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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Teach us to pray, part 55: Eggs and Scorpions

Now suppose one of you fathers is asked by his son for a fish; he will not give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? Or if he is asked for an egg, he will not give him a scorpion, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?" (Luke 11:11-13 NASB)

Jesus gave these examples comparing earthly fathers with our Heavenly Father. When a child asks a father for a fish, that father does not reward his child with a snake instead. If the child asks for an egg, his father does not give him a scorpion instead, does he? Both the scorpion and the snake are not only different from what was requested, but are deadly to a child (and to adults, as well). A human father would not fulfill a child's request by giving him something that was similar in appearance to what the child requested but deadly in its nature.

Although we, as humans, are inherently evil, we do not intentionally put our beloved children in danger. We do not put something in their hands that seems to be what they want and need but will harm them. (I recognize that there is evil in this world and there are some parents who would not stop at harming their children, but, in general, this is true.)

If we, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to our children, know how to provide for them in ways that are good and pleasant, how much more will God do good for us when we ask him? In fact, implied in this verse is a very important truth. When we ask God for something, He does not respond by giving us something that will destroy us, even if it is that for which we have asked.

In this asking, my tendency is to be like Jairus, whose daughter was gravely ill. Jesus was nearby, but Jairus spent valuable time and money trying everything humanly possible to save his daughter. It was only when she was breathing her last breaths that he turned to Jesus. It was only then that he was willing to wait for whatever Jesus brought his way. 

It has taken years for me to learn that our Father can be trusted. When there is a need, I can depend upon Him to supply it. His provision may not look exactly like I expected, but it will not be something that will harm me. His provision is always good.

After decades of following Christ, I still have to remind myself of the truth of His goodness in answering prayers, to remind myself of all the kindness God has shown me.

'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Jeremiah 29:11 NASB

We will look at Luke 11:13 tomorrow, but for today, let us embrace our heavenly Father's generosity and goodness, acknowledging that the One who created us for companionship with Him will never spitefully respond to our requests with the instrument of our destruction. Our heavenly Father is good and His gifts to us, His children, are good, as well. We can depend upon that goodness. His plans, and His gifts in response to our prayers, are good, for our benefit, our future, our hope.

Therefore, let us make our requests known to God and give thanks for what He has already done for us.

"Don't worry about anything; instead pray about everything.
Tell God what you need, and thank Him for all He has done." 
                                   Philippians 4:6 NLT

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Teach us to pray, part 54: those who knock

"So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened. (Luke 11:9-10 NASB)

There is an amazing fact about knocking that I need to remember. I am not the only one knocking. Christ Himself is knocking, too. 

"Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me." (Revelation 3:20) 

Imagine that! Christ longs to visit with me and knocks on the door of my heart while He waits for me to invite Him in. "I will dine with him and he with Me" is just one more example of the relationship for which I was created, for which you were created. 

This verse is generally held to be a verse related to salvation. Certainly, that first opening of the door of our heart when Christ knocks is our salvation moment, but that is not the only time He knocks at the door of our hearts. Our Lord longs to have times of intimacy with us on a daily basis, just as God walked and talked daily with Adam and Eve in the garden. 

Knocking with unbridled enthusiasm as we ask repeatedly that our requests be granted is one of the prayer-actions Christ has granted to us. In our determination to achieve the desire of our heart, however, let us not overlook the quiet, persistent knocking of our Lord Jesus, who longs for us to swing wide the door of our heart so that we might spend time with Him.

You may be thinking, "Why does Christ knock if His Spirit in already residing within me?" Perhaps the metaphor of a house will be helpful. When a guest wants to enter my house, they usually knock on my outside door. Once inside, they have free reign to make themselves at home in the open rooms. 

It is when I go into a room, wishing for a bit of privacy, that I close the door. Before entering that private place, the one in which I have cloistered myself, those who wish to enter usually knock. 

In that same way, I can withdraw from Christ, metaphorically shutting the door of an area of my heart, and stepping away from closeness with Him. I can "hide" by distancing myself from Him. It is in those times that He gently and quietly knocks with the same persistence as at the start, for He longs to share my hurts, my sorrows, my confusion. He longs to turn my isolation into companionship, my sorrow into joy.  

It is all too easy to drown out the sound of His knocking with busyness or the clamor of sin. When I allow myself to be still and silence the clamor, I can hear that gentle knocking. It is then that I face a beautiful decision and a divine opportunity. Will I allow Christ access to more of me or not? 

