Look-alike Morals

It is Morel season in my home state of Michigan. Morels are mushrooms that only grow in mid-Spring. They are usually found in or near wooded areas, and they are delicious! Thousands of eager hunters search woods, roadsides, forests, orchards, and glades looking for the elusive spores each year. While morels can be “grown,” they are not easy to cultivate. Finding them is like a treasure hunt in all the freshness of spring’s new growth!

Morel mushroom

But there are several look-alike mushrooms– some of which are dangerous and even poisonous– growing now, too. It takes a good eye and some knowledge to tell the difference. False morels may have a similar shape, but they usually are slightly different in color and texture. Some false morels will appear brown, reddish, or even slightly purple, while true morels range from yellow, yellow-gray, or gray-black. False morels may be “puffier” or “spongier” than true morels. And while true morel “caps” attach to their stems, false ones may be detached or flared. It is important to know the difference and to be cautious when collecting the elusive morel.

false morel–gyromitra esculenta

The same is true of morals–there are plenty of people masquerading as men and women of integrity. They are polite, clean, charming; many are even respected members of the community. They may volunteer, give to charities, attend a local church, run for public office, hold a job requiring responsibility and trust. They look and act like honest, kind people. But they may be dangerous– even poisonous. They may even rise to positions in the church, destroying faith and trust among members of their flock, or spreading distrust and confusion among neighbors and even families.

So how do we “spot” the difference? Just as importantly, how do know which type we are!?

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There are a few principles in the Bible that we can use to identify “false prophets” and those with “look-alike morals.”

  • First, we need to study what a true “Christ-follower” should look like. It is vital that we take the time to study for ourselves what the Bible says. Asking “what would Jesus do?” does us no good if we don’t know what He actually did and said! Putting all our trust in a role model or a dynamic leader is like choosing a mushroom because it “looks tasty–it could be a morel…”
  • Second, we need to look for people who try to “color” or “shade” the truth to look “tastier.” All the way back in the Garden of Eden, Satan used this trick with Eve– twisting God’s words, adding supposedly “hidden” knowledge, and dismissing the severity of God’s warning:

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Genesis 3:2-5 (NIV)
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  • Closely related to this, we need to look for people who use words to spread division or discontent–including constant critics and complainers. It is tempting to get caught up in arguments about certain traditions, worship styles, external standards, new practices, personal revelation, etc.. But we must avoid such poison, and avoid spreading it! One poisonous mushroom can poison the whole “batch!”
    • Beware of those who arrogantly claim to have “new knowledge” or “new interpretations”– God does NOT change; nor does His Word. New insights and deeper or personal understanding should stand up under testing. Someone who is not willing to be questioned or asked to explain themselves may have a bad reason for their unwillingness. Just because something is traditional, or “old” doesn’t mean it must change.
    • Also beware those who are dismissive toward others in the church, whether they are critical of the teaching, the music, certain ministry programs, or individuals who serve. We are commanded to build one another up, not pass judgment based on personal prefrerences.
  • Look (and listen) closely to make sure we are still “attached” to our stem– the Living Word of God. Many Christians will quote “moral” sayings that are found nowhere in the Bible:
    • “God helps those who help themselves.”
    • “The devil made me do it.”
    • “There are many paths to God.”
    • “All you need is love.”
    • “God just wants us to be happy.”
    • “God will never give you more than you can handle..”
  • Finally, we need to look at the person’s “fruit.” Someone can have an impressive outward show of morals, yet miss out on “bearing fruit.” Such people may display all the trappings of earthly success, yet they seen to have no peace, or their lives seem joyless or filled with discontent or intemperence. In my own life, am I demonstrating Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control? (see Galatians 5:22-23) Am I humble? Or am I impatient, unkind, judgmental, fickle, reckless, complaining, bitter, envious, angry, dissatisfied, greedy, worried, and prone to mock others– especially those in the church?

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?  So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.  A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

Matthew 7:15-20 (ESV)
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When we find true followers of Christ, we should be able to recognize the treasure of a life redeemed and transformed. While none of us is perfect while we remain in our present bodies, we should be producing a harvest of good fruit that sets us apart from “look-alikes” who are merely outwardly moral.

