Tag Archives: prayer

What Are We Making?

One of the last things Jesus told His followers to do was Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…(Matthew 28:19.  Seems like a pretty straightforward directive, right?  Yet seldom do I get the feeling “making disciples” is of supreme importance among Christians or designated a lofty priority in our Savior’s churches.  I just don’t hear much about it.  It’s surely not that we don’t want others to find, accept, embrace and then enjoy the freedom and hope we’ve found by becoming followers of the Lord.  We look at the world’s massive problems and conflicts and feel sorry for those who don’t know that having Christ in one’s heart is the only antidote for despair and depression.  We long for everyone to surrender their life to Jesus and thereby discover the peace and assurance He provides.  So it’s not that we don’t want to “make disciples”.  It’s that we don’t know how.  Since that’s the case I reckon we should spend more time educating and training ourselves in that area of our faith.

 

Logic tells us we must first be disciples of Christ ourselves in order to be effective at turning others into the same.  In previous essays I defined what one is and how best to become one.  I stressed a person doesn’t have to have a Masters in theology to be a disciple, only an overwhelming yearning to spend the rest of their life apprenticing under the guidance of Jesus.  A.W. Tozer wrote, “I would emphasize this one committal, this one great volitional act which establishes the heart’s intention to gaze forever upon Jesus.  God takes this intention for our choice and makes what allowances He must for the thousand distractions which beset us in this evil world.”  Remember, God makes disciples, not human institutions.  Our job is to help and assist Him in any way we can.  We learn the craft of “disciple making” via imitating and utilizing the methods Christ employed to raise up His disciples.  The most obvious tact He used was proclaiming, manifesting and teaching them about the kingdom of God.  He brought it up frequently.  We should do likewise.  When Jesus spoke about it He made the kingdom out to be the most incredible, desirable place and state of mind to exist in.  But how often do we tell non-believers about the wonders of God’s Kingdom?  Or, for that matter, discipleship in general?  And when’s the last time you heard a sermon preached on those subjects?  Dallas Willard opined, “…with the disappearance of Jesus as teacher – replaced by the mere sacrificial Lamb or else the prophet of social and personal ‘liberation’ – the prospects for the making of disciples to Him become very dim indeed.  You cannot have students if you have no teacher.”  In accentuating the glorious advantages of being a citizen of the magnificent Kingdom of God, Christ was offering an alluring incentive for men and women to become disciples.  It seems apparent to me that somewhere along the way the church got distracted and ceased doing foremost what our Lord commanded before He ascended from the Mount of Olives.

 

Has Christianity mistakenly focused its energies on making converts instead of disciples?  I only have to look at myself to answer that question.  When and if I’m asked I normally describe myself as a Christian but not necessarily as a disciple of Jesus.  I was brought up in church and knew all about the disciples.  So at what juncture in my life did I stop striving to be a dedicated student of Christ, constantly stretching my intellect to expand my understanding of and usefulness to my Savior and settle for just being one of the “saved”?  If I’m being totally honest it happened early on, right after I turned 18.  I’m not implying that if I’d met my death at some point afterwards I wouldn’t have awakened in the heavenly realm.  I know for certain my name got written down in the Book of Life with indelible ink because when it comes to forgiveness, our Heavenly Father’s is inexhaustible.  Yet I have no doubt He’ll inquire of me one fine day why I waited so late in life to become a Christ disciple and I won’t have an acceptable excuse to give Him.  It’s reasonable to think discipleship was important to Jesus because it prepares God’s children for what heaven will actually be like.  Had I kicked the bucket even 10 years ago would I have been ready to devote all my love and fealty to Christ?  Sadly, no.  I was satisfied to be a believer, not a disciple, and I don’t think by merely entering the Pearly Gates I would’ve instantly been able to forget myself and worship the King of kings in the manner He deserves.  Having never confronted and worked on my many character defects, it’s probable I would’ve had no clue whatsoever what to do or how to act in His presence.  Finally deciding to become a disciple of Jesus was the wisest choice I’ve ever made – bar none.

 

Therefore, if I’m reading Matthew 28:19 correctly, as a disciple of Jesus it’s imperative I make it my primary mission to make more disciples.  Instead of trying so hard to be “a good man that everyone likes to hang with” I should be more focused on introducing others to the greatest person I’ve ever met – Jesus Christ.  If folks can see that He means everything to me and that I’m happy with that fact, then chances are favorable they’ll want what I found in Christ for themselves.  Don’t get me wrong, though.  That’s an extremely tough row to hoe for life in the “real world” will make it that way.  With his tongue firmly in cheek Henri Nouwen wrote: “We simply go along with the many ‘musts’ and ‘oughts’ that’ve been handed on to us, and we live with them as if they were authentic translations of the Gospel of our Lord.  People must be motivated to come to church, youth must be entertained, money must be raised, and above all everyone must be happy.  Moreover, we ought to be on good terms with the church and civil authorities; we ought to be liked or at least respected by a fair majority of our parishioners; we ought to move up in the ranks according to schedule; and we ought to have enough vacation and salary to live a comfortable life.”  Little wonder the modern church is guilty of paying such scant attention to facilitating the divine mandate to “make disciples”.

 

Could it be that 21st century Christians fear what would happen if we started concentrating on seeing an increase in the number of Christ disciples over gaining a new influx of “church members”?  I heard T.D. Jakes once preach, “Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good.  He came to bring dead people back to life!”  In today’s PC culture most non-believers will take being called “dead in sin” an uncalled for indictment of their lifestyle but the body of Christ must be bold enough to warn them of the eternal consequences that stem from ignoring Jesus’ atoning blood sacrifice.  Courageous disciples, following the lead of the likes of Paul and Peter, will not be afraid to speak the truth in love.  But disciples won’t just appear out of thin air.  They must be cultivated and nurtured over time by the church itself.  As Willard wrote, “We should intend to make disciples and let converts ‘happen,’ rather than intending to make converts and letting ‘disciples’ happen.”  What a major shift in direction and emphasis that would be!

 

It’s worth noting Jesus didn’t imply there’d be anything easy about “making disciples.”  Needless to say, it’s getting harder and harder to do.  Today’s “information society” has no need for Christ or the Kingdom of God He promoted.  Intentionally or otherwise, the mainstream media has systematically eradicated any and all spiritual concerns from their secularist agenda.  To mislabel what they do a conspiracy is to invite unhelpful paranoia into the issue when what’s really behind it is way more powerful – a somewhat nebulous “authority” that stakes its claim of being truth-holders in what it firmly considers to be rock-solid, science-based knowledge and wisdom.  For instance, I recently came across a show on The Science Channel called “Space’s Deepest Secrets.”  I’ve always been fascinated with stuff having to do with astronomy so I gave the program a gander.  This particular episode was entitled “The Curse of Dark Matter” and it featured a plethora of cool graphics as well as interviews with a number of really smart men and women, most with “Dr.” or “Prof.” in front of their names.  It was all very “up to date.”  The bottom line, however, turned out to be the unavoidable truth that mankind still doesn’t know diddly about how the universe keeps from flying apart, much less how it came into existence at all.  All kinds of theories and conjectures abound but not once during the show did any of the brainiacs venture to surmise God Almighty has anything to do with overseeing and controlling the incredible forces and energies that surround us.  I got the impression that for any of the experts to make even the slightest reference to an omniscient, cosmic Creator/Administrator would be to commit scientific blasphemy.  They dare not mention the elephant in the room.  This is what the Christian community is up against and it’s a formidable adversary, indeed.

 

In other words, if a person grows up being taught in school that the very concept of there being a God is foolishness we Christians have a lot of swift rivers to cross to reach them.  As Willard wrote, “…in any case the point here is not so much about which beliefs must be challenged and changed as it is that to enable people to become disciples we must change whatever it is in their actual belief system that bars confidence in Jesus as Master of the Universe.”  If there’s a flaw in the Celebrate Recovery ministry I’ve been heavily involved in for over 8 years now it’s that we tend to put too much emphasis on getting people to stop doing destructive things to themselves or others and not doing enough to change their fundamental beliefs.  It’s a tricky proposition, though.  Most of the folks that come crawling into their first meeting are desperate to find out if there’s any hope left for them.  Many have never stepped foot inside a church except to attend funerals or weddings so the last thing they want to hear about is discipleship.  At the same time they’re very open to receiving some “Good News” and that’s where the Christ disciples in the room have an opportunity to reveal to them the healing, loving, merciful Jesus that perhaps they’ve never heard about.  If they feel welcome and not judged odds are they’ll come back for more genuine encouragement and, over time, they might come to realize it’s their own misguided belief about what it’s like to be a follower of Christ that’s been the biggest obstacle to finding purpose and fulfillment in their life.  Look, what we believe true about ourselves determines not only our personality and countenance but the whole of our outlook on life.  Back in the 90s I was able to pull myself out of the miserable throes of self-loathing simply by standing in front of a mirror every day and feeding my reflection positive attributes.  I found out I was what I believed I was.  It was all in my head!

 

More often than not it’s the ones who profess to be Christians who are most confused about what they believe.  If they get comfortable with coming to Celebrate Recovery and sharing in the small group gatherings they might take the next step and go through the soul-searching Step Study program.  That’s where they’ll be asked about what they believe in regards to God, repentance, the Bible, salvation, etc. – perhaps for the first time in their lives.  It’s not uncommon that many realize a lot of their core beliefs were based solely on what their peer group believed and that, in the final analysis, they didn’t truly believe what they thought they believed after all!  To avoid them becoming discouraged over what they’ll then be tempted to deem their “anemic faith” the course leaders will gently direct them into God’s Holy Word to obtain the necessary corrections.  The astonishing thing is all that was required to get them back on track was to ask them to express what they believed!  The sheer absurdity of their false assumptions about who Jesus is and what He wants us to do for Him while we’re here on earth suddenly become crystal clear in their minds without anybody having to tell them they were wrong.  This is frequently the breakthrough they’d been waiting for all their lives and they go on to discover the power of prayer, the joy of fellowship with other Christians, the enormous benefits derived from diligent Bible study, etc.  And down the line, due to the patient leading of the indwelling Holy Spirit, they might decide to become a disciple of Christ.

