Prayer Changes People


Christian prayingThis past week I heard something distressing. A Christian in a leadership position handled confrontation by telling the other person that perhaps they should leave the organization. That’s the second instance of this kind that I’ve learned about. The first time was years ago and the organization was an entirely different one, but a person in leadership handled the criticism he received in exactly the same way.

Such a conclusion, especially from someone in leadership, seems so contrary to Scripture. After all, the Bible gives us instructions for handling a situation in which a fellow Christian sins (see Matt. 18). It also is full of exhortation to be reconciled with other Christians, to forgive, to be at peace with one another, to be unified.

Paul had a conflict with his partner in ministry, Barnabas, because of John Mark, who initially accompanied them on their first church-planting trip. Half way through their travels, the young man deserted them, however, so when Barnabas wanted to include him on their second trip, Paul said, NO WAY! So Barnabas and Paul parted company.

But that’s not the end of the story. Rather, Paul at some point reconciled with Mark, to the point that he told the church at Colossae to be sure to welcome him. He also said this to Timothy in his second letter: “Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service.” (4:11b)

He went a step further in his advice, however. In verse 16 Paul says to Timothy, “At my first defense no one supported me, but all deserted me; may it not be counted against them.” Paul went from holding Mark’s desertion against him to praying that the Lord would not hold these other people’s desertion against them.

Paul was a changed man. And he ended up with a changed relationship.

The secret passed on in Philippians is for us to have the attitude of humility Christ had, which is the way we can follow these commandments:

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (Phil. 2:3-4)

The thing is, the only way to do what is so opposite to our instinctive reaction to others is by prayer.

I had occasions when I was teaching and coaching in which somebody would rub me the wrong way—whether another teacher, a student, an opposing coach, a parent, an administrator—and the only way I could face the day was by praying for the individual. OK, sometimes I prayed for the circumstance, too, but inevitably, when I prayed for the person, God changed me. My heart. Not them necessarily. He changed me!

Suddenly, things that had bothered me in the past didn’t seem as awful as before. In my dealings with such a person, I now wanted to be on the same page, not at odds, so I communicated in a more positive, encouraging way.

In several instances, what had been a relationship fraught with friction, turned into one of closeness and caring.

That’s God answering prayer. Not in the way I might initially think.

I can pray, God, please make this person leave, but that doesn’t solve MY problem. I need to learn to love the unlovely, to be kind to the unkind, to give God room to work. After all, He says that a gentle answer turns away wrath. But if I don’t turn to God and ask Him to give me His gentleness in my answers, I’ll never see the turning His word promises.

Commonly we say that prayer changes things, and it may. But it also changes people, and from my experience, the person it changes most is the person praying.

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Published in: on May 25, 2016 at 6:30 pm  Comments (4)  
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Shame And Trusting God


RockClimbingA growing concern connected to Internet communication is shame. I read a post yesterday that cited several instances in which shame campaigns grew up around something a person posted—either a picture or comments. In the end, more than one person lost their job.

I’m not linking to the article because I disagree with the solution—and that’s not really my topic. The problem of shame is.

I have a friend who recounts ways a particular family member shamed others. The baggage from that cares over to adulthood.

I’d never thought about shame before. I came from a family with parents who loved me. It wasn’t perfect. My siblings and I were quite competitive and always struggled with the idea that one or the other (but never me—and we all thought this) was favored. Still, though I suspected I wasn’t the favorite, I still knew I was loved.

As a teen, of course, I was sometimes embarrassed about my family and even about my faith, but I didn’t feel shame in the way my friend describes it.

I wonder now if freedom from shame was connected to my being a Christian. What I’m discovering in Scripture, though, are verses addressing shame.

I suppose it would help if I gave a picture of what I perceive shame to be. Let’s say a person is expected to be the top of his class, but in the last semester, he forgets to write down the due date of a major paper, turns it in late, and gets a B. Someone else claims top honors. He had his chance and blew it. He bears the shame of his failure.

Shame is also something a person feels when a person you hold in high esteem says they’re disappointed in you. Or they tell others things like, he probably won’t have the grades to get into med school. It’s a public declaration of inadequacy.

So here are the verses about shame that have caught my attention. There are four. First, in Philippians:

Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I will not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.(1:18b-20)

Paul was essentially saying he knew he’d be delivered (he was imprisoned at the time), and that he would not be put to shame for believing so, whether he lived or died because Christ would be exalted either way.

