Have you ever gone through a time of change or difficult time in your life (job, relationship, move, financial, etc.) when you wanted it to come out a certain way and were praying with all your heart that God would make it so?
We spend a lot of times praying for things in our lives. In “With Christ in the School of Prayer,” Andrew Murray writes that we “allow” God to keep His integrity by adding terminology like “if it’s God’s will.”
So, how do we reconcile unanswered prayers with verses like John 14:13, “And I will do whatever you ask in my name.” Well, we need to do a better job of looking at not only this verse but some of the surrounding verses in 14 and 15. Jesus’ promise is conditional.
Here are some of them:
In my name: ask yourself, “is this something Jesus would have prayed for?”
Abides in me: how much does your life depend on Jesus?
Believes in: you know what I mean here, Christian:)
So that the Father may be glorified: does your request bring glory to God?
The works I have been doing: do we spend our time and prayer energy on the things that really interest God?
Sometimes, we get nervous about whether or not to get involved in something.
Because there is always the risk of failure.
We expect a lot from ourselves.
And we live by the mantra: risk versus reward.
But what if there really wasn’t a risk? What if we’ve been dreaming risk up as an excuse not to try something? Or to put pressure on ourselves to ensure high performance?
In the ministry that I’m involved in, I always worry that people won’t join, that the ministry will be a failure. But guess what: even if they don’t, its not on me. It’s hard to break the performance based model we are accustomed to- but the gospel says Christ performed for us already and our acceptance is based on that- so whether or not what your involved with performs well or feels like failure when it doesn’t perform well- is no longer the issue.
So what that does is frees us up to take base-jumping level risks.
Since the outcome really isn’t on you, you’re free to be faithful.
Now I’m free to risk spectacular failure for the Kingdom- because worldly performance benchmarks (i.e. how good a pastor I am) are no longer the basis for my acceptance.
God is so interested in justice, that one of the first things He told Israel to do in their new land was to create sanctuary cities. If someone accidentally killed someone in ancient Israel, they were to flee to one of these cities. There they could find justice. They had some familiar protections: the right to face their accuser, trial by jury, and witnesses. No ransom was allowed either. So there was equality under the law for the poor. If the death was accidental, then the killer was to safely reside in the city of refuge until the death of the High Priest.
So even manslaughter is sin. In fact, all sin requires blood. And its the job of the blood avenger to get it. In the sanctuary city however, the sinner is safe, but if the offender is found outside the city, the blood avenger has the right to kill you. An avenger is someone who gets something back- as in, I’m gonna get you back for what you did. But if you’re a Christian, you don’t have to run any longer, because the blood of the ultimate High Priest has paid for your sin. He has also gotten something back for you- you’re place with God.
Click the link below to hear the whole talk and learn three things about sanctuary cities: the refuge of the city, the justice of the city and the blood of the city…
The death of a prayer life starts long before we recognize it. We’re still praying. Spending our few minutes a day, maintaining our routine. But its form over substance. There is a coldness to it, a boredom, a monotony, rather than the Spirit filled time we used to enjoy.
The 19th Century preacher Octavius Winslow has some questions you can use to diagnose your prayer life:
Real prayer is the breathing of God’s own Spirit in the heart; have you this? It is communion and fellowship with God; know you what this is? It is brokenness, contrition, confession, and that often springing from an overwhelming sense of his goodness and his love shed abroad in the heart; is this your experience?
There’s a progression to declining prayer:
our private prayer time goes
then our “walking around” prayers- the spontaneous prayers we offer God
next is family prayer (say goodbye to family study and praying at meals)
and finally social prayer- with other Christians
What you exchange for prayer: The absence of prayer does not leave a vacuum. Something else fills it. Humility, dependance on God and desperation to share the gospel gets exchanged for self-reliance, judgmental-ness, and a lack of interest in increasing the Kingdom of God.
Winslow chronicles the final result:
Satan, the subtle and sleepless foe of the soul, is prepared with a thousand enticements to smooth the downward path; the world appears with some new attraction; sin tastes less bitter, and appears less “exceeding sinful”; objects of sense become familiar, are looked at, admired, then embraced: and now the soul, but for preserving and restraining grace, has taken a farewell forever of God.
Should I serve inside the church or should I serve outside the church? Yes…
This is how as an interrogator, I learned the hard way not to ask compound questions. Did you rob the bank on Monday or did you rob the bank on Tuesday? Yes. So which is it?
If you serve inside the church walls… does that mean you are off the hook outside the walls?
Christians are called to both serve both one another AND the needy, i.e. “the widow, the orphan and the foreigner among you.” When we serve one another inside the walls we are serving by extension the ministry of God’s Word. When we serve outside the walls we are serving the ministry of God’s Work. Both Word and Works are necessary.
There is the danger of thinking that if we usher or work in children’s ministry, that we are absolved of working in the community. As a pastor, spending all my free time inside the walls, I even tried to convince myself that I was off the hook. Nice try.
We only hurt ourselves when we forgo community work because God ordains that kind of service as one of the ways that He changes our heart (i.e. sanctifies us). In short, I hate going, but once I’m there I feel like it was great idea (that’s simple heart change). And while he’s changing our heart, other hearts are changing as we model (and yes even speak about) the gospel.
