Monthly Archives: January 2012

What does Prayer do? (Part 2) – 1 Thessalonians 5:12-24; January 25, 2012

What does Prayer do? (Part 2) – 1 Thessalonians 5:12-24

 

Understanding the personal aspects of prayer as an individual is one of the most important things in the life of a disciple of Christ.  Until we see where we fit into the mosaic of God’s story playing out in history, we will most likely miss the larger picture all together.  In other words, if we cannot grasp the fundamental elements of personal sanctification in prayer, we will most likely imagine the grander work of prayer at a universal level.  So as we are asking these questions about prayer, it is important that we start with the personal applications first and build our way out.

In our first week we defined prayer at a very personal level – a relational level.  This does not at all exclude the larger picture of prayer.  The definition is constant throughout, but the next question about what prayer does must first be answered at a personal level first and then build its way out.  That is what we are attempting to do now.  We discussed in Part 1 of “What does Prayer do?” that Prayer must first humble us.  We must learn to see God for who He is, and consequently see ourselves for who we are.  The second thing that Prayer does in the life of the believer is change our focus.  We see this built out simply as we examine the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6.  The humbling that we have already discussed takes place at the onset, placing God as our “Father” (v. 9) and setting Him apart as being “hallowed” (v. 9).  The shift of focus closely follows as we look to His “kingdom” and “will” (v. 10).  We do not find God’s Kingdom by seeing with the eyes and logic of this world.  Looking back at the history of God’s people, we can easily see that man often tries to adapt the things of God into His own systems.  This is why people will argue and passionately hate “religion.”  Jesus in His earthly ministry taught against man’s tradition and interpretation of God’s commands.  Mankind too often wants to conform God’s commands and Word to fit their own understanding.  Man wants to examine the Word of a Holy, Perfect, All-Knowing God with their own intellect.  How arrogant we become when we believe that we can somehow scrutinize our Creator.

The heart of a praying child of God must have a focus that is shifted from the understanding of this world.  We do things that do not make sense to this world.  Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5 points the believers in the Thessalonian church to act differently then the world would act.  He tells them to build up and challenge those who lead and those who have hard time persevering through the difficulties of being called by God (v. 12-14).  He echoes Christ in challenging them in how they respond to those who do evil to them (v. 15).  Then he really gets crazy, and says things like “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” There are few commands in Scripture that grind against the natural tendencies of finite man than those three commands.  Let us not forget the context of Paul writing to the Thessalonians.  In Paul’s visit to Thessalonica in Acts 17, riots broke out forcing Paul to leave due to the severity and violence of the mob.  This is the state in which Paul left the believers living in Thessalonica.  They faced harsh and most likely bitter persecution from the Jews and Gentiles alike.  Some of the believers had even died although it is not stated as to how.  The church is in turmoil, grieving and suffering, looking to Paul for hope and encouragement – and he commands them to rejoice, pray without ceasing, and give thanks.  It is an extremely rare thing for the mourners at a funeral to be thankful at the passing of a loved one.  No one feels like rejoicing while their whole community hates them.  It is hard to embrace the presence of God in prayer when everything around you seems to be unraveling.  Our focus must transcend this world – even our own circumstances.  Prayer does this in the heart of the abiding believer.

Paul, however, knows enough about persecution and trials to know that this does not simply happen.  It’s not like one day your sad and mourning and then you pray and the next day you’re rejoicing and thankful when nothing has changed.  It is a work of sanctification (v. 23).  God uses our communion with Him – our prayer – to steadily shift our focus off of the things of this world.  When we allow prayer to do its work, we allow the Spirit to change our hearts.  We begin seeing things differently.  The material things no longer hold sway over the abiding, praying believer.  What we want in this life is no longer comfort or peace, we simply want more of Him.  The heart that is focused on Christ is a content heart.  Prayer is used by the Spirit to birth life-giving peace in us.  We must begin to see prayer as a work of sanctification – sanctification being the process of dying to our flesh.  We let things die within us that are not eternal, and we nurture the things planted in us that are eternal.  May we be people of prayer that are able to see beyond the wisdom and understanding of the world, and may we allow the Spirit to sanctify us completely.  “He who calls you is faithful; He will do it.”  Grace and peace,

 

JOT

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What does Prayer do? – Psalm 51; January 18, 2011

What does Prayer do? (Part 1) – Psalm 51

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Psalm 51 has long been one of my favorite passages of Scripture. Partly because it is gritty and real, and partly because I connect most with it as a prayer than I do most of the “thanksgiving” prayers offered by David. It’s not that I’m against thanksgiving – I’m thankful more and more everyday. It’s just that my heart connects with David’s passion and the gut-wrenching realization of his sin. I’ve had more constant times of prayer begging for mercy as David does in this Psalm than I’d like to admit. It’s a feeling I wish I could pass on to the majority of the people I see in the American church.

