Spiritual disciplines

 
 

Storing Up God’s Word—Psalm 119:9–11

How can a young man keep his way pure?
By guarding it according to your word.
With my whole heart I seek you;
let me not wander from your commandments!
I have stored up your word in my heart,
that I might not sin against you.

(Psalm 119:9–11, ESV)

The_Holy_Bible

I first encountered Psalm 119:9 early in my relationship with Christ, while in college. At first, I found Psalm 119 incredibly boring: It contains 176 verses, almost all of them include some mention of God’s Word, and after a while they seem to be repeating themselves a lot. The fact that this is the longest chapter in the Bible made it difficult to read in one sitting; I usually felt like I had just read for 15 minutes and gained nothing from it. However, a few of my friends had favorite verses in that psalm. One of my friends had even adopted Psalm 119:9 as his life verse. It was a motto or slogan that guided his heart and life.

Years later, my earlier dislike for Psalm 119 has dissipated. I rarely try to read it in one sitting. Usually, I limit myself to one to three of the eight-verse stanzas. This allows particular verses to take greater prominence. A passage like Psalm 119:9–16 is pretty easy to digest. I can usually find at least one nugget of wisdom in each stanza.

Although it refers to “young men,” this passage is not reserved for a certain age group. All can benefit from this wisdom. Young men, young women, old men, and old women all need to keep our ways pure, and the answer is true for all of us.

So, why did the psalmist specifically refer to “young men” here? Probably a major reason is the fact that young people are setting the trajectory for their lives. Lessons learned and habits developed early in life will guide one’s future path. Young people face new temptations as they enter puberty. They make major life decisions as adolescents. They may choose a career and remain with it for 50 years. Sometimes, they begin to pursue a career and modify their decisions as they grow; someone may begin college wanting to become a lawyer, only to find that they are more interested in, and have more of the skills for, a career as a psychologist. Others make poor or ill-advised choices early in life, and spend decades trying to recover from bad decisions.

Many think of youth as a time when we face especially unique challenges. However, many of the temptations and trials we face continue throughout life. I remember a college psychology professor pointing this out. During a lecture, he asked us to list some of the ways teens and young adults surrender to peer pressure. Then, he got us thinking about the ways peer pressure would affect us in an adult working environment. He helped us realize that even as working adults, we would face the temptation to fit in, to go along with the crowd. While teenagers risk being “uncool” if they do not drink or smoke with their friends, a working adult can risk missing out on job promotion and raises, or may even lose their job, if they do not go along with the crowd at the office.

We do not outgrow temptation or difficulties. They merely take new forms throughout our lives. That is why it is important to develop a habit of guarding ourselves with God’s Word early in life.

Wherever you are in life, develop a habit now of storing up God’s Word in your heart so that you may not sin against Him. If you are not reading the Bible regularly now, start reading. Set a time every day and devote it to reading. If you never read the Bible outside church, maybe you should start by reading a chapter per day. If you are reading a chapter per day, consider increasing it to two chapters.

Over the years, I found consistency was a challenge. About 10 years ago, I started trying to pray the Daily Office from the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) at least once per day. The BCP provides four Daily Offices: one in the morning, one at noon, another in the evening, and a final “compline” prayer before bedtime. I usually consistently pray three times per day, and would like to get into the habit of including compline as well. It did not come easily, but over time the Daily Offices became a more consistent part of my life. Having a regular goal and plan, and setting time for prayer and Bible study, has enabled me to be more consistent and seek more growth in this area. For those who are interested in trying the Daily Office, you can visit The Mission of St. Clare’s website.  Every day, it will guide you through a Daily Office of prayer, using recommended Bible readings from the Book of Common Prayer.

However you choose to seek God’s wisdom through the Bible, be proactive. Do not wait for hard times to come; start learning God’s Word now. Build a habit of prayer and Bible reading now. Learn to meditate on God’s Word. Allow it to become a central part of your psyche. When trials and temptations come, you will be ready to face them with the Word of God.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Renewing the Mind Reflections, Spiritual disciplines | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Man Does Not Live by Bread Alone

And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (Deuteronomy 8:3).

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Jesus fasting and praying: “Christ in the Wilderness,” by Ivan Kramskoi [1837-1887, Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Those who fast during Lent reflect on Jesus’ fasting and temptation in the wilderness for 40 days after His baptism in the Jordan River. As Jesus prepared to begin His public ministry, He was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, and ate nothing for 40 days. At the end of those 40 days, Satan tempted Him to use His divine power for personal gain, daring Him to turn stones into bread. Jesus responded, as He would to each temptation, by quoting Deuteronomy, responding to the first challenge by saying “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4).

That verse highlights one of the lessons learned during fasting, a lesson God taught the Israelites during their 40 years of wandering after they escaped from Egypt. Fasting calls our attention back to God, and reminds us of our need and His provision.

The wilderness wanderings were a time for the Israelites to learn how to live out their covenant relationship as the people of God. It did not start well. Even though God protected them during a series of plagues, until Pharaoh let them leave, they grew fearful as soon as they saw the Egyptian chariots chasing them at the Red Sea. Despite God’s previous signs, they would not believe that He would rescue them this time.

After God parted the Red Sea so they could escape, they complained at the waters of Marah, believing God would not provide clean drinking water. He provided it anyway (Exodus 15:22–27).

Soon thereafter, they complained that they did not have enough food, and accused Moses of leading them into the wilderness to starve. God provided bread from heaven, “manna” (Exodus 16). Before long, a miraculous (and free) supply of bread was not good for them; they demanded meat, so God provided quail (Numbers 11:1–15, 31–35). However, the quail came with divine discipline, as God sent a plague among the people while they were eating.

Much of this was probably on Jesus’ mind as Satan tempted Him. Jesus answered all three temptations by quoting from chapters 6 or 8 of Deuteronomy. He probably spent a lot of time during those 40 days meditating on the first few chapters of that book.

God had tested the Israelites, to give them a chance to trust Him. They failed each test. Every time, God provided opportunities to remember how He had provided for them in the past. Every time, they failed.

Many Christians can relate. How often do we immediately worry when a problem arises? Do we have faith to cast all of our cares upon the Lord, knowing that He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7)? Do we remember the times He has been faithful in the past: the times He answered our prayers, healed our illnesses, or provided for our needs? Or, do we anticipate a catastrophe and forget that He even exists?

God wanted His people to learn to look to Him for all their needs, and to recognize that every good and perfect gift comes from Him (James 1:17). The testing was designed to prepare them to remain grateful all of their days (Deuteronomy 8:11–18), so that they would remember to thank Him for all that He provides.

Yet, they failed the gratitude test. Manna was not good enough for them; they demanded meat. God’s provision was not sufficient: It was too boring, the same thing day after day. They wanted something exciting, something new, a change of pace. So, they told Moses that God could do better.

Ingratitude, distrust, and disbelief showed they were not ready to claim the promised land. God extended a trip that should have taken less than two weeks and forced them to wander for 40 years.

