. Wonderful stonework on a building, a piece of jewelry, a sunset, the smell of a book, a nice cup of coffee. All lovely things that can give us another reason to give thanks.
What “commendable” things or people can I thank God for? I’m reminded of my wife, who lives a life worthy of commendation, and of my children who continue to have a good reputation with all who know them. I think of the commendability of good bible translators, teachers and writers who work hard to be perfectly truthful. Of all the missions and relief organizations that we can trust to do their job and spend our money well. Of the members of our leadership team who are working hard, doing their jobs without grumbling and complaining, and bring a good reputation to our church.
What do I see around me that is brimming with “excellence”? Certainly the design of creation – it’s magnificence and microscopic intricacies cause us to think of God’s perfection. But what about a cell phone, how a bridge is constructed, or that we can now fit 200GB on a memory card that is only 15mm wide. A well designed garden, a kept field, a motor that runs in perfect time, are all things of excellence. Now, these things are my list – and yours will be different – maybe a 200GB memory card doesn’t immediately draw you into worship like it does to me. That’s ok.
What do I know about God that is worthy of “praise”? Well, everything, when we start to read about Him. Open up Psalm 121, 145 and 146 and read about salvation, protection, and deliverance from God.
“The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 146)
This is my list, and I’m sure yours is different, but I hope you see my point. If we take the time to do this, then it not only gives us an antidote to poisonous thinking, but is an act of worship and obedience to God. He honours those who honour Him.
We live in an age of expectancy, selfishness and pride. We live in a darkened world that refuses to thank God for His provision and will not acknowledge His grace. His people ought not be like that. Thanksgiving takes practice, effort, time and energy – but it’s benefits are incredible. It will bring us closer to God, realign our priorities and adjust our attitudes.
Thanksgiving is powerful – so let us not take it for granted. Like Jesus, let us make a habit of it.
I’ve started a, sort of, impromptu series that I’m unofficially calling “Kick Off the New Year Right” or “How to Prepare for 2015”… or something like that. The series title doesn’t matter. What matters is that I want to spend a little while going over a few things that we need to make sure we have straight as we enter this new season of our lives.
I call it a “new season” because I’m talking about far more than merely the calendar rolling over from 2014 to 2015. As I’ve talked to people over the past months I’m sensing that there is a lot of transition going on. We see ever-increasing political tensions in Canada and around the world – the attacks in France remind us of our own, still recent, confrontation with terrorism here. There are people going through relationship transitions as the dynamics of their marriage, friendships, partnerships and even workplace change around them. Some are facing personal transitions as their body changes, their health changes, what they can do changes. Some have decisions to make that will bring a new season to their life and the lives around them.
There seems to be a feeling of flux right now in the hearts of people at this church, the community around us, our country, and our world. The ground beneath our feet is shifting, and there’s we can do nothing about it except to ensure that we are on solid ground.
Hearing and Doing
At the end of Jesus’ longest recorded sermon, where He described what life in the Kingdom of God is like –the laws, the attitudes, the character of His people, how to talk to God and live in this world – He ended it with a question and a story:
His question was: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46) and it is just as sharp today as it was the day He spoke it. He contrasts the difference between hearing and doing, confession and obedience.
He’s talking about “hypocrisy: saying one thing” (“Yes, Jesus is my Lord, I got saved, I’m a Christian, I go to church, blah, blah, blah…”) but not having a life that reflects it. A “disciple”, on the other hand, is someone that calls Jesus “Lord, Lord” and then does what He says!
Think of John 15 where God is presented as the Gardener, Jesus is the Bine, and we are the branches. He says in John 15:1-2:
“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.”
God doesn’t have much interest in fruitless branches. God doesn’t care about the amount of people that call Jesus “Lord, Lord”, but cares very much about those who are producing fruit. God isn’t planting a forest. He wants an orchard.
Things to Obey
And so, Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Mount, and then looks at the crowd – and to us – and says, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?”
