Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Reflections on Psalm 59

Psalms 59:14-16 (ESV)
[14] Each evening they come back,
howling like dogs
and prowling about the city.
[15] They wander about for food
and growl if they do not get their fill.
[16] But I will sing of your strength;
I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning.
For you have been to me a fortress
and a refuge in the day of my distress.

Psalm 59 was written by David when Saul sent people to watch his house in order to kill him. The Psalm is an honest and passionate cry for deliverance. The verses quoted above are near the end of the Psalm. The final verse reads, “O my Strength, I will sing praises to you, for you, O God, are my fortress, the God who shows me steadfast love” (Ps 59:17). In the middle of very real danger David can say, “You, O God, are my fortress.” How can he do that? How does he find peace and hope in the midst of danger?

Let me make three observations from the verses quoted above in answer to that question. First, notice that David’s focus was different than that of his enemies. Their focus was in the moment. “They wander about for food and growl if they do not get their fill” (Ps 59:15). He is comparing them to dogs prowling the city by night, but notice that the only concern of the dogs is filling their stomach in the moment. David’s focus, however, was not in the moment nor the circumstances that surrounded him. His focus was on God. The book of Hebrews challenges us, as believers, to fix our eyes on “Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2). The world’s eyes are set on the conditions that surround it. We are called to something higher.

The second observation is that not only was David’s focus different from that of his enemies, he was not focused on his enemies at all. He set his mind on the faithfulness of God. Enemies look big. They look overwhelming. Focusing on our enemies robs us of courage and fills us with fear. A little child may fear going down a playground slide, but if they are sitting on Mom’s or Dad’s lap the fear dissipates. Their courage comes from being wrapped in the arms of one they trust. That is exactly what David was doing. He knew he was wrapped in God’s arms.  

Third, David’s present hope was based on his past experiences with God. Several years ago our whole family went bungie jumping on Mt. Hood. Standing on that tower looking down at the ground below and realizing how high we were was scary. It took everything in me to turn my mind from the height and the ground below to focus on the strength of the large bungie cord, the harness that held me securely, and safety net that would catch me in case anything went wrong. Had I not watched several others go before me, I might not have been willing to make the jump.

David’s trust in God had grown over the years as he had watched God’s deliverance and protection. He remembered how God had delivered him when a lion or a bear attached his flock (see 1 Sam 17:34-35). He remembered how God delivered Goliath into his hands in 1 Samuel 17. He remembered that God had promised that he would be the next king (see 1 Sam 16). David’s present courage was rooted in his past deliverance. He had seen the power and faithfulness of God. He may have been initially filled with fear, but he knew who he could trust. Setting his eyes on God, he was filled with courage and hope. He was convinced that by morning he would “sing aloud of [God’s] steadfast love” (Ps 59:16).

Do you find yourself filled with fear or anxiety? Take a lesson from David. As the old hymn says,
Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in His wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace
(written by Helen Howarth Lemmell)

Monday, July 27, 2020

Reflections on Psalm 57

Psalms 57:1-2 (ESV)
To the choirmaster: according to Do Not Destroy.
A Miktam of David, when he fled from Saul, in the cave.

[1] Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
till the storms of destruction pass by.
[2] I cry out to God Most High,
to God who fulfills his purpose for me.

David wrote Psalm 57 when he was fleeing for his life from King Saul. He hid in a cave and feared for his life. The opening verses of this psalm are exactly what I would expect. It includes the requests, “Be merciful to me, O God,” and statements of faith like, “in you my soul takes refuge.” The beginning of the psalm is not surprising. It is the end of the psalm that catches us by surprise.

The psalm moves quickly from crying out for mercy to reflecting on God’s protection and deliverance. Verse 4 is a vivid description of David’s condition that reminds me of the experience of Daniel, who would come several generations later.
My soul is in the midst of lions;
I lie down amid fiery beasts—
the children of man, whose teeth are spears and arrows,
whose tongues are sharp swords (Ps 57:4).

The danger was very real, yet David was convinced that “God will send out his steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ps 57:3). In the midst of metaphorical lions and fiery beasts, David, reflecting on the faithfulness of God, was filled with worship, praise, and hope. The Psalm starts with two verses describing David’s fearful condition, but it ends with four verses of worship, thanksgiving and praise.
[8] Awake, my glory!
Awake, O harp and lyre!
I will awake the dawn!
[9] I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to you among the nations.
[10] For your steadfast love is great to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
[11] Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
Let your glory be over all the earth (Ps 57:8-11)!

How can David sing, worship, give thanks, and express his desire for God to be exalted when he is hiding in a cave, fearing for his life? There is a fire-tower near me that I have climbed multiple times through my life. The first time I climbed it I was a child going up with a friend of the family. I loved it. From the top you could see in all directions. It gave a different perspective of the land. The stairs going to the top were safe and I had no fear. Several years ago, when our children were young I took our children and some of our nieces and nephews to the top of that same tower. It was still safe. There was chain link fencing along both sides of the steps going up to keep people from falling. There is a wall that goes around the small room at the top with open windows so people can see. It was perfectly safe, but all I could see in my mind was one of my children falling a hundred feet to the ground. I was filled with anxiety and fear. I was focused on what might happen instead of why they were perfectly safe. Our focus changes everything. David turned his focus from the cause of his fear to the source of his safety. In doing so he moved from “Be merciful to me O God,” to “Be exalted O God.”