As Jesus prepared for His ministry, He must have reflected on these lessons. He had to remember who He was, why the Father had sent Him, and what He would do. He would look to the Father to protect, provide, and direct over the next few years. Every step in His ministry would be guided by the Father and would bring Him glory. At no point could Jesus afford to grow impatient or seek an easy way out.

For those of us who participate in a Lenten fast as we follow Jesus, the following questions are significant. Let us each reflect on them:

  • When difficulties arise, do I trust God or gravitate towards doubt, unbelief, fear, distrust, and anxiety?
  • When has God met my needs in the past?
  • Are the things He provides sufficient for me, or do I crave more? Do I demand more from God than He provides?
  • What mission, passion, ministry, or calling has God placed on my life? How can I pursue it His way, rather than trying to do things in my own strength?
  • Will I be grateful for His goodness?
  • Will I remember God’s mercy in good times, or will I forget about Him when life gets easy or comfortable?

Not long after His season of fasting and temptation, Jesus would travel with His disciples through Samaria, where He would minister to a woman with a troubled past and, most likely, a questionable reputation (John 4). When His disciples arrived with food, He did not have much of an appetite. It was as if He had already enjoyed a feast. He knew a satisfaction in the soul that natural food could not meet.

Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34).

As Jesus’ soul was nourished by doing the work that His Father required, may we be satisfied in His blessings, provision, and the joy of serving Him.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons, Spiritual disciplines | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Transfiguration, Glorification, and the Christian Life

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.
And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead (Mark 9:2–9).

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts,… (II Peter 1:16–21).

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“The Transfiguration,” by James Tissot (1836–1902).

Some denominations celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration on the Sunday preceding Ash Wednesday (others do not observe it at all, whereas in some churches it falls on August 6). As I have recently reflected on the Christian’s call to reflect the light of Jesus (see my recent posts here, here, here, and here), I believe this can provide a good focal point for my Lenten observances this year.

Christians in many denominations commit to some kind of low-grade fast during Lent. Many will abstain from meat (allowing themselves fish) on Wednesdays and Fridays. They may also give up a favorite food and/or hobby during the season. Ideally, we should find a way to fill that void with things that will draw us closer to Christ: Perhaps we will devote more time to prayer, Bible study, worship, or service to others in Jesus’ name.

The goal, however, is not to lose weight or go on a self-improvement program. (Those may be secondary benefits, but not the primary goals.) The goal is to draw closer to Jesus, removing some of the obstacles that keep the life, glory, and light of Jesus from shining through in our lives.

It is easy to focus on the fast itself. Many of us can obsess about what we will not eat until Easter. Let us look deeper, though: We have been called to live as partakers of the divine image (2 Peter 1:4) and the seed of God abides in us (1 John 3:9). Those who have come into a living relationship with Jesus Christ by faith have the Holy Spirit within them. We hear this so often that it can almost sound trite or insignificant. Perhaps this Lent can be the time when some of us begin to more intimately comprehend what God is truly offering us.

Instead of a detailed discussion of the Scripture, I will just take this opportunity to encourage each of you, between now and Easter, to reflect on God’s promises to glorify His children. Perhaps the great lesson of Lent is that we miss out as we continue to devote our time, resources, and energy to trivial things, when God is eager to pour out His blessings upon us and conform us to His likeness. We are His children: may we come to look more like Him as we lay aside the things of the world and grasp a foretaste of our inheritance in Him.

I encourage you to reflect on some of the following passages in the weeks to come:

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (II Corinthians 3:18).

And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified (Romans 8:30).

Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (Romans 13:11–14).

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin (I John 1:5–7). (Better yet: Just read the entire book of 1 John. It is a short letter of exhortation, but it has a lot to say about walking in the light of Jesus and living as children of God.)

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons, Spiritual disciplines | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Principles of Fasting

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that you fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And you Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18, ESV).

Fasting is probably the spiritual discipline that Christians are most likely to avoid. Many of us are willing to begin our day with a “quiet time,” or to set aside time for prayer, Bible reading, worship, or fellowship. Fasting meets resistance, though. If you invite people to join in a fast, there is a strong likelihood that you will hear some creative excuses for not participating. In fact, many churches completely avoid the subject or present it as little more than a noble exercise for Old Testament prophets, New Testament apostles, Jesus, or some wildly ascetic monks. They think that the ordinary Christian is not supposed to fast.

It is important to note, though, that Jesus expects His disciples to fast. In the passage at the top of this article, Jesus did not say, “If you fast.” He clearly said, “When you fast.” For a true disciple, the question is not whether you will fast or not. It is when and how you will fast.

What, exactly, is fasting? A simple definition is: fasting is to abstain from food and/or drink for spiritual purposes. It is not merely to skip a meal, but to consciously commit yourself to self-sacrifice so that you can more fully devote yourself to seeking the Lord.

When we fast, we subdue our physical urges so that our spiritual nature may grow stronger. All humans have several parts to our nature (body, soul, and spirit). We often nourish one part over the others. For example, I might sometimes devote so much attention to caring for my physical well-being that my spiritual life does not get the attention it serves. In fact, human nature being what it is, most of us are much more prone to cherishing our fleshly sides instead of the spiritual. When we fast, though, we put our spiritual needs first. This may be what Paul was speaking of when he wrote, “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others, I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). Some translations substitute words like “buffet,” “beat,” or “subdue” instead of discipline here.

The emphasis during a fast, then, is on spiritual growth, not on weight loss or other physical benefits. During a fast, a Christian should concentrate more attention on his spiritual and moral concerns, giving them higher priority in his life. The person who is fasting chooses to pray, study Scripture, or otherwise connect with the Lord at times when he or she would otherwise be eating. We sacrifice physical strength to learn how to lean on God’s spiritual strength. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:10, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Frequently, when people think of fasts, they envision 40 days and nights in the wilderness. Although it is true that Moses (Exodus 34:28), Elijah (1 Kings 19:8), and Jesus (Luke 4:1-2) all fasted in this way, they are the only people in Scripture to do so. None of them made a regular habit of such extensive fasts, either. Jesus went on only one 40-day fast, at the beginning of His public ministry. Elijah went on a 40-day fast at a crisis moment in his ministry and the history of Israel. Moses was the only one who went on two 40-day fasts, both of which were centered around receiving the Law from God. All of these fasts occurred under very unusual circumstances, during true crisis moments in salvation history. Most fasts in Scripture were of a much shorter duration, usually only one or two days.

Many, perhaps most, fasts in the Bible were performed by an entire group, such as the nation of Israel, an army, or a local church. It was not unusual for a spiritual leader to proclaim a fast, and for everybody under his authority to join in.

In addition to the different lengths of time for fasts, there are also different degrees of fasting in the Bible. Some were quite thorough. In many cases, people had only water; in other cases, they had neither food nor drink of any kind. Occasionally, a person or group would abstain from solid foods and drink only liquids.

In Daniel 10:2-3, we read how the prophet fasted for 21 days, abstaining from any “tasty food, meat, or wine. At that time, Daniel probably went on a strict diet of fruit, vegetables, grains, and water. This passage, along with Daniel 1:8-16, provides the biblical foundation for what is known as “the Daniel fast.” [For more information about the Daniel fast, see: Susan Gregory, The Daniel Fast (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2010), or visit her website at www.daniel-fast.com. You can find other excellent resources by searching for “Daniel fast” on any search engine.]

