Tag Archives: The Heavenly Father

What Lies Ahead?

Curiosity about the future has been around since Adam & Eve.  No matter if someone is wealthy or poor, healthy or ill, young or old, the question of what lies ahead has never been far from their mind.  It’s spawned all sorts of belief systems from astrology to tea leaf readings, palmistry to numerology, Tarot cards to crystal balls and so forth.  Not knowing what lurks around the corner has always been a major contributor to many folks’ angst and anxiety.  However, a Christ disciple should be immune from such worries because of the unbreakable promises God’s made over the last 5,000 years.  No matter how bleak and dark things may be in this fallen world an adopted child of God has divine assurance that things work out perfectly in the end.  There will come a day when trials, hardships and uncertainty about what tomorrow’s gonna bring will disappear.  “…And they will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads.  Night will be no more, and they will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, because the Lord God will shine on them, and they will reign forever and ever(Revelation 22:4-5).  To a humanist those are empty words but to Christians they tell us all we need know regarding what’s to become of us.  James S. Stewart wrote, “The man who is in Christ is right with God.  He may be far from perfection yet, but that union is the seed which contains within itself all the promise of the future.  In the face and in the soul of Christ, God sees what the man yet may be; and He asks nothing more.”

 

J.I. Packer wrote, “New Testament Christianity is a religion of hope, a faith that looks forward.  For the Christian, the best is always yet to be.  But how can we form any notion of that which awaits us at the end of the road?  Here the doctrine of adoption comes to our help.  To start with, it teaches us to think of our hope not as a possibility, not yet as a likelihood, but as a guaranteed certainty, because it is a promised inheritance.  The reason for adopting, in the first-century world, was specifically to have an heir to whom one could bequeath one’s goods.  So, too, God’s adoption of us makes us His heirs, and so guarantees to us, as our right (we might say) the inheritance that He has in store for us.”  Few things in the Bible are made as clear as what lies ahead.  We’re told repeatedly the damage Lucifer’s rebellion has wreaked will be a thing of the past.  Everything will be restored, including usWhen Christ (who is your life) appears, then you too will be revealed in glory with him(Colossians 3:4).  See what sort of love the Father has given to us: that we should be called God’s children – and indeed we are!  For this reason the world does not know us: because it did not know Him.  Dear friends, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed.  We know that whenever it is revealed we will be like Him, because we will see him just as He is (1 John 3:1-2).  We know our Redeemer not only defeated death but lives and is going to return.  His second coming is not a matter of “if” but of “when”.  “…Our citizenship is in heaven – and we also await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform these humble bodies of ours into the likeness of His glorious body by means of that power by which He is able to subject all things to Himself (Philippians 3:20-21).

 

If a man or woman has surrendered their life to Jesus, yet still frets over what might happen to them this side of heaven, they must come to understand they’re letting that useless fear steal their joy.  As a Christ disciple what one’s future is going to be like should be a settled issue.  It shouldn’t be a mystery.  It should make good sense.  God’s kingdom should be something we can always look forward to, no matter our circumstance.  We’re held securely in our Father’s hands and He’ll never let go of us.  As a leader in the Celebrate Recovery ministry I come in contact with many believers who, despite having the Holy Spirit residing in them, are severely disappointed over how their lives have turned out.  For some life’s been a cruel journey.  Some are getting up in years and have decided they have no future.  Others are depressed over unfulfilled dreams that’ve drained them of all ambition.  They wonder how God could’ve let them fail or they’re afraid they haven’t been “good enough” to receive His blessings.  What they all have in common is spiritual blindness.  What they don’t see is that what they manage to get done during their brief existence “in the flesh” is relatively insignificant in comparison to the kind of person they became while on earth.  Our character is what we’ll carry into eternity.  Everything else stays behind.  As Don Henley sang, “You don’t see no hearses with luggage racks.”  Speaking of eternal life, allow me to share some wisdom from the great Frederick Buechner: “We think of Eternal Life, if we think of it at all, as what happens when life ends.  We would do better to think of it as what happens when life begins.”

 

Now, I’m not trying to downplay the fact that trepidation about what lies ahead is built into our basic DNA.  It is.  Christians know their forever is a lock but tomorrow is another thing altogether.  It’s natural to wonder what our planet and the universe in general is spinning towards.  Will the human race survive the bitter harvest of its evil biases and hatred?  Will some idiot “push the button” and annihilate everything that breathes?  Is there a city-sized asteroid on its way to destroy us in a flash?  Rarely does one find a science-based TV show regarding future events that holds out even a shred of hope mankind will survive in the long run (short of relocating to another compatible celestial orb).  While it’s no sin to contemplate such things it’s a crying shame if we let them dominate our thoughts and rob us of happiness.  The biggest mistake we can make is to think that we as individuals or as part of a collective have any modicum of control over what’s to take place.  God is, has been and always will be in complete control.  His will cannot be usurped.  And, because we know He’s loving, merciful and forgiving, we can relax and enjoy being a part of His plan.  As always, it’s a matter of trust.

 

We must stand firm on the fact the cosmos isn’t a “somehow-it-just-came-into-being” material entity that’s wholly self-sustaining.  Its present and future course is determined by personal factors – sources of energy and direction – that can’t be detected by physical senses or by physical sciences.  Those personal factors are the prerogatives of the three personalities of the Godhead we worship.  A person is free to reject that proposition and side with the secularists who seem rather unconcerned they don’t have any concrete answers to why anything exists at all.  Or that person can accept that In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1) and take comfort in knowing God knows what He’s doing.  The Holy Word indicates that this world serves a vital purpose.  Therefore simple logic will tell us anything that has a purpose in God’s creation will continue to exist come hell or high water until such a time it no longer serves that purpose.  Dallas Willard wrote, “This present universe is only one element in the kingdom of God.  But it is a very wonderful and important one.”

 

Jesus told His disciples, Do not let your hearts be distressed.  You believe in God, believe also in me.  There are many dwelling places in my Father’s house.  Otherwise, I would have told you, because I am going away to make ready a place for you.  And if I go and make ready a place for you, I will come again and take you to be with me, so that where I am you may be too (John 14:1-3).  Now, why would the Son of God promise to come back if He knew there wouldn’t be an earth to return to?  But the most exciting thing we can glean from those verses is that not only will we end up where He is but we’ll actively participate in the future government of the universe with Him!  To envision we’ll hang around the throne of God endlessly strumming harps and warbling “How Great is our God” isn’t Scriptural.  That’s the angels’ job.  We were made for so much more than that!  We’ll reign with Christ.  “…You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).  The Bible also says, You [the Lamb of God] have appointed them [believers] as a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth (Revelation 5:10).

