The Intimate, Unknowable, God

Prayer is an exercise in juxtaposition–we seek to have intimate conversation with a mysterious and unknowable God. He INVITES us into this mystery. He pursues us, seeks us out, surrounds us with His Presence, yet He hides His face from us and shrouds Himself in light and cloud.

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God is Spirit– He is Eternal, Omnipresent, and Invisible. Yet He chooses to reveal Himself– in the beauty of Nature, in the smile of a stranger, in His revealed Word, and through His Son. Everything we need, we can find in and through Him, yet we cannot say that we comprehend Him, because He is so far above and beyond anything we can imagine.

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Prayer is a humbling experience– to approach the Throne of the One who holds the Universe in the palm of His hand; but it is also an intimate and very personal experience– to run into the arms of the One who knit us together and knows the very hairs on our head (or lack thereof!).

After a lifetime of praying and pursuing prayer, I still marvel at the complexity, majesty, mystery, and fragility of prayer. That God should desire to listen to me–whimpering, questioning, confessing, and even offering my best and inadequate praise– it astounds me. And yet it also sustains me, strengthens me, and stimulates me. This same God who holds the stars and planets inhabits the tiniest of atoms in the air I breathe. The same God who ordered the first sunrise, and has watched empires rise and fall, cares when I shed a tear and rejoices when I laugh. God who is perfect, has mercy on me when I confess my pettiness and offers forgiveness when I throw tantrums. The same God who bore the pain and agony of betrayal and crucifixion promises eternal life to those who have rejected Him– if only they will listen, turn, and follow Him.

Today, let the awe of Who God IS– both sovereign, unknowable, and mysterious, AND intimate, loving, and gracious–wash over you as you enter into prayer.

To Bow; To Kneel…

There is no one “right” way to pray–God listens to our heart, whether we are standing, sitting, bowing, lying prostrate, or running! However, kneeling or bowing before God shows our heart attitude. And I think it is important to talk about it a little here.

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  • Bowing or kneeling shows deference. A person bows or kneels before a sovereign or dignitary, someone of rank and importance, or someone in high authority. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11 NKJV)
  • Bowing not only demonstrates God’s superior position, but reminds me of my own position before Him. It is a humbling position to kneel; to bow one’s head; to become smaller and cast one’s eyes down. If there is pride lurking in my heart, bowing may not come easily…
  • To bow or kneel forces us to stop, and puts us in a position for prayer. It forces us to turn away from distractions and from comfort. I can pray in any position, but I don’t generally kneel to do household tasks, or bow to take a phone call. Even if I am not in a position to physically kneel or bow, I can put aside distractions, and take a heart and mind “stance” of prayer.
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  • Throughout the Bible, we are encouraged to bow or kneel when we pray– it is one among many stances of worship we are to take when approaching God’s throne. (see also Romans 14:11, Isaiah 45:23, Revelation 5:13, and Psalm 95:6-7)

https://www.gotquestions.org/bowing-kneeling-prayer.html

  • Kneeling or bowing sets us apart. That is not to say that we should make empty postures to make ourselves look virtuous. But neither should we be afraid to bow our heads, or reluctant to kneel, if we feel led to do so. This is especially true when we are at home or in church. It may NOT be appropriate to kneel in the breakroom at work or bow your head while driving– but if bowing or kneeling at church or in your own home makes you feel uncomfortable (other than for physical limitations), because someone “might” see you, there may be another heart issue at stake.

Today, as I come before my creator, I will kneel in reverence, bow in humility, and worship Him in word and action.

Prayer Priorities

What’s the most “important” prayer you can pray today? Sometimes, we think it is the prayer we pray in a moment of crisis. Or maybe the one we are asked to lead in front of a congregation. But the setting or the situation doesn’t make one prayer more important than any other.

It’s almost a trick question, really. Jesus never taught that some prayers were more “important” than others. But He did teach the some prayers were more effective than others. And His answers may be surprising to some.

