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.
We’re here! We’ve made it to the How-To part of the series! We’ve been working hard to get here, deliberately laying the foundation of making sure the motivations of our hearts are right with God. But now, we press forward to the practical outworking of the Four Core Christian Disciplines. Can you remember what they are? Prayer, Bible Study, Church Attendance and Serving Others. Right!
Why Study Prayer?
Some of you might be thinking, “Great! Finally! I’ve been struggling with this for a long time now and I can finally get some tips on how to strengthen these parts of my spiritual life.” Others here might be ready to tune-out thinking, “Why on earth would we need to learn how to do this? It comes naturally to me. I’ve been doing it all my life!” And there might be some here that are thinking, “How dare Pastor Al even think of telling someone how to do this. This is personal. There’s no right way to pray or read the bible. There’s no right way to attend church. It’s arrogant to think that one person’s way is going to work for everyone.”
Let me explain quickly why we are going through this how-to section:
While I agree that each of these Core Christian Disciplines are very personal, there really are practical ways that we can improve how we do them, and ways that we can get them wrong. Think of Luke 11 where the disciples had been watching Jesus at prayer. They saw something that He had been doing, an effect or some kind of power they didn’t have. They saw a lack in their own prayer and so they went to Jesus and said, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” They wanted a distinctively Jesus-style, a Christian prayer, that would set them apart from others and would let them access God the way Jesus did. They had to be taught how to pray, and I believe so do we.
There are a lot of people who don’t know how to do these things because they didn’t grow up in the church. For them prayer is mysterious and difficult, bible study is boring and confusing, they don’t know how to get the most out of attending church (which is probably why attendance is in such decline across North America), and while many desire to serve others, they don’t know what their spiritual gifts are, they have a packed schedule, and have so many personal needs that stepping into someone else’s problems sounds like a terrible idea! I know with absolute certainty that many people here desire to have a better prayer life, to know more about God, to have powerful corporate worship experiences, and to share the love of Jesus with others in practical ways – and I believe part of the way to get there is through training.
What Is Prayer?
What is Prayer? So many people have defined prayer in so many different ways. Some with complex theological language, other’s very simplistically. The famous Dutch pastor and theologian Hendrikus Berkhof wrote a great book introducing people to the Christian faith. But, when he came to the subject of prayer he found that he didn’t know where to put it in the book! He said,
“The nature of prayer happens to be such that its place in the study of faith is uncertain and therefore varying. The reflection on prayer would fit in with the doctrine of God, the doctrine of man, preservation, the covenant, the Spirit, the Church or man’s personal life.”
That tells us something important. It tells us that prayer is not just something a Christian does, but is the root of all Christian theology and practice. It’s overarching. It’s not just a part of the Christian faith; it is the very essence of it. Prayer is part of many other religions, but Christian prayer is the expression of a specific relationship with Jesus Christ, and is a response to His work in us, for us and through us.
I’ve read a lot of definitions of prayer:
- John Ortburg in The Life You’ve Always Wanted said, “Prayer… is the concrete expression of the fact that we are invited into a relationship with God.”
- Dallas Willard in The Divine Conspiracy said, “Prayer is talking to God about what we are doing together.”
- Patrick Morley in his book A Man’s Guide to the Spiritual Disciplines said, “Prayer is the conversation that turns salvation into a closer, personal relationship with God.”
So in light of all of this, I’ve come up with my own definition that we can use today.
Prayer is multifaceted, perpetual communication with God through Jesus Christ with the intention of seeking a closer relationship with Him through confession, worship, thanksgiving and supplication.
So let’s take this apart piece by piece to help us define prayer.
First, is the word “multifaceted”. There is no one kind or formula of prayer just as there is no one kind of marriage, friendship, or partnership. Our relationship with God is multifaceted. In the Bible He’s called our Saviour, King, Commander, Brother, Father, Priest, Prophet, and so much more. And we relate to Him on multiple levels in multiple ways.
This is good news because it means that the guilt you are feeling for not measuring up to someone else’s prayer life doesn’t need to be there. Sometimes you look at someone else who spends a lot of time on their knees, with their eyes closed, at five o’clock in the morning, and say, “Wow, that person has a way better prayer life than me.” And you feel guilty because every time you’ve tried closing your eyes at 5 AM to pray, you end up waking up at 7AM wondering what happened.
Perhaps for you, a focused prayer time happens with your eyes open, walking around, at 9 PM. Maybe you’re perfect prayer place is outside, or inside, or sitting, or standing, or lying down on your face. Sometimes it changes depending on the content of your prayer. If you are crying out to God after a car accident, your posture will be different than when you have just done something sinful and you are repenting before Him.
Someone may have told you that you need to always be quiet, and gentle, and sweet, or talk to God politely, like He’s your boss or He’ll fire you. That’s not the kinds of prayers we read about in the Bible. Prayers are “multifaceted” because people have a wide range of emotions.
This leads us to our next word. Prayer is multifaceted because prayer is “perpetual”. Ephesians 6:18 says we should “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” It’s not a one time shot we do in the morning to check in with HQ and then walk out the door on our own. Prayer is intended to be an ongoing communication with God. And because a lot happens to us in the course of a day, we are going to change our tone. We wake up in the morning, and it’s a good day. We have warm water in the shower. We look in the mirror and like what we see, get to work early, and the boss gives us a coupon for a free lunch at our favourite restaurant. “Thanks God! What a great start to the day!”
Or, we wake up in the morning, and our alarm didn’t go off. So we jump in the shower to find that there’s no more hot water left. We look in the mirror and it looks like we fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down. And when we finally do get to work the boss chews us out for being late and asks us to work through lunch. That’s going to be a different prayer! But God is there through it all, and desires to have us talk to Him all the way through it.
This is a very difficult thing to do, and I don’t think that any of us will achieve this kind of relationship with God on this side of eternity. But the that is set for us is to be naturally talking to God about everything that’s going on in life.
Which leads us to our next phrase, “communication with God through Jesus Christ.” This is key.
God wants to talk to you, and for you to talk to Him, and He’s done everything possible to make that happen because He loves you very much. Love requires communication. To build any relationship – marriage, friendships, family –requires honest, ongoing, open, long-term, intentional communication. If I told you I loved someone but never talk to them except occasionally when there’s a problem and I need something from them, you would question my loyalty and love for that person. Right? That’s the relationship I have with my mechanic, not my wife, kids or God.
I hope you realize that God wants to be in a relationship with you. We gloss over this so many times that it has become part of the background noise of our faith. We take this for granted, but we shouldn’t. God knows your every deed, every thought, and every word you’ve ever said… and He still wants to have you around Him!
