Topic: “prayer”

Don’t Miss It Just Because It’s Familiar

If one turns away his ear from hearing the law,
even his prayer is an abomination.
—Proverbs 28:9

Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool,
but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered
—Proverbs 28:26

Every time I hit the first of these two proverbs, it reminds me of the profound importance of submitting to the Word of God as our final standard. Combine it with the second, and a two-by-four to the head might be less clear. Tempting as it is at times to turn to our own wisdom, doing so is folly of the highest magnitude. The person who will not listen to God’s ways—the ways he has gone to great lengths to reveal to us—will not even be heard when he prays. This should lead Christians to shudder at the thought of willful disobedience to God’s word. Our own wisdom will lead us nowhere good. Wisdom is found only with God. This is a good encouragement to me to press on in this habit of daily devotional study.

I have been reading and rereading Philippians as Jaimie and I start working on memorizing it together this week. I find that reading books as a whole makes their meaning much clearer to me,1 and especially having a sense of the flow of the book is especially helpful for memorization. A number of points stood out to me as I worked through Philippians as a whole, instead of focusing on the few verses usually emphasized (whether by pastors or simply by my own interests and focuses in previous study).

First, Paul really delights to see the gospel advance. This is obvious, of course: he built his life around proclaiming the life, death, resurrection, and reign of Jesus the Jewish Messiah to the Gentiles. Still, nothing brings it home like his declaration that he is even happy to see the gospel proclaimed by others out of envy and rivalry (1:17)—just so long as the result is that “in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed…” (1:18) That is Paul’s final grounds for rejoicing. Likewise, Paul points out that his imprisonment has really served to advance the gospel, and therefore is a cause for joy. I’m not sure most of us—myself certainly included—would be equally happy under the circumstances. May I ever grow to be more like that!

Second, it is easy to simply skip over or fail to grasp the enormity of Paul’s Christ-hymn in chapter 2. We have heard it preached so often that it is easy to miss the depths in his exploration of how much Jesus humbled himself. The eternal second person of the Trinity, the divine Son, the everlasting Logos, put on mortal humanity and embraced mortality in the most agonizing, humiliating way possible. He was publicly shamed in death that he might put our shame to death.

When Paul enjoins the Philippians to continue in their obedience, and to work out their salvation with fear and trembling, it is on this basis. His argument: Christ has done these things, and so God exalted him—now you obey, for you God is working in you, giving you both the will and the ability to obey him.

Third, I was struck again by how central the resurrection was to the way Paul thought about his life, and about the Christian life in general. Paul embraced suffering—great suffering—and counted everything this life offers and all his former credentials as nothing, as rubbish2. Why? So that he might know Christ and the power of his resurrection and share in his sufferings. We might understand why Paul would want to know Jesus and the power of his resurrection, but why would he want to share in his sufferings? He answers: “so that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” He staked his whole life on the belief that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and offered the same to any who would pick up their cross and follow him.

That let Paul have the perspective that all this life has to offer is as nothing compared to the surpassing value of knowing Jesus. It enabled him to keep in mind that we are not citizens of this world, but of heaven—the heaven from which our Savior will come again and “transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (3:21).

Finally, a brief note that deserves considerable expansion. In 3:18–19, Paul describes those who walk as “enemies of the cross”—people who are ruled by their desires, who glory in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things. From Paul we might expect biting anger towards such bad examples. Instead, Paul writes that he tells the Philippians of these men and women with tears. No doubt Paul was angered at times by those who led others astray; we see that clear enough at other places in his letters. But here, he is moved to sorrow that there are some who would lead others astray and are so led astray themselves. All of us would do well to see our lives more characterized by this kind of sorrow.

  1. If I ever get around to writing the series on studying the Bible that I’ve been tossing around in my head for a while, I’ll expand on this idea at length
  2. The KJV’s “dung” is still probably the best non-vulgar English translation of this word. 

Reflections on Knowing God, Chapters 1–2

I am writing up reflections on my devotions every day for six weeks. This is one of those posts.

One of my assignments for Christian Theology I at Southeastern is writing short devotional reflections on J. I. Packer’s Knowing God. On the days I read it, I am using this as my primary devotional material, so it will take the place of reflection on Scripture on those days.