We are called to be God’s agents in world repair- the Jewish term is Tikkun Olam. I especially love Isaiah for his Two Cities Theme: the city of man vs. the city of God- it’s currently a poor crime ridden ghetto filled with people who abuse each other. But in the end we see its transformation into a Holy City. Even though its not here yet, we are to be part of that transforming process- now.
The deep peace of knowing we’ve been accepted by Christ should be changing the way we work and rest… into rest at work. There is more to rest than our past and our future. And there is also more to rest than a day off or a vacation.
Think about your past. When you accept Christ as Savior- there is rest in knowing you’ve been forgiven for all your sins.
Think of your future. Because there is also the hope of the future rest we will have in heaven.
But there is also a rest today. The author of Hebrews writes: “Now we who have believed enter that rest…” Now. So not only do we get a physical day or two off once in a while., but as we go about our daily work, whether at our jobs or as parents, or whatever else it is that you do, you can not only occasionally rest FROM it, you can rest IN it, too. If your truly resting in your unconditional acceptance by the God of the universe, your work should look a lot different than the harried, blowing up at co-workers, late again for the meeting, yelling at the kids, thorns and thistles that everyone around you is experiencing as work. Here’s how:
Because you rest in Christ, you’re going to work towards excellence, but you’re not going to worry about the outcome, because good or bad, that’s up to God. You are not accepted based on outcomes.
Because you rest in Christ, your work doesn’t define you, Christ and his acceptance of you is what defines you.
Because you rest in Christ, you don’t overwork- because you’re not approved by taking on more than you can handle. And you’re not lazy- because you trust God will provide the rest you need.
So now Christians have a choice: we can do our work the old way or the new way. We can strive and contend and struggle or we can “rest at work.”
The Cheesecake Factory is known for its ability to pull off an eighty page menu. Churches, not so much…
Cheesecake Factory Church
The Cheesecake Factory is known for its ability to pull off an eighty page menu. Churches, not so much. In church world, something for everyone sounds great but usually fails at disciple-making. A church with too many menu items becomes stretched and spread too thin. Or, as Frodo Baggins would say “butter scrapped over too much bread.” You wind up with a dozen or so ministries with a dozen or so people in each- it dilutes resources- people, energy, time and money. Ministry fatigue results. So I prefer the Steakhouse model instead, pick a few things you can do well and stick with it.
What ministries in your church are good at disciple making? Where can you get the most bang for your buck? Small Groups are a “big bang” discipleship program. Connectivity, care and share, in depth bible study, gospel application, meaningful group prayer, leadership development, and even eating the occasional cheesecake together. If your only going to get people one time every week or two outside of church, this is a good one.
If you have many programs that accomplish all of these things well, then great! But we should always be evaluating and asking- how are they making disciples? If you’re only hanging out/socializing, that’s great- maybe you’re only studying the Bible together, not bad either, or serving, or praying, etc. But where are you doing all these things at once?
Check out this message on John 17:17-24 – its as close as I’ve been able to come to fully and biblically articulating the (drive by) theology behind my position: The Beauty of Gospel Community
Most people are reluctant to go to group prayer meetings precisely because they’ve been to group prayer meetings. Count me among the recalcitrant. Group prayer time used to send me into despair. I once suggested privately to my wife that we should pass a Yahtzee timer around. Not very loving or patient on my part. Hopefully, I’ve grown since. But my problem wasn’t the prayer, it was the prep. The backstories dominated the time. All too often, they began, “It all started back in fifth grade.” Cue famous painting “The Scream.” But two years ago, a couple of our Life Groups began to combine once a month for dedicated prayer time. Wary of past time sinks, we laid a few ground rules:
Get started right away. After a short 2-3 minute introduction by an informal leader- with a few community and church themed things we should be considering, we got started, right away.
No backstories. If the details are important, they are important enough to reveal them in the prayer.
Make a list of things to pray for BEFORE you arrive.
Pick a passage of scripture to pray for- concerned about the will of God? Worried you won’t have anything to pray? Plenty of material here. God’s Word is God’s will.
Embrace the silence. The Holy Spirit is still moving.
Then simply pray until everyone is prayed out. You’ll know when. Our early meetings lasted 15 minutes and eventually stretched to 45. It felt like two. Prayer is like distance running- you have to get in shape.
Getting right to prayer was the answer. There is still a place for backstories- albeit more appropriately in Life Group setting where the express purpose is to share life experiences. But give it a try. Get a couple of groups together, once a month, and if you’re nervous, have one of the pastors take the lead until you get the hang of it.
Oftentimes, even as believers, we can convince ourselves that we are enemies of God. Deep in our hearts we believe that in our sin, we have made ourselves the enemy. Here’s why:
The reason we sin is because at that time, we wanted that feeling, that thing, that experience more than we wanted God. We wanted the money, to be accepted, whatever it was, more than God when we did it. What happens is subconsciously we know it, and it weighs on us, and we feel like enemies of God.
Remember how Paul chastised the Colossians: Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. Yes, once we were enemies, but no longer. Even though we’re no longer enemies because of what Christ did for us on the cross, we can convince ourselves that we are. So repent of your sin, thank God that you are forgiven- yet again, and breath a sigh of relief. But you are not the enemy.