We all struggle with this, don’t we? We pray, “Dear Lord, God…” and then disobey Him. We read a scripture, hear a sermon, feel a conviction in our heart from God, and we absolutely know that our Lord God, Creator of the Universe, has told us to do something – and we don’t do it.
- Forgive that person.
- Be reconciled to your brother or sister.
- Stop pursuing worldly gain and start looking after your spirit, your family, and your church.
- Go be a peacemaker to that troubled situation.
- Go tell those people about me. Shine your light.
- Get rid of that unrighteous anger.
- Stop lusting after people that you’re not married to.
- Stay married to your spouse and do everything you can to love them.
- Quit lying and breaking promises.
- Stop seeking revenge and let it go.
- Show love to your enemies.
- Be generous with your possessions and give to the needy.
- Read your Bible and talk to me every day.
- Take time away to rest and to fast.
- Crush the idols you have in your life.
- Stop worrying about things and trust me.
- Show humility and stop putting yourselves above others.
- Ask for things from God and expect answers.
- “Whatever you wish that others would do for you, do it to them.”[i]
- Find good teachers and get rid of the bad ones.
That’s the Sermon on the Mount in a nutshell. And at the end of that incredible list, Jesus asks us to evaluate our hearing and our doing, our confession and our obedience, our talk and our walk. He wants us to check to see if they line up. Why?
- Because of the shifting ground under our feet.
- Because of the uncertainty of this life.
- Because of the liars and cheats that want to manipulate us.
- Because of the charlatans who pretend to love us but don’t.
- Because of the we are faced with huge decisions all the time and we need divine wisdom to know what to do.
- Because we are confronted with pain and sorrow that is beyond our ability to handle.
- Because the temptations of this world are immense.
- Because our enemy, the devil, is smarter than us and is prowling around like a lion seeking whom he may devour.[ii]
- Because without listening to Jesus and doing what He says, we are going to make terrible mistakes that hurt us and those around us.
Jesus asks the question and then tells this story:
“Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.”
I want to point out a couple of things about the builders.
First: Notice that both of them hear the message. One “hears… and does” while the other “hears and does not”. We’re not talking about people who have not heard the message of the Gospel and the teachings of scripture. Jesus is talking about people who have heard what God wants and expects from them, but doesn’t do it.
Now, that’s a bit of a misstatement. It’s not that this person does nothing, right? That’s the second thing: both of them build. In the story, the house represents the person’s life. Everyone builds a life. Both builders are placed in the world, both get contracts to build a house, and both are given all the materials they need to build a good house. Both builders use their skills and abilities to design their house with what they’ve been given. When they stand back and look at it, like any builder, there are things they like about it, and things they wished they had done differently. But it’s their house that they built.
We’re all given the materials to have a Godly life. Sure, each of us are given a little different pile. Some have more decorations than others, while some have stronger frames. Some have incredibly detailed blueprints, while others have more flexibility in the plans. There are differences, but the pile of materials from which we build our lives are remarkably similar. And, of course, we’re all given the same scriptures, the same Saviour, and have access equal access to God and all the good gifts He is willing to give.
But then we get to the third thing about the builders: They both build near the stream. Sometimes we think that one built next to a floodplain while the other built far away. No, in the story, these two people are neighbours. Just like we all are in this world. We are growing up together, in the same environment, facing similar issues.
Yes, we all have our own unique takes on them – some of us have physical advantages, others are smarter, some are wealthier, some are more prone to addiction or anger, while others had troubles growing up that they still carry with them. We all have our own things that make us us, and God has gifted each one of us with a special purpose and the equipment to carry out that mission, but we are all living next to the same stream.
We’re all in this world, and when it gets boiled down, we are all facing similar issues. We all live by the same stream. We all face temptation, loss, fear, grief, and pain. We all deal with the effects of sin inside and outside us. You might feel alone, like you’re the only one dealing with that particular issue, but that is a demonic lie meant to keep you feeling hopeless. I promise you that you are not alone and that there are people out there who are dealing with the same problems and challenges as you. That’s one of the beauties of being in the church.