 

The point is our faithfulness over a “few things” in the here and now counts because it develops in us the kind of character that God can entrust us with “many things.”  After decades of trusting in Him, just imagine what an immense privilege it’ll be for God to place His trust in us.  Willard wrote, “A place in God’s creative order has been reserved for each one of us from before the beginnings of cosmic existence.  His plan is for us to develop, as apprentices to Jesus, to the point where we can take our place in the ongoing creativity of the universe.”  Wow!  Think of it this way, if you will: God intends for us to mature into Christ-like persons whom He’ll be confident He can not only set free in His universe but He’ll then empower us to do what we want to do on His behalf!  I don’t know about you but that’s astounding.  Now, while grace and salvation are not acquired by our works, God’s trust most definitely is.  Thus we must become disciplined, determined students of Jesus Christ and what He taught us.  Our Lord alluded back to Daniel 12:3 when He told His disciples “…The righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father (Matthew 13:43).  Righteousness is a state of being that must be merited so we’d best get busy meriting, right?

 

These promises of better days ahead are nothing new.  God’s been telling us about it for ages.  For look, I create the heavens and the earth all over again.  Be glad and rejoice forever in what I create.  I create my city, Jerusalem.  It is joy, and her people are gladness.  No longer will be heard the sound of crying.  No longer babies dying, or mature people who do not live to the end of a full life.  When they build houses they will get to live in them.  When they plant vineyards they, not others, will be the ones who eat the fruit.  They shall not labor in vain or bear children to be destroyed.  Before they call on me I will answer.  Animals, even, will stop killing one another, and in my new world every kind of evil will be eliminated (Isaiah 65:17-25).  To clarify, “Jerusalem” is synonymous with “the peace of God.”  Near the end of the book of Isaiah God implies all races and nations will come together to praise Him in His glory.  At last peace will be the rule, not the exception.  When I consider the horrible atrocities taking place all over the globe today world peace seems like an impossibility.  But, as Jesus explained to His disciples, “…With God all things are possible (Matthew 19:26).

 

Many of this planet’s inhabitants’ troubles have come about due to human beings trying to manufacture their own version of Jerusalem.  Mankind has a tendency to think, because we can do some things well, we surely can do everything well.  Yet one thing civilization will never be able to do is to transform the heart and mind of a human being.  Only God can.  Of course, that hasn’t stopped us from trying.  In every case it’s either the tyranny of a dictator, lawless anarchy or massive inefficiencies stemming from the unrestricted expansion of a bloated bureaucracy that prevents true change from occurring.  Only God has the power to fix what’s broken down here.  My grown son (who, sadly, is a non-believer) recently inquired, “Dad, what’s wrong with people?”  The only rational answer I can give him is to quote Jeremiah 17:9, The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.  Who can understand it?  Since he doesn’t care to hear anything even remotely “religious” I’ll have to rely on the Holy Spirit to guide me when I email him back and hope something I say will draw him closer to the truth that is Jesus Christ.

 

I like what Willard had to say about the future: “God’s way of moving toward the future is, with gentle persistence in unfailing purpose, to bring about the transformation of the human heart by speaking with human beings and living with and in them.  He finds an Abraham, a Moses, a Paul – a you.”  Obviously, we have our work cut out for us but it’s not in vain we labor.  Jesus is coming back.  And when He does all evil will be eradicated.  The government He’ll put us in charge of won’t have to deal with inherent corruption, injustice, brutality or meanness any longer.  Goodness and harmony will prevail.  Nearly a half millennium before Jesus was born in a lowly manger, mankind was told by a prophet of God: Your true king is coming to you, vindicated and triumphant, humble, mounted on a donkey.  His word will bring peace to the nations, and his supervision will take in all lands, from where his presence is centered on the farthest reaches of the earth (Zechariah 9:9).  God made good on the first half of that promise so there’s no reason to doubt He’ll come through on the second half of it, too.  Therefore Christians should walk confidently through this world with their heads held high.  The future isn’t frightening to those who belong to the Lord.  As Paul expressed so elegantly, For I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).  Tomorrow?  I say bring it on because “I am able to do all things through the one who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13).

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So What’s The Plan?

By the plan I mean your plan.  What are you going to contribute to the process of transforming your mind into one more harmonious with Christ’s?  We can all agree the Holy Spirit will oversee the foundational changes that need to take place inside of us but we must be cooperative participants in the work to be done or nothing noticeable is gonna happen.  When we surrender ourselves to Christ and make the decision to follow Him the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us immediately.  He then acts within our being to constantly usher the person of Jesus and the reality of the kingdom of God into our consciousness as we consult the Holy Word daily for guidance.  Therefore the value of His divine work can’t be overstated.  However, there’s an all-too-common mistake made today by believers who think that as long as they show up for church services and tithe regularly they’ve done all that’s requested of them.  Wrong.  As Dallas Willard wrote, “Reliance upon what the Spirit does to us or in us, as indispensable as it truly is, will not by itself transform character in its depths.  The action of the Spirit must be accompanied by our response, which cannot be carried out by anyone other than ourselves.”  In other words, when we choose to be a Christ disciple our work’s just beginning.  Thus we must develop a personal action plan for seeing to it that our part gets done.

 

Understand that just because we accept Jesus as Lord and Savior doesn’t mean our external circumstances will change at all.  The problems and difficulties that beat us down the day before will still be there post-conversion.  The Bible refers to them as temptations and they won’t stop roaring down the pike due to the Holy Spirit residing inside us.  What should be completely different, though, is how we perceive them.  We’re taught we should actually welcome them as confirmations of God’s glorious, never-ending goodness!  Is that hard to do?  You bet.  Yet James wrote, My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance.  And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything (James 1:2-4).  Paul said as much, too: Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of God’s glory.  Not only this, but we also rejoice in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance, character, and character, hope.  And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us(Romans 5:1-5).  Both saints advocate we meet troubles head on and without trepidation.  Obviously, possessing a fearless attitude of that magnitude requires quite a bit of discipline on our part.  And, as most of us know, discipline don’t come easy.  So we need a plan.