In our discussion of prayer, we must always keep in mind what prayer is – a question we tried to answer in the last discussion from January 11. Once we’ve established in our hearts what prayer is, we can then move to what prayer does. Prayer is never stagnant. It is always moving. It is like a wind that blows through a forest. It often stirs things that have long seemed dormant. It uncovers things that have remained unseen for a time. We must be willing to examine these things, experience them, and deal with the aftermath of the wind. In order to explore and discuss what prayer does, we must see the movement of prayer as it affects 3 realms in the church: the personal realm, the corporate realm, and the global realm. We will begin by discussing the personal realm.

Psalm 51 is an extremely personal prayer, especially when seen within the context of David’s sin being uncovered by Nathan. This is the king of Israel having to come face to face with the God of the Universe, the King who crowned him, the only being who could judge the king of God’s chosen people. David’s crime has not gone unseen, as he had hoped. He has not escaped. And he has not been dragged into a court of law where his subordinates sit to dole out punishment. He stands naked and vulnerable before the Righteous Judge of the World – and David’s response is to cry out for mercy.

This is where the heart of prayer begins for the believer. As we talked about in the defining prayer, prayer goes hand in hand with abiding. The more we are in Christ, the more we see the filthiness of our sin. Not just the large, obvious, earth-shattering sin like the sins David had committed. We see the little, seemingly innocent affronts to God’s glory and Kingship. We begin to see the traces of pride that corrupts even the most outwardly righteous things mwe do. David is not only confronted with his sin with Bathsheba – he does not only have to deal with his murder of Uriah – David’s very being, a being “brought forth in iniquity,” is brought to light and marked “guilty.” The sins of adultery and murder were symptoms of the true cause – a heart in need of rebirth.

The first thing that prayer does at a personal, intimate level for the believer is cause us to see our sin in comparison to God’s perfection. Only then are we truly abiding. If we ever approach God not believing ourselves to be filthy and unworthy, we have ceased to abide. Prayer, first and foremost, causes us to humble ourselves before the God of All. That is why when Christ teaches His disciples to pray says, “Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be Your name.” (Matthew 6:9) There is no child who approaches their father as equal or superior. And there is no believer who can see the hallowedness of a Holy God and believe that they have attained equal state with Him. Prayer costs us our pride. Our pride becomes part of the debris lifted by the Spirit’s wind as we pray. A branch attached to the Vine does not believe itself to be the source of it’s life – it knows from where it’s life comes. So it is with an abiding believer. An abiding child of God will not commune with the Father in prayer while pride remains. May we, with broken spirits and contrite hearts, cry out with David, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10) I love y’all more than you know. Grace and peace,

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JOT

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Luke 11:1-13 – What is Prayer?; January 11, 2011

Luke 11:1-13 – What is Prayer?

I’ve grown up in church.  I’m the son of a pastor who is also the son of a pastor.  I’ve been in church since I was born.  My earliest memory outside of some scattered memories regarding our pets when I was a kid is playing with some plastic kitchen toys in the nursery.  I know what prayer is.  I’ve prayed countless times.  I’ve prayed about trivial things like for the Cowboys to win football games.  I’ve prayed for meaningful things like my grandmother being healed of cancer.  I knew what prayer was… I thought I did anyway.

My journey in my walk with Christ has been one of me continually having to take what I believed to be true and humbly accept that I was not the final authority on the matter.  Part of God’s sanctifying me has much to do with Him breaking me of what I know to be true, and showing me what is actually true through His Word and by His Spirit.  My pride has suffered a great deal.  Hopefully, it will finally die, but that’s another matter altogether.

