Tag Archives: prayer

Jesus’ Secret Weapon

Those familiar with the Gospels know it’s really no “secret.”  It was prayer.  To our Savior prayer was as essential for well-being as food and water and this didn’t go unnoticed by His followers.  They sought to acquire the ability He obviously possessed in abundance.  Now Jesus was praying  When he stopped, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray…’ (Luke 11:1).  Now, it’s not that they didn’t pray.  They’d been raised Jewish and praying was an integral part of their religion.  But through observation they saw there was something drastically better, more gratifying about the way our Lord prayed.  Therefore they yearned to do it like He did.  James S. Stewart wrote, “No doubt often before this they’d felt the difference between Jesus’ prayers and their own, His so sure and strong and real, theirs so weak and stammering and intermittent, His so comprehensive and God-inspired, theirs so erratic and spasmodic and unsatisfying.”  As a Christian I, too, want to communicate with my Heavenly Father as intimately as Christ did so I find the disciple’s appeal as valid today as it was then.  I’m constantly aware that my prayer life is altogether too puny.  Therefore this subject greatly interests me.  Perhaps you feel the same.  Larry Crabb once confessed, “All I knew about prayer was to ask for things in case God might give them to me and to thank Him when He did.  I grew up loosely committed to the ‘just-in-case’ prayers.  You know the kind – pray for something just in case it makes a difference.”  He found there’s a lot more to it than that.

 

A few things are noteworthy from the get-go.  It’s apparent Jesus never deemed it necessary to argue the validity of praying any more than He did the existence of God.  To Him the Heavenly Father was real and every individual’s freedom to commune with Him was real, as well.  Neither was up for debate.  Prayer is as natural an instinct for humans as breathing.  The impulse to pray is undeniable.  Even primitives seek a spiritual connection with their Creator.  That’s because God implanted in everyone’s heart a fundamental urge to pursue and establish a relationship with Him.  Christ considered that urge a given.  And for the disciples the proof of its benefit was unmistakable.  In their Master they could detect no uncertainty whatsoever pertaining to His bond with His Father.  Jesus was the greatest person they’d ever encountered so whatever He did was something they knew they oughta be doing, too.  We need to cop the same attitude.  Since our Master prayed its essential importance is beyond question.  Jesus talked a lot about prayer.  But it wasn’t hollow rhetoric for He put into practice everything He taught.  That’s why it’s vital we Christians learn everything we possibly can about prayer.

 

The Gospels confirm praying wasn’t just a feature of Christ’s faith – it was the foundational cornerstone of it.  It was foremost in His mind the moment He woke every day: “…Jesus got up early in the morning when it was still very dark, departed, and went out to a deserted place, and there he spent time in prayer (Mark 1:35).  After preaching to and miraculously providing lunch for over 5,000 hungry folks you’d think He’d stop for a nap but He didn’t.  He sent the apostles ahead and, After saying goodbye to them, he went to the mountain to pray (Mark 6:46).  Those are just two examples of many that firmly establish our Lord’s devotion to prayer.  It’s logical to assume if the Gospel writers had documented every instance of Christ’s stepping away to pray in private the Bible would be at least twice its size.  For to Jesus prayer was life itself and nothing took precedence over it.  And prayer wasn’t something contingent on what mood He was in.  This isn’t to imply Christ was some kind of Stoic, unaffected by gladness or sorrow, laughter or tears, elation or fatigue.  He felt the same things we feel.  Yet He always turned to prayer for sustenance.  And it wasn’t something He made Himself do out of obligation.  His greatest joy was to spend time with His Heavenly Father whom He loved passionately and without apology.  Crabb wrote, “He wanted nothing more than to let everyone see how wonderful His Father was, even if it cost Him His life.”  Thus when my rudimentary prayers don’t energize me I have to ask myself if it’s due to my lack of sincere affection for God, a self-posed accusation akin to poking my heart with a sharp stick.  Ouch.

