10-14 I’m glad in God, far happier than you would ever guess—happy that you’re again showing such strong concern for me. Not that you ever quit praying and thinking about me. You just had no chance to show it. Actually, I don’t have a sense of needing anything personally. I’ve learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances. I’m just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I’ve found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am. I don’t mean that your help didn’t mean a lot to me—it did. It was a beautiful thing that you came alongside me in my troubles.
Philippians 4:10-14 (The Message)
I know many Christians who quote Philippians 4:13–generally in the King James or New King James versions: “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens (strengtheneth) me.” It is a powerful verse, but taken out of context, it can become twisted and lead to unrealistic expectations. In context, Paul is not talking about achievement, but about endurance. “I can endure all things…” or “I can cope with all circumstances…” is a better understanding, which is why I chose to quote from The Message, instead of another translation. Many times, however, we co-opt this familiar verse to fill our calendar with busy plans for our own achievements, trusting in God to give us the strength to multi-task our way past exhaustion. We end up frustrated, disappointed, and even questioning our faith.
God never meant for any of us to do “all things..” In fact, He wants us to trust Him to direct our paths– even when He directs us away from achievement and into rest or even need. Paul was a doer. He loved to be on the road, preaching and teaching, building up churches, and making new converts. But the letter to the Philippian believers was written from a jail cell. Paul could not be there to minister to them, but they had ministered to him, instead! Paul was thanking his friends for the help they gave him, not because he was abandoned or starving, but because their gifts reminded him of their care for him, and of God’s care for all of us. God had given Paul a season of rest from the road– imposed rest, but rest that gave him time to reflect on God’s goodness in solitude.
When we set ourselves up to “do all things,” it usually means “all the things I think I can or ought to do,” or “all the things I am asked or expected to do as a volunteer or a friend or neighbor or parent…” God is more concerned with our “being” than our “doing.” He wants us to be seeking after righteousness, not self-righteousness. He wants us to be growing in our love for others– even if we can’t “do it all.” He wants us to follow Him, not impress Him!
I’m in a season of “can’t” right now. It’s not that I can’t do anything, but I can’t do “all things.” That’s not a result of my lacking faith or having a wrong view of God– God CAN do anything and “everything.” But I can’t. And God’s plan isn’t to empower me to be autonomous, self-sustaining, or self-righteous. I NEED others! And I NEED Him! What I CAN do, is trust in His timing and His resources to be sufficient for my daily needs. I can get “enough” done today, with God’s wisdom and strength. I can do “enough” to overcome anxiety or depression– with the help that God provides. That may mean allowing someone else to do simple tasks that I can’t do today. It may mean accepting medical help. It may mean changing my schedule or my expectations for today. But I can endure all the setbacks, and the moments of grief or weakness that keep me from “doing” what I had planned. I can weather it all in the power of Christ. And so can you! If you are finding yourself in a season of “can’t,” don’t skim over Philippians 4– study it. Claim it! Christ’s power isn’t for those who “can.” It’s for those who ask!
It’s a great thing to have a “can-do” attitude. But sometimes, we need a season of “can’t do” in order to step back and see what we “can BE” in the power of Christ!
I grew up in a church that made prayer a priority. I know many churches that still do this, but I know that some churches today just leave prayer up to the individual Christian. They may open the service with a prayer, and close with a prayer, and even offer a prayer service in the mid-week, but they do not focus on prayer as a congregation. With many churches, corporate prayer doesn’t seem very practical– they are just too large, or too focused on spending their time in worship. But I think something of value is lost when the church doesn’t come together in prayer.
Prayer IS an individual pursuit. It should be part of each Christian’s daily walk. And most of what I write (and practice) about prayer happens personally. But Jesus practiced both personal and corporate prayer. Even in His agonizing prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, He wanted close friends to be nearby praying, rather than sleeping (see Matthew 26:36-46 and Luke 22: 39-46). When instructing His disciples in how to pray, He used the term, “Our Father,” not “My Father.” Christianity , including prayer, cannot be practiced in isolation. We need to pray for others, and with others, and be prayed for by others!
