Archive for November, 2009|Monthly archive page

Not my will

Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane has inspired and haunted me for as long as I have been a Christian.

In great suffering, he appeals to the Father to take away the crucifixion which he is about to go through.  I think he knows that his father will turn away his face from him when all the sin of the world is heaped upon him at Calvary.  He is horrified.

But he says the great words: “Yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22: 42)

Some years ago, a friend of mine prayed the same prayer when he heard that he had cancer.  In his heart, he wanted to be healed.  But he did not pray for healing.

Instead, he prayed that God’s will be done in the last days of his life.  He asked for courage and for the opportunity to reach friends and family for God through his suffering.  His prayers were answered.  His funeral was packed with people who were touched by his life.

I hear stories like this and I am inspired.  But, then, I ask myself about the cost of seeking God’s will and not my own.

Like most North Americans, I like comfort.  I enjoy feeding my own desires – whether they are good or bad.

But I am convinced that seeking and following God’s will is essential to spiritual fruit that will last.

Sometimes, it is easy to see what God’s will is.  God does not want me to be captured by sin, so I must turn away from it.

Sometimes, it is harder to tell.  Are you helping or hurting a person by constantly catering to his or her demands?  It may be hard to judge if the individual is sick and helpless and yet the demands seem unreasonable.

But there is a great deal in my life where I can easily see what God’s will is.  I need simply look at scripture and compare it with my life.

Praying that God’s will be done begins with my own life.  Then, it spreads out to the world.

In my reading of scripture, God uses our prayers to bring about change in people and societies.  But we must be praying according to his will.

Once we’re on this path, prayer becomes exciting. 

 

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A loving conversation

I am wrestling with writing a two-hour workshop on prayer.

It’s an overwhelming task.  So much has been written on prayer and there are so many viewpoints.

So, I’ve decided to be selective.  I have decided to choose a theme or storyline – a spine on which to hang the skeleton of the prayer workshop.

In my eyes, prayer is a loving conversation with God.  It is based on a loving relationship between God and me.

I say “loving” because I am talking with a God who loves me.

I say “conversation” because prayer is not a one-way street – sometimes I talk and sometimes I listen.

I think the loving relationship idea is central to prayer.

It is an unequal relationship.  God created me and loved me before I loved him.  The apostle John says: “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4: 19).

It is because he loved me so much that I have any capacity to love him.

But love also means that God can say and do things that hurt at the time but prove good for me in the long term.  Out of these times flow confession and repentance and, ultimately, healing.

It is hard to over-state the love part of prayer.  As I become more aware of how much he loves me, I am bound to praise and worship him.  It is my way of showing love to him.

As I respond to his love, I am more open to sharing his love with others.  So, I pray for them.

In other words, having a loving conversation with God involves praise and thanks, confession and repentance, praying for myself and interceding for others.  And it means listening to what God has to say to me.

This does not fit as neatly into spiritual warfare which is another aspect of prayer.  But, when I call on God for his help in fighting the attacks of Satan and the dark forces of the spiritual realm, I am appealing to the fatherhood of God.  He is protector and defender of his loved ones.

Also, as father, God wants me to grow and become more like his beloved son.  So, the loving relationship I have with God is designed to equip me to carry out his will in the world.  Any earthly father is pleased when his son or daughter is ready to take an active role in society.

So, it seems to me that an intimate relationship with God must involve prayer.  How can I love God if I don’t speak to him and listen to him?

Does God care?

A tragic death recently hit an Ottawa family for the third time in the last five years.  Does God care?

I believe he does.  But death – particularly the death of young people – often turns people against God.

I was talking with my wife and some friends yesterday about the sudden death of a 22-year-old man in hospital over the weekend.  His death followed the death of his mother last year and his father five years ago.  He left behind two teenaged brothers who are orphans.

From all accounts, this is a much-loved family with a wide group of friends.  From a human standpoint, it seems unfair that this fine family should suffer so much.