We shouldn’t be allowed to pray. According to the bible, if it wasn’t for God sending Jesus to die on the cross in our place, we would still be dead in our sins, and totally committed to living by our sinful natures (Ephesians 2:1-4, Colossians 2:13-14) . James 4:4 says that before we are saved we are an “enemy of God”.
But God loves you very much, and wants to be in relationship with you. He desires to communicate with you, and for you to talk to Him. The Bible says in Romans 8:34 that Jesus is continually “interceding for us.” That means that Jesus is talking to God on our behalf and making the case for why we should be forgiven and ushered into His presence and allowed to speak. The Devil, the accuser, stands there saying, “This person is a sinner that turned his back on you, and He should be sent to Hell and punished forever. That’s your rule God and you need to stand by it!”
But Jesus defends us saying, “Father, you chose that person to be saved. They called out to me and believed in me, and I took their punishment. Their debt has been paid because I paid it. They’re one of mine. That person has been washed clean and has been given the gift of purity because I took all of His shame and have washed them myself. Father, allow this one to come before just I come before you.”
And this leads us to our next phrase, “with the intention of seeking a closer relationship with Him.” That’s what prayer is all about. God has opened up His heart to us and has made a relationship with Him possible. He bought us back from Satan, death and eternal damnation in Hell. He loved us so much that He sent His one and only Son to die in our place because no one else could. And therefore, when we become a Christian, we live with that in the forefront of our minds, and we make the intention of our lives to grow closer to the one who loves us so much. Why do we pray? We pray in response to God’s love for us! 1 John 3:1 says:
“How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!”
We pray to build a relationship with our Father whom we love and who loves us.
Have you ever walked into your home and smelled an apple pie baking in the oven? Or went into someone’s house in December and it just smelled like Christmas? Or you smell the scent of the person that you love when you are near them? Then you understand the feelings of pleasure associated with a wonderful smell. That’s what we are told our prayers are like to God. Throughout the Bible it says that our prayers are like a fragrant incense offering to God, something pleasing to Him. They are like a gift we give Him.
The Four Components of Prayer
And the final part of our definition gives us the Four Components of Prayer, “confession, worship, thanksgiving and supplication.” How do we express our love for God? How do we build our relationship with Him? There are things we do in prayer that will build up this relationship. At different times and in different ways all of these should be a part of our communication with God.
People sometimes struggle with what to say to God. These Four Components of Prayer will give you good guidelines on where to start your prayers, and what to say.
The first of the four is Confession which is a key part of building our relationship with God. In one sense, it is the beginning of our relationship with Him… though not exactly, since He created us and knows us before we ever acknowledge Him. But when we finally do acknowledge Him, the first thing we must do is confess our sin and need for His Lordship, presence and salvation to Him. We talked about that over the past couple weeks.
Confession and Repentance are the first things we do when we come to God, but they is also something we do throughout our lives to show our desire to walk away from sin and towards Jesus every day.
Next, as a result of our confession, repentance and forgiveness… we are naturally lead into Worship. If you struggle with worshipping God in your prayer life, then you probably struggle with confession, repentance and understanding your forgiveness. The songs on Sunday morning are actually prayer because singing is one of the many facets on the diamond of communication that we have between us and God. We are speaking words to God in song, and we are calling back to Him is attributes.
Worship is simply talking to God about who He is. It is telling God His attributes the same way that we do for someone we care about or are impressed by. We tell them about themselves as a way that we show love and devotion to them, or awe and fear of them. “You are special.” “You are beautiful.” “You are overwhelming!” “You are strong.” “You are skilful.” “You are so creative.” .” “You are powerful!” Worship is a natural response when we get a glimpse of God. We do this with each other naturally, and that’s what good worship music, and worshipful prayer is.
In Revelation 4:8 the angels worship God by saying “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!” Holiness is one of God’s attributes.
Next comes Thanksgiving. Worship is talking to God about who He is, thanksgiving is talking to God about what He has done. The blessings and mercies that He has given, especially those we so often take for granted like sleep, food, health, family and the like, but most importantly, for salvation through Jesus Christ.
Listen to how the Psalmist gives thanksgiving to God:
Psalm 66:5, “Come and see what God has done, how awesome his works in man’s behalf!”
Psalm 139:14, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.”
When we read about the worship in heaven in Revelation 4:6-11 we read them saying, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”
Finally, the fourth aspect of prayer is Supplication – asking God for what we need. This is a huge stumbling block for some people because they don’t understand why their prayers aren’t being answered. They have asked God for things, made requests, and it’s not happening. So they get discouraged.
This is why I prefer the word “supplicate” to “request”. Supplicate is made up of two words: “supple” and “placate”. When something that is “supple” it is able to bend. To “placate” means to “please” someone. So literally, when we come to God and ask for something, we come humbly, bending our will to His, so we may do that which pleases Him. This is as much about bringing our requests to God as it is about Him teaching us to be humble before Him.
The key to understanding supplication is found in John 15:5-8. Jesus is talking to His disciples about how we relate to Him uses the picture of a grape vine and the branches that connect to that vine and bear the fruit.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
When we come to God in supplication… when we ask God for things… Jesus says there is a qualification to all our requests: we need to be connected to the Vine. If we expect to have any grapes, then we’d better be getting food and nutrients from the Vine. If we disconnect ourselves from our source of life and think our little branch is going to do anything apart from the Vine, then we’re crazy.
What does it mean to be connected to the vine? Are you ready to come full circle? It means we are faithful to the Four Core Christian Disciplines. Jesus says, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.” The opposite of that is to say, “If you ignore me, push me aside, do your own thing, and don’t bother listening to or studying my words, distance yourself from my people, refuse to listen to me as Lord, serve only yourself… no matter what you ask for, it won’t be given to you.”
Why? Because if we ask for things without listening to God, we’ll be asking with selfish desires and destructive motives! We will want things that glorify me, comfort me, meet my wants, fill my desires, make me feel better, make my life easier, punish those that I don’t like. We won’t be concerned about praising God, learning more about Him, building our character to become more like Christ, or serving and taking care of anyone else. When we stop pursuing Jesus through the Four Core Christian Disciplines, it’s becomes all about us.
James 4:1-3 says:
“What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”
If you have been praying for something for a long time and it’s not happening, check your motives. Why do you want that to happen? Do you trust God enough to believe that He already knows what you need before you even need it? Do you trust that God knows what He’s doing? He will answer every prayer you bring to Him. Sometimes “yes”, sometimes “no”, sometimes “later”. God is gracious enough not to give us those things which will harm us, or will not lead to His glory. Can you imagine what would happen if God said yes to everything everyone asked for? What a world we would live in! Praise God that sometimes He doesn’t give us what we ask for.