1 Peter 4:16 is the next passage:

but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name.

At first this verse seems to address the kind of embarrassment I felt when I was a kid having to tell people I belonged to the Mennonite denomination—which most people in my SoCal public high school had never heard of. But the context would seem to indicate there’s much more to this. Peter was addressing believers who were being persecuted because they believed in Jesus. Writing to the churches in Asia Minor, the Apostle Peter wanted to assure them that their suffering was not a sign of defeat. He encouraged them by reminding them that it was temporary, that it was expected, that it gave glory to God, that they were blessed that God had chosen them to suffer for His name’s sake.

In other words, suffering as a Christian was not a mark of failure but of accomplishment. Therefore, they had nothing to be ashamed about.

The thing is, when someone trusts God and then continues to suffer and even to die, the world can point the finger as they did at Jesus Himself and say, See, if your God was real, He could get you out of this mess. He’s failed you because He doesn’t care or isn’t strong enough or because you didn’t believe enough or He plain isn’t there.

Peter was assuring these early Christians that none of those accusations was true. In fact, in chapter five, he specifically mentions the devil, who, among other things, is the Accuser of the brethren. It’s easy to miss the connection between what Peter says about the devil and what he says right afterward about suffering, but I think it’s the issue of shame. Here’s that passage:

Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world. (5:8-9)

Suffering, Peter says, is an experience Christians all over the world are going through. It’s not a sign of failure. It’s not something to be ashamed about.

There’s another one in Psalm 37, but I’m going to cut to the last one since I sneaked in a second passage from 1 Peter. This last one is the one that has helped me tie my thoughts together about this. It’s a short verse: Psalm 71:1.

In You, O LORD, I have taken refuge;
Let me never be ashamed.

The unidentified psalmist is putting his life, his destiny, his soul in God’s hands, and if that decision turned out to be foolish—if God failed Him—he’d be ashamed before those who didn’t think God could take care of him.

I view this as sort of his “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief” moment. He’s tying himself to God. There is no one else to which he could go—just as Peter said about Jesus. But he knows how this must look to those who haven’t made God their refuge. It looks dangerous, foolish.

You know the old joke, about the guy who falls from a cliff but is able to grab hold of a safety rope. He starts yelling for help: “Is anybody up there! I need help!” Suddenly a voice from heaven says, I’m here. What do you need. “I can’t hold on much longer,” the guy says. “Can you help me get back to the top?” No problem, the voice from heaven answers. Let go of the rope, and I’ll catch you. The man hesitated a moment, then yells, “Is anybody else up there?”

Dangerous. Sometimes the things God asks of us feel dangerous. Or foolish.

We aren’t risk takers. We’ve been taught to be good stewards of our resources, so we want to know we have enough money stashed away for retirement, for example, to cover our expenses should we live to be 143. We cringe when we read about Abraham going, not knowing where, just because God told him to pull up stakes and head in the direction of the Great Sea. Most likely Abraham didn’t even know there was a Great Sea. He was simply going until God told him to stop.

He wasn’t ashamed to be a friend of God, even when it meant marching to the top of a mountain with his son as the intended sacrifice. He did what others may have thought risky, foolish. But he had confidence in God. Ah, one more passage:

yet, with respect to the promise of God, he [Abraham] did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform. (Romans 4:20-21)

Fully assured—not in himself, but in God and His promise! I’m pretty sure that’s what keeps a person from being ashamed.

Published in: on June 2, 2015 at 6:05 pm  Comments (8)  
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Despising Youth


McCainFatherandGrandfatherWhen I was young, I loved Paul’s counsel to Timothy not to let anyone look down on him because of his youth. Now that I’m likely in Paul’s generation at the time of his writing that letter, I’m less certain it’s such a good idea for young pastors to lead the elders.

Of course it was a great idea in Timothy’s case. Paul described him like this to the Philippians:

But I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you shortly, so that I also may be encouraged when I learn of your condition. For I have no one else of kindred spirit who will genuinely be concerned for your welfare. For they all seek after their own interests, not those of Christ Jesus. But you know of his proven worth, that he served with me in the furtherance of the gospel like a child serving his father. (Phil. 2:19-22)

Timothy was Paul’s kindred spirit. He was genuinely concerned for the welfare of the church in Philippi. He didn’t seek after his own interests, but those of Christ Jesus. He’d proven his worth in the past, publicly. He’d served with Paul to advance the gospel. He’d worked for Paul the way a child would for his father.

