Our Father

Yesterday was Father’s Day. It can be a very difficult day for many people– a day of loss, of regret, of anger, and bitterness. There is an epidemic of people growing up with no fathers, absentee fathers, temporary fathers, or abusive fathers. And it can give us a very distorted view of Our Heavenly Father.

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They say that our earthly fathers often become the model of how we see God. If my father was passive, I may see God as apathetic or distant. If my father was demanding, I may see God as just, but not merciful. If my father was moody and unpredictable, I may see God as capricious and unfair. I grew up with a loving, gentle, and wise earthly father. But that doesn’t make me immune to distorted views of God. Dad was honest, a steady worker, a faithful husband, and a humble man of faith. But Dad wasn’t perfect– no father is.

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My husband’s father was another terrific Dad. He was a great storyteller, a diligent worker, a man of great faith, wisdom, and gentle humor. And, although he was a great Dad and worthy of respect, he wasn’t perfect, either. Both fathers reflected aspects of God’s love to our families, and I’m so grateful for their legacies.

Our tendency to view God through the lens of our earthly experiences can distort our view of who God is, but it can also distort our view of who WE are to God. David and I each grew up confident of our earthly fathers’ love and care, but that doesn’t mean that God somehow loved us more than my neighbor whose father died when he was just a child, or more that his friend whose father was cold and distant, or our friend whose father was a respected minister. God’s love doesn’t depend on how we view Him, or how we view our family circumstances. God’s love comes from who He is. And He desires a close, eternally loving relationship with each of us– one that transcends human shortcomings and limitations.

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My mom was once asked if she had a “favorite” child. And her answer was, “I love them all the same, and I love them all differently.” God’s love for us as a father is the same. His love for each of us is eternal, incomprehensible, and constant. But it is also uniquely demonstrated in the way He guides us, disciplines us, and shows His compassion for us. We may never know the love of our earthly fathers; we may only know their failures, or their memory, or the emptiness where they should have been. But God is the ultimate Good, Good Father– the one we can always look up to; the one who always has our back.

As much as I loved my Dads, and miss their advice and laughter, steady guidance, and examples, they cannot compare to the incredible love and wisdom of Our Father. No matter what legacy our earthly fathers have left us, God’s love is better, wider, deeper, and more powerful.

When God is “Too Early…”

We spend a lot of time wondering about God’s timing– usually when we are waiting for God to act as we expect! But there are times when God acts before we expect– sometimes before we even ask!

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Tucked in the pages of the book of Acts is a curious little story about Peter’s miraculous escape from prison. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts%2012&version=ESV

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Peter’s situation was dire. Herod had already killed James, the brother of the Apostle John; he was planning to make a spectacle of Peter, likely by having him executed at the time of Passover. In verse 5, we see that earnest prayers were being made for Peter’s rescue. But just a few verses later, when Peter shows up at the prayer meeting, everyone is incredulous– “you are out of your mind,” they told poor Rhoda when she brought the good news. They left Peter standing outside knocking and trying to gain entry to the prayer meeting being held for his rescue!

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(Point of clarification— in verse 17, Peter says to “Tell James and the brothers” about his release…this is NOT the James who was martyred, but likely either James the son of Alpheus, or James, the brother of Christ, both of whom were leaders in the early church.)

God’s timing is not our timing– but God is ALWAYS “on time.” This can be difficult for us to accept. We may be waiting for a loved one to be cured, or for an abusive situation to be ended. When it ends in tragedy or death, we feel that God “didn’t show up on time.” But the same can happen when God seems to show up “too early.” We may wonder whether the rescue was really “of God” or just “coincidence.”

We must remember that God is not bound by time the way we are. We see time in one dimension–from the present going backward through the past. We cannot see the future; we cannot see “what might have been.” We cannot see at what moment God’s intervention will have the greatest impact.

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The rest of Acts 12 tells the “rest of the story,” one often overlooked. Peter reassured the believers, and then quietly escaped from Jerusalem. The next day, there was a massive search for Peter, which resulted in a sentence of death for the guards who “let him escape.” Herod’s campaign against the early Christ-followers was interrupted by political turmoil. But Herod, in his success and in his arrogance, failed to turn to God. “Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.” (v.23) The earnest prayers of the believers were answered in a way that far surpassed their expectations– not only was Peter rescued in a miraculous way, but God eliminated one of their fiercest enemies in a dramatic (and graphic) way! Not only that, but “the word of God increased and multiplied.” (v. 24)

Someone might say, “God could have removed Herod from authority long before He did.” Or, “God could have rescued Peter in a different way.” But who can argue that God was “early” or “late” in doing what He did? Who can argue that God “should” have acted differently?