What is filling you with anxiety today? What has you filled with fear? Let me challenge you to take that thing and lift it up to God. Define it. Explain it. Illustrate it. Clarify it before God in prayer, and then begin to rehearse the greatness, the faithfulness, the glory, the goodness, and the might power of God. Let that move you to worship and let your fears dissipate in the fullness of who God is. Don’t do this artificially. Don’t just quickly say the “right” words. Be deep down honest with God about your fears. Then, reflect on the faithfulness of God until you are moved to worship. Let your heart be filled with a vision of God’s greatness and see how your fears and anxieties begin to fade. Let God move you from “Be merciful to me O God,” to “Be exalted O God.” Remember the truth of 1 Corinthians 10:13
[13] No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Love and Truth (Pt 3)

The church I am currently serving has said that they desire to be a welcoming, passionate body that shows compassion and a non-judgmental spirit in the context of truth. To do that we need to hold uncompromisingly to the truth, yet show compassion and acceptance to those who are broken. We never want to be a church that says, “We would love to have you come, but you need to clean up first.” The gospel is: Come and be made clean. It is not: Clean up and God will accept you. Several years ago I had just preached a sermon about this. I had challenged the church with the idea that too often we claim to want unbelievers to come to church and find Christ, but we want them to clean up and look like us first. An elderly lady approached me and said, “Oh, I know what you mean. I just wish my son would come to church, but if he did I would be so embarrassed. He has long, greasy hair and tattoos.” Why would she be embarrassed? Shouldn’t she be rejoicing?

That being said, we never want to compromise truth. Neither must we settle for just getting people to come to church. Jesus did not leave the woman at the well in her sin in John 4. Rather, she was commended for speaking the truth about her sin. The woman caught in adultery was not sent back to a life of sin. She was told, “Go, and from now on sin no more” (Jn 8:11). The sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet was told, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Lk 7:50). Jesus said to the scribes and pharisees, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

There is a delicate balance here. As a church of Jesus Christ we must be welcoming and accepting. We never want to be considered judgmental. We must never look down on others or give the impression that we are superior to them. But for the grace of God we would be just as broken and in bondage as they are. Yet we must never compromise truth either. Truth without love undermines our very message. Love without truth leaves people in their sin.

As a church we must be both compassionate and passionate. What do we mean by passionate? Hebrews 10:24 instructs us to stir up one another to love and good works. According to the Google dictionary, to be passionate means to show or have your actions caused by strong feelings or a strong belief. The word translated “stir up” in Hebrews 10 is a word found in the Bible only twice. It means to provoke or irritate to the point of action or reaction. It is used in Acts 15:39 in reference to the sharp disagreement between Paul and Barnabas over Mark. We are to be passionate about our faith. That does not mean that we necessarily need to be jumping and shouting. It does mean that our faith will be changing how we live. It means that we take our faith so seriously that we are actually provoking one another to love others and do good works. To be passionate in our faith means that we are not satisfied to leave people to live however they please.

1 Corinthians 14:12 says that spiritual gifts are given for the purpose of building up the church. 2 Corinthians 10:8 and 13:10 say that Paul’s authority was given to him to build up believers. Ephesians 4:12 says that the church is to be equipped to build up the Body of Christ. Ephesians 4:29 tells us to use language that builds up rather than tearing down. That verse connects love, truth, and passionate faith. “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths [we should live and speak truth], but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion [we should be loving], that it may give grace to those who hear” [truth and love result in passionate faith that grows out of grace] (Eph 4:29).

If we are truly passionate about our faith, people will see it. They will sense that we truly love God and people from the heart. They will sense that our worship is from the heart. Loud may mean passionate, but not necessarily. Loud might simply mean loud. Excited may mean passionate, but not necessarily. Excited might simply mean emotion without passion. Passion can be loud or it can be quiet, but it is always from the heart. Passionate faith is not a faith that works us up for a moment. Passionate faith is a faith that changes us permanently. It changes how we live. It changes how we speak and act. It changes how we love. Passionate faith changes what we are willing to die for. It is sometimes expressed in great emotion, and sometimes is quiet, unmoving faith, but it never leaves us unchanged. We are called to passionate faith. To borrow a question from Del Tackett in The Truth Project, "Do you really believe that what you believe is really real?"

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Love and Truth (Pt 2)

The church I am currently serving has said that they desire to be a welcoming, passionate body that shows compassion and a non-judgmental spirit in the context of truth. That statement grows out of the idea that love and truth must be held together. But is it really right for a church to say that we want to show compassion and a non-judgmental spirit? Don’t we live in a sinful world? Aren’t we surrounded by evil? Shouldn’t we call sin what it is?