Those are a lot of pluses, but there’s more. In Paul’s first letter to Timothy he tells him to

remain on at Ephesus so that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith. (1:3-4)

Young though he was, Timothy could discern between strange doctrine, myths, endless genealogies, speculation and the truth about God. He wasn’t fooled, though apparently men his senior had fallen into such error—people Paul had “handed over to Satan.”

In fact, Paul told Timothy to be an example to others by his speech, conduct, and quality of godly living.

Is it so hard to imagine that young people today might not have the same qualities Timothy had?

I don’t think Timothy was one of a kind, but at the same time, I don’t think his validation in Scripture is cause for the church to rubber stamp someone because he is young.

In other words, in the same way Timothy’s youthfulness was not to be a reason for people in the church to discount what he said, his youthfulness was not the reason they were to pay attention to him, either. Rather, Paul was saying Timothy had a spiritual gift and had served with him and had the ability to discern error. Because of his godliness and service and work for the gospel, his youthfulness wasn’t to prevent him from ministry.

In Colossians Paul said that in the family of God there is neither Jew nor Greek, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Sythian, slave, or freeman, but Christ is all and in all. In Ephesians, he added male and female. In many ways, though he didn’t list it, he was making a case in 1 Timothy for old and young being included with the others.

Today I see a sad turn of events in the church—division based on age. Maybe I spent too many years teaching junior and senior high schoolers, but I happen to enjoy the Timothys of the church. As I’ve heard from several sources lately, they aren’t the future of the church; they are it’s present, just as much as I am.

Age divisions aren’t new. I experienced the “generation gap” when I was growing up. It’s simply ridiculous, as if youths have nothing to contribute because they haven’t lived long enough and older folk have nothing to contribute because they’ve lived so long.

Isaiah says that “vigorous young men” can stumble badly and that those who are weary and tired can gain new strength by waiting on the Lord.

In other words, old age is not an excuse to retire from Christian service, and youth is not an excuse to avoid it. Older saints serve an important role in the church—they are “like fathers” and “like mothers” to younger members. But youths play an important role too, some, in fact, as significant as Timothy.

More important than the believer’s age is their heart-attitude. Timothy was Paul’s kindred spirit. Any young person who thinks like Paul and cares like Paul and serves like Paul should most definitely not be despised because of his youth.

Published in: on July 14, 2014 at 5:53 pm  Comments (1)  
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Disappointed Or Disappointed With God?


Forgiving_Sins031I’m reading a book that, in part, discusses the Psalms, pointing out that some are laments or psalms questioning God, asking Him for answers, for change, for help, but in the end, the psalmist finishes in the same place as he started—with the same doubts and sorrows and fears.

In thinking about the various things that could trigger a lament, I realized there are human experiences that are disappointing—which is just another way of saying, we expect one thing to happen and it doesn’t. In fact, sometimes, the opposite happens or a different thing which looks worse than the circumstance we’re in, happens.

Take, for instance, the lame man who’s friends lowered him on a stretcher through the roof so that Jesus would heal him. Instead, Jesus says, Your sins are forgiven. How disappointed might that man have felt? He wanted to walk, expected to walk, but Jesus gave him a different kind of healing than he anticipated. Was he disappointed?

Scripture doesn’t say, but it wouldn’t be surprising if initially he felt disappointed.

Many other Jews were clearly disappointed with Jesus. They expected Him to be their Messiah coming to conquer and to set them free from their enemies. Of course He did those things—but the enemy He conquered was death, not Rome, and the freedom he gave was the freedom from sin and guilt and the Law, not political freedom from a repressive government.

Abraham’s descendents, enslaved by Pharaoh, were also disappointed with God though Moses led them out of Egypt. They wanted to escape, no doubt . . . until they were in the desert, with the Red Sea in front of them and Pharaoh’s army behind them. Or until they had no water. Or until they saw giants in the promised land. Clearly, God wasn’t doing things the way they expected, and they decided a return to Egypt was in order. Some wanted to pick a new leader and some wanted to pick a new god.

On the opposite end of the spectrum stand Joseph and Gideon and Samuel and David and Daniel and Jeremiah and Paul and Stephen and John and Martha and the widow with her last mite, and many, many others. They were at the end of their options and didn’t see God. They were in prison or oppressed by a foreign power, exiled, running for their lives, impoverished, alone, facing death, and they couldn’t have looked at their circumstances and thought, Yep, just as I planned it.