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As difficult as it may be to accept in the moment, we can learn to trust God’s timing and His ways. And when we pray, we must remember that God will answer us as He chooses–and it will always be “on time.”

And God Saw That It Was Good…

Throughout the story of Creation, a certain phrase gets repeated– “And God saw that it was good..” God’s purpose and will are always to see the good. At the end of the creation process, God saw that it was “very good.” He placed mankind in a garden filled with goodness, peace, safety, plenty, and promise– a garden filled only with Good.

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The one tree that was forbidden to mankind was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good AND Evil. Humans chose to know and see and experience evil in an effort to be “like God.” We still recognize Good; but now we are surrounded by evil– lies, greed, hatred, selfishness, bitterness, addictions, compulsions, disease, destruction, and death. We cannot go back to the beginning. We cannot just close our eyes and deny, ignore, or excuse evil in our midst. And we cannot control the consequences of our evil choices. We cannot stop death or reshape the past.

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But we must make the choice to look for the Good– to look to the author and creator of all that is good, and true, and noble, and holy. It can be very difficult to do. The voices of this world will continuously call out all that is bad– all our past hurts and present difficulties; all our guilt and shame; everything that is ugly, diseased, unjust, lop-sided, dying, and ruined. And our knowledge of good AND evil will tempt us to justify evil means to “good” ends…

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God, who sees the end from the beginning, has looked through time and space, and pronounced His creation “Very Good.” God who redeems and resurrects, renews and transforms, has promised to make all things new in His time. God not only has the knowledge of Good and Evil– He has the power over both. Our efforts to find Good on our own will end in heartache, failure, guilt, and shame. God knows we cannot redeem our own actions, let alone the legacy of evil we’ve inherited from the past. But the Good News is that He has done it for us! Just as He saw that everything was “Good” in the Garden of Eden, He sees the end result of His redemption– and it is “Very Good.” We don’t have to keep trying and failing to achieve what only God can do. We DO have to trust in God’s ability and His willingness to keep His promises!

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Through prayer, we carry all that is wrong to the One who can make it all “right.” And, through prayer, we praise God for all the Good– the good that God has created in the past; the good that we choose to see in the present; and the good He has promised that we cannot yet see.

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When I Don’t Know How to Pray

Prayer is both simple and complex. Anyone can pray. There is no single correct “formula” for prayer. God is always listening and hears the prayers of those who sincerely seek Him. I can pray to God in formal words, songs, groans, and scattered thoughts.

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But there are times when I don’t know how to pray. More precisely, I don’t know WHAT to pray. When someone is diagnosed with cancer, or a chronic illness, my first instinct is to pray for healing– immediate and total healing. When I hear of a mass shooting, or a blatant injustice, or a natural disaster, I want to pray for all the pain and loss and evil to disappear or be reversed. I want all those things that I know to be “good”– health, happiness, healing, hope, unity, righteousness, and wholeness.

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Still, God’s ways are not my ways. God’s “goodness” is not measured in comfort and quick resolutions. I may not understand the goodness of struggle and pain in the short term. I think of disaster as total and irredeemable, and my prayers often come out of my own short-sighted thinking and my own discomfort at the realization of others’ (and my own) weakness and mortality.

There are a few Biblical principles that I find very helpful when I don’t know “how” to pray:

