The Cost of Prayer

April 8th, 2015 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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When trouble hits, as it inevitably does, the human heart instinctively cries out in prayer. (To the best of my knowledge, no other species exhibits this praying-hands-blackwhitetendency.) A majority of people the world over pray regularly, even daily; remarkably, this number includes a large percentage of those who profess not to believe in God. Theologians would attribute this to our sensus divinitatis : our innate sense of the divine (cf. Romans 1:20), or our “incurable God-sickness,” as Karl Barth put it memorably. We all know God exists, even if we work diligently to suppress that truth, and so we cry out in prayer to him when we need him.

 

But there is often a drawing back, a slinking away, once we have made our request. The psalmist writes, “I pour out before him my complaint; before him I tell my trouble” (Psalm 142:2). Complain to God—can it be so? The impertinence of troubling him thus! How dare we? Will he hear us? Will he answer, even if he does hear? Surely not, we reason. The fresh bloom of faith withers in the frost. We slip back into self-reliance. God helps those who help themselves.

 

In prayer we find ourselves trapped between the holiness and love of God, his transcendence and his immanence. Do we address an awesome Majesty or a tender Father? The Psalms—our God-given instructors in prayer—help us proceed, not by navigating a narrow path between two extremes, but by teaching us to embrace and address the fullness of God simpliciter.

 

David offers us a neat theology of prayer in Psalm 5, showing us our access to God—and what that access cost.

 

It begins, as prayers often do, by invoking God’s presence:

 

Listen to my words, LORD,

consider my lament.

Hear my cry for help,

my King and my God,

for to you I pray. (vv 1-2)

 

Tellingly, he brings his issue to God because he feels assured that God will hear and answer him. He waits expectantly for God to respond:

 

In the morning, LORD, you hear my voice;

in the morning I lay my requests before you

and wait expectantly. (v 3)

 

Even if expressed more poetically and assuredly than our prayers, so far this feels like spiritual boilerplate. Then the prayer takes an odd turn:

 

For you are not a God who is pleased with wickedness;

with you, evil people are not welcome.

The arrogant cannot stand

in your presence.

You hate all who do wrong;

you destroy those who tell lies.

The bloodthirsty and deceitful you, LORD, detest. (vv 4-6)

 

While waiting expectantly for God to answer his prayer, David apparently feels free to launch into a diatribe against sinners. In fact, these are some of the strongest words against sinners in all of Scripture, because they teach that God hates sinners—not just the sin. What are we to do with this? This is the self-righteous bigotry Jesus condemns (cf. Luke 18:9-14). It is this sort of “us-and-them” mentality that leads to dangerous, destructive Pharisaism. We want nothing to do with it. David isn’t done yet, but we’re growing skeptical about how much we have to learn from him:

 

But I, by your great love,

can come into your house;

in reverence I bow down

toward your holy temple. (v 7)

 

At first glance, this makes it worse. God hates sinners but not David—David can waltz right into God’s house (reverently, of course). Why, precisely? Not because David isn’t a sinner; no, we all remember Bathsheba, never mind the census.

 

At second glance, it all starts to make sense. David says he can come into the house by God’s great love. That is the key to the whole text—the gospel in miniature. David is most certainly not deceived about himself. He knows he is a sinner, the worst of all, I feel certain he would argue (cf. Psalm 51). He can boldly approach the throne of God only because it is a throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16). Even though God, being a perfectly holy God, cannot abide our sin; even though we by nature are objects of justly deserved wrath; nevertheless, God welcomes us with unfathomably open arms, invites us to call on him in prayer, even teaches us to address him as Father. What wondrous depths of mercy, grace, and love!

 

No, David is not describing other sinners in verses 4-6. He is describing himself. This is not an us-and-them moment. It is an us-and-Thee moment. We are all of us in this boat together, hopeless apart from the Hope of nations—Christ, our salvation. God is at once transcendently holy and immanently loving, both Majesty and Father, through Christ.

 

Who may call on God as Father? Who may boldly approach the throne of grace to find mercy in times of need? The one who has faith in the finished work of Christ. Even though it was faith in the promise, not the completed work, still David commends this sort of faith:

 

But let all who take refuge in you be glad;

let them ever sing for joy.