 

The most common reason given for not praying is we’re too doggone busy to bother.  How incredibly lame is that?  Some of us will mount our theological high horse and claim that our work, because we perform it obediently, is an acceptable form of prayer in and of itself, making getting on our knees superfluous.  But that excuse falls flat when we look at Jesus.  He was arguably the busiest person who ever trod terra firma.  If you don’t believe it, peruse the first few chapters of Mark.  Every day and night there were sick folks, cripples and desperate-for-hope sinners flocking to Him for relief yet He never posted a “closed” sign.  Surely every healing took something out of Him until He experienced exhaustion.  However, Christ always managed to spend “alone time” with God daily.  He literally carried the weight of the world upon His shoulders but He never forgot to pray.  Yes, His work on earth was crucial but it was never a substitute for prayer.

 

Another thing that can interfere with our prayer life is impatience.  In modern society we’ve gotten used to getting what we desire “on demand” and that expectation has seeped into the spiritual realm.  But instant gratification is not a promise God ever made to us.  The great I AM isn’t a vending machine or a phone app.  Hebrews 5:7 tells us, During his earthly life Christ offered both requests and supplications with loud cries and tears…”  In other words, Jesus understood prayer was sometimes a strenuous, emotional activity necessitating the undistracted focus of His mind, heart and soul.  In His curious parable of the obnoxious neighbor recorded in Mark 11 our Lord actually commends the pesky neighbor’s unrelenting persistence.  He’s saying if you don’t get what you need from God, keep asking!  God’s not insensitive to our wants and the squeaky wheel does have better odds of getting the grease.  Look, God’s no fool.  He perceives if our prayers are half-hearted/insincere and, when they are, they’re treated accordingly.  Once again Jesus serves as our ideal.  He responded mercifully to the Syrophoenician woman who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer in Mark 7.  Blind Bartimaeus, despite being told to shut up, continued to shout Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! (Mark 10:47) until Christ healed him.  On another occasion the friends of a paralyzed man went so far as to tear a hole in the roof over our Savior’s head in order to lower him to where he could receive complete restoration.  Jesus was teaching us the Heavenly Father has great respect for those who display true determination in their prayers.

 

An unconfessed sinful habit or one we haven’t yet repented of can also cause problems in our prayer life.  Christ taught, Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God (Matthew 5:8).  We have to ask ourselves if we’re even trying to be pure in heart.  Sin’s the ultimate deal-breaker and blessing-blocker.  David wrote, If I had harbored sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened (Psalm 66:18).  I dare say our own unacknowledged iniquities may be the biggest obstacles standing between us and God’s graces.  Jesus, of course, knew no sin.  His heart was pristine, pure.  Thus the communication link between Him and His Father was never interrupted for a nanosecond.  In other words, the more Christ-like we strive to be every single day of our lives the stronger our relationship with our Heavenly Father will be.  “…Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48) isn’t so much an impossible-to-obey command as it is a worthy goal for all Christians to strive for.

 

So we know that for Jesus praying was an irreplaceable component of His 24/7 routine.  He also didn’t hesitate to turn to prayer whenever a situation called for it; i.e. when major career decisions needed to be made.  Before He chose His inner circle of apostles He “…went out to the mountain to pray, and he spent all night in prayer to God (Luke 6:12).  He knew who was most capable of giving Him reliable guidance.  Jesus also depended on prayer to supply Him with extra strength when battling evil.  One day His disciples couldn’t exorcise a particularly nasty demon from a young man no matter how hard they tried.  After Christ drove it out they asked Him why they’d failed.  He answered them solemnly, This kind can come out only by prayer (Mark 9:29).  When the ominous clouds of temptation hovered over Gethsemane, enticing Him to stray from His Father’s will, He relied on prayer to keep Him faithful: “…In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground (Luke 22:44).  And finally, when He was in the midst of His darkest hour upon the cross, having been tortured inhumanely for the crime of telling the truth, He prayed openly to His Father: Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ (Luke 23:46).  Fair to say that for our precious Redeemer prayer was a whole lot more than some symbolic gesture.  Therefore Christians should regard praying the wisest thing we can do in any situation – good or bad.

