prayer

Why? — The Perennial Question

Moving beyond the dark cloud

I just couldn’t shake the heaviness.

It seemed to hold on to me no matter how much I prayed or read my Bible.

Why?!

This was my continuing question of God as I endured a dark spiritual fog. It’s the perennial question we all ask when things don’t make sense or seem to go crossways to what we believe.

I was a young believer and recently married. We were very involved in our church and I served in various ways each week. We were doing all the right things. So, why did this heaviness stay with me?

I sought the counsel of others older in the faith and the answer was the same. It’s just a trial—a time of testing me and my faith. Just keep praying, reading the Bible, serving, and stay in fellowship. It was good advice.

But the dark heaviness continued.

This perplexed me and I kept trying to figure out what was wrong. Was I doing all the right things in a wrong way? No. It didn’t seem to be that.

This time of testing went on for weeks. Much longer than I expected or been told trials like this should go on.

More questions

Perhaps it was an intense spiritual attack?

So, I read about spiritual attacks and how to battle them. I would envision putting on the spiritual armor Paul spoke of in Ephesians (Eph 6:13–18 NIV). I would pray earnestly and claim victory over the enemy of my soul!

But the heaviness prevailed…

Continue reading this post on Medium—click here– Why?—The Perennial Question

Those People Are Us

Those people!

Are there people in your life who only seem to come around when they have some need? Then they act like they’re your BFF?

They may want to borrow some money, need a ride, or be rescued from some crisis. They come to you when they need help but when the need is met, they’re gone again. When another need arises they’ll be back for more help.

In my roles as pastor in the US and later as a director of two ministries overseas, this was a common occurrence. I found some people to be in chronic need of help. Little time would pass when some new crisis hit their life.

But there were some people who needed assistance but once it was given they seemed to be stable and able to move forward on their own.

Some people just blurt out what they need or want right away. But for some, it takes a while to build up the courage to ask for whatever it is they need.

One lesson my wife and I learned over the years is there is not enough money or time to fill the needs of those who came to us for help. We had limited resources and limitations on our capacity to help.

So we did what we could with what we had to offer.

We are those people

The thing is—we are those people with God. You and me. All of us. Think about it. Be honest.

Continue reading this post on Medium—click here– Those People Are Us

How Can Someone Pray Without Ceasing?

Photo by  Joshua Earle  on  Unsplash

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

Have you ever read something in the Bible and wondered how it would be possible? Perhaps there’s a lot of things you’ve wondered about in the Bible but I’m thinking of admonitions that seem impossible to do.

When someone asks if I take the Bible literally, I try to clarify what they mean by literal. The Bible is full of figurative language—language that has a meaning beyond its literal meaning or dictionary-based definition.

Even some things Jesus said to do weren’t intended to be taken literally—like gouging out an eye when looking at a woman (or man) lustfully or cutting off your right hand if it causes you to sin (Matthew 5:29–30). If we took this literally, then we’d know the truly honest believers because they’d only have one eye and one hand!

Pray without ceasing

When I first read the phrase “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17) and thought about what it meant, I realized this wasn’t to be taken literally. Or is it to be taken literally?

This phase is one of several admonitions at the end of the first epistle to the Thessalonian church—

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil. (1 Thess 5:16–22)

How does someone pray without ceasing? I mean, if it were taken ultra-literally it would mean never eating or sleeping or doing anything else. Ok—it should be obvious that the apostle Paul didn’t intend that. But what is meant by this phrase?

The idea of praying “without ceasing” is to pray in a continual way. This means we are to pray throughout the course of daily life regardless of circumstance and in all situations.

When you think about it—it’s very liberating.

The idea of praying “without ceasing” is to pray in a continual way

Prayer free from form

Our prayer doesn’t need to follow some form or take place with a certain posture. It can be a few words spoken silently or a continuing conversation with God while driving. Come to think of it—there’d probably be a lot less road rage if believers prayed more while driving in traffic and speeding along on a crowded freeway.

I believe there’s a place for more formalized prayer and I prefer to kneel or bow when praying on my own. But I’ve said prayers while talking with people in various situations—asking for wisdom, discernment, clarity, or for peace in a heated discussion or tense situation.

I pray while reading the Bible and have often thrown up a quick prayer while teaching and preaching or while counseling someone.

