Reflections on spiritual themes (and a few other things).

Category: Prayer (Page 1 of 2)

Just Ask

“What do you want me to do for you?” 

And he said, “Lord, I want to regain my sight!”

Luke 18.41

Sometimes, the most obvious questions are the ones we never ask. Perhaps we think the questions are too obvious, the issues too mundane, or ourselves too unworthy of an answer. So the questions go unasked.

It’s not wrong for us to ask things, even of God. James said sometimes our problems come when we want something but never ask (James 4.2). When anxious we must bring our requests to God (Philippians 4.6). We’re assured that He hears our requests (John 16.23-24; 1 John 4.21-22).

The text from which the quotation is taken (Luke 18.18-43) gives a third account of Jesus healing the blind at Jericho (cf. Matthew 20.29-34; Mark 10.46-52). Comparing the three accounts shows that there were two blind beggars at the edge of town. They spoke with Jesus as he was leaving town, though Luke’s account mentions only the one beggar.

There’s a certain humor in the exchange. The beggar was visually impaired, but not vocally impaired (v. 38-39), and persistently called to Jesus. When he summoned the beggar, Jesus asked, “What do you want?” He had to ask?

The beggar gave a direct reply, “I want to see.” His request was as obvious as his condition.

In his comments on Mark’s parallel account, William Barclay notes: “He knew precisely what he wanted – his sight. Too often our admiration for Jesus is a vague attraction… When we go to the dentist we do not ask him to extract any tooth, but the one that is diseased. It should be so with us and Jesus. And that involves the one thing that so few people wish to face – self-examination.”

The problem is never that God doesn’t know what we want or need. Very often, we don’t know.

What is it that you want? Have you asked God specifically for that? 

Just ask.

Flood Insurance

Few things grab your attention the way flood waters do. 

Twice my wife and I have had significant flooding in the basement of two different houses. Once, a heavy rainstorm overwhelmed the storm sewers in our neighborhood and the water backed up through the floor drain. We had knee deep water in the basement. We had to replace our furnace, and we lost boxes and boxes of memorabilia. I remember watching a box of waterlogged books floating its way across the basement. 

Another time we also had a heavy rainstorm and the basement sump pump died. The main damage was to the flooring, which had to be replaced. But it took a lot of effort to get the floor cleaned and sanitized, to move the furniture around, and then eventually tile the basement floor. 

You can’t always anticipate when flooding will occur, but you can prepare for it. That’s true with houses and it’s true with spiritual disasters. 

David said, “Therefore, let everyone who is godly pray to You in a time when You may be found; surely in a flood of great waters they will not reach him” (Psalm 32.6). 

Psalm 32 is a penitential psalm about forgiveness. David had confessed his sin to God and God forgave him. In the first four verses, David describes the relief he felt when he experienced God’s forgiveness. In v. 6, David uses the imagery of flood waters to teach a lesson to spiritually alert people. They should always be on the lookout for sin and do everything in their power to avoid it. The second part of verse 6 gives the reason: If they’ve prepared for the storm beforehand, the flood waters won’t reach them. 

The time to buy flood insurance is before the flood hits. After the basement floods, it won’t do you much good. The time to prepare for a spiritual flood is before the temptation or trouble arrives. While the storm is raging, lack of preparation can be fatal.  

As David says, let’s pray to God when he may be found. Let’s prepare for temptation and trouble with daily prayer and Scripture meditation. Then and only then will we be safe from the flood waters. 

Robbery & Gratitude

Matthew Henry (1662-1714) was a British nonconformist minister. He was highly respected, both then and now. His six-volume commentary on the Bible written and published from 1708-1710 remains popular even today. 

One night Henry was robbed as he was out walking. Later that night in his prayer journal he wrote, “I thank Thee first because I was never robbed before; second, because although they took my purse, they did not take my life; third, because although they took my all, it was not much; and fourth because it was I who was robbed, and not I who robbed.” 

If I were robbed, I’m not so sure I’d be that gracious in my prayers. I’d more likely be quoting Psalm 58.6, where David prayed, “Break their teeth, O God!” (KJV)

Nonetheless, my first impression of Matthew Henry’s prayer of gratitude is its perspective. He acknowledged that he’d never had such an experience. He acknowledged that the crime could have been much worse. He acknowledged that his loss was minimal. Finally, he acknowledged that being robbed is fundamentally different from being a robber.

What I appreciate most about Henry’s prayer is its sense of priority. In keeping a sense of thankfulness, he also kept his priorities intact. Gratitude keeps things in perspective. Too often we complain about the silliest things, things that aren’t worth the worry, things that reveal where our hearts really are. Jesus was talking about priorities when he said, “For where you treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6.21). 