Certainly sin is sin. We never want to compromise truth. But in calling out sin we sometimes confuse sin with the sinner. John 3:16 says that God loved the world so much that he gave his only son. Notice that it doesn’t say that God loved the world so much that he pointed out all their sin. Coming to God is not a call to change your life or clean up your act. That is something only God can do. His call is a free invitation. “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Rev 22:17). That statement grows out of Isaiah 55:1,
Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
 come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
The call to follow God is a free invitation without condemnation. In John 4 Jesus traveled through Samaria. That was a region all Jews avoided, but Jesus traveled through it. When he met a woman at a well in the town of Sychar he entered into conversation with her. He asked her for a drink of water. He knew what kind of woman she was. He knew that she had previously had five different husbands, and that she was now living with a man unmarried (Jn 4:18). He didn’t accuse her, or scold her. He didn’t tell her that she needed to get married or move out. What he did was offer her the free gift of living water. In John 8 Jesus said to the woman caught in the act of adultery, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (Jn 8:11). Jesus didn’t need to tell these people what they were doing wrong. They knew they were broken. They knew they were unclean. In a loving, non-judgmental voice he offered them real life.

In Luke 7, a woman described as a sinner anointed Jesus feet at a dinner party. The good, religious host thought to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner” (Lk 7:39). Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven. . . . Your faith has saved you” (Lk 7:48-50). It seems to me that God is often more ready to accept and forgive than we are. In Luke 19, Zacchaeus is described as chief among the tax collectors and rich, implying that he had taken advantage of his fellow Jews. Jesus said to Zacchaeus, “I must stay at your house today” (Lk 19:5). Jesus was surrounded by people who would love to put him up for the night. He was followed by “good” Jews, but he chose to stay with a sinner.

I think that we sometimes forget that Jesus said, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Mk 2:17). Too often our approach has been that we don’t talk to “sinners.” We avoid spending time with those who might be a bad influence. We don’t go into their houses. We don’t sit and eat with them. We don’t associate with “bad” people. And when they come to church we don’t get too close. After all, doesn’t the Bible say, “Bad company ruins good morals” (1 Cor 15:33)? Yes it does, but it also says that God loves the World and that Jesus came to save sinners. It is one thing to make those who are opposed to God into our closest friends. It is quite another thing to reject those who know they are sinners.

When people come into church our first approach must be to embrace them, not avoid them. It is the job of the Holy Spirit to bring conviction. It is our job to share the love and truth of Christ. When we take on the responsibility of the Holy Spirit we often do great damage. It is our job to simply offer the invitation. “Let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Rev 22:17). May we learn to show compassion and a non-judgmental spirit in the context of truth.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Love and Truth (Pt 1)

A preferred culture is just that. It is preferred. It is a goal toward which we aspire. The church I am currently serving seeks to be a welcoming, passionate body that shows compassion and a non-judgmental spirit in the context of truth. First notice that this is what we are seeking to be. We are not claiming to have arrived, but we are working toward this end. But, why this culture. Why not just say, “We seek to uncompromisingly stand for truth,” or “We seek to love and accept everybody?” I have friends who would embrace the first statement about uncompromisingly standing for truth. I have friends who would embrace the second statement about loving and accepting everybody. So which is it? Why did we choose the preferred culture of being a welcoming, passionate body that shows compassion and a non-judgmental spirit in the context of truth?

In 2 John verse four, John wrote, “I rejoiced greatly to find some of your children walking in the truth.” Truth is essential. Without truth we have nothing to believe. Without truth our faith is a house built on sand, to use Jesus’ expression (see Mt 7:24-27). Truth is that which correlates to reality. We cannot talk about my truth versus your truth. A while back I heard a pastor challenge a group of students to find their truth. He expressed a desire that they would discover and accept his truth, but that what really mattered was that they find their truth. The problem is, that is not the meaning of the word truth. True truth is that which corresponds to reality. My truth, if it does not correspond to reality, is actually a lie. If I believe with all my heart that I can walk on water that doesn’t make it so. If I believe that there is a spot in the middle of the lake where the water is dry, that doesn’t make it so. Our faith is built on the truth of who Jesus is and that he died and rose again. That is not wishful thinking, or simply my truth. It is truth evidenced and testified to by eye witnesses. We must uncompromisingly stand for truth.

John wrote, “I rejoiced greatly to find some of your children walking in the truth” (2Jn 1:4). But in the very next verse he wrote, “And now I ask you, . . .  that we love one another” (2Jn 1:5). Uncompromising truth is essential, but so is love. Now John is specifically warning his readers about false teachers and so he goes on to define love. “And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments” (2Jn 1:6). Love cannot be separated from truth, yet for it to be love it must be more than a commitment to truth. Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:12-13). Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
Truth without love is harsh, demanding, and often legalistic. Love without truth is wishy-washy. It makes excuses for bad behavior, or just ignores it. It encourages people to find their truth rather than finding truth. Truth without love is destructive and divisive. Love without truth has no foundation and is therefore also destructive in the end. Even though it promises life, it delivers death. That is why we desire to be a welcoming, passionate body that shows compassion and a non-judgmental spirit in the context of truth. The Apostle John cannot separate those two concepts. He wrote in 1 John 3:18 “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” May that be true of me. May that be true of us as believers in Jesus Christ.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

The Holy Spirit (Pt 3)

Acts 13:2 (ESV)
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”

Acts 8:29 (ESV)
And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.”
Acts 20:28 (ESV)
[28] Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.
Several years ago I had the opportunity to sit with the pastor and elders of a small local congregation. A difficult problem came up that they needed to deal with. The Pastor said, “We need to pray about this.” They stopped right there and prayed together. Each person prayed, and then they sat in silence for a time. Then the pastor turned to each person in the room and asked, “What did you hear?” Each person had a thought or idea that had occurred to them as they were praying and listening. By the time each one had added to the conversation they had a plan to deal with the problem. The pastor had taught his leaders to listen to the Holy Spirit.