 

The largest stumbling block confronting us is that nowhere in the Bible are we told precisely how to do our part.  There’s no formulaic ABCs to adhere to because our particular path to salvation is as unique as our personality.  Now, what we’re to do and how we’re to behave as adopted children of God is made crystal clear throughout the Holy Word.  The Psalms and Proverbs are especially helpful and Paul’s letter to the Colossians (because he’d never preached to them in person) offers what’s probably the finest overview regarding spiritual formation in the New Testament.  Yet specific details on how I as an individual am to go about growing as a Christian aren’t available.  There must be a reason.  I think it’s that we’re to imitate Jesus to the best of our ability 24/7 and the only way to do that is to get to know Him as intimately as He knew His Heavenly Father.  And we get to know Jesus by studying how He lived His life, how He treated others, how He structured His entire human existence around maintaining His close relationship with His Father and how later on His disciples conducted themselves as they strove to pattern every aspect of their life after their Master’s.  So, really, how to put together our plan is no secret.  It’s simply a matter of approaching everything we do or say as if Jesus Himself were doing or saying it.  And, again, that takes discipline.  And discipline requires sacrifice.  Paul wrote, Therefore I exhort you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a sacrifice – alive, holy, and pleasing to God – which is your reasonable service.  Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God – what is good and well-pleasing and perfect (Romans 12:1-2).

 

Seems to me the only way to become a disciplined disciple is to devise a plan and stick with it.  There could be a hundred things I needed to put on my own list, but a roster so lengthy could’ve proved to be too intimidating and caused me to get discouraged in no time at all.  Thus, at least at the outset, it was wisest to focus on the areas of my Christianity I know I’m weakest in.  Being the kind of person who often craves physical satisfaction and who also tends to become bored easily it only made sense that abstinence should be a priority in my plan.  Under that heading I penciled in a need for solitude and silence.  I must go where I’m left completely alone for a while, whereupon I turn off all the noisemakers (TV, radio, idle chit-chat, etc.) and allow silence to prevail.  Why are these two things crucial to my spiritual growth?  Simply because they were very important to my Lord Jesus Christ, that’s why.  (Being an introvert since childhood and someone who doesn’t mind being alone you’d think solitude’s something I didn’t really need to work on.  The problem was that the time spent by myself wasn’t spent contemplating God or His glory.  Oh, no.  I spent all that time pursuing selfish desires whether it was watching porn, aimlessly surfing the internet or sedating myself with drugs and alcohol.  So what I needed to work on in my plan was to figure out how to maximize the beneficial aspects of solitude by using that time in a spiritually productive way.)

 

Willard wrote, “One of the greatest of spiritual attainments is the capacity to do nothing” and the Christian philosopher Pascal once remarked, “I’ve discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they’re unable to stay quietly in their own room.”  The very folks who complain they never hear anything from God are usually the ones who refuse to sit still for more than a minute.  The Father in heaven won’t make time for those who won’t make time for Him.  Others gripe they can’t stop their brains from letting one thought after another rumble into and through their consciousness like boxcars on a train track.  But that’s what thoughts do!  What we’re to make a concentrated effort to accomplish via silence is to mentally force our “thought parade” to grind to a halt for a while.  Now, I’m not advocating putting oneself into some sort of “altered state” via kundalini yoga or breathing techniques.  Both have their place but nowhere in the Gospel accounts are we told Jesus assumed a certain position or chanted or anything like that when He stepped away from His disciples to indulge in a few minutes of prayer-filled serenity.  On the contrary, He’d disciplined Himself to be able to find solitude and silence whenever He felt it advantageous for carrying out God’s will.  You and I should do the same.

 

Another priority in my plan was to start engaging in enlightening study and worship activities.  By that I mean I needed to make it my obsession to accumulate and learn as much knowledge about Jesus Christ as possible.  Face it; the majority of people are, to some extent, obsessed with something or somebody.  For some it’s a football team.  For some it’s politics.  For some it’s a branch of science.  But a Christ disciple should ultimately be fascinated foremost with Jesus and what He taught us over everything else.  It’s a matter of continually directing our thoughts down constructive roads.  Paul’s advice still holds lots of water: Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is worthy of respect, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if something is excellent or praiseworthy, think about these things(Philippians 4:8).  Christians should keep in mind it’s implied many times in the Scriptures that the more of ourselves we give to God the more He gives to us.  Jesus Himself said of the sheep in the flock He tenderly shepherds, “…I have come so that they may have life, and may have it abundantly (John 10:10).  I realize that few verses have been as misconstrued as that one but the bottom line is God will provide for His children.  My plan included reading my Bible every day, attending Bible classes at church, listening to gifted preachers on TV and reading the books of great Christian writers whom God is using to inspire and educate those like me who “yearn to learn.”  What I discovered was that I still had ample time to enjoy the things and people I’d always enjoyed before.  God doesn’t limit our horizon when we make Him #1 (as one would guess), He expands it exponentially.  Amazing.  It’s miraculous to behold.

 

As far as worship goes, I found by devoting more of my energy towards studying and absorbing the priceless treasures that awaited me in God’s Word the easier and more effortlessly wholehearted praise for God came gushing out.  For most of my life I’d never been one to openly demonstrate any kind of emotion (for fear of being made fun of) so for me to sing hymns and shout out a few “amens” in Sunday morning church services or during Celebrate Recovery meetings is not something I ever expected.  Yet the majestic greatness of God that’s been revealed to me over and over again during these last eight years of my “new life” draws worship out of me spontaneously, without my even giving it a thought beforehand.  I’m a huge fan of author Fredrick Buechner and the keen sense of humor he often presents with his tongue firmly imbedded in his cheek.  Regarding the subject of worship he wrote, “Phrases like Worship Service or Service of Worship are tautologies.  To worship god means to serve Him.  Basically there are two ways to do it.  One way is to do things for Him that He needs to have done – run errands for Him, carry messages for Him, fight on His side, feed His lambs, and so on.  The other way is to do things for Him that you need to do – sing songs for Him, create beautiful things for Him, give things up for Him, tell Him what’s on your mind and in your heart, in general rejoice in Him and make a fool of yourself for Him the way lovers have always made fools of themselves for the one they love.  A Quaker meeting, a Pontifical High Mass, the Family Service at First Presbyterian, a Holy Roller Happening – unless there is an element of joy and foolishness in the proceedings, the time would be better spent doing something useful.”