As we talked, my friends and I agreed that suffering is very hard to explain – perhaps impossible – to those who do not believe in God.  Even believers struggle with it.

But, ultimately, believers can look forward to a time when all will become clear.  They will be with the Lord in heaven when these mysteries will be explained.

In the meantime, we believers can hold on to truths which we find in scripture.

For example, Paul tells us in Romans 8: 28 that everything works to the good of those who believe in God.  That is hard to accept when we are suffering, but sometimes we can see in this life that good does come from our pain.

Suffering also develops our character if we trust God.  James tells us in James 1 that it leads to perseverance and strength.  We all know of people who are very effective in helping suffering people because they have suffered, too.

Suffering can drive us to God.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, Paul gave thanks to the Lord in all circumstances – even after terrible beatings as he did in the Philippian jail (Acts 16).

But this does not mean much to someone who does not believe in God.  Often, non-believers blame God for suffering.  They say that if there is a god, he could prevent suffering.  They assume, then, that if there is a god, he is uncaring and maybe even vengeful.

That is not the way I see God.  Jesus is God.  And while he was on earth, he healed many who were sick and suffering.

I love the picture of Jesus in Luke 7: 11-17 where he encounters a funeral for the only son of a widow in the town of Nain.  His heart goes out to her – he is filled with compassion for her.  And he raises the dead man to life.

Again, Jesus weeps at the tomb of his friend Lazarus in John 11, moments before raising him to life.  He feels deeply the pain of his friends Mary and Martha whose brother is dead.

That is the heart of God.  He does not enjoy our pain.

That still leaves mystery: Why is that person healed and not me?

We may not be able to answer that right now.  But, as believers, we can hang onto a truth: God knows why – and he is love.

Being content

Sometimes I feel dissatisfied.

Usually, there is no good reason.  After all, I have everything: I am a child of God, I have a loving wife and family, my wife and I are financially comfortable,  and we are in good health.

But sometimes I focus on the negative – guilt and regrets – basically, dissatisfaction with myself.

Occasionally, a modest success makes me want more.

I know I am not alone in these feelings.

The writer of Ecclesiastes even went so far as to say in Ecclesiastes 1:1: “Everything is meaningless.”  I do not share his opinion, but it does show extreme dissatisfaction with life.

However, the apostle Paul took a different view.  In Philippians 4:11, he says: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.”

I have been thinking about why Paul could be content and the writer of Ecclesiastes could be so discontented.

I think part of the answer is that Paul believed everything comes from God’s hand or is within God’s plan.  He says in Romans 8:28: “In all things God works for the good of those who love him and have been called according to his purpose.”

In other words, today is God’s gift to me – whatever it brings.  As the Psalmist says in Psalm 118: 24: “This is the day the Lord has made;  let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

So, I am to live in the moment, being content with my circumstances.

But I think there is more to Paul’s attitude than passive contentment.

The apostle says in one of my favourite passages in the scriptures:  “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

These are active decisions – deciding to be joyful, praying, and giving thanks.  God wants us to be joyful and thankful.  We can actually decide to be that way.

Once in a while, I take that advice to heart.  I did that this morning as I walked in the cool sunshine under a cloudless sky.

I saw the fallen leaves and thanked God that the leaves will provide  nutrients for the soil.  I thanked God for the sun which provides warmth and life.  I thanked God for giving man the genius to design the cars that whizzed by me.

Looking at the world through the glasses of gratitude does give me a lift.

I stop looking at myself and start looking at what God has given me.

Is prayer just women’s work?

I sense there is a widespread feeling among Christian men that prayer is something that women do – not men.

Everyone prays when they are in a tight spot – they are seriously ill or their child is in trouble.  But the serious business of prayer – especially praying in groups – is women’s work.

Why is that?

It may be that Canadian men feel their job is to do something practical.  They are problem- solvers.  In their minds, prayer is nebulous – something you can’t touch or feel.  And sometimes you can’t see concrete results.