That is likely not the only way we listen to the Holy Spirit, but it is certainly one way to do so. Too often our approach is not to listen, but to talk. We talk a problem to death, come to a consensus, and make a decision, or we leave it for the next meeting. We are told to pray about it and we’ll talk about it at the next meeting. Few actually spend any significant time praying about the problem between meetings. We know how to make decisions, and we know how to put off making decisions. What we do not do well is listen.

The Spirit told Philip to talk to the Ethiopian Eunuch (Ac 8:29). The Spirit told the leaders of the church in Antioch to send Paul and Barnabas on a mission trip (Ac 13:2). The Spirit placed each leader in the church (Ac 20:28). Having been placed in leadership of God’s church by God’s Spirit, it is then important for us to actually listen to the Holy Spirit. How do we know it is the Spirit who is speaking, and not just our own ideas, or worse, some deceptive spirit?

The Spirit’s voice is often drowned out by the clamor of our own thoughts and desires. There are three principles that we need to keep in mind when we are learning to listen to the Spirit. First is the principle of indifference. The Apostle Paul wrote,
[12] I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. [13] I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Ph’p 4:12).
If we attempt to listen to the Holy Spirit, but we have a vested interest in how things turn out, or what we want to hear, it is difficult to hear clearly. If we are to truly hear the Spirit of God, we need to be okay with whatever he says. If I set my heart on buying a particular car, and I pray about whether it is a good idea, all the while yearning for the car, I probably won’t hear the Spirit. My yearning is screaming so loudly that it muffles the voice of the Spirit. In 1 Thessalonians 5:19 we are warned, “Do not quench the Spirit.” Unless we are able so say, “Whatever the Spirit says, I am okay with,” we will never hear clearly. Are we as ready to hear “No” as we are to hear “Yes?” The principle of indifference is a foundational principle in hearing clearly from the Spirit.

The second principle of hearing the Spirit is that the Spirit of God never speaks contrary to the Word of God that he inspired. 2 Peter 1:21 says, “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit, who inspired the Bible will never speak contrary to the Bible he inspired. When we think we are hearing from the Spirit, we must test it against the Word of the Spirit. The Apostle John wrote, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, . . . . every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God” (1 John 4:1-3). Not everything we hear is necessarily from God. It must be tested against what we know is true. It must be tested against the Word.

The third principle of hearing the Spirit is that what we think we are hearing from him must be tested against what others are hearing. “The spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (1 Cor 14:32-33). Throughout the Scriptures there is a principle of two or three witnesses. In 2 Corinthians 13:1 the Apostle Paul says that accusations against a brother “must be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” That same principle is taught in Numbers and Deuteronomy. Jesus taught that “if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” (Mt 18:19). Just three verses earlier Jesus taught us how to approach a brother who is in sin and will not listen. “But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (Mt 18:16). In 1 Corinthians 14:29 Paul taught, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.” No one should say, “God said . . .” or “God told me . . .” unless it is first tested by others who are listening to the Spirit as well. May we learn to say, “I think I am hearing . . . from God. What are you hearing?”

If we are to learn to listen to the Spirit we need practice these three principles. We must be indifferent to what we hear. We must test what we hear against the Word of God. We must test what we hear against what others are hearing. The Spirit never contradicts himself, but we do not always hear clearly. I sometimes wonder if what people claim to be hearing from God is not just wishful thinking, or their own desires shouting loudly. When it comes to listening to the Spirit of God, we must come with humility, and a willingness to test what we think we are hearing. That being said, we must first be actually listening. He often speaks in a “low whisper” (1 Kng 19:12). It is time we stop making decisions and starting listening to the Spirit of God. He knows the heart of God. Romans 8 reminds us that we do not know how to pray, but the Spirit “intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). The Spirit of God knows both the depth of our hearts, and the will of the Father. Maybe it is time that we learn to listen to him.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

The Holy Spirit (Pt 2)

I wrote in an earlier blog about two reasons why we need to be guided by the Holy Spirit. Effective evangelism starts with the Holy Spirit. Effective Bible study starts with the Holy Spirit. A third reason we need to be guided by the Holy Spirit is because our own reasoning is faulty. Proverbs 19:21 says, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.” In Acts 8, Philip had a powerful ministry in Samaria. It made no sense for him to leave that ministry and go out to the desert, yet that is where God led him. The Spirit directed him to speak to an Ethiopian who was riding in a chariot. Through that encounter the gospel spread to Africa. We can only see so much. As a result, our plans are often faulty. God’s plans are so much better.