Sometimes I pray without words—I know God knows my heart but I can’t formulate my thoughts into a specific prayer or don’t know how or what to pray regarding some decision or how to respond to a situation I’m facing.

Learning to pray

I remember an instance early on in my search for the Lord that helped me understand the nature of prayer. I was driving a station wagon full of people along a highway on the northern coast of California. It was the height of the hippie era and I was spiritually lost but searching.

My girlfriend at the time was sitting next to me when a rear tire blew apart. I called out loud to God as I struggled to gain control of the car as it swerved across lanes and I tried to pull off the highway. Once stopped, my girlfriend turned to me and said, “He heard you and answered your prayer!”

It was a simple testimony of God’s grace and protection for both of us. I called out and He heard me. He answered. It wasn’t a formal prayer and I wasn’t a committed follower of Jesus. But God made it clear that He was near and attentive.

I’ve learned to pray without ceasing in various ways. I’m sure I’ll learn more as I continue to follow Jesus and become more intimate in my relationship with Him. I know He’s ever-present and attentive but am I trusting Him in all things through each day?

Faith is a journey of trust and prayer. Unceasing and continuing prayer is how we stay connected to the Lord along the way.

Faith is a journey of trust and prayer

What about you?

Have you learned to “pray without ceasing?”


This post was originally posted on Faith Hacking through Medium

Here are 3 more of my posts on Faith Hacking and Medium—

A Reliable Source

Rhetoric, Relationships, and Racism

The Practicality of Being Spirit-Filled

Repentance—the Heart of the Matter

Photo by  Cristian Newman  on  Unsplash

"You've turned your backs, not your faces, to me" (Jeremiah 2:27 GW). This is what God says to His people through Jeremiah. It's a recurring theme in God's messages through Jeremiah to Judah—the southern kingdom of Israel.

Judah had abandoned the living God for lifeless idols. It wasn't just misplaced worship or foolish religion, it was accompanied with gross immorality and perversion of justice. The behavior of the leaders and people was atrocious. But this wasn't God's main issue.

Although God held His people responsible for their bad behavior, His great lament was how they shunned Him. God spoke through Jeremiah to tell the people they committed two evils. Number one was that they forsook God—the fountain of life-giving water.

My people have done two things wrong. They have abandoned me, the fountain of life-giving water. They have also dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that can’t hold water. (Jer 2:123 GW)

Repentance isn't about behavior

Repentance is not about behavior, but a renewed relationship. It's a matter of reconciliation. It's a matter of the heart.

It's not that bad behavior should be ignored or overlooked, but it is secondary. It should change as a result of a changed relationship, not the other way around. When changed behavior is the focus of repentance, God's intent for it is misplaced.

Relationship has always been primary to God. When Adam and Eve gave in to the serpent's temptation, God looked for them because He knew something was wrong. The entire story of redemption began there.

Repentance is a matter of reconciliation. It's a matter of the heart.

A classic picture of repentance is given in the third of three parables in Luke 15—the Lost Son. The climax is when the lost son returns to his father.

The son's focus is on his own sin, the father looks past the son's sin and filthiness to embrace him and celebrate (Luke 15:11-32).

Forgiveness and restoration

However, we still tend to focus on sin—our own or that of others, and it's lingering effect. That's the picture of the brooding elder son in the parable of Luke 15. We want forgiveness and justice, but often have difficulty accepting forgiveness, or as it's often put, forgiving ourselves

Sadly, when we focus on our own sin or how others have sinned, and the ripple effect of sin—we lose sight of the purpose of forgiveness. 

Forgiveness is granted by God to restore our relationship. It's not a means of satisfying His divine justice or wrath against us. Jesus absorbed the penalty of sin upon Himself.

Forgiveness is granted by God to restore relationship not to satisfy divine justice

Righteousness is relational

Of course, things must be made right, but righteousness itself is relational. It's not a theological concept to be understood. Why did the father celebrate the return of his son? Because— 

"My son was dead and has come back to life. He was lost but has been found" (Luke 15:24 GW).

Repentance isn't our effort to be good but the restoration of our relationship with God. As King David requested in his own prayer of repentance, "Restore to me the joy of your salvation" (Psalm 51:12).

Repentance is not about "turning over a new leaf," as if making a New Year's resolution. It's about returning to God. There are countless examples of this throughout the Bible.

Repentance isn't our effort to be good but the restoration of our relationship with God.