Let me close today with a few final, practical point about how to do this. We’ve talked about what prayer is, and the importance of it. We’ve discussed the motives of our hearts, and our need to humble ourselves before Him when we ask for something. I want to close answering a few practical questions about prayer that you may have:
What do I need to do to get started? (Or… How can I be more consistent?)
The simple answer is the one you have probably already heard, and is good advice for a lot of things. If you want to be a better writer, find a time and a place and show up and write. If you want a healthy marriage, set consistent and regular times to be together. If you want a strong family, consistently be together at meal times and at other times too.
The best thing you can do is find a time (morning, afternoon, evening, coffee break, lunch-time, before bed, before anyone gets up) and then set an alarm, put it in your calendar, and make that time sacred.
Then find a spot. A place were you know you can be alone, quiet and uninterrupted for a period of time. It may take some practice. You may have to get up earlier, stay up later, leave the house, or go sit in the car. Find a time, find a spot and be there.
I start praying but I don’t know what to say. What should I say?
You’re not alone in this struggle, a lot of people struggle with the words of their prayers. Some have been to prayer meetings with old saints who can pray for 15 minutes straight, in King James English, without even pausing to think or repeating themselves – and that’s a daunting thing to try to keep up with.
A lot of people struggle with what to say so they just keep saying the same word over and over hoping something will pop-out. “Lord Jesus, thank you Jesus for being my Lord, Jesus. I just want to, Lord Jesus, thank you, Jesus and just want you, Lord, give you my thanks, Lord Jesus just for being my Lord.” That can get very discouraging.
Here’s my suggestions. First, start with the Four Components of Prayer: Confession, Worship, Thanksgiving and Supplication. What do you need to confess to God today? What have you learned about God’s attributes in the past while? What has God been doing for you lately that you can thank Him for? What are your needs?
Second, if you struggle with what to say, bring your Bible with you. You’re already committed to studying it, now use it as the jumping off point for your prayers. There are lots of prayers you can pray – the Lord’s Prayer, Psalm 23 are two famous ones. Use their words as a starting point for talking to God.
“Our Father in Heaven” – “God you are my Father, and that means a lot to me because I need a father right now. I need advice, and help, resources, and someone to discipline me..”
Third, bring a prayer book with you. I highly recommend “The Valley of Vision” which is a collection of puritan prayers and devotions. It has helped me for years to find to express what was inside my spirit. There are lots of prayer books, and prayers online that can help to give you a starting point.
How long do I need to be there for?
I’ve already said that the hope is that we would pray without ceasing, but the question of how long we need to be in prayer during our quiet times is a valid one.
Here’s my answer: God is pleased with whatever short time we give him, even if it’s a few minutes of prayer. However, God will always ask for more time, and no matter how much time we spend during that set-aside quiet time, if our hearts are connecting to God, it will never feel like enough. His intention isn’t that we have hour long quiet times – it’s that we would eventually be so used to talking to Him that our whole life, when we are at work, talking to someone else, resting, playing, or whatever, is spent in constant communication with Him.
Start with a short quiet-time – 10 minutes of Bible Reading and Prayer, and as you do that consistently, you will need it to lengthen and it should naturally happen. As you mature, you will need more time, and then you will learn to pray more often, wherever you are, and be mindful of the presence of God in every situation.
Do I stand, sit, kneel? What should my posture be?
Why do we fold our hands and close our eyes? It’s more tradition than anything. I teach my kids to bow their heads out of respect for God, to close their eyes to keep from being distracted, and fold their hands so they’re not doing anything else with them!
In the bible we see people Bowing (Ex 4:31), Kneeling (Psalm 95:6), Sitting (Judges 20:26), Face to the Ground, (Matt 26:39), Standing (Mark 11:25), Lifting up Hands (1 Timothy 2:8), Looking upward (John 17:1), Heads between their Knees (1 Kings 18:42), Pounding on their Chest (Luke 18:13), and Looking out a Window (Daniel 6:10).
John MacArthur says something very important about the question of prayer posture. He says, “Rather than external positioning, the Bible emphasizes the posture of the heart. Whether you are standing, sitting, or lying down, the important thing is that your heart is bowed in submission to the lordship of Christ. False religion places a premium on external behaviour, while true Christianity is concerned with the heart. And true prayer is characterized by an attitude of humility before God-not the physical posture of the person praying.”
Practically speaking: be in a position where you will be comfortable, but not so comfortable you’re going to fall asleep. Change your posture based on what kinds of prayer you are praying. If you are requesting, open your hands to show you are receptive. If you are repenting, place your hands palms down as though you are putting something down. Our mind naturally follows our body, so we can change how we are relating to God just by changing our posture.
Why aren’t my prayers being answered?
We’ve already addressed this when I talked about the motives of our supplication, but here’s a list of scriptural reasons why God wouldn’t be listening to our prayers and answering them. Essentially, these are ways that we separate ourselves from the Vine:
Unrepentant Sin, Secret Sins or Sinful Motives – Sin is like cotton in the mouth of our prayer life. God will stop listening if we have sin in our lives that He wants us to get rid of. We also can’t fool God into giving us something that we’re just going to use to further our own destruction or sinful wants. You may be able to convince me to give you 50 bucks to buy something you say you need … and then go turn around and buy alcohol, or drugs, or porn, or something else… but we can’t fool God. He knows what we want to do with it.
Stubbornness and Pride – This is the prayer that goes, “God, I know what I’m doing… and I’m not really asking your advice… but I could use some supernatural help to get it going. If you could just bless what I’m doing… instead of messing with the why’s and how’s… then that’d be good.” God says that people who won’t ask God what He wants, but just want Him to bless their own plans will “eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes.” That’s bible talk for “they’ll get what they’re asking for.” Which isn’t good.
Half-Heartedness – God’s not a big fan of half-hearted people. We talked about luke-warm believers before. He spits them out (Rev 3:16). James 1:8 talks about the double-minded man who is “unstable” because he’s not seeking God, or himself, or anything else with his whole heart. He’s half in the world and half out.
I’m often convicted by the story in 2 Kings 13:18-19 where Elijah tells the king of Israel to take his arrows and strike the ground with them to show that the Lord will bring victor over his enemies. The king took the arrows, struck the ground three times and stopped. Elijah gets furious with him and says, “You should have struck five or six times; then you would have struck down Syria until you had made an end of it, but now you will strike down Syria only cthree times.” The problem? The King’s lack of enthusiasm, his half-heartedness about being obedient and seeing God work. God doesn’t desire half-hearted prayers.
How can I pray for others?
I really appreciate the person who asked this question because it reminds me that our prayer life isn’t just about us and our own spiritual development, but is one of the key ways God has decided to work in this world. He has decided that He will work in this world in response to our prayer life. He desires us to pray, and He wants us to pray for others, so that we can see His hand working in our lives and theirs, and then give Him glory for what He does.