In the small country church where I grew up, prayer was woven into the service. Prayer requests would be shared, and people would take turns praying aloud, until one prayer leader would close the prayer time with an “Amen!” In the church where I currently attend, we still share prayer requests on-line, and a list of requests gets sent out once a week. Occasionally, we will break into small groups during service to pray for particular focus or a specific request. Additionally, we have a mid-week prayer meeting, where we spend an hour just praying as a small group.
Why do I emphasize the need for group or corporate prayer? Over the years, I have seen many benefits:
I love “hearing” the hearts of others. We don’t all pray exactly the same. Even if we are reciting a prayer (like The Lord’s Prayer) there are different voices, different inflections, different tones, that bring a richness and diversity to prayer. And that is a great reminder that God is the God of ALL of us, even as He is the God of EACH of us. He is OUR God, every bit as much as He is MY God.
There is comfort and even power in praying together. My personal prayer may be sincere, but it is usually silent, and may be influenced by my surroundings, my mood, my distracting thoughts, etc.. But there is a different atmosphere when two or three (or more) are taking turns praying, adding to the thoughts and prayers of others, and pouring out their hearts in concert with other believers. I get a broader perspective when I pray with others. I hear more than just my own voice and my own thoughts. It doesn’t change whether or not God listens to my prayer, but it changes the way I think and feel– it isn’t just “MY” prayer– it is “OUR” prayer.
I learn more about prayer by practicing with others. I know many people who will not pray in a group, because they feel their prayers are “lacking” somehow. And this is a dangerous way to think! I have learned amazing lessons of faith from simple prayers; amazing lessons of doctrine from eloquent prayers; amazing insight from broken and contrite prayers; and even lessons from “runaway” prayers that go on and on. And praying in a group is not about how much you say, but by how much you are present in the moment.
Corporate prayer is a rich tradition. Jewish priests would lead the entire nation of Israel in prayer during various festivals. Many of the psalms are written as prayer-songs for a congregation to sing together. The early church made prayer a part of their meeting together (see Matthew 18:20, Acts 2:40-47, Romans 15:6, others…)
Corporate prayer strengthens my faith and the faith of others. Intellectually, I “know” that God listens to and answers my prayers, but when I pray with others, it strengthens my experiential knowledge that God is listening– because I am listening, and being listened to!
Corporate prayer challenges my perspective in relation to my own sinfulness and God’s grace. Corporate prayer should not be used as a “True Confessions” session, where we try to outdo each other in confessing secret sins or wallowing in self-righteous recitations. But it should bring us into a realistic awareness of our very human nature, and of God’s amazing Grace. Corporate prayer takes us out of our “self” and focuses on God’s sovereignty in ways that personal prayer sometimes misses. Corporate prayer tends to focus on gratitude, humility, and thinking of others more highly than yourself. And that is often a stepping stone to confession and the awareness of God’s forgiveness.
Corporate prayer lends itself to structure. That’s not to take away from unstructured and spontaneous prayer, but corporate prayer tends to have a stated purpose, and sometimes a stated format. From “round robin” prayer, where people pray in a particular order around a circle; to “popcorn” prayer, where people jump in and take turns until a certain time has elapsed; to structured prayer, where people pray in a strict order and with definite purpose for a slotted time, corporate prayer tends to be more disciplined that personal prayer. That doesn’t make it better or worse, but it is a different way to pray, which can help foster discipline in other areas.
Are you part of a prayer group at your church or in your community? If so, cherish this rich opportunity. If not, make a point of connecting with other believers– at church, in your community, or even on-line. Share requests. Set aside time to pray together, or even separately, but at the same time. Live stream prayer. Pray with someone over the phone, if you don’t have a prayer group or congregation nearby.
Poor Fruitcake– the butt of dozens of Christmas jokes. Someone once said that there were 20 Fruitcakes produced in France in 1541– and they are all still in circulation today! I know a few people who like fruitcake, but most people just make fun of it. Technically, it IS a cake, but it is mostly made up of fruit and nuts soaked in rum or brandy or candied for preservation. Fruitcakes can be mailed, shipped, and saved for months without rotting, but the fruits never taste fresh, and much of their flavor is overwhelmed by the sugars used to preserve them. Fruitcake is heavy, and sweet. It is full of things that are “good for you,” but the end result is not very healthful.