But their unmet expectations were not, in their eyes, more than a light, momentary affliction. They were not disappointed with God. He hadn’t failed them or forsaken them. Rather, He was the One passing through the waters with them, holding their hand through the valley of the shadow of death, gathering them in His arm and carrying them in His bosom when they had wandered on their own.

The point is clear. I can have my expectations foiled, even shattered, and still accept the fact that God’s way, different from what I’d anticipated, is good and right. I can seize the opportunity to praise Him, or I can shake my fist at Him, mouthing silly phrases such as, “He’s big enough to handle my anger.”

I’ve been disturbed for a number of years with the “it’s OK to be angry at or disappointed with God” attitude in the Church. Now I’m beginning to wonder if this unwillingness to bow to His sovereignty might not be behind some of the false teaching that seems so prevalent in our day.

It’s in the presumption that God is supposed to make me rich, that God is not supposed to be wrathful, that God is supposed to keep me healthy, that God is not supposed to mean it when He says, All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.

In the end, such attempts to shape God into the image we want for Him are not so different from the Israelites fashioning a golden calf and calling it Yahweh. That generation of people who shook their fists in the face of God, wandered in the wilderness for forty years, then died.

Talk about disappointment.

Except, God never let them down. Not once. He gave them food miraculously, every day; kept their clothes and shoes from wearing out; protected them and led them with His presence, manifested as a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day. And yet things weren’t as they’d hoped. Their disappointment had nothing to do with God and everything to do with what they thought how God was supposed to be and what God was supposed to do.

Instead of seeing God as a great provider who would surprise them with the unexpected and care for them in ways they hadn’t imagined, they groused and complained and ultimately said they’d had enough.

Disappointment with God led them to death.

In contrast, disappointment that yields to God’s plan instead of our own, results in things like Paul and Silas singing praises in jail after they’d been beaten, which in turn provided an opportunity for them to preach Christ to their jailer and see unbelieving people converted.

Knowing How To Get Along … With Or Without


The Apostle Paul was an amazing man. Not perfect, mind you (there was that little tiff he had with Barbabas over John Mark, for example), but still a remarkable example of how a Christian should live. One thing in particular stands out to me, however — his contentment.

I’ve been thinking about his statement in Philippians about his attitude toward his financial situation. “I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need” (Phil. 4:12).

When I’ve read that verse before, I’ve been thinking primarily about how Paul learned to get along with humble means, how he dealt with going hungry, suffering need. Today it dawned on me that he was also saying he had to learn how to deal with prosperity, how to handle being filled and having abundance.

So what are some characteristics of getting along in each of these conditions? These are the first things that came to my mind.

Getting along with humble means, a person would need to remain generous, not penny-pinching. He’d also need to deepen his trust in God’s provision. Third, he’d need to foster a spirit of joy and rejoicing when others are blessed in ways he is not.

I think of people in Scripture who exemplified these traits. The widow who gave her last coin in the temple collection is one of the most generous persons on record. Her poverty did not stop her from worship and service, though it cost her all she had.

The widow of Zarephath that God sent Elijah to was generous in the same way. She was about to prepare a final meal for herself and her son when Elijah asked for a drink of water and a bite to eat. She didn’t turn him away but informed him of her meager provisions. He said, fine, make the last of the flour and oil into bread as you planned, but make me a little cake first. And she did, based on his promise that her supplies would not run out.

In that regard, she’s also a great example of someone trusting God to provide, but then so was Elijah. He’d just come from the brook Cherith where God fed him by sending ravens to bring him bread and meat. But this was a time of drought, so eventually his water source dried up. No trouble. God sent him to Zarephath where he found the widow with … practically nothing. So together they trusted God to replenish the flour and oil day after day.

King Saul’s son Jonathan seems like a great example of someone rejoicing in the success of someone else. Never mind that David would be taking the throne instead of Jonathan, he gave David his armor and sword, protected him from his father’s jealous rage, and essentially blessed his future rule.

Learning to get along in humble circumstances is only half the story. We are also to get along in prosperity. The characteristics I see that are required include not hoarding what we have, not squandering it, and not loving it more than we should.

Jesus addressed these issues. He told the parable about the prosperous man who decided he should deal with his great wealth by building a bigger barn. He didn’t see the light of the next morning.