Although not strictly biblical, many traditional churches permit a lighter version of fasting wherein a person abstains from a specific food type during a period of fasting. For example, the Roman Catholic church urges its members to abstain from eating meat on Fridays; fish is permitted, however. During Lent, members may be encouraged to give up one food item. This can be a very good habit to pursue, especially for those who are otherwise uncomfortable or inexperienced with fasting.

When choosing this option of giving up a specific food item, I would urge three specific guidelines: (1) It should be food that you really enjoy. (2) It should be one that you will notice giving up. Do not “give up” something that you rarely eat and will not notice is missing from your diet. (3) Set a goal that is both realistic yet challenging. You should give up a food that you can realistically abstain from for a specific period of time, while ensuring that it involves at least a noticeable (not torturous) sacrifice.

Fasting should be distinguished from other forms of abstinence, which often serve as alternatives to fasting. Such form of abstinence have biblical foundation. For example, in 1 Corinthians 7:5, Paul gave instructions for married couples who decide to abstain from sexual relations for a mutually acceptable period of time, so that they may devote themselves to prayer. This advice could easily be extended to other kinds of leisure activities. Most American Christians would profit immeasurably from a television “fast”!

Finally, I believe that fasting should be a lifestyle choice for all Christians. Early Christians fasted to some degree on Wednesday and Friday, which contributed to the development of the season of fasting known as Lent. Although the New Testament never commands a specific time to fast, the principle of regular fasting is scriptural. Such practices, including both regular weekly fasts and periodic longer ones, would be a blessing to any Christian’s spiritual growth.

All Christians should commit themselves to this challenging means of spiritual growth. If you have a specific medical condition (such as diabetes), you should check with your doctor first. Even if you are unable to commit to an intensive fast, you can at least commit to a Daniel fast or a simple abstaining-from-one-food fast that a medical professional would approve.  (Note: A hearty appetite or lack of self-control is not a “specific medical condition”!)

It may also prove helpful to abstain from a favorite activity during your fast days. That way, you can dedicate much more of your time and energy to the Lord. Spend you free time studying God’s Word and praying. Fasting is a challenge, but for those who persevere, it is also a pathway to greater spiritual growth.

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Fellowship

“So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:41–47, NASB).

Fellowship is one of the church’s most vital functions. However, many Christians are unaware of the meaning or urgency of fellowship.

Some churches have almost no fellowship. People go to church, shake hands with the pastor as they exit the building after service, and go home. They spend little or no time with other church members until the next service.

Other churches enjoy a brief social time after service. They might provide coffee and refreshments in a social hall or other room after the service. Here, people can sit down and talk with their fellow church members. Whereas this is a vast improvement over churches that offer no fellowship, it is still insufficient.

Conversation inside a church building does not necessarily equal fellowship. I can easily discuss sports, television, music, current events, or the weather with people in the church building after service (with the obligatory cup of coffee in hand), but that does not make it fellowship.

The Greek word for fellowship is “koinonia.” It comes from a root word meaning “common,” and elsewhere in the New Testament it is translated as “contribution,” “participation,” or “sharing.” In each case, something is held in common. So, mindless chitchat or casual conversation about the weather and news does not equal fellowship. Fellowship begins when two or more people share their hearts, souls, innermost feelings and ideas, and struggles.

Scripture gives several indications of true fellowship. In Acts 2:44–45 we learn that the early Christians shared their possessions with one another. This practice was so complete that, a few chapters later, we read that there were no needy Christians. The wealthier Christians sold their possessions so that they could give the money to the poor (Acts 4:32–35)! Isn’t it strange that few ministers preach about that passage, especially in churches that proclaim the “prosperity Gospel”?

The basic lesson here is that the church should take care of its members. This care may be material or financial if a person is in need (especially if through no fault of their own), but the church should also provide emotional, social, and spiritual support for its members. The fellowship in a church is often compared to relationships in a natural family or, even more intimately, to the relationship between parts of a physical body. In fact, the church is also called “the family of God” or “the body of Christ.” Romans 12:4–5 says, “For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually, members one of another.”

Every human body has trillions of cells, comprising thousands of organs, muscles, bones, and other parts. Each of these works to help the others: the heart shares its blood with the rest of the body; the digestive tract shares its food with all other cells in the body; and the lungs share oxygen with the rest of the body.

The human body has certain parts that seem more vital, but they need the other parts as well. Paul writes that Christ is the head of his body (Colossians 1:18). One might think of some church leaders as the spinal column and nervous system: bringing messages from the head (Christ) to the entire body. Others are the church’s blood, heart, lungs, eyes, feet, and hands, fulfilling different functions to help the other parts. Just as an entire human body suffers when one of its parts is injured, ill, or destroyed, the entire body of Christ suffers when one member is unable to fulfill his or her role. When separated from the body, that church member suffers much like a severed bodily organ does.

This points to a very important function of fellowship. We gather together to share our spiritual gifts with one another. Every Christian has a unique mixture of spiritual gifts which he or she should use for the “common good” of the church (First Corinthians 12:7) to build it up (First Corinthians 14:12). God does not grant spiritual gifts so that the believer can serve himself, brag, or pretend that he or she is a spiritual giant. Instead, He pours out His gifts so that we can bless those around us. We should all seek the Lord’s guidance, so that we may know the gifts He has given us, and may use them to bless others.

Fellowship also enables us to receive encouragement from one another. Hebrews 10:24–25 shows that we should “consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.”

It is not easy to be a Christian. Sometimes we are tempted to give in to sin. Sometimes friends, family, or coworkers seek to discourage our walk with the Lord. Satan often tempts us with his demonic accusations. All of this happens, in addition to the ordinary problems that all people face. When we fellowship with other believers, we may tap into one another’s strength. The one who has walked through a particular valley before us can guide us along the way. The one who knows your secret sin can pray for you and share his own victories and struggles with you.

A final aspect of fellowship that comes to mind is correction and confrontation. Perhaps this is the reason many Christians do not like real fellowship: when everybody knows you, they know what you are doing wrong! According to the Bible, when we know a Christian is practicing sin, we have an obligation to restore that person (Galatians 6:1), which involves confrontation to encourage repentance (Matthew 18:20).

Fellowship removes Christianity from the realm of abstract ideas and forces it into practical reality. We cannot merely say we love our neighbors; in fellowship, we actually learn to love our neighbors, even though they may not be too lovable. If we are sinning, somebody with whom we fellowship may be aware of it, thus helping us to acknowledge and experience our need for confession, repentance and forgiveness.

Fellowship with other believers gives us a greater glimpse of God. When we confess our sins during private prayer, it is easy to gloss over them and pretend it is a trivial matter that does not affect God or anybody else. However, when we confess our sins to a brother or sister in Christ who loves us, we feel embarrassment about them; we see the hurt or grief of the other person; and we also experience their love, compassion, and forgiveness. God reveals Himself most fully in fellowship. This is why Jesus said, “Where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst” (Matthew 18:20)?