It may be that men feel inadequate in group prayer.  Being vulnerable is not a “manly” quality.

Another theory put forward by a woman friend is that men in our society feel un-manned.  Reacting to women taking greater control, they shy away from prayer which they see as a female interest.

My view that men are reluctant to pray – particularly in groups – is based on conversations with a number of men in the last year or so.  They leave prayer to their wives.

But the great men of the Bible believed prayer was essential.

Moses and Joshua, very active leaders, prayed so earnestly and consistently that God acted powerfully in their midst.  David’s psalms are prayers.  Jesus prayed continually to get his Father’s direction even though he was the anointed one.  The apostle Paul’s letters are littered with requests that people pray for him.

Martin Luther, the great reformer, spoke often about prayer and how essential it was in his own ministry.  Jim Cymbala, pastor of a mega-church in Brooklyn, N.Y., has made prayer the very centre of his church’s activity.  As a result, criminals, drug addicts, and prostitutes are putting their faith in Christ in the Brooklyn slums.

So, what would inspire men to pray?

One friend suggested that men may want to pray if they see prayer is a vital part of spiritual warfare.  There are examples throughout scripture of that truth.

Ultimately, men need to see that prayer is key to God moving in our world – our personal world and the world around us.  It is not just something you do when all else fails.

Certainly, the men of the Bible believed that God could and did move in response to prayer.  And they were right.

That’s the way I think we men need to see prayer today.

Supernatural

I am sure that all Christian believers would say that theirs is a supernatural  religion.  But many of us Western Christians do not act as if we believe it.

How else can you explain our attitude toward prayer?

Often, we approach God with great doubts in our minds about the chances of his responding to our needs.  We look back at previous disappointments and conclude that God is unlikely to do anything this time either.

When we are surprised by answers to our heartfelt prayers, we are tempted to explain them away.  The answer to prayer was coincidence or there was a scientific or rational explanation.

In other words, we don’t give God the benefit of the doubt.  We choose science or reason ahead of God.

I had a stimulating discussion with some friends about prayer yesterday and we touched on some of these issues.

We talked about divine healing prayer and the fact that many people are not healed.  A friend said that when they are healed it could often be explained scientifically – or it could be the power of positive thinking.

Someone else noted that sometimes there is unity in church gatherings when people seek God’s face together.  But there is unity, too, in business situations after team-building exercises.  Maybe church unity is simply due to a kind of team-building exercise.

All these are rational explanations to what happens in our world.

But that is not how Jesus and the apostles saw the world.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus healed many.  He cast out demons.  He was offered – and rejected – power over nations by Satan.

Paul stated in Ephesians 6:12 that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

Paul finished by saying in verse 18 that we should “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.”  Prayer is one of the essential elements of the armour we need in fighting this spiritual warfare.

In the eyes of Jesus and Paul, we live in a spiritual as well as a physical world.  We are in a struggle with evil supernatural forces and we need to pray for God’s help.

I think our attitude is very important.  I admit to harbouring doubts when I pray.  But I am learning that I must build on the tiny foundation of faith that I have been given – along with all other believers.

I acknowledge that God does not always answer our prayers the way we want him to answer.  But does that mean he has not answered?  Or that he will not answer that prayer?

The writer of Hebrews says in chapter 11, verse 39 that the great heroes of the Old Testament had faith that God would fulfill what he promised – but they did not see the promise fulfilled in their lifetimes.  The answer came in the person of Jesus Christ.

I think we believers must expect God to answer our prayers – whatever the answer may be and whether it is now or in the future.  We must believe that he is all-powerful, that he is good, and that he is triumphing over the spiritual forces of evil.

We must believe that God is concerned with every detail of our lives.  And he is at work in our lives every day.

We must pray for eyes to see God at work, just as Elisha prayed that God would open the eyes of his frightened servant so that he would see the heavenly armies ready to defeat the enemy of the Israelites.

