Praying for our country

How should we Christians pray for our city and country in these troubled times?

It’s easy to be overwhelmed with all the issues – COVID-19 pandemic, racial justice, rioting, rising anti-Christian developments.

As I think about this, I find it simple to ask God for what I want.  I have definite opinions on all these matters.

But more and more, I’m trying to think about what God wants.  For that, I have to look in the Bible for guidance.

Clearly, God does not want us to sin, to turn away from him, and to hurt others.  He wants us to love God and love others.

It’s interesting to me that both Nehemiah and the prophet Daniel in the Old Testament began praying passionately for the restoration of Jerusalem while confessing their own sin as well as of those of the Jewish nation (Nehemiah 1 and Daniel 9).

The question I ask myself is: As a Christian, how have I behaved toward others and toward God?  Am I sinless?  Have I truly loved God and loved others?  I do not have clean hands.

One of the verses most quoted these days is 2 Chronicles 7:14 where God speaks to Solomon about Israel turning away from the Lord.  He says:

“If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and restore their land.”

There’s a condition attached to healing of our country – we must humble ourselves, turn from our wicked ways and pray.  That’s something important that we can do as believers.

We can also pray for just treatment of others – particularly the poor and the vulnerable.  That includes justice for people of all races.

In Isaiah 58, God makes a clarion call to his people to free the oppressed, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and “lighten the burden of those who work for you”.  In Isaiah 56, the Lord tells his people to welcome foreigners rather than shutting them out of their midst.

And we can pray for peace and the welfare of our city and nation.

In 1 Timothy 1:1-4, the apostle Paul says:

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.  This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

Ultimately, the greatest good for our city and our country is more of God as Paul suggests in this passage.

We can pray that out of the current turmoil, more and more people will give their lives to Jesus.

As the psalmist writes in Psalm 96:9-10:

“Worship the Lord in all his holy splendour.  Let all the earth tremble before him.  Tell all the nations, ‘The Lord reigns!'”

Not alone

Running away from persecution, Elijah complained to God that he was the only prophet in Israel that remained true to the Lord.

But God told him that he had preserved 7,000 in Israel who had not bowed down to the false god Baal (1 Kings 19).

This reminds me that since God is with me, I am never alone and nothing is impossible.

It’s easy for Christians to get discouraged in a world of pandemics, injustice, violence, abortion, and anti-Christian persecution.

Yet God is at work in all these situations.

A couple of days ago, I participated in a Zoom gathering of people from Toronto and Ottawa praying for our cities and our nation.

What I heard was encouraging.  Several people spoke about was going on in the Toronto area:

  • a Christian medical outreach to the homeless in Durham during the pandemic;
  • renewal in a Toronto church where givings rose 30 per cent during the pandemic – mostly for local helping ministries; and
  • evangelism by Christians in a local housing project.

In Ottawa, Love Ottawa and its parent group, OneWay Ministries, have been active throughout the pandemic with efforts ranging from an evangelism web-site to providing masks and other equipment for front-line workers.

And there is an inter-church conversation about racial justice involving black and white pastors.

Indeed, the pandemic has tightened links between churches as they reach out together to our city.

The Israelites made a practice of recalling how God acted in the past – particularly the amazing events of their exit from slavery in Egypt with the Lord working many miracles.

Looking back helped the Jews in later centuries to look forward to what God might do again in their day.

As believers, we need to remember what God has done, too.

Christ has moved powerfully in the history of Canada and the United States.  The Lord revived his people many times over the years.

Can he do it again?  If we’re ready, he will.

A heavenly yearning

Yearning for something can be a driving force in our lives.

Kenneth Boa says desiring living with Jesus in heaven can ignite our lives as believers on earth.

The opposite may happen if we view heaven as a boring place – not to be compared with our lives in this world.

I have been thinking about heaven quite a bit in the last few years – and mentioned it in a post a couple of weeks ago.  I decided to expand on that theme again this week.

“Why would we persevere in suffering and spiritual training if the end result doesn’t interest us all that much?” asks Boa in his book Life in the Presence of God. “To deny earthly pleasures now, we need to believe that the eternal pleasures at God’s right hand are more satisfying than anything else.”

So, what’s so great about heaven?

The greatest thing, of course, is God.

We will see God face-to-face and rejoice in the wonders of his love – a love that is a constant refrain throughout the Bible.

Jesus spoke about that love in parables such as the prodigal son where the father runs out to greet his son who had just wasted his money and his life and embraced the young man and heaped good things upon him (Luke 15).

He spoke again about it on the eve of the crucifixion when he told his disciples in John 15:9: “I have loved you even as the Father has  loved me.”  We will be loved throughout eternity just as the Father and the Son love each other.

That is more than enough to want to be with God.  But there is more.