And that leads us to the next similarity between the builders: both experienced a flood. In this story, the flood represents a couple things: first, the troubles of this world that come to us all the time, and second, our death and the final judgement before God. In other words, immediate consequences and eternal consequences.
The ones that listen to Jesus, and do what He says when He says it, have security and peace during the trials and troubles of this life. And then, when they die they have eternal security that they are ultimately saved forever.
But the ones that listen to Jesus, and don’t do what He says, have insecurity and lack of peace when the trials and troubles come into this life. And ultimately, at the end, they will not have eternal security because they never did give their lives to Jesus.
I’ve said before that scripture teaches – in fact, in the Gospel of Matthew, it’s what Jesus says right before he tells the story of the two builders – that there will be many in the end that cry out “Lord, Lord, did we not prophecy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?”, and Jesus will turn to them and say, “I never knew you; depart from me.”[iii]
The story of the two builders is told as a warning to these people who act religious, act like Christians, use Christian language, claim to be believers, but don’t do what Jesus says, and who, in the end, will end up in hell. The do themselves a disservice in this life by not following Him, and a greater one in the afterlife.
We can put it off, ignore it, pretend it’s not going to happen, distract ourselves, and live in denial as much as we want, but Jesus says very clearly that “the flood” is not an “if” but a “when”. Temptations and pain will come to you in this life… it’s a foregone conclusion. And we are all going to die (if Jesus doesn’t come back first) and then we will all face the Judgement Seat of Christ.[iv]
Jesus’ question is, “What’s the point of calling me Lord Lord and pretending to be a Christian, if you’re not going to obey what I say you’re supposed to do? That won’t help you now and it won’t help you later. Call me Lord Lord, and then do what I say, and then you will get the benefits of what I’m trying to give you!”
There’s only one difference between the two builders. One dug deep and built on the rock. He did the work. He put it into practice. It took time and effort to dig a hole the size of a house in the sandy land by the stream, until he hit bedrock.
He had to put off building his house. He didn’t get to do the fun stuff first. He had to do the arduous task of digging down, and down, and down, until he found the solid bedrock near that stream that he would build on. And then he had to carry stone after stone, shovelful after shovel full of fill as he filled it up again so he could build the house.
We’re going to have the same problem. It’s not that getting saved and starting a relationship with Jesus is hard. It requires nothing more than admitting you are a sinner in need of a Saviour, asking forgiveness, and then saying that Jesus is now your “Lord, Lord”. But from that point on, when you’ve decided to build your life on Him, it’s going to take time and effort and work.
You may have to put things off for a time (or forever) – like career advancement, relationships, certain things you find pleasure in – so you can dig down to Christ, removing all the shifting sand beneath your feet that will cause problems for your house later.
It will mean emptying yourself of your favourite idols, believing you’re in charge of your life, submitting yourself to Jesus and other mature Christians, and getting rid of the stuff in your house that distracts you from Christ. I remember as a college student destroying over a hundred CD’s in my music collection because – at the time – they were a stumbling block between me and Jesus. And that was just one thing that had to go – there have been many more since.
Digging down and placing your whole life on the bedrock takes work. It means rearranging your schedule so you can pray, read scripture, attend church each week, and have a Sabbath rest. It means changing your priorities with your finances so you can give a portion of your finances back to God and live a generous lifestyle toward others in need. And it’s hard.
Each shovelful of sand that you remove hurts a little. There goes my pride. There goes my selfishness. There goes my Sundays. There goes my mornings. There goes my favourite addiction. There goes my internet privileges. There goes my favourite hatred and bitterness. There goes my movie collection. There goes my career plans. There goes my marriage plans. There goes my divorce plans. There goes my belief that I’m number one. There goes my belief that it’s all about me.
We empty the hole and dig down deeper and deeper to the bedrock of Jesus Christ. And then we start to fill it back up again, stone after stone, replacing our thoughts with His thoughts, our ways with His ways, our heart with His heart, our will with His will, our habits with His habits, our words with His words, our plans with His plans, until we have built a solid foundation on Him and how He wants us to live.