We are not just creatures of a scientific, rationalistic world – we are part of a spiritual kingdom engaged in a spiritual war.

The long look

I have been thinking about the long look – looking ahead to what God has in mind for me.

We often talk about “vision” these days.  Usually, we mean a picture in our minds about what our life, or our business, or our church ministry will look like at some point in the future.

That’s important.  Our imagination plays a significant role in our lives.  There is no doubt that having a positive vision can help us reach our goals.

But I have been thinking recently that I need to go beyond visions that I create myself.  I need God’s vision.

God is in the business of visions – dreams and visions.  He gave Joseph dreams – and the ability to interpret dreams – that shaped the future of the children of Israel and of Egypt.

As I went for a walk this morning, I listened to a podcast sermon of Jackie Pullinger on seeing as God sees.  She referred to the picture that the apostle John saw in Revelation 21 of the “New Jerusalem” where there is no more mourning, or crying or pain.

This vision has helped drive her remarkable 40-year ministry to the prostitutes, drug addicts and criminals of the “walled city” in Hong Kong.

She does not look at them the way they are – ugly and hopeless.  She sees them as they can be – free of drugs and prostitution – dancing and singing with joy in God’s kingdom.

The more I think about this, the more convinced I am that God’s vision comes as we are ready to listen and obey – even if it hurts.

God led Abram to the land of Canaan because he listened and obeyed.

The same happened to Jackie Pullinger when she pulled up stakes in England in the early 1960s, wanting to serve God but not knowing where.  She questioned God when he urged her to leave England; but she obeyed.

I have my own preconceived vision for the prayer ministry in our church.  But, is it what God wants for our church?

I’m finally beginning to pray about this.

It doesn’t mean that I will stop doing what needs to be done.  But it does mean that I need to be alert to what God may be saying to me.

It could be that he will give the vision to someone else.  I hope I will have the grace and the understanding to grasp God’s vision when it comes.

 

Being different

I had an interesting conversation with some friends last week about how our culture influences Christians.

It’s an old issue, but it’s always relevant.

It began with one friend talking about television sitcoms and the underlying messages they send.  Often these messages run counter to basic Christian values.

These messages do influence us.  They affect me.  Something that would have shocked me 40 years ago no longer seems strange or unusual.

Then, one of my friends suggested we Christians are really not significantly different from non-Christians.   He has a point.

I remember reading a few years ago that the divorce rate among Christians is the same as in the rest of society.  And I recall how some of my liberal journalist friends in the distant past had a greater heart for the hurting people in society than I did.

So does Christ really make a difference?

Not surprisingly, I believe he does.

There were people in Jesus’ time who were outwardly good but did not follow him.  And there were sinful people who seized him and his message like a drowning man grabs a rope.

The issue is not whether Joe is better than Tom in my eyes.  The issue is whether I am changing as a result of Jesus working in me.

That is still a big question.  Am I changing?  And if I am not changing, why not?

There is a lot that I have done or that I still do that is wrong.  But God is changing me – gradually.  The very fact that I am not happy with certain aspects of my life is an indication that the Spirit is at work.  And I want to change.

But what do I change to? 

The rich young man in Matthew 19 was trying to meet some measureable standards – a set of rules.  He was doing well in following the rules, but he lacked one thing – he was unwilling to go the whole way and give up everything for Jesus.

I sympathize a lot with the rich young man.  There are many things I cling to.

But I believe the answer to change in my life is unwrapping my fingers from the things I cling to and giving myself  to Jesus.  I must let him have his way. 

What difference will it make if I change?

Here are a few things I can think of:

  • More joy in my relationship with God – more satisfaction.
  • A bigger heart for my family and friends.
  • A greater usefulness to God as he advances his kingdom in this world.

There are believers who have given themselves to God.  They live exciting and fruitful lives.  They are different.