 

What all Christians must remember is that when Jesus told us to “make disciples” it wasn’t a suggestion, it was a command.  That means it’s not up for discussion.  He said, You are my friends if you do what I command you (John 15:14).  And we’re not to think we’re doing our Savior any favors.  Jesus said, So you too, when you have done everything you were commanded to do, should say, ‘We are slaves undeserving of special praise; we have only done what was our duty’ (Luke 17:10).  We who’ve been rescued from the tyranny of our own sinful nature have an obligation to meet whether we like it or not.  James S. Stewart wrote, “It is emphatically not an open question.  The great command settled it once for all.  And the man who still debates and argues it is daring to correct Jesus Christ.  That wrecks his position.  The Master’s ruling has been given, and He means it to be obeyed.”

 

Whether or not the church alters its overriding drive towards making Christianity more palatable and/or compatible with modern mores and ethics and returns to concentrating its efforts on doing what Jesus commanded – making disciples of all nations – isn’t something I can predict.  One thing I do know is that God’s perfect will is going to get done regardless.  Willard said it best: “The purposes of God in human history will eventually be realized, of course.  His divine conspiracy will not be defeated.  But multiple millions of individual human beings will live a futile and failing existence that God never intended.”  How sad and sobering that last statement is!  Makes me cognizant of how much “disciplining work” is left to be done by me and the body of Christ I’m grateful to be part of.

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Who’s Your Daddy?

In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount He revealed a bunch of surprises, not the least of which was His clarification of how we’re to address our Creator.  He’s our Father.  Now, up till then God had been characterized as being a lot of things but never a father figure so this was big news, indeed.  The implications are immense.  God cares about us.  God wants what’s best for us.  When we grieve, He grieves.  When we rejoice, He rejoices.  We can develop and nurture an intimate relationship with Him.  We can rely on Him.  He’ll always have our back.  No one loves us more.  So it should come as no shock that Christ, when giving us the prayer template known as “The Lord’s Prayer”, began it with Our Father in heaven, may your name be honored…” (Matthew 6:9).  Is this paternal designation significant?  Is water wet?  J.I. Packer wrote, “…Everything that Christ taught, everything that makes the New Testament new, and better than the Old, everything that’s distinctively Christian as opposed to merely Jewish, is summed up in the knowledge of the Fatherhood of God.  ‘Father’ is the Christian name for God.”  What a comfort that is!  Even those with lousy or absent dads will be uplifted over that announcement.  They can imagine what the most fantastic father would be like and revel in Jesus’ assurance that their Heavenly Father is even greater than that!  It explains why the inspiring praise song “Good, Good Father” is so popular with so many.  It strikes a beautiful, resounding chord in our hearts.  Perhaps that’s the same emotional reaction Jesus witnessed when He announced to the crowd that the holiest prayer we can offer to God is one that starts off by acknowledging His Fatherhood.

 

However, it must be emphasized that the notion of everybody automatically being deemed a “child of God” isn’t found in any of the Scriptures.  Attaining son or daughter status (via divine adoption) is a supernatural gift acquired only by surrendering our life to Christ and believing He died for our sins.  Paul wrote to the church in Galatia, For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith.  For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female – for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise (Galatians 3:26-29).  Thus simply being born isn’t sufficient.  Jesus said we must be born again.  The Bible’s clear on this issue: “…To all who have received him – those who believe in his name – he has given the right to become God’s children – children not born by human parents or by human desire or a husband’s decision, but by God (John 1:12-13).  I realize it’s fashionable to believe everyone gets to stroll through the Pearly Gates as long as their positives outweigh their negatives.  All other religions tout that doctrine but Christianity alone maintains that eternal life in the presence of God is obtained only by being figuratively washed in the blood of Jesus.  There’s no other way in.

 

Since I’ve already scratched the surface of the Lord’s Prayer we might as well delve into it further.  The opening statement indicates our Father God’s name deserves to be honored or hallowed as it were.  Dallas Willard wrote, “In the biblical world, names are never just names.  They partake of the reality they refer to.  The Jewish reverence for the name of God was so great that especially devout Jews might even avoid pronouncing it.  Thus we don’t really know how Yahweh, as we say it, really is to be pronounced.  The pronunciation is lost in history.”  Sadly, so is the significance of the word hallowedSanctified can be substituted because it connotes a name that should be treasured, revered and adored more than any other in existence.  Addressing God Almighty in such a dignified way also fits right in with the personal Father concept Jesus espoused.  That’s because when we’re adolescents our parents are our whole world.  We can’t envision life without them.  We trust them explicitly to care for us, to feed us, to provide shelter and protection and, most of all, to love us unconditionally.  Plus as children we soon discover that displaying honest respect for a parent goes a long, long way towards improving our relationship with them.  The Scriptures repeatedly confirm that God does recognize and appreciate it greatly when we hold His name in the highest esteem.

 

Next our Savior suggests we ask, “…May your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Keep in mind that in no way are we requesting that God’s kingdom come into existence.  Wherever in His universe God prefers His will to dominate and remain inviolate is His kingdom.  Yet there are “valleys of death.”  It’s obvious His will is continually being usurped on planet Earth so to ask for God’s kingdom to displace Satan’s down here makes all the sense in the world.  After all, the devil is a real person and he’s identified as “…the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the ruler of the spirit that is now energizing the sons of disobedience…” (Ephesians 2:2).  Later Paul reiterates this fact with, For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens (Ephesians 6:12).  So this prayerful plea is for God’s perfect kingdom to infiltrate and overwhelm the secular, God-denying culture that surrounds us on all sides.  Willard wrote that culture “…is the place where wickedness takes on group form, just as the flesh, good and right in itself, is the place where individual wickedness dwells.  We therefore pray for our Father to break up these higher-level patterns of evil.  And, among other things, we ask Him to help us see the patterns we are involved in.  We ask Him to help us not cooperate with them, to cast light on them and act effectively to remove them.”  The more God’s kingdom seeps in, the less room there is for sin to thrive and corrupt.  There will come a day when “…At the name of Jesus every knee will bow – in heaven and on earth and under the earth – and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:10-11) but, until that spectacular day arrives, we must pray to get as much of God’s kingdom as we possibly can.

 

Our Lord then advises we ask our Heavenly Father to Give us today our daily bread.”  Since God created everything there is from the tiniest quarks to the most massive of galaxies it’s logical (if not extremely wise) we should ask Him to provide us with the necessary basics that keep our bodies alive and functional.  And by requesting only what we need today, we demonstrate our unshakable trust that He’ll take care of our bottom line needs tomorrow, too.  Again I revert back to the child analogy.  No youngster who has a good, good father and/or mother ever has to stop and worry about whether there’ll be something to eat on the table tomorrow.  Their faith isn’t in the food, it’s in the people who’ve taken on the responsibility of watching over them and making sure they’re fed.  We mustn’t lose sight of the underlying purpose that lies behind praying to our Heavenly Father for sustenance: To free ourselves from being anxious about the future by putting all such concerns into the hands of our loving Creator who’s promised to take care of us.

 

Continuing on, Jesus then taught us to “…Forgive us our debts, as we ourselves have forgiven our debtors.”  We’re to ask our Heavenly Father to have mercy on us for our shortcomings with the understanding being that we’ve gone ahead and shown mercy to those who were short with us before we prayed.  Look, forgiveness isn’t a natural instinct.  On the contrary, our initial impulse is to judge others and then condemn them for what they’ve done.  By asking God to forgive us we are, at the same time, asking Him to continue to grace us with sufficient love and mercy to forgive our transgressors before we say or do anything else.  Mercy is yet another word that’s lost a lot of its core meaning due to overuse so it’s actually more fitting we ask God to pity us for being so imperfect in His sight.  I reckon some readers won’t be at ease with the idea that we are, in reality, quite pitiful creatures.  But the truth sometimes stings like a bee, ya know?  Willard wrote, “…Only pity reaches to the heart of our condition.  The word pity makes us wince, as mercy does not.  Our current language has robbed mercy of its deep, traditional meaning, which is practically the same as pity.  To pity someone now is to feel sorry for them, and that’s regarded as demeaning, whereas to have mercy now is thought to be slightly noble – just ‘give ‘em a break.’  …But no, I need more than a break.  I need pity because of who I am.  If my pride is untouched when I pray for forgiveness, I haven’t prayed for forgiveness.  I don’t even understand it.”  Timothy Keller offered another perspective on forgiveness: “Cycles of reaction and retaliation can go on for years.  Evil has been done to you – yes.  But when you try to get payment through revenge the evil doesn’t disappear.  Instead it spreads most tragically of all into you and your own character.”

 

Lastly, Jesus recommended we request of God, And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”  In other words, “Father, please don’t test our stamina or resolve.  We’re not up to it.”  Fredrick Buechner said of this, “If it takes guts to face the omnipotence that is God’s, it takes perhaps no less to face the impotence that is ours.  We can do nothing without God.  We can have nothing without God.  Without God we are nothing.  It is only the words ‘Our Father’ that make the prayer bearable.  If God is indeed something like a father, then as something like children maybe we can risk approaching Him anyway.”  Seems to me only a fool would desire to be tempted to sin.  Therefore this passage has a lot to do with subduing our ego by admitting we’re spiritually weak and susceptible to the devil’s whispered enticements.  Otherwise Christ wouldn’t have told us to ask our Heavenly Father to kindly keep temptations at bay.  All of us know how alluring sin can be so petitioning God for His powerful assistance in that area is a smart move on our part.  Christians in particular have a tendency to begin thinking our faith is stronger than it really is and harboring that attitude can be dangerous.  When things are going smoothly we can get reckless.