In Acts 16 the Apostle Paul had a plan for ministry. He took Timothy with him and headed for Phrygia and Galatia, but God had other plans. Acts 16:6 says that the Holy Spirit forbade Paul from preaching in Asia. That made no sense. Paul’s most effective work had been done in western Asia. Phrygia and Galatia made perfect sense. But God had other plans. Through a dream, Paul was called to take the gospel further west, to Europe. The gospel spread beyond Asia to both Africa and Europe by the leading of the Holy Spirit. When listening to the Holy Spirit we find ourselves in ministries and opportunities that would never have occurred to us.

We need to be guided by Holy Spirit because effective evangelism and effective Bible study start with the Holy Spirit. Effective ministry is directed by the Holy Spirit. Too often our plans are made by reasoning together, strategizing and planning based on our knowledge and information. But God knows better. He knows the future from the past. He knows the needs that we do not see. He opens doors that we don’t even know exist. He changes hearts that we cannot change. In all of our reasoning, strategizing, and planning, we need to learn to listen.

Reason, strategy, and planning are not bad things. God gave us reason. It is part of what it means to be created in the image of God. God himself is a planner. The whole redemption story that plays out in the Bible and is still playing out in the world today was planned by God before the foundation of the world. The crucifixion itself was part of God’s plan from the beginning (1 Pet 1:20). God has a plan. As those created in his image reason, strategy, and planning are a significant part of being created in his image.

Planning is not wrong, but we need to learn to hold our plans loosely and listen to the leading and direction of the Spirit. James wrote in James 4:13-16,
[13] Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— [14] yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. [15] Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” [16] As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.
We need to learn to hold our plans loosely because God may have better plans. What if we made listening part of our strategic planning? What if we sought the Lord’s guidance with more than a cursory prayer at the beginning of a meeting? What if we learned to test what we think we hear from God against what others are hearing? It is fascinating to me that after the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, where the church leaders gathered to discuss the first theological crisis of the early church, their conclusion was, “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . .” (Act 16:28).

We need to be guided by Holy Spirit because effective evangelism, effective Bible study, and effective ministry are all dependent on the Holy Spirit. May we learn to listen better. May we repent of our arrogant self-sufficiency. May we hold our plans loosely. If we learn these things we just might be amazed at what God does.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

The Holy Spirit (Pt 1)

One of the guiding principles of the church I am currently serving is that we are guided by the Holy Spirit. We are grounded in the Word, unified in the faith, girded in prayer, and guided by the Holy Spirit. If we are grounded in the Word then why do we need the Holy Spirit? Shouldn’t we just do what the Bible says?

Unfortunately, in some churches we act as though that were true. Someone once said, “It is amazing what the church in America can do without the Holy Spirit.” That is a condemnation, not a commendation. The wealth and independence of the western church has, in some cases, almost replaced the Holy Spirit with money, education, and government protection. But, there are several reasons why the Holy Spirit is absolutely necessary. I will not be able to address them all, but let me start with two.

First, we need to be guided by the Holy Spirit because it is the Holy Spirit that convinces, or convicts, “the world concerning sin, and righteousness, and judgment” (Jn 16:8). Laws do not accomplish that. Governmental protection of the church does not accomplish that. Truthfully, even apologetics (reasoned arguments that defend our faith) do not convince the world. It is the Holy Spirit that draws people to faith. It is the Holy Spirit that convinces people of the truth of sin, righteousness, and judgment. It is the Holy Spirit that changes people’s hearts. Jesus told Nicodemus, in John 3:6, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

I have watched polished presentations of the gospel combined with methods of manipulation lead to people coming forward in a meeting, but I always wonder whether that is the Holy Spirit moving them, or simply the methods. Manipulating people into praying a prayer is not evangelism. True heart change starts with the Holy Spirit moving in people’s hearts. If God is truly drawing someone to faith, we don’t need to manipulate them to come forward. If God is not drawing them, then what is the point? “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (Jn 3:6).

We need to be guided by the Holy Spirit because effective evangelism starts with the Holy Spirit. Second, we need to be guided by the Holy Spirit because he is the one who guides us “into all truth” (Jn 16:13). It is the Holy Spirit who moved individuals to write the Scriptures. “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21). The Holy Spirit who moved men to write the Bible is the same Holy Spirit who dwells within each believer and gives understanding. Bible study methods are important. We can’t make the scriptures say whatever we want them to say. We need to learn to read Bible passages in context, and understand how language works in order to understand it well. But that does not mean that we do not need the Holy Spirit. I have met individuals who knew the Bible well, but it made no difference in their lives. For them it was simply an academic study. It is the Holy Spirit who opens our eyes and our hearts to the truth that we are reading. It is the Holy Spirit who gives insight into what we are studying. It is the Holy Spirit who brings conviction, instruction, and training through the Word that he inspired.

There are more reasons why we need to be guided by the Holy Spirit, but these two ought to be enough to make us realize that church without the Spirit is just empty religion. Effective evangelism starts with the Holy Spirit. Effective Bible study starts with the Holy Spirit. For all of our “effective” methodology, we are lifeless and dead without Him. Jesus said, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (Jn 16:7). That Helper is the Holy Spirit. We are not alone.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Is Prayer a Formula?