Lessons on prayer

I re-learned a couple of important lessons on prayer today.

The first: Pray before acting.

The second: Wait for God to answer.

Even though I am “prayer equipper” at our church, I realize I frequently ignore those lessons.

A church leader shared with a number of us this morning that he decided to pray about someone filling a significant job in the church.  He was ready to wait for an answer.  To his surprise, the Lord answered within a week – someone stepped forward who was well-equipped for the position.

It tied in well with a Bible passage the pastor had just read – the incident in Acts 13 about Saul and Barnabas being chosen for missionary work.  Prophets and teachers in the church in Antioch worshiped and fasted until God spoke to them about commissioning Saul and Barnabas for this task.

It’s clear the church in Antioch had not decided beforehand to pick Saul and Barnabas for this work.  It may be they did not even know they were to send anyone out for a missionary effort.

Instead, they focused on God, praising and worshiping him.  And they fasted to show they were in earnest about hearing what God wanted for their church.

There are a lot of scriptures in the Bible about people seeking God before major events in their lives.  And God answered, sometimes unexpectedly.

It is generally possible to pray before acting – something I should do as a matter of course.  It is not always possible to wait for specific direction.

But I realize in my own life that are a number of key issues where I have not been praying.  These are matters in the prayer ministry which don’t need an immediate solution.  And, in fact, the most important question may be: How does God want me to pray in this situation?

So, I will bring these concerns to the Lord in two steps:

  • I will ask him how he wants me to pray.
  • Guided by his response, I will ask him to answer my prayer.

Then, I will pray until God answers.

There is one final ingredient – being willing to accept whatever answer God gives – even if it doesn’t fit into my own preconceptions.

As the church in Antioch showed, God moves when our hearts are in tune with his.

Why them and not me?

Sometimes God speaks to people in an audible voice, or appears to them in visions and dreams, or overwhelms them with the Holy Spirit.

Why does he do that with some people and not others?  And why does he appear at certain times in people’s lives and not at others?

I am not sure.  But I do have some tentative ideas.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Sometimes God intervenes dramatically to change the course of someone’s life.  A good example is the apostle Paul on the Damascus Road.
  • Sometimes he moves to strengthen and build up a follower at a critical time in his journey or the journey of God’s people.  A good example is God appearing to Moses in Exodus 33 where the future of the children of Israel hangs in the balance after they rejected God by creating the Golden Calf.
  • Sometimes God acts directly to demonstrate his power to unbelievers.  We see that in the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost.
  • Sometimes  he makes himself known in a very deep way to assure the believer of how much he is loved.  I believe that is why the apostle Paul was lifted up to the “third heaven” as he writes in 2 Corinthians 12.

God makes himself known in these ways today.  Alan Churchill, former senior minister at Dominion Chalmers United Church in Ottawa, said many years ago that he heard God speak to him in an audible voice when he was a young RCMP officer.  That led him into a fruitful, full-time Christian ministry.

A member of our church mentioned that she saw a vision of Jesus when she attended a divine healing service many years ago.

And there have been many cases of people being filled with the Spirit and of others being healed of serious illnesses.

The great American evangelist, D.L. Moody, was already active as a preacher when the Spirit came upon him with power in New York City.  He said later: “I can only say that God revealed himself to me, and I had such an experience of his love that I had to ask him to stay his hand.”

His biographer, J.C. Pollock, said that it changed the course of Moody’s ministry, making him “gentle as a babe, utterly dependent on a power not his own.” (p. 87, Moody without Sankey, by J.C. Pollock, Hodder & Stoughton, 1963).

Can I have an experience like that?  Yes.  God intervened in Moody’s life and in Moses’ because they hungered and thirsted for him.  They wanted more of God and they wanted God more than anything else.  They gave themselves completely to God.

The key, it seems to me, is not the experience, but God.  I must want God above all – and the experience may come or it may not.  God knows my needs better than I do.