My favourite method of praying for others is what I call Praying in Concentric Circles. This all happens during the “supplication” part of your prayers. Here’s how it works: Start with yourself and your own needs. Then pray for the needs, comfort, salvation, and challenges for the people who are closest to you – your significant other, your kids, your family. Then work your way out a little farther – your friends, your church, your coworkers. Then a little farther – your community, your neighbourhood, your city, province, nation. Then pray globally for world missionaries, for the world events you know about on the news. If you pray in concentric circles, then it’s a little easier to frame your prayers.
(Here’s the link to the Sermon Video)
We’ve been working long and hard to be able to get to the practical aspects of the Four Core Christian Disciplines: Prayer, Bible Study, Church Attendance and Serving Others – and we’re close, but we’re not there yet.
Don’t Be An Ephesian
I agree that we need to talk about the “how-tos”, but as I said last week God convicted me that it’s important that we not begin with the practical side but by preparing our hearts. If you remember, I likened it to the qualifying lap of a car race – the warming of the tires which makes us stick to the road and not spin off when the race starts. The last thing I want you to do is begin working through these disciplines without an understanding of why you are doing them and who they are focused on. You’ll spin out in your faith and hit a wall by doing them for yourself and miss out on why you’re really supposed to be doing them.
You could fall into the same mistake as the church of Ephesus in Revelation 2:2-4 – which is a very big deal. Jesus looks at these busy, busy believers who were doing all sorts of good things in and for their church and says,
“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.”
His solution was the same one I gave you before – verse 5:
“Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”
Do you hear what Jesus says to busy, religious people? Repent from your sin and get right before God. Then, get back to the basics of the faith (what I call the Four Core Christian Disciplines). Get your heart right, pray though Psalm 51, mean it with your entire being, and then start doing “the works” you need to do.
Repentance → Commitment
We read Psalm 51 last week and ended in verses 11-12 which say:
“Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.”
Now look at the next word:
Do you see it there again? Repentance first, and then commit to obedience. David’s heart is broken before God and he desires to restore the relationship he once had with God. He wants to be a “man after God’s own heart” again and so spends a good deal of the psalm dealing with repentance, but doesn’t end there!
“Then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you. Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, you who are God my Savior, and [then] my tongue will sing of your righteousness. Open my lips, Lord, and [then] my mouth will declare your praise.”
David, over and over, says, “God, I’m a sinner and I need you to forgive me, restore me and fill me with Your presence – and then out of that strength I will obey you.” We talked about this last week from Ezekiel 36. Remember verse 27?
“I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” God does the work and then causes us to move forward in obedience.
Think of the words of Isaiah 64:6 which talks about a group of people (the Israelites) who were once obedient and then fell into sin and disobedience. He says:
“We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.”
In Isaiah 57:12-13 the prophet says this:
“I will declare your righteousness and your deeds, but they will not profit you. When you cry out, let your collection of idols deliver you!”
There is no point in doing any of these good, religous things if you have not repented of your sin first.
And as if to drive that point home, David takes a moment out of the psalm to remind himself about the very heart of God when it comes to repentance. He says in verses 16-17:
“For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
Notice that in verse 13 David says, “I will repent and then I will teach and share the gospel.” and in verse 14-15, “I will repent and then I will sing worship songs.” Our relationship with God is not primarily built upon our obedience to what He says – that is important, but that comes later. Our relationship with God is primarily built upon our understanding of our total depravity in sin, our desperate need for a Saviour, and our ultimate need for grace and deliverance through the blood of Jesus. It is not about our acts of worship, church attendance, how much time we spend in prayer, how many committees we are on, how many people we have shared the gospel with, how many verses we have memorized, or any other religious thing – it is about having a “broken and contrite heart” before God. But what does that mean?
Listen to the Amplified Bible’s version of verse 17:
“My sacrifice [the sacrifice acceptable] to God is a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart [broken down with sorrow for sin and humbly and thoroughly penitent], such, O God, You will not despise.”
The Good News translation says it this way:
“My sacrifice is a humble spirit, O God; you will not reject a humble and repentant heart.”
I really like the way Eugene Peterson puts verses 16-17 in the Message Bible:
“Going through the motions doesn’t please you, a flawless performance is nothing to you. I learned God-worship when my pride was shattered. Heart-shattered lives ready for love don’t for a moment escape God’s notice.”
We start at Repentance, then go to Commitment. We commit our lives to Jesus and to His Service forever. We switch allegiances from the Kingdom of Darkness (which serves self and Satan), pick up our sword, put on our armour and begin fighting for the Kingdom of God (which serves Jesus Christ our Lord).
Once we have repented, the rest of our lives will be spent drawing our strength and joy from Jesus. We give everything up to follow Him.
I said this a couple weeks ago – “If I am to love and follow Jesus, I must know Him.”
How do we get to know Him? The Four Core Christian Disciplines! These are a matter of life and death – spiritual life and spiritual death. If your heart is attuned to Christ and you are practicing these disciplines, you will grow in maturity and in love for Him and others. If you begin in repentance and then neglect these disciplines, you will grow distant in your relationship with Him and you will find your love growing cold, your spirit growing weak, your heart hardening, temptation more difficult to flee, and sin more attractive.
Two Sides of Commitment
I believe this is why scripture balances out the motives behind our commitment. Forgiveness of sin and eternity with Jesus is a wonderful incentive to repent and believe, but God gives us even more reasons why we need to practice these Four Core Christian Disciplines. They are so critically important that God gives us every reason we could possibly need for why we must practice them. In scripture we read both “Incentives” and the “Commands” for the Four Christian Disciplines. God gives us positive, feel-good reasons for doing them… and then commands us to do them even when we don’t feel like it.
I want to talk about this before we get into the practical side of things. Again, this is tied to our motives, the preparation of our heart, and the attitude from which we approach our relationship with Jesus before we ever get down on our knees, open our bibles, get in the car to go to church, or serve someone. I hope you can follow along with my logic here:
Consider Prayer. Jesus sometimes uses enticing, encouraging language to give us a desire to pray to Him – the soft-sell for why we should pray.
- “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!” (Luke 11:9-13)
- “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6)
- “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)
- “Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.” (Jeremiah 33:3)
- “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” (1 Timothy 2:1-2)
It’s like for all the Core Disciplines.
There are wonderful fruits given to those who will practice Bible Study.