Something that the Lord has shown me is just how critical prayer is to the life of the believer.  In John 15 Christ tells us that we must abide in Him if we are to be saved.  If we are to know Him and be in Him we must learn to abide.  The more I’ve been open to understanding abiding, the more I’ve come to understand what prayer really is.  If you were to ask a believer what prayer was you’d get a multitude of answers.  Prayer is talking with God, prayer is thanksgiving, prayer is confession, prayer is praise.  If you read books on prayer you’ll find things like “8 Steps to Effective Prayer”, “How to make God act on your behalf”, “Receiving what you ask in prayer”.  Some of these answers hold pieces to the puzzle but lack the full picture of prayer.  Much like anyone who would claim to have a list of things that lead us to abiding, it just simply isn’t that simple.  To relegate prayer to a step-by-step program is to rob prayer of it’s most essential attribute – abiding.  There is no one who approaches a friend or parent with an 8-step program for getting what you want from that person.  There is no real relationship if steps are required.

In Luke 11, Jesus teaches His disciples about prayer.  He uses a parable about an annoying yet persistent neighbor who invades his neighbor’s house to get food for a guest.  Jesus does an amazing thing in this parable – He tells us to be the annoying neighbor pounding on God’s door in the middle of the night.  He tells us to ask, and that when we ask, we will receive; when we seek, we will find; when we knock, the door will be opened.  What an amazing thing for the King of Kings to say to His people.  But let us be clear about one thing, He is very specific in what is being asked.  He does not leave it open ended so that we can somehow imagine what the thing is that we should receive.  In verse 13 Jesus says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” (emphasis added).  You see, God’s children more than anything seek God’s presence and His will alone.  There is no list of priorities and God’s will and presence sit at the top.  It is a singular priority.  If we have lists of priorities we are missing it.  The soul focus of the praying believer is that we might know God more intimately.  The Holy Spirit is our helper who teaches us the truth of who Christ is.  So when we are given the Spirit, we are given a deeper understanding of who God is and the work He has done through Christ.

This is where we must again draw our attention to the aspect of abiding that is essential to prayer.  If we are not abiding as Jesus explains in John 15, then we are severed from the Vine and no longer desire what the Vine desires.  Our focus shifts from the asking for the Spirit to asking for a million other things.  Only through abiding do our hearts come to know how depraved our desires are, and the only thing we want in the midst of abiding in Him is more of Him.

Here I must address a horrible, agonizing trend in the modern, especially American, church.  This text that we’ve read has been and will continue to be used as a means for men to control God into giving them what they want.  And if He does not give them what they want, then He is not real, the Bible is not true, and they have an excuse to live as they always have.  I read last week in a New York Times best-seller that man has authority of this world and prayer is our way of letting God work supernaturally in our world.  My hope is that this catches some of you by surprise, but the truth is that most of us believe the same thing, we just haven’t published it yet.  We love to believe that we are in control of our lives and that God is only needed on the big stuff.  We have the day-to-day under control and we only need Him when we get sick, lose our job, have a big test coming, are lonely, or need more money than we already have.  God is relegated to the role of butler – only needed when we call.

Abiding frustrates this mentality because if we are abiding, we are always in Him – ALWAYS.  When we are always in Him, we begin to see that we are in control of nothing and know nothing.  It is truly humbling to abide, which is why so many of us would prefer not to abide.  We’d rather have an all-powerful, all-knowing, sovereign butler at our beckon call.

Prayer is our communion with the God in whom we abide.  It is our communication with Him.  Prayer is constant because He is constantly there.  Prayer is praise because He is worthy.  Prayer is confession because we need to be honest with Him and ourselves about how wicked we really are.  Prayer is asking because we are so desperately in need.  It is my hope that our idea of what prayer is grows to fit the whole picture of what God intends for it to be – a way for us to stay connected to the Vine.  May we be people of Prayer as we abide in Him.  I love y’all more than you know.  Grace and peace,

JOT

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2 Corinthians 5:16-21 – Resolutions; January 4, 2012

2 Corinthians 5:16-21 – Resolutions

 

I’ve always found it curious how fickle people can be around the New Year.  People seem to assume that something cosmically magical is going to happen just because our man-made calendar flips from December 31st to January 1st.  People work themselves into a frenzy believing that they will be a brand new person on the morning of January 1st despite a multitude of January 1st that are evidence to the contrary.  People tend to imagine a clean slate, a fresh start, a second chance at being a better person than they had been in the past.  This is especially interesting to me when Christians fall into the same pattern as the rest of Western culture.  It only goes to prove how little we truly understand about our own natures and the nature of salvation and sanctification in our lives.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church we see a different kind of “newness” than we typically see around New Year’s Day in America.  It is a newness not dependant upon man’s will or resolute desire to modify his behavior.  It is a newness based on the work of the Creator of the world.  It is a new creation birthed from the Spirit of God Himself.  How many of us can say that we have ever had a hand in such a transformation?

I’ve seen people make resolutions to eat better, exercise, read more, study harder, be nicer to people, and so on and so forth.  I’ve seen drastic transformations in people’s appearance and attitude, but I have never seen a person change their very nature.  I’ve never witnessed someone will themselves to being in right standing with God.  Scripture confirms this reminding us that it has never happened in the history of mankind. We are unable to change our natures no matter how many resolutions we write and keep.  No matter how much we change our behavior, we are still the same old sinner we were in the past – we have simply learned to hide our sin in the shadows of our hearts.

I do not believe that it is a bad or unhealthy desire to want our lives to be different than they have been in the past.  I look back into my own history and take note of the many times that I have failed.  The cyclical pattern of my hubris and the wounds I have inflicted on those I love.  It is natural to look to the future with hope that we may yet become free of our vices and leave behind the broken nature that we have allowed to live and thrive within our hearts.  My intention in writing this is that we might begin to look to the true source of newness.  That we might stop chasing our own abilities of training a rebellious and depraved nature and learn to abide in the New Life that Christ offers.  Make no mistake, to receive the New Life that Christ brings is to invite war with the old nature.  It is to choose to battle every moment the desires and selfish habits that our flesh have established within us.  It is only through Christ that we can become new, and it is only through the filter of His Word and the intervention of His Holy Spirit that we can fully understand Him.  May we strive to know Him more in this year.  I love y’all more than you know.  Grace and peace,

 

JOT

Eternity’s Shadows; December 2011

Eternity’s Shadows

 

I’ve experienced an extremely nagging thought throughout this holiday season.  One that has affected me much more this year than in years past.  It started nagging as I experienced my first Christmas as a father and has escalated as my eldest little girl has grown and become more aware of the euphoric experience of receiving presents.  I am growing to intensely dislike the habit of giving ridiculous amounts of gifts one day a year – especially to my children – especially on what we call Christmas.  As I often do, I’m sure I’m over-analyzing the entire thing, but my heart has been troubled at the thought of my daughters falling in love with the shadows of Christmas instead of seeing it for what it is.

The more I thought of this, the more I noticed that this distraction from the true substance, or form as Plato named it, is natural to the human condition.  We too easily accept the shadows and end up deeply attached to them while the substance is readily available to us.  We do it with food, love, work, music, art, and every other facet of existence.  Instead of loving the God who gave us taste and stomachs, we love food, cooks, restaurants and our own abilities to find and purchase things that appease our cravings. Instead of seeing hunger as a communication of our deepest need for God, we see it as a natural element of survival.  We trade the substance for the shadow.

In Ecclesiastes 3:11 Solomon writes that God “has put eternity into man’s heart” so that man might seek Him.  There is nothing eternal apart from God, therefore there is nothing that can satisfy the heart of man apart from Him.  So why is it that we pursue so many other things other than Him?  Why do we pursue cars, money, sex, control, relationships, acceptance as if any of these things or combination of them could ever bring peace to the heart of man?  The answer is simple, we prefer shadows to the substance.

Most of us would never admit this to ourselves, much less anyone else.  We prefer to believe that the shadows are the substance.  We prefer to make up our own realities.  We prefer to remain in the shadows than to step into the Light.  What happens to shadows when you step into surrounding and penetrating light?  There is no place for them.  They disappear.  All that is left is the Light, and for us here on this earth, that Light can be elusive.  Eternity is hard to grasp for finite, broken man.  Shadows are much easier to hold and control.  Shadows seem to satisfy, at least for a moment.  How blind we are to the truth of what we pursue.

It is my hope as we start a new year, that people’s eyes would be open to the truth of what we are pursuing.  Are we pursuing shadows or the Light?  Do we run after things that will satisfy us for eternity or for a moment?  May it be that we would allow God to fill the void in our hearts and let go of these fleeting shadows.  I love y’all more than you know.  Grace and peace,

 

JOT