Fellowship does not “just happen.” It is easy for believers to hide in the house of God. We often need to make an effort to cultivate fellowship. It does not happen so much through programs. To achieve fellowship, we need to consciously cultivate relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ. Do not just go to church; bond yourself to other believers with whom you can connect as members of Christ’s body, both on Sunday morning in the house of the Lord, and throughout the week in everyday life.

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Daily Prayer for God’s Presence and Guidance

Christ in Gethsemane (Christus in Gethsemane),...

Image via Wikipedia

And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, [Jesus] departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed (Mark 1:35, ESV).

When one reads Mark’s Gospel, it is easy to notice the miracles and healings. Mark emphasizes action. He talks about what Jesus did, more than about what He said. In Mark 1:29–39, Jesus healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law and others, casting out demons and performing other miracles. Although Mark tells us that Jesus preached, he does not report much of what He said.

However, in the middle of the story Mark mentions another important aspect of Jesus’ life. Although He was a miracle worker and preacher, He was also a prayer warrior. There are many ways in which we can never hope to be like Jesus; He was God in human form and the Savior of the world, two of many things we can never become. However, He was also a man of prayer, and this is one aspect of Jesus’ personality we can all learn to imitate.

The idea of Jesus praying raises some tough questions for some people. Why would Jesus need to pray? If He needed anything, couldn’t He just perform His own little miracle to get it? Didn’t He already know all things? If He has all wisdom and power, isn’t it safe to assume that He did not need any help from anybody, even His heavenly Father? Such questions betray a misunderstanding about both Jesus and prayer.

Yes, Jesus is the Son of God and He is all-powerful and all-knowing. However, as part of the triune God, Jesus always worked with His Father and the Holy Spirit. He never ministered without them. Jesus’ very nature demanded close communion with the Father. Jesus received guidance and directions from His Father, and through the Father’s guidance was able to perform His mighty miracles.

It is no accident that Jesus was praying just before He told Peter that they needed to leave Capernaum and go to the nearby villages to preach (see Mark 1:36–38). Perhaps, during His time of prayer, the Father revealed that He must not stay in one town too long. There were so many towns, so many people in need of the Gospel, and Jesus had so little time in this world. Jesus knew it was time to move on because He had met with His Father. Furthermore, since Jesus received His itinerary from the Father through prayer, it was that much more difficult for people to distract Him from His mission and His divinely ordained schedule. Jesus received counsel and direction through prayer.

Many Christians, however, tend to treat prayer like the Home Shopping Network or a department store. We pray when we want to get something. If we are sick, experiencing financial difficulties, or dealing with other serious crises, we pray. If all is going well, God may not hear from some of us for several days or weeks. In some cases, we might not pray for months until a crisis erupts.

Yet, if we find Jesus praying often, don’t we need to pray even more? If we find Jesus getting up early in the morning and finding a quiet place to pray, don’t we need to do the same? Jesus prayed for His Father’s guidance. Likewise, we should make prayer a priority. Every one of us needs to set aside time to pray, as a first priority (not just when there’s “nothing better to do”) and ask God for direction and strength to overcome any challenges we may meet.

Perhaps the most familiar story about Jesus praying is when He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane shortly before He was betrayed (Luke 22:39–46). His plea was one of the most familiar prayer requests in the entire Bible: “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).

This should be our prayer as well. In Twelve Step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, the Eleventh Step is “[We] sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.” Not only is this excellent advice for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, but it is also an important lesson for Christians.

As we pray, our first priority should be communion with God. Particularly in evangelical and Pentecostal circles, we speak of having a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Relationships, particularly intimate ones, involve spending time together. In recent years, there has been a debate about whether “quality time” or a quantity of time is more important in fostering healthy families. When people started emphasizing quality time, it developed into an excuse for parents to spend long hours at work, devote little day-to-day time to their children, and then justify it by “making up for it” with “quality time” on a vacation. Recent studies, though, have generally shown that relationships are best fostered by a regular quantity of time. It is more important to spend regular time together when building a relationship, than to cram a lot of quality time in at sporadic intervals.

We should nurture our relationship with God through regular quantities of time as well. As we pray, we should make intimacy with God our primary goal. We should become keenly aware of God’s presence. We know He is with us! You should be so confident of His presence that, if somebody should ask how you can be so certain there is a God, you might be tempted to say, “How can I doubt Him? I just talked to Him this morning. He was right there in my room! Of course there is a God!” Let us pray, believing that God will grace us with His presence, because He will do it.

As we pray, God reveals His will for our lives to us. He sees the big picture that none of us can imagine, so we should be eager to know His will for us. Sometimes His will is not easy. He will call us out of our comfort zones. He will convict us of our sins and call us to repent. God’s will is usually not popular. He will frequently call you to choose between doing what is right and doing what is socially acceptable. This is not comfortable, but the eternal rewards far outweigh our momentary discomfort. That is why we also need to pray for the courage to carry out His will.

In the last year or two, I have resumed a concerted effort to wake up earlier in the morning. My alarm goes off around 5:30 AM, so that I can pray for at least a half hour before driving to work. I have noticed that the days that I spend the most time in prayer are usually my best days. The circumstances I face are not necessarily easier on those days. I might face the same workload, traffic, and other sources of stress, regardless of whether I pray or not. However, when I leave my house with the peace that comes only through prayer (Philippians 4:6–7), He gives me greater strength, wisdom, and patience to get through the day.

I invite you to take that challenge. Spend some quality time with God before you leave for work in the morning. Get up a little earlier (I admit, that is the hard part; the snooze button will beckon you) and read God’s Word before you leave. Ask God for wisdom, strength, courage, peace, and all the other spiritual blessings you need. Cast all your burdens, including the needs of those you love, on His broad shoulders so that you do not have to carry them all day long. Invite our Lord Jesus Christ to walk with you, guiding and directing you throughout the day. Invite the Holy Spirit to fill you with His divine presence so that you can make it through the day.

Categories: Bible meditations, Spiritual disciplines | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

How to Read and Study the Bible

Countless sermons and articles emphasize the Christian’s need to read and study the Bible and the blessings one can receive from God’s Word. Unfortunately, though, many Christians fail to receive such blessings because they do not know how to read the Bible. Some try to read through the entire Bible and began reading at Genesis 1, but give up within a few weeks because it takes too long.

As we approach Bible study, we would be wise to remember the profound counsel of this corny quip: “How does one eat an elephant? One bite at a time!” Reading the Bible should be a lifelong project for the Christian. Disciplined avid readers will be able to read through the entire Bible, from Genesis through Revelation, in about a year. Extremely ambitious ones will do it in a shorter amount of time: When I was new to the faith, I read through the Bible in about seven months. Since then, I have taken a more deliberate approach. Having read through the entire Bible on a few occasions, I now focus on shorter passages; my goal in Bible reading is quality of insight and personal application, instead of quantity of chapters.

This article will offer guidance and suggestions for reading and understanding God’s Word and applying its truths to everyday life. These guidelines will apply almost exclusively to the study of individual passages of Scripture. I do not specifically discuss topical studies, in which a reader examines verses from different parts of the Bible which are related via a common theme. However, my advice about interpreting Scripture and applying it to your life will still be helpful in a topical Bible study, which is really a series of interrelated “passage studies.”