 

As we investigate Jesus’ “secret weapon” further we discover four different elements in His prayers.  First is the communion aspect.  What that means is Christ sometimes engaged in prayer simply for the sake of fellowshipping with God.  Luke 9:29 notes a significant change came over our Savior when He prayed.  It states,As he was praying, the appearance of his face was transformed…”  When we contemplate the prayer life of Jesus (and before we try to mimic it) we must concede it’s more than merely asking God for blessings.  Tact is respectful.  If we pester our best friend only for favors over and over again it won’t be long before they no longer wanna be our best friend.  Stewart wrote, “Jesus would have men go to God when there’s nothing to ask, go to Him not for His gifts but for Himself alone.”  The second aspect is that of expressing genuine gratitude.  We should offer our Heavenly Father thanks not only for the good stuff but the not-so-good stuff, too.  Nowhere in the Gospels is it recorded that our Lord went to God with a list of grievances/gripes.  Hard at times as it must’ve been, Christ was always grateful.  When He illustrated to the apostles in Luke 22 that His blood, represented by the wine, would soon be shed for the sake of the world He expressed thanks to His Father.  Likewise when He showed them, via tearing the bread apart, how His body would be cruelly broken.  Even with the heaviness of an impending agonizing execution hanging over His head Jesus still led them in offering God praises: After singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives(Mark 14:26).

 

The third aspect is the controversial petitionary one.  While there are several admirable reasons for praying, asking for what we need/want shouldn’t be arbitrarily left out of the mix.  The popularity of the well-intentioned-but-woefully-misguided “prosperity Gospel” movement inadvertently caused a backlash effect that had many preachers sternly warning Christians against asking anything of God.  Students of Jesus know He was never skittish about petitioning His Father for blessings and, furthermore, that He encouraged His followers to do the same.  When He presented His disciples with what’s known as “The Lord’s Prayer” He started with When you pray, say: ‘Our Father…’” (Luke 11:2).  By using the familial term “Father” Christ was giving us divinely-granted permission to approach God with our sincere requests without trepidation.  Since Jesus told us we need not approach God like we’re scared because He loves us there’s no reason not to ask Him for blessings – as long as the qualifying plea of Thy will be done is included.  The worst that can happen is God’ll say “no” because He has a better idea.  As He taught us in Isaiah 55:8, Indeed, my plans are not like your plans, and my deeds are not like your deeds.”  We must develop sufficient trust to accept that “He who created the universe” knows exactly what He’s doing.  Yet that still shouldn’t discourage us from asking.  Stewart wrote, “…The tendency to disparage petitionary prayer argues chiefly a lack of faith.  Down at its roots is lurking the thought that God isn’t fully at liberty, but in some sense bound, in some degree a prisoner in His own universe.  And what Christ would have us realize is that God’s alive and God’s free, and that therefore true faith will always do as Jesus Himself did and carry its requests straight to the throne.”

 

The fourth aspect of Jesus’ prayers is requesting God’s intercession.  That means we’re to spend time unselfishly praying for others.  Our Savior prayed for poor little children.  He prayed for His lost sheep.  No doubt He prayed for Judas Iscariot because we know for a fact He prayed for His sworn enemies who wanted Him dead.  He prayed for His apostles: Simon, Simon, pay attention!  Satan has demanded to have you all, to sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail.  When you have turned back, strengthen your brothers (Luke 22:31-32).  Thus it’s only proper we pray fervently for those who are suffering from debilitating and often life-threatening illnesses to be made whole again; that we pray for those who don’t know the transforming love of Christ; that we pray for our discombobulated, fallen planet that so desperately needs to embrace the truth that can set it free from the chains of discord, hatred and divisiveness.  The Bible tells us God can be persuaded to intercede as long as it doesn’t defy His perfect will.  There’s an amazing amount of power in prayer.  Paul implored us to “go for it,” encouraging us to “…Pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17).  Civilization would benefit immensely if all people followed Paul’s sage advice.  We Christians should show them how it’s done.  Brennan Manning wrote, “…There’s only one thing God asks of us – that we be men and women of prayer, people who live close to God, people for whom God is everything and for whom God is enough.  That is the root of peace.”