Only in eternity, when we are made perfect in the presence of God, will we fully abandon ourselves to His presence. Only then will the knocking end, for our communion with Him will be made complete. 

For now, He knocks and we must answer, so let our answer be "more of Christ in me". Let us swing wide the doors of our heart in utter abandon to the One who longs to fill every empty place with the sweetest presence imaginable, heal every hurt, and fill our lives with the love, joy and peace that only He can give. 

He is knocking. What will be our answer? 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Teach us to pray, part 53: Knocking

"So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened. (Luke 11:9-10 NASB)

When I read "knock and it will be opened to you", for some reason, it makes me think of that song from my growing up years. "If I had a hammer, I'd hammer in the morning, I'd hammer in the evening, all over this land." The idea of hammering so enthusiastically is exactly the idea behind the knocking of Luke 11. The word translated as knock is not a polite little tapping at the door. This is "knocking with a heavy blow". It is pounding that leaves no doubt, inside or out, that you mean for the door to be opened.

We have it from the very mouth of Christ ("so I say to you") that we are to be so importunate in the things for which Christ has instructed us to ask, that we "must never hold our peace day or night, we must not keep silence, nor give God any rest." (Matthew Henry) We are to be pounding on the doors of heaven. What things has He instructed us to ask? That his name be sanctified, that his kingdom come, His will be done.

When I present my concerns to God in prayer, it behooves me to judge those concerns by the standard Christ has given us. Does my request sanctify His name, does it advance His kingdom, is it His will? I have to admit that I have besieged heaven, hammering on the door night and day to have something that was neither God's will nor likely to advance His kingdom. I thank God He did not grant my request. How miserable I would have been if He had given me that for which I foolishly asked! I praise God for those "no" answers that I desperately needed, but did not want, to the prayers for that which I desperately wanted, but did not need.

It is when I am willing to pray for God's will, and for events in my life to unfold in a way that glorifies Him and not myself, that I begin to pray in a way that pleases God. It is when I pray in this way that my hammering on the door of heaven has an amazing effect. The door of heaven is opened to me and I am ushered into the presence of God. Oh, if there were words to convey the joy that comes with this kind of prayer! 

Prayer, conversation with God, is an important part of having a relationship with Him, and, sometimes, importunate prayer, hammering away without stopping, is what it takes to gain our desire. That continued hammering is important, at least in part, because the persevering demonstrates our commitment to the need for which we ask. 

In the persistent knocking, however, we also gain an unexpected benefit. Change. There are times when I pray persistently over months, and even over years, for something. My prayer toward the end of that journey of persistence is often quite different from the one at the beginning, because God has changed my heart along the way. He has allowed me to see the need from a different perspective, to recognize what He has been doing in me as I waited. The desire I was so desperate to obtain at the beginning has been molded and changed by God in the interim. If we are to obtain the perfect will of God in our asking, this process of molding is critical, and (at least with my stubborn heart) it takes time. 

Let us take our needs, our desires, our hopes and dreams to the One who loves us most, and let us do it with persistence, hammering away at the door of heaven. In our hammering, though, let us not forget that the waiting, as we hammer and pray, is an important part of the process, for it is in the waiting that God fine-tunes us and our prayers to become exactly what He intended. It is only then that our prayers can be the kind of requests that line up with the will of God so that answers, glorious will-of-God answers, can come.

Pray without ceasing and wait with expectation to see the mighty Hand of God in response to your prayers.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Teach us to pray, part 52: Seeker prayers

"So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened. (Luke 11:9-10 NASB)

In yesterday's blog post, we considered the idea of seeking and finding. If what we have found in life is not what we wanted, we've been seeking the wrong thing. It is that simple. God promises that, if we seek Him, we will find Him, for He is also seeking us.

This morning, it occurred to me that this is a series on prayer. "Seeking" seems more like an issue for a series on priority or lifestyle choices, rather than prayer, until I remember that prayer is rooted in relationship. That relationship is an outgrowth of the kind of seeking that finds the One who is the object of my search. 

Yesterday, I was humming a song I learned as a child, "My Best Friend is Jesus". As I hummed aloud and listened to the words silently as they played in my head, I thought, "I really mean this!" When I learned those words as a little girl, I had no idea at all of the richness of relationship available to me, nor the depth of love that could be mine. 