The apostle Paul said, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4.4-7). 

You may one day be robbed of your money. You may be robbed of your possessions. You may be robbed of your health, or your job, or your relationships. You may lose a little or a lot. 

But don’t let anyone or anything rob you of your joy, gratitude, and peace in Jesus Christ. That’s one thing none of us can afford to lose.

Hearing Jesus

When Jesus saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. He opened His mouth and began to teach them, saying…

Matthew 5.1-2 (NASB95)

Lord Jesus, I wish I could have heard you preach. I wish I could have followed you on foot in the villages and in the countryside, in public and in private. I wish I could have sat at your feet as did your disciples when you were here.

Lord, I’ve wondered how you sounded when you spoke. Did you speak loudly or softly? Were you animated or calm? Was your tone forceful and assertive, or was it quiet and assuring? Had I been there, would your voice have startled or frightened me? Would it have repelled me? Or would it have drawn me to you and made me desire an endless relationship with you?

Dear Lord, although I wasn’t there in your presence, I hear your voice in the pages of Scripture. I’m so thankful that your Holy Spirit preserved your sermons, sayings, parables, and conversations. When I read them, I picture you in my mind’s eye, and I imagine that I’m there. I read these words of yours and I’m challenged by their depth, inspired by their loftiness, encouraged by their kindness, and humbled by their truth. 

You challenged your audiences to have ears to hear, and that same challenge is for me as well. Dear Jesus, I’m not a good listener. When I read your words in Scripture my mind wanders. When I try to hear your voice in those words I’m distracted by the competing voices and noises in the world around me. As I ponder your teachings, I often get lost in my own thoughts. 

O Teacher, help me listen! Help me filter out the noise. Help me concentrate so intently upon you that nothing else can appeal to me. Let me comprehend the truthfulness, beauty, clarity, practicality, and depth of your matchless words. Let me hear you and you alone.

Jesus, my Lord and my God, grant me eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to understand. Draw me nearer to you for your name’s sake, amen.

Unanswered Prayer

Can you be thankful when God says “No” to your prayers?

We often lament when our prayers go unanswered. Maybe God hasn’t said “Yes” or “No” but simply hasn’t answered at all. Perhaps God’s answer is a clear and unmistakable “No.” Then, we wonder what’s wrong. Is something wrong with us? We wonder and we lament.

Psalm 44 is a lament by the nation of Israel when they were defeated in battle. The first half of the psalm reflects upon God’s past victories and affirms Israel’s faithfulness. Verse 6 says, “I will not trust in my bow, nor will my sword save me.” Verse 8 says, “In God we have boasted all day long, and we will give thanks to your name forever.”

Yet God allowed them to be defeated. Verse 9 says, “Yet you have rejected us and brought us to dishonor, and do not go out with our armies.” The text provides no explanation and emphasizes Israel’s bewilderment at their situation. They ask, “Why do you hide your face” (v. 23a).

Perhaps the answer is that God’s “No” is really intended to help us, even if we don’t understand.

  • What if God said “No” to your dream job because he knew it would take you away from your family?
  • What if God said “No” to healing a loved one because that person’s doctors might learn something that would help future patients with the same condition?
  • What if God said “No” to that special house because he knew that it would put you in a financial bind?
  • What if God said “No” to finding a spouse because it might mean less devotion to and dependence upon him?

Too often our responses to unanswered prayer reveal a lack of thoughtfulness about God and his ways, and they reveal a short-sightedness about his providence toward us. When we whole-heartedly trust him, he always does what is best for us. Even when he tells us “No”.

That’s how Psalm 44 resolves itself. It accepts the answer, even though there’s no explanation. The nation determines to continue seeking God, even though they don’t understand. Verses 17-18 say, “All this has come upon us, but we have not forgotten you, and we have not dealt falsely with your covenant. Our heart has not turned back, and our steps have not deviated from your way.” It ends with a final appeal: “Rise up, be our help, and redeem us for the sake of your righteousness” (v. 26).

Thank God that sometimes he says “No.” Thank him, pray to him, and hope in him.

Abba! Father!

There are few words in our language that express as much emotional range as the word “Daddy”. On the lips of a child, it may express love, fear, panic, joy, anger, needs, sickness, or pain. We use it to express both intimacy and distance, respect and contempt, love and hate.

In Jewish culture their word for “father” was “abba” and expressed a similar range of feeling. It was used by both children and adults. It was one of the first words a child learned. 