And it is on this foundation that we build out house. And then when the rains come down and the floods come up, and the stream grows into a river – our house will stand. Not because of anything we’ve done – but because of who we’ve chosen to build on. We don’t get the glory for a house that stands up to the flood, Jesus does!
He’s the foundation. He’s the one who gave us the stones. He’s the one who stays strong. That’s why we build on Him and His Word.
We wonder about all the uncertainty and shifting sand of this world. We are troubled by all the things we can’t control. We know the rains and the flood are coming, but are we willing to believe Jesus when He says that He is the only foundation to stand on when they do?
[i] Matt 7:12
[ii] 1 Peter 5:8
[iii] Matthew 7:21-23
[iv] 2 Corinthians 5:10
We’re studying the Four Core Christian Disciplines right now. Can you remember what they are? Prayer, Bible Study, Church Attendance and Serving Others. Last week we talked about “How to Pray” which brings us to this week’s topic: “Why and How to Study the Bible”. Lets begin with “Why” and start with this question:
How You See It Affects How You Treat It
What is the Bible to you?
There are people in every corner in the world who know how they should answer that question… but they don’t really treat the Bible the way they talk about it.
People see the Bible in different ways. Some see it as an emotional antacid that you read only when your life has your stomach tied in knots. Or a sleeping pill that you read to cure insomnia. Some see it as an insurance policy where you may not have read all the fine print but you hope that owning one will get you out of some kind of trouble some day. Some see it as a holy book reserved for monks and gurus but not really something normal people would ever want to read. Others see it as a story book filled with fables and fairytales. Others wouldn’t say it’s fiction, but is interesting, but useless – an ancient book pertinent to a bygone culture, but not relevant for today.
How you treat the bible is directly connected to how you see it. The time you spend in it, the effort you make to understand it, and the authority level you give the words within it will directly correspond to your view of it – even if you would never say so.
Why Study the Bible?
So, before we begin talking about Bible Study let me give a bit of a plug for why this is such a big deal. You may cringe at the word “study” because it conjures up bad memories of math-quizzes, long classes with a boring teacher going through boring material, dusty books without any pictures full of useless facts that need to be regurgitated for some test. I can completely understand why you’d tune out if that’s what comes to mind when you think of studying. But let me assure you: this kind of study is different.
Listen to the words of Hebrews 4:12-13:
“For the word of God is 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.”
This book contains the very words of God, given through human agents, to all of humanity, to guide us in this world, and ultimately lead us to salvation from hell and into eternal life. It is the greatest source of moral authority and perfect truth in this world, contains the very words of our Creator, and teaches us about the most important figure in the history of the world – Jesus Christ. It helps us understand the very core of what it means to be human, and speaks to us so individually that at times it feels like it was written to us alone. It shows us our sin, our desperation, our damnation, and the deep and abiding love God has for us, showing us the cost of what it took to come and save us from our sin so we could be with Him.
If you believe that, then you need to read it that way. If you don’t believe that, then you should study this book anyways to see if these claims are true or not. You can’t afford to be wrong about this one. This is a very important book.
5 Reasons to Study the Bible
I came up with 5 reasons why Christians need to study the Bible, and why you should probably pay attention to this sermon.
First, without bible study we soon forget God’s promises. If we are not in the word regularly, we can forget what God has done for us, and is doing through us. We can get bitter, afraid, confused, or prideful if we are not reminding ourselves of the presence and promises of God regularly. It’s amazing how often God will use the Bible to remind us of His goodness, greatness, love for us, and tell us what we need to hear that day.
Second, if we are not studying the Bible we become an easy target for the devil’s schemes.
Think of the Garden of Eden. What was Satan’s opening line there? The first line he ever spoke to humanity in Genesis 3:1 “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” He challenged God’s word. The whole conversation between Satan and Eve was based on God’s Word. Can you trust God’s word? What did God really say? Can God’s word be modified for this situation? When Jesus was facing His temptation in the desert He didn’t dialogue with the Tempter at all, but quoted the Bible and shut down the conversation. Most of us don’t know our Bibles well enough to shut down temptation so Satan sucks us unto into a dialogue with him, and then we fall. If we don’t know our Bibles… if we don’t know the truth… then we are open to being deceived.