Over the course of several decades, my seeking has led me to the One my heart most desired, my Lord, and to a relationship with Him. As I have spent time with Him in prayer, studied His words, and learned to trust Him, a relationship that is precious beyond all else has developed. Christ is the first one to whom I speak in the morning, before my feet hit the floor. He's the One whose "tongue is the pen of a ready writer" and supplies the words I write. He's the first One I go to with a problem, a need, a desire. He's the One I trust above all others. He's my best friend.

My best friend. As I write those words, I am utterly astounded. How can it be that someone who has done so very much sinning can find a friend in God? It seems impossible, yet our God is so forgiving, so loving and long-suffering, that He can embrace even someone like me. Someone like you. What is even more astounding is that the God who created and sustains the Universe will take the time to communicate with me, listen to me, talk to me in that Still, Small Voice in my heart!

We call that communication, between my heart and His, prayer. When I understand that prayer is simply talking to the one I love the most, it becomes a simple thing. I talk to God about all the things that concern Me, then leave those concerns in His capable hands, trusting Him to deal with every single issue. Sometimes His solutions require some action from me, but more often than not, they don't. 

If I want to have power in prayer, if  I want answered prayer, I must begin by having a relationship with the One to whom I pray. Satisfying myself, whether by the accumulation of money, houses, things, or by pleasure that lasts for a moment, or by gaining the status and power the world offers, must be set aside in order to satisfy and to please my God. Answered prayer begins with relationship, and the deeper the relationship, the deeper the conversation between us.

In teaching us to pray, Jesus taught, "Seek and you will find" because our seeking must first be for His kingdom and His righteousness. Prayer is simply the communication that flows naturally from that relationship. 

"But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, 
and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33 NASB)

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Teach us to pray, part 51: Seeking

"So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened. (Luke 11:9-10 NASB)

The word translated as "seek" is zēteō.  This word can mean several kinds of seeking, but in this verse it means "to seek with the intention of finding." My first question on reading that was why anyone would seek and not expect to find. Maybe that kind of seeking is really just looking around aimlessly. It turns out that this word can indicate the kind of seeking that is nothing more than pondering with the hope of figuring it out yourself. There is also a kind of seeking that is "striving". You might "seek" to be the richest person in America, but that is not the same as having the expectation that you might attain that goal.

This seeking, however, is the kind of seeking that expects to find or attain what it seeks. Proverbs 17:11 says a rebellious man seeks only evil. If that's what he's seeking, it's what he's going to find, as well. Scripture says a "cruel messenger will be sent after him". That's not the kind of seeking we should be doing. 

Scripture has numerous instructions about seeking. "Seek the Lord your God" (Deut. 4:29), "pray and seek My face" (2 Chron. 7:14), "seek peace and pursue it" (Ps 34:14), "seek good and not evil" (Amos 5:14), "keep seeking the things above" (Col 3:1). Our job as disciples of Christ is to seek our Lord and the things of God, rather than the riches and honor of this world. Our goal and that for which we seek must be pleasing God with our lives. We are to seek peace, seek good and not evil. When we seek those things with the intention that we will find them, our Lord promises that we will do exactly that. 

If we seek God with the intention of knowing Him, we will find Him. If we seek peace with that same intention, we will find it. 

Scripture also draws a sharp contrast between that which our enemy the devil seeks and that which God seeks. 1 Peter 5:8 says that our enemy the devil "prowls about like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour." 

Ezekiel records the promise of God to send a shepherd for his people, who were like lost sheep, wandering about with no one to care for them. "I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick... (Ezekiel 34:16 NASB) Jesus declared that He was the Good Shepherd, come to seek and to save that which is lost. (John 10:11). It is the goal of the evil one to destroy those who are lost. It is the goal of Almighty to God to find us when we are lost, restore us, bind up our wounds and strengthen us. What a difference!

Here's the wonderful thing about seeking for God. When we are seeking for God, He is also seeking for us. In our seeking, we can count on both being found and finding the object of our desire!

The question we must answer is simple. For what do we seek? The answer often lies in what we have found. If we find that for which we seek, and we do, then what we have found so far is what we have sought. Ouch! For today, let's take a close look at our lives. Look at the kind of life we have found in our seeking, at the kind of relationships we have found, at the kind of relationship we have with Christ. Is it a warm and intimate relationship with Him or do we have a passing head knowledge that is more history than current event? 

If what we have sought has not brought us that which satisfies, let's be done with it and seek that which has eternal significance and brings joy and peace that lasts.