Billy Graham says in his book The Heaven Answer Book that Jesus mentions heaven more than 70 times in the book of Matthew alone.  Indeed, 54 of the 66 books of the Bible mention heaven.

The Bible says we will have our own places to live in as Jesus promised (John 14:3).

We will have new bodies – glorious bodies – like Jesus’ (Philippians 3:21).

We will have enjoyable work – creative work – serving God and others.  In effect, God’s relationship with Adam and Eve before the fall is a picture of what eternity with the Lord will be like.

Heaven will be filled with wonderful colours and structures as the book of Revelation suggests (Revelation 21).  There will be constant light created by God’s glory.

It will be a place of peace where the wolf and the lamb will live together as the prophet Isaiah says in Isaiah 11.

There will be no more tears, no more pain in heaven (Revelation 21:4).

It’s interesting to me that a number of people who had near-death experiences have said they did not want to return to life because of Jesus’ love that enveloped them and of the colour and beauty of heaven.

A lot to look forward to.

In the meantime, we are here to prepare for eternity.

Jesus has given us each tasks to carry out.

Time to pray big

I believe it’s time to pray consistently for the big issues in our world.

COVID-19, racial issues, rising persecution of Christians, wars and rumours of wars – these all demand our attention as followers of Christ.

As a believer, I find it much easier to pray about my family, friends and our church than to go beyond to the complicated world I live in.

But this has been a year of turmoil, making me realize that my cozy existence is under threat.

My wife and I have been reading through the book of Isaiah.  The concerns the prophet raised are similar to those in our day – unjust treatment of the vulnerable, a massive turning away from God, attempts to destroy Israel, and the ever-present prospect of war.

But the people trusted in their own ability to survive.  Many simply ignored the dark clouds and warnings.  Others firmly rejected Israel’s god and still others tried to arrange alliances with other powers to ward off their big neighbours.

Yet, God wanted a heart change by his people.  He wanted them to trust in him.  He warned them to seek him or face disaster.

Isaiah’s prophecies end on a high note – the promise of a golden era after devastation.  Many Christians interpret that golden era to be Christ’s second coming.

I don’t know what God has in store for us in our day.  But I do know that he wants us to turn to him wholeheartedly.  He wants us to love God and love our neighbours.  And he wants us to pray as he told Solomon in 2 Chronicles 7:14.

Prayer changes things.

We see the power of prayer in Isaiah’s time when a good king of Judah – Hezekiah – sought God in prayer and turned to the prophet when Jerusalem was on the verge of being conquered.  Isaiah told him not to be afraid because the Assyrians would leave Jerusalem and the Assyrian king would return home and be assassinated.

That’s exactly what happened as described in 2 Kings 18-19.

The Bible is our best guide on how to pray.

George Muller, a great prayer warrior in England in the 1800s, would approach a major concern by seeking what God had to say on the subject in the Bible.  He would ask the Holy Spirit to guide him in this task.  He would also consult godly people.

In this way, he reached a conclusion what God’s will was in the situation.  And he would pray with confidence about the result.

That same avenue is open to each one of us.

We know that if we pray according to what God wants, he will give us what we ask for (1 John 5:14-15).

It’s time to pray for big things – things bigger than ourselves.

How God sees us

How you think God sees us matters a lot.

If you feel he is demanding and judgemental, you’ll feel you don’t measure up.

If you feel he is merciful and loves us a lot, your heart will sing.

Intellectually, I believe God is merciful and loves us a lot.  But, when I’m honest with myself, I sometimes wonder how he could possibly love me that much, given that I often let him down.

The issue is my tendency to focus too much on myself and not enough on God.

I’ll never be good enough to deserve God’s love.  The Bible is very clear about that.

“This is real love – not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins,” writes the apostle John in 1 John 4:10.

So, how can I align my thoughts about God with what scripture says?

I must make a daily practice of reading and meditating on what God says about his love for us.

And I must look outward to what God is calling me to be.

The apostle Paul says I must offer myself as a “living sacrifice” to God and be transformed by the renewing of my mind (Romans 12:1,2).

Kenneth Boa, author of Life in the Presence of God, talks about the value of constant repetition in retraining our minds.

Daily reading and meditating on Bible truths can influence the way we think and live. Some people rehearse – and meditate on – the Lord’s Prayer or the Great Commandments every morning before they begin their day.

In fact, Paul urges us in Philippians 4:8 to make a practice of thinking about whatever is true, admirable and praiseworthy.

This requires discipline and intent.

And Paul has something to say about that, too. In 1 Corinthians 9:25, he says: “All athletes are disciplined in their training.  They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize.”

I have found real benefit in writing down every day for the last six months a few things I am grateful to God for.  The very act of thinking about these things brightens me up.