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The prayers Jesus praised were prayers of humble confession and needy request. God doesn’t judge our prayers– He judges the heart of the Pray-er. Jesus praised the prayer of the Tax Collector over that of the self-righteous Pharisee (Luke 18:10-14). While others might have been impressed by the Pharisee’s words and confidence, Jesus heard the desperation and the dependence of the Tax Collector. Just before this exchange, Jesus told the parable of a persistent widow, whose constant nagging resulted in getting justice from corrupt judge (Luke 18:1-8). It’s a strange parable–the woman is not meekly accepting of her situation; the judge is corrupt, initially refusing to do the right thing. Yet Jesus prefaces the story by telling his followers to “always pray and not lose heart.” (v. 1) So, the very prayers we dismiss– the nightly prayers for our loved ones, the “unspoken” request we lift up on behalf of a friend, or the seemingly unanswered requests–are no less important than any others.

Finally, Jesus praised (and prayed!) prayers that were “real.” He poured out His heart to His Father in the Garden of Gethsemane; He lifted up His friends’ needs at the Last Supper (John 13-17); He said simple grace before feeding the crowds.

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So often, we judge our efforts when we pray– did we say the “right” thing? Did we say it the “right” way? Did we leave something out? Forget to say something? But God knows what is on our heart and in our mind. He knows what we “meant to say.” He knows everything we need– and all the needs of everyone else we could mention! He already knows all His names and attributes! And though He loves to hear us speak words of praise, He also listens to our heart, and–26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27 NIV via biblegateway.com)

There is one caveat– because God knows our heart, He also “sees through” prayers that are insincere, proud, self-centered, and thoughtless. Some of the most “important-sounding” prayers fall short of touching God’s ears. He will not listen to the prayers of those who wish to “strike a bargain” with Him, or convince Him of their own self-worth. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t value each one of us– after all, He became Sin who knew no sin, so that we could become the Righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). But God’s love is a gift–when we try to bargain for His gifts and earn His Grace with our eloquence, we lose sight of Who He Is.

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Many centuries before Jesus walked the earth, Hannah poured out her heart in tears, wordless anguish, and groaning. (1 Samuel 1). Her prayer was such a mess, the priest, Eli, accused her of being drunk! But God heard her heart, and answered her prayer, and because of her great faith, her son, Samuel led Israel through some of its most trying times. Hers was a very “important” prayer.

What if our stumbling effort to pour out whatever is on our hearts and lift it up to Almighty God–our praise, our failings, our grief, our desperate need–is be the most important prayer we can pray today?

Presumptuous Prayers

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14 ESV (via biblegateway.com)
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“Father, help my neighbor see her sin. Change her heart, Lord Jesus.”

“Heavenly Father, I know it is not your will that I face this diagnosis of cancer. Help the doctors to see their mistake.”

“God, this job opening is a perfect opportunity– I claim this job in Your Name.”

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I’m not saying that the above examples are all about presumption, especially taken out of context, but I think it is easy to fall into a dangerous habit of thinking that our will must also be God’s will, and not the other way around. What if God is waiting for me to reach out in Love to my “sinful” neighbor? What if it is MY heart that needs to be changed? What if God’s plan for my life includes cancer– or a miraculous healing from it? What if my response to cancer is an opportunity to show God’s peace? What if God has a better job, or better timing for that job?

I actually had that experience. When I was first out of college, I applied for many teaching positions– nothing was open the first year, and I ended up working at a public relations firm as a proofreader. I was laid off nine months later– just in time to apply for teaching positions again. The “perfect” job came up at my old high school, where they needed an English teacher. I interviewed well, and thought I had the job. But they went with a teacher who had more experience. So I signed up to do substitute work– not what I wanted, but it paid for my room and board, and not much else. It was late January when I got the call. The other teacher had been chronically ill, and they needed me to “substitute” for the rest of the year, with a possibility of a contract the next year. When I arrived, the classes were in chaos. The students were unruly and way behind in their studies. It wasn’t the “perfect” job– it was difficult. But I prayed– agonizing, humbling, needy prayers. I stayed at that position another seven years. Any I prayed through every day. But what if I had gotten the job at the first try? Would my prayers have been as pure, or would they have been laced with presumption?

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I pray every day. I read God’s word every day. But I am in need– every day– of God’s mercy, His wisdom, and His Holy Spirit to guide my thoughts. Too often, I presume when I pray– that God will do what I want, that He will see things from my perspective, that He will not ask me to go through hardship or disappointment, or pain.

Our prayers don’t need to be as arrogant as that of the Pharisee in this parable to hold certain prideful presumptions.

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“Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner! Give me strength to face the day ahead, grace to share Your Love with those around me, and eyes to see Your hands at work. Thank you for Your salvation, for Your promises, and for Your faithfulness. Amen.”