"But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, 
and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33 NASB)

Teach us to pray, part 50: Asking and receiving

Then He said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend, and goes to him at midnight and says to him, 'Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has come to me from a journey, and I have nothing to set before him'; and from inside he answers and says, 'Do not bother me; the door has already been shut and my children and I are in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything. ' I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs. "So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened. (Luke 11:5-10 NASB)

The "name it and claim it" brand of theology is alive and well in the church today and, in my opinion, is extremely destructive to the cause of Christ. Prayer is a "church word" for talking with God. It is a conversation, not an opportunity to present a shopping list. If I subscribe to the "name it and claim it" theology, I make God little more than a celestial Santa Claus. 

With that in mind, let's look a little closer at answered prayer and the promise of Jesus to "ask and it will be given to you." We looked yesterday at the word for "given to you" and found that it is the same word as that indicating a seed giving forth fruit. Just as the fruit looks nothing like the seed, so the answers to our prayers may look nothing like we expected. 

The gospels are full of  promises of answered prayer. "Whatever you bind on earth is bound is heaven." (Matt. 18:18) "If two or more of you agree... they may ask and it will be done..." (Matt. 18:19). Mark records a promise that we can ask, believe, and receive (Mark 11:24). If those are the only verses I read, it is easy to think that I can ask for anything and expect to receive it. Mark 11:24, however, is followed by Mark 11:25, which begins with "and forgive". John 14:13 records a promise that Jesus will do what we ask, but includes the caveat "that my Father may be glorified".  John 15 tells us that we can ask whatever we wish and it shall be done for us, but is preceded by the stipulation that we can ask IF we abide in Christ and His words abide in us. Matthew 17 records a situation where the disciples were unable to heal a child despite their prayers and Jesus told them that some things only come out by prayer and fasting.

It turns out that answered prayer is possible but is contingent upon my life of discipleship. If I actually do what Jesus said, in belief, fasting, obedience in forgiveness, and in right living, I can come to Him with my requests in anticipation of answers. The purpose in answering our prayers, however, is so that the Father will be glorified. Glorifying the Father should be the objective behind all our prayer requests. 

James clarifies this for us. James 4 includes that famous phrase "You have not because you ask not".  It is immediately followed, however, by the clarifying statement, "You ask and do not receive because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures." God created us to have a relationship with Him, not so that we can be "happy" and have everything our heart desires. As followers of Christ, our objective should be to glorify Him, and not ourselves.

What, then, makes it to my prayer list? My first thought is that everything gets on that list, but, admittedly, not everything is a typical request. Here are a few examples that may help clarify what I mean. When it became clear that an automobile manufacturing plant would come to our town, I prayed that God would send us a company that would be environmentally responsible, that He would somehow restore the trees that had been cut down, and that it would not destroy the lifestyle of our little town. His answer to that prayer was everything I prayed and more! My request did not glorify me at all. I wasn't even an elected official at the time I began to pray. Instead, I was praying for protection of the people who live in my town and protection of the environment God had created. 

When my dog was dreadfully sick recently, (Mamie the apprentice wonder puppy), I prayed for her healing. That may not seem like something that glorifies God, but the Mamie stories based on the antics of that tiny dog have been viewed by hundreds of people and have been used to teach the truth of following Christ in a simple and understandable way. He healed her.

I lost my step tracker recently. That also doesn't sound like something that glorifies God, but it has helped me increase my exercise, lose weight, decrease my cholesterol, and lower my blood pressure. I'm much healthier because of the tracker. When I lost it (apparently the wrist band came apart and I didn't notice it), I did all I could do to find it, then asked God to restore it if it was His will. I still find it hard to believe, but the company is sending me a new device. God provided.

I pray daily for people who are going through a hard time, people who are lost, people who are prodigals, people who need wisdom. I pray through the newspaper for situations that concern me, people who are making decisions that impact our country, and for the consequences of those decisions. My enemies and the enemies of my country are on my prayer list as well. The multiple terrorist organizations and the individual terrorists in those organizations are on my list, as well as the people affected by them. The persecuted church and those currently suffering for the cause of Christ. The people of Nigeria and its leadership. (God has given me a great love for Nigeria). There are several Christian parachurch organizations that do a tremendous job of bringing in the harvest and reaching the world for Christ and for whom I pray regularly.

In all this praying, I also pray for myself. As I sit down to write every morning, I review what was written the day before and ask God to show me what changes need to be made. When that is done, I ask Him to tell me what to write, and He does. Wisdom, holiness, purity are all topics of prayer.