Our biblical theology of prayer teaches us to pray to the Father through the Spirit in the name of the Son. So, what happens if I pray to Jesus, or to the Holy Spirit instead of to the Father? What happens if I mess up the formula? I believe that God still hears our prayers. Theology describes how prayer works, but it does not dictate a formula for prayer for three reasons.

First, there are at least two examples in the scriptures of exceptions to this theology of prayer. Revelation 22:20 says, “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” John was speaking directly to Jesus, not to the Father. John didn’t  say, “Father send the Lord Jesus.” He said to Jesus, “Come.” In John 14:13-14 Jesus said, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do . . . . If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” Jesus taught his disciples in John 14:14, “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” He didn’t say, “If you ask the Father anything in my name…” He will say that in the next chapter, but here he says, “if you ask me.” He tells the disciples that they can ask him directly. So it at least appears that the scriptures themselves indicate exceptions to any formula that might be suggested by the biblical theology of prayer.

Second, the Lord’s Prayer should be viewed not as a prayer to be quoted, but as a model upon which to build our prayer life. In Luke 11 prayer is worship initiated, “Father, hallowed be your name” (Lk 11:2a). It is kingdom oriented, “Your kingdom come” (Lk 11:2b). Matthew adds, “Your will be done” (Mt 6:10). Prayer is need directed, “Give us each day our daily bread” (Lk 11:3). Prayer is relationship affected, “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us” (Lk 11:4a). Prayer is spiritually focused, “And lead us not into temptation” (Lk 11:4b). Finally, we learn from verses 5-10 that prayer is persistently presented, and from verses 11-13, that prayer is confidently submitted.
The Lord’s Prayer and the verses following in Luke 11 indicate that our prayer ought to be worship initiated, kingdom oriented, need directed, relationship affected, spiritually focused, persistently presented, and confidently submitted. Additionally, in Matthew 6:7, Jesus taught that prayer should not be meaninglessly repeated. Thus, prayer is not so much about a formula, but about every aspect of life.

Prayer is not about getting the formula right because even the scriptures have exceptions to any formula for prayer suggested by a correct theology of prayer, and because the Lord’s Prayer is a model, not a formula. Third, prayer cannot be a simple formula because Romans 8:26 tells us that we do not know what to pray. Because we do not know what to pray the Holy Spirit is there to help us, interceding with “groanings too deep for words.” The verse does not say that the Holy Spirit helps us when we do not know what or how to pray. It simply says, “We do not know what to pray for as we ought.” If prayer was a simple formula then this verse would not be true. We would pray the formula. We would know what to pray and the help of the Holy Spirit would be unnecessary.

Prayer is not about getting it right. It is just about praying. What happens if I pray to Jesus, or to the Holy Spirit instead of the Father? God still hears our prayers. He is more interested in our heart than in whether we get our words right. Ultimately prayer is simply about being with God. Magic requires a recipe of right words. False religions require the right prayers, the right amount of prayers, or both. God simply invites us to come confidently before his Throne of Grace because we have been accepted in Jesus. God is not nearly as concerned that we pray right as he is desirous that we just pray. So, as believers in Jesus Christ, may we make the disciples request our prayer as well, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Prayer Myths (Pt 2)

Prayer is a significant part of the Christian life. Yesterday I wrote about three myths we often hold regarding prayer. Today I would like to share three more myths that seem to be common in the church.

Myth #4: God knows everything anyway so there is no reason to pray.

Yes, God knows everything, but he still invites us to pray. Matthew 6:8 reminds us that our Father "knows what you need before you ask him." But the very next words out of Jesus’ mouth are, "Pray then like this..." Prayer reminds us of our dependency on God. It enhances our intimacy with God. When we are honest with God in prayer it brings us to a place where we are better able to hear from God. The fact that God knows everything should motivate us to pray, knowing that God already knows our needs and is anxious to answer. Sometimes God is simply waiting for us to ask.


Myth # 5: God is obligated to answer my prayer, especially if it is formulated correctly (e.g. we get someone to "agree" with us in prayer, or we close our prayer saying, "In Jesus name...").


Prayer is not an incantation that God is obligated to answer if we get the formula right. Prayer is heart communication with our Father. Praying in Jesus name has nothing to do with tacking on the words, "In Jesus name, Amen" at the end of our prayers. Getting someone to "agree with us in prayer" is not what Matthew 18:19 is talking about. That passage needs to be understood in the context of the Old Testament principle of two or three witnesses. You don't walk up to someone who knows nothing about a case and say, "I'm going to testify in court today. Will you come and agree with me that what I'm saying is true?" Neither should we ask someone to "agree" with us in prayer. Rather, when two or three people independently sense that God is moving them to pray about something, that is evidence that this is truly from God. They are in agreement and can pray in agreement. If we were somehow able to obligate God to answer in a particular way because we have formulated our prayers correctly then God is no longer sovereign. We become the ones in charge. In that case, God must do what we tell him. He is no longer God, but god.


Myth 6: If prayer is not "answered" it is because you didn’t have enough faith.

