Some Thoughts on Prayer

Prayer is one of those mysterious and somewhat confusing aspects of the Christian life. We know that we’re supposed to pray but we often struggle with the Why issue. And when we don’t have a good answer we default to, because we’re told to (Ephesians 6:18, Philippians 4:6, 1 Thessalonians 5:17). Sometimes that’s a really good answer.

But we want more. We want answers to questions like, If God is sovereign, why should we pray? Or, If God has planned everything, how much difference can my prayers make?

These are legitimate questions that deserve thoughtful answers. But I want to offer two, perhaps simpler reasons for you to pray.

Prayer is a way of acknowledging who God is.

When you pray about problems you are saying, God I can’t handle this by myself. It’s bigger than me. I need help. I need You.

When you pray in confession you are saying, God I sinned against you. I want our relationship to be right. I don’t want this to come between us. I don’t want to face life with a strained relationship.

When you pray in thanksgiving you are saying, God I recognize that you did this. It wasn’t anything that I did. You did it. I’m grateful.

When you pray in adoration you are saying, God you deserve all of my praise. You alone are worthy.

Prayer is our way of acknowledging that we need God, that we are willing to humble our self before Him, that we’re a thankful people and that He is the object of our love.

Prayer is also an expression of your faith.

Even when you don’t understand how prayer works – and especially when you don’t understand how it works, to pray says something about your faith.

It says that you believe when you don’t understand.

It says that you trust Him when your way is dark.

It says that you won’t give up when giving up is the logical and easy thing to do.

It says that you value prayer even when you don’t see the value of spending time in prayer.

Prayer is perhaps the greatest expression of faith available to the Christian.

It’s questionable whether or not we’ll ever find completely satisfactory answers to some of the great and difficult questions about prayer. But you don’t need answers to those questions in order to pray.

Pray to acknowledge that God is your God and you need Him. Pray to express your faith in Him.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

You Need to be Addicted

I’ve been off the grid for a few weeks while I prepared for teaching in Haiti. Then there was the actual missions trip (18 days) and putting my life back together – not to speak of my office when I returned!

In the past I’ve sometimes written from Haiti but this trip we only had sporadic use of wifi. At times we went two to three days between connections. Talk about withdrawal systems! I didn’t realize what going without wifi for a couple of days would do to a group of Americans. Technology is great but we seemed to have reached a point of addiction – at least if my experience was typical of the average Americans.

That brings up an interesting thought. Is addiction always wrong or is there a time when it’s actually a good thing?

Waiting on my desk when I returned was a letter about a seminar on addiction. It dealt mostly with alcohol and drug addiction. But there are many other forms of addictions. Those who study addictions report the following statistics in the United States:

Alcohol Addiction 14,000,000
Cocaine Addiction 2,000,000
Meth Addiction 1,400,000
Heroin Addiction 800,000
Gambling Addiction 15,000,000
Porn Addiction 4,000,000
Tobacco Addiction 83,400,000
Food Addiction 8,000,000
Sexual Addiction 12,000,000 (and no ladies it’s not just a man problem!)

The list of addictions is long and includes workaholics, compulsive spenders, TV and video game addicts, and other less well-known addictions.

It seems like everyone is addicted to something.

Therapists list six signs of addiction:

1. Importance. How important is this to your life? What priority does it have in your life?

2. Reward response. Does doing it make you feel better and not doing it worse?

3. Prevalence. Do you want to do it more often?

4. Cessation. Do you feel uncomfortable if you do not do it for a period of time?

5. Disruption. Does it mean that you have to reorder your life in some way?

6. Reverting. Do you try to stop but find yourself doing it anyway?

As Christians we tend to think that all addictions are wrong and damaging. And for the most part that’s true. But think again about addiction.

Aren’t there some things that Christians should be addicted to? What about . . .

Loving God
Living like Jesus
Reading your Bible
Praying
Going to Church
Sharing your Faith
Loving other people

Shouldn’t these things be Important, make us feel better (IE loved by God)? Shouldn’t we want to do them more often and shouldn’t not doing them make us feel uncomfortable? And shouldn’t we reorder our lives to make them priorities and find it next to impossible not to do them?