 

Take the Zebedee boys, James and John, for example.  These loyal disciples were so sure they could handle anything they persuaded their codependent mom to approach Jesus and beg Him to appoint both of them to lofty cabinet positions in the earthly regime they mistakenly thought their Master was going to establish soon.  Jesus shook His weary head and said to them, ’You don’t know what you are asking!  Are you able to drink the cup I am about to drink?’  They said to him, ‘We are able.’ (Matthew 20:22).  Jesus let them down gently, informing them such things were for God to decide, not Him.  I doubt they would’ve been so presumptive if they knew Jesus’ cup included a torturous, bloody crucifixion on a cross.  Their somewhat arrogant confidence vastly outweighed their good sense to know you gotta watch what you ask for because you just might get it.  Petitioning our Heavenly Father to keep us out of harm’s (and the evil one’s) way is an effective, proactive method of avoiding sticky situations our shortsighted pride might otherwise put us in.  In effect, Jesus was saying it’s okay to ask God to not let bad things happen to us.  Can’t hurt.

 

It’s also important to bear in mind there’ll be times when a difficult trial is necessary in order for us to learn a vital spiritual lesson.  It’s not that God wants us to suffer per se but He knows us better than we know ourselves and there may not be a better option for garnering our undivided attention.  Yes, Satan’s powerful but he’s not omnipotent.  In the opening chapters of the Book of Job we read that the devil had to ask God’s permission before he could harass poor Job.  Not once but twice!  Nothing occurs in any corner of creation without our Heavenly Father knowing about it.  Nothing.  Now don’t get me wrong.  Not every mishap or hardship we encounter is the handiwork of Satan or his nasty posse.  That terrifying car accident that made your life a living hell might’ve been caused by a drunk driver or one too busy texting to notice the signal light was red.  Or maybe your spouse is mad at you because you lied about how much money you stupidly wasted at the casino, not because some demon made you do it.  In both cases the crucial matter is how you choose to react to the aftermath.  The greatest temptation you’ll face will be to lash out in anger and end up making a bad circumstance even worse.  That’s why asking God to steer us away from temptation’s snares is advantageous.  Yet Paul reminds us that No trial has overtaken you that is not faced by others.  And God is faithful: He will not let you be tried beyond what you are able to bear, but with the trial will also provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it (1 Corinthians 10:13).  Through prayer we’ll be able to spot the “way out” that God will provide if we trust Him.

 

I’ll end with this gem from Brennan Manning: “In prayer Jesus slows us down to a human tempo, teaches us how to count how few days we have, gifts us with wisdom of heart, and liberates us from the oppression of false deadlines, myopic vision and the degradation of language.  …I’ve discovered prayer has purified my vocabulary of many boring, colorless, puffy and apparently damned important words like maximize, prioritize, interact, facilitate, interface, input, and feedback.  There’s a conspicuous absence of empty, overused words in Jesus’ speech.  We find no trace of impacting, hopefully, at this point in time, parameters or linkages in the Gospel; in fact, there are no junk words, jargon, or meaningful nonsense at all.”  I can’t top that.

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Why Pray?

To Christians that question is absurd because our Savior prayed all the time.  But a non-believer will want a straightforward answer.  After all, in His Sermon on the Mount Jesus preached, Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7-8).  Secularists will inquire why followers of Christ don’t get everything they ask for and, since we don’t, why pray?  “Because Jesus told us to” won’t satisfy them so we must address the heart of the matter.  The most truthful response we can offer is that, due to our finite perspective and severely limited scope of understanding, we simply don’t know enough for God to give us a no-limit credit card.  Plus common sense tells us everybody can’t get everything.  If we trust in our Heavenly Father as we should then we’ll accept that whatever comes from our prayer requests is the best for all involved.  The important thing is that we continue to do all we can to improve the situation we’re petitioning God to help us with.  And if a friend/family member is struggling with a destructive hurt, habit or hang-up that’s ruining his/her life we must encourage them to lean heavily on God.  But absolutely nothing will be as effective as praying for them.  Our “fix”, no matter how wonderful we think it is, may be the worst thing for them.  We must remember God loves them more than we ever will and His “fix”, when He determines they’re ready for it, is not only tailor-made to their particular needs but permanent.  And, because God’s timing is always perfect, His “fix” may not happen when we think it ought to.

 

Note when Jesus knew Peter would deny knowing Him He did nothing to prevent His close associate from turning his back on Him.  Certainly our Lord could’ve “fixed” him on the spot but He didn’t because evidently Peter needed to go through that humbling experience to grow spiritually.  Jesus trusted that if His Father let His disciple’s most shameful act take place it’d be for a greater good to result.  Thus our Savior told Peter in advance, I have requested, concerning you, that your faith might not die.  And when you have straightened up, uphold your brothers (Luke 22:32).  No doubt Jesus would’ve preferred Peter not behave like a coward but He left His friend free to fail or succeed on his own volition.  Jesus didn’t belittle him or lecture him.  And we know from the Scriptures He didn’t use His supernatural powers to alter Peter’s character flaw.  No, the Son of God prayed for him to be strong enough to move beyond his weakest moment and use it to bolster the other apostles’ faith.  Face it, few stories are as impactful and memorable as Peter’s infamous courtyard denials because there’s not a believer that can’t relate to what he did in his hour of panic nor not take comfort in knowing Jesus forgave him.

 

I’ve confessed it before and I’ll confess it again that prayer is the most anemic part of my spiritual journey with God.  I’ve forced myself to make praying a regular habit but it’s still too formulaic for my liking.  Therefore over the years I’ve endeavored to improve my “talks with God.”  One book that helps me greatly is Dr. Larry Crabb’s excellent The Papa Prayer but, since time spent on one’s knees before the Creator is such an intimate encounter, there’s no one-size-fits-all method we should all adhere to.  I must plug away at it faithfully and trust that God knows where my heart’s at.  Now, Jesus did give us the Lord’s Prayer and there’s none better to memorize but it’s my opinion He intended it to be merely an example of what we should pray for on a daily basis, not a droning string of words recited out of a misdirected sense of obligation.  Having said that, I also don’t think God expects us to be “prayer experts.”  Crabb and the late great Brennan Manning were chatting after a conference years ago.  Larry asked Brennan where he was headed next.  Brennan told him he was leaving to attend another weeklong prayer retreat.  Crabb asked him if the retreats were helpful.  Brennan responded with, “I’ve never thought about what I get out of it.  I just figure God likes it when I show up.”  Perhaps that’s the wisest attitude any of us can cop concerning prayer.

 

I reckon it’s vital we establish for ourselves exactly what prayer is.  If we follow Jesus’ lead it’s basically asking God for things.  The entire Bible is filled with prayerful requests front to back.  However, many Christians deem it downright presumptive to dare ask God for what they want.  While there’s nothing inherently wrong with feeling that way, there’s no law against asking the Father in heaven for blessings, either.  Now, if our prayers are completely selfish we’re missing the boat altogether but to not include our own preferences in our prayers is somewhat nearsighted.  In other words, to pray for world peace is admirable but it’s also okay to ask Him to provide some divine assistance with an overdue bill because God cares about us individually, too.  He may or may not say “yes” but there’s still as yet no commandment against asking.  Dallas Willard wrote, “…I believe the most adequate description of prayer is simply, ‘Talking to God about what we’re doing together.’  That immediately focuses the activity where we are but at the same time drives the egotism out of it.  …Prayer is a matter of explicitly sharing with God my concerns about what He too is concerned about in my life.  …This is our walk together.”  Crabb said, “For a long time now, without even realizing it, you’ve seen God as an ally in your purposes.  You’ve lost sight of the fact that He sees you as an ally in His.”

 

Again, it’s worth emphasizing prayer isn’t demanding things from God but respectfully, as a child would a loving parent, requesting Him to be involved in our life and to please see to our fundamental needs.  Surely we can trust Him to know what is a genuine need and what isn’t.  The Apostle Paul explained it better than I ever will when he wrote, Do not be anxious about anything.  Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God.  And the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:6-7).  That profound statement tells us everything we need to know concerning what our attitude should be when entering into a one-on-one conversation with our Maker.  We’re to worship Him with respectful reverence, we’re to express our gratitude for what He’s done for us so far and we’re to share with Him what we’d like to see happen.  If these elements are included in our prayers it’s safe to say we’re on the right road.  Crabb added, “When we mature enough to want from God what He’s ready to give us, incredible things happen – sometimes around us, always in us.  He may use His power to change our circumstances to our liking.  He will use His power to change our hearts to His liking.”  J.I. Packer preached, “Sometimes we ask for the wrong thing!  It’s God’s prerogative to give good things, things that we have need of, and if in our unwisdom we ask for things that do not come under these headings God, like any good parent, reserves the right to say, ‘No, not that; it wouldn’t be good for you – but have this instead.’  Good parents never simply ignore what their children are saying, nor simply disregard their feelings of need, and neither does God; but often He gives us what we should have asked for, rather than what we actually requested.”

 

An atheist might argue, “But what good’s praying if God already knows what’s gonna happen?  Aren’t you believers quick to proclaim how unchangeable He is?”  The answer to that is this: Who and what God is will never change.  That doesn’t mean He can’t change His mind.  Therefore our prayers do make a difference.  Think about it.  Would a loving God instruct us to pray (and to pray Himself while He was here on Earth) if it was nothing more than an exercise in futility?  No way.  The Bible reinforces the fact that God not only listens to but can be swayed by our fervent pleas.  One example is found in Exodus.  God miraculously delivers the Israelites from Egyptian slavery but then, while Moses is receiving the Ten Commandments up on Sinai, they start acting like spoiled college hooligans on spring break, indulging in everything sinful they can concoct including fashioning and then bowing down to a golden cow.  God’s not amused and tells Moses He’s going to wipe them out and start a brand new tribe through Moses’ seed.  Moses, not wanting to see his hard work go to waste, reasons with God.  “What will the Egyptians say?” he asks, “That you went to the trouble of parting the Red Sea only to terminate all your ‘chosen people’ in the desert?  That’ll damage your reputation considerably, Lord.”  He then reminded God of the promises He made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  He said, “While these rebellious ingrates of yours do deserve a heavy dose of capital punishment it’d probably be a blunder to go back on your word entirely.  It’d set a bad precedent, don’t you think?”  It worked.  Then the LORD relented over the evil that he had said he would do to his people (Exodus 32:14).