Timid Prayer

The Bible is full of examples of prayer– long prayers, elegant prayers, short prayers, confident prayers, even arrogant and angry prayers. Much has been written about praying boldly and with confidence. But I want to say just a few words about timid prayers.

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Sometimes, our awe of God is so powerful, and our awareness of our own shortcomings so deep, that it makes us pause. We “know” that God hears us; we “know” that God has made it possible to approach Him with assurance in His Love and Grace. But what we “know” and what we “feel” don’t always align. Sometimes this may make us “feel” as though our prayers are lesser, somehow– that God may still listen to our prayers, but will count them as less worthy or that they will be less effective.

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God listens to the spectrum of our prayers–including those when we are timid and fearful, confused and anxious, even those for which there are no words (see Romans 8:26)! Gideon (see Judges 6-8) was timid and reluctant; and yet he prayed for God’s help to strengthen his resolve. He ended up defeating a mighty army with just 300 men, and was listed in Hebrews 11 as one of the heroes of Faith. David’s psalms and prayers include many that are timid and questioning, yet God described King David as a man after His own heart. Even Moses doubted his abilities and prayed that God would send someone else to speak to Pharaoh. God answered Moses’s request, sending Aaron to help, but it was through Moses that God delivered an entire nation!

Sometimes, our timidity can be traced to our doubts or fears. Sometimes, it can be traced to guilt or shame. There are many reasons why we may “feel” timid, frightened, or unworthy to come before a Holy God, to ask for His help or guidance when we feel inadequate, or to admit that we have failed. But we must remember that NOTHING can separate us from God’s Love or from the privilege of praying to Him. A timid heart is not always a humble heart, but a humble heart is often a timid heart. And God promises to give grace to the humble (James 4:6).

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We should rejoice with those who pray boldly (and not arrogantly). But never despise the lowly and timid prayer. After all, what makes prayer effective and powerful is not who is doing the praying or what words we use, or even how we feel– it is to WHOM we pray that makes all the difference.

Piece of Mind v. Peace of Mind

We live in an angry world, filled with outrage, entitlement, bitterness, hurt, and arrogance. Everywhere we look, someone is giving someone else (sometimes everyone else) a “piece of their mind.” And those who do are often lauded and celebrated. Pundits, critics, “talking heads,” columnists, “expert” opinion-makers (recognized or self-appointed)– all make careers out of sharing their opinions, their theories, expertise, or knowledge. They may be clever, intelligent, even entertaining; they may be popular, intimidating, or impressive in their range of knowledge. I may agree with their opinions, and share their conclusions or beliefs. But I should be careful not to become “puffed up” with knowledge.

Knowledge puffs up but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God. 1 Corinthians 8:1-3

1 Corinthians 8:1-3
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https://dailydevotionscripture.blogspot.com/2012/11/knowledge-puffs-up-love-builds-up.html#:~:text=Knowledge%20puffs%20up%20but%20love%20builds

It is very tempting– VERY tempting– to join in this practice of verbal tongue-lashing. To show off our superior knowledge or our righteous opinions. To win arguments and create “mic-drop” moments.

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Meeting anger with anger, sarcasm with sarcasm, and pride with pride is natural. But it is not God’s way. God calls for us to have peace of mind– to have a mind that can see and hear the reality of our fallen world, but respond in an unnaturally loving and gracious manner given to us by the Holy Spirit. We are to speak words of peace, to walk in humility, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

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Our words can be powerful– for good or evil. We can speak peace and goodwill, harmony, and love into a world that is drowning in hateful comparisons, disdain, selfishness, malicious gossip, idle chatter, and careless opinions. Words can uplift, encourage, heal, and strengthen. Words–even quiet words– can stem the tide of malice and bring light and hope.

And it is not just what we pass on to others with our words– we become what we speak! When we speak arrogance and self-righteousness, we become (and remain) self-righteous and arrogant. When we speak love and joy, peace and patience, trust and truth, we become more peaceful, joyful, patient and trustworthy.