First, you must have a good translation of the Bible to read. It must accurately translate the thoughts and ideas of God’s Word (which was originally given in Greek and Hebrew) into easy-to-understand English. I strongly recommend either the English Standard Version or the New American Standard Bible. The New International Version is also a reputable, reliable translation. The translators of these versions painstakingly examined ancient manuscripts of biblical books to discern what the author actually wrote and to express it in modern English, so that the average American can understand it.

Some Christians prefer older translations, like the King James Version. However, many readers (especially those who are new to the faith or to Bible reading) have trouble understanding its seventeenth-century vernacular; we are not accustomed to saying “thee,” “thou,” “whithersoever,” or other terms which have disappeared from our language. Make certain that you can understand your Bible; it is more important that you can understand and apply the Bible to your life, than that you sound “holy.”

Now that you have an accurate and understandable Bible in hand, you should have a plan for reading and study. Although we should allow the Holy Spirit to lead us in all things, especially study of His Word, He usually does not give us immediate clear direction to a specific Bible passage. Some Christians like to open their Bible at random and just start reading; or, they will read the first passage that jumps into their heads. Although this might be helpful from time to time (the Holy Spirit may direct us to a specific passage in a moment of crisis), it will not ensure that you will gain a thorough knowledge of Scripture. Many Christians who rely on these approaches tend to read a few favorite passages over and over again. You should seek a Bible reading plan that will direct you to diverse segments of the Bible, ideally one that will lead you to eventually read the entire Bible.

As I mention elsewhere in relation to prayer, you should set aside several times every day for Bible reading. Psalm 1:2 encourages us to meditate on God’s Word day and night. My “three spiritual meals” philosophy applies here as well. Just as we eat food at least three times per day, we would be blessed by spiritually “eating” God’s Word three or more times per day. See my article on “Finding Time for God,” where I mention the three spiritual meals concept.

Combine readings from different books of the Bible. Several churches, organizations, and ministries have devised Bible reading plans that will guide you from Genesis to Revelation within one year. However, many of these plans lead you directly from beginning to end, so you do not enter the New Testament until September. This is not conducive to a healthy spiritual diet.

A good Bible reading plan will effectively intersperse the Old and New Testaments. The Daily Office lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer provides, for most days, an Old Testament lesson, several Psalms (you essentially read through the psalms every few weeks!), a New Testament reading, and a reading from one of the four Gospels. Although it skips over a few passages (it avoids a number of the lengthy genealogies in the Old Testament, for example), it does offer a balanced mixture of Bible passages. It is also at times “season-sensitive”: the readings during Lent, the weeks between Easter and Pentecost, Advent, and the weeks following Christmas all relate to themes appropriate to the season. You read about the birth of Christ around Christmas, and about His death and resurrection around Easter.

Likewise, The One Year Bible divides the Bible into readings for each day of the year; each day’s reading includes passages from the Old Testament, New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs. While it covers the entire Bible (no passages are missed), it lacks the season-sensitive quality of the Book of Common Prayer. Instead of reading about the birth of Christ on December 25, you will probably read a passage from the Book of Revelation.

Halley’s Bible Handbook contains a chapter that assigns books of the Bible to each week of the year. One week you will read from the Old Testament; the next week you will read from the New Testament. Like The One Year Bible, it guides you through the entire Bible within one year, without forcing you to go eight or nine months without cracking the New Testament. This plan also assigns a book (or set of books, or large part of one of the longer books) to a week; it is the individual’s responsibility to decide how many chapters to read each day to meet his goal. As a result, Halley’s approach to reading through the Bible requires some extra planning on your part.

Devotional guides, such as Our Daily Bread or The Upper Room, offer more aid for Bible reading. These booklet-sized magazines (usually published quarterly) provide a short Scripture passage for each day, along with a one-page meditation or application about each passage. Some such devotional guides close with a suggested “starter” for prayer.

Select a plan, or combination of plans, that will suit your personal needs. If your church or ministry has a Bible reading plan, make sure to include it in your devotions. As a member of the Brotherhood of St. Joseph, I have taken vows to follow the Daily Office of Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer. In addition, I supplement my reading with passages from the BCP’s Sunday-worship lectionary and from other sources.

Pray for guidance and insight as you read. The Word of God requires spiritual discernment (First Corinthians 2:14–15). Therefore, we need to ask the Holy Spirit to teach us through His Word.

You should seek spiritual growth as you read. Do not read merely for entertainment, to learn facts, or to reinforce favorite doctrines. As you read, tell yourself, “God wants to speak to me through His Word. I need to hear what He wants to say to me.” Likewise, pray as the psalmist said, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; and See if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way” (Psalm 139:23–24).

Read the passage thoughtfully, and repeatedly if necessary. If it is a short passage, perhaps 10 verses or less, you might read it two or three times. If you are reading the Bible with a devotional guide, or a study Bible with notes and commentary at the bottom of the page, you might follow this order: read the passage from the Bible; read the devotional, notes, or commentary; and reread the passage. You may find it necessary to read the passage only once if it is lengthy. If you are reading a few chapters, pay close attention to the “big picture,” such as the flow of thought, context, and so on. Read deliberately. I generally try to look for perhaps one key idea to bring away from a passage each time I read it.

Interpret the Bible wisely. Many Christians go to one of two extremes when reading the Bible. Some people “spiritualize” everything they read in Scripture, without first seeking out the most natural meaning intended by the writer. They might focus so heavily on a possible symbolic meaning of a number, or how a color might symbolize an attribute of God, that they ignore the plain meaning of the text. Still others insist on interpreting every passage as literally as possible, even if the writer used a literary genre that relied heavily on symbolic language. For example, the Psalms are song lyrics or poems, and therefore use words in a way that would be unacceptable in prose. Some of the prophetic books, especially Revelation, used a literary genre known as “apocalyptic,” which demands a less literal interpretation. “Prophecy experts” who overlook this fact, and ignore the way that Revelation very often quotes or alludes to the Old Testament, have been guilty of some of the most embarrassing attempts at theology in our time.

Peter wrote, “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (Second Peter 1:20–21). Therefore, we must not try to read a message into a passage of Scripture. Instead, we should first try to draw out of it the natural meaning that the human author intended to convey (i.e., the most obvious meaning of the words, in light of their context in Scripture and in the writer’s time and culture). God has chosen to speak through people, and to express Himself within the confines of human language and communication. As a result, we should expect that He has chosen to follow the basic rules of language and communication. Some people interpret Scripture without considering the natural meaning of the human author; this is little more than a demonic or egotistical attempt to create a false god of one’s own making, twisted out of the words of the One True God.