  • God knows –REALLY KNOWS– all my inner thoughts and feelings. Even more, He KNOWS what will happen, what should happen, and what is best in every situation. I can pour out my desire to see my friend restored to health, or a community re-united in hope, knowing that God is a God of healing and restoration; but also knowing that God’s timing and purposes may involve temporary suffering–even for those I love. Moreover, God knows why I am confused. He knows why I struggle to know how to pray. He doesn’t ask me to always know the “right” answer– He does ask that I trust Him to know and act in His sovereign strength and wisdom. No matter the circumstances, God is still on His throne. And I am not!
  • Jesus gave us simple but powerful examples of “how” to pray. In “The Lord’s Prayer,” He prayed for simple, personal things– daily bread, forgiveness, guidance–as well as big and overarching things–“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done..” His trust in the Father’s ability to accomplish all things was absolute, and His relationship was firmly established– “Father…Hallowed by Thy Name.” In the garden, Jesus was clearly suffering, and asked that the “cup” of suffering– the torture of the cross and the inconceivable horror of being rejected as He bore our sins and carried them through death and the grave– be removed. Yet, He submitted His desire, His fears, His anguish, to His Father– “Not My will, but Thine..”
  • There are other wonderful examples throughout the Psalms, the Gospels, the Epistles, and hundreds of years of Church leaders and saints: their prayers can teach us, encourage us, and embolden us.
  • Jesus promised that we would have an advocate–the Holy Spirit– who would intercede for us. When we don’t know how or what to pray, the Apostle Paul says that the Spirit makes intercession for us with “groanings which cannot be uttered.” (Romans 8:26 KJV). The Spirit also speaks to our own spirit to help us understand more clearly God’s ways and plans.
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I may not always know how to pray, or what to pray. But I can be confident that God hears my prayers. I can come before Him with the assurance that my prayers– and all my thoughts and emotions–are precious to Him because I am His child, redeemed by His sacrifice. My heart may not know all things, but as He continues faithfully completing the work He began in me (Philippians 1:6), my prayers will come more fully into alignment with His will.

In the Presence of My Enemies

“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies..” (Psalm 23:5a)

I don’t like confrontation. I don’t like dealing with opposition. I don’t like having enemies. However, God’s word is very clear– I can’t avoid them or deny their existence. No matter how hard I try to make peace or stay on good terms with others, there will always be some who disagree, who dislike me, who stand against me.

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So it should not come as a great surprise that God, the Good Shepherd, promises that He will prepare a table before me in the very presence of those enemies. He does not expect me to stay hidden; He does not give His blessings in secret. Instead, He allows my enemies to see that I am never alone or abandoned to their power. He showers me with blessing, meets my every need, binds my wounds and comforts my sorrows right before their eyes. They may have limited access to hurt me or frighten me, but God will bring His justice– and they will be made to see it. (see Psalm 37 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+37&version=HCSB)

But more than that, God invites some of those very enemies to see His peace and blessing. God’s desire is that we would all share in the wedding feast of the Lamb; that the table He sets before us would be a chance to turn enemies into brothers and sisters. And He gives us the opportunity, through His blessings, to extend that invitation of Grace and inclusion–to Love our Enemies!

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Not all will accept this invitation– some will choose to watch in resentment, rebellion, and pride as we enjoy communion with our Shepherd; but they will be unable to disturb or destroy the joy and refreshment He brings. And not all “enemies” are the people who oppose us. God blesses us in the presence of those enemies who oppose Him. They may seek to hurt us, and turn us away from our Shepherd. But He will never turn from us. Even when we turn away, or doubt His presence or His purpose– even in the presence of our enemies–God is with us.

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In troubled times like these, that is especially comforting to know. Chaos, disease, doubt, fear, guilt, and in the “valley of the shadow of death:” our enemies may be present and looming, but God is laying out a table, preparing to anoint our heads with oil, and showing us with Goodness and Mercy, Justice and Righteousness– all in their presence. And they are powerless to stop Him!

God Promised..

When we look around at all the beauty God created (see yesterday’s post:https://pursuingprayerblog.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=1206&action=edit  ), we also see the ugliness of a fallen world.  What God created, he proclaimed “Good.”  That goodness still exists, but it is tainted and polluted by sin.  God has the authority and the right to destroy it all (and us along with it!); instead, he chose to redeem it.  God’s promise to do this has been playing out from the very beginning.

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God did not strike Adam and Eve– He allowed them to age, and reproduce, and live out their lifespan–but He did keep his promise that they would have to die (see Genesis 3).  God kept his promise to Noah, to save his family from a worldwide flood (Gensis 6-9).  He kept his promise to Abraham, to bring him to a new land and give it to his descendants– though the promise was made when Abraham as childless and wandering in the wilderness (Genesis 12-25).  God kept his promise to Abraham’s descendants, to bring them back to the land he had promised them (Exodus–Joshua). 