- “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalm 119:105)
- “I have stored up your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” (Psalm 119:11)
- “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.” (Revelation 1:3)
- “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
There are promises for those who will be faithful in Church Attendance:
- “…where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20)
- “…confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” (James 5:16)
- “…in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (Romans 12:5)
- “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 10:32)
There are promises for those who are faithful in Service:
- “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10)
- “Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered.” (Proverbs 11:25)
- “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” (Proverbs 19:17)
- “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
- “Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” (Luke 6:38)
These are all wonderful promises from God that when we are obedient to the Four Core Christian Disciplines that we will see amazing fruit in our lives. If we listen to our Lord Jesus Christ, and give control of our lives to the Holy Spirit, then good things will happen! We will see miracles, our needs will be met, we will have heavenly rewards, we will see forgiveness and healing, we will know the great and hidden things of God, we will live in peace and dignity. Hearing the Word will bring blessing and training in righteousness. When we are together with other believers, God promises to be here in a special way, the support we gain from others will bring us healing, we have a place to belong. Those are wonderful promises and are what some people need in order to get on board with these disciplines. They need to know it’s going to work, that He will hear, that Jesus will act, that our obedience to Him and communication with Him is the way that we are going to see His power in our lives. They need to hear that God will make changes in our world when they are obedient to Him. And that’s ok! We all need to hear the enticements, the soft-sell, and grab on to those promises.
Other times the incentives don’t seem like enough. We need to be commanded to obey. Consider these commandment verses on Prayer in contrast to the ones we read before:
- “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
- “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6)
- “…praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints…” (Ephesians 6:18)
- “And [Jesus] told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” (Luke 18:1)
Sometimes we need to hear those kinds of verses that simply tell us that we must pray, we should never stop, we are commanded to, we are implored to (Paul uses the word “urge” in 1 Timothy 2:1). Sometimes that’s the only reason that we pray – because we must. It is then that our resolve is tested, our relationship with Jesus becomes real, and our faith is strengthened.
Listen to these Commands for Bible Study:
- “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21)
- “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.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
- “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching.” (1 Timothy 4:16)
- “I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.” (Psalm 119:15-16)
There are times the only reason we come to the bible is because of our commitment to do so, and our willingness to follow our Lord. It’s not about wanting to – it’s about obedience.
And for Church Attendance:
- “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.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)
There are seasons where we just don’t want to go to church, we don’t want to sing, we don’t want to hear another sermon, we don’t want to be around people. It is during these times that the commands of scripture compel us to go – for our own good.
And to Serve:
- “And whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:44-45)
- “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace…” (1 Peter 4:10)
- “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:4)
- “…Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.” (Luke 6:27-31)
There are times when we absolutely need to be commanded to do these things, because otherwise we simply won’t.
Sometimes, when things are going well, we don’t feel desperation for God and we don’t feel like we need to tap into the resources Jesus has for us. We don’t need Him because we’ve got it under control! We have enough money, we have a decent marriage, we are enjoying our work, our kids are happy, we are healthy. It’s easy to get complacent in our prayer lives when things are positive and happy.
On the other hand we sometimes don’t feel like praying, reading scripture, going to church, or serving others because things are not going well. God isn’t doing the things we expect (and want) Him to do. It can be easy to give up when we don’t see results: when we are not seeing the fruit, the good things, the rewards, the healing… when we are still confused and in the dark, when we have no peace. It is then that we need to have a different reason to pray.
There are times when God will bring us through a time of refinement, a time where we are going through the fires that are meant to purify us. There are times where we go through a “dark night of the soul”, where we walk “through the valley of the shadow of death”. At those times it is very normal to think He has abandoned us and to then start turning to other sources of strength – ourselves, our words, our anger, our reputations, our money, seeking salvation from other people, distraction from substances or entertainment. It is human for us to have a crisis of faith and want to stop praying when we are hurt.
I believe that’s why God has these commands – because we need them. We want all of our obedience to bring immediate blessing. We want it to work like our jobs – we put in 40 hours, at the end of the week we get 40 hours pay. But God doesn’t work like that.
We want Him to say, “If you are obedient, then I’ll immediately bring blessing.” But at times (more often than we wish) God plays the long-game where the blessings come later… sometimes much later. During those times it’s hard to grab onto the promises because they are hard to hear. It doesn’t matter how many times you read, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” (Jn 15:17) because you’ve been abiding, and asking, and it’s not being “done”… at least not done the time and way you want it. You don’t want to hear the words of Romans 8:28 any more, (“…and we know that for those who love God all things work together for good…”) because you’re just not seeing any “good”.
It is during those times when the commands of scripture are what we need to grab onto. It is during the times of peace and rest, and of darkness and doubt, that we really build endurance, obedience, and when our relationship with Jesus can really grow.
Do don’t give up. Don’t quit. Listen to the promises of God and the commands of God and participate in the Four Core Christian Disciplines deliberately and passionately. Remember to begin with repentance, get your heart right with God, and then, for whatever reason is working for you that day – whether it’s because you are leaning on the promises of God, or simply because you are commanded to – practice those disciplines and see what God will do.
Meditation is a multifaceted and religiously loaded term. There are many Christians today who shy away from practicing meditation because they aren’t sure that it’s “allowed”. Let me assure you it is, and it is the key to developing a deep life and focus on God’s priorities for you.
Christian meditation only has two components: Stopping and Listening. Other religions have meditation as a religious practice, particularly eastern religions, but for them, meditation is designed to purge all thought, desire and will – it is to empty themselves. Christian meditation is not an emptying … but a filling of ourselves with God. In Christian meditation we focus on our obedience and faithfulness to God and the person of Jesus Christ.
First, let’s talk about Stopping.
For some of you that period of silence we just had before I came up was refreshing, for others it was annoying, and maybe even agonizing. Take a second and think: What was going through your mind? Godly thoughts? What was your body doing? Were you at peace, or were you keyed up? Some of you are so tired that if there is no sound or activity, you will just fall asleep. For those of you who are staying awake with me, let me ask you about your feelings about “stopping”. How do you see stopping? Is it a sin? Are stopped people, lazy people? What emotion does the word “stop” conjure up?
Christian Psychologist Carl Jung said,
“Hurry is not of the devil; it is the devil.”
Why? Because when we don’t stop, we cannot listen to God, love our neighbour, serve the church, or worship properly. We must make the time to stop. It is the first step in meditation.
John Ortburg, in his book “The Life You’ve Always Wanted” talks about “Hurry Sickness”, and he gives a few symptoms of people who are “hurry sick.” Let me ask you to identify any of these in your own life, because if you have “hurry sickness”, then you will not stop. And if you will not stop, you cannot meditate. And if you cannot meditate, you will not deepen yourself, or hear the voice of God.