This natural meaning can be discerned by considering questions such as the following:

  • What is the immediate context? What precedes this passage of Scripture? What follows it?
  • What is the time period and cultural context of the writer, and of the people in a Bible story? What was going on in the world at that time?
  • What is the situation? If it is a story, how did this come about? To whom is Jesus speaking? If it is a prophecy or one of Paul’s letters, what led the author to mention this?
  • What is the literary form or genre of this passage? As mentioned before, historical stories should be read differently from songs, poems, apocalyptic literature, and letters. When we read a Sunday newspaper, we read the comics from a different perspective than we read the main news stories and the editorials. In the same way, we should keep in mind that history, poetry, letters, and prophetic visions all serve different functions of communication.

Any “spiritual” meaning that is not grounded in this natural meaning could be inspired by the wrong spirit.

A resourceful reader might invest in good reference materials that will provide background information to help you study God’s Word. A good study Bible, Bible handbook, Bible dictionary, and commentary will give information about the culture, language, history, and other factors related to passages of the Bible. You should look for recent publications. Bible scholars have published many excellent reference materials throughout the centuries. However, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1948, and other archaeological finds since then, have multiplied our knowledge about Jewish culture and world events during the times of the Bible. While some nineteenth-century commentators had profound insight into Scripture, they did not have access to some of the background information we have now.

A few good study Bibles fulfill the roles of multiple reference materials. The NIV Study Bible and the Full Life Study Bible are two excellent resources that help explain the meaning and background of the Bible. They contain the Word of God at the top of the page, with explanatory notes and background information at the bottom. Cross-references are provided to direct the reader to related passages in the Bible. Both of these study Bibles, and many others that have come out in recent years, are very readable, so you do not need to be a Bible college graduate to understand them.

Having read and interpreted God’s Word, it might be helpful to write a one-sentence summary of the passage in your spiritual journal. What is God saying through this passage? Having figured out the meaning of the passage, personalize it. Ask God how this truth affects you individually. How does it affect your job? What does it say about your relationships with family, friends, and co-workers? Does it mention any sinful actions and attitudes that you must confess and repent of? Does it mention anything you should do more often? Develop a strategy for incorporating this passage’s guidance into your life. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you as you seek to apply the principles of God’s Word to your everyday life.

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Finding Time for God

One of the greatest challenges for Christians in our busy society is finding quiet time alone with the Lord. More distractions scream for our attention with each passing day. As I started writing this article, I received a Facebook alert as one of my online friends declared his love for his Blackberry. Ten years ago, “blackberry” was a fruit, not a cell phone with gazillions of “apps” to keep one occupied wherever he went. Social networking sites were likewise nonexistent. These days, such technology gives us the illusion of being connected to one another, but at the same time, they create the reality of relational distance from God.

High-tech wireless devices and websites are not the only things demanding our attention like never before. Many companies expect their employees to work in a state of non-stop multitasking, thereby eliminating even the opportunity to pray a silent one-minute petition to God between tasks. Many employees work overtime—sometimes without pay—to accomplish their tasks and keep their jobs. Parents of school-aged children chauffeur them to all sorts of sports-team practices and games, leaving few quiet afternoons or evenings at home. Many churches fill their calendars with so many events that the most committed members find it difficult to set time alone to meet with the Lord. In this article, I will offer some advice to help believers find time for God.

Recognize Prayer as a Priority

In the Gospel of Luke, we read the story of two sisters. Both of them loved Jesus, but he commended the way one showed her love for him over how the other one did so.

“Now as they were traveling along, He entered a village; and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home. She had a sister called Mary, who was seated at the Lord’s feet, listening to His word. But Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him and said, ‘Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.’ But the Lord answered and said to her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her'” (Luke 10:38–42, NASB).

How easy it is for Christians to be like Martha! Those who have ministry responsibilities in the church can relate to her. The church tends to glorify the “Marthas” in its midst. It seems as if some Christians measure one another’s spirituality not so much by how much time they spend praying and reading God’s word, but by how busy they are “doing things for the Lord.” Mary had chosen the most important way to relate to Jesus; she was the one who had chosen the “good part.”

The lesson is clear: Prayer and hearing from the Lord (especially study of his word) should take priority over ministry and other activity, no matter how urgent it may seem. If you are not meeting your deadlines, the solution is not neglecting prayer. If you are not able to keep up with your various responsibilities, time with God is not the area where you should make sacrifices. At times like this, the solution is not less prayer, but more prayer. As a matter of fact, if you are active in any ministry, prayer is the most important job you have in the church. Pastors must pray for the members of their congregations. Sunday school teachers must pray for their students. Church musicians should worship God throughout the week, so that it flows naturally during the church service. No matter what role you serve in the church, God calls you to pray. In fact, some of the most effective ministries seek prayer supporters even more zealously than they seek financial donors! That is how important prayer is to them.

Set Aside Time

Jesus in Pray

Jesus in prayer. Image via Wikipedia

Many mature Christians suggest that you should pray at least one hour per day. They cite Matthew 26:40, where Jesus asked his disciples why they could not tarry in prayer with him for one hour, shortly before he was betrayed and arrested. Many will cite the morning as the best time to pray. Personally, I make an effort to get up at 5:30 AM every weekday morning, so that I can spend at least 30 minutes praying before I leave for work. I will usually add one to three more prayer sessions throughout the day. Many great men of God, including Jesus himself, would pray in the morning.

There is no passage in the Bible that gives a strict command to pray first thing in the morning. Quite a few passages testify to the importance of praying in the morning, but many of those passages will mention other times of day for prayer. Perhaps the strongest command specifying when we should pray is First Thessalonians 5:17: “Pray without ceasing.” So, if morning prayers are a fantasy for you, do not lose heart. While many Christians are especially blessed during early-morning prayer, God will honor your prayers whenever you say them.

More important than the exact time is the priority we place on prayer. The biblical principle of first fruits is very helpful when making decisions about any area of spiritual stewardship, whether it be our treasures (money), talents, or time. The principle is known as “first fruits” because, for several Old Testament sacrifices, God commanded the Israelites to bring some of the first crops received during the harvest (Exodus 23:19; Deuteronomy 18:4). In fact, they were not supposed to eat any of the harvest until they had presented the first fruits as an offering (Leviticus 23:9–14).

Many Christians think the principle of first fruits applies only to their finances. They might say, “First I write my tithe check to the church; then I pay my bills and buy groceries.” However, first fruits is not just a financial budgeting guideline. It is a principle of giving God our highest-quality resources, including our time. Genesis 4:3–4 tells us that “Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.” God rejected Cain’s offering but accepted Abel’s. Many Bible teachers claim that God rejected Cain’s offering because it was not a blood sacrifice. They cite Hebrews 9:22, which says that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” However, that would assume that Cain and Abel were offering a sacrifice for sin, which Genesis does not specify. The Old Testament mandated several different kinds of offerings, and some had nothing to do with sin. In several kinds of sacrifices, plants would have been an acceptable offering.

The source of God’s displeasure is more obvious in the Hebrew than it is in many English translations, but if   we look closely, we can still see the major distinction between the sacrifices of Cain and Abel. Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. In other words, he chose the best and healthiest animals he could offer. He gave God the best he could. Cain, however, offered some of the fruits of the soil. Nothing special here: he probably grabbed some stuff at random. Maybe he gave God the things he did not want (like many people who donate to a thrift store or food pantry). Even if he did not give God his junk, he made no real effort to give his best.