 

Illustration #2 involves Judah’s good king Hezekiah, a man who’d already witnessed his prayers being answered by God when he was confronted with the massive army of the ruthless king of Assyria, Sennacherib.  185,000 enemy troops bit the dust in one night and the freaked-out Sennacherib hightailed it.  Later Hezekiah contracted a terminal illness.  Isaiah came to deliver a message.  Seems God had revealed to the prophet that, sadly, the king was a goner.  Rather than give up the ghost Hezekiah turned to the wall and started praying like nobody’s business.  Weeping, he reminded God he’d been a faithful servant who’d always tried to do the righteous thing.  Evidently God thought the situation over and stopped Isaiah before he could grab a cab outside the castle, telling him to return to the king with this message: I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears.  Look, I will heal you.  …I will add fifteen years to your life and rescue you and this city from the king of Assyria (2 Kings 20:5-6).  God changed His eternal mind because letting the king live another decade and a half didn’t run contrary to His perfect will.  God’s able to do things like that because He’s God and, therefore, no restrictions apply.  The fact He can do as He sees fit doesn’t diminish His omniscience one bit.  Willard wrote, “He’d be a lesser God if He could not change His intentions when He thinks it appropriate.  And if He chooses to deal with humanity in such a way that He’ll occasionally think it appropriate, that’s just fine.”

 

Prayer has been proven a genuine game-changer and it baffles scientists no end.  In the 50s a university research program consisting of several “prayer therapy groups” was conducted.  Prayers offered in the name of Jesus produced notable improvements in the patients they prayed for.  The official findings warranted further experimentation.  Since then there’ve been more than 130 serious studies on the effects of prayer with their astoundingly consistent results having been published in an array of medical and professional journals.  One in particular dealt with 393 coronary care patients who weren’t even made aware people were praying for them.  The remarkable results couldn’t be downplayed.  Of the patient groups that received prayers fewer died, fewer required side effect-laden drugs and not one patient had to go on life support!  And distance had no bearing on the positive effects of prayer, either.  Prayer was even found to be beneficial for the health of plants and bacteria cultures!  Their findings made global headline news.  So obviously there’s something to this “prayer stuff” but we never hear about those irrefutable studies these days because it doesn’t fit into the secular world’s narrative that insists praying’s nothing more than wishful thinking.  That’s disgraceful.  (As Philip Yancey said: “If we’re upset about the condition of this planet, I can only imagine how God feels.”)

 

But those of us who’ve increased their knowledge of God (due to the transforming work of the indwelling Holy Spirit) understand prayer is proof positive that we, as individuals, count.  We matter.  And that through the power of prayer we’ll continue to mature in character toward becoming people “…created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:24).  Prayer does produce tangible results but more often than not we have to be patient with God because what we ask for inevitably involves changes that must take place in the hearts and/or circumstances of individuals both known and unknown to us.  And we must be persistent in praying, as well.  Jesus’ parable about the judge and the widow found in Luke 18 shows that the squeaky wheel does get the divine grease.  Frederick Buechner wrote, “…Keep on beating the path to God’s door, because the one thing you can be sure of is that down the path you beat with even your most half-cocked and halting prayer the God you call upon will finally come, and even if He does not bring you the answer you want, He will bring you Himself.  And maybe at the secret heart of all our prayers that’s what we’re really praying for.”

 

The Bible indicates that, being the good, good Father He is, God can be persuaded by the heartfelt pleas of His beloved children.  As Willard opined, “It’s not inherently ‘greater’ to be inflexible.  That’s an unfortunate human idea of greatness, derived from behavior patterns all too common in a fallen world.  It turns God into a cosmic stuffed shirt.”  To think that any alterations God instigates in the affairs of human beings on this tiny planet has any effect whatsoever on the unfolding of His master plan throughout the vastness of His created universe is sheer nonsense.  Jesus told us to ask.  So let us ask away.  What God will bless us with just might floor us.  James S. Stewart wrote, “By teaching and life Jesus showed that to know a God who is thus vitally interested in all His children’s concerns is to have the secret of a peace, a poise, and a steadiness that nothing in life can disturb.”

3

Are Christians “Too Pushy”?

Confronting others in a judgmental way rarely reaps positive results.  That’s why Jesus warned us about it in His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:1-5).  He then proceeded to issue another alert: Do not give what is holy to dogs or throw your pearls before pigs; otherwise they will trample them under their feet and turn around and tear you to pieces (7:6).  We should conclude the two are related.  Seems our Lord was cautioning against “pushing” our faith on those who don’t want to hear anything about it.  I surmise there are many reading this essay that’ve experienced firsthand utter rejection of our “pearls of wisdom” from folks we were simply trying to share the Good News with.  Why would a person not want to be informed of the path to everlasting life?  Don’t they understand we’re doing them the biggest favor of all?  Yet they all too frequently stonewall us in midsentence.  Few things are as frustrating as “talking to the hand.”

 

But if we’re not careful we can misinterpret what Jesus said and take it to mean it’s okay for us to judge whether or not a person is worthy of hearing the Gospel.  Taken literally, we might be tempted to label them filthy mongrels and write them off as a lost cause.  But if we’re in possession of a transformed “kingdom heart” that strives to emulate our Savior’s it’ll be impossible to imagine anything more diametrically opposed to what He taught us.  After all, was He not the precious Pearl of God, sent to be callously trampled on by human swine while His all-consuming love for mankind continued unabated?  Therefore to think Christ was suggesting certain of our neighbors should be deemed worthless pigs is absurd.  He also wasn’t recommending we should spread the Gospel message only to those we feel will accept it with gratitude.  No way.  Jesus said, “…Do good, and lend, expecting nothing back.  Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to ungrateful and evil people.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Luke 6:35-36).  Therefore we must dig deeper into His statement to find the truth of the matter.  Worthiness isn’t the issue; our ability to be helpful is.  No animal can digest pearls so if you keep putting them in their trough they’ll eventually get hungry enough to start considering you edible.  It’s pointless to keep serving up savory spiritual nuggets they can’t swallow no matter how delicious they may taste to us.  Our good intentions won’t make any difference at all and usually our efforts will just make them avoid us in the future.  We must conclude it’s not the “pearl” that’s wasted but our opportunity to assist a prodigal soul in finding their way back home.

 

One of the big reasons I and many other baby boomers abandoned the churches we were raised in when we became adults was because the legalistic “dos and don’ts” of the Christian religion had been shoved down our throats our whole lives.  Furthermore if we dared challenge the official doctrine in any way we were threatened with, you guessed it, condemnation – the very thing Jesus warned His followers about employing.  But is the 21st century church any less guilty?  Not that much, I’m afraid.  Believers frequently deliver their “pearls of wisdom” with a holier-than-thou attitude and a heavy dose of self-righteousness that’s downright repellant.  Nobody likes to be lectured by an uppity know-it-all.  Little wonder so many in the younger generations dismiss the Body of Christ’s Good News as being totally irrelevant to their needs.  The underlying conundrum is that those of us who’ve learned how life-enhancing that Pearl truly is can’t fathom the idea that others wouldn’t respond to it with gleeful enthusiasm.  The fact we’re offering it to them at all must qualify as solid evidence our hearts are in the right place, no?  Well, not necessarily.  The proof’s in the pudding and we know the batch we create doesn’t always look appetizing.

 

Dallas Willard wrote, “What we’re actually doing with our proper condemnations and our wonderful solutions, more often than not, is taking others out of their own responsibility and out of God’s hands and trying to bring them under our control.”  Ouch!  Ain’t it the truth, though?  I have two grown offspring and neither of them has accepted Christ.  It breaks my heart but I have to shoulder a lot of the blame.  Since I didn’t raise them to respect the Bible as I should’ve I’m tempted to think it’s my job to save their souls when I know good and well only God can do that.  Our Heavenly Father allowed His only begotten Son to be tortured to death on a rugged cross just so my daughter and son would have a decision to make of their own free will.  As unbelievable as it may seem to me, God loves them even more than I do so who am I to think I can have nearly as much influence on them as He does?  God wants heaven to be populated exclusively by souls who chose to spend eternity in His kingdom so He’ll no doubt reveal Himself to each person when the timing is perfect.  I can’t coerce or harass anybody into believing in Jesus.  It’s up to them.  Does this mean I’m not to bring Jesus up at all?  Am I to hide my light from those wandering in the darkness of this fallen world?  We all know better than that.  If we love others as much as we love ourselves we must, as Saint Augustine opined, “…endeavor to get our neighbor to love God.”  And nothing impresses a non-believer more than putting our money where our mouth is and imitating as faithfully as possible the exquisite lifestyle of our Lord.  We have to remember our basic role – we’re merely seed-sowers.  The Bible confirms it: “So neither the one who plants counts for anything, nor the one who waters, but God who causes the growth (1 Corinthians 3:7).

 

So are we to deem ourselves relatively useless and inconsequential in the grand scheme of things?  As we read further into Jesus’ sublime sermon we find that’s not the case at all.  We mustn’t discount the “power of petition”.  Christ preached, Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7-8).  Jesus is telling us our requests for God to touch and soften the hearts of those who don’t know Him carry a lot of spiritual weight.  Willard wrote, “Asking is indeed the great law of the spiritual world through which things are accomplished in cooperation with God and yet in harmony with the freedom and worth of every individual.”  In other words, God hears our concerns and our vote most definitely counts.

 

The more in tune our hearts are with the character of Christ the more effective our prayers will be.  What do I mean by that?  Well, our love for others must be genuine, that’s for sure.  We can’t love God and harbor disdain for people simultaneously.  The person who does not love does not know God, because God is love (1 John 4:8).  If anyone says ‘I love God’ and yet hates his fellow Christian, he is a liar, because the one who does not love his fellow Christian whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen (1 John 4:20).  Forgiveness and unconditional love go hand in hand.  Recall what our Lord said earlier in His sermon: For if you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive you your sins (Matthew 6:14-15).  Therefore we aren’t in a position to pick and choose who we’re to love and who we’re to despise because in doing that we promote ourselves into a position where we’re qualified to judge others.  That’ll never be our privilege.  We must surrender that presumptive false notion at the foot of the cross if we’re to make any spiritual headway at all.