Jesus– the Word of God– often used a quiet sentence to bring hope, reassurance, and blessing to people in need. Jesus felt anger– and He had every right to speak HIS opinion and HIS omniscience when He was tested and unfairly questioned. But He chose to be patient. His answers were not laced with malice and sarcasm, but they silenced His critics, and served as lessons for others who were listening. What a great example for us!

What might happen if we spent less time giving a “piece of our mind” and more time spreading “peace of mind” in our world?

The Right Side of History

My nation– and even my community–is divided right now. People argue, accuse, blame, and reject their neighbors because of political beliefs. And they defend the “rightness” and righteousness of their own beliefs–even when they must compromise on other beliefs and teachings of the Bible. Some people use the phrase “I’m on the right side of history..” or “History will prove us right.” And they cross their arms, jut out their chin, and stand smugly convinced that they have won the argument.

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But history books are written by human beings– and usually those human beings who are in power. “History” is constantly in flux– some things that were deemed “virtuous” or “necessary” in the past are looked on with horror today. Times change; societies change; customs and morals change.

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When we justify our politics, or our actions to others in this way, we are really saying, “whatever I am doing, saying, or supporting today will be judged “righteous” by future generations. And that may be so. Those who advocated for the abolition of slavery in America over a century ago should surely qualify as people who were on the “right side of history.” Yet, in the past year of rioting across my country, many of the statues that were toppled, and spray-painted, and chiseled, and marred were of abolitionists. Their moral prowess notwithstanding, they were seen as “old, white men” in old-fashioned clothing, whose lives and legacies were long forgotten, or confused with other “old, white men” who had supported slavery during the same time period. We delight in “debunking” cherished histories, toppling our heroes, and rewriting traditions. And we often compare our “struggles” to those of previous generations, even if the comparisons are skewed or largely non-existent. And in our fight to push forward a particular narrative or policy; in order to “take back” a certain position or tradition, we often lose our moral compass, believing the lie that “the end justifies the means” or that “might makes right.”

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In order to be on the “right side of history” today, people tend to make certain compromises– regardless of what “side” they choose. Political parties tend to support diverse causes and groups. Whatever good policies they promote, chances are they also promote policies and beliefs that are in direct conflict with scripture. Words like “compassionate,” “wholesome.” “traditional,” “patriotic”, “liberal,”and “progressive” may sound noble, but they often mask actions and policies that are corrupt, wicked, and destructive.

As Christians, we must be careful not to make “comfortable compromises” and to avoid righteous-sounding justifications. Just as importantly, we must be careful when confronted with labels and accusations, not to over-react or respond with bitterness or arrogance. If someone accuses me of being “hateful” or “gullible” because of my political beliefs, it is tempting to puff up and respond in kind. No one likes being judged. In fact, we are told in scripture NOT to judge, lest we be judged in kind. (Matthew 7:1-6) Jesus was often misunderstood, hated, falsely accused. He went to the cross after being found innocent by Pilate– who compromised by offering the Jewish people a choice of the innocent Jesus or the condemned Barabbas, instead of commanding that Jesus be released. In spite of his compromise, Pilate is not considered to be on the “right side of history” for his political masterpiece.

In fact– we are ALL on the WRONG side of of history! No matter how righteous our beliefs, ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Our allegiances, our morality, our political affiliations– none of them will save us from the just judgment of God, or the wavering judgments of future generations. We need, more than ever, to hold fast to the truth, and to seek God’s wisdom. When the final “history” is written, I want to be on God’s side!

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But I’m Right!

Social media is a dangerous place these days. Everyone is an expert on something– pain, medicine, race relations, politics, religion…
I’m an expert, too. I am an expert in my own opinion! I know all I ever need to know about how I feel, what I’ve experienced, how I would solve all the world’s problems, and what everyone else should know, do, and think.

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And when I pray, I am an expert in what I want, and what God should do–right?

Turns out, the Bible disagrees with me. Prayer is not about telling God what I think He should do. And one of the things He doesn’t want me to do is go about telling everyone how much I know and how right I am about everything.