Third, without consisting bible study habits, we become closed-minded. Some people learn one or two verses and use them as the rule for their whole lives, their church, their families, and relationships. For example, think of the person who knows Matthew 7:1, “judge not lest ye be judged” but doesn’t know the rest. They never get to Matthew 18:15 where Jesus says, “If your brother sins go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.” They never confront anyone about their sin because they think that they “aren’t supposed to judge people”. When in actual fact the Bible tells us to lovingly challenge one another to make sure we are all doing the right thing and growing our obedience to God. We need the whole counsel of scripture to have the right picture of what it means to be a Christian, not just picking and choosing a few favourites that fit with what we want to believe.
Fourth, if we don’t have good bible study habits then we won’t be able to, as 1 Peter 3:15 says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” I’m convinced that this is a big reason why people don’t share their faith. A some point they were told the truth, believed it, but never locked that truth inside of them to share with others. They are afraid that questions will come up that they won’t have answers for so they don’t start conversations about faith at all. But if we are good students of the Bible, then we will have the answers to many (not all, but many) questions and have more confidence when we tell the story of what Jesus has been doing in our lives and in this world.
Fifth and finally, and most seriously, without diligent study we can be led, and lead others into heresy. The word heresy literally means, “to choose other beliefs.” If God’s word is a revealed word – meaning God gave it to us for a purpose, with a meaning in mind – then there is a right way to read it.
When we read the bible, we are not reading opinion, but the words of God, and we let them speak to us. If we stop reading the bible and start reading into the bible, we will begin to introduce heresies… or “other beliefs”, that can lead us and others away from the truth.
Listen to how serious God takes heresy as I continue to read 2 Peter 2:1-3:
“But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves.”
We need to have good bible study habits and consistent accountability or we run the risk of promoting heresy, and what we think about a subject, rather than what God thinks.
What is Bible Study?
Like last week, I wrote a definition that we can take apart:
Bible Study is “making the choice, under God’s direction, to methodologically spend time, energy and concentration to deepen our faith in Jesus through His Word.”
“Making the choice” – Getting to know the bible better is a choice. Anything we do that doesn’t come naturally or will require effort requires us to make a choice. Becoming healthier in mind, body or spirit doesn’t happen to us, by chance or through osmosis or proximity to healthy people. Bible Study is no different.
Sitting through sermon after sermon and attending various bible-based groups does not make you a student of the bible. You need to make the choice to engage your mind, heart and hands in the process. One must say, “I see value in knowing the scriptures, and therefore I choose to invest my time and energy into studying them.” I know many Christians who have attended church functions for a loooong time but don’t know any more about the bible than they did after their first few years of salvation.
In 2 Timothy 2:15 Paul says to Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” Another translation says “Be diligent…” Bible Study requires us to decide to do our best and be diligent to make the effort to learn.
“Under God’s direction”. Listen to the words of 1 Corinthians 2:9-13:
“But, as it is written, ‘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. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.”
We cannot really understand the bible without God’s help. Yes, we can learn about the people and places the Bible speaks about, but we cannot truly be impacted by the full worth of God’s Word unless He works within us to help us understand it. It is His letter to us, and when He is not involved in the reading of it, it becomes stale and fruitless. If we don’t come to God before we study it, the bible will be foolishness to our ears, and produce nothing but guilt, showing us all the ways we don’t measure up. But if we seek God when we come to His world, then inside of it we will not only find conviction, but also wisdom and freedom.
That’s why I started with prayer last week. In a previous incarnation of this study I started with Bible Study, but realized that really wasn’t where we need to start. We need to start in prayer, and then come to study.
“Methodologically” – That’s just a fancy word meaning that we need to have a plan.
Let me say this: I strongly believe that God speaks to individuals all the time as they faithfully read their bibles. I have often counselled people to read their bibles as though God is speaking directly to them and has a message for them from the verses they are reading that day. I believe that with all my heart, and I know many people who have met God in powerful ways during their daily Bible reading.