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Father Knows Best

Ever notice that not once in the New Testament do we hear of Jesus arguing the existence of God?  Obviously He knew to engage in a debate about it would waste precious time because truth and logic mean nothing to a committed atheist.  We frequently say in Celebrate Recovery that the hardest thing to open is a closed mind and theirs is shut tighter than a submarine’s front door.  They’ll refuse to be swayed from their unmoving opinion as they spout tautological nonsense like, “There’s no God because there is no God.”  They’ll even turn their back on the scientific method that states unequivocally, “nothing can come from nothing.”  Therefore most contests with atheists over the existence of God end up in a stalemate.  They aren’t beyond redemption (no one is) but they do squander lots of energy chasing their tail.  Agnostics?  They’re a different breed altogether.  They don’t know and, furthermore, don’t care enough to seek the truth.  As I see it, a person either has a conviction regarding their Creator or they don’t.  James S. Stewart wrote, “A living conviction is bred by two things, each of them higher and deeper than argument, namely, the direct action of God upon the soul – which is revelation – and the response of the soul to that divine initiative – which is faith.”  Suitable adjectives for God evade me.  Frederick Buechner quipped, “All-wise.  All-powerful.  All-loving.  All-knowing.  We bore to death both God and ourselves with our chatter.  God cannot be expressed but only experienced.”  The Bible, the soundest and sanest book ever, doesn’t start off with “Here’s proof God exists.”  Rather it firmly avers without apology, In the beginning God…” (Genesis 1:1).  Jesus considered God’s existence obvious.  Thus it was a non-issue in His teachings.  His central intent was to reveal to mankind who God is.

 

Two thousand years ago belief in some kind of God (or an assortment of odd Gods) was the norm amongst all peoples.  Christ was a Jew, as were His hearers, so it only made sense for Him to go on the assumption His audience members believed in the singular God of Abraham – Jehovah.  The Torah posits explicitly, Listen, Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! (Deuteronomy 6:4).  The “Is there a God?” thing being settled, Jesus was determined to fill in the blanks concerning what He’s like.  His abbreviated description of God always came down to something along the lines of “Visualize the best Father in your grandest dreams you can imagine having.  That’s God in a nutshell.”  In the Gospel accounts alone the word “Father” occurs over 150 times.  It’s in Christ’s first recorded utterance when He told His frazzled parents, Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house? (Luke 2:49), and in His last dying cry on the cross of Father, into your hands I commit my spirit! (Luke 23:46).  Thus for any Christian to think of God being anything other than a Father is to leave out His most important and endearing trait.

 

Understand Jesus wasn’t the first to refer to God that way.  It’s there in the Old Testament scriptures where God’s often called the Father of His chosen race.  The I AM instructed Moses to tell Pharaoh, Israel is my son, my firstborn…” (Exodus 4:22).  In the later writings we detect a deeper, more intimate characterization taking shape.  David expressed, He is a father to the fatherless…” (Psalm 68:5) and As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on his faithful followers (Psalm 103:13).  Yet it was Jesus who brought the “Father” aspect of God to the forefront.  Until He arrived on the scene there were a lot of “potter & clay” and “creator & creation” and “ruler & underlings” connotations getting tossed around but none of those allegories were penetrating into the heart of the matter.  By placing our relationship to God in a familial scenario Christ was figuratively turning religious orthodoxy upside down.  The idea that God loves us more than we can possibly love Him was downright revolutionary and the implications were immense.