I recognize that using the word addiction may be over the top, however, I think you get my point. Too often as Christians we take the things that are important to our spiritual lives too lightly. We’re not addicted to them the way we should be.

The Apostle Paul’s encouragement to us is to let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ (Philippians 1:27). If we’re going to live in a way that is worthy of God it’s going to take some effort, some work, maybe even some addiction.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

You can read more about addiction here

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bj-gallagher/is-everyone-addicted-to-e_b_490824.html

https://www.aamft.org/iMIS15/AAMFT/Content/consumer_updates/sexual_addiction.aspx

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hope-relationships/201411/6-signs-youre-addicted-something

Should We Pray Like Honi?

This Sunday I’ll begin a series titled What’s Trending Now? Whether we like to admit it or not we’re all influenced by trends in our culture. We’re going to examine a few of the most popular cultural trends from a Biblical perspective.

The reason for the series is that even Christians are influenced by cultural trends. There’s something about being seen as old fashioned or out of touch that we resist. I’m aware that some Christians and/or religious groups wear the past as a badge of honor. But old doesn’t automatically equate with right. Nor does new. One is as dangerous as the other.

While there’s little virtue in hanging on to the past just because we’ve always done it that way, there’s also a potential danger in too quickly jumping on the band wagon of the new.

New theological movements, ways of doing church and ministry ideas come along frequently. One of the concepts that has gained popularity in the last few years is using prayer circles to get better answers to your prayers. Those who advocate prayer circles explain it this way:

Do you ever sense that there’s far more to prayer, and to God’s vision for your  life, than what you’re experiencing? It’s time you learned from the legend of  Honi the Circle Maker—a man bold enough to draw a circle in the sand and not budge from inside it until God answered his prayers for his people. What impossibly big dream is God calling you to draw a prayer circle around?

The legend of Honi the Circle Maker or Honi ha-Ma’agel, is a Jewish legend from the century before the birth of Christ. The legend relates that in a time of drought, Honi drew a circle, stood inside it, and told God that he would not move until God sent rain. When it began to drizzle, Honi informed God that it wasn’t enough. So God sent a downpour but Honi still wasn’t satisfied and told God it had to be a steady, even rain. And God answered Honi’s prayer.

Now Christians are being told to follow the example of Honi and draw circles around their requests and not budge until God answers.

Sounds good, right? What Christian doesn’t want more from their prayer life? Who doesn’t want God to tell us what His impossibly big dream is for our lives?

But it’s that desire for something bigger, better, more exciting that gets us into trouble.

Too often as Christians we are too eager to accept anything that is new, revolutionary, or exotic. We want something – anything that will take us to the next level in our spiritual lives. We’ll try anything that looks like it will work. And because of our eagerness we are spiritually gullible instead of discerning (Philippians 1:9, Hebrews 5:14).

Here’s the point. God has given us all that we need! The Apostle Peter said as much: His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us (2 Peter 1:3). You don’t need prayer circles to pray better you just need to search the Word of God and learn to pray biblically.

What we need isn’t an experience, yours or someone else’s. It isn’t a new method of doing Christianity. We already have what we need to live a godly, spiritual life; to be effective; to make a difference in the world. All we need is the Word of God.

Don’t be taken in by the new and exotic. Don’t look for shortcuts. It’s all there for you. Pick it up and read it.

Oh, if you want to read a Biblical evaluation of prayer circles check here.

Stay in the Word

Pastor Steve

Finding Value in Suffering

I need to be clear from the start; I’m using the term suffering as a generic term for problems, hardships, trials or miseries that comes into our lives regardless of scope or size. For the purposes of this discussion, suffering is anything that causes fear, anguish, pain or discomfort. It includes disappointments, discouragements and sorrows. I’m not talking here just about the great sufferings of life. I’m talking about even the smallest sufferings.