It shouldn’t surprise us then that one of the primary biblical metaphors for God is that of a father. “Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Galatians 4.6)

The idea of God as a father originates in the Old Testament. Some twenty times he’s either called a father (fourteen times), compared to a father (four times), or he calls Israel his son (two times). The emphasis of this metaphor is upon God as the father of the nation of Israel. It’s not used to express a personal, individual relationship, but a corporate one.

God is our father because he created us. “Do we not all have one father? Has not one God created us?” (Malachi 2.10a) God is the father of Israel. “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, “Israel is My son, My firstborn” (Exodus 4.22). God is the father of the king. “He will cry to Me, ‘You are my Father, My God, and the rock of my salvation.’ I also shall make him My firstborn, The highest of the kings of the earth” (Psalm 89.26-27). 

As a father, God is first and foremost an authority figure. “‘A son honors his father, and a servant his master. Then if I am a father, where is My honor? And if I am a master, where is My respect?’ says the LORD of hosts to you, O priests who despise My name” (Malachi 1.6). But as a father, he also shows tender compassion to his children. “Just as a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear Him. For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust” (Psalm 103.13-14). Because of this unique combination of authority and compassion, we see God as the one who forgives our sins. “‘Is Ephraim My dear son? Is he a delightful child? Indeed, as often as I have spoken against him, I certainly still remember him; therefore My heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him,’ declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 31.20).

This picture of God as a father only deepens when we get to the New Testament. Here, Jesus refers to God as his father about 140 times, and God is presented as the father of believers about 50 times. The basic concepts are still there, but in a much fuller sense because of Jesus who revealed the Father in himself. “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him” (John 1.18).

Jesus taught his disciples, and us, to pray to God our Father. He’s not a distant, unconcerned deity, but a loving father who cares for the needs of his children. It’s here in the New Testament, especially in prayer, that we see a much more personal and intimate view of God as our Father. “So do not be like [the pagans]; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him. Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name’” (Matthew 6.8-9). God knows what we need before we even ask, yet he still wants us to ask.

Praying to God as our Father teaches us dependence upon him. “Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world” (John 6.32-33). The bread of which Jesus spoke was himself and the eternal life he gave to us by giving himself on the cross. We depend upon our Father to provide all that we need, including life itself, both physical and spiritual.

But if we call God our Father, that imposes certain demands upon us as his children. If he’s our Father, then we must act like his children. “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’ If you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay on earth” (1 Peter 1.14-17). God’s children are holy and reverent, showing to the world around us what God-like character looks like.

God’s children also forgive in the same way as their Father. “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6.12). If God has released us from our moral debt to him, we must also release others from their moral debt to us. 

The privilege of being children of God includes eternal hope but requires moral purity in the meantime. “See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are… everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure” (1 John 3.1a, 3). 

That hope is part of our inheritance from our Father. “For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him” (Romans 8.14-17). 

Finally, to enter this Father-child relationship is a conscious choice each of us must make. It’s by faith that we become his children. “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3.26-27).

Is God your Father?

The No-Option Prayer

2 Chronicles 20.12

Have you ever found yourself trying to solve a problem when you had absolutely no options? You used up all your money, all your credit, and called in all your favors, only to find that it wasn’t enough. You used all your talent, all your tricks, and all your experience, but the problem was still there. Have you ever realized that you’re not smart enough, clever enough, or connected enough to deal with some of life’s problems?

All of us occasionally face the impossible and impassible. There are times when our health or our finances or our friends or our marriages or our jobs are such that our weaknesses, inadequacies, puniness, and foolishness are on full display for the whole world to see. There are times we can’t do anything and don’t know where to start. What then do we do?

In 2 Chronicles 20, Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, was facing a formidable attack on the city of Jerusalem. By this point in his career, his army was depleted, and his wealth was gone. He had no resources. The enemy wanted to take advantage of this. We’re told in verses 3-4 that “Jehoshaphat was afraid and turned his attention to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. So Judah gathered together to seek help from the LORD; they even came from all the cities of Judah to seek the LORD.” He gathered the nation together to pray for God’s help, and ended his prayer by saying, “…we are powerless before this great multitude who are coming against us; nor do we know what to do, but our eyes are on You” (verse 12).

As I’ve gotten older, my daily prayers resemble this prayer. Often, I simply say, “God help me!” Like Jehoshaphat I’m afraid and don’t know what to do, but I know that God does. 

God is sometimes glorified when we take the abilities and resources he’s given us and use them to his glory. But God is also glorified – perhaps even more glorified – when we haven’t got the resources and simply turn it over to him. He’s most glorified when we fully trust in his help. 