I know– it flies in the face of common thought and practice. But my words are not to be about how good I am, how smart I am, how righteous I am, how “woke” I am, or how tolerant I am. My words shouldn’t be all about ME. When I do speak (or write), it should be for one of four reasons:

  • To praise– to bring honor and glory to God for who He is and all that He has done. To rehearse and proclaim His good deeds and righteous acts so that others may hear and praise Him, too.
  • To encourage, build up, edify, or heal others. Words have the power to bring hope, energy, confidence, light, and love. They also have the power to destroy, devalue, and discourage. Finally, words have the power to suck energy, waste time, and bring confusion and chaos. When I speak carelessly, selfishly, or foolishly, it does nothing to build up others. (And it probably doesn’t do me much good, either!)
  • To speak truth and stand up for righteousness–not in an arrogant way, and not to win “points”, but to honestly and firmly defend what I know to be true. I must realize that there will be others who will stand in opposition to the truth and refuse to hear what I say. Others will misconstrue and misrepresent the truth. It is NOT for me to make them believe– only to stand up and give voice to the truth when I see it under attack.
  • To express unique and creative thoughts, which is part of praising my maker. Everyone has SOMETHING to say– something that expresses their inner thoughts and unique perspectives. That should cause me to take great joy. And it should cause me to take the same joy in helping others find their voice and share their stories and ideas. Not because I’m “right” about the world, or because they are “right” in their ideas. But because God gave each of us a voice. I can listen and not agree; they can do the same. But sometimes, in the act of listening, we do more to come to understanding and agreement than we ever do by speaking. And in being allowed to speak freely, we might listen to ourselves more carefully, too.
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Jesus spoke wonderful parables, deep and thoughtful prayers, piercing sermons, and tender words of encouragement and love. But He also listened–not only to the critics and enemies, but to those who hid in the shadows; those who were outcast and oppressed; those whose voices were drowned out by the crowds. He was RIGHT! More than anyone ever, He had the right to be heard…He chose to listen as well as speak. Jesus was more interested in being Himself than being “right.” More interested in showing love than showing off. More interested in understanding than overpowering. Jesus spoke–but He also laughed, and wept, and lived, and listened.

May we do the same today.

“Piece” of Mind

I gave that fellow a piece of my mind! I let him know how wrong he was, how backward, how ill-informed. And he just wouldn’t see reason.
He had the nerve to call me hateful, judgmental, and “toxic!” Doesn’t he understand? He is selfish, rebellious, arrogant, and “lost.” I was just trying to give him a warning. If he doesn’t repent, he will end up in Hell. I was good enough to spend my valuable time trying to set him straight, and all I got for it was abuse! Well, you know what they say, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” At least I tried.

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I gave that woman a piece of my mind! I let her know how judgmental and backward and hateful she is. Who is she to tell me what to think? She called me a sinner and told me I was going to Hell– and then she wants me to thank her for it?! She was completely unreasonable. Why would I want to spend time with someone like that? People like her are what’s wrong with this world. They talk about love, but only if you act and think exactly like them– what kind of “love” is that? What a hypocrite!

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Christ’s Example of Humility
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mindDo nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Lights in the World
12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. 17 Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. 18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.

Philippians 2:1-18 English Standard Version (ESV) (www.biblegateway.com) Emphasis added.
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Lord Jesus, help me to give others the “Peace” of Your mind today, rather than a “piece” of mine!

Making God Look Good

A few years ago, I worked for a boss who told our staff that our number one job was to “make her look good”. This came as a shock to all of us. It was nowhere in our employee manual, this idea that her status was more important than our work ethic, or our customer service, or our ability to work together as a team. What I’m sure she meant to convey was that everything we did reflected on her, and, by extension, all of us, our library, and our community. It should have been our priority to work, look, speak, and interact with patrons in a way that brought honor and respect to everyone in the building–not just her–so that she could concentrate on making an already great library even better. But that’s not the way it was expressed or understood. And the results were unfortunate.

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It WAS our job to respect her leadership, and do our best work, allowing her to guide the direction of the library’s growth and service. I’m ashamed to say that I did not do this– I fought her leadership, complained about the way she treated staff and patrons, criticized her ideas and her management style, and finally quit my job there.