So now, I will review daily – and meditate on – what God says about his love for us and how he sees us.  I’ve already chosen a list of scriptures, ranging from Psalm 103 to Romans 8:31-39.

It’s a small step – but potentially significant.

A place of joy

The apostle Paul yearned to be with Jesus in heaven.

But he was convinced God had more for him to do on earth (Philippians 1:21-23).

In my mind, that is a great way to face our troubled world.

As followers of Jesus, we can look forward to an eternity of joy with our Saviour and Lord.  That will make all the trials we are going through worthwhile.

Yet, in the meantime, we are not to be “so heavenly-minded that we are no earthly good” – an old saying from decades ago. We are to follow Jesus wherever he leads us in our daily lives.

I believe that we believers in the western world do not spend enough time thinking about and contemplating living in heaven with God.

Many Christians today feel heaven will be a boring place – a lot less fun than having a good time on earth.

But the Bible speaks about everlasting joy.  It will be a place of wonders, a place of light, a place of love with our God at the very centre.

Jesus said he is preparing a place to stay for each one of us.  We will have things to do.

There will be no more wrangling or bitterness.  There will be peace.

The apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12 that he was “caught up in the third heaven” and heard things too wonderful to express.  The apostle John had a vision of heaven in Revelation that was filled with marvels.

There are many allusions to heaven in the Bible which I intend to explore and reflect upon.

And, of course, there are stories of near-death experiences where people say they have encountered Jesus in heaven and felt so much loved that they did not want to return to life on earth.

In the meantime, we are here and we have been given tasks to carry out.

We are already in eternity – with one foot still on earth.

A lamb and a lion

In this angry, perilous world, I am thankful that Jesus is both a lamb and a lion.

He is merciful and yet he is just.

He is called “the lion of Judah” in Revelation 5 and, in the same chapter, he appears as a “lamb that looked as if it had been slaughtered”.  He is judged worthy of opening a series of scrolls of judgement in heaven as described in the apostle John’s vision.

Without Jesus’ mercy, I would have no hope.  He is the lamb who was slaughtered for my sake and for all those who put their faith in him.

On the other hand, wrongdoing will be judged.  Jesus is just.

This mixture of merciful love and speaking out against injustice ran through Jesus’ ministry on earth.

His wonderful treatment of the woman caught in adultery, described in John 8, reveals his tender mercy towards the downtrodden.

The Pharisees haul the disgraced woman before Jesus and suggest she should be stoned according to the law.

He tells them: “Let the one who never sinned throw the first stone.”

Then, as he bends down and writes in the sand, every one of the onlookers, except for the woman, melts away.

He asks the woman: “Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”  And she responds: “No, Lord.”

“Neither do I,” says Jesus. “Go and sin no more.”

But Jesus did speak out strongly against the hypocritical religious leaders who self-righteously tried to control the lives of others.  They were merciless and missed entirely the love of God.

This is a challenge for me.

What would I have said and done if I were part of the crowd watching Jesus and the woman?

It’s easy to say now that I would have done what Jesus did.  But it took someone with a strong and courageous heart and mind to stand up to these powerful authorities. Not to mention the legal traditions of the day.

The question for me and for all followers of Christ is: “Are you part of those who judge others for their lifestyles or actions?  Or, do you see them as people who need God’s love and mercy just as much as you do?”

Often, I fall on the wrong side of that question.

But Jesus is merciful to me, too.  He loves me in spite of my failures.  And he urges me – as he did the woman caught in adultery – “Go and sin no more.”

As for those who are persecuting others in this unfair world around me, I know that ultimately there will be justice.  They will have to answer for their cruelty and destructiveness.

Jesus warned them.

Jesus is both lamb and lion.

A gentler way

Solomon once wrote: “A gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare.”

That’s something I need to hear – and many people need to hear – in the very angry world we live in.

It’s easy to strike back when someone attacks us.  It’s easy to trigger us on a whole variety of issues that are dear to us.

But I have been reading about a gentler way written by Scott Sauls in his book A Gentle Answer: Our Secret Weapon in an Age of Us Against Them.

Sauls, pastor of a Nashville, Tennessee church, quotes Dr. John Perkins, an elderly Black civil rights activist, as saying: “This generation is the first to turn hate into an asset.”

Perkins’ brother was shot and killed by a policeman in Mississippi in 1947.  Perkins himself was arrested and tortured by police in 1970 while leading a boycott of white businesses in that state.

“Rather than calling down fire on his enemies, Perkins concluded that the best and only way to conquer outrage was with what he called a love that trumps hate,” writes Sauls.

“I’m an old man, and this is one of my dreams: that my descendants will one day live in a land where people are quick to confess their wrongdoing and forgive the wrongdoing of others and are eager to build something beautiful together,” declares Perkins.

Sauls gives an example of a gentle answer in his book.