Chapter 1: The Study of God

I find myself both challenged and encouraged here. I am encouraged, for it has long been my conviction that the knowledge of God is the most practical thing in the world. Seeking to know him more truly is both the most important task in my life and the most effective in bringing change in my life. I am challenged, though, because as Packer rightly points out, “If we pursue theological knowledge for its own sake, it is bound to go bad on us.”

Even as a seminary student only a few semesters in, I have seen the ease with which I could slip into approaching Scripture merely academically, and I know that for many, seminary degrees are a time of spiritual dryness. Packer’s exhortation helps me remember how to avoid that kind of spiritual deadness: we must “… turn each truth that we learn about God into matter for meditation before God, leading to prayer and praise to God.” In other words, I have come full circle: it is God who is the center of this enterprise, not me. That means that it is God, and not me, for whom I must conduct my studies—I must orient them on glorifying him, not on self-improvement or bettering others’ opinions of me. Turning my studies and reflections that way, not only apprehending intellectually but meditating so that these truths seep deep down into my affections and my ways of living, will keep me humble, and will lead me closer to God. As it should be.

Chapter 2: The People Who Know Their God

Packer writes, “If we really knew God, this”—that no worldly troubles matter, because of the joy of knowing God—”is what we would be saying, and if we are not saying it, that is a sign we need to face ourselves more sharply with the difference between knowing God and merely knowing about him.” This is a concern that presses deeply on me. I have seen friends grow in knowledge about while diminishing in knowledge of God, a fate I wish very much to avoid. More importantly, I have experienced the same in seasons of my own life, an experience I very much wish to avoid repeating. To grow in knowledge of theology without coming to know God more thoroughly is simply to end up arrogant, distant from God, a thorn in the side of other believers. Just as bad, it is to end up dry, dusty, and academic instead of full of the “gaiety, goodness, and unfetteredness of spirit” that Packer calls us to.

I have known many who knew less theology than me, but loved God more truly. I heartily believe that they would have loved God yet more truly had they known more of him, but I also believe that God desires their love more than their knowledge (even if he does desire both)—which is to say, he desires my loving him even more than he desires my knowing about him. It occurs to me that this is inherent in Jesus’ shocking comment that only those who come as little children will enter the kingdom: children do not come full of knowledge, but they do come full of love. I may grow in knowledge; indeed I must if I am to fully love God with the mind he has given me. Yet I must make sure that I am loving God with my mind, not loving myself.

Packer, quite rightly I think, points to prayer as both barometer and means of accomplishing this state of knowing God as well as knowing of him. If my knowledge is not leading me to prayer (and praise), I am missing the point somehow. I have seen this born out often in my devotions. When I am really grasping the passage, I want to pray and worship. When I am merely going through the motions, or only picking up the information academically, I am not so moved. Thus, my heart’s response toward prayer, or lack thereof, is a weather vane for how I am responding to the increased knowledge. At the same time, the discipline of prayer helps me turn away from mere academic apprehension of facts to the sovereign God those facts describe, and whom I ought to be worshiping, so it is also a way of avoiding that particular failure.

Thanksgiving Prayer, 2013-08-11

Thank you, oh God our Father, for the gift of your salvation, that in the life, death, and resurrection of your son you have united us once again with you. Where once we were dead, you have made us alive. Where once we were lost, you have found us. Where once we we under judgment, now we are given all the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Thank you that we have in him a high priest who is holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens—a high priest who offered himself as the sacrifice once and for all and who sits at your right hand, never dying and always interceding for us. Thank you!

Thank you for the gift of your indwelling Spirit, who opens our eyes to understand the truth of your word, who sanctifies us and makes us holy as you are holy. In him we are indwelt by very God of very God, joined with Christ our brother, sealed for the day of salvation. Thank you!

Thank you for this community of saints whom you have drawn together—people from every walk of life, from this nation and others, from every kind of broken background. We look forward eagerly to the day when we stand around your throne with men and women from every people on the earth, praising you, and we are grateful for the taste of that unity you have given us here and now. Thank you!

Thank you for life and light and all the good things you have given us. May we honor you in our giving, in our response to the preaching of your word, and in our partaking of the Lord’s supper together—a foretaste of that day when we all take of the feast around your throne. Amen.