 

Clearing out some space in my life for God-centered solitude, silence, study and worship made a significant difference in my growth and maturity as a Christ-follower.  But those things would still be dormant if I hadn’t put them in my plan.  No doubt you’ll put other areas of deficiency ahead of the ones I listed for myself.  That’s okay.  The main thing is that you’re going to work with the Holy Spirit living inside you, not sit back and wait for Him to do it all.  (Doing it that way could take an eternity.)  As Willard wrote, “The important insight to guide us at this point is that to build our house upon the rock, putting off the old person and putting on the new, we must have a definite plan for doing so.”  In my own experience, after years of trudging through countless up and down cycles trying to stay faithful to my disciplines, at some point I realized my plan had turned into my pattern.  My starting every day with a cup of coffee and an open Bible began to pay off in that God’s Word influenced every thought and act that followed.  My involvement with my church family and the Celebrate Recovery ministry was finally affecting my attitude towards others.  The works I read by great Christian writers helped me understand Scriptural concepts I was having a hard time wrapping my head around.  Mainly, there was a lot more room for Christ in my life and a lot less room for me and my self-gratifying habits.  I know for certain I’m not the frustrated, unhappy man I was eight years ago.  The difference is Jesus.

 

Christian disciplines can only be achieved by willfully obeying what Paul urged us all to do concerning what he termed “presenting your bodies as living sacrifices” in the opening verses of Romans 12.  We must go “all in”, as it were.  William Law wrote, “If you’ll stop and ask yourself why you’re not as [holy] as the primitive Christians were, your own heart will tell you it’s neither through ignorance, nor inability, but purely because you never thoroughly intended it… This doctrine does not suppose we have no need of divine grace, or that it’s in our own power to make ourselves perfect.  It only supposes that through the [lack] of a sincere intention of pleasing God in all our actions, we fall into such irregularities of life, as by the ordinary means of grace, we should have power to avoid.”   Jerry Bridges got real when he wrote: “God wants us to train ourselves in the right direction… to make the right choices.  This is where the going gets tough.  We’ll agree with the teaching of Scripture about some particular sin and even [commit] to put it out of our lives.  But then the temptation to indulge that sin comes again and we’re unwilling to say no… to make those tough choices.  We’d like to be rid of that sin, and even pray to God to take it away, but are we willing to say no to it?”  That’s the question, is it not?  Yep, we need a plan.

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Why Do We Do What We Shouldn’t?

This’ll probably come as no shock but, despite my intent to be a Christ disciple, I still sin.  I don’t want to, but I do.  The influence my long-established patterns of rebellion and selfishness I allowed to exert immense power over me has proven extremely hard to overcome.  I’m constantly tempted by the lures of this fallen world that so despises the Creator who made it.  Jesus has helped me tremendously to be more like Him but if I said sinful thoughts never enter my mind I’d be lying through my teeth.  One of the many great things about Celebrate Recovery is that it helps folks like me expose our destructive behavior routines and offers a systematic way of heading them off at the pass before they come galloping in like a band of outlaws hell-bent on shooting up the town.  If you’ve studied your Bible at all you’re probably familiar with what Paul, perhaps the most respected disciple of Christ ever, wrote about his own battle with iniquity.

 

For we know that the law is spiritual – but I am unspiritual, sold into slavery to sin.  For I don’t understand what I am doing.  For I do not do what I want – instead, I do what I hate.  But if I do what I don’t want, I agree that the law is good.  But now it is no longer me doing it, but sin that lives in me, that is, in my flesh.  For I want to do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want!  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer me doing it but sin that lives in me.  So, I find the law that when I want to do good, evil is present with me.  For I delight in the law of God in my inner being.  But I see a different law in my members waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that is in my members.  Wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!  So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin (Romans 8:15-25).  Wow!  Any notion Paul was a conceited, holier-than-thou egomaniac goes flying out the window in that revealing passage.  Now, if Paul had let that statement stand alone without clarification we’d be tempted to think the apostle was the devil’s puppet, doing bad things all the time.

 

But that’s not the case.  Earlier, he made it known sins aren’t something we have to commit.  He wrote, Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its desires, and do not present your members to sin as instruments to be used for true unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who are alive from the dead and your members to God as instruments to be used as righteousness.  For sin will have no mastery over you, because you are not under law but under grace (Romans 6:12-14).  Too many Christians consider sin no more than a gnat in the stew but they vastly underestimate its power to poison the soul of the offender.  Simply being “saved” doesn’t keep one from sinning as much as they ever did before.  They’re still captive to the law of sin, enslaved by fear, greed, impatience, narcissism and sexual lust because they have yet to surrender their entire life to Christ and the kingdom of God.

 

On the other hand, there are many who think of Satan as a genuine god who can force us to sin.  Back in the early 70s there was a popular comedian named Flip Wilson.  One of his characters was a woman named Geraldine Jones who’d claim when she got caught doing something wrong, “The devil made me do it!”  The reason so many found it hilarious was because it’s an excuse all of us are tempted to use when caught red-handed.  We want to pretend there’s an invincible, overpowering cosmic force that compels us to do what we shouldn’t.  But that’s not true.  It’s a cop out.  Dallas Willard wrote, “…If we think we’re facing an irresistible cosmic force of evil, it’ll invariably lead to giving in and giving up – usually with very little resistance.  If you can convince yourself that you’re helpless, you can then stop struggling and just ‘let it happen.’”  Nothing’s worse than resignation.  Satan is an angel but he ain’t all-powerful.  God’s got him on a leash and he can’t do anything God doesn’t allow him to do.  So blaming the devil is lame.  The real culprit is the person we see in the mirror.  If we reflect on any of our sins or trespasses we usually see we committed the deed because we acted without thinking.  We did it impulsively, entirely out of habit.  Then we end up having to deal with what we’ve already done, which leads to our relying on self-defense mechanisms like denial, outright lying and making petty rationalizations.  That’s why identifying destructive behavior patterns is such an important part of the CR curriculum.  Only then can a person begin the process of replacing them with the kind of responses a Christ disciple would choose.

 

If we rule out Satan then the only other “outside” entity to blame for our sin is God.  But the Bible is specific about that not being an option.  Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one.  But each one is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desires.  Then when desire conceives, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is full grown, it gives birth to death (James 1:13-15).  Face it; we’re all creatures of habit.  We drive our cars mostly by rote.  We trod the grocery aisle without having to deliberately put one foot in front of the other.  Sadly, we have a sin nature that has a routine of its own, too.  Once again, though, it’s Jesus who showed us how to deal with temptation.  In the upper room He told His disciples He’d soon have no time to talk with them.  He knew the ruler of this world was on his way to attempt to thwart God’s will.  The devil threw everything plus the kitchen sink at Christ, trying to get Him to abandon His faith in His Heavenly Father.  The attack was so severe mentally that Jesus almost died of anguish in Gethsemane.  But our Lord had assured the disciples earlier that He [Satan] has no power over me, but I am doing just what the Father commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father (John 14:30-31).