Spread your protection over them,

that those who love your name may rejoice in you. (v 11)

 

Those who take refuge in God—a metaphorical depiction of faith—it is they who possess the singing joy, the resolute gladness of those who know God will hear and answer them. For through Christ we all have “access to the Father by one Spirit” (Ephesians 2:18).

 

We would do well to remember the cost of this access. Ironically, it was another psalm of David, Psalm 22, taken onto Jesus’ lips that best expresses the cost. Tim Keller explains,

 

The only time in all the gospels that Jesus Christ prays to God and doesn’t call him Father is on the cross, when he says, “My God, my God, why have you forgotten me? Why have you forsaken me?” [Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46] Jesus lost his relationship with God the Father so that we could have a relationship with God as father. Jesus was forgotten so that we could be remembered forever—from everlasting to everlasting. Jesus Christ bore all the eternal punishment that our sins deserve. That is the cost of prayer. Jesus paid the price so God could be our father.[1]

 

When we pray, as David did, “But I, by your great love, can come into your house,” we do so with a piercing recognition that his love was not only great, but costly. It cost him his Son, his only Son, whom he loved. That is the price of adoption; that is the cost of prayer.

 

[1] Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (New York: Dutton, 2014): 79-80.



On Marriage, Intimacy, and Evangelism

November 18th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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2dQ7Qo8The elements in the title are meant to be a tad incongruous. While marriage and intimacy certainly belong together, what could they possibly have to do with evangelism?

 

One of scripture’s most common metaphors for our life in Christ, our relationship with God, is that of marriage. For example, the prophets routinely refer to Israel’s running after foreign gods as spiritual adultery. And at the close of the grand redemption narrative, we witness the wedding feast of the Lamb and his bride, the church. I want to explore some of the possible implications of that metaphor for our lives, especially pertaining to our intimacy with Christ and our lifestyle of evangelism.

 

One occasionally hears of a married couple who maintain separate bank accounts or something similar, but these are the exception to a well-established norm. By and large, those who are married understand thoroughly what it means to live an integrated life, because they have had to integrate another person—their spouse—into the whole of their lives.

 

I have been married for a little over eleven years now. I can assure you that little happens of any substance that I do not share with my wife, whether that means recounting stories from the day, discussing an upcoming decision, or soliciting much-needed advice. I bring my wife into every aspect of my life because of the union we share, because I want to cultivate—not hinder—the intimacy I know with her. I cannot imagine spending some time with her in the morning and evening, and then living the rest of my time in isolation from, and without regard to, her. If nothing else, she wouldn’t stand for it! I don’t have the “marriage” part of my life, and then the “other” part of my life, and the twain shall never meet. To critique one of my favorite characters in all of television, there should be no such division between Relationship George and Independent George: there should only be Integrated George.

 

Now, the intimacy I should know with Jesus is even greater than the intimacy I know with my wife, for one simple reason: my wife dwells alongside me, whereas he dwells within me through his Spirit. I could, if I wanted, hide from my wife; but I have no such luxury when it comes to my Lord (cf. Psalm 139:7-10).

 

Here’s the crucial point: if the intimacy is greater, so should the integration be! I fear that too often I can compartmentalize my life, spending the requisite time with Jesus in the morning and evening, but then pushing him out of mind during the rest of the day. (And I’m in vocational ministry: God help me if I were in a different vocation!) Instead, I should bring him into every aspect of my life, not simply rehearsing the day’s events in conversation before dinner (as I do with my wife), but in ongoing, lively, transformative conversation throughout the day. He is my all in all, and should be in all that I do. What a difference in my day it would make were I to turn to him unceasingly, crying out inwardly, “Yours alone! Your will be done!” Would to God it were so.

 

But what about evangelism? Where does this fit in to the discussion before us?

 

Let me ask you this, if you are married: how long into a conversation can you go without referencing your spouse? Some conversations might never get there, if, for instance, you are having a technical discussion about a work-related project. But other conversations along more informal lines move steadily in that direction, I find. It is unlikely that anyone could ask me how my weekend was without my mentioning my wife, to take just one clear example.