I start with this story as a contrast to the story of Daniel, as we’ve been following it the past couple of weeks. Daniel’s job was to make his bosses–kings and emperors who had conquered his nation, exiled and enslaved him, and destroyed his home and culture–“look good.” He was an adviser to kings who were powerful, ruthless, vicious, and often petty, vindictive, and even edging on madness. He did not have the freedom to “quit” or to harbor pride or criticism.

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Daniel’s ability to work under such circumstances sprang from his conviction that his number ONE priority was not to make his bosses look good, or to be the best administrator or adviser he could be. His number one priority was to seek and to serve Almighty God. All the rest would fall into place if only Daniel would keep the right priorities.

The truth is, we cannot make someone else “look good”. We can try– we can sing someone else’s praises, brag about them, work hard to gain their approval, promote them and honor them, even worship them. And, in a superficial way, these things can make the other person appear important, wise, popular, or even “good.” But it can’t make someone else BE good, or important, or wise. And, often, our efforts are not really about making the other person look good. Our efforts are about making ourselves look good in another person’s eyes

Throughout his life, Daniel made God look good. He made kings, from Nebuchadnezzar to Darius, acknowledge God’s power, His authority, His grace and mercy, and His goodness. But at the same time, Daniel could not “make” God look good– unless God was (and IS) all the things Daniel said He was. Daniel’s job was never to “make” God look good. His job was to point away from himself, and “let” God be God–awesome, mighty, loving, eternal, and Holy. In return, Daniel was used in amazing–even death-defying– ways that continue to astonish and teach us today.

My attitude toward my boss didn’t make her look good– or bad. It didn’t make me look good, either. It just made me look spiteful, arrogant, and uncooperative. Worse, it made my walk with Christ look bad. I wasn’t pointing people toward Him; I was pointing to the negative (and being negative) about a situation that was so much smaller than the God I serve. What a missed opportunity to demonstrate, as Daniel did, what obedience and faith look like. What a missed opportunity to make God look good!

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Today, as we pray to this same awesome, mighty, loving, eternal and Holy God, let us not waste time trying to “make God look good.” No amount of fancy rhetoric, holy elbow grease, finger-pointing, or pious posturing can make God better than He already is. Instead, let us come before Him humbly and with a contrite heart, ready to obey, honor, and worship Him with our whole being as Daniel did. Not in pride or arrogance, sounding like an advertisement for a new “super” product or exercise routine, or like an expert on spiritual living, but in awe that the God of Jacob, the God of Daniel, the God of the universe(!) wants to extend grace even to the least of us. God sees us in our troubles– exiled and oppressed, alone and in danger, surrounded by rivals, enemies, madmen, and beasts. God will provide; He will defend; He will bring justice; He will never leave us.

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Daniel–Prayer Under Pressure

In Chapter 2 of the Book of Daniel, there is an interesting story. Most often, students of the Bible focus on the prophetic meaning of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. But I want to look at the context, and see what this story tells us of Daniel, his friends, his boss, and his God. (see text here: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel+2&version=NIV )

First, let’s look at the extraordinary presumption of Nebuchadnezzar. (God will deal with him severely a few chapters later!) The ruler of the vast Babylonian empire, Nebuchadnezzar’s word is absolute. His whims and moods control the destinies of all his courtiers, as well as all the people under his domain. Princes, satraps, governors, advisers, military leaders, and common citizens all live in fear of his absolute power, even as they try to curry favor and rise among the ranks.

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Nebuchadnezzar is not (at this point) crazy; he is not a foolish man. He has led campaigns to destroy several strong enemies, and has wisely appointed a number of officials to administer his sprawling empire. Daniel (and his friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) are among several captured youth who are being assimilated into this administration. But this story shows the beginning of Nebuchadnezzar’s descent into madness and humiliation. He has had a dream (some translations suggest it was a recurring nightmare) that disturbs him greatly. It has him agitated. It causes him to act in an irrational manner. He calls in all the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and sorcerers of the kingdom. He is desperate for answers.