 

So what does Jesus mean by proclaiming God our Heavenly Father?  For one thing it indicates God’s extremely interested in what we decide to do with our lives; that, like a good parent, He’s concerned that we have sufficient food and shelter; that we’ll experience joy and contentment; that we’ll discover our purpose/reason for breathing oxygen.  He wants us to have it all!  Christ said, 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 urging us to trust God without reservation like He consistently did.  Check out the remarkable incident in Mark 4.  The Master and His crew were crossing the Galilean Lake in a boat when a terrific storm blew in that freaked out even the most seasoned sailors aboard.  Panic set in and they grew fearful they’d drown.  But Christ?  He would’ve slept through the whole event if they hadn’t shook Him awake.  How was that possible?  It’s because Jesus had unshakeable faith in His Father.  Why?  As Stewart wrote, “Because it was God’s sea, and the waves and the wind and the dark were in His Father’s hand, and underneath were the everlasting arms.”  Christ never asks us to believe in a Father He doesn’t believe in Himself.  That kind of trust leads to a Christian developing a sense of peace, poise and steadfastness no threatening situation can disrupt.

 

According to Jesus, God not only cares for humanity and is constantly concerned about its well-being, He knows and loves each individual soul.  A conscientious father doesn’t love his family only as a communal group, he loves each of his offspring in particular.  That’s how God feels about every one of us.  While the oft-cited phrase, For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16), rings as true as ever, it’s but one side of the coin.  Christ assured us that “…there is joy in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who repents(Luke 15:10).  No one’s a “nobody” to God.  We see it in many of Jesus’ teachings.  The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep behind in order to find and retrieve the lost one that wandered away.  Our Lord enjoyed the crowds that gathered around Him but He was ever on the lookout for the lonely man or woman on the periphery.  In John 5 we read that, even though hundreds ringed the pool at Bethsaida, Jesus spotted and zeroed in on the one weakest, most desperately sick man who’d been waiting 38 years for a miracle healing.  When Christ went into Nain accompanied by a large gaggle of followers in Luke 7 it was the one mother grieving for her recently-deceased son who caught His attention and garnered his life-restoring compassion.  In Mark 5 we’re told that, despite a contingent of folks jostling to get near Him, the Master nonetheless noticed the one ailing woman who had the faith to somehow reach in and touch His robe.  Some of the most encouraging words Jesus ever uttered were spoken directly to one lonely, disillusioned Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.  And even though the paranoid Pharisee Nicodemus showed up late at night to talk with Christ our Savior took time to counsel him one-on-one.  Saint Augustine got it right when he said, “God loves us every one as though there were but one of us to love.”

 

Since God’s our spiritual Father we don’t have to speculate about what our relationship to Him is.  It’s to be viewed as being wholly informal.  For centuries religions had been overladen with needless pomp and ceremony but Jesus came to put an end to all that vapid, mechanical posturing.  Sincere reverence is one thing, mindlessly going through a rote pattern of prescribed motions another thing entirely.  After Christ committed His spirit to His Father on Calvary the densely-woven curtain that hung in front of the “Holy of Holies” split apart from top to bottom, signifying that all people now have free, unrestricted access to God sans any structured formality being involved.  Via prayer alone we can approach the great I AM like we would our Daddy.  Jesus said, Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you (Matthew 7:7).  To reiterate, if your Poppa wasn’t at all like that, then simply imagine what it would’ve been like if he’d been the most generous Dad in history.  That’s the Father you do have.

 

Another thing to contemplate is that if God’s our ultimate Father figure then any discomfort we encounter has a purpose.  For eons primitive men and women (including some Old Testament characters) thought most suffering was an outcropping of God’s wrath brought on by their disallowed or disrespectful behaviors.  While God’s administering to us “corrective measures” isn’t out of the question, it certainly ain’t His usual M.O.  Christ insisted that God loves us and, as a wise father knows is beneficial to those He loves, there are times His kids’ll need to learn some lessons the hard way.  Face it, genuine love requires doling out a modicum of discipline every so often.  Paul wrote, “…He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, freely give us all things? (Romans 8:32).  Stewart wrote, “Why was He not spared?  Because God had a purpose for Him, a great and glorious world-redeeming purpose; and the suffering was the road to it.”  Pain always gets our attention and sometimes it’s the only thing that can.  Endure your suffering as discipline; God is treating you as sons.  For what son is there that a father does not discipline? (Hebrews 12:7).  I know broaching the subject of pain opens up a huge can of worms and I’ll deal with its slippery contents down the line.  But for now it’s sufficient to say that since God’s our Father He takes no pleasure in seeing us contend with suffering.  The parental expression, “This hurts me more than it hurts you” is no hollow cliché.  In all their affliction he was afflicted (Isaiah 63:9).  Remember, when Jesus cried, it was God who was crying.  He’s no stranger to pain.