 

Willard nailed it with this poignant statement: “This is the true situation: nothing has power to tempt me or move me to wrong action that I have not given power by what I permit to be in me.  And the most spiritually dangerous things in me are the little habits of thought, feeling, and action that I regard as ‘normal’ because ‘everyone is like that’ and it’s ‘only human.’”  He’s describing yours truly right there.  Thus, by his reckoning, Christ-like behavior is not “normal” behavior in any sense of the word.  That’s what our Master was implying when He said, “…If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel will save it (Mark 8:34-35).  We Christians must daily straddle the fine line between being in the world and being of the world.  No easy task.  But that’s why ministries like Celebrate Recovery are so helpful to those who want to be Christ disciples.  The power of habit can be broken.  Compulsive, dysfunctional behaviors can be changed.  And you don’t do it alone.  God and those He’s already healing take the journey with you.  Now, having said that, nobody’s been able to recover from their hurts, hang-ups or habits without first making the critical decision to do whatever it takes to change.  No one ever got “healed” just by showing up.

 

One of the most encouraging passages in the New Testament is found in Ephesians 2:2-10.  Paul wrote, And although you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you formerly lived according to this world’s present path, according to the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the ruler of the spirit that is now energizing the sons of disobedience, among whom all of us also formerly lived out our lives in the cravings of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath even as the rest…  But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even though we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you are saved! – and he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, to demonstrate in the coming ages the surpassing wealth of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.  For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God: it is not from works, so that no one can boast.  For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them.”  There are many things to glean from those verses but one thing that sticks out to me is that the changes in our thought processes, emotional responses and knee-jerk reactions will not be done for us, nor are they something we can do by ourselves.  Jesus said “…apart from me you can accomplish nothing (John 15:5) so it only goes to figure that if we do nothing at all it’ll certainly be without Him.  In other words, without Christ we’ll be stuck with our sinful selves forevermore.

 

The bottom line is that whatever program or ministry outreach we go to to help us “get transformed” isn’t going to be successful unless we come to grips with the fact it’s going to be hard.  We have to make a full commitment to act wisely and consistently over a long period of time – most likely the rest of our earthly life.  And we’ll be looked upon by others as being one of those people who seem to take some kind of perverse joy through serving others in a humble manner.  They won’t understand the kind of person you’re turning into, especially if they knew you before you met Christ.  Paul tells us to not be bothered by what others may think.  His recommendations are priceless: So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, continue working out your salvation with awe and reverence, for the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort – for the sake of his good pleasure – is God.  Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may be blameless and pure, children of God without blemish though you live in a crooked and perverse society, in which you shine like lights in the world by holding on to the word of life so that on the day of Christ I will have a reason to boast that I did not run in vain nor labor in vain.  But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I am glad and rejoice together with all of you.  And in the same way you also should be glad and rejoice together with me (Philippians 2:12-18).

 

Notice that in the Scriptures I cited from Ephesians 2 Paul is reassuring us we’ve received, as a free gift, the life of the kingdom through the word of the gospel and the person of Jesus.  We did nothing to deserve such a generous and, frankly, costly present being given to us.  Yet now that we’ve been granted forgiveness, mercy and redemption we have something major to do.  Yes, we do have the awesome Holy Spirit living inside us and the Holy Word to guide us but we must now reach out and connect with other children of God who want the same thing.  We can’t do it alone.  It’s too big a job!  Paul wrote, Therefore I exhort you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a sacrifice – alive, holy, and pleasing to God – which is your reasonable service.  Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God – what is good and well-pleasing and perfect (Romans 12:1-2).

 

Becoming a strict legalist won’t do the job, either.  James S. Stewart wrote: “The soul of man, setting out gallantly enough on the crusade to conquer besetting sin and weakness and to establish personal righteousness, has found the road too hard and the foes too stubborn; and gallantry has given way to disillusionment, and aspiration to a sense of downright futility.  No man can save himself: this was Paul’s great discovery.  A drowning man does not want a lecture on the art of swimming: he wants a rope to cling to.  Nor does a lame man ask for a guidepost to point him out the way: he asks for an arm to lean upon.  But the very weariness of those unavailing efforts to achieve its own salvation may prepare the soul of man to hear the cry, ‘Stand still, and see the salvation of God’” (Exodus 14:13).

 

In his superb best-selling book, Inside Out, Dr. Larry Crabb presents three specific ideas about how an individual, with God’s help, can change.  He wrote, “First, awareness of all that’s within us is more important to changing than a set of instructions about what to believe and do.  Second, the actual process of change can never be fully explained; the work of God’s Spirit cannot be packaged into our neat categories.  We must expect neither precision in our understanding of change nor confidence that we’re saying all that needs to be said.  Third, no one is fully changed.  It should comfort us to know that everyone has ample room to grow.  Even Paul admitted, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it (Philippians 3:13), referring to the richness of all Christ has provided.”  We can all become better at following Jesus.

3

What’s a Christ Disciple?

One of the last things Jesus said before His ascension was “…go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19) so it makes sense we define what one is.  To me it’s a person who does their daily best to pattern every aspect of their life after Christ.  It’s a man or woman who finds no cause to hide their allegiance to the King of kings because it denotes who they are; who possess an unshakable surety of what their purpose for being on earth is; who won’t let anything or anybody steal the inner joy that springs from knowing their Savior has gone to “…make a place…” for them (John 14:2) in the Heavenly Father’s magnificent mansions; who trust fully that their final exhale in this fallen realm will be followed immediately by their first inhale of paradise air.  I could go on but you get the point.  A Christ disciple is one who can’t even fathom apprenticing under anyone other than Jesus and considers the designation of “Jesus Freak” a high honor.  I reckon that makes me one, too.

 

I must mention there are some denominations that cast doubt on one’s ability to know if they’re even saved.  That’s because in the New Testament one can find multiple allusions to “the elect” and those “chosen” by God before time began.  If the subject intrigues you there are hundreds of scholarly books available that delve deeply into predestination and you’ll discover many contradicting opinions about it.  (Norman Geisler’s Chosen but Free is a fine one for starters.)  As for me I’m content to rely on what Paul and Silas told their trembling jailer: Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved (Acts 16:31).  Jesus didn’t endure the agony of the cross to make salvation more complicated.  But I don’t want to digress.  The aim of this essay is to define what identifies one as a disciple.  I think most will agree you can be a Christian without being a disciple.  In other words, if somebody asked me the name of one writer I’d love to be as proficient as I wouldn’t hesitate to answer.  It doesn’t mean I strive in every area of my life to imitate everything about them.  There’s a lotta folks in this world who truly believe in the Lord Jesus but they’d be the first to tell you they’re not disciples.  They’re definitely saved but far from committed.  This isn’t to imply that those of us who want with all their heart to be dedicated apprentices of Christ are superior in any way, shape or form to anyone else.  Perfection is a goal, not an attainable human condition.  Paul made it clear: For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:23-24).