 

Nor do I have to strain to fit her into my conversation. I am not looking for potential segues into awkward inquiries about my interlocutor’s marital status. She just comes up because she is so much a part of my life. She features in so many answers to so many questions because I have tried to integrate my life and she is a key component.

 

In fact, only one component is more central: my relationship with Jesus. He is the integrating substance even. What did I do this weekend? I gathered with a group of men and women committed to following him so that we might encourage one another and exalt him. How do I get through tough, exhausting days? By trusting that his strength is made perfect in my weakness. What did I think of the movie? I thought it diagnosed humanity’s wretched selfishness and desperate longing for joy perfectly, but missed the cure. Why am I not angrier about getting passed over for the promotion? Because I find meaning in him, not in my work. How’s it going? Not so well, because I’ve shot my mouth off again; but thank God it doesn’t depend on my good deeds, or else I’d be in a world of trouble.

 

If I am living my life in Christ, by his Spirit, my conversation will turn naturally to my relationship with him because my life is centered on him. I will be able to answer few questions without reference to him because my whole life refers to him. By the grace of God, these unforced, honest answers will lead to further discussion wherein I can share the whole of the gospel with a person ready to hear it, a person who knows this really is the focal point and wellspring of my life.



When God Doesn’t Answer

April 11th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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I was recently having an important phone conversation with my wife, sharing my heart with her in a way that I’m not always wont to do. After a lengthy spell of pouring out my thoughts and emotions, I paused to give her a chance to answer—to laud me for my transparency and vulnerability—but got nothing. It’s not that my wife doesn’t speak words of affirmation though, or that she saw through my ploy to win some admiration points. No, her cell phone had cut out at the start of my soliloquy, so she’d missed all of it. There I was, unveiling my soul, and no one was listening.

 

That’s how prayer feels sometimes, isn’t it?

 

No matter how pious we may be, no matter how resolute our faith, it will sometime seem to us that God is deaf to our prayers. I keep talking, but no one is listening.

 

Now, it is highly unlikely that this is because God is sleeping on the job. As Isaiah had to remind Israel when they made this very complaint,

Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel,

“My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God”?

Do you not know? Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. (40:27-28)

In contrast to humans—even youths—God never grows weary, never faints, never sleeps on the job. Which means he is always there and always listening to us. So if it seems God is deaf, the cause must lie elsewhere.

 

Of course, sometimes God delays in giving his answer. Jesus shared his parable of the persistent widow “to show them that they should always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1). God wants us to learn persistence in praying—and the best way for us to learn is by having to persist. Or sometimes there may be something happening in the spiritual realms that we cannot see causing the delay (cf. Daniel 10:12-14).

 

But at other times, God is actually turning a deaf ear to us. That is, it just might be possible that we are the reason God has stopped up his ears to our cries. Before we lay the blame at the feet of an unloving, uncaring God (which flies in the face of everything he has revealed himself to be), let us examine our own hearts. The scriptures identify many different reasons why God might choose not to listen to us for a time. Here are just a few. If God has seemed silent in the face of your requests, ask yourself these questions as you engage in self-examination.

 