The First symptom is “Constantly Speeding up Daily Activities”. Do you find that everything in your life is a race because you are plagued by the fear that there are not enough hours in the day to get everything done? Do you read fast, talk fast, and keep nodding so the other person will speed up their talking? Do you find yourself being anxious about which line to stand in at the store, or what lane to be in when driving? Do you ever find yourself rushing around, even when there’s no need to? You’re just so used to going at 110% that you can’t stop. Do you find yourself making up pretend races with your kids or loved ones so that you can get them out of the way at the end of the day? People do this. They tell their kids to race through brushing their teeth, and taking a bath, and then race through reading them a book… because they need to get them to bed. Married couples race through dates and even sex so they can get through it so they can do something else. Are you always speeding things up?
The Second symptom Hurry Sickness is “Relentless Multi-Tasking”. Do you find yourself unsatisfied, or even feel guilty, if you are only doing one thing at a time? Some people do. They can’t just read. They have to read with music, and the news on, with the computer on in the background, while sitting next to someone having a conversation. Some people can’t just sit outside and have a coffee… they have to bring a crossword puzzle, or a grocery list, or something else… because somehow just sitting there with a coffee is somehow a sin. Some people can’t let the phone ring… they have to answer it. Do you always have to multi-task?
Third, “Clutter”. A hurry sick person cannot fathom simplicity. They have every time-saving gadget in the world, and ten things strapped to their belt, and in their backpack. Their closets and bedrooms are stuffed to the brim with things they never use or wear, but will “get to later when they have time.” Do you lead a cluttered existence?
Fourth, “Superficiality”. Richard Foster calls it “the curse of our age.” Relationships are superficial because time is not given to deepen them. Marriages break down because the depths of love are not plunged. Spiritual life is superficial and unsatisfying, so people go to all kinds of sins and idols to fill their spiritual hunger. So many people live their life on the surface, and have no idea that there is a depth to existence they will never see unless they stop, wait and listen.
The end result of hurry sickness becomes an inability to love. This is the most serious danger of hurry sickness. We race and run and live a superficial lives and we become jaded to love, and unable to love. Why? Because love and time are indelibly tied. We cannot hurry and love. Love takes time.
When we hurry, we lose our sense of gratitude, and our sense of wonder. Carleton Place, and the Ottawa Valley are truly beautiful, but you won’t really experience its beauty if you whiz by in a plane or a car. To really appreciate it you have to get out of the car and take a walk, go on one of the bike-paths, or sit in a park. You’re spouse is wonderful, but you won’t fully experience that sense of wonder or gratitude to God for them unless you stop and truly experience them for a concentrated period of time.
Jesus knew how to stop.
And He did it often. He had the most important mission in the history of the universe, and yet He took time to stop.
When Jesus heard about the beheading of His cousin John the Baptist he was in the middle of an itinerant preaching journey. But he stopped. Matthew 14:13, “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.” But the crowds were relentlessly following him. So Jesus teaches them for a time, miraculously feeds them and then dismisses them. Now many of us would have went for a nap, or went with our friends somewhere, but Jesus sends His disciples away in a boat, and then stops again. Verse 23 says, “After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.” Why didn’t Jesus get swept up in all the things we get swept into? Because He stopped regularly to listen to God.
Before Jesus chose the disciples He stopped to listen to what God had to say. Luke 6:12-13, “One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles.” We get the impression from the Gospels that despite Jesus’ popularity, people coming to Him day and night, dealing with family matters, having to train the disciples, teaching, preaching, miracles, traveling, the Pharisees chasing him down, and all the rest, Jesus took time away to be with God. If Jesus needed to do this… how much more do we?
Second, let’s talk about Listening
Not many people are good at this. And it is certainly not something that is encouraged in our culture. Richard Foster says,
“What happens in meditation is that we create the emotional and spiritual space which allows Christ to construct an inner sanctuary of the heart.”
Think of your inner life like a building that you have been working on for some time. God started you with some materials to work with, your parents gave you pieces and tools to build more, hardships and life events added to the design, and so did your schooling and friends. You have this inner house built up that represents every part of you. But when you ask Jesus to take over your life, what you are doing is asking Him to rebuild your house.
When we stop and listen, what we are doing is giving God the time and focus to rebuild our house. During our meditation time, God opens doors that we had locked and stuffed full of anger, bitterness, and pain. He takes our favourite trophies down off of our shelves. He points out the structural problems and weak designs we have incorporated into our house. And He starts the process of rebuilding us. And in our listening we have time to ask Him, “God, does that have to go?” And we listen to when He says, “Yes.” And we ask Him, “What parts of me need to be added? What needs to be torn out? What should be kept?” And in our listening time God begins that work.
So often we love to go to others for this advice. And there is certainly a place for that. But if we really believe that we live in a universe created by a personal God who loves us and still speaks to this day, then we must listen to Him.
How to Listen to God
There are many ways that we can listen to God, but let me tell you the two most helpful that I’ve found.
First is listening to scripture. Open the bible and read it as though it was written to you. Now, I don’t mean bible study. I mean just take a bible, without study notes, and meditate on one part. Maybe one section, or one verse, or even one word, and let God speak to you about it. Use your imagination to put yourself in the place of Elijah by the stream, or Paul on the road, or become one of the throngs of people listening to Jesus on the mountainside. What do you hear, see, sense, feel? Meditate on scripture and let God speak to you through it.
Next, just get quiet. Take a period of time and just turn everything off and listen. Indoors, outdoors, wherever. Don’t pray, or talk, or read, or listen to music, or bring a friend… just listen. If you’ve never done this, it’s going to be really hard. Try it for 1 minute. Then 5 minutes. Then 15 minutes. Then half an hour. Don’t feel guilty if your mind is racing and you can’t focus.
Once you get to the 10 or 15 minute mark, grab a piece of paper and a pen, and then go find someplace to just listen. If something comes to mind that you need to do… write it down. I have to do laundry… write it down. I have to talk to someone… write it down. I should pick up frozen corn next time I go to the grocery store… write it down. Get it all out on paper and just listen. If you don’t write it down then you’re going to keep hearing the same thing over and over. Eventually your brain will stop coming up with distractions and you will be able to listen for God’s voice. If and when He speaks… write it down.
And then go check out what you’ve been listening to with the Bible and another Christian friend/Pastor. Simply say, “This is what I’ve been hearing from God and what I believe He’s saying… what do you think?” That will help you from being deceived, and will keep you accountable.
What do you need to do this week to get started?
1. Ask for the desire to listen. The ability and desire to meditate is a gift from God. Begin by asking Him for the want to and gumption to actually do it. This is certainly a prayer He will answer. God loves to give us gifts that bring us closer to Him.
2. Slow Down and Stop. Deliberately do things that make you practice waiting. Drive in the slow lane for a month. Get in the long line at the grocery store. And then find ways to stop. Declare an electronics free day, or week. No ipod, no tv, no cell phone after work, no computer after work.