Jesus said that faith like a grain of mustard can move mountains (Matthew 17:20). Obviously then the key to answered prayer is not the quantity of faith. A mustard seed is pretty small. The object of our faith is more important than the quantity of our faith. When we are focused on the quantity of our faith, we have faith in our faith. God calls us to have faith in him. Like a good father God knows that sometimes what we ask for is not in our best interest. Like children, we can't always see that, but God knows. God sometimes withholds answers to prayer because he loves us. Unanswered prayer is not necessarily about a lack of faith.


There are many more myths and misunderstandings about prayer that I have heard over the years, but these seem to be most prevalent everywhere I go. By exposing some of this wrong thinking my hope is that we will be more motivated to chase after what prayer is really about. May God truly teach us to pray.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Prayer Myths (Pt 1)

Prayer is one of the guiding principles of the church that I serve. It ought to be one of the guiding principles of every believer. But to understand prayer we must first understand some myths about prayer that we have often bought into.

      I.     There are Myths that We have Believed About Prayer:

Too often there are ideas about prayer that become a part of church culture but are not particularly biblical. Below are 6 myths about prayer that seem to have become a part of how we think as believers. Let me address a few of them.
Myth #1: The more people you have praying the better chance you have of getting God to answer your prayer.

How is this true when James reminds us that "The prayer of a righteous man has great power as it is working" (Jas 5:16b ESV)? Here God says that one man's prayer is powerful. Nowhere do we hear God saying that the prayers of many people are powerful. There is something comforting about knowing that many people are praying for me. But the number of people praying does not make the prayer more effective. Jesus said, “If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Mt 18:19). Prayer is not a numbers game where God is waiting for us to reach the right number of people before he answers. Answered prayer only takes two or three.

Myth #2: Some prayers are better than others. If you find one that works use it often.

 How is this true when Jesus told us that the Gentiles "heap up empty phrases," but that we are not to pray in that way? (Mt 6:7) When we approach prayer as though it is about finding the right words in order for it to work, then prayer has become an incantation to manipulate God, not a heart communication with God. Prayer is not about finding the right formula, but about pouring out your heart to God who cares. The Psalms are songs and prayers. Each one written in a different setting concerning a different need or experience. Prayer is like that. Don’t fall for the myth that certain prayers move God better than others.

Myth #3: God is reluctant to answer. Persistent prayer will irritate him enough that he will finally give in.

Luke 18:1-8 is often quoted to support this claim. Jesus told a parable in order to communicate that we should never lose heart and quit praying. The story is about an unjust judge who responds to a woman's pleas because of her persistence rather than because her request is just. But, God is not an unjust judge. The reason we keep praying is not because our persistence will irritate God enough that he will eventually answer, but because he is a just judge and will therefore hear our pleas. Therefore, don't stop praying. Prayer is as much for us as for God. It is in prayer that we realize our dependence. It is in prayer that we hear from God even as he hears from us. God’s answer comes in his time. In the meantime don’t stop praying.

These are three myths that I have fallen for and seen people fall for over the years. There are others, and I intend to address more in a following blog. Sometimes I think we make prayer too hard. We think it is about finding the right formula. Prayer is just about being honest with God. Lord, teach us to pray.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

The Priority of Prayer

One of the guiding principles of the church that I am serving is that we must be girded in prayer. Introduction: Prayer ought to be a priority in our lives as believers. The Scriptures make prayer a priority. In Philippians 4:6 the Apostle Paul wrote, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” In Ephesians 6:18 he taught the Ephesian church to be “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints.” James reminded believers that, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (Jas 5:6). We are challenged in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to “pray without ceasing.” In Luke 18:1 Jesus “told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” To the early Church prayer was a priority. In seventeen out of twenty-eight chapters in Acts prayer is specifically mentioned.

Jesus made prayer a priority in his own life. “In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God” (Lk 6:12). I Luke 9.28, “about eight days after these sayings [Jesus] took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray.” The disciples saw the priority of prayer in Jesus life and asked him to teach them to prayer. “Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples” (Lk 11:1). Luke 22.39-41 says that it was Jesus custom to retreat to the Mount of Olives where he challenged his disciples to pray. Prayer was a priority in Jesus’ life.

We say that prayer is important, that it is a priority. So why is it that we pray so little? Why is it that prayer is so hard? Daniel prayed despite a law against prayer, and despite the fact that it landed him in a pit filled with hungry lions. Would we have been with Daniel, or would we have complied with the law? Perhaps it is time that we make our first prayer that which the disciples asked of Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Lk 11:1).

Friday, July 3, 2020

Unity in the Faith (Pt 3)

John 17:20-23 (ESV)
[20] “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, [21] that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. [22] The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, [23] I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.

God calls us to unity, not uniformity. Unity must have a focus or foundation. The foundation of our unity is that system of belief we call the faith. But why is unity so important? The truth is, that we sometimes find ourselves in a church where the only thing we have in common is the faith. We may differ on politics. Many people are quite passionate about their political beliefs. We may differ on our entertainment preferences. One person loves to talk about movies and the arts. Another person has no idea who an actor is, or what is significant about a play, but they love adventure sports. Still another is enamored with team sports. One family is African-American, another is Hispanic, a third is Native American, and still another has a Scandinavian background and thinks Christmas isn’t Christmas without lutefisk. How can there possibly be any unity among such a diverse group, and why should we work toward it?