  1. Rebellion and Arrogance. This may be the most common reason why God ignores someone’s prayers. Those who are in open rebellion against him—who are actively pursuing Eve’s original sin, seeking to usurp God’s place—will seldom find a receptive Sovereign when they cry out. For example, after the Israelites refused to trust God at Kadesh Barnea and so were condemned to die in the wilderness, a few sinfully took matters into their own hands and tried unsuccessfully to take the land in their own power. Moses says to them, “You rebelled against the Lord’s command and in your arrogance you marched up into the hill country” (Deuteronomy 1:43, emphasis added). As a result, “You came back and wept before the Lord, but he paid no attention to your weeping and turned a deaf ear to you” (v 45). The Psalms are filled with similar examples (cf. Psalm 80:4-6). If God seems to be ignoring your prayers, are you harboring arrogance and rebellion in your heart? Do you think you know better than God how your life should go, and are you approaching him with that attitude?
  2. Cherishing Sin. This is a related issue: God will often turn a deaf ear to the cries of those who cherish sin in their hearts. As the psalmist says, “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Psalm 66:18). We all sin, of course (cf. 1 John 1:8-10); but are we clinging to our sin? Do we count our sin as more precious to us than the righteousness Christ offers? James makes the connection between public confession of sin and efficacious prayer explicit (5:16-18). If God doesn’t seem to be listening, do you need to confess cherished sin to a trusted brother or sister in Christ now?
  3. Refusing God’s Instruction. Proverbs says, “If anyone turns a deaf ear to my instruction, even their prayers are detestable” (28:9). God does not look with favor on those who reject his teaching, and he regards their prayers as detestable. I imagine this is especially true when the teaching relates to the prayer request. Are you asking for a happier marriage but refusing God’s teaching on the subject (e.g., Ephesians 5:22-33)? Are you asking for financial blessing without considering the wisdom of Agur (Proverbs 30:7-9)? I can’t see why God would answer those prayers. If it seems yours prayer are detestable to God, do you need to consult his Word and accept his instruction?
  4. Interpersonal Conflict. God places a high value on love, and he expects his followers to love others as he loved them (1 John 4:10-11)! We are not even to perform our acts of ritual worship (e.g., taking communion, corporate singing) until we have taken care of any interpersonal conflict in our lives (cf. Matthew 5:23-24; 1 Corinthians 11:17-34). Peter affirms that this will hinder our prayers, specifically in the context of marriage: “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers” (1 Peter 3:7, emphasis added). If your prayers have been hindered, do you need to reconcile with someone? Do you need to treat someone differently—loving them as Christ loved you—before you persist in prayer?
  5. Doubt. God expects faith on the part of those who make requests of him. Referring to prayers for wisdom specifically, James reminds us, “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do” (James 1:6-8). In other words, we should not expect to receive what we do not expect to receive! “Everything is possible for one who believes,” Jesus says, so we may have to cry out with one father, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23-24). If you are not receiving anything from the Lord, do you need to overcome your doubt and express a renewed faith in God’s goodness and power?
  6. Stinginess. This might not be what you expected for the last item on the list, but Scripture declares it to be so: “Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor will also cry out and not be answered” (Proverbs 21:13). Some people stop up their ears to the cries of the needy because if they listened their lives would have to change. So they shut themselves off from the suffering of the poor around the world. But deaf ears always reflect a hard heart, and the Lord responds harshly to those who harden their hearts. Stop listening to the poor, and God will stop listening to you. If it seems God has stopped listening to you, have you stopped listening to the cries of the poor? Do you need to pursue a new practice of sacrificial generosity in place of selfish indulgence?

 

This is a representative, not an exhaustive list. God is not asleep on the job. While there are many reasons why we may not see swift answers to prayers, what we must remember is that the cause may lie within our own hearts. Let us examine ourselves, therefore, so that we do not approach God in an unworthy manner.



Eight Reasons I Like to Fast

October 4th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Jesus Christ expected that his people would fast (cf. Matthew 6:16-18), but many of us—myself included—find it hard to live up to expectations. One reason for this, I would suspect, is that we are never quite sure what fasting accomplishes. Is it simply to free up time to pray? Well, for those of us who eat quickly, little would seem to be gained then—and I could give up other much more time-consuming pursuits instead.

 

So what is the reason then? Why fast? This is neither an exhaustive nor a theological list, but here are eight reasons I like to fast (in no particular order). Do with them what you will.

 