The most common human response to suffering is avoidance. We don’t like to suffer and we don’t want to suffer so we will do anything to avoid problems. But suffering is a fact of life – and it’s a fact of life that we desperately try to explain as if our ability to rationalize it somehow makes it easier to accept. As a writer in the New York Times observed, even when we can offer some plausible explanation for our suffering does that change all the many times when suffering leaves us with no seeming benefit at all, and only a resentment of those who tell us to look on the bright side and count our blessings and recall that time heals all wounds (when we know it doesn’t)?

Perhaps without knowing it, the writer has put his or her finger on the crux of the matter – suffering leaves us with no seeming benefit at all. But what if, in our haste to avoid problems, there really is a benefit to our suffering? What if there is a value in all of the hardships, the disappointments, the sicknesses, the pains of life? What if good can actually come out of our suffering? What if, in the eternal scheme of life, suffering is really on the positive side of the balance sheet and not the negative?

For the Christian suffering is not only a part of life, it is part of faith. We know that suffering is redemptive – Christ suffered for us the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God (1 Peter 3:8). That in itself gives eternal value to suffering.

But what about our suffering? What value is there in the sufferings of our lives that gives them value?

Here are some random thoughts on suffering for you to reflect on. If you are struggling with suffering I encourage you to take the time to read through this list. It may not make suffering any easier, but it does show that suffering is not arbitrary; there is value in our suffering.

Suffering . . .

provides us the opportunity to minister to others (2 Cor 1:3-5)

forces us to look beyond our limited self to see something greater (Hebrews
4:14-16)

reminds us of our mortality (1 Peter 1:24-25)

reminds us that something better is waiting for us (Hebrews 11:8-16)

produces thankfulness in us (Phil 4:6)

produces a spirit of rejoicing in us (Phil 4:4)

drives us to dependency on God (2 Cor 12:7-10)

motivates us to greater heights of prayer (Phil 4:6)

keeps our attention focused on the One who can help us (Hebrews 12:1-2)

provides us with an avenue to show God’s grace in our lives to others (1 Peter
2:11-12)

increases our dependency on God (1 Peter 5:7)

creates in us a desire for something better – heaven (Romans 8:18)

affirms that we belong to Christ (Hebrews 12:4-8)

keeps us from becoming complacent in this life (Romans 8:18)

shows us the ugliness of sin (Romans 5:12)

clarifies the things of real value in life (James 1:2-4)

deepens our compassion for others (Hebrews 2:18)

brings the reality of heaven into sharper focus (Hebrews 12:13-16)

reveals the genuineness of our faith (1 Peter 1:6-7)

brings us into a greater fellowship with Christ (Phil 3:10)

produces hope in us (Romans 5:3-5)

For the Christian there is value in suffering even when we cannot explain it. Don’t miss what God may be doing in your life through suffering.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

A Godly Response to an Evil Act

Periodically something happens in our world that is so evil, so egregious that it is almost impossible to comprehend. It happened again last week when Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot out of the sky and all 298 people on board perished – innocent people who had nothing to do with the conflict raging on the ground. Since that terrible moment when the plane exploded in midair the world has been engaged in finger-pointing and blame.

But let the world go – there’s a much bigger issue here for followers of Jesus. A much more personal issue. The question for Christians is how should we respond to such a tragedy? Do we simply ignore it because it did not affect us? Do we acknowledge it with a quick prayer and then file it in the back of our memories? What should our response be?

I want to share some thoughts with you that I originally shared over three years ago on the occasion of another unfathomable tragedy.

The response of Christians – followers of Jesus – to any tragedy should involve several things. First we need to recognize the grief of those who have lost family members and pray for God’s grace and strength for them in their time of need. Psalm 9:9 says The LORD is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. In John 14:27 Christ said, Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. Pray that those who were impacted by this tragedy will look to Christ for strength and for peace that only He can give them.

Secondly, we should ask God to bring good out of what appears to be an extremely evil situation. While we can’t begin to understand how God can do that, we know that He can. The Bible teaches that while God is not responsible for evil (James 1:13), He can use it for good (Genesis 50:20). Let’s ask God to do exactly that.