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We don’t know how many various men (or even women) were called in, but they represent all the best minds of the entire Babylonian empire. And Nebuchadnezzar wants the impossible–not only are they to correctly interpret his strange dream; they are to do it without any clue about what happened in it! As they try to reason with their king, he accuses them of wanting to mislead him, and threatens them with death and the destruction of their homes and families! This is a very real threat– the king’s word is absolute, and his wrath inescapable. Nebuchadnezzar’s bizarre actions and irrational fear are signs of much worse to come. As powerful as he is, the king is plagued by insecurities throughout his reign. Pleasing, or even appeasing such a man must be like constantly walking a tightrope.

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The story seems to suggest that Daniel and his friends were not included in the first summons before Nebuchadnezzar. Perhaps they were still too young to be included; perhaps they were still in training. But it is clear that they will be included in the execution orders if they cannot please this tyrant. This marks the second trial faced by Daniel in his captivity, but it is the first time he comes to the forefront of Nebuchadnezzar’s notice. While the king raves and threatens his other counselors, he listens to Daniel’s plea for more time. In the end, he is awed by Daniel’s interpretation, by Daniel’s courage– and by the God Daniel serves.

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No matter what irrational situation we may face today, no matter what impossible task we are given; no matter who threatens us or makes ridiculous demands– God is more powerful. He causes kingdoms to rise and fall. He knows the future, and nothing is outside his control. Even the most dire circumstances and impossible situations can lead to opportunities …opportunities that showcase God’s omnipotence and sovereignty.

Sowing the Wind

“They sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind…”  Hosea 8:7

Hosea was a prophet who foretold the destruction (and eventual restoration) of his people.  God was pouring out his judgment against an unfaithful nation, and he used the tragic family life of Hosea as a living example of his dealings with Israel.  Hosea married a prostitute; an unfaithful and unloving spouse who chased after men with ready money and cheap gifts.  But when her activities resulted in slavery, shame, and despair, Hosea redeemed her and restored her as his wife.  In the same way, God had made a promise to the people of Israel, but they had broken their covenant and followed their own rules, chasing after the surrounding cultures, with their foreign gods and their hedonistic rituals, including human sacrifice, temple prostitutes, and divination.  There are many metaphors used throughout this book, but one that often stands out is the short phrase found in chapter eight.  In it, God is talking about the unfaithful priests and leaders of Israel, who have not only betrayed God in their rebellion and idolatry, but have led others astray.  God says of them that they have sown the wind, and are reaping/will reap the whirlwind.

How does this relate to us today in our pursuit of prayer?

I believe that many of us are sowing the wind– we do it in our careless words, gossip, rumor-mongering, complaining, babbling, prattling, and yes, in our half-hearted obedience, and our tepid prayers.  We often come to God, not eager to commune with him, or to hear his voice, not in humble adoration and open confession, but to complain, wheedle, and boast.  We pay lip service to his Holiness, while refusing to give up that bad habit that “isn’t really all that bad.”  We thank him for his Grace, but harbor resentment against a neighbor or family member who slighted us.  We ask for him to bring us success in our plans and ventures without really making sure if they line up with his will.  We excuse our lack of attendance at church, and our failure to spend time in God’s word.  We make rash promises to do “better” if God just gets us through this week.  We ask for his blessing, and thank him for the riches he has bestowed on us, but we turn our noses at those in our backyard who are in need.  We are bold about posting “Christian” sayings on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram–almost as bold as posting about our favorite new Brew Pub or Spa trip or “almost inappropriate” joke, or latest political rant.  Except that our “Christian” posts are less entertaining and more critical of others.  (They’re usually really pretty, though– pictures of flowers or mountain streams or desert sunsets–it’s really easy to “like” and “share” a sunset!.)  We cheapen the Gospel, we cheapen the Christian walk, we cheapen prayer, when we pursue it as a hobby or a social habit.  It is not something we do only because (or only when)  it makes us feel “good” or “better”– it is something we pursue because it brings us life and peace for eternity, and it brings glory and joy to the King of Kings.