  1. When I fast, I remember the millions suffering chronic hunger the world over. I can deny it to my heart’s content, but the unstoppable truth is that I live a comfortable life; I have never wondered where my next meal will come from, nor have I ever experienced the crushing grief of wondering where my children’s next meal will come from. When my stomach aches with hunger, I remember what I am all too prone to forget.
  2. When I fast, I recognize how complacent I have become spiritually. Others may have more impressive stamina, but it takes me about four hours before the hunger gnaws at my gut. At that point, I can become deliriously hungry. I lust after food. And then it hits me like a Mack truck: my body cries out for food after just a few moments, but I can starve my soul for weeks without noticing. What if my spirit cried out for God—to meet him in prayer and in his Word—as quickly as my body cries out for sustenance?
  3. When I fast, it increases my pleasure eating when I finally break the fast. As the proverb says, “to the hungry even what is bitter tastes sweet” (Proverbs 27:7). During a few extended fasts, I would have a cup of vegetable broth at night to keep me functioning during the days—and I have never tasted food so good. My mouth still salivates at the thought of it. I am never more thankful for the food I consume than after fasting.
  4. When I fast, I practice denying myself. And let’s face it, we all need a lot more work in this area. More often than not, it seems, I am mastered by my desires, rather than disciplining myself to be self-controlled, obedient, self-sacrificial. To deny myself one of my most basic urges trains me to deny myself in all other areas too.
  5. When I fast, it reminds me to be in unceasing prayer. I have not learned Brother Lawrence’s lessons in “Practicing the Presence.” I set aside regular time for prayer, but I can tune out the divine conversation with astonishing alacrity. But the gnawing hunger beckons me to renew the intimacy, to listen to and experience his grace. Unsurprisingly, this produces in me a greater urgency in prayer: I no longer simply pray. I plead. With faith and fervency.
  6. When I fast, I demonstrate to my children that I belong to Jesus. I realize I am supposed to fast in secret (although that’s not quite what Jesus says, but we’ll pass by that for now). Nevertheless, when I sit down to dinner with my family each night, my children are perceptive enough to notice that Daddy isn’t eating anything. Not much I can do about that. But I welcome the opportunity not to puff myself up with the grandeur of my self-denial (read: self-righteousness), but to point them to the God I serve, and for whom I would gladly give up my all.
  7. When I fast, it humbles me. There is something about being hungry that just makes me feel small. And that’s a good thing. Fasting helps me express my humility before God, to express my grief at my sin and mourning at the brokenness in the world. In the face of great suffering, most people will lose their appetites; fasting reminds me that the suffering is always there, even when I forget to see it.
  8. When I fast, I become much more sensitive to his voice. It comes as no surprise to me that Scripture records several instances of people fasting to seek God’s will (cf. Judges 20:26-28). Food seems to dull my spiritual senses, whereas hunger produces spiritual acuity. And when I find myself more sensitive to his presence, I inexorably become more sensitive to those around me; I experience grace more fully, so I am able to give grace more freely.

 

I mention these to encourage others to continue in the good discipline of fasting. May God do with this as he wishes.

 

“So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer” (Ezra 8:23).



Devotional: Mark 9:14-29

July 30th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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When Jesus, Peter, James and John return to the rest of the group, they find the other disciples arguing with a large crowd. Seeing Jesus, the crowd hurries to him, and he questions them about the argument.

 

It seems the disciples had attempted an exorcism in Jesus’ absence, and it hadn’t gone too well. While this probably should have driven everyone present to prayer, instead it leads to pettiness, factionalism, and childish bickering. What causes the argument? Most likely, in the eyes of the crowd—and especially the religious leaders—the failure of the disciples reflects poorly on the Master. He must not be much of a man or a teacher if his disciples can’t manage something as basic as an exorcism. Reeling with shame and indignation, the disciples push back, and the argument erupts.

 

In all this, the victim has been forgotten. So the father reminds them.

 

His heartbreaking account of his son’s affliction reminds us of the enemy’s ultimate aims: to destroy humanity. He knows he cannot defeat the Father, so he attacks God’s children, the apple of his eye, simply to wound and offend.

 

Jesus recognizes that the issue is a lack of faith (verse 19). He has the boy brought to him, and asks the boy’s father a few questions. The father replies, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us” (verse 22).

 

Jesus is unimpressed by the conditional language. If? This is the Son of God! And those of who have gone with Mark to the Mount of Transfiguration have heard it directly from God the Father! But the boy’s father has only seen the failure of Jesus’ disciples, and he is left with very human doubt.

 

His reply to Jesus’ gentle rebuke captures the heart of discipleship as well as any one sentence can: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (verse 24). The trouble with our faith so often is that we worry about the subject when we should focus on the object. It is not our faith that matters, but our faith in Christ that matters. And he is sufficient for every circumstance, trial, and temptation. He is more than enough.