Thirdly, we need to affirm that this tragedy is the result of sin. The debate in the days and weeks ahead will no doubt include arguments on both sides related to who should take the responsibility for this heinous act. No matter who is to blame when you get to the bottom you will find sin. Sin is the reason people lie, cheat, steal, and kill. Some will try to blame God by using the old argument, if God is all powerful He could have prevented this tragedy. In one sense that is true – God is all powerful and He could have prevented it. However God has also granted us personal responsibility and we will all answer to God for our actions. We have the choice to either act in righteous ways or in sinful ways. When we choose sin over righteousness the natural and logical outcome is something terrible. We should not be surprised. Let’s put the blame where the blame belongs – on the sinfulness of man.

Fourthly we ought to pray for those who perpetrated this terrible crime. They too need God’s forgiveness. I know that is a difficult concept for many, even for Christians to accept. But this gets right to the heart of the gospel and that is that God’s grace is sufficient for all sin – no matter what the sin. It’s not the degree of sin that is the issue in the gospel, it is the degree of grace and God’s grace is greater than any sin you can commit (Romans 5:20).

Finally this tragedy should make us even more committed to sharing God’s love. We have no way of knowing the spiritual condition of those who were involved in this disaster, but there is a good chance that they have never heard the gospel. This will not be the last tragic event to impact our country and the next may be closer to home. But even apart from tragedies, people die all around us every day – people who need to hear about Christ. We need to recommit ourselves to the task of the gospel.

The Bible warns that in the days before the return of Christ our world will grow increasingly violent (2 Timothy 3:1ff). We need to respond in ways that are increasingly godly.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

I’m Tired of Easy Answers!

I don’t know when it happened but somewhere in the past of Christianity we began to look for easy answers to the complex issues of life. How often has someone said to you, when you were in the middle of a spiritual struggle – Prayer changes things or God will give you peace or Just Trust God or Just Believe. Maybe you hear the echoes of your own voice here. We have reduced the struggles of our faith to a series of clichés. To sound bites.

All of the above statements, and others, have an element of truth in them and perhaps that is why we find some comfort when we repeat them. But they are not the entire truth – there is so much more and that is why they ultimately do not satisfy. A partial truth can never be the answer to the spiritual struggles of life.

I’ve already addressed the issue of trusting/believing God in my post of January 27, 2014, The Problem With Faith, but what about prayer and peace?

It is true that prayer can change things – but it’s not always the case. And sometimes we find peace but at other times we just don’t have any peace. Why? Because those are easy answers.

Prayer really isn’t about changing things, it’s about getting to know God. What most Christians mean by prayer changing things is, “God did what I wanted him to do.” As if prayer was a button to be pushed to release exactly what they wanted from the vending machine. Prayer is not a button to be pushed; it’s a relationship to be pursued.

Prayer does ‘work,’ but it works very differently than we’d like. It still ‘works’: When we can’t trace out any direct result from our prayer. When the opposite of what we prayed for happens. In those moments when we feel very distant from God. When we bang down the door of heaven for years and are not sure anything is going on up there at all.

There are scores of people inside and outside the church whose spirits are crushed because they prayed (fervently) and: They didn’t get the job. Their mom died of cancer. Their child was born without a heartbeat. They ended up in a car crash that left them permanently disabled. Prayer doesn’t ‘work’ because I got what I wanted and they didn’t.

The parade of saints across the centuries would have been shocked to see prayer reduced to God-doing-what-I-asked-him-to-do-when-I-asked-him-to-do-it. God is not a puppy to be trained or a chef in the kitchen who prepares food to suit our every whim. He is sovereign.

As Richard Foster says: For those explorers in the frontiers of faith, prayer was no little habit tacked on to the periphery of their lives; it was their lives. It was the most serious work of their most productive years. Prayer—nothing draws us closer to the heart of God. Do things happen supernaturally when we pray? Well, yes they do. But often in ways we cannot understand or even trace out.

I think Christians can take consolation in the fact that when we pray, we often don’t know what to pray for or even how to pray, yet the scriptures tell us the Holy Spirit will translate the prayer into something better than we could phrase in the moment.