 

A demand divides whereas a request unites.  When we ask someone to consider the Gospel message we’re granting that person the option to reject it and that can make an enormous difference as to how receptive they’ll be to hearing/contemplating the truth that’ll set them free.  If our sincerest desire is for someone we encounter to get their name entered into the Book of Life then it’s only natural we should let that desire be known to our generous Father God.  Jesus used common sense to convey what the result of that heartfelt plea will be.  Is there anyone among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?  If you then, although you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:9-11).  Jesus was telling us the answer to the question of how we can best go about getting those who are lost to acquire salvation is to tap into the awesome power of prayer – asking God to intervene.  We must trust He’ll do everything short of overriding that individual’s free will to bring them into His glorious kingdom’s fold.  We surely wouldn’t want anybody to want less than that for us, would we?  This sentiment sets us up to comprehend Jesus’ infallible Golden Rule: In everything, treat others as you would want them to treat you, for this fulfills the law and the prophets (Matthew 7:12).  Alas, if only all human beings would obey that simple exhortation this world would be a peaceful garden.

 

What Jesus was teaching us to do (regarding getting others to accept the Good News He later commanded His disciples to spread across the globe) – requesting God’s help – is also applicable to everything we attempt to do as Christians.  It should be our core aim in life that God’s perfect will be done in lieu of our own.  Jesus, with His horrible crucifixion looming, prayed on the Mount of Olives, Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me.  Yet not my will but yours be done (Luke 22:42).  As James S. Stewart preached, “The praying Christ is the supreme argument for prayer.”  Jesus didn’t hesitate to show us what real, uncompromised submission looks like.  Dr. Larry Crabb wrote, “…Prayer is getting more of God rather than getting more from God.”  When our covetous, self-centered urges get in the way of God’s grace problems are certain to arise and flourish.  Where do the conflicts and where do the quarrels among you come from?  Is it not from this, from your passions that battle inside you?  You desire and you do not have; you murder and envy and you cannot obtain; you quarrel and fight.  You do not have because you do not ask; you ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly, so you can spend it on your passions (James 4:1-3).  Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Christian brotherhood is not an ideal that we must realize; it’s rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.”  In other words, if Jesus isn’t at the center of all our interactions with and hopes for our neighbors then we’re settling for much, much less than what we might otherwise gain if He were our only focal point.

 

In this segment of His Sermon on the Mount Christ Jesus didn’t just say, “Don’t be pushy.”  He continued on to tell us to always rely on the Holy Spirit when we witness to others about Him.  Also, our contentment and joy should be easy to detect.  And projecting a humble, open-minded countenance always goes a long way toward putting others at ease.  Yet we should be wary of people who’ll try to paint us into a corner via blunt questions like, “So you believe if I don’t accept Christ then I’m going to roast in hell forever.  Isn’t that right?”  Neither a yes or no response will adequately address the complex issues contained in their query and will most likely doom the conversation to stalemate status.  Instead it’s more productive to first ask them about their views.  Like “What do you think about Jesus?” or “What’s your theory concerning the resurrection?” or “What do you guess comes after death?”  As Christians it’s our duty to be prepared to defend our faith logically and in a confident, non-confrontational manner.  As Saint Peter wrote, But set Christ apart as Lord in your hearts and always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess (1 Peter 3:15).  When others speak we should listen intently, treating them with the respect they deserve while silently requesting spiritual guidance for when it’s our turn to respond.  We have divine assurance we’ll say the right thing.  “…Do not worry about how to speak or what to say, for what you should say will be given to you at that time.  For it is not you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you (Matthew 10:19-20).  Thus the pressure’s off.  What a relief!

 

In the final analysis it may turn out that the hardest battle we Christians have to fight while on planet Earth is the struggle against widespread unbelief.  Frederick Buechner said it well: “In the great war of liberation, it’s imperative to keep in touch always with the only one who can liberate.  We must speak to Him however hard it may be in the thick of the fight, however irrelevant it may sometimes seem, however dried up and without faith we may feel.  And we must not worry too much about the other war, the war of conquest.  Of course to some extent we must worry about it, and it’s necessary and right that we should.  But in the war for a place in the sun, we must never mistake conquest for final victory, and above all, we must never mistake failure for final defeat.”  God runs the table in the end.  His kingdom house wins.  How precarious things may sometimes look in the meantime doesn’t matter one iota.  We have a particular job to do in God’s master plan that no one else can do as well.  There are some people in this world that’ll turn a deaf ear to any and all talk of the kingdom of God, with the exception being how we present it to them in our unique manner.  If we’re patient and our heart’s in the right place, they just might listen.

4

 

 

What If Nobody Notices How Good I’m Being?

“They haven’t found their rhythm yet” is a phrase used by sportscasters covering a live contest when a player isn’t playing up to their potential; when they can’t seem to “get in the groove.”  In the first segment of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus encouraged us to “sync up” with God’s perfect will.  Until then we’ll struggle to make much difference.  Thus the 5th chapter of Matthew is unquestionably one of the most important in the Bible.  It’s so profound I devoted 13 essays to exploring the life-improving wisdom it contains.  I learned a lot and the study has changed me for the better.  My Savior’s instructions have helped me “find my rhythm” in my Heavenly Father’s master plan.  Dallas Willard wrote, “One is blessed, we now know, if one’s life is based upon acceptance and intimate interactions with what God is doing in human history.  Such people are in the present kingdom of the heavens.”  Christ told us if we’re fixated on spending all our energy making sure we stay in strict compliance with God’s laws we’re most likely missing the point.  Jesus wants us to grasp that, if we’ll relax and allow the indwelling Holy Spirit to transform our “worldly heart” into a “kingdom heart”, then obedience to God’s Commandments will come as naturally as breathing.  For Jesus it’s always about us getting our heart in tune with God.

 

Now, Matthew 6 won’t take nearly as long to cover because, in light of what He’d just been preaching, Jesus then simply needed to warn us about getting carried away with how good we might start thinking we are.  We’re all susceptible to letting our egos run wild; to start expecting folks to esteem us and for God to bless us with an abundance of material wealth – all due to our impressive righteousness.  Pride’s the fly in the ointment of good intentions and that sentiment resounds throughout the entire New Testament.  How can you believe, if you accept praise from one another and don’t seek the praise that comes from the only God? (John 5:44) and Now the Pharisees were lovers of money, and when they heard Jesus’ teachings they scoffed at him.  But he responded: ‘You try to look good in the eyes of men.  But God sees your hearts.  And what men think highly of is a stench before God (Luke 16:14-15) are just two examples.  It wasn’t Jesus’ fault the Pharisees and religious leaders had made themselves easy targets for criticism.  Thus everyone knew instantly who He was referring to when He continued His sermon with, Be careful not to display your righteousness merely to be seen by people.  Otherwise you have no reward with your Father in heaven (Matthew 6:1).

 

Again, it’s vital to note what our Lord didn’t say.  He didn’t teach we’re to go to extremes making sure our good deeds are completely hidden from sight.  That’s not the core issue at stake.  What He wanted to convey was that we shouldn’t perform good deeds with receiving public praise or even a private “thank you” being the primary motive behind our doing them.  When we do that we’re guilty of preferring human approval over God’s.  The apostle Paul expanded on this theme later on when he advised, “…Whatever you do in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.  …Whatever you are doing, work at it with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not for people, because you know that you will receive your inheritance from the Lord as the reward.  Serve the Lord Christ (Galatians 3:17 & 23-24).  As usual, our Savior offered several helpful illustrations:

 

He brought up giving to philanthropic organizations.  “…Whenever you do charitable giving, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in synagogues and on streets so that people will praise them.  I tell you the truth, they have their reward (Matthew 6:2).  It’s difficult to imagine someone paying to have a horn section alert everybody so they’d witness their awesome generosity but the Jewish bigwigs did so regularly.  Interesting to note that Jesus used the descriptive term “hypocrite” 17 times in the Gospel accounts.  In each instance it was to distinguish the mask one displays to the world from one’s real face God sees constantly.  Jesus next told us, But when you do your giving, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that your gift may be in secret.  And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you (6:3-4).  Taken literally this is impossible so it’s clear Christ was employing a metaphor to get us to probe deeper.  If we have a totally transformed “kingdom heart” we won’t need to be mindful of what our hands are doing because performing good deeds will be as automatic as blinking.  Not only that but He assures us our Heavenly Father does pay attention to what we do.  Then Jesus added, Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray while standing in synagogues and on street corners so that people can see them.  Truly I say to you, they have their reward.  But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.  And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you (6:5-6).  I don’t know about you but I detect a significant pattern emerging from these verses concerning rewards.  God does play fair, it seems.  Christ is also telling us we shouldn’t give a hoot about whether others are aware of our prayer routine or not; that our private time with God should be the most intimate thing we engage in.

 

What Jesus preached next I find immensely informative and enlightening.  He said, When you pray, do not babble repetitiously like the Gentiles, because they think that by their many words they will be heard.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him (6:7-8).  (He follows this with what we reverently call the Lord’s Prayer but it deserves its own essay to be presented down the line.)  What Jesus warned against brings to my mind the Islamic congregational prayers known as salaat required to be offered to Allah five times daily by all Muslims.  According to the Muslim-turned-Christian author Nabeel Qureshi, “For the vast majority of Muslims, it is simply an act of duty, not personal or heartfelt expression.”  Look, I’m not condemning that practice any more than Jesus would.  Our Savior never said public prayer was a bad thing at all.  He only said God isn’t impressed by repetition of memorized phrases.  He wants more than that.  He wants us to be real.  Willard wrote, “Kingdom praying and its efficacy is entirely a matter of the innermost heart’s being totally open and honest before God.  …In apprenticeship to Jesus, this is one of the most important things we learn how to do.  He teaches us how to be in prayer what we are in life and how to be in life what we are in prayer.”  Jesus then went on to include fasting alongside charitable giving and praying as things we should refrain from trying to make public spectacles of.  He said, When you fast, do not look sullen like the hypocrites, for they make their faces unattractive so that people will see them fasting.  I tell you the truth, they have their reward.  When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others when you are fasting, but only to your Father who is in secret.  And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you(6:16-18).  Our Lord’s fundamental message of remaining humble certainly was a consistent one!