 

That was the problem the disciples had, why they couldn’t cast the demon out. They were trying it in their own power—testing to see if they had enough faith—rather than humbly depending on the object of their faith, remembering that he has enough power.

 

When the disciples timidly seek an explanation for their failure, Jesus reminds them of this point exactly: “This kind can come out only by prayer” (verse 29). Prayer is the surest expression of faith, dependence even; it is the complete absence of self-reliance. “I know I cannot do this on my own, so I must seek the help of another. If this is going to happen, it will happen only in humble submission to the Father.”

 

In other words, “I do believe; only help me overcome my unbelief.”

 

Questions for Reflection and Application

  1. What doubts do you have? Do they center on God’s existence, goodness, presence, or love? Will you pray in humble submission, like the boy’s father, that God will help you overcome your unbelief?
  2. Do you tend towards self-reliance or humble dependence? How do you know? What action steps will you take to overcome self-reliance in the areas of your life where you know you are “going it alone” as the disciples tried? How will you cultivate an attitude of humble dependence?
  3. Evaluate your prayer life. If people were to listen to all of your prayers, would they think you believe in God and trust that only he can bring about change? Or would they think—probably because of an absence of prayers about different subjects—that you are depending on yourself? What changes do you need to make in your prayer life? Will you make them?


Spending Time with God

January 2nd, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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This is my annual New Year’s post about establishing the discipline of devotion. I hope it encourages you to new depths of intimacy with him this and every year!

 

Nothing is more essential to experiencing the riches of God’s grace than our regular time with him in prayer and study. However, disciplining yourself to spend time with God can be a daunting task. Here are a few tips and suggestions to help you on your way.

 

  1. Set a specific time—ideally the same time every day. I believe there is real wisdom in setting aside the first part of your day for this time of intimacy with God. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, the Scriptures seem to commend the practice of rising early to meet with the Lord.
  2. Choose a specific place—again, ideally the same place every day. Having a place set aside will help you to stay focused in your time.
  3. Start with a small amount of time (ten or fifteen minutes) and slowly work your way up as you become more disciplined. I would even suggest setting a timer if you are just beginning—perhaps five minutes for reading the Word and five minutes for prayer.
  4. Ask God to give you the discipline and persistence you will need.
  5. Keep the purpose—to grow closer to God and in godliness—in your mind always. Just as practicing scales on a piano takes on new significance when you hear the sonata you hope to play someday, so picturing the relationship you hope to have with God will give meaning to these times. This shouldn’t be mere ritual.

 

The two essential components of your time with God are prayer and time in the Word. There are many other fruitful disciplines, of course, such as fasting, solitude and silence, and meditation. But to begin, focus on these two essential disciplines. Here are some suggestions for these two activities.

 

Prayer

  1. Keep a prayer journal so that you maintain focus in prayer. You are far less likely to let your thoughts wander if you are writing as you pray. Keeping a prayer journal also gives you a record of God’s faithfulness in hearing and answering prayer.
  2. Keep prayer lists so that you know what to pray for. You should pray for your family, friends, self, school or work, church, country, and leaders regularly. Keeping a list of individuals in each category will give you focus. You will soon find you have more to pray for than time in which to pray! (You might also consider praying for a different “category” each day of the week: family on Monday, friends on Tuesday, political leaders on Wednesday, etc.)
  3. Pray through Scripture to ensure you are praying God’s will and learning from the example of prayer warriors in God’s Word.
  4. Take time to listen to God. Make sure the conversation isn’t a one-way street. Include a time of silence in which God can speak to you.