Jesus also told the story about the prodigal son who squandered his money in riotous living. He’d been given a generous inheritance, but when famine came, he’d used up all his resources. When he came to his senses and returned to his father, he repented, not for squandering his wealth but for going his own way. The way he handled his money was only a symptom of the breakdown of his relationship with his father.

But Jesus told another story that reinforces the idea about not squandering our prosperity — the parable of the talents. Three servants were given money to invest. Two were praised when their master checked up on them. The only one who was rebuked and punished was the one who had squandered what he’d been given to invest.

Mark 10 tells about an encounter Jesus had with a rich young power player that underscores the importance of not making money into a god. This young guy was conscientious and diligent. He played by the rules. He was scrupulously religious. But for some reason he felt compelled to ask Jesus what he was missing. Jesus told him he needed to sell all his stuff and come on the road with Him and the other disciples. Mr. Very Rich couldn’t do it. He loved his stuff too much.

Getting along with humble means, getting along in prosperity — they both have their challenges. How remarkable that Paul navigated through the waters of both extremes to be content in whatever circumstances. Ah, but not remarkable. I forgot to add the key verse (one we use out of context more often than not). “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).

Published in: on November 18, 2011 at 6:26 pm  Comments (1)  
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Sin and Sins


Once again, because of comments to yesterday’s post, I felt compelled to see what Scripture had to say about Sin as something inherent and sins as deeds of lawlessness. I believe in both but realized I couldn’t give chapter and verse to show from Scripture that both exist.

Interestingly, I came away from my study (reluctantly—it’s really interesting to read the Bible asking one focused question like that) with the conviction that the sin nature of man does exist, but I don’t see it by name. It’s actually somewhat amusing to me because some time ago I did a similar study to defend the existence of free will, and in the same way found that term is not one the Bible uses in the same theological way we use it today.

(For those of you who don’t see the issue as amusing, it’s because those most adamant in their belief in free will—not named as such in the Bible—are most likely the ones who disbelieve the concept of the sin nature—not named as such in the Bible. And vice versa. Irony! 😀 )

Be that as it may, how do I remain convinced Mankind has a sin nature? For one, the Genesis 5 passage I quoted yesterday sets the stage. Other passages must take this fundamental truth into consideration.

But what other passages? First, I want to reiterate that I do not believe in “proof texts.” I believe the Bible as a unit tells us what God wants us to know. To isolate one verse from its context can distort Truth. Not always. But Scripture should be examined in light of Scripture.

In that vein, then, I think no one would disagree with Kameron that sins are acts, thoughts, attitudes of lawlessness. In addition, Romans, supported by a plethora of verses, makes it clear that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

The disagreement, as I understand it, is what compels all to sin. I can’t help but think this is a semantic discussion to a degree. Clearly, something must be acting on Mankind. Is it a corrupted will? The flesh? I’ve understood this to be the sin nature—another name for “the flesh”—which each person inherited, going back to Genesis when Seth was born in the likeness of Adam.

Paul’s argument in the book of Romans that sin entered through the disobedience of one man seems to bear this out. The entire discussion is in chapter 5, but here’s the key verse: “For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous” (v. 19, emphasis mine).

Couple that with Romans 3 and Paul’s Old Testament quote: “There is none righteous, not even one.” The implication would seem to be the condition in which Mankind exists.

Romans also refers to man being a slave to sin, clearly a picture of a condition without options: “Though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart … and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness …For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness … But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life.”

Still more from Romans—the concept of an old self and a new self. “Knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin.”

This concept also makes sense of Jesus’s statements to Nicodemus in John 3: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God … That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

Another convincing reference is Paul’s characterization of us as sinners: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Clearly this doesn’t mean while we were in the midst of some lawless act. I wasn’t even born then. A verse or two later, he refers to us as “enemies.”

Finally, for the purpose of this blog post, Paul also discusses reconciliation with God, as if something separated us from Him, made us enemies, but no longer does. And yet he also exhorts believers to not let sin reign in our mortal bodies, to not go on presenting the members of our bodies to sin as instruments of unrighteousness. The implication is that believers still must battle sinning.

What then, did Christ do that brought reconciliation? His blood sacrifice was a payment for sins, yes, which cancelled our debt and stamped us forgiven, but His death and resurrection was also victory over Sin, over the corruption that ruled our hearts.

Published in: on June 3, 2008 at 11:48 am  Comments (5)  
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