I was reading the other day in Galatians, and a couple of days later in Philippians– two passages that speak of Christians producing fruit. Our lives are to be characterized by virtues and acts of service that bring health and healing, joy and peace to those around us. And these virtues are the products of our Faith in Action– of The Holy Spirit working in and through us.
22 But when the Holy Spirit controls our lives he will produce this kind of fruit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control; and here there is no conflict with Jewish laws.
Galatians 5:22-23 (Living Bible–emphasis added)
So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush. Live a lover’s life, circumspect and exemplary, a life Jesus will be proud of: bountiful in fruits from the soul, making Jesus Christ attractive to all, getting everyone involved in the glory and praise of God.
Phillipians 1:9-11 (The Message–emphasis added)
“Fruit of the Spirit” is not something we can manufacture ourselves. Only God’s Spirit at work IN us can produce such fruit. And, while it is Fruit that will last, it doesn’t need to be dried or candied or soaked for preservation. Unlike the fruit in Fruitcake, the Fruit of the Spirit is eternally fresh and bursting with life and flavor. There is nothing wrong or evil about Holiday Fruitcake. But it cannot compare with fresh fruit for wholesomeness and healthfulness.
Sometimes, we try to manufacture our own “Fruit of the Spirit.” And this can be far worse than a harmless but calorie-laden Holiday Fruitcake. Even those who are opposed to Christ can manufacture a certain amount of Joy, or Patience, or Self-Control. Anyone can appear Gentle or Kind when they choose. But, separated from the source of life and growth, we cannot produce fresh fruit. Our Joy may be soaked in Rum. Our Patience may dry up. Our Kindness may be candy-sweet, but hiding malicious or selfish motives. Or we may surround our fruit with worldly “wisdom,” disguising and transforming it with cake and nuts.
This holiday season, let’s not become dried out or artificially sweetened in our acts of service and Love. Let’s be producers of Godly Fruit– Love that reaches out to the Lost, the lonely, and the “unlovable” with true love and not just sentimentality; Joy that bubbles up from a thankful heart and a transformed mind; Peace that transcends our current trials and circumstances; Patience that endures hardship without losing hope; Kindness that wraps itself around the unworthy and never tires; Goodness that knows no conceit and seeks no credit; Faithfulness that inspires and produces hope in a faithless world; Gentleness that smooths over troubled waters without being overcome; and a rock-solid Self-Control and steadiness that produces trust– not in our own power or wisdom, but in the One who produces it in our lives. We should be humble and grateful, teachable, and ready to forgive, encourage, and pray for others.
Don’t be a Fruitcake this Christmas– be a Fruit Basket instead!
Social Media can be a wonderful thing– it connects us, and helps us share good news, prayer requests, events, photos, and more. It can help us make new friends, get re-acquainted with old friends, learn new skills, and be more informed.
Sadly, though, social media can also bring out the absolute worst in us. Social media is immediate– we see or hear something, react to it emotionally, and respond without taking time to think. But social media is not really social. It is social only in the “virtual” sense. And that creates problems. There is nothing like being anonymous behind a computer screen to turn us into the biggest bullies, critics, and self-indulgent know-it-alls. Worse, we find it easy to spread vicious gossip, misinformation, and negativity by pressing a single “share” button…we didn’t even say it!
But we DID send it out. And others saw it, heard it, felt it– for better or worse. Even the “good” responses– followers, “likes”, smiling emojis, and such–can feel impersonal or even forced. But what about the comments that reveal contempt, anger, sarcasm, or hatred? Critical, biting, self-righteous, self-gratifying, smug comments and posts.
“Oh, but I would never do that…” Really? I have been guilty of passing along posts (or even creating posts) that drip with sarcasm, or gleefully correct people or groups I feel have said something “wrong”. I’ve even passed along Bible verses with smug captions.
“Well, everyone is a critic.” “I’m only saying what is true.” “Doesn’t the Bible tell us to warn others and speak out against sin?”
There are many “gifts” of the Holy Spirit–teaching, preaching, healing, even prophecy– but nowhere in the Bible does it say we are “gifted” to be critics, nags, or to speak out in contempt, anger, and malice. In fact, the Bible contains several warning against such behavior:
Judging Others 7 “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
Galatians 5:15Verse Concepts But if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. Philippians 2:14-16 Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain. James 4:11-12 Do not speak against one another, brethren He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?