God Alone Knows..

There is a quote, often attributed to the late great apologist, Ravi Zacharias, that I keep posted on my refrigerator. The actual author appears to be another great apologist, Edward Musgrave (E.M.) Blakelock, an Australian who lived in the 20th century. The quote goes like this:

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God alone knows how to humble you without humiliating you, and how to exalt you without flattering you.

E. M. Blakelock

It is at once a simple and extremely profound statement. God knows us so well, He knows exactly those areas in which we tend toward pride and disobedience. But unlike our accuser, Satan, God doesn’t stand around saying, “AHA! AHA!” and pointing out our faults with glee. His loving discipline will cause us to be confronted with our errors–and our own pride and failure to obey may cause us to be humiliated by others–but God’s purpose is to bring us to repentance and transformation, not shame and dishonor. God wants us to learn from our mistakes, not be imprisoned by them.

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In the same way, God knows our strengths and glories in our wise use of His gifts. But He loves us far to much to flatter us and lead us to improper pride. If we go there, we do so led by our own temptation. God may choose to do great things around us, for us, even through us– but they are God’s great deeds, and we are blessed to be part of the process.

One of Satan’s greatest lies is that we must be “like God”– knowing good and evil, and able to always choose the right course in our own power and wisdom. Such thinking leads us to wonder if God will be unable or unwilling to forgive us– that we must never falter, totter, or doubt. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (Romans 3:23 NIV). But that is NOT the Good News of the Gospel– merely that reality of our lost state. Guilt without remedy is hopeless and dead! Such a picture places God in the place of prosecutor. But God is both our just judge (rather than an unforgiving one), and our faithful advocate!

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God WILL humble us; and He WILL exalt us according to His wisdom. But God is more concerned about our ultimate well-being and redemption than in our temporary feelings.

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My prayer for today is two-fold– first, that I would seek God’s opinion and His just judgment, so that I can confess, repent, and adjust my heart accordingly. Second, I would pray that I might seek to see others as God does; that my love for others would cause me to encourage and admonish with pure love, and not selfish ambition or spite.

Take My Life..

We have entered the Lenten season, and many of us have made plans to “give up” something for the 40 days leading up to Easter–chocolate, or certain meats, or a certain habit. It is traditional to use this time leading up to Holy Week to focus on preparing our hearts to receive the Gift of salvation that comes from Christ’s resurrection on Easter.

But, in a larger sense, there is nothing we can do to prepare for Grace– it is completely unmerited favor. My willingness to deny my sweet tooth for six weeks cannot make me ready for God to allow His wrath to fall on His Holy Son, so that I can be declared righteous for all eternity. It is no more than a gesture.

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God is not impressed by our Lenten traditions. This doesn’t mean that we should not make the gesture; it doesn’t mean that we cannot grow closer to God by such observances. But we must not place too much reliance on them. Jesus Christ is the Author and Finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). He gave up far more than we can imagine in order to rescue us from all that we deserve. Jesus not only gave up His human life on the Cross, He gave up His throne, His status, His omnipresence, and His omnipotence. He allowed Himself to be subject to human authorities, and He served those He had created.

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Jesus didn’t just “give up” something on His way to the Cross. He offered everything He was! May we seek to do the same. May we pray, along with Jesus in the Garden, “..not my will, but Yours be done..” (Luke 22:42)

No, Not One…

I would like to be thought of as a good, honest, decent sort of person. I think most people would say the same; some might claim flippantly that they don’t care, but very few people are indifferent to public opinion. We want to be liked and respected by others– we want to be included. But we also want to be “right.” There is a confidence that comes from knowing that our opinions and morals are shared by those around us, and that we are accepted.

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We live in a world full of “right-ness”, but much of what used to be considered good, right, and moral, is now seen as intolerant, mired in sexist or racist traditions, hateful, and “wrong.” And the temptation is to rise up in defense of what we know to be right– to be identified with it, and to claim it as our own. It is tempting to pray that others will “see the light” or even “get what is coming to them” in light of where they stand on moral issues.

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But God’s standard is much higher. God loves us all with an unfathomable and everlasting love, but He is not impressed by our self-proclaimed righteousness. Nor does He declare us “better” or “more righteous” than our neighbors based on what we believe or how we argue. “There is NONE righteous, no not one.” (Romans 3:10) Our righteousness comes from Grace by Faith (Ephesians 2:8).