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God kept his promises to Israel– promises of blessings and of curses, of retribution and revival.  God chose King David, and kept many promises to him about his dynasty, the building of the temple, and the coming of a kingly redeemer in David’s line of ancestry (2 Samuel-1 Kings).  He kept his promises given through the prophets concerning the exile and return to Jerusalem.

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In this season, we celebrate all the many promises God made and kept regarding the coming of our Savior (Matthew-John). Just as God’s creation is “good,” so too are His promises– they are sure and true.  God’s promises reveal His nature–He is Just, He is Kind, and He is Omnipotent.  What He says, He can and will accomplish.

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Today, I am grateful for God’s promises– for all the ones He has already fulfilled, and for all He will bring to pass!

But I Don’t Understand…

I’m getting a double whammy this week–two Bible study groups; one studying Daniel and the other Job.  Some of you will groan just reading the first sentence.  Along with the book of Revelations, these are two of the most difficult and misunderstood books in the Bible.  And for good reason.  The book of Daniel doesn’t just contain the favorite stories of Daniel in the Lions’ Den and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, it also contains prophetic visions that seem to foreshadow two distinct sets of events– one set that happened in the time between Daniel’s life and the birth of Christ, and another set of events yet to come.

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The book of Job is puzzling– there are no good clues as to when it took place, or exactly where, or even if it is real or a parable.  There is a curious interchange between God and Satan that is unlike any other passage in scripture.  Finally, it is filled with difficult dialogues from Job and his friends, as they try to make sense of his suffering as God stays silent.  When God finally speaks, He doesn’t directly answer Job’s questions or his friends’ misleading statements.

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What happens when I don’t understand what God is doing (or seemingly NOT doing) in my life or the lives of others?  What happens when the world doesn’t make sense, and the Bible doesn’t seem to shed any light?  What happens when I pray, but God seems silent?

I think the answer has a lot to do with where I am in my relationship with Christ:

  • I can panic, lose faith, or become angry and insolent.  If I don’t know God or don’t trust him; if I doubt his goodness or wisdom or power, I may run from his word and his presence.
  • I can lean on my own understanding.  I can substitute my own limited wisdom for God’s, and try to “explain away” all the things I don’t quite understand.  I may ignore the Bible passages I don’t understand, in favor of doubling down on the ones I think I know.  I can insist on my own interpretations of difficult or disturbing passages, even if someone points out inconsistencies in my logic, or context clues that disagree with my view.

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  • I can lean on someone else’s understanding, listening to their views without question or without reading and praying through it myself.  If someone else has an answer, shouldn’t that be enough?  Even if I still don’t fully understand, at least I have an answer…
  • I can ignore the question–after all, do I really need to know about God?  Isn’t it enough that He exists and He is good?  If I say it loud enough and often enough, won’t that make the questions go away?

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It seems that there is a better way– God never promises us easy answers or complete answers to all the questions in this life.  We can be angry or grateful for that truth, but most of all we must accept it.  God will answer many of our questions–maybe not in the time and manner we expect.  And some of them we won’t understand this side of heaven.  But the Bible is clear in calling us to pursue answers, and be honest when we don’t understand.  God may not give us a simple answer, but He promises to give us wisdom– wisdom to seek, and wisdom to wait; wisdom to trust, and wisdom to keep knocking.
Ask, Seek, Knock, Wrestle, Search, Pray, Plead, Study, and Learn.

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Trust and Obey

It’s a song I sang as a child in Sunday School–

Trust and obey,
For there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus,
But to trust and obey.

It bothered me as a child, the part about “No other way.”  It seemed narrow-minded and harsh.  Surely, I could be happy in Jesus just doing my own good things and singing his praises.  Besides, I did trust him, I followed the Ten Commandments, and the Golden Rule, and I was a nice person.  So why did I feel that I was missing something?

In all the years I’ve been a follower of Christ, I have learned the importance of trust and obedience.  I can’t truly follow someone I don’t trust.  I can learn from them, admire them, even try to act like them, but eventually, I will try to take the lead, or let go and walk down a different path.  Similarly, I can’t say that I trust someone if I won’t obey them.  If they ask me to do something, and I ignore their request, or re-interpret it, or come up with excuses why I won’t do it, it really boils down to one thing: I don’t trust that their request has any merit.