 

To be a disciple of someone is to aspire to be as good at something as they are.  So what was Jesus “good at”?  Dallas Willard wrote, “The answer is found in the Gospels: He lives in the kingdom of God, and He applies that kingdom for the good of others and even makes it possible for them to enter it for themselves.”  As the apostle Peter explained it to the Roman centurion Cornelius: “…With respect to Jesus from Nazareth, that God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power.  He went around doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, because God was with him (Acts 10:38).  Who among us wouldn’t want to be known as someone who went around “doing good”?  I certainly wouldn’t protest having that carved on my tombstone.  So as a follower of Christ I consciously attempt to learn every day how to better live in the kingdom of God as He did.  That means whatever task I undertake during my waking hours I’ll endeavor to do it to the best of my ability like Jesus did.

 

However, being a Christ disciple is far different from learning a profession, trade or craft.  It involves a complete transformation of one’s mind and heart and it takes more than a lifetime to complete.  It’s a matter of becoming what God intended me to be, not what I set out to be when I entered adulthood long ago.  And discipleship has very little to do with “getting religious.”  Hey, the Pharisees and Sadducees who coerced Pilate into sentencing our Lord to a gruesome execution were as religious as they come.  For that matter, radical Islamic jihadists are extremely religious.  They make sure they pray to Allah five times a day and then plot to murder all the infidels they can.  What this confused planet so desperately needs is more Jesus, not more religion.  And, as followers of Christ, it’s never been about what we do as much as how we do it.  Look, our Heavenly Father wants us to be the unique individuals He created.  Thus He’s not interested in us turning ourselves into some kind of “cookie cutter Christian” indistinguishable from any other believer.  Not at all.  God gave each of us particular talents, aptitudes and personality traits that make us who we are.  We therefore have a specific function in His master plan that no one else can fulfill as well and there’s a quite a bit of dignity to be found in that fact. You’re not a fluke of nature.  You’re not a mistake.  Your life is yours to live.  But only by following the leadings of the Son of God can any of us unleash our true potential.

 

The great thing is this: the teachings of Jesus that instruct us on how to live the life God wants us to live/experience have been faithfully preserved throughout the centuries.  We have what we need.  Now it’s up to us to do what He told us to do.  Think of how different modern civilization would be if more folks adhered to what Christ laid out in His Sermon on the Mount alone!  It ain’t rocket science, either.  Jesus spoke about sinful things we either do ourselves, encounter or hear about every day – injustice and hatred, anger and contempt, lusting and coveting, rejection and mistreatment by others, etc.  He didn’t preach about lofty philosophical concepts only intellectuals could grasp, He talked about stuff we can all relate to, especially those who opt to be numbered among His disciples.  A Christ disciple sees beyond devoting most of their energy towards not doing or contemplating sinful things and more towards staying focused primarily on performing unselfish acts that benefit the most people as well as magnifying God’s glory.  They take to heart what their Savior commanded them to do to others as if it was He Himself they were ministering to.  For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me(Matthew 25:35-36).

 

One thing about being a disciple of Jesus is that you don’t have to necessarily go somewhere other than where you are or do something other than what you’re doing to be of valuable use to Christ.  Chances are you already have a job or a career so it’s probable you’re right where God wants you to be.  You don’t need a theology degree to make a difference.  That’s encouraging news for simple folks like me because, “…God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks weak to shame the strong (1 Corinthians 1:27).  Consider it this way: you’ll likely spend at least a third (if not more) of your workweek days earning a paycheck.  True, you may not stand in a pulpit or be a church elder or a monk chanting in a monastery but you are in a position to be perhaps the only Bible your coworkers and/or associates will ever read.  Your “calling” may have little if anything to do with “religious activities” and a lot to do with reflecting God’s light onto others who don’t know how marvelous and gracious He is.  You can be an influential Christ disciple in an office cubicle just as effectively as you can teaching a Sunday school class.  Bear in mind many folks will still consider you an oddball fanatic because they won’t understand how a person can be indwelt and led by God the Holy Spirit.  That’s okay.  There are worse things to be labeled.

 

Turning our place of employment into a platform from which we can demonstrate Christian brotherly and sisterly love will take some effort and tact, to be sure.  Nobody will become intrigued to know more about Jesus if we start being the resident holier-than-thou goody two shoes, the un-appointed rule-maker of what’s to be deemed “politically correct” behavior and the final determiner of moral ethics for the whole crew.  If Jesus had given off any hint of that unpleasant vibe no one would’ve given Him a second thought, much less a moment of their time.  There’s not a trace of uppity self-righteousness in any of His teachings.  Willard opined, “A gentle but firm noncooperation with things that everyone knows to be wrong, together with a sensitive, non-officious, nonintrusive, non-obsequious service to others, should be our usual overt manner.”  That’s excellent practical advice right there.

 

To be or not to be a disciple.  That’s a choice every Christian makes.  Does one have to be a disciple to enter the Pearly Gates?  I don’t think so.  As the aforementioned verse in Acts 16 confirms, belief in Jesus is the sole requirement in order to be saved.  However, our Lord taught that there are rewards in heaven for the good we accomplish down here and Paul clarified it.  He wrote, If what someone has built survives, he will receive a reward.  If someone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss.  He himself will be saved, but only as through fire (1 Corinthians 3:14-15).  Now there are a slew of Bible experts out there who know a lot more than I do regarding what Paul was getting at but I’ll tell you what I think, anyway.  If at some point in your life you accepted Christ as your Lord and Savior you automatically became an accepted member of His “herd”.  Jesus said, My sheep listen to my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish; no one will snatch them from my hand.  My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can snatch them from my Father’s hand.  The Father and I are one (John 10:27-30).  It’s true that no one gains salvation through their works.  Nobody earns heaven.  We’re saved by grace.  Period.  Therefore there’ll be some in heaven who got there not because they were devoted disciples but simply because they accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior while alive on earth.  But, as Paul said, they’ll be akin to someone who narrowly escaped a burning building.  Personally, I don’t want to be one who gains access to paradise on a technicality.