3. Make Space. Set a time in your calendar that will be a meditation day for you. A couple of hours, or a whole day where you will just go and be alone and listen. Tell people that you’re going, and set the date. Then find a spot to be alone. Not the mall, or the coffee shop, or the gym. How about the park, or a place by the Ottawa river, or alone in your room? And don’t take anything! Nothing. Nothing. Nope, not that either! Ortburg says,
“Solitude is the one place where we can gain freedom from the forces of society that will otherwise relentlessly mould us.”
Who do you want to mould you, society, or God?
Don’t get worked up if this is hard for a while. No one can do this perfectly. But God honours those who seek Him… He promises we will find Him.
I recently began a sermon series called Plug In: The Spiritual Disciplines, where I plan on going through 10 weeks of study on different ways we can meet God, know more about Him, understand our faith, and grow closer to Jesus. This was given as the first sermon in the series. I realized after the service that it was too much to take in all at once (especially after a few people came up to me, breathing heavily, and told me so!). Many people requested a copy, so what I’m going to do over the next few days is chop it up into more bite size pieces so folks can review it and, hopefully, learn more.
What is Bible Study?
I came up with my own definition that we can take apart.
Bible Study is “making the choice, under God’s direction, to methodologically spend time, energy and concentration to better understand God’s Word.”
“Making the choice”
Getting to know the bible better is a choice. Anything we do that is challenging requires us to make a choice. It does not happen merely by chance, or by osmosis. Sitting through sermon after sermon, and going to various 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.”
“Under God’s direction”
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.
Like any other study, Bible study requires a plan. This is a huge stumbling block to some people. They don’t like being told what to do, or that they need someone else to teach them about the bible, so they try to make it up all by themselves. But we need a guide to help us, a plan to complete the task, and a system by which we gather the knowledge. If we come to the bible 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 than time. 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, but it will require some dedicated energy. 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.
“to better understand God’s Word.”
Our goal is to understand it, not to read into it, manipulate it or use it for our own purpose. This is the Word of God that He has given to us. Our agenda is to have God speak to us through it, and to bring us to an understanding of what God has said, and is saying, through it.
“Why is Bible Study important?”
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. As a sleeping pill that you read to cure insomnia. Or, as an insurance policy where you may not have read the fine print but are hoping that by owning one you can get some help in the event of trouble. Some see it as a holy book reserved for monks and gurus. Or, as a story book filled with fables and fairytales. Some perhaps see the Bible as ancient wisdom literature pertinent to a bygone culture, but not relevant for today.
What is your view of the bible? Write down on your sheet… “The Bible is…what?” Now let’s ask a second question: How do you treat the bible? Do you treat the bible in the same way that you view it? Does your use of the Bible… how much time you spend in it, the effort you make to understand it, and the authority level you give the words… correspond to your view of it?
Why is it important that we know this book, and become a people grounded in this book? The answer is because 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. If you believe that, then you need to study it that way. It’s a very important book. Now, if you don’t believe that, then you should study this book and determine for yourself whether these claims are true or not. It’s still a very important book.
I came up with 5 reasons why Christians need to study the bible, but I’m sure that there are many more.
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. We need these kind of reminders often. And it’s amazing how when we are going through a devotional guide, or a bible study, how often God will use the content to remind us of His goodness, greatness, love for us, and tell us what we need to hear that day.
Second, we become an easy target for the devil’s schemes.
When the banks, or tellers, or the RCMP study counterfeit money, they don’t spend time memorizing all the ways that a 20 dollar bill can be counterfeited, they spend their time memorizing what the real thinglooks like. That way anything that differs from the authentic note, must be a counterfeit.
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. And Eve fell for the trap of dialoguing with Him. Then she modifies what God says, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.” She changes the word of God ever so slightly…
And then Satan says, “You will not surely die… For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.””
The whole conversation 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 the same temptations in the desert, He didn’t even speak His own words, or dialogue with the tempter at all. He merely quoted the truth of the bible and shut down the conversation. Most of us don’t know our bibles enough to shut down the conversation, and so we get drawn into the dialogue, and ultimately fall. If we don’t know our bibles… if we don’t know the truth… then we are open to being deceived.
Third, we become closed-minded.
We get stuck on one or two verses or ideas that define how we conduct our lives, our church, our families, and our friendships. Some people learn Matthew 7:1, “judge not lest ye be judged”, and never get past it. And therefore never speak to anyone about anything they are doing wrong. They never pull aside a brother or sister in Christ and tell them to get right with God.
And that’s because they’ve never gotten as far as Hebrews 10:24 which says, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” The words “spur on” literally mean “irritate, provoke and incite”. Or what about Proverbs 27:17 which says, “Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Or, Matthew15:15where Jesus says, “If your brother sins go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.” We are commanded in scripture to figure out how we can lovingly challenge and confront one another until we are caring for each other properly and doing the right thing.
We need the whole counsel of scripture to have a greater 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, we won’t be able to, as 1 Peter3:15 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. It’s because at some point they were told the truth, and they believed it, but they never locked away 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 the conversation at all. But if we are good students of the bible, then we will have the answers to many (not all, but many) of those questions, and have more confidence when we tell the story of what Jesus has been doing in our lives, and in this world.
And fifth, without diligent study we can be led, and lead others into heresy.
The word heresy literally means, “to choose other beliefs.” It is the opposite of the word “orthodoxy” which means “same thinking”. If God’s word is a revealed word, then it was revealed for a purpose, with a meaning in mind. There is a right way to read it.
2 Peter talks about the importance of reading what the Bible says and taking meaning from it, rather than putting meaning into it. Turn to, and listen to the words of 2 Peter 1:16-18, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
Peter says, “Listen, we didn’t make this stuff up. And the prophets of the Old Testament didn’t make it up either. They weren’t interpreting things the way they saw them, or putting down their own ideas. They were simply writing what God told them to write.” That’s makes the bible a very special book.
We can’t say that these people wrote and taught this stuff to be popular or to make money. Most of the people who wrote the books of the bible lived difficult lives and were brutally murdered for what they believed.
And because of this, we need to remember that when we read the bible, we are not reading opinion, but we are reading the words of God, and we let them speak to us. If we stop reading the bible, or 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.
So let’s get practical.
What are some methods we can use to study the bible to make sure we get it right? We need two things: Techniques and Tools. I only have time here to talk about the techniques. I brought some tools this week for you to see later.
There are 4 basic kinds of bible study that we can do: Topical, Exegetical, Biographical, Favourites.
Topical basically means that we pick a subject like salvation, heaven, hell, joy, judgement, prophecy, love, sacrifice, or grace and we see what the bible says about that topic. We find verses about that topic, and look up those words in a concordance to see what comes up. We read topical helps that talk about that subject.