 

The Word

  1. If you haven’t already, try a yearly Bible-reading plan. For some suggested plans and other information, see “Reading through the Bible.”
  2. Reading through the Bible in a year can be difficult. If you fall far behind, start over at the current date and try again. Remember which days you missed, and try to read them when you have extra time. But always being behind can lead to discouragement and ultimately giving up. Don’t quit! Pick up on the right day and press on.
  3. Read the Bible with a pen in hand. That is, don’t settle for just reading the Word; study it.
  4. When doing study, start with the “then and there”questions: what did this passage mean in its original context? A good study Bible will help you enormously in this regard.
    • Who are the people in this passage?
    • What is happening in this passage?
    • Where and when is this passage taking place?
    • What is the main idea of this passage?
    • Look at key words, structure, emphasis, repetition, tone, genre, and the relationship between ideas (such as cause and effect, questions and answers, etc.).
  5. Then ask the “here and now” questions: what does this passage mean for me today?
    • Do I need to change my thoughts, words, or actions in light of this passage?
    • Is there truth I need to accept, where before I had clung to a lie?
    • Are there promises to believe? warnings to heed? examples to follow?
    • How should this passage change my relationship with God and/or others?

 

Meeting with God every day is an expression of our love for him and our desire to know him more. We do not meet with him because we should; we meet with him because we long to. He alone has the words of eternal life (John 6:68); in his hands alone are found pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11). Start today—and enjoy the richness of fellowship with the Almighty God.



Trust Me

August 28th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Jeremiah, in some of his best known words, wrote, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” The implication to the final rhetorical question seems to be no one can understand it. And, in particular, we cannot understand our own hearts. We think we know ourselves, but our own hearts deceive us, blinding us to our real motivations, thoughts, feelings. We do not need Satan to deceive us when it comes to our own sin; we are perfectly capable of accomplishing that on our own.

 

As I prayed this morning, I asserted boldly that I was not motivated by pride in some specific request. (I am sure God needed that information in any case.) But these words from Jeremiah came to mind almost immediately. If I do not know my heart as well as I should because my heart actively deceives me, then I should pray differently. Instead of asserting my innocence without knowledge, I should take a line from the psalmist: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24). Rather than assuring myself that I am not, I need to implore God to reveal if I am driven by sin unknowingly.

 

I suspect I am not alone in this overweening boldness. When addressing girls on the issue of modesty, for example, I inevitably hear loud protests. Immodesty, I believe, springs from a lack of satisfaction in Christ, trying to make oneself feel lovable and beautiful apart from God. But most of the women who have heard me speak on the subject assure me this could never be in their hearts; rather, they are only trying to look “cute,” and weren’t even thinking of the response they get from men, other women, or even themselves. Maybe. But I would guess some heart-deception is at work. “Search me, God, and know my heart.”

 

Or consider the thorny issue of gossip. How many of us have flattered ourselves that we’re having a long conversation about someone else because we love them and just want what’s best for them? We have assumed our motivation is love and proceeded accordingly. But if we trusted ourselves less, and asked God to search us more, revealing the many offensive ways within us, we might arrive at a different conclusion.

 

While in Jerusalem for the Passover festival early in his ministry, many people saw the miracles Jesus performed and believed in him. The feeling was not mutual. John writes, “But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people” (John 2:24). If Jesus would not trust us because he knows what is in us, should we trust ourselves?



Two Easy Steps to Powerful Parenting

February 29th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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  1. Get down on your knees, fall on your face, and seek his will and wisdom, pleading for his grace.
  2. When the Spirit releases you, get up and go about your gospel-proclaiming, disciple-making business until he calls you to get down on your knees, fall on your face, and seek his will and wisdom, pleading for his grace.

 

Repeat as necessary.



Spending Time with God

January 3rd, 2012 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Disciplining yourself to spend time with God can be a daunting task. Here are a few tips and suggestions to help you on your way.

 

  1. Set a specific time—ideally the same time every day. I believe there is real wisdom in setting aside the first part of your day for this time of intimacy with God. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, the Scriptures seem to commend the practice of rising early to meet with the Lord.
  2. Choose a specific place—again, ideally the same place every day. Having a place set aside will help you to stay focused in your time.
  3. Start with a small amount of time (ten or fifteen minutes) and slowly work your way up as you become more disciplined. I would even suggest setting a timer if you are just beginning—perhaps five minutes for reading the Word and five minutes for prayer.
  4. Ask God to give you the discipline and persistence you will need.
  5. Keep the purpose—to grow closer to God and in godliness—in your mind always. Just as practicing scales on a piano takes on new significance when you hear the sonata you hope to play someday, so picturing the relationship you hope to have with God will give meaning to these times. This shouldn’t be mere ritual.