 

Jesus was urging all believers to willingly adopt a discipline of subtle discretion in every area of their spiritual life.  However, some critics are too eager to claim that here His inconsistency is showing because of what went down earlier when He preached, “…Let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16).  But the underlying context permeating the entire sermon from front to back is the condition of a person’s heart, not whether or not they’re in violation of some kind of divine law.  If our heart’s in the right place everything we do will be done for the glory of God and never for our own glory.  This school of thought also spills over into the somewhat precarious state the modern-day Body of Christ finds itself in.  There’s a genuine danger that churches can become so preoccupied with what the secular world thinks about what they stand for that they neglect to put obeying God first. Willard wrote, “Whatever our position in life, if our lives and works are to be of the kingdom of God, we must not have human approval as a primary or even major aim.  We must lovingly allow people to think whatever they will.  …We can only serve them by serving the Lord only.”

 

Jesus then segues into some frank talk concerning the figurative chains that wealth binds us in.  He preached, Do not accumulate for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.  But accumulate for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (6:19-21).  Yep, there’s that reference to one’s heart condition again.  So how do we go about accumulating treasures in heaven?  By generously investing our time and efforts in diligently nurturing our ever-growing relationship with Christ, that’s how.  It’s correct to say that none of what Jesus challenges each of us to strive to be is attainable without keeping our eyes firmly focused on Him.  As He said, I am the vine; you are the branches.  The one who remains in me – and I in him – bears much fruit, because apart from me you can accomplish nothing (John 15:5).  No matter the translation, nothing means nothing, folks.  What Paul expressed is relevant to Jesus’ “rewards program”, too.  For a person will reap what he sows, because the person who sows to his own flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit.  So we must not grow weary in doing good, for in due time we will reap, if we do not give up (Galatians 6:7-9).

 

We all know what happens if we attempt to do something noble and our heart just ain’t in it.  The results are predictably far from spectacular.  In fact, they can be downright deadly.  Say what?  Hey, that’s what Christ was alluding to (via exaggeration, of course) when He preached, The eye is the lamp of the body.  If then your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light.  But if your eye is diseased, your whole body will be full of darkness.  If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! (6:22-23).   It was His way of saying if our heart’s wholly infatuated with amassing material things that belong exclusively to this fallen world we’ll have nothing  of value to offer to God or to our fellow man.  Our soul will darken and we’ll eventually lose our way.  Some don’t believe it.  They insist they can adroitly balance their worldly and heavenly treasures, thank you very much.  Jesus disagrees.  He announced, No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and money (6:24).  Recall that our God is jealous of our allegiance.  Test Him at your own peril.

 

Jesus then takes on something we all have in common – the burdensome “worry virus.”  Some are plagued by it more than others but we all must deal with it to a certain degree.  We often get so wrapped up in mentally projecting all the “what ifs” that can happen to us or our loved ones we can turn into paranoid mice.  Christ said, Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear.  Isn’t there more to life than food and more to the body than clothing? (6:25). He then directed the crowd’s attention to the beautiful birds and gorgeous wild flowers that thrive without humans having to do anything for them whatsoever.  Notice He didn’t say God’s some kind of cosmic butler who’ll wait on us hand and foot.  In fact if you’ve ever observed bird behavior you’ve seen they always stay hard at work performing one task or another.  They’re anything but lazy.  So what Jesus was trying to get across to us is that our Father in heaven is in no way a codependent enabler.  He is a reliable safety net, though, because, after all, we’re a lot more important to Him than any bird will ever be.  Jesus then tosses in a big dose of logic with “…Which of you by worrying can add even one hour to his life? (6:27). It was true then and true today.  It’s a matter of trust.  If a Christian has it and reinforces it by letting the Holy Spirit continue to transform their heart and mind daily they’ll know for certain that God will see to their basic needs without fail.  Faith is the antidote that kills worry.

 

Those who think Jesus didn’t have a sense of humor have overlooked how he summed up this middle portion of His Sermon on the Mount.  He probably grinned and winked as He preached, So then, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Today has enough trouble of its own (6:34).  If a person lives long enough they’ll realize harboring unfounded anxiety over “what might happen” is a huge waste of time.  Worry doesn’t prevent anything.  What Christ wanted us to savvy regarding this phase of His discourse was that when we trust in shallow things (like human approval or material wealth) we’re bound to be disappointed.  Therefore we must jettison worry the second it shows up and instead look toward the future with unwavering confidence and on the past behind with sincere gratitude.  Paul “got it” better than most.  He wrote, Do not be anxious about anything.  Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God.  And the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:6-7).  i.e., when in doubt, give it to God.

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New Year, New Way

Something we all do to one degree or another is after December’s done we promise ourselves to do something positive about whatever it is we don’t like most about ourselves.  The annual urge to “self-improve” is one of our species’ more admirable traits.  I once sweated/grunted through a period in my life when I went to a health club at least three nights a week for several years.  January always shoved inconveniences into my workout regimen because the place would be packed with newbies whose resolution was to finally shed the disfiguring spare tire encircling their waistline.  God was probably teaching me patience because I eventually gleaned from experience that by Valentine’s Day there wouldn’t be a long line at the Stairmaster anymore.  In my spiritual life, however, I’m no better than the “this time I mean it” folks I’d look down on back then.  Like many, I entered 2016 intending to become a better Christian in every aspect of my faith by living the new way Jesus demonstrated but within months my selfish habit of expecting God to bless me with what I wanted had managed to disrupt the whole developing-a-closer-relationship-with-my-Heavenly-Father initiative.  The old way of thinking hadn’t disappeared.  It’d merely waited for my inherent laziness to return from its short-lived hiatus.  “Oh well, there’s always next year,” I sighed.

 

The new way isn’t a secret.  It’s laid out explicitly in Matthew 5 through 7.  Dallas Willard wrote, “What we’ve come to call the Sermon on the Mount is a concise statement of Jesus’ teachings on how to actually live in the reality of God’s present kingdom, available to us from the very space surrounding our bodies.  It concludes with a statement that all who hear and do what He says will have a life that can stand up to everything – that is, a life for eternity because it’s already in the eternal.”  In His awesome sermon Christ informed the world the Kingdom of God isn’t situated way off in the future somewhere, it’s here now because He brought it with Him!  In the 3rd century Clement of Alexandria poetically wrote, “Jesus Christ, by coming into this world, has changed the sunsets of time into the sunrises of eternity.”  In other words, followers of Christ shouldn’t be waiting for New Year’s Day to instigate much-needed changes.  The truth of the verse, Draw near to God and he will draw near to you (James 4:8) is in effect 24/7.  That ability has been ours to freely indulge in ever since we surrendered our life to our Savior.  Larry Crabb opined, “Heaven’s ecstasy will flow from the literal presence of Christ.  The beginning of that ecstasy, in this world, depends on the appreciated presence of Christ.  The old way, by its focus on tangible blessings now, severely limits the depths of that appreciation.  In the new way, appreciating Christ’s presence as the ‘sunrise of eternity’ is possible.  Not automatic.  Never complete.  But possible.  And the possibilities are staggering.”

 

In the previous essay I presented ideas about how to get on and stay on Jesus’ new way path.  I’ll add a few more.  One’s particularly timely: Redefine your spiritual goals.  Foremost of one’s aims should be, as the late Brennan Manning would say, to trust God ruthlessly.  Without reserve.  Without hesitation.  Why?  Because you know Him via your encounters with Him and you know He’s good.  Admit it.  You’re always surprised by the depth of His amazing grace.  He always embraces you as you are.  You never have to put on airs for Him.  You never have to dress up.  You never have to try to hide your weaknesses because He’s seen them all – in Technicolor.  When no one else accepts you warts and all, He does.  That kind of unconditional love can’t help but elicit sincere worship.  “Ruthless trust” will lead to experiencing community.  One of the many things I cherish about Celebrate Recovery is the blessing of getting to be a participant in an unpretentious, non-judgmental, loving fellowship of confessed sinners every week.  It doesn’t matter who’s there or ain’t that night because the Holy Spirit never misses a meeting.  Uncompromised trust in God will put you in position to have your heart be transformed, as well.  If you trust only in yourself it’ll never happen.  Only God can give you a heart that looks like Christ’s.

 

When Jesus announced the Kingdom of God was “at hand” He meant “it’s here now.”  Willard wrote, “It’s a kingdom that, in the person of Jesus, welcomes us just as we are, just where we are, and makes it possible for us to translate our ‘ordinary’ life into an eternal one.  It’s so available that everyone who, from the center of his or her being calls upon Jesus as Master of the Universe and Prince of Life, will be heard and will be delivered into the eternal kind of life.”  The Bible tells us our Savior didn’t leave our ongoing justification to chance, either.  He taught His disciples, I have spoken these things while staying with you.  But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and will cause you to remember everything I said to you (John 14:25-26).  Unlike Elvis, the Holy Spirit is still in the building, powerful as ever.  He hasn’t gone anywhere.  Jesus said of Him, “…He will guide you into all truth.  For He will not speak on His own authority, but will speak whatever He hears, and will tell you what is to come.  He will glorify me, because He will receive from me what is mine and will tell it to you (John 16:13-14).