Unfortunately, much well-intentioned teaching and preaching focus on changed behavior as the mark of true repentance.

How about John the Baptist's rebuke at the Jordan River (Matt 3:1-12 GW), you might ask? John spoke of true repentance, not a religious or emotional expression.

Changed behavior is the fruit of genuine repentance, not its essence.

Reconciliation

Redemption is not just forgiveness, it is about reconciliation between God and people. Repentance is returning to God. As God said, "you've turned your backs, not your faces, to me" (Jer 2:27 GW)

God wants people to turn their faces to Him, not their backs. He's not interested in what we can do to make things right because He knows it will fall short and be short-lived.

What repentance is not

Repentance is not remorse, nor emotion, or promises of better behavior. It's a change of heart. A changed heart that leads us back to God, as shown by the lost son in the parable.

Repentance is not behavior modification—"changing our ways" or "making a 180º turn"—on our own, but returning to God—the Father—and receiving His mercy and grace.

Once our relationship is restored—yes, through forgiveness on God's behalf—then true repentance results in a changed life.

Repentance needs to start from the inside—our heart—first. External change—changed behavior—follows our heart change.

When our face is turned to God, our back is turned on sin.

Repentance and redemption

There is no true redemption without genuine repentance. But the essence of repentance is returning to God regardless of any personal cost.

The good news is this—God has covered the cost of failure and sin on the Cross. Our work is to turn our face and trust back to God. Trying to change your behavior on your own is a futile effort and doomed for failure.

There is no true redemption without genuine repentance.

True repentance brings freedom

If you're trying to be a good Christian—stop it! But if you want to turn towards God—go for it!

My wife and I saw the power of repentance and reconciliation in the process of disciplining our young children. First, they needed to realize they did something wrong.

Once it was made clear what they did was wrong, our children's heads dropped and their faces turned sad. They were at a point of repentance.

When a form of correction was applied and a new path of behavior and change of heart was discussed, things were settled and the result was freedom. They were reconciled.

True repentance ought to bring freedom, not brooding or depression.

Going back to the parable in Luke, the father celebrated with the restored son, while the elder son brooded. The elder brother couldn't look past his own expectation of justice and his self-righteousness (Luke 15:28-30).

It's your choice to brood or to rejoice. I prefer joy over whining any day of the week and so does God. How about you?

The Path and 3 Prayers

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unspalsh.c0m-path_sea_sunset-jmcqueen

Well-meaning people have strived to find ways to please God for generations and generations. These efforts usually create some type of spiritual path or process to reach and please God. However, each of these efforts falls short of their goal because they start from the wrong point.

How does a person please God? In particular, how does a person live the Christian life? Doing good and not harming others ranks high among the many thoughts and ideas put forth.

Some see the need for a strict moral code and religious disciplines. Others may see it as more of a philosophy of being like Jesus, which can take on all sorts of approaches.

@@All humanity's efforts to reach and please God fall short of what He desires@@. The key is what Jesus tells us in the gospels. His way is much simpler and yet more challenging.

The path and the garden

Jesus' call to follow Him

In each of the three synoptic gospels, Jesus tells those who would follow Him what they need to do (Matt 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). Here it is from Luke's gospel—

And he said to all, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9:23 ESV)

People have varying thoughts about what it means to "deny" our self and to "take up" our cross. Even the simple call to "follow Me" is made complicated by various leaders and theologians.

How can we determine what Jesus meant? The simplest way I know is to look at His living example and how it fits with what He says. Life example is a basic essential to good leadership, whether to be a good leader or gain insight to what leadership involves.

3 prayers of Jesus in Gethsemane

Before Jesus went to the cross, He asked the Father if it could be avoided. This is also found in the first three gospels of the Bible (Matt 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46). Matthew's gospel gives us the most detail and insight into these three prayers of Jesus (Matt 26:39, 42, 44).

Each of the three prayers is similar. Jesus asks His Father if the "cup" of suffering death on the cross can be avoided. Each ends with Jesus' willingness to do the Father's will over His own.

Reading through the details of this time of prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, on the Mount of Olives, reveals how difficult it was for Jesus.

He tells the disciples that His "soul was overwhelmed to the point of death" (Mark 14:34 NIV). In Luke, we're told His sweat was "like drops of blood falling to the ground" (Luke 22:44 NIV).