 

The two essential components of your time with God are prayer and time in the Word. There are many other fruitful disciplines, of course, such as fasting, solitude and silence, and meditation. But to begin, focus on these two essential disciplines. Here are some suggestions for these two activities.

 

Prayer

  1. Keep a prayer journal so that you maintain focus in prayer. You are far less likely to let your thoughts wander if you are writing as you pray. Keeping a prayer journal also gives you a record of God’s faithfulness in hearing and answering prayer.
  2. Keep prayer lists so that you know what to pray for. You should pray for your family, friends, self, school or work, church, country, and leaders regularly. Keeping a list of individuals in each category will give you focus. You will soon find you have more to pray for than time in which to pray! (You might also consider praying for a different “category” each day of the week: family on Monday, friends on Tuesday, political leaders on Wednesday, etc.)
  3. Pray through Scripture to ensure you are praying God’s will and learning from the example of prayer warriors in God’s Word.
  4. Take time to listen to God. Make sure the conversation isn’t a one-way street. Include a time of silence in which God can speak to you.

 

The Word

  1. If you haven’t already, try a yearly Bible-reading plan. For some suggested plans and other information, see “Reading through the Bible.”
  2. Reading through the Bible in a year can be difficult. If you fall far behind, start over at the current date and try again. Remember which days you missed, and try to read them when you have extra time. But always being behind can lead to discouragement and ultimately giving up. Don’t quit! Pick up on the right day and press on.
  3. Read the Bible with a pen in hand. That is, don’t settle for just reading the Word; study it.
  4. When doing study, start with the “then and there”questions: what did this passage mean in its original context? A good study Bible will help you enormously in this regard.
    • Who are the people in this passage?
    • What is happening in this passage?
    • Where and when is this passage taking place?
    • What is the main idea of this passage?
    • Look at key words, structure, emphasis, repetition, tone, genre, and the relationship between ideas (such as cause and effect, questions and answers, etc.).
  5. Then ask the “here and now” questions: what does this passage mean for me today?
    • Do I need to change my thoughts, words, or actions in light of this passage?
    • Is there truth I need to accept, where before I had clung to a lie?
    • Are there promises to believe? warnings to heed? examples to follow?
    • How should this passage change my relationship with God and/or others?

 

Meeting with God every day is an expression of our love for him and our desire to know him more. We do not meet with him because we should; we meet with him because we long to. He alone has the words of eternal life (John 6:68); in his hands alone are found pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11). Start today—and enjoy the richness of fellowship with the Almighty God.



On Rising Early

December 19th, 2011 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Dawn breaks, light trickles through tiny fissures in our carefully arranged curtains, and most of us hide our faces lest the day overtake us. Because of our hectic schedules, being overworked and overtired, our sinful pace of life and idolatry of achievement, we fear the morning.

 

How different the approach of the psalmists, who longed for the coming of the new day—that they might meet anew with God. To him they offered the first thought and the first word: a subtle adjustment in time management, but symptomatic of a radical reorientation in priorities.

 

Listen to the testimony of scattered saints throughout Israel’s history:

 

“I rise before dawn and cry for help; I have put my hope in your word.” (Psalm 119:147, anonymous)

 

“But I cry to you for help, LORD; in the morning my prayer comes before you.” (Psalm 88:13, Heman the Ezrahite)

 

“In the morning, LORD, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.” (Psalm 5:3, David)

 

And perhaps more evocatively, David elsewhere describes himself as waking the dawn—having risen so early to offer God prayer and praise:

 

“Awake, my soul! Awake, harp and lyre! I will awaken the dawn.” (Psalm 57:8)

 

The psalmists are not alone in their auroral devotion. Even Jesus the Christ rose early to meet with his Father for strength and guidance:

 

“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” (Mark 1:35)

 

It would be hubris indeed to think ourselves less in need of daily grace than our Master, in whose footsteps we but follow.

Remember, his mercies never fail: “They are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:23).