A while ago, Pete Davidson, a Saturday Night Live comedian, was talking about Dan Crenshaw, a Republican congressman, and mocked Crenshaw about his eye patch.  Crenshaw, a former soldier, lost his eye from an explosion during combat in Afghanistan.

The public backlash to his comments sent Davidson into a depression which he expressed on Instagram.

Crenshaw reacted to the news by telling Davidson that everyone has a purpose in this world and that “God put you here for a reason”.  He urged Davidson to find that purpose and “you should live that way”.

Then, sometime later, the two men met together on a Saturday Night Live show and wiped the slate clean.  Crenshaw spoke warmly about Davidson’s father, a New York firefighter who died in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York.

Sauls says that at the end of the show when he thought they were off camera, Davidson leaned over to Crenshaw and said: “You are a good man.”

“Because Jesus Christ has loved us at our worst, we can love others at their worst,” says Sauls. “Because Jesus has forgiven us for all of our wrongs, we can forgive others who have wronged us.”

Indeed, it is Jesus who said in Matthew 5:44: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

The loving way is Jesus’ way.

The significance of blessing

Speaking God’s blessing upon others can be a powerful act.

A habit of blessing others can change you inside.  And it can affect the world around you.

That’s what I have been learning in recent years after long considering blessing to be little more than a few words mumbled over food at dinner time.

Jesus considered blessing others to be so important to our spiritual health that he said in Luke 6:28: “Bless those who curse you.  Pray for those who hurt you.”

That’s a toughie!  Blessing someone who has hurt me isn’t the first thing that leaps to my mind.

But, as I think about it, it could have a major impact on me and the way I look at the world.  Nursing a grievance against someone can darken my world and my outlook on life.  It can make life miserable for me.

It’s clear from the Bible that blessing and cursing matter a great deal to God.  And they have a life and death effect in the spiritual realm.

As the apostle Paul says in Ephesians 6:12, our real struggle is not with people in our world but with “evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world” – with Satan and satanic powers.

The evil one gleefully seizes on bitter thoughts about other people to make life tough for them and for us.  And God uses blessing others for our emotional and spiritual benefit and for the good of those we bless.

The apostle Peter says in 1 Peter 3:9: “Don’t retaliate with insults when people insult you.  Instead, pay them back with a blessing.  That is what God has called you to do, and he will grant you his blessing.”

But you may be thinking: “He or she doesn’t deserve a blessing.”

True.  However, praying a blessing over someone can change that person.

For instance, you could give God’s blessing for someone who is bitter and critical, asking the Lord to bless that person with his love and joy.  God may answer that blessing with a marvellous change in that person’s personality and character.

In fact, I have been reading recently about many miraculous changes as a result of praying God’s blessing on people.  People have been healed physically, spiritually, and emotionally.

If you are interested, you may wish to read The Way of Blessing: Stepping into the Mission and Presence of God, by Roy Godwin.  He and his wife founded a Christian retreat centre in Wales that has had a world-wide impact.

Godwin’s book – and others – have made me think about my own attitudes.

Time to start blessing people around me.

The power of knowing that God loves you

Knowing that God loves you despite your failures is vital to a vibrant Christian life.

Roy Godwin reached that conclusion after trying to perform his way to God’s approval.

Godwin, author of The Way of Blessing: Stepping into the Mission and Presence of God, struggled for years with trying to please his earthly father and his heavenly father and others as well.

He was active in ministry but he was burdened by the “weights of expectations always crushing me”.  And there were “the condemnations of my own heart as well as of the enemy” – the devil.

Like many other believers, I have also wondered whether God was disappointed with me when I have sinned or failed to measure up in loving God and loving others.

Finally, Godwin “sensed the Father’s outrageous love and acceptance of me”.  An eternal truth struck him in a new way.  He knew it, but now it changed his life.

“My performance was not the measuring rod of my life,” he writes. “The price he was willing to pay that he might have me long before I could have pleased him or sought to influence him has become the standard.”

As he puts it: “Not only did I know the truth but I was walking in it.”

Indeed, one of my favourite psalms – Psalm 103 – reminds me that God is “compassionate and merciful, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love”.

“The Lord is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him,” the psalmist says. “For he knows how weak we are . . .”

He has “removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west”.

And Jesus gave a wonderful picture of God’s love for his children in the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15.  The son wastes his inheritance in wild living and returns home shame-faced and looking for a job as a servant.

But the father has been waiting all this time and runs out, hugs him before he can say anything, and orders his servants to put on a banquet to celebrate his return.

Why is it important for me – and others – to grasp this truth of God’s everlasting and compassionate love?

Because the more uncertain I am about God’s love for me, the harder it is for me to overflow with the joy which draws others to Jesus.

And, as a friend of Roy Godwin put it: “You know you are loved and you find yourself loving others.”