When it comes to giving God your time, do you give him your best or just whatever you can find? Do you give God the best of your time, or do you pray whenever you get around to it? If you wait until you have “nothing better to do” before you pray, you will never develop a regular habit of prayer. You will never know the joy and blessedness of an intimate, growing relationship with Christ. There will always be another television show to watch, another ball game, or another gathering with friends that will keep you from praying.

Since first fruits is our best, morning may not necessarily be the ideal time for you to pray. While I am blessed by my morning prayers, sometimes my best times are at night. Over the last year or so, my morning prayer time has evolved into “marching orders from God”; I do not lift up too many of my petitions at that time, but I get my day off on a spiritual angle, and the Lord speaks to me through his Word and his Spirit in a way that sets the tone for my day. Nights, though, can be times for really deep prayer for me. Unhurried prayer, after the day’s duties have been fulfilled, can allow me to spend relaxed time meditating on God’s word, getting to know him better, and devoting ample time to prayer for the needs which burden me most.

What is most important, though, is that you treat your prayer time as a priority. Don’t wait to “find time” for prayer. Make time for prayer, and then guard it as if it matters. If you plan to pray when you get home from work in the evening, don’t sit down and turn on the television. Find your place of prayer and get started.

Several passages, including First Peter 2:2, compare prayer and Bible reading with food. Our souls need spiritual nourishment, just like our bodies do. A good goal would be to seek three spiritual meals per day, just like we eat three meals of food per day. This will reduce the risk of getting “run down” spiritually. The Book of Common Prayer provides prayers for four different times of the day: morning, noon, evening, and “Compline” (bedtime prayers). In addition, it is helpful to set aside “spiritual snack” prayer times: praying or meditating on scripture during times when we are not otherwise mentally preoccupied. Sometimes, I will spend a few minutes with God while driving, or during a coffee break at work, and so on.

Your primary prayer time should be treated with the same urgency you would ascribe to other high-priority aspects of your schedule. Think about it this way: Do you skip work just because your favorite television show is on, or because you would rather go shopping? Probably not. Well then, why should we show more respect to a human boss, than to the Creator and Lord of the entire universe?

Set aside a time and place where you will not be easily distracted. Many people prefer morning prayers because there are fewer distractions in the morning: very rarely will someone call me on the phone at 7:00 AM! A place of prayer is important too. Usually, I like to say my morning prayers in a spare room in my apartment (at one time it was my son’s bedroom, but now that he is grown up and starting a family, it has become my “prayer closet”). Find a place where you can spend some time alone with God, with few distractions.

Come Prepared

Finally, come ready to both talk to and hear from God. I keep a prayer list handy, specifying people and circumstances that I am praying for. I also keep my Day-Timer handy. It provides two purposes. First, I keep a list of Bible readings for each day in it. Second, if I start thinking of things I need to do, I can scribble them down very quickly and move along. Before I started doing that, one of Satan’s most effective distractions was to make me obsess about things I need to do. Now if, during my prayer time, I think of something I need to do, it is usually God’s directive for addressing one of the needs I have prayed about! The power of demonic distraction is gone.

Most importantly, bring your Bible. Prayer is not just a time to tell God what you want. It is a time to ask God what he wants to tell you. Usually, he will speak through his word before he speaks in any other way. Prayer is a dialogue with God, not a monologue with the air.

Conclusion

Most of the guidelines above are really basic principles of time management. Many people allow time to become their master. They surrender to temporal passivity, and allow circumstances to dictate how they spend their time. Good time managers recognize the need to set priorities. You must choose to allocate time for the things that are most important to you. The Bible tells us that a wise disciple of Jesus will “redeem the time,” making the most of it (Ephesians 5:16). This begins by setting aside time to commune with God. Then, you need to allocate time for the important responsibilities of your life. When you manage your time properly, you can enjoy your leisure time with peace of mind, knowing that you have not squandered an irreplaceable commodity.

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Lent: A Time of Renewal

Ash Wednesday, which falls on March 9 this year, begins the season of the church calendar known as Lent. Many Christians think of Lent as a time of fasting. We may give up a favorite food or hobby. In some churches, people give up eating meat on Fridays during Lent (some churches urge their members to give up meat on Wednesdays as well at this time). However, Lent is not just about fasting. It should not be a season for meaningless ritualized self-denial, but a time when we renew our dedication to Christ. This is a prime time for strengthening our devotion to Christ so that we can walk with him throughout the year.

In the early church, the 40 hours preceding dawn on Easter Sunday were set aside for fasting, to commemorate Jesus’ time in the tomb. This eventually led to the 40-day fast that we now know as Lent. This time period is associated with Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, when he had fasted for 40 days and 40 nights (Matthew 4:2).

In most Western churches (including the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches that observe Lent), the 40 days include only weekdays and Saturdays. Sundays are always considered “feast days” (in celebration of Christ’s resurrection), so fasting is not required on those days.

Easter has traditionally been a prime date for the church to baptize new believers. In earlier centuries, new converts were usually baptized on Easter. Lent served as a time to prepare for baptism, and the Lenten fast was a significant part of that preparation. For mature believers, it is a good opportunity to renew our baptismal vows or reflect on the significance of our new life in Christ. So, even though it focuses on our sinfulness, mortality, and need for a Savior, it should remind us of our new life in Christ and the ways that we are being transformed from glory to glory.

Since the second century, many Christians on Ash Wednesday have received ashes, in the shape of a cross, on their foreheads. This reminds us that we are created from the dust of the earth, and that we will return to dust, since “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Ash Wednesday reminds us that we needed a savior to take away the penalty for our sins. Lent reminds us to deny ourselves and take up our cross if we wish to follow Jesus (Matthew 16:34).

It is true that Lent can become a meaningless ritual for some people. Many people give up things that are not important to them. They may give up a food that they enjoy but will probably not miss. For example, I like potato chips…when they are around. However, since I do not buy them too often, I might go weeks without eating any. This would not be a real Lenten fast for me. That might not be as silly as giving up something you do not even like, but it still would not be a genuine fast. There should be some significant sacrifice involved.

On the other hand, we must be careful about legalism in this regard. We are not saved by observing Lent, and Lent does not in and of itself make one Christian better than another. Although Lent can be a powerful way to seek personal revival and renewal in our walk with the Lord, it is not the only way by any means. A Christian who goes on a radical fast during Lent, but neglects his relationship with Christ the rest of the year, is not going to achieve spiritual maturity. Lent is a great time to seek a closer relationship with the Lord, but we must continue to seek that relationship after Easter and throughout the year.

The following are a few suggestions for a meaningful Lent:

First, make your Lenten fast meaningful. Give up a food or activity that will be a real sacrifice. I drink a lot of coffee, so on several occasions I gave that up during Lent. A couch potato might give up watching television for 40 days. Perhaps it will become a permanent lifestyle change. That is not the main goal, though. The goal is to give something up so that we can follow Christ more closely.

A helpful Scripture verse in this regard is Hebrews 12:1-2: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and the sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (ESV, emphasis added).