This does not mean that we are to stay quiet about evil, or excuse sin. But we are to do so in love, not with contempt for others, or pride in our own understanding.
Moreover, God, who has the right to be critical and pass His perfect, Holy judgment on us, is the very one who offers us Grace and Mercy, encouragement, and hope!
8 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you[a] free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh,[b] God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering.[c]And so he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:1-4 NIV) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+8&version=NIV
God is NOT our critic– He is our Savior, our advocate, our Father.
Lord, may I honor You by my words and deeds today–including my activity on Social Media! May I demonstrate Your love, encouragement, mercy, and goodness today. Amen
8 In the sixth year, in the sixth month on the fifth day, while I was sitting in my house and the elders of Judah were sitting before me, the hand of the Sovereign Lord came on me there. 2 I looked, and I saw a figure like that of a man. From what appeared to be his waist down he was like fire, and from there up his appearance was as bright as glowing metal. 3 He stretched out what looked like a hand and took me by the hair of my head. The Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and in visions of God he took me to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the north gate of the inner court, where the idol that provokes to jealousy stood. 4 And there before me was the glory of the God of Israel, as in the vision I had seen in the plain. 5 Then he said to me, “Son of man, look toward the north.” So I looked, and in the entrance north of the gate of the altar I saw this idol of jealousy. 6 And he said to me, “Son of man, do you see what they are doing—the utterly detestable things the Israelites are doing here, things that will drive me far from my sanctuary? But you will see things that are even more detestable.” 7 Then he brought me to the entrance to the court. I looked, and I saw a hole in the wall. 8 He said to me, “Son of man, now dig into the wall.” So I dug into the wall and saw a doorway there.9 And he said to me, “Go in and see the wicked and detestable things they are doing here.” 10 So I went in and looked, and I saw portrayed all over the walls all kinds of crawling things and unclean animals and all the idols of Israel. 11 In front of them stood seventy elders of Israel, and Jaazaniah son of Shaphan was standing among them. Each had a censer in his hand, and a fragrant cloud of incense was rising. 12 He said to me, “Son of man, have you seen what the elders of Israel are doing in the darkness, each at the shrine of his own idol? They say, ‘The Lord does not see us; the Lord has forsaken the land.’” 13 Again, he said, “You will see them doing things that are even more detestable.” 14 Then he brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the house of the Lord, and I saw women sitting there, mourning the god Tammuz. 15 He said to me, “Do you see this, son of man? You will see things that are even more detestable than this.” 16 He then brought me into the inner court of the house of the Lord, and there at the entrance to the temple, between the portico and the altar, were about twenty-five men. With their backs toward the temple of the Lord and their faces toward the east, they were bowing down to the sun in the east. 17 He said to me, “Have you seen this, son of man? Is it a trivial matter for the people of Judah to do the detestable things they are doing here? Must they also fill the land with violence and continually arouse my anger? Look at them putting the branch to their nose! 18 Therefore I will deal with them in anger; I will not look on them with pity or spare them. Although they shout in my ears, I will not listen to them.”
Ezekiel 8 (NIV) via biblegateway.com
We make a big fuss in our culture about privacy. What I do in my own home, with my own life, in my own time, is private. And, for many of us, our privacy is sacred. We rage and fight and panic about who may be invading our privacy– listening in or watching us when we least expect it.
I must admit, I don’t like the idea of anyone spying on me or listening in on my private moments. I especially don’t like the thought of someone manipulating or using my private words, images, or ideas without my knowledge or consent.
But there is a danger in our quest for privacy– we are inclined to believe that anything we do in private CANNOT ever be discovered; that we are safe to do whatever we please, regardless of the consequences. The internet has made this idea even more dangerous–we can be private and anonymous behind the screen. We can say things we know we shouldn’t; we can view things we would be ashamed to acknowledge watching; we can explore fantasies, mask our inadequacies, pretend to be who and what we are not; all behind the “safety” of the screen.
And this is nothing new. In Ezekiel’s day, the moral, legal, political, and religious leaders of the day thought they were “safe” to indulge in idol worship behind closed doors. But more than that, they believed that God would never see as they practiced divination, witchcraft, ritual prostitution, violent orgies, even child sacrifice! They had built hidden rooms where they practiced vile rites and indulged in the very behaviors they taught others to avoid. Worse, they condemned and vilified others when they “got caught” doing the same things they practiced with impunity. And when prophets came to them with warnings–the very words of God– they had them ruined, imprisoned, tortured, and killed.