In a broken world, filled with sin and pride and selfishness, there are many reasons NOT to trust or obey certain people.  Abusers, users, sadists and sociopaths abound.  Such people may suggest that there is “no other way to be happy..” than to trust them and obey them implicitly.  So when God asks us to put our trust in an invisible Godhead, it seems terrible, final, and harsh.  Is God demanding abject humiliation and mindless adherence to his law?  Will we lose ourselves in drudgery and joyless obedience to a harsh taskmaster on the whimsical hope of a happy afterlife?

That is a view that is often peddled, and ridiculed.  But I think a closer look at the Bible gives us a different picture.  Yes, God is harsh and wrathful against sin and sinners–but so am I!   I find myself getting furious over injustices and pain caused by sin in the world–I can only imagine how angry God must be to see the way we lie and cheat and abuse each other, and the untold painful consequences he has witnessed through the years.  The only thing holding him back is the power of his Mercy.  His anger is swallowed up in patient and unfathomable love that is ready to forgive even the worst offenders.   And God’s wrath is pure, unlike mine, which is selective against those who have hurt me, but wants to smooth over my own sins.  His love is even more pure– he loves even the worst sinner, and even the most unloveable people (in my flawed estimation).  He is unwilling that ANYONE stay lost and enslaved by their sinful past.

Think about it– Jesus, who knew God best (being part of the Godhead himself) never painted his Father as a brute who demanded people to become “useful idiots” just to stroke his ego.  He didn’t talk about a harsh and unforgiving God who “hated” sinners.  Instead, Jesus healed the sick, raised the dead, gave sight to the blind, and spoke to sinners and outcasts as though they were more important than the religious elite…because that was his heart!  But more than that, Jesus showed us what it meant to “Trust and Obey”–he didn’t seek fame or fortune for himself, he never owned a home, or sought public office, and he never ran arouns worrying and fretting that God would leave him in the lurch.  Even under the worst circumstances leading up to his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus only spent one hour worrying about what was to come, and in that hour of prayer, he found the peace and strength to say, “not my will, but yours be done (Luke 22:42).  In his ministry, he humbly walked the byways and taught those who willingly followed him.  He healed and encouraged and saved those who came to him; those who trusted him as he trusted his Father.  He did not pat on the back those who claimed to follow his Father, but wouldn’t trust him.  Nor did he reward those who claimed to obey God, but hated their neighbors, justified their own self-righteousness, and changed God’s laws to feather their own lifestyles.

Does “Trust and Obey” mean that we might lose our status, our wealth, our comfort, and our lives?  Not necessarily, but there is no promise that we will be richer, or healthier, or more popular for following Jesus.  He didn’t come to make us comfortable or “better than” someone else.  In fact, he warned us that while we are in this world, we will have troubles and sorrows (with or without our faith!)  So how can we be “happy in Jesus” if we end up homeless, hated, or sick?  How can we talk about being happy in Jesus under awful circumstances?  Is this just some brainwashing tactic to make us forget how miserable we are?  What’s the “payoff” of Trust and Obey?

The answer involves a choice–Do I trust Jesus when he says that he came to give us, not just life, not even just eternal life, but abundant life?  If Jesus isn’t trustworthy; if I am not sure that he can or will make my life MORE than I ever dreamed, MORE than I imagine–even in the midst of otherwise difficult circumstances–then I will never be happy in Jesus.  But if I DO trust Jesus, then I can be happy, not because of my circumstances, but because I can trust all that he says about them, and that his grace is more than sufficient to see me through.  And I know that whatever trials I may be going through can be turned to good because I trust his power and his goodness.

And true obedience can only follow true trust.  If I say that God’s rules aren’t important, or don’t apply to me, then I’m really saying I don’t trust him to know what’s best, or that I don’t trust that He is really Good.  The temporary happiness that comes from following my way (even if I think I’m doing it for the right reasons) will give way to resentment against God.  How dare he stop me from that one thing that brings me joy– how dare he question my “needs” or call my actions “wrong”.  How dare he suggest that His way could be better or more abundant than what I know–even if I suspect that what I know and experience isn’t always the best it could be.

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No– the longer I follow Jesus, the more that old song rings true, and not harsh or condemning, but full of wisdom and promise.  It is with the faith of a child (not stupid or simplistic, but hopeful and eager), and humble (not abject or reluctant) obedience that we find happiness in Jesus, peace for our souls, and strength to face the trying circumstances of this life.

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