You Already Got Your Prize

I am writing up reflections on my devotions every day for six weeks. This is one of those posts.

Matthew 6 includes one of the more provocative statements and approaches to personal holiness anywhere in the Bible. Coming out of the “You have heard it said… but I say…” section in chapter 5, chapter 6 transitions to a series of statements that include, “…they have their reward. But you…” The whole sequence hammers home the cost of public practice of holiness for the eyes of men. The cost, it turns out, is that one gets exactly what one was seeking–but that turns out not to be much of a prize at all.

The adulation of men, in the final reckoning, is a short-lived thing that satisfies no one. Our hearts were made for something deeper, truer, and richer than the admiration of other people: we were made to be satisfied by God’s delight in us and our delight in him. When we please God, we have grounds for real joy. When we simply earn the admiring looks of other men by performing all our good deeds to be noticed… well, we have our reward. We get the attention we want from people, but miss all the real joy in those good deeds–deeds God intended to proceed from our love for him, and which, when they come instead from a desire to be loved by people, become just one more form of idolatry.

And idolatry, it must be said, is a very great part of what got us all into this mess in the first place. So to the man who embraces his man-pleasing ways, and especially to the man who uses “holiness” and good works as a means to earning the favor of other people, God says, “Okay. You got your prize. But that is all there is for you so long as you are pursuing the affections and attentions of other people over and above me.”

It doesn’t satisfy.

All the more striking is the placement of the “Lord’s prayer” here, right in the middle of this section. Matthew seems intent on hammering home that no part of our spiritua life–prayer included–is excluded from Jesus’ critique. The prayer he offers is simple, to the point, and without the flourishes that too often characterize my own ways of approaching God. More, this prayer is to be offered in private, in the closet, where only God hears. Who else actually needs to hear our prayers? Can anyone else answer them? Can anyone else do anything about them–except find us worthy of admiration?1

This is particularly hard-hitting for me, because I have sometimes wondered, “Did others agree with what I prayed?” when, during times of corporate prayer there was little verbal affirmation of my own prayers. (I have wondered such things the most when there was verbal affirmation of others’ prayers but not of mine. Ever “Amen” suddenly seemed a mark for or against me, depending on who was praying when it came out.) Yet, plainly put, that is simply this same idolatry: wanting my prayer to be affirmed by the people around me. I ought instead strive to please God in the way I pray, and rest confident that he hears and responds.

Conviction. Hallelujah.

  1. This is of course not an argument against corporate prayer. It is, instead, an argument against prayer for attention, which can happen in many ways and many places, including corporate prayer… but one could, in fact, very easily make a big deal out of going in the closet for long periods of prayer, simply to earn the admiration of other believers. You already have your prize. 

Posts I Haven’t Written Yet

The business of the last six months has prevented me — or rather, I have let it prevent me — from writing many of the posts I’ve had ideas for. I thought it might be interesting to toss out a few of the basic theses I’ve been bouncing around in my head, and perhaps they’ll gel into actual posts sometime in the nearish future. Read on, intrepid explorer →

Satan’s aim is that no one be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. And one of his key strategies is to start battles in the world that draw our attention away from the real battle for the salvation of the lost and the perseverance of the saints. He knows that the real battle, as Paul says, is not against flesh and blood. So the more wars and conflicts and revolutions of “flesh and blood” he can start, the better, as far as he is concerned.

So when Paul tells us to pray for peace precisely because God desires all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth, he is not picturing prayer as a kind of harmless domestic intercom for increasing our civilian conveniences. He is picturing it as a strategic appeal to headquarters to ask that the enemy not be allowed to draw any firepower away to decoy conflicts of flesh and blood.

—John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad

Dancing with glee: God and our prayers

One cannot make it very far in the New Testament – perhaps especially in Paul’s letters – without being confronted by the centrality of prayer in Paul’s spiritual life, especially as regards the churches he loved so dear.

I wonder if the same could be said of us. Of me.

I was recently talking with a friend about Wildwood, about things we both wished were different, and reflected that I don’t pray enough. I’ve seen this reality all the more clearly in the last three months because God has answered my prayers for our church in several areas. In the last three months, I have seen distinct, recognizable answers to specific prayers I have offered over the last two to three years. Read on, intrepid explorer →