“They sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind…”  There is a price for this shallow, careless pursuit of something that looks and feels vaguely like Godliness.  It is the whirlwind…being tossed about by “every wind of doctrine” as Paul warns against in Ephesians 4.  It is being caught up in doubts and half-truths, compromises, hypocrisy, division, scandal, and shame.  It is having to face the onslaught of detractors and persecution that come as a result of so many of us abusing and misrepresenting the very Gospel of the one whose name we carry.   “Oh, what peace we often forfeit; Oh, what needless pain we bear; All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.”  The words of that old hymn are no less true today– when we trifle with prayer, carrying only our selfish needs, our petty complaints, and our flimsy agendas to God in prayer, we pay a huge price.

There is another metaphor, this one in the Gospel of John, that I think helps us combat this tendency to “sow the wind”–  Jesus says of himself in John 15 that he is the vine, and we are the branches.  If we are faithful, we remain in him– we draw our life and strength from him– and we are fruitful.  Remaining in him, we are grounded– he provides the roots that keep us from blowing every which way.  And he provides the nourishment, and strength to grow and produce more fruit.

I say “we” because I too am guilty of having sown the wind.  The great news, in Hosea and in the Gospel of John, is that God is eager to restore us– to graft us in–to welcome us home after our storm-tossed wanderings.  Let’s get serious about abiding in God, instead of scattering the latest “feel-good” religious spam.  God, forgive me for the times I have cheapened your precious gift of prayer.  Help me to abide in you, and refrain from careless words to you, about you, and about others.

birdswater

Prayer Bullies

When I first felt the urge to blog about prayer and prayer life, I held off a bit.  I think prayer is many things– important, impactful, practical, personal, holy, and humbling.  I finally decided to start writing, not because I am an expert on prayer, or  that I have mastered the practice, but because I feel passionate about growing in my prayer, to pray with more knowledge, focus, and impact.  I’m sharing in the hope that you will be encouraged, challenged, and equipped to do the same.  I want to explore the many aspects of prayer, and learn all that it can be. But one thing prayer should never be is a bludgeon.

I find it embarrassing to be in the company of certain fellow Christians when I hear them try to stop a discussion or argument with the phrase, “I’ll pray for you.”  Occasionally, they say it in love and mean it as a sincere gesture, but most of the time it is as condescending and insincere as a Southern, “well, bless your little pea-pickin’ heart.”  “I’ll pray for you”, in this context, suggests that you (and only you) have a problem.  I don’t need to listen to, reconsider, or even try to understand your argument, because I have already determined that you have no valid point and I have no obligation to hear you out. But more than that, it suggests two horrible things about prayer that are untrue and misleading.  First, it suggests that my only interest in you is to “fix” you.  In other words, I can’t convince you to see things my way, so I will reluctantly spend some of my precious time praying that you see things my way.  I won’t listen to you, try to understand you, or give you any of my respect, but I will do my best to bring your bad behavior and/or faulty beliefs to God’s attention (in contrast to my.own).  Prayer should never be a threat, or a weapon to be used against another person.  Secondly, it suggests that prayer is leverage; that I have God on some kind of leash.  I pray when things aren’t going my way, and God “fixes” them–including people who don’t share my theology or doctrine or worship preference.

One of the dangers of writing and talking about prayer in a public forum is the risk of seeming to or actually to impose personal preferences, practices, and beliefs on others.  I hope to suggest many prayer thoughts and practices that I find true, helpful, challenging, or even dangerous, but I don’t want to insist that there is only one way to think about prayer or to practice it.  Prayer is our way of communicating with our creator.  He didn’t make us all the same; we don’t all like the same things, we don’t all interact the same way; we don’t have the same talents, passions, or responses to the world around us.  The one constant in prayer is God.  What I believe about God will determine how I pray, why I pray, maybe even when or how often I pray.  But it won’t determine God’s character or his actions toward another person.  I cannot make God make you do anything.  I cannot use God as some kind of enforcer or hypnotist or brain-washer– nor should I wish to.

I do pray for people who dislike or despise me, who dishonor or deny God.  I pray for their health, their safety, and their redemption.  I pray for family and close friends and complete strangers.  But I should do so knowing that God cherishes each person–gave his life for each one.  God is not a bully, even though he has been characterized as such by some.  God wants us to pray for everyone–not with pride or bitterness or an agenda, but with his compassion, grace, and love.

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