In the eighth chapter of Ezekiel, God shows his prophet a vision. He allows Ezekiel to “go behind closed doors” and see the priests and leaders at their worst–over and over again–secret rituals, detestable practices, flagrant disobedience, arrogant rebellion…And all of this was happening as the nations of Israel and Judah had collapsed, and many thousands had died from war, disease, and starvation. People had been sent into exile– defeated, starving, enslaved. Yet their leaders were keeping up an image of righteousness and proud endurance, instead of turning to God for help and hope.
God was very clear–Jerusalem WOULD be captured and destroyed. Babylon WOULD take God’s people captive and send most of them to the sword or to exile. Defiance and pride– especially relying on the great victories of the past– would not save them. Rebellion and violence would not hold back God’s judgment.
The same is true today. It is easy to write about praying and walking closely with God–I’m hidden behind a screen. I can sound righteous and Godly for a few minutes three times a week. And it is easy to point fingers and call out the bad behavior of others behind the anonymity of a computer screen. We need to speak up, speak out, and defend the cause of those who are oppressed, abused, enslaved, and silenced. But we also need to beware that we are not crying, “Shame on you!” from a locked closet, while waving banners or buying merchandise supporting the abusers.
And God sees all of it. What we may find shocking and reprehensible, God has already seen through to its conclusion! God WILL bring judgment and punishment for those who shed blood and bring violence and injustice. But God also sees what I do in the watches of the night; when I’m alone with my thoughts; when I’m not on my guard against what I view on Facebook or YouTube. God knows what celebrity gossip I crave, or what I’m “watching” on eBay. He knows if I am ignoring or justifying evil happening all around me. He watches over my shoulder when I’m reading that new novel, or I’m driving down the road (hopefully not at the same time!), or when I’m wallowing in self-pity or jealousy or anger.
When I read about Ezekiel weeping over the behavior of Israel’s leaders, I am convicted. How often do I weep and seek God’s mercy over the behavior of our leaders–all of them, and not just the ones I voted for? Or do I just fume and post about how awful “they” are (whoever “they” my be) and how “they” need to be punished? How often do I ignore my own bad behavior? I may not have a “hidden room” filled with detestable images and idols, but God is still watching how I react to challenging times. He knows if I am obeying His voice or merely pretending to follow Him while leaning on my own understanding or my own image of self-righteousness. He knows if I have made money, politics, status, safety, health, or even “religion” into idols, hoping that one or more of them will carry me through tough times. He knows if I am condemning others for their bad behavior, while hiding or justifying my own.
I want everyone to see me when I am noble and righteous–but I need to see myself as He sees me every day–His much-loved, and ever-needy, child.
Father, may I be quick to remember that You ALWAYS see me– and that You ALWAYS want me to see You as well. Help me to see You in the middle of challenging times. Help me to see You when I interact with others. Help me to obey You in the private moments when no one else is watching.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5:10 (NKJV)
Yesterday was Easter (in parts of the world)–the celebration of Christ’s resurrection and victory over Sin and Death. We have much to celebrate. But we also have a mission. We have the assurance of eternity in Heaven, but in THIS world, Jesus warned us, “you will have trouble.” (John 16:33). We will be misunderstood, mocked, and persecuted. We will have to face the temporary consequences of living in a fallen world– anger, greed, abuse, violence, betrayal–even bad weather and natural disasters!
In giving the Beatitudes, Jesus turned common expectations upside-down. Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are the meek; blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake… We don’t consider poverty, powerlessness, suffering and persecution blessings to be desired. Yet Jesus, the One we follow, gladly endured all of these for our sake! Notice that the “blessing” is the same here as in the first of the Beatitudes– “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The Kingdom of Heaven is not reserved for those who are victorious in their own power or through force of will or extraordinary effort. But it is reserved for those who persevere in the face of evil–those who lean, and those who rest, and those who stand IN THE POWER of God.