So pour your heart out to God. Pray about the things the scripture says are close to God’s heart. And when something ‘goes your way,’ be grateful and offer it back to the God who gave it to you.

And when things don’t go your way, understand that God is still very much in control and very much loves you. Just because God is silent doesn’t mean God is absent.
(from Carey Nieuwhof, Pastor at Connexus Community Church near Toronto, Canada).

Another example where we need more than easy answers is the area of peace. I wrote about this last week in a post titled Is it Really Possible to Have Peace? Let me just add this to what I wrote there. God promised peace to His followers (John 14:27) and He told us to let peace be the ruling force of our lives (Colossians 3:15). But too often we glibly throw out the line to the hurting soul – God will give you peace. Only that’s just half the answer. The other half is that God will give us peace when we begin to live in what we might call the way of peace (see last week’s blog for a more complete explanation). Having peace in our lives hinges on living a life worthy of peace. You can’t expect the result without the effort.

Make no mistake about it God has answers for our problems – they just aren’t easy answers. The problem is that life is complex and we can’t throw easy answers at complex issues. In addition to that Christianity itself is complex. God’s way of doing things is often hard and difficult and causes some messy situations for us. Don’t get even with the person who hurt you – be a blessing to them (Romans 12:19-20). Don’t hate your enemies – love them (Matthew 5:44). Don’t try to avoid trials – rejoice in them (James 1:2).

The truth is that Christianity can’t be reduced to a series of clichés. Whenever you reduce our faith to sound bites it cheapens the Christian life. Do you really want a faith that is that easy, that simplistic?

Don’t look for the easy answers. And please don’t offer them to someone who is struggling with life. Get into the complexity of the Christian life. Learn what it means to pray. Learn how you can have peace. The work will enrich your spiritual life and make the struggle worth the effort.

God Does Not Answer Prayer

At least not always. I know we like to let God off the hook by saying “sometimes He says yes and sometimes He says no and sometimes He says not yet”. But how much better is a no or not yet then a non answer? It doesn’t really tell us much. In fact we can’t be sure what it’s telling us. A no can mean many things: no, not now, or no, not like this, or no, you need to change something, or no, this is the wrong way, or no, you don’t understand, or a hundred other things. You have to be omnipotent to know what no means. A non answer is not very comforting and sometimes not very helpful (although I do like the finality of no).

Sure, there are reasons that God does not answer prayer – we pray for our own selfish purposes (James 4:3); we pray without taking care of sin in our lives (Psalm 66:18); we pray but we don’t really believe that God can answer (James 1:5-7); we pray for our own will instead of God’s will (Matthew 5:10). But what about the times when none of these are true and there is still no answer? When you are trying to live for God in the middle of unbearable pain and God is nowhere to be found?

There’s another reason that God does not answer prayer – but it’s difficult for us to accept. God may not answer your prayer to release you from your pain because He wants to use you and your pain for His kingdom. God is building something eternal, something glorious and whatever it is that you are going through, in some inexplicable way, factors into His plan. Your pain is the best way for God to accomplish what He wants to accomplish. I know that doesn’t make the pain any easier to accept, but it does give it value and meaning.

So here’s where we need to bring personal change to the way we pray – when you pray, instead of asking God to remove your pain, ask Him how you can bring glory to Him and build His kingdom through your pain. Offer your pain to Him as your sacrifice of service. Ask Him to show you how your pain can be used to build His Kingdom. Don’t run from your pain – embrace it as an opportunity to be used by God in His glorious Kingdom plan.

What if God could use your pain to bring someone else into the Kingdom? What if the way you faced your pain gave hope to another struggling sinner? What if the unbearable pain of your life could somehow be the source of comfort another needs just to get through their day? Would it be worth it to you to suffer so another life can experience the grace and mercy of God?

There is a wealth of insight in the Apostle Paul’s thoughts in Romans chapter 8:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us (Vs 18).

Even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. For we were saved in this hope (Vss 23-24).

Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered (Vs 26).

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose (Vs 28).

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? (Vss 31-32).

Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who love us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Vss 37-39).

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve