Prayer and Faith – Matthew 21:21-22; Hebrews 11:17-19, 33-38, 12:1-2
There are few verses that cause more confusion in the life of the modern Christian than Matthew 21:22. “And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” What an amazing promise. What a wonderful God who would grant us what we ask as long as our faith is in Him. What a unique way of stating a deep, often misunderstood truth. There are several components to this statement. First we must address what faith is. The more I study and grow in understanding of who God is and what He desires from us, the more I come to find that faith is our trusting in Him being enough. Faith is letting go of things seen in hope of the things not yet seen. Faith is depending on the substance that has been promised by God in His Word, in His Son, and by His Spirit but has not yet come to pass. Faith is a gift that we receive from being in communion with God through His Word.
To put it simply, faith is Him being ALL that we want, all that we ask for, all that we pursue in this life. If this is the case, we must refer back to the “asking” aspect of the verse. Here is where many of us hit a very significant and telling snag. We like to logically progress through this verse analyzing the “asking” aspect first and letting it define the “faith” aspect. We want to have a plumb line, a measuring stick for our faith and so we will ask. We want to use this promise to disqualify ourselves from having to follow God or we want to discredit Him for not doing what He’d promised. When we play this game with this verse we miss the point entirely.
Praying in faith moves our hands off of the things in this world and places them firmly onto Him. We no longer want to hold on to things that don’t last. We want to hold tightly to Him, knowing that He will satisfy for all eternity. Just like Abraham in Hebrews 11:17-19 who proved his devotion to God by offering up his son. Abraham’s faith was in God who could give him back his son if He desired, but even if God did not raise Isaac, obedience was better.
There is something that we find very unnerving about Abraham’s faith, especially if we have children. There’s something terrifying about being asked to kill your only child. Being a parent teaches you to cling all the more to the things of this world or cling all the more to Him. Too often parents are confused by the two. They believe that if they value their child’s safety and comfort above everything else, then they are doing what God has asked them to do. This is simply not the case. The parents whose children are the Lord’s and not their own know that there will be risk in this life. We will be called to live contrary to the world, and that comes with risk. Whether they are societal pressures, economic pressures, or actual danger of disease, violence, and death – to be a believer is to invite risk.
The risk is not only to those with children. This is true for all believers. We are called to live radically different lives than the world around us. Not that all experience hardship in this life. Hebrews 11:33-38 makes that clear. Some were able to live in peace. Some got sawn in two. Both had the same faith. Both took a risk. Both put their faith on something not of this world. Both received something far greater than they could have ever imagined, and it wasn’t anything here on earth. May we all learn to live with hands firmly holding on to Him.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight , and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:1-2
Let us stop holding on so tightly to the things we were never meant to hold. Let us hold on to Him with all of our might. That is what faith is all about. If He is all that we get, we have all that we need. I love y’all more than you know. Grace and peace,
What does Prayer do? (Part 4) – Philippians 4:7
There is a process to prayer in the heart of every believer. For the last four weeks we have looked at that process and found that the majority of the work that prayer is within the heart of the person praying. This should be no surprise to the Abiding Christian who has disciplined their wayward heart into dying to itself daily and remaining securely attached to the Vine. All actions that we would call Christian “disciplines” ultimately work to change the individual from the inside out so that as these changed individuals gather they might accomplish things of greater consequence than they ever could have imagined. We have discussed these disciplines in the past as Abiding, reading the Word, Prayer, and being involved in community – community being the meeting with fellow believers but also extends to ministry to unbelievers both here and around the world. All of these work, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to transform the heart of stone within each person into a heart of flesh.
The last aspect of what prayer does has to do with the logical progression of what we have been discussing already. If prayer creates humility in us that leads to a shift in focus from the things of this world to the things of His Kingdom bringing about an unexplained contentment and thankfulness we can only assume that we will find a peace “which surpasses all understanding.” Now this peace is not a blind peace forced upon us by blind faith or imagined comfort. Rather, it is a peace that is based on the very nature and character of God Himself. Therefore, it far surpasses any understanding that mortal man could ever grasp. God has done and continues to do mighty things through prayer. From relenting from destroying the Israelites in Exodus 32 at Moses intercession to stopping the sun in at Joshua’s request in Joshua 10 to the prayer of healing described in James chapter 5, all these are evidence of the mighty work of our faithful Heavenly Father. There can be very little peace if we are unwilling to trust Him to be able to do what we have asked of Him.
In this discussion we must also look at the times when we have asked for Him to do something extraordinary and He did not act as we had requested. Many people look at these times and use them against God believing Him to have failed them or as proof that He is not really there at all. I want to draw our attention to three figures in the New Testament who asked for something for God but were denied.
Three out of the four Gospels give us account of Jesus agonizing in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. In all three accounts Christ asks that there might be any other end instead of the cross. And as we all know, Christ suffered and died on the cross despite His pleading. This will be unnervingly harsh in the mind of the unbeliever who is resolved that God is not real or is unjust, but it is overwhelmingly encouraging to the one who has agonized in prayer only to be denied but allows their affections to remain intact.
In 2 Corinthians 12, the Apostle Paul recounts his interactions with God in prayer in regards to his “thorn.” Paul, the writer of 75% of the New Testament, the greatest missionary our faith has known, a man who walked in supernatural power and anointing asked for his “thorn” to be taken and he was met with a resounding “No.” His “thorn” remained and was a constant reminder of his humanity and weakness for the glory of God. Again, the skeptic who searches for evidence to discredit God’s love and faithfulness to His people will use this case against God, but the child of God takes comfort that saints have asked but not always received.
Thirdly, we will hypothetically examine the life of John the Baptist. I say hypothetically because we don’t have an account of John actually praying as I believe he did, but John is very real just the same. His life was spent in devotion to God from the womb, and from that I would confidently venture to say that he was a man of prayer. I do not think it a stretch to think that John prayed in prison that he be released or at least that his life be preserved. I think this desire in John for life and freedom was at the heart of John’s question to Jesus when he sent word through his disciples asking, “Are you the One or should we look for another?” I would venture to say that John often spent time in prayer in his time in that dungeon. It would seem to make him more than human if he did not offer one solitary request for freedom and life. We all know how his life ended. I do not think that ending was what he had asked for in his prayers.
So how do these examples work themselves out at peace in the hearts of believers? How do we trust that our best interests will be looked out for by the God who is supposed to protect, bless, and save? I cringe to write the question. God is not concerned with what we consider “our best interests” will be considered by God. God always has our best in mind. Sometimes that best is suffering. Sometimes that best is loss. Sometimes that best is death. The child of God lives knowing that comfort and peace in this life are not the ultimate end of our efforts or God’s. We were made to pursue things that last eternally. This life is not to last, and the things in this life were not meant to be preserved. Our treasure should never be here. When it is we become idolaters. When we trade what is eternally significant for what is temporarily pleasing we are no longer worshippers of God. We are no longer humble, our focus is not longer on Him and His Kingdom, we are no longer content or thankful, and we can never know peace – the peace that surpasses understanding.
Prayer leads us to peace because we know that God is able to do whatever we ask of Him, but we also understand that even if He does not do what we ask His love, mercy, and sovereignty are still in place. Prayer changes us. Prayer draws us in and joins our hearts with His. It’s when we start believing that our prayers control God that things start to go wrong. Prayer is not about control for the believer. Quite the opposite. Prayer is about surrender. Prayer is about humility, connecting, contentment, thankfulness, and peace. Prayer is about us putting down our control and leaving it in the hands of the only one worthy of it. May we be people of Prayer. May we be people of Peace. I love y’all more than you know. Grace and peace,
What does Prayer do? (Part 3) – Philippians 4:4-7, 11-13
I don’t complain much. Never been a big fan of it. Don’t feel it’s beneficial. But I am a critic. Not a vocal one, mind you, but unashamed to say the least. This characteristic has been a sharp point of emphasis for the Potter as He observes and molds this lump of clay. In looking back on my lengthy track record of criticizing God for the way He decided to direct my life, I can’t help but laugh. How foolish I really am. I’ll never forget looking back on my first semester at Dallas Baptist University and criticizing God for dragging me to that hill instead of letting me play football. I remember my first talk with my now father-in-law where he asked me to stop contacting his daughter. I couldn’t let God forget how sloppy it was to draw Amy and I together but allow her parents to be totally and abrasively opposed to the concept. I could go on for days…
In allowing the Lord to sanctify what is broken within me I’ve had to look back and analyze why my feelings were so strong that I felt justified in looking into the face of God and wag my finger. Discontentment and ungratefulness are near the top of the list. Philippians 4 and last week’s 1 Thessalonians 5 echo each other as Paul tries to get our hearts to connect with God’s. “Rejoice always,” he says. Never stop. “Give thanks in all circumstances,” he commands, “in everything… with thanksgiving.” Thankfulness birthed out of contentment. We can rejoice because what we have received is enough. We can give thanks because what we have been given is exactly what we needed. It took me too long to get this.
Joy, for the Christian, is not about how we feel. It is not connected to external stimuli – it is rooted in something stronger, something deeper. Joy is constant. It finds its source in Christ and does not look outside of Him for sustenance. This is why it is so hard for us to hold on to it. So few of us have learned to abide in Him. We’ve neglected the Vine, believing that as long as we stand close enough His power will rub off on us. This is why we are not grateful. This is why we grow to be discontent. In our minds and hearts, He is not enough for us. We need more money, we need more stuff, we need more attention, we need more respect. He hasn’t provided like we wanted, He hasn’t followed through with His promise, He hasn’t kept His end of the bargain. All excuses we pile up as justification for being ungrateful and discontent. How childish we are.
The worst part about being ungrateful is that we so often cannot see ourselves accurately in the moment. We have so many logical and reasonable justifications for demanding God do things our way. When we are being completely, albeit humanly, rational is when we are the most at risk of being ungrateful or discontent. There is nothing rational about rejoicing always. There is nothing intellectually justifiable in giving thanks in all circumstances. Who says “Thank you” when they are punched in the gut and really means it? Who has a loved one die and their heart breaks into joyful song? Who sees the pain, hardships, and famine of war ravished nations violently opposed to the Gospel and says, “Let’s move our family there”?
Prayer humbles us before a Mighty God. Prayer shifts our focus from this world to God’s Kingdom. Prayer allows our hearts to be thankful in all things and be content whether we plenty or nothing. This is what prayer does in the heart of the believer. This is what abiding produces in the child of God. This is why we hunger for Him, are desperate for Him, would sell or give all we have for Him. He is what we want, and when we are abiding in Him and praying to Him, He is the only thing that will satisfy. Therefore, the abiding, praying believer can rejoice in all things and be content in all things because no matter the external circumstances, they have Christ. May it be so in us. I love y’all more than you know. Grace and peace,
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,
What does Prayer do? (Part 1) – Psalm 51
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,
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,