 

Since God’s our Father the problem of sin and our need to be forgiven gets put in a different light.  Sin becomes a more serious offense.  If the power running the universe is merely a mighty-but-impersonal force we’re only guilty of breaking some kind of static law with our transgressions.  But Christ taught that when we commit a sin we’re shooting piercing arrows into God’s loving heart – a divine heart desiring, more than anything else, to save us.  Who among us wants to intentionally hurt or disappoint our earthly father when what we crave is his love-soaked admiration, acceptance and affection?  As Jesus illustrated in His mind-blowing parable of the prodigal son, our Heavenly Father anxiously awaits our return to Him.  Of that story Timothy Keller wrote, “In short, Jesus is redefining everything we thought we knew about connecting to God.  He’s redefining sin, what it means to be lost, and what it means to be saved.”  Because of the cross all our sins are forgiven if we’ll only turn away from pride’s leading and go back home.  I’m a proud father of a grown daughter and son.  They’ve made some mistakes.  They’ve brought tears to my eyes.  They’ve hurt my feelings.  However, there’s nothing they could do that I wouldn’t be willing to forgive them for doing.  I’ll always take them back.  Keller added, “The message of the Bible is that the human race is a band of exiles trying to come home.  The parable of the prodigal son is about every one of us.  …Jesus came to bring the human race home.”  It’s important to clarify that it’s only through belief in Christ we become eligible for adoption by our Father.  That term may sound derogatory but it isn’t.  J.I. Packer wrote, “Adoption, by its very nature, is an art of free kindness to the person adopted.  If you become a father by adopting a son or daughter, you do so because you choose to, not because you are bound to.”  It’s worth pondering.

 

The concept of God being our Heavenly Father is fine and dandy with most folks but some don’t like its implication – that, in a fashion, we’re all connected down here.  Those who harbor in their hearts racism, discrimination, judgement and mean-spirited bias against others spend lots of hours looking for a loophole that’ll let them continue to hate.  It doesn’t exist.  As we Boomers sang in Sunday school, “Red and yellow, black and white/we’re all precious in His sight/Jesus loves the little children of the world.”  God’s not just the Creator Father of some.  He’s Creator Father to us all.  We exist solely because of Him and He’s no respecter of persons.  Thus we’re not siblings of only those we opt to like and/or get along with.  In a sense everybody is a sibling whether we agree with that common sense conclusion or not.  When Christ implanted the “Father in heaven” idea in our collective psyche He was granting us a righteous and distinctively pure motive for becoming better people who yearn to live in a better world.  It’s much more difficult to think badly of or become belligerent with say, a tired cashier at the grocery store, if you stop and acknowledge they’re a special creation of the same Heavenly Father who sent His only begotten Son to die for your sins.  It’s harder to lash out if you remind yourself in your trigger-happy moment of frustration or impatience they’re truly your brother or sister.

 

If we honestly believe to our core what Jesus told us is true then we’ll never be able to put up with for a nanosecond any thought or notion we’re in any way, shape or form superior to another person.  Any person.  That’s why developing a heart, mind and outlook patterned after Christ’s is the only hope this angry, violence-addicted planet has of achieving harmony and peace among its inhabitants.  Secularists always try to convince everyone who’ll listen they have all the answers; that God (whoever or whatever He, She or It is) is of no practical use.  Yet civilization keeps sinking deeper into the quicksand of its own sinful nature.  It’s time we come to the stark realization that mankind’s way doesn’t work worth a hoot.  Our Heavenly Father knows best and we need to listen to Him.  We are all His children, after all.

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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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