Notice, too, that we are blessed if we are persecuted “for righteousness’ sake.” There is no blessing for suffering due to our own stubbornness or foolishness. There is no blessing for those who are persecuted for their own pride and judgmental nature and unforgiveness toward themselves or others. (see 1 Peter 3) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Peter+3%3A8-17&version=CEV
We live in a culture that celebrates “victimhood.” Those who suffer injustice– even perceived of implied injustice–are considered to have a special status. Those who claim to have been offended or hurt by individuals or groups often demand recognition for their “bravery” or retribution for their suffering. This happens even among certain Christians, who claim to be “persecuted,” when they are merely suffering the consequences of their own hubris and self-righteous posturing. This is a monstrous injustice to fellow Christians who are truly suffering persecution “for righteousness’ sake.”
My prayer today is that I will emulate the example of Christ– that I will serve, humbly, willingly, sacrificially, enduring any persecution that comes as a result, and lifting up fellow Christians who are suffering, as well as their persecutors! For righteousness’ sake– for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.
I want to spend some time this month exploring the Beatitudes and how they relate to our prayer life. Today I want to look at Matthew 5:3: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.”
How do I approach God’s throne of Grace? Do I come with a list of what I want, and what I’ve accomplished for God? Do I come reluctantly, grudgingly, holding back some part of who I am or who I have been? Do I come flaunting my self-righteousness? Or do I come empty of all but my desire to be in the Presence of my Maker?
Many people have interpreted (and misinterpreted) this phrase. Jesus does not insist that we be financially destitute, or drained of all enthusiasm or emotion. But He does require that we come recognizing our need of Him. We may not be physically needy in the moment– we may be well-fed, comfortable, or even wealthy by human standards. But we are all in need of God’s presence and His provision. On my own, I may believe that I have earned all that I seem to possess, but I cannot supply the air that I breathe, or guarantee that my health will remain perfect, or that I will be able to keep what I think I own, or force others to accept or respect me. “Man supposes, but God disposes” is an old phrase, but an accurate one.
When I approach God in prayer, no matter how rich or poor I may seem, I am dependent on God for everything. And this is true for every one of us. So I don’t approach God as someone “needier” or “less needy” than my neighbor. And I don’t approach God with any power to bargain or demand, or even to request– except that God has invited me and sought me out in His Love and Mercy!
And this is the rest of the Beatitude– “for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.” God has opened up Heaven and invited me to walk with Him, to learn from Him, to receive His blessings, and to live with Him throughout eternity. His riches! His Glory! His Presence! Every time I pray, I trade my poverty for God’s bounty. I trade my confession for His forgiveness. I trade my helplessness for His Wisdom and Power to triumph over adversity and confusion, grief and doubt, sickness and lack.
It is when I come to Christ believing that I possess or control all that I suppose to be “mine,” that I lose the Blessing of His sufficiency and His perfection.
“Thank you, God of Mercy, and Ruler of All, for the privilege of coming to you. I come empty and spent–show me where I am holding on to something less than You, or trying to claim Your wealth as my own. Teach me to rest in the sufficiency of Your kingdom, even as I continue to serve you here on earth.”
“Look at the proud! They trust in themselves, and their lives are crooked, but the righteous will live by their faith.”
Is it rational to believe in God? About three and a half centuries ago, the French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, drew up what is now known as “Pascal’s Wager.” In it, he gives a “rational” justification for belief in God (theism). In it, he posits that if God doesn’t exist, it doesn’t matter whether or not we believe that He does. But if God is real, the consequences of our belief or denial are crucial. If the God of the Bible exists (along with heaven and hell, sin and salvation), the failure to believe will lead us to lose everything; the decision to believe will lead us to gain everything…there is no in between.
I’m not a big fan of Pascal’s Wager. Not because it’s bad logic, per se, but because it depends on belief, but not faith.
What’s the difference? Belief says that God exists–that He is supreme, that He controls our destiny, and that He must be obeyed. It will produce a life of theistic obedience to God’s Law, including a life of “good” works, moral conduct, and “right” thinking. But it will not produce a Godly character. It will not be a life of righteousness.
Faith, on the other hand, believes that God not only exists, but that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him (Hebrews 11:6) and that He so loved the world, that He gave His only Son (John 3:16) to save us from Sin and Death (1 Corinthians 15:56-7). It is not our belief in God’s existence that saves us and gives us life; rather it is Faith by His Grace! (Ephesians 2:8-9) in the nature and character of God– in the atoning work of Jesus as revelation and proof of His character– that saves us from Sin and Death.