 

Can someone lose their salvation?  That’s another controversial subject but I have to believe that if a saved person deliberately goes out of their way to sin on a regular basis, never repents and never gives God the time of day they’re severely testing our Creator’s tolerance and that has to be dangerous.  Furthermore, if a man or woman publicly disavows/denounces their faith in Jesus and calls their conversion a sham, let’s just say I wouldn’t want to be standing in their shoes come Judgment Day.  Nobody pulls a fast one on God.  He knows if we’re being sincere when we surrender our hearts to Christ or if we’re only taking out fire insurance.  It’s doubtful the thief on the cross next to our Savior ever performed a charitable deed in his whole wretched life.  Yet when he recognized Jesus as the Messiah he asked Him for mercy.  Christ responded with, I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43).  Obviously the thief wasn’t a disciple, only a last minute believer, but he got saved nonetheless.  Some, including a couple of my close relatives, think his was a “special case” and that all the “rules of justification” changed after the Resurrection but I have yet to find that expressed in the Scriptures.  To be sure, many things did change when Jesus walked out of His tomb but not HimJesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever! (Hebrews 13:8).  Thus a heartfelt deathbed surrender to Christ’s care and forgiveness of all sins most certainly does count.

 

It’s hard for me to imagine someone becoming absolved of all penalties for their iniquitous trespasses and not wanting to demonstrate to their gracious Redeemer gratitude by doing all they can to do what He commanded.  But that’s exactly what I did for decades.  Yes, I was a selfish ingrate.  While I know there’ll be no tears in heaven I suspect I’ll have at least a few regrets about how unthankful I was for my salvation for so long.  Jesus’ Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 illustrates that those who wisely invest their God-given gifts to further His kingdom will be rewarded with many more gifts while those who took their gift for granted (like me) will have divine repercussions to deal with.  Needless to say, my overriding ambition nowadays is to make up for all the time I wasted pursuing my own plans instead of God’s.  Note that in the 6th chapter of Matthew, right in the middle of His famous sermon, Jesus teaches about giving, praying and fasting being evidences of one’s faithfulness to God and He ends each segment with these same words, And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.”

 

Therefore it seems there’s an advantage to being the best Christ disciple we can be.  Not only do we receive blessings in the here and now due to imitating the impeccable, perfect life Jesus lived for 33 years in Israel but we’ll be very glad we did in the next phase of our immortal soul’s existence.  However, we should never make heavenly rewards the sole reason for living like Christ.  Brennan Manning wrote, “Christianity consists primarily not in what we do for God but in what God does for us – the great, wondrous things that God dreamed up and achieved for us in Christ Jesus.  When God comes streaming into our lives in the power of His Word, all He asks is that we be stunned and surprised, let our mouths hang open, and begin to breathe deeply.”

2

Who You Gonna Follow?

Face it, when we were born we didn’t know diddly squat.  Our vital functions ran on autopilot.  Our brain’s hard drive was clean but empty.  Therefore we had to be taught everything.  We learned the ropes from our parents, our siblings, various family members and eventually our peers.  Of course, by the time we turned 13 we were sure we knew all there was to know but that’s a separate essay altogether.  The toughest lesson we had to learn as adults was we didn’t know everything after all!  Truth is, we all needed intelligent, patient and experienced mentors.  People to look up to and attempt to mimic.  It’s natural we do this.  However, if the folks we choose to copy aren’t really looking out for our best interests we’ll develop a lot of bad habits, manners and attitudes.  Conversely, if we opt to follow the leadings of men or women who sincerely care for us, who desire that we grow to be wise and healthy humans we’ll be much better off in the long run.  2,000 years ago God sent us the greatest teacher in the history of mankind – Jesus Christ – but, to the detriment of society in general, too many still fail to regard Him as such.  And, sadly, that includes a lot of people who think He was just a really nice guy who said profound things.

 

The credo of today, especially in Western cultures, is to “be your own person”, one who decides for themselves the difference between what’s right and wrong.  The reason for this is we’ve been taught to think that way by folks designated by educational institutions as being smart, qualified “teachers”.  This secularist trend started in the 60s and quickly expanded.  Hordes of us on the far side of 50 bought into the “do your thing” concept lock, stock and barrel only to discover the hardest way possible that our pleasure-hungry minds are our most unreliable guides.  We eventually learned through trial and error it’s better to Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding (Proverbs 3:8).  We’re often forced to admit that those we labeled “clueless old fogeys” when we were younger actually knew what they were talking about and we should’ve paid more attention to them accordingly.  Alas, that notion never entered our skulls back then and we paid the price.

 

On the other hand, many people had to come to the depressing realization that the parents they so trusted made for awful role models because they were just as confused/dysfunctional as anybody.  Thus the kiddos had to depend on their teachers and coaches for life direction.  However, most of those hard-working individuals had no aspirations to be mentors.  They were just trying to make a living, trying to hang on to their job, don’cha know!  When the admirer gets let down by the one admired they predictably turn to radical politicians, artists, songwriters, authors or any number of heralded celebrities for guidance regarding morals, integrity and, yes, even what God is like.  Those who voluntarily participate in Celebrate Recovery’s Step Study program are asked to write out a personal inventory about halfway through the course, documenting the good and not-so-good things they’ve done so far.  They also acknowledge those who taught them and who directly influenced their lifestyle.  Then they honestly evaluate the list with the help of their sponsor.  Usually they see the human beings they idolized most were nonetheless flawed individuals to one extent or another.  It’s at that point it dawns on them there’s only one person who’s deserving of their unrestrained adoration and emulation – Jesus Christ.

 

Our Lord and Savior taught His disciples explicitly how to live an exemplary life.  Those who decide to follow Him need look no further than His Sermon on the Mount for instructions.  And they need not seek elsewhere for a better leader to pattern their behavior after because no one even comes close.  Jesus is the absolute ideal.  Dallas Willard wrote, “He [Christ] is indeed the living head of the community of prayerful love across all time and space.”  In other words, if I can’t trust the one who rose from the dead, walked out of His tomb and announced, All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:18-20) who can I trust?  As one of His adoring apprentices He’s promised to provide me with all I could possibly need for the furtherance of my spiritual education and I can testify that I’ve benefited greatly from the wonderful and highly significant changes He’s made in me over the years.  By applying myself toward studying my Bible, praying every day, listening to anointed preachers, reading the books of gifted writers and getting involved in my local branch of the Body of Christ I’m more able to adhere to what Paul told the church in Colossae: “…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 (Colossians 3:17).