All of this shows us the great struggle Jesus had with accepting the Father's will. This is why following Jesus may be simple on one hand, but difficult and challenging, as well.

Self-denial

Luke reminds us the basic call to follow Jesus is a daily choice, not a one-and-done decision. @@Self-denial is a continuing choice to not go back to our embedded selfish way of life@@. It's an ongoing act of repentance—turning to God and away from our selfish nature.

Denying our self is to acknowledge the futility of living by our inherent selfish nature, which includes such things as—self-indulgence, self-justification, self-fulfillment, self-righteousness, and whatever else that places self at the center of attention in our life.

Most believers don't move beyond this first step of following Jesus. This leads to a performance-based relationship with God similar to trying to live by the Ten Commandants of the Mosaic Law (Exo 20:1-17). It's not the path Jesus calls us to walk (Gal 3:3, 10-14).

@@Following Jesus requires living by faith, only possible through God's grace at work in us@@.

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age (Titus 2:12 NIV)

Our cross

Moving forward in the next step of following Jesus also requires a daily choice. As it says in Luke, we are to "take up [our] cross daily." The apostle Paul gives us a picture of these first two steps—

Brothers and sisters, I can’t consider myself a winner yet. This is what I do: I don’t look back, I lengthen my stride, and I run straight toward the goal to win the prize that God’s heavenly call offers in Christ Jesus. (Phil 3:13-14 GW)

This is illustrated by a swimmer doing the freestyle stroke. As the swimmer reaches forward with one arm, she pushes down and back with the other arm. It's a continuous double-action stroke along with a flutter kick that propels the swimmer over the surface of the water.

The cross was an instrument of death and a symbol of shame (Gal 3:13). Unlike the liquid and smooth stroke of a swimmer, taking up our cross—dying to self—usually involves a lot of kicking and screaming on our part. @@The selfish nature does not die easily@@.

None of us embrace shame or death easily, let alone willingly. And yet, this is what the call to follow Jesus requires—embracing a death to our selfish nature and life.

If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, who was brought back to life, will never die again. Death no longer has any power over him. When he died, he died once and for all to sin’s power. But now he lives, and he lives for God. So consider yourselves dead to sin’s power but living for God in the power Christ Jesus gives you. (Rom 6:8-11 GW)

@@Following Jesus requires us to embrace death to our selfish nature and life@@.

Following Jesus

At first, most believers don't realize what's involved with following Jesus. I remember hearing it explained as signing a blank contract that Jesus fills in with details later, as we live out our faith in a daily way.

@@Denying our self and taking up our cross are prerequisite to following Jesus@@. As John the Baptizer said of himself in respect to Jesus, "He must increase, but I must decrease." (John 3:30) This is the point of the first two steps—the decrease of self—the selfish nature.

I remember enduring prerequisite courses in college to get into courses I really wanted to take. After diving into those major courses, I realized the need for those prerequisite classes. They provided a foundation and framework for what I would learn later.

@@A most obvious essential to discipleship is following the example of Jesus@@.

This includes His three prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26:36-46). In each of these prayers, Jesus struggles with surrendering His personal will to submit to the Father's will, which was dying on the cross for the redemption of all humanity.

If Jesus, the Son of God, struggled with submitting His will to the Father, why should we think it won't be a struggle for each of us as we follow Jesus? This is why self-denial and dying to our self precede and lead to actually following Jesus.

Each step requires us to submit our will to God, just as with the Lord's three prayers. Each step is a daily, sometimes moment-by-moment choice. Each choice is a conscious decision to submit and surrender ourselves to the Lord.

A final thought

This continuous, daily choice to follow Jesus will put us at odds with the world around us. Following Jesus in genuine discipleship is the culture of the God's kingdom, and it's counter to the culture of the world around us.

At times, @@what Jesus asks of us personally may seem different and at odds to how other Christian believers live and follow Jesus@@. I often hear what Jesus spoke to Peter after restoring him from Peter's three denials of Jesus—

"...what is that to you? You must follow me.” (John 21:18-22 NIV)

For me this means I need to keep looking ahead to Jesus, not at others or anything else that would distract me from faithfully following Jesus. I believe it's a personal call from Jesus to each of us.


If you'd like to get a better handle on walking this path of following Jesus, I highly recommend The Calvary Road, by Roy Hession.