So, when you’re surrounded and cut off; when you’re drowning in despair; when you’re fighting temptation and loneliness and isolation; when you’re numb and exhausted; when your friends lose their minds; when your heart is broken and you have no more tears to shed, that’s when you pray like Jehoshaphat did: “Lord, I don’t know what to do, but my eyes are on you!”

This story from the reign of Jehoshaphat ends in a good way. His enemies turned on each other and destroyed themselves. The army of Jehoshaphat didn’t have to do anything. God answered the king’s prayer by saying, “Do not fear or be dismayed because of this great multitude, for the battle is not yours but God’s” (verse 15).

When you have no options, you always have the Lord. My prayer for you is that you turn it over to God, and that he answers you the way he did Jehoshaphat.

A Prayer for Memphis

Blessed are you, O God our Father. You have created this world by your wisdom and might. You are the sovereign God, the only God, the God above all so-called gods. Everything in this world exists for your purpose and glory.

Blessed are you, O Son of God. You are very God and very Man. You existed from eternity in the heavens and yet you come into this world, to be bound by time, space, and human nature. In your death, resurrection, and exaltation, you have been anointed as King of kings and Lord of lords. You sit at the Father’s right hand interceding for your people, and it is through you that we call upon our Father.

Blessed are you, O Spirit of God. You know the mind of God and have revealed it. You are the one who gave life to this creation, the one who sustains and renews it to this very day. You are the down payment on our eternal hope, the Spirit who dwells in us.

We cry out to you, O God, because we are hurting. We are tired. We are afraid. We are outraged. We are confused. We are in the throes of despair. We wonder each day about the next tragedy, the next violent crime, and we wonder if or how we or our families will be affected. We try not to, but we look at others with suspicion and distrust. We do not know who the enemy is, and so rather than reach out, we recoil and retreat. 

We cry out to you, O God, because our city is gripped by violence, by murder and assault and theft and rape. Worst of all, our city is in the grip of epidemic sin. Sin and the work of Satan is behind all that we see. O Father, too many people have allowed the Devil to occupy the throne of their hearts, rather than letting You rule them. Too many operate from a posture of self-sufficiency, self-will, self-interest, and self-righteousness. Too many people love this world rather than its Creator, and they are full of greed, lawlessness, and disdain for their fellow man and woman.

O Sovereign God, we confess our sins and failures to you. As a society, we have neglected true justice. We have overlooked and become accustomed to crime. We have neglected to support the law and those who enforce it. We have neglected to teach our children and have neglected to support and encourage those who teach them. As a society, we have too often installed ungodly and self-serving leaders who turn a blind eye to corruption and injustice. Too many leaders are more interested in supporting own their parties rather than supporting what is right and true. 

And Father, even when we have tried to uphold justice, we have still been negligent in other ways. If we believe that Christ is Lord, that his kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and that he rules with a righteous scepter – if we truly believe these things, why have we failed to spread the gospel to others? Why have we failed to get involved in the lives of our neighbors and friends and communities? Why have we retreated in safety rather than engaging the world around us?

Loving God, we ask that you comfort the grieving and hurting. Be with those who were injured. Heal their bodies, renew their spirits, and help them work through their emotions. Be with the families of the victims. Please, O Father, pour out your love, comfort, and hope into their hearts. Be with us as a community. Help us feel a sense of accountability to one another. Help us demonstrate the love of Christ in all that we do. Help us treat everyone we meet with dignity, love, respect, and kindness. Help us purge suspicion from our hearts and learn to build trust and goodwill with our neighbors. By all means, help us act with wisdom and caution, help us look out for one another, and help each of us work toward a stronger community. 

Righteous God, we ask that you step into this community in a powerful and immediate way. We ask you to put a stop to the madness that has permeated our community. We ask that you enable the police and city officials to effectively do their jobs. We ask that you impose upon the criminals, perpetrators, and their enablers your unmistakable justice. 

We ask you to help each citizen to be more aware of his or her role in deterring evil and restoring a sense of community. Help each of us examine our own hearts for any vestiges of moral indifference, prejudice, and hatred. Help us purge them by the power of your Word and your love. Help parents teach and support their children, to model loving, godly, and righteous living. Help children and young adults think before they act. Help them learn self-control. Help them ask for help when they need it. Help churches preach the gospel without compromise. Help them become spiritual clinics for those who struggle with sin, animosity, despair, and loneliness.

Finally, O God, we praise you for who and what you are. You are the true and living God, the only God. You are eternal, all-seeing, all-knowing, and ever present. You are holy, righteous, and just, and you are also loving, merciful, and gracious. You defend the widow and orphan, the stranger and outcast. You are our creator, sustainer, defender, and redeemer.