Unity takes respect, honor, good listening, and hard work. If it is not a priority then we may decide it is not worth the effort. It is easier to separate and find a church where everybody is like me. There are at least three biblical reasons why unity is worth the effort. First, in John 17 Jesus prayed for unity. Unity is both the desire of Jesus and the answer to Jesus’ prayer. His words to the Father were, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one” (Jn 17:20-21). This was his last prayer before the Garden of Gethsemane, his arrest, and his crucifixion. It was his deep desire. When we do the hard work of unity we become the answer to Jesus’ prayer.

Second, there is a reason why Jesus prayed for unity. Unity convinces the world that God sent Jesus. He prays, John 17:23, “. . . that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me.” The world often points to the monochromatic makeup of the church, and the diversity of denominations as evidence that what we preach about Jesus is not true. How can it be true when there is so much divisiveness within the body? When we talk as though our church is the only church with the true truth, we actually hinder the gospel. When we are constantly pointing out how wrong everyone else is and why we have a corner on truth, we undermine the truth that God sent Jesus. Certainly there are churches that have abandoned biblical truth. We need to speak out about that, and preach the truth. But sometimes we act as though the only church in the world that preaches the truth is our little flock and we’re not sure about some of us. Unity convinces the world that God sent Jesus. Disunity does just the opposite.

Third, unity convinces the world that we are disciples of Jesus. Four chapters earlier, in John 13:34-35, Jesus said to his disciples, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Unity not only convinces the world that God sent Jesus, but that we are truly disciples of Jesus. When we, as believers, love one another, accept and honor one another, work to understand one another, and embrace our differences, that is something the world does not do. That is the amazing thing that convinces the world that we are disciples of Jesus whom God sent.

In short, unity is foundational to evangelism and discipleship. Disunity undermines our very purpose as a people of God. Why is unity important? Because it is the answer to Jesus’ prayer, and convinces the world that God sent Jesus and we are his disciples. Do the hard work of unity. Learn to listen, embrace, and love. Let the world see Jesus in his church.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Unity in the Faith (Pt 2)

God calls believers to unity. Unity, as I wrote in an earlier blog, is not uniformity. We are not the same, but we are one in Christ. One of the guiding principles of the church I am currently serving is Unity in the faith. That raises the question: Why in the faith? Why not unity in purpose? Why not unity in diversity? Why not unity in love? Those are all good statements. To understand why unity in the faith is our guiding principle, we must first answer the question: What is the faith?

Acts 6:7 says, “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” In Acts 13:8 a man of political rank was interested in learning more about Christianity. Elymas the magician sought to turn him “away from the faith.” In Acts 14:22 Paul and Barnabas were “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith.” In Acts 16:5 “The churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.”

The Faith is that body of beliefs that define Christianity. To be in the Faith means, to be a Christian, a believer. In 1 Corinthians 16:13 Paul encouraged the Corinthian believers to “stand firm in the faith.” Faith is the foundation of what it means to be a Christian. Hebrews 11:6 tells us that without faith it is impossible to please God. Ephesians 2:8 says that we are saved by grace through faith. Faith is foundational.

When a person comes to Christ we do not tell them, “If you want God to forgive you, accept you, and save you, then you must agree to obey him perfectly by keeping these laws.” We do not say, “You must go through these rituals.” We say with the Apostle Paul, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). That is the foundation of Christianity, and as such, it is what unifies us.

Should we be unified in purpose? Certainly! As believers in Jesus Christ, we are called to a unified mission of making disciples in all the world. Should we be unified in diversity? Absolutely! It is our diversity that gives us strength. The Spirit of God works through a diversity of gifts in the body. “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit” (1 Cor 12:4). It is in that diversity of gifting that the church is strengthened, edified, and built up. Should we be unified in love? Of course! Jesus prayed for unity in John 17, “. . . I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (Jn 17:23). Jesus taught his disciples in John 13:34-35, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Of course we should be unified in love. But purpose, diversity, and love are all built on something more foundational. The faith.

Not all churches have great diversity. Not all churches are clear on their purpose. Not all churches love each other well. But it is the unifying truth of the faith that brings them together and prompts them to work toward unity in the other areas of community life. So, what is the faith? Paul clarified it for the Corinthians like this:
[1] Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, [2] and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you— unless you believed in vain.
[3] For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, [4] that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, [5] and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. [6] Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. [7] Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. [8] Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. [9] For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. [10] But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. [11] Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. (1 Cor 15:1-11).
Despite our differences in maturity, despite our differences of background, color, language, or family, despite our differences in political persuasion, despite our differences in worship preferences, even despite our differences in location, it is that faith that unites us as believers in Jesus Christ. Why unity in the faith? Because the faith is foundational. It is time that we stop dividing over these things when God calls us to unity in the faith.

Reflections on Psalms 77-78

Psalms 77:7 (ESV) [7] “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable?   The first nine verses of this psalm express abso...