 

That’s precisely what He’s doing.  Paul wrote, And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us (Romans 5:5).  He reaffirms our status: The Spirit himself bears witness to our spirit that we are God’s children (Romans 8:16).  He reassures us of eternal life in heaven: “…When you heard the word of truth (the gospel of your salvation) – when you believed in Christ – you were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit, who is the down payment of our inheritance, until the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of his glory (Ephesians 1:13-14).  Because of the Holy Spirit, our mind-blowingly bright future with the Lord in paradise is guaranteed: “…It is God who establishes us together with you in Christ and who anointed us, who also sealed us and gave us the Holy Spirit in our hearts as a down payment (2 Corinthians 1:21-22).  In other words, we’ve got everything we need: “…You have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth The anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you (1 John 2:20, 27).  The key to living the new way is relying 100% on the Holy Spirit.  Crabb described our anointing thusly, “…Followers of the new way will be given the passion and wisdom of Christ to respond to every challenge they meet in life.  If we learn what it means to come to Him, we’ll receive an anointing that enlightens us about what to do and empowers us to do it in any circumstance of life.”

 

As I’ve emphasized throughout this series, the new way isn’t a “new and improved” version of Christianity.  It’s been around for 2,000 years.  It’s how the Son of God intended us to live all along.  To reiterate, Jesus told us all about the new way in His Sermon on the Mount.  But if your prayer life reflects the old way more than the new way then you’re missing out on a vital aspect of deepening your relationship with God.  There are three indicators of old way praying.  First is asking for your will to be done.  As in “make my back stop hurting” or “make my kids respect me” or “make my boss give me a raise.”  Second is requesting God pave the way for you to get what you want.  As in, “open some closed doors for me” or “bring someone into my life who’s got some clout.”  Third is to plead with God for Him to make you happy.  As in “do whatever’s necessary to make my depression go away” or “stop making my life so hard to deal with.”  Now, please understand there’s nothing wrong with asking God for help – unless His blessings are what you desire more than Him.  That’s old way praying.  New way praying never involves putting demands on God.  It’s asking for His light to shine upon you even when your environment is darkest.  It’s requesting His beauty overwhelm the ugliness of this world.  It’s inviting His love to saturate your soul to the extent that others, especially non-believers, will want what you have in Christ.

 

Having said all that, I readily confess that spontaneous, conversational prayer is difficult for me.  My brain insists things be orderly; that I adhere to an unyielding schedule so certain things get done at a certain time of day.  I’m above average at keeping track of stuff.  In my younger days I’d note casual/trivial events on a calendar and then store that calendar with my other “portable junk”.  Thus decades later I can tell my aging musician pals exactly the day we played a particular gig, for example.  The downside of that trait has always been that some tag me “anal retentive.”  (I’ve been called worse, believe me.)  The upside was that I eventually landed a well-paying job with a financial portfolio management firm in their operations department because I was proficient at making sure all the numbers involved in their stock trades matched up.  But in my prayer life my ducks-in-a-row tendency severely inhibits conversing with God as if I’m hanging out with my best friend.  Like clockwork, I pray first thing in the morning after perusing my “read-the-entire-Bible-in-a-year” passage for the day and then quickly at night before I slip under the covers.  I have a set list of things I recite in my mind and a roster of folks I make sure to mention along the way.  Otherwise I fear I’ll forget to pray altogether.  A few years ago I read some books on how to pray better and they helped a bunch but I still stubbornly rely on a lot of routine in my supplications.  Perhaps you’re the same way.  I feel for you.  I do gain a lot of solace in the words of Romans 8:26-27, “…The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how we should pray, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with inexpressible groanings.  And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes on behalf of the saints according to God’s will.”  The Father provides.

 

Basil Pennington wrote a piece that hits home with Christians like me on a profound level. He imagined a scenario where a father has given his 3-year old daughter a coloring book and a box of crayons. What she creates can be labeled “abstract art” only in the broadest and most generous of terms but he watches her color away, transfixed in his adoration of her.  When she finishes she proudly presents her creation to him.  He’s tickled pink.  Pennington wrote, “A father is delighted when his little one, leaving off her toys and friends, runs to him and climbs into his arms.  As he holds his little one close to him, he cares little whether the child is looking around, her attention flitting from one thing to another, or just settling down to sleep.  Essentially the child is choosing to be with her father, confident of the love, the care, the security that is hers in those arms.  Our prayer is much like that.  We settle down in our Father’s arms, in His loving hands.  Our mind, our thoughts, our imagination may flit about here and there; we might even fall asleep; but essentially we’re choosing for this time to remain intimately with our Father, giving ourselves to Him, receiving His love and care, letting Him enjoy us as He will.  It’s very simple prayer.  It’s prayer that opens us out to all the delights of the kingdom.”  In other words, our Father in heaven is immensely elated whenever we take the time to spend a few moments sitting in His lap.  Even if our prayers are recited by rote.

 

Still, I’ve picked up pointers that help to at least expand the scope of my one-on-one chats with God.  I start by honestly opening up and telling my Heavenly Father where I’m at; where my mind’s been wandering off to, how I treated my wife and other folks I interacted with recently and whether or not I put Him first in my life.  I confess my sins and beg His forgiveness for my failures in being His ambassador.  Next I tell Him how much I love Him, worship Him and want to please Him through honoring His name and character.  Because it just feels right, I then recite the Lord’s Prayer before asking Him to bless the people I care most about, identifying them individually.  I conclude by thanking my Father for all the blessings I too often so callously take for granted.  (Compared to millions of humans on this planet I’m a privileged, wealthy man simply because I have shelter, food and clean water.)  And, of course, I express my gratitude for His sending His Son to die in my place before I mutter amen.  I try to allow a few moments of silence to pass before opening my eyes and raising my head just in case He has something to say to me but I have yet to hear His sweet voice.  (That’s because I’m usually instantly distracted, thinking about what I’m gonna do next.  He can’t get a word in edgewise!  I don’t know how He puts up with me.  I guess it’s because He loves me more than I can fathom.)

 

While living the new way includes obeying God’s laws, in and of themselves they can’t change our hearts.  Only Christ can do that.  Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life.  The one who comes to me will never go hungry, and the one who believes in me will never be thirsty.  But I told you that you have seen me and still do not believe.  Everyone whom the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will never send away.  For I have come down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me – that I should not lose one person of every one he has given me, but raise them all up at the last day.  For this is the will of my Father – for everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him to have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day (John 6:35-40).  Willard wrote, “He [Jesus] knew that we can’t keep the law by trying to keep the law.  To succeed in keeping the law one must aim at something other and something more.  One must aim to become the kind of person from whom the deeds of the law naturally flow.  The apple tree naturally and easily produces apples because of its inner nature.  This is the most crucial thing to remember if we would understand Jesus’ picture of the kingdom heart given in the Sermon on the Mount.”

 

Let’s all make a resolution to stop living the old way and start living the new way of the Spirit that Christ died on the cross to make available to mankind.  Crabb wrote, “Either we can keep asking God to give us what we think will make us happy – to escape our dark room and run to the playground of blessings – or we can accept His invitation to sit with Him, for now perhaps in darkness, and to seize the opportunity to know Him better and represent Him well in this difficult world.”  The choice is ours.  At the end of next year I’ll either look back on it regretting I lived it the old way again or I’ll be blown away over how my soul benefitted from consistently living the new way.  I know if I place all my trust and faith in Christ, whose love for me was put on full display at Calvary, I have no doubt I’ll know I’ve grown as a Christian.  It’s up to me to “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk.”  So be it.

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The Rogue Wave

You probably know what I’m talking about.  You’re sailing over relatively calm seas and suddenly your ship’s under water, capsized by a rogue wave from nowhere.  It happened to me when my wife fell seriously ill recently and I found myself grasping for a lifeboat.  Of course, I questioned God.  “Was this part of your plan, Lord?  Or is it just another episode of “Life on a Fallen Planet”?  After hours of emotional panic I finally settled down to the business of seeing to my wife’s needs while praying for strength and patience.  I reminded myself God’s in control and His master plan is proceeding on schedule.  I don’t always understand His methods but then He never asked for my input, either.  All I know to do when a tsunami hits is to trust Him, lean on Him and worship Him regardless.  After Scottish minister Arthur Gossip’s wife passed away, his next sermon was entitled “But When Life Tumbles In, What Then?”  in which he said, “You people in the sunshine may believe the faith, but we in the shadows must believe it.  We have nothing else.”  While my beloved wife didn’t die, I know of what Gossip preached.  The whole ER/surgery/hospital stay/painful recovery event was yet another confirmation that the old way of living (do A, get B) never has and never will work to our satisfaction.  We can toe every line and maybe even approach sainthood status but it’s no guarantee the tidal waves of this earthly existence won’t arise and engulf us any instant.  The new way Jesus provided 2,000 years ago is the only thing we can count on.

 

In the fourth book of C. S. Lewis’ heralded The Chronicles of Narnia saga, The Silver Chair, a child named Jill gets lost in a forest.  She comes to a stream.  Extremely thirsty, she runs toward it but stops when she sees a lion lying nearby.  The lion is Aslan, the Christ figure in the series.  He invites her to come and drink.  The wary girl demands assurances she won’t be harmed.  The mighty lion makes no promise she won’t suffer.  He doesn’t promise her a rose garden.  What he does offer her is the water she so desperately needs.

 

When sickness viciously intruded into my and my wife’s comfortable routine I felt like that scared youngster.  I wanted God to fix what had gone wrong and make all the uncertainty go away.  Because I’d been a good boy who reads his Bible every morning, goes to church every Sunday, never misses a Monday night Celebrate Recovery meeting and tithes dutifully I felt entitled to God’s blessings now.  I wanted the doctors to conclude it was merely indigestion and send us back home with a bromide but that didn’t happen.  The lion would only promise me His unwavering presence through the storm we were in.  The seas have settled somewhat and our ship’s repairs are under way but a thorough restoration takes time.  God didn’t shield us from what befell my wife but He never left us.  We’ve been able to quench our thirst and drink from His healing waters.  Jesus said, If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.  Just as the scripture says, ‘From within him will flow rivers of living water’ (John 7:37-38).  Communicating through the prophet God implores, Hey, all who are thirsty, come to the water! (Isaiah 55:1) and Pay attention and come to me!  Listen, so you can live!  Then I will make an unconditional covenantal promise to you…” (Isaiah 55:3).  Yet as I sat there chewing my nails in the waiting room I asked God what so many of us in dire straits ask Him – What, precisely, is that promise?