I also believe that the Bible was written to be understood. The message of scripture is simple to grasp and God can speak to people of all levels of experience, intelligence and education through His word. It is not merely a book for scholars and linguists – it is a book written for every person in every place at every time. I have no doubt in my mind that if you grab a Bible and start faithfully reading it that God will teach you something about Himself and dramatically change your life.
However, like anything else we learn, be it cars, sports, quilting, cooking or cheese-making, a good student of the Bible requires a plan. Reading the bible “Devotionally” – by which I mean simply reading the words of God and asking God to speak through them – is of great benefit. However, we also need to “Study” our bible – meaning that we need to have a plan to go deeper than devotional reading.
This is a huge stumbling block to some people. They don’t like being told what to do. They don’t want to admit that they need someone else to teach them about the bible. That’s called pride. When a prideful person comes to the Bible they will often make one of three mistakes: They will assume they know it all and don’t need anyone’s help. Or, they will ignore anything they don’t understand and assume it’s not important. Or, they will just start making things up try to make it up all by themselves. That’s a great path to ignorance and heresy.
God has raised people up (Eph 4:11, 1 Peter 5:1-2) who He has specially gifted with the ability to teach us things about the Bible. It is our responsibility to make sure they are good teachers who are following Jesus and submitting to the Holy Spirit (Romans 16:17-18; 1 John 4:1; 2 John 1:10-11), and then it is our responsibility to humbly and attentively to them (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Thess 5:12) – through their sermons, books, study guides, or one on one. They are a gift from God to us.
Reading the Bible is wonderful, but when we study the Bible, we need a good guide to help us, a plan to complete the task, and a system by which we gather the knowledge. If we come to Bible Study without techniques and tools, then we cannot say we are studying it, any more than a scientist can say they are studying something if they have no equipment, system, process, reports, or methodology.
“Time, Energy and Concentration” Bible study will take your time. This is probably the greatest expense to us, because our time is very valuable. It seems that we would much rather spend any other resource we have other than time. Devotional reading will take less time, but Study will require more.
Bible study will also take energy. It’s not something we can do very well when we are tired at the end of the day. I’m sure you’ve realized that if you are to learn anything that it will require some dedicated energy – not leftovers.
And it will require concentration. We have to choose… there’s that word again… to put our concentration into the study. Anyone who has ever taken a class knows that you can sit through class, take notes, and even do the assignments, and not learn a thing because you’re just going through the motions to get the grade! To get anything out of Bible Study you will be required to concentrate and invest some brain-power.
“to deepen our faith in Jesus through His Word.” At the end of the Gospel of John in 20:31 we read:
“…but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
The goal of Bible Study is not merely to understand the Bible, but to understand our salvation from God through Jesus Christ as it is revealed in scripture. The Bible helps us know our Creator, Lord, and Saviour. The whole story is about Jesus, from beginning to end, and it is He whom we are learning about in every verse.
We are not there to figure out ways to manipulate and bend the words of the Bible for our own purposes. We are not there to become “bible-thumpers” who use the word of God to make others feel guilty or stupid. Our goal when coming to Bible Study is to have God speak to us through it, to bring us to an understanding of what God has revealed about Jesus, and to connect to Him for our daily hope.
Tomorrow we will go through the How-To’s of Bible Study — the Tools and Techniques — but my hope today is that you take our first question (“What is the Bible to you?”) and spend some time thinking about it. How do you see the Bible? What do you believe about it? Does how you see the Bible line up with how you treat it? If someone were to see how much time you spend reading it, the effort you put into understanding it, and the authority level it has for you – would they say that it’s the most important book in your life because it points to the most important person in your life? If they would, then praise God and keep up the good work! I’m not trying to put a guilt trip on you – ok, maybe a little – but it is my deep desire for you to love the scriptures and be built up in them so you can be a strong Christian.
So if you feel convicted today that you might say that the Bible is important to you, but you don’t spend much time in it, today is the day to change that. Today is the day you can recommit yourself to learning about Jesus in scripture.