Pascal’s Wager is a way of thinking about God. It can lead someone to believe, which can produce a life of Faith. But it can also produce a kind of life that is ruled by grudging obedience, resentment, and pride in one’s own powers of self-control and understanding. Faith lives in dependence and humility, and joyous gratitude for God’s gifts.
The prophet Habakkuk, who first wrote the phrase, “the righteous will live by faith,” learned this lesson in dramatic fashion. He “believed” in God– in His righteousness and justice. He spoke to God about the wickedness he saw all around him, among his own people. God gave him a difficult answer: Justice was coming in the form of an invasion by the Babylonians– a group known for their wickedness and cruelty and lack of justice! God’s answer was shocking and counter-intuitive. But Habakkuk chose to believe in God’s Eternal Character, as God revealed the “rest of the story.” Israel would suffer; justice would be cruel–but God’s glory and His salvation would triumph. Habakkuk’s response was a song of praise and faith. Regardless of his circumstances, Habakkuk would wait and rejoice, knowing that God’s ways are perfect.
It’s not difficult to say we believe in God. But are we living in Faith? I find it easy to let circumstances–especially injustice and wickedness–overwhelm me and rob me of peace and joy. But I find it comforting to know that my momentary doubts cannot stop God’s promises, His Mercy, or His power to help me live by Faith. That’s due to His righteousness, not mine, but through Christ, I can trust in it, walk in it, and live in it!
21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy by thy name, and by thy name cast out demons, and by thy name do many mighty works? 23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.
In just the past three weeks, three of my family members and one of my friends have made the decision to be baptized as a public declaration of their decision to live for Christ. All of them (and the others who were baptized at the same times) were baptized by immersion, signifying that they have, spiritually, died to self, been buried, and are raised with Christ to eternal life. This is not a step to be taken lightly, and I have confidence that all four (and more) of those I know are serious in their passion to follow the Lord.
When I write about prayer as a pursuit, I hope to convey that prayer is part of a larger pursuit of seeking God. And seeking God must include acknowledging Him as Lord above all– especially self. Jesus warned about people who claim to follow Him in word, but do not obey Him. It is, unfortunately, very easy to “speak Christian-ese”: to sound righteous and reverent when we are around others who claim to believe, but justify behaviors that may or may not stem from selfish motives.
There are obvious examples of hypocrisy in our world, but in His famous “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus warns that many who seem to be doing good deeds, and “talking the talk” will not be part of God’s eternal kingdom. We are not to be seduced into thinking that God will be impressed by charitable giving, memorizing Scripture, or working on the Mission field if we are not willing to repent of our “secret” sins and false attitudes. And it is not for us to point fingers at “other” hypocrites– it is for us to humbly assess whether or not we are truly acting in obedience and submission to our Lord, or satisfying our own selfish desires and hoping for God’s stamp of approval.
Prayer should be a two-way communication. We pray to God, but we also listen for God’s guidance, wisdom, conviction, and encouragement. And we must act in obedience, and confess our disobedience if we want to “keep the slate clean” and keep a close relationship. When we refuse, we are just giving God lip service, and using His name to impress others and deceive ourselves. Others may judge us on appearances, but God sees what is in our heart. And “in that day” (v. 22), He will not let imposters through the gates of Heaven.
The Good News is that Jesus doesn’t leave us hanging in verse 23. He goes on to say, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house upon the rock..” (Matthew 7:24) Jesus is our Lord, but also our Savior and our Advocate. When we call on Him AS our true Lord, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins (1 John 1:9), and His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3a)
The act of Baptism alone does not have the power to save us. The practice of prayer alone has no saving power. But the pursuit of a relationship with Christ depends on such acts of obedience, humility, and trust. And the other good deeds that come from that relationship will not only help others, but will please God and strengthen that relationship. Instead of hearing, “I never knew you,” we can hear, “well done!” Not because of what we’ve done, but because of the partnership we’ve developed in God’s work.
May God bless all those who have recently taken the step of Baptism. And may we all continue to pursue that relationship of dying to self, being buried with Him, and rising to new life in Christ!
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.
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.
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.
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!