Exegetical study means that we go verse by verse through the bible. We pick a book and study it chapter by chapter, verse by verse, word by word. This is generally how I preach when I go through a book. We go verse by verse, finding the key ideas, seeking out the context, and learning what the individual words meant then, and what they mean today.
A Biographical study is the study of a person. Moses, Ruth, Nehemiah, David, Solomon, Jesus, Paul. Pick a person and read all the books, verses and topics about them. Identify with them in your own life. Read their ups and downs. Study where they lived, and what their life was like. How did they live? How did they die?
And the fourth is a junk-drawer word I’m just calling Favourites – just picking and choosing a favourite passage. This would be studying the Lord’s Prayer, or Psalm 23 or 51, or all the definitions of love from 1 Corinthians 13. It’s mostly exegetical, and a little bit topical, and a little bit biographical.
How To Do A Bible Study
But what do you need to do? No matter what kind of study you’ve chosen, whether it’s topical, exegetical, biographical or a favourite, you’re going to come at it in the same way. Rick Warren has a great book called “Rick Warren’s Bible Study Methods” and it has lots of different ways to go about doing a bible study. But it all boils down to three things you need to do:
Observe, Interpret, Apply.
First we Observe.
This is where we build our foundation of understanding the content. This is where we ask the “5W’s and an H” – Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. Here are some questions you can ask when looking and observing a passage:
1. What does it say?
What is the most obvious thing that this verse says. First impressions. Most basic, obvious observation. Let’s grab a difficult verse like John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” First impressions. Well, the NIV has the word “Word”capitalized, so it must be a proper name. And that proper name is probably a person who… wasn’t a human… but then became a human… and then lived among other humans. Ok.
2. What are some key words that I need to understand?
This requires a word study. What did the word mean back then and what does it mean today? Well, a few obvious words we need to understand are “Word”, “Flesh” and “Dwelling”. Let’s pick the word “Dwelling”. I went to www.blueletterbible.org and found the original text and learned that it is the Greek word SKENOO which means “Tabernacle” or “Tent”, and occurs 5 times in the bible. Once in John and 4 times in Revelation. I also remember that the Old Testament had a “Tabernacle”… I wonder if there’s a connection…
3. What’s the literal context?
What words are surrounding it? Who’s talking? Who is being spoken to? Well, we’d have to read the whole chapter and find out. What is the main idea that the author is trying to get across in this book, and in this paragraph, and in this sentence. And if God inspired the writing, then each word is important. Why did He choose that word, and what did that word, and sentence, and paragraph mean to the people then?
And what kind of literature is this? Knowing what kind of literature this is will help me interpret it. If you’re reading a poem, and you treat it like an encyclopaedia, you’re going to mess up the meaning. In the bible there are many kinds of literature. There are teaching sections, Legal writing, Narrative stories, Allegorical stories, Poetry and Prophecy. It’s important to figure out what kind of style you are reading before you interpret it.
4. What is the cultural context?
Where was the person when he wrote this? Who was he writing to? What were the political, social, economic, religious conditions during that time? Was there persecution? Famine? Was the author in prison like Paul? Or the leader of a country like Nehemiah? Or on the run like David? Was it being written to a church in a rich city, or a person who was a slave owner, or is this a chronicle of events to be kept in a library for reference? Cultural context is critically important for understanding the bible. What did it mean then?
My study bible says that John was a Jewish man, who wrote his book to both Jews and Gentiles. So he must have used the word “Tabernacle” to bring up something important in the minds of the Jewish and gentile readers, who understood about the tent that moved around with the people of God in the wilderness as they searched out the Promised Land.
And John uses that word to describe what Jesus did for us! The presence of God, in a fleshly tent, just like in the days of Moses.
5. What cross references apply?
Now we leave the verse we are studying and look around the bible for other verses or ideas like the one we are looking at. We always study difficult to understand verses in the light of verses that are easier to understand. If we can’t get it, then find another place in the bible that is more clear. The Bible will never contradict itself, but will always interpret itself rightly. Now, if we have learned that “the Word”, which we understand to be referring to Jesus, “became Flesh”… then does that mean that He was no longer God? Does that mean that he was sinful like other humans? We need to look at other passages to see.
- Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
- 1 John 3:5, “You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.”
Ok, now we’ve covered that part a bit. Cross references are very necessary in figuring out what’s going on, and a good study bible will help you find these cross references.
Now it’s time to Interpret.
In other words, ask the question, “What does it mean?” Based on your observation and all that you know about the context, meaning, words, cross-references, author and the rest: What did it mean then, and what does it mean now? What’s the main point God is getting across?
2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
Is this passage teaching me doctrine? Is this passage rebuking me and telling me of a sin I have in my life, or that is in the world, that needs to be avoided and repented of? Is this verse correcting me and straightening out something that I’ve gotten wrong, or that others have gotten wrong? Or is this verse training me to do something like help someone, fix something, serve someone, or encourage someone? What does it mean?
Well, the main point of our verse seems to be that Jesus is God in the flesh, and chose to become one of us. Jesus, “The Word”, became human, and took on a “tent” of flesh, and decided and chose to live among us.
If we kept studying this we’d discover things like Jesus existed from eternity past, and was never created, but chose in love to become a human, for our sake, to take our penalty, because only a human could take the punishment for another human. And only a perfect human could take on Himself the wrath of God against sin for all humanity. And we would learn to identify the “Words” of God with the power of creation. Calling Jesus “the Word” represents Him as having the full power and majesty of God, the very power to create the universe.
We would also learn that in Greek culture “The Word” was considered to be an abstract, impersonal force, like the principle of reason or knowledge that gave order to the universe… but Jesus was not an impersonal “Word”, but was a very personal God who had the power to give order to all things through His very words. It is by His hand all things are sustained. That’s a powerful truth.
Now, interpreters have been studying this passage for 2000 years, so we’ve only just scratched the surface of what it means. But already we’ve learned something powerful. But so what?
Now we Apply what we’ve learned.
This is why we don’t end with Observation and Interpretation. It’s great to know what it says and what it means, but… what does it mean to me? This is God’s book. It is not written just to others, but to you and me as well. We need to ask “What does this passage really mean?” and then follow it up with, “And now what must I do?”
What do I need to change? What encouragement can I take from this? Who do I need to tell this to? What plan can I make to learn this lesson, and open my heart to God helping me to live more like Jesus. I’ll leave this part up to you today. What does God want you to do with this?
Observe, Interpret, Apply.
Bible Study is a rich and wonderful exercise, and I want each of us to be a person of the word. We need to work alone on this, and together in our groups.