 

There’s not an authentic Christian alive who won’t confess there’s no rational reason for not doing what Jesus told us to do.  Yet we believers too frequently take the wheel and do things our way.  This no doubt frustrates our Savior no end.  He once asked the folks in the crowd who showed up to hear Him speak, Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and don’t do what I tell you? (Luke 6:46).  Look, Christianity isn’t just a cool club to join or a box to check under “religious affiliation” on a job application, it’s a sacred commitment to sit at Jesus’ feet and digest every word He said.  We’re to become His loyal disciples and that connotes total immersion in His teachings and character.  If you think that’s asking way too much then you should go back and re-examine this essay’s title.  Only the Son of God has all the answers you have but you gotta go “all in” to get them.  That’s what Jesus was conveying in the final part of His brilliant hillside sermon wherein He offered four pictorial contrasts to drive home His point of how one goes about gaining the kingdom of God.

 

He started by telling us not just any pathway will do.  He preached, Enter through the narrow gate, because the gate is wide and the way is spacious that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it.  But the gate is narrow and the way is difficult that leads to life, and there are few who find it (Matthew 7:13-14).  Jesus wasn’t hiding the fact that salvation has some serious side effects.  He was always brutally honest.  Following Him faithfully will be difficult.  It could literally cost you your life.  Christ certainly didn’t have a sweet and easy time of it here on terra firma so we can’t expect following Him will be any sweeter or easier.  Willard wrote, “The narrow gate is not, as so often assumed, doctrinal correctness.  The narrow gate is obedience – and the confidence in Jesus necessary to it.  …The broad gate, by contrast, is simply doing whatever I want to.”

 

Next Jesus issued a warning about following anybody else.  Watch out for false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are voracious wolves (Matthew 4:15).  I can guarantee that if you live long enough you’ll come across plenty of wolves costumed like sheep so Jesus wasn’t just whistlin’ “Dixie”.  He went on to suggest how His apprentices can avoid getting the wool pulled over their eyes: You will recognize them by their fruit.  Grapes are not gathered from thorns or figs from thistles, are they? (7:16).   For those who still don’t “get it” He then doled out some old school common sense: In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree is not able to bear bad fruit, nor a bad tree to bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  So then, you will recognize them by their fruit (7:18-20).  In other words, if a well-groomed sheep resides in a million-dollar lakeside mansion and drives a brand new Lexus while at the same time chastising people who don’t gleefully contribute to “their cause”, that’s most likely a giveaway clue there’s a wolf hiding inside that fluffy white outfit.  Keep your eyes open, y’all.  As the Bible says repeatedly, “Don’t be deceived.”

 

Next Christ uttered a somewhat condemning comment aimed straight at the aforementioned ravenous wolves.  He said, Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven – only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.  On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, and in your name cast out demons and do many powerful deeds?’  Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you.  Go away from me, you lawbreakers!’ (7:21-23). In other words, just buying and wearing a team’s jersey doesn’t mean the club’s owner will know you from Adam.  In the same way, merely saying you’re a Christian doesn’t make you one, either.  You gotta be willing to walk the long walk and shoulder your own cross just like our Messiah did.

 

Jesus then finished up His astonishing discourse by answering the question that was on everyone’s lips: “Why should we follow you?”  He said to them, Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them is like a wise man who built his house on rock.  The rain fell, the flood came, and the winds beat against that house, but it did not collapse because it had been founded on rock.  Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.  The rain fell, the flood came, and the winds beat against that house, and it collapsed; it was utterly destroyed! (7:24-27). That was it.  He didn’t come back for an encore or a Q & A session.  He’d said all that needed to be said.  Nothing had been left out.  The full plan for living a righteous life that’s pleasing to God had been laid out for all time to come.

 

It’s essential to note that to follow Jesus isn’t to follow someone who’s “left the building” for good.  He told His disciples the night before His crucifixion, If you love me, you will obey my commandments.  Then I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever – the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it does not see him or know him.  But you know him, because he resides with you and will be in you.  I will not abandon you as orphans, I will come to you (John 14:15-18).  The fact of the matter is the apostles wouldn’t have stuck around after the ugly, discouraging events of Good Friday if they didn’t believe Him.  And, in the second chapter of the Book of Acts, we’re told their steadfast faith was richly rewarded.  What Christ predicted happened.  He came through with the goods, becoming a palpable presence in the lives of His followers, then and now, through the work of the irrepressible Holy Spirit.  I’ll spare you the details for time’s sake, but if you don’t know how it all came about I encourage you to read it yourself.  Christians aren’t following a dead man.  They follow the very-much-alive, everlasting God who eradicated the sting of death forevermore.  He gave us a promise we can bank on.  As the fearlessly emboldened Saint Peter proclaimed to the stunned Jerusalem throng that’d gathered for the Feast of Weeks, For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far away, as many as the Lord our God will call to himself (Acts 2:39).

 

Yet we who’ve been saved, who’ve been granted full access to the kingdom of God must restrain ourselves from being smug about it.  We must have deep compassion and concern for those around us who’ve opted to stay in the dark regarding our Lord.  The fate of their eternal souls is our business.  We’re not to revel in our banquet of blessings at the expense of honoring the “great commission” we’ve been assigned to carry out.  Paul wrote, For the kingdom of God does not consist of food and drink, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.  For the one who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by people (Romans 14:17-18).  If we all consistently conducted our lives in a Christ-like manner many more lost souls would notice our joy and want to know Him as we do.  And, when it comes right down to the real nitty gritty, isn’t that the ultimate goal of those who’ve surrendered their lives to following Jesus?  After all, He told us, You are the light of the world.  A city located on a hill cannot be hidden.  People do not light a lamp and put it under a basket but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:14-16).

 

So why follow Jesus to the exclusion of any other mentor?  Because love was always at the heart of His amazing Good News.  I like what Philip Yancey wrote: “On our own, would any of us come up with the notion of a God who loves and yearns to be loved?  Those raised in a Christian tradition may miss the shock of Jesus’ message, but in truth love has never been a normal way of describing what happens between human beings and their God.  Not once does the Qur’an apply the word love to God.  Aristotle stated bluntly, ‘It would be eccentric for anyone to claim that he loved Zeus’ – or that Zeus loved a human being, for that matter.  In dazzling contrast, the Christian Bible affirms, ‘God is love,’ and cites love as the main reason Jesus came to earth: ‘This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him.’”  I can only tell you the best decision I ever made in my life was choosing to stop following my wicked, misdirected heart and to follow my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

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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.”

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