Not all my praying is solitary. I have several prayer groups with and for whom I pray.

Whew! I'm not sharing this to make you think I'm a great woman of prayer or that I do anything remarkable or exceptional. I am not. I am doing nothing more than what I was called to do, what we are all called to do. We are supposed to pray without ceasing. If we are in a constant state of prayer, we can pray for all of the things I've listed and more. We are supposed to pray like this. In fact, I don't pray nearly enough. We don't pray nearly enough. 

If we are supposed to pray without ceasing, why don't we? Perhaps we think that means we are to stay on our knees around the clock. That's one way of doing it, but not likely the one that most of us will use. Here's my suggestion. As we go about our day, silently (or aloud) talk to God about everything you see, everything that concerns you, every need. As we read or listen to the news, let's discuss with the Lord those things that grab our attention. When we see flowers blooming, hear birds singing, receive an unexpected blessing, let's thank Him. When we see evidence of His hand in our lives, let's praise Him. Before we know it, we will be praying without ceasing!

What will happen if we pray without ceasing? Lots! We will find that we have the most exciting life imaginable because we see God at work constantly. We will ask, and He will answer, and it will be exceedingly abundantly more than we could ask or think. God will be glorified and mountains will move. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Teach us to pray, part 49: Asking

Then He said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend, and goes to him at midnight and says to him, 'Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has come to me from a journey, and I have nothing to set before him'; and from inside he answers and says, 'Do not bother me; the door has already been shut and my children and I are in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything. ' I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs. "So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened. (Luke 11:5-10 NASB)

When I read "ask and it will be given to you," I want to believe that God will give me exactly what I have asked Him to give me. When I read this phrase in English, it appears to mean exactly that. 

When I look at it in the original language, however, I find something surprising. The word translated as "ask" is aiteō and indicates a person of lesser position making a request of someone of higher position, someone in authority. Understanding that God is a higher authority than I is not really a problem for me, unless there is something I am determined to have. In that case, it is easy to slide into the "I want what I want and I better get it" attitude. It's a very American mindset to think that we can work hard and get whatever we want, and it sometimes translates into thinking that, if we pray hard enough, we can get God to give us whatever we want. 

The word translated as "will be given" is didōmi. This is the same word used to indicate a seed "giving" fruit. The fruit, of course, looks nothing at all like the seed that was planted. That is often the way of the answers to my prayers. They look nothing at all like I expected (nor like what I thought I wanted!). I have learned to be grateful that God gives us what we need and not what we think we want. 

Some years ago, I was betrayed and deeply wounded by someone very close to me. I stormed heaven non-stop and many of my friends prayed right along with me. I expected the situation to unfold a certain way. I expected that the situation would end up with the kind of glorious results that would point people to Christ and give them hope. (And, of  course, I expected that it would vindicate me and make me look good. Let's not forget there is sometimes a good bit of pride in our prayers.)

Instead, God moved. He answered my prayers. His answer, however, looked nothing at all like I expected. Years later, there is peace between me and the person who betrayed me. We are friends and comfortable in each other's company. The malice and anger are gone. The hurt feelings are gone. The relationship was not repaired; it was remade completely. 

I am still astounded by what God did. As it turns out, His answer was more than I ever expected, and in some ways, it was better than I dreamed. The seed of prayer gave forth fruit, and the fruit looked nothing like the seed. 

Could God have done what I wanted? Of course He could, but He was working with two flawed and sinful people and, if the truth be told, He didn't have as much to work with as I thought at the time. (I am speaking of myself when I say that.) The healing took years, but it came, and one of the reasons it came is persistence in prayer. What began as praying for my enemy became praying for my friend. 

This business of praying in the way Jesus told us is a glorious, wonderful thing, and brings the most exciting life possible. I never know what God will do and I love that! He takes a seed of prayer and brings forth fruit, and I have no way of knowing in advance what that fruit will be. The amazing part of this fruit-bearing is that the fruit is always bigger, more complex, more beautiful, more satisfying, more delicious than the seed. 

Today, then, let us ask for whatever is on our heart, but let us also ask with expectation that God's will be done, and that His will can do more than we ever asked or imagined. Every single time. Let us ask, knowing that the seed will bear fruit. 

κἀγὼ ὑμῖν λέγω αἰτεῖτε καὶ δοθήσεται ὑμῖν ζητεῖτε καὶ εὑρήσετεκρούετε καὶ ἀνοιγήσεται ὑμῖν. (Luke 11:9)