Just because God loves us all, and just because none of us can earn God’s favor by what we do or say, doesn’t mean that morality is relative or even irrelevant. We should still fight to correct faulty characterizations of God and His Righteousness. But we must be careful not to let it become a personal crusade; to let self-righteousness blind us to our own dependence on God’s Grace.

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If we spent as much time learning humility as we spend trying to humiliate our rivals, we might see that our reputation is safe in God’s hands!

Chariots of Iron

I was reading from the book of Judges today, and a curious phrase jumped out at me. The entire book of Judges is filled with the failure of the people of Israel to fully claim their promised inheritance from God. Generation after generation passes, with a cycle of sin, enslavement, and deliverance as God raises up various judges and heroes, like Gideon, Deborah, or Samson.

Already in chapter one, there is a hint of the trouble to come. The book begins with several successful battles after the death of Joshua. The people of Israel consult the Lord, who fights with them in several key battles. But in verse 19, it says: “The Lord was with the men of Judah. They took possession of the hill country, but they were unable to drive the people from the plains, because they had iron chariots.”

Say what? The Lord was with the men of Judah– the LORD! They had taken possession of the hill country– rough terrain that would have been filled with natural barriers, rocky fortresses, and literal “uphill battles.” They had destroyed massive cities like Jericho less than a generation before. They had defeated armies far larger and better positioned. They had defeated giants! And now, suddenly, they are “unable” to drive the people from the plains– because the enemy had chariots of iron?

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https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/gills-exposition-of-the-bible/judges-1-19.html I think this commentary says it well. The chariots of iron became the excuse for the Israelites’ unwillingness to obey; to trust in God’s strength instead of their own. After all, it wasn’t that long before in their history when God had drowned the entire Egyptian army, including all its chariots, in the Red Sea.

I don’t think it was about the chariots of iron. I think it was about the plains. I think sometimes it can be more difficult to fight on “the plains.” When God sends us on an “impossible” mission, we must face our own fears and acknowledge our weaknesses– we KNOW we cannot do it in our own power. But when we face an enemy on “equal footing,” we are tempted to trust in our own resources– the toughness of our armor, the skill of our generals, the speed of our horses, and the superiority of our weapons. We hope and expect God to fight for us where we cannot hope to win alone, but we don’t ask for God’s help or protection in areas where we believe our own strength should be sufficient. Israel had a fine army– seasoned veterans of battle. If they HAD iron chariots of their own, victory might have been expected– with or without God’s divine intervention. But victory eluded them, because they didn’t finish the fight!

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We do the same thing today–we fail to march into battle because the enemy has “chariots of iron.” Maybe they have more social status, more political or economic power then we have. Perhaps we see that they have the means to make our lives painful “on the plains.” We see their arrogance, and their wealth and success, and we let ourselves be intimidated. We know that God has promised never to leave us or forsake us, but He has not given us chariots of iron to match those of the enemy. We don’t pray for the courage to face their chariots, or the wisdom to trust that the battle belongs to the Lord. Instead, we make excuses for not fighting the battle at all.

The rest of the book of Judges is filled with war, slavery, corruption, death, and evil. The very last verse sums it up: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.” (Judges 21:25)

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Lord, help me to be courageous, and humble. May I always trust in You above all–especially above chariots of iron, and weapons of mankind.

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?

Praying “Around” My Enemies

I didn’t pray for my enemies. I didn’t pray for their health or safety. I didn’t pray for their spiritual well-being. I didn’t pray that God might show me ways to bless them, or encourage them.

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I prayed that they would be stopped. That they would be exposed as frauds and liars. I prayed for “justice” to be done– to them. That they would be humiliated. That they would get all that they deserved.

And perhaps that is what they prayed for me, as well. That I would “see the light”, and change my mind. That I would be punished for my words and actions that didn’t agree with theirs.

I prayed “around” my enemies. I didn’t pray for them. I didn’t lift them up before the throne of grace. I didn’t pray that they would be shown mercy– I certainly didn’t pray to meet them with humility and grace…

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Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.

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God, forgive me for holding bitterness and anger in my heart. I will never meet a human “enemy” that you didn’t create in Your own image. You have commanded that I am to love my neighbor– even one who disagrees with me; even one who considers me an “enemy.” I cannot delight in evil, or rejoice at injustice; but I must reach out in Love and not Self-Righteousness.

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