We thank you for your tender mercies, your daily provisions, and your constant sustenance. Despite the dark days that surround us, you provide us each day with blessings and reasons for joy and hope. Keep us humble and teach us to walk in your ways. Help set our minds on eternal, spiritual, and good things. Help us live quiet, godly, and dignified lives.

For to you, O God, belongs all power and dominion, all love and mercy, all wisdom and authority, before all time, now and forever more. 


The Blessing of Discomfort

A Benedictine nun, Sister Ruth Fox (Sacred Heart Monastery in Dickinson, ND) wrote this “non-traditional blessing” in 1985: 

  • May God bless you with discontent with easy answers, half-truths, superficial relationships, so that you will live from deep within your heart.
  • May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, abuse, and exploitation of people, so that you will work for justice, equality, and peace.
  • May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you will reach out your hand to comfort them and to change their pain to joy.
  • May God bless you with the foolishness to think you can make a difference in this world, so that you will do the things which others tell you cannot be done.

We rarely think of discontent, anger, tears, and foolishness as blessings. Yet this unusual benediction bluntly reminds us that those are the very things we need if we hope to make a difference in this world. 

I think that Americans are cursed with a microwave mentality about life. The microwave oven (a marvelous invention) has become a metaphor for modern life. It represents what’s fast, convenient, and easy. 

The pace of life is fast and furious, and for this reason we would prefer convenient and easy solutions to our problems. However, the most important things in life don’t come easily, cheaply, or quickly. That’s why the Bible places a high premium on things like perseverance, patience, hope, and even suffering.

In Ecclesiastes 7.1-3, Solomon agreed with this rather harsh view of life:

  • “The day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth…”
  • “It is better to go to a house of mourning than a house of feasting…”
  • “Sorrow is better than laughter…” 

Solomon wasn’t playing the Devil’s advocate. Solomon said these things because they’re true. They’re the realities of human existence. We learn lessons from suffering, privation, and hardship that we can’t learn in any other way. 

I won’t end this devotional by wishing you a lousy day! But my prayer for you this day is that you have just enough difficulties, just enough reality, to see things for what they are, to learn what you should learn, and to do what you can to make a difference.

Pray Without Ceasing

How often should we pray?

The apostle Paul’s answer was, “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5.16-18). The phrase “without ceasing” refers to a settled habit or an unvarying practice or a regular routine.

But even in the best of circumstances, that can be a challenge. One woman said, “…since I started managing a job, three young children, and a husband who works evenings, if anything my prayer life had gone downhill. I pray for a few moments in the morning; I pray when I first get to my desk at the office for a few minutes as I wait for the electric kettle to boil water for tea; I pray in snatches while driving or stirring supper on the stove or waiting for programs to load on the computer; and sometimes on a good day, I pray for a few brief moments before I crawl into bed.” (Debra Rienstra, in Philip Yancy, Prayer, 167)

Sound familiar?

It would be helpful to remember that the Bible doesn’t give a set pattern for prayer.

  • The psalmist said, “Seven times a day I praise you” (Psalm 119.164).
  • Daniel prayed three times daily in the direction of Jerusalem (Daniel 6.10).
  • Nehemiah prayed silently and briefly as he made a request of the king (Nehemiah 2.4).
  • Jesus resorted to prayer often (Luke 5.16), sometimes even all night (Luke 6.12).
  • At Gethsemane, Jesus prayed a fervent, but apparently short prayer, interrupted by the snores of his companions and the noise of the betrayer (Matthew 26.36-47).

But there’s still the issue of praying without ceasing. What does that mean?

First, it means we must be willing to pray. Some think that God won’t hear them, orthat their issues are too trivial, or that they’ll figure it out on their own. But Peter saidwe’re to cast all our anxieties on him because he cares for us (1 Peter 5.7).

Second, it means we believe that prayer works. Some think that prayer doesn’t work,or it doesn’t matter, or it just doesn’t change anything. But James said, “the effective,fervent prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (James 5.16b).

Third, it means that we look for and create opportunities to pray. We seize everyopportunity, whether short or long, noisy or quiet, focused or distracted. We pray between tasks. We pray in transit. We pray in the moment. We pray in our heads. We pray as soon we see the Facebook request. We pray at our desks, in our cars, on the couch, in the shower, in bed. We pray while we’re dressing, while we’re gardening, while we’re cooking, while we’re walking, and while we’re relaxing.

In other words, we pray without ceasing.

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