 

Now that I’ve been able to gain a modicum of perspective on that terrifying rogue wave that rolled through two weeks ago I find myself wondering what God’s trying to get me to learn in its aftermath.  Yet if my motivation to learn is so I can ward off similar things occurring in the future then I’m fooling myself into thinking I can be in control.  That’s the old way mindset insisting if I behave then God has to bless me.  It doesn’t work like that because God’s plan isn’t to make me happy.  It’s to draw me closer to Him via the New Covenant.  Dr. Larry Crabb describes it as being a seven-chapter story.  In the first chapter there’s only the triune I AM; the three divine persons of the Godhead existing as One in perfect harmony.  (My tiny brain can’t fully wrap itself around that concept and absorb its profundity but that’s okay.  He’s God.  I’m not.)  One of God’s titles is “Creator” so He created angels.  In chapter two God was pleased with them.  He and His angelic posse dwelt in paradise.  They all worshiped Him and took immense delight in doing His bidding.  But, as God knew it would, free will reared its selfish head and spoiled the party.  In chapter three Lucifer, the most beautiful of angels, got the big head.  Pride got the best of him, convincing him he oughta be getting a share of the glory God was receiving and evil came into being.  (In essence, evil is idolizing something other than God.)  Being amazingly charismatic, Lucifer managed to recruit a third of the angels into his rebellion.  God wasn’t having any of it so He banished the ingrates and their self-centered leader from heaven.

 

In chapter four God created everything else, including the earth.  On this unique planet He designed a magnificent garden called Eden, a word that means “delight.”  It was here He created the first people.  He’d see to their every need so their only desire would be to deepen their one-on-one relationship with Him.  Crabb wrote, “Human beings were formed with the capacity not only to bow in awe before majesty and to serve the Master, but also to enjoy the depths of God’s heart.  In that, we’re distinct from angels.”  God adores Adam and Eve but He does put a single stipulation on their freedom.  He points and says “Do anything you want but don’t eat that fruit.”  They were fine with that rule for a while.  After all, they had it made.  No tears, no pain, no bills, no arguments.  Who could ask for more?  Well, evidently they could.  The sly devil tempted them to disobey and they gave in.  In chapter five sin infected not only Adam & Eve’s hearts but their DNA, too.  Thus it spread to their offspring, instilling in the human race the idea there’s something better to seek than God.  (Evidently knowing the Heavenly Father required far too much dedication.)  Pleasure became the focus and God took a backseat to its pursuit.  When fulfillment didn’t arrive they sought relief from the tidal waves of pain and disappointment any way they could.  When God tried to show them where they’d gone off the rails they spat in His face and questioned His integrity.  They asked, “If you love us so dang much, why don’t you give us what makes us happy?  Otherwise, what good are you?”  Little wonder God had regrets (See Genesis 6:6).

 

In chapter six God hit the reset button by opening the flood gates.  Only Noah and his family survived.  God made a deal with Noah.  God said, “Check out what’s in the sky, man.  It’s called a rainbow and it’s My pledge that, though I know perfectly well your descendants will dis Me and make a mess of things again, destroying the world in the way I just did will not be repeated.”  In other words, God was saying He’d never again try to punish folks into cherishing Him above all other joys.  Perhaps it hurt Him too much.  Predictably, within a few centuries humans had reverted to thinking only of themselves.  This time God picked out Abraham and made another agreement.  God told him, “In faith go where I lead you and trust only in Me.  Through your seed I’m going to raise up my own nation.”  Abraham obeyed and, many years down the road, the Israelite throng was a reality.  However, they got enslaved to Pharaoh.  God singled out another man, Moses, to emancipate them and they escaped Egypt in no time at all.  His chosen people free at last, God gathered them together and updated the contract He’d made with Abraham, this time calling it the “Mosaic Covenant.”  In this arrangement God promised to take care of absolutely everything as long as the folks held up their end of the bargain by keeping His Law.  Of course, they couldn’t do it.  So God let them have it their way and things got ugly quick.  Not one to give up, though, God waited a while and made another agreement with King David.  God told him, “Because you have a heart for Me and you’ve gotten my people to follow your example I’m setting up a throne that’ll last forever.  Forever because My Son will one day occupy it.”  It happened.  Yep, despite our wicked contrariness and cruel tendencies, God’s in control and His plan’s still moving forward.

 

Jesus was the difference-maker.  Because of Him the law that came through Moses is now tattooed on our hearts.  The old way has been rendered null and void.  Grace is now in effect.  It’s the new way.  Because Christ showed us what real love looks/feels like, those who believe in Him have a hunger for righteousness.  Plus obeying God’s laws has now become their hearts’ delight.  Living the new way, we believers comply with God’s commands so we can grow closer to our Heavenly Father, not so our lives run smooth as silk.  What God promised King David came to pass.  It’s here now.  Jesus is seated on the throne of God’s everlasting kingdom and salvation is available to all who’ll simply accept Him as their Lord and Savior.  And this covenant is one we humans can’t screw up with our shameful shenanigans because Christ took it upon Himself to permanently seal the deal by shedding His precious blood on the cross.  Jesus stepped in, paid the exorbitant price and tore down all the barriers between us and our Creator.  As Crabb put it, “We now have direct access to God at any time, in any circumstance.”  I found that to be true while I kneeled by my wife’s hospital bed, praying for her recovery.  I felt God’s embrace.  I felt His love.  I felt His presence.  Yes, I’m a sinner but I’m also saved.  We who are His adopted children can’t be snatched out of His hand.  Ever.  I’ll gladly serve Him for all eternity.

 

And that leads us to chapter seven, the one that’s yet to unfold.  It states there’s a time coming when we’ll no longer come to God for we’ll be with Him always.  Look, Satan and his demons are defeated but they have yet to wave the white flag of surrender.  The Bible tells us they never will.  God’ll see to their uncompromised demise when He’s ready and on that day sin won’t just diminish, it’ll cease to exist.  Those of us who can’t wait to see Jesus will see Him any time we want and we’ll want nothing else.  Our greatest, most sublime joy will be to serve Him in any capacity we can anywhere in the universe.  The future’s so bright we’ll need to wear welding helmets.  Alas, we’re still wading through chapter six for now.  But it can be a great place to be, no matter our current circumstances, if we live our lives the new way.  I’m talking about the way of the Holy Spirit that eliminates all the stress, all the self-inflicted “pressure to perform.”  Crabb wrote, “That’s the New Way to live.  And it’s available to all whose supreme treasure is God, who bow before God and make no demands, who know He’s always doing us good…”  We can have that assurance.  Even when our spouse is undergoing emergency surgery and her life hangs in the balance.  God wants us to trust Him.  To yearn to know Him better.  To live the new way.

 

“Well,” you may mumble, “That’s a nice story but is it Scriptural?”  Glad you asked.  I was just reading in Hebrews this morning and I came across this passage wherein it speaks of Christ being the High Priest of a new and vastly improved arrangement.  The writer refers to the Mosaic Covenant and then notes, But now Jesus has obtained a superior ministry, since the covenant that he mediates is also better and is enacted on better promises.  For if that first covenant had been faultless, no one would have looked for a second one.  But showing its fault, God says to them…” and then he paraphrases part of Isaiah 31,Look, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will complete a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.  It will not be like the covenant that I made with their fathers, on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not continue in my covenant and I had no regard for them, says the Lord.  For this is the covenant that I will establish with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord.  I will put my laws in their minds, and I will inscribe them on their hearts.  And I will be their God and they will be my people.  And there will be no need at all for each one to teach his countryman or each one to teach his brother saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ since they will all know me, from the least to the greatest.  For I will be merciful toward their evil deeds, and their sins I will remember no longer.”  Then the writer tosses in the clincher: When he speaks of a new covenant, he makes the first obsolete.  Now what is growing obsolete and aging is about to disappear (Hebrews 8:6-13).  (Think what you will, but it’s my humble opinion it’s no coincidence God has me reading through Hebrews right now.  Just sayin’…)

 

God doesn’t always grant us the blessings we pray for.  Especially when it’s for our will to be done over His.  But in His own supernatural way He lets us know He’s right there alongside us, no matter what trial we’re experiencing at the moment.  Author Frederick Buechner told of a dream he had about a friend who’d recently died.  He called it a “very undreamlike dream” where his friend was standing in the room with him.  He wrote, “…I said: ‘How nice to see you, I’ve missed you,’ and he said, ‘Yes, I know that,’ and I said: ‘Are you really there?’ and he said: ‘You bet I’m really here,’ and I said: ‘Can you prove it?’ and he said, ‘Of course I can prove it,’ and he threw me a little bit of blue string which I caught.  It was so real that I woke up.  I recounted the dream at breakfast the next morning with my wife and the widow of the man in the dream and my wife said, ‘My God, I saw that on the rug this morning,’ and I knew it wasn’t there last night, and I ran up and sure enough, there was a little squibble of blue thread.  Well, again, that’s nothing – coincidence – or else it’s just a little glimpse of the fact that maybe when we talk about the resurrection of the body, there’s something to it!”

 

Brennan Manning wrote, “Resurrection power enables us to engage in the savage confrontation with untamed emotions, to accept the pain, receive it, take it on board, however acute it may be.  And in the process we discover we’re not alone, that we can stand fast in the awareness of present risenness and so become fuller, deeper, richer disciples.  We know ourselves to be more than we previously imagined.  In the process we not only endure but are forced to expand the boundaries of who we think we really are.”  Manning then cited Colossians 1:27; The mystery is Christ among you, your hope of glory.”  When we live life the old way we miss out on that marvelous mystery because we’re so preoccupied with doing things properly in order to earn God’s blessings.  I found out last week that by dropping all pretentions of having power over situations beyond my control and, instead, praying for God to let me draw near to Him I live the new way and I’m able to experience the privilege of feeling the comforting caress of my Heavenly Father’s divine hand.

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