Note that this passage calls us to lay aside both weights and sin. These are two different things. Christians should always be ready to lay aside a sin. If it is a sin (disobedience to a clear command of God, especially spelled out in his Word), we should give it up immediately and permanently. That is not a fast; that is repentance. We should not wait until Ash Wednesday and start again after Easter. However, some things might be a weight on our walk with the Lord, even if they are not necessarily sinful. Many people watch too much television. The nature of the programs may not be bad. They may not be watching vulgar or ungodly programming. But, they might be watching too much television. Television might start to take priority over God and family for them. It is a weight on their walk with Christ. If you have a weight on your relationship with him, maybe Lent would be a good time to see if you can live without that weight, and to find out what your life would be like if you spent that time serving Christ.

If you choose to fast from a particular food, choose something that will be some sort of realistic sacrifice. OK, maybe you know you will fail if you try to give up coffee for Lent. Maybe chocolate or donuts are more realistic goals for you.

If you are healthy enough, maybe you can consider a more strict fast. Perhaps you may decide to abstain from all solid food for a 24-hour period. Or, you can consider giving up eating anything between breakfast and dinner once or twice per week. One option is a “Daniel fast,” named after the prophet Daniel in the Old Testament. While not an absolute “no-food” fast, a Daniel fast involves abstaining from all animal products (no meat or dairy) and sweets, and drinking only water.

I would personally advise against going on a straight 40-day absolute fast without food. Yes, I know Jesus, Moses, and Elijah went on such fasts, but those were unique circumstances. Most of us are not preparing to die for the sins of humanity or begin writing the Bible. Unless you have received a clear word from the Lord that you should go on such a fast, do not do it. Even if you do receive such a word, seek counsel from a mature Christian leader (a pastor, or another mature believer who will have the wisdom to tell you whether or not you are hearing from God) and a health care practitioner.

Lent should not be just a time to give something up. During your fast, find ways to add spiritual disciplines or activities to your life. If you have never set aside a consistent time for daily prayer, Lent is an excellent time to begin. It would also be a good time to join a small-group Bible study.

During the Lenten fast, devote some time to self-examination and reflection. Pray that the Lord would point out to you areas where you need to grow. If he brings a certain sin to the surface (including either a sinful habitual activity, a bad habit, or an attitude that displeases him), bring it before him in repentance and confession. Seek God’s guidance and help to find victory over and deliverance from this problem area.

Whatever you do, remember that Lent is only a small fraction of the year, and it is not the sum total of your spiritual growth. Allow Lent to be a time to develop new, healthier habits and activities which will produce growth in your faith, and continue to put them into practice throughout the year. Let Lent be a time of new beginnings for you.

Categories: Spiritual disciplines, Spiritual reflections | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

Unceasing Devotion

In First Thessalonians, Paul wrote to a church that eagerly awaited Christ’s return. The church in Thessalonica had sprung up suddenly when Paul preached there. Persecution arose shortly thereafter, and Paul had to flee to Berea. In spite of persecution, the church grew. The members struggled, enduring hardships and wondering what will happen to the church’s deceased members when Christ returns. They loved the Lord, but they needed reassurance that their faith was not misguided.

Today, our society can create confusion for Christians as well. Legislators pass laws in defiance of God’s edicts, and judges “legislate from the bench” in opposition both to God’s law and our nation’s Constitution. The media depict Christians as a flock of bigoted, narrow-minded, ignorant fanatics; many of our friends and co-workers are brainwashed to believe these stereotypes. As we await Christ’s second coming, we must be prepared to face whatever challenges may come. Outright persecution may arise. Religious freedom is gradually disappearing, even in America, despite the First Amendment. Our nation’s fountain of prosperity seems to be drying up. We need to learn how to follow the Lord so that we may not falter in hard times. We also need to wait patiently in hope for the return of our Lord.

How shall we live and act as we prepare for Jesus’ second coming? A familiar passage in First Thessalonians 5:16–18i provides some insight:

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

This can look like three separate commandments. However, the passage bears a parallel structure, much like the Hebrew poetry found in the book of Psalms. This parallelism suggests that this passage is one command in three parts. To follow God’s will for us, we must rejoice, pray, and give thanks continually.

These three attitudes work together. When we pray, we give thanks, and such thanksgiving brings us joy. Such joy encourages us to pray some more, increasing our reasons to give thanks. Prayer, thanksgiving, and rejoicing become a cycle.

The most significant message here is that we should continually worship God. The emphasis is on the continual nature of this command. In the original Greek, these three adverbs—”always,” “without ceasing” (or “unceasingly”), and “in all circumstances”—appear before the verbs. Paul emphasizes the continual nature of these actions. This passage does not encourage us to rejoice occasionally, pray periodically, and give thanks on the fourth Thursday in November. We should do these things continually. They should be more than activities: they should be part of our very character.

That can be difficult. It is easy to rejoice when your favorite sports team is winning, your checking account balance keeps growing, and you have a productive day at work. It is not as easy, though, when your favorite sports team is on a prolonged losing streak, your checking account balance approaches $0, and work equals drudgery. If we cannot accomplish God’s will for us in Christ Jesus at these times, though, how will we fare during full-fledged government-sponsored persecution?

Galatians 5:22 tells us that joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Spiritual fruit grows from spiritual seed. How do we grow joy? By keeping our eyes on spiritual blessings. In Matthew 5:11–12, Jesus said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Elsewhere, Jesus told his disciples to rejoice, not because of the supernatural power he gave them, but because their names were recorded in heaven (Luke 10:20). Therefore, we grow eternal joy by reminding ourselves of our eternal rewards.

We can get so addicted to this world that we forget about heaven. We may get dangerously comfortable here. If Jesus were to ask our permission to rapture us into heaven tonight, many of us may balk because of all the things we would have to leave behind! “Lord, I need my TV; I never miss an episode of ‘American Idol.'” “You mean to tell me there’s no football in heaven? What am I supposed to do on Sunday afternoon there?” “I’m still making payments on that car! I can’t leave it here!” Perhaps if we truly considered our heavenly treasures, and all that awaits us there, we would not cling so tightly to the things we have here.

Perhaps that is why Christians in some Third World countries receive the word of God with such enthusiasm. They are not enslaved by possessions. They count themselves blessed if they eat enough to stay healthy, own two changes of clothing, and have a roof over their heads (even if that roof is made out of mud or tin). Their only treasure is whatever they are storing up in heaven. They realize just how temporal earthly pleasures are.

Praying without ceasing is central to rejoicing and giving thanks. Unfortunately, it is easy to make excuses to disobey this command. There are times when conscious prayer might hinder us from fulfilling our other duties. As an editor, when I am working on authors’ proofs, I need to concentrate on the pages in front of me. Most of us encounter similar circumstances, where our full attention must be directed to a task at hand. However, this should not become an excuse for spiritual laziness.

Are you at least consistent in prayer? Do you pray every day? Do you set aside time for prayer and then stick to it, or do you wait until you have nothing else to do before praying? In the Old Testament, the Israelites were often commanded to offer their first fruits to God. In other words, they sacrificed to him first. Likewise, we should set aside time for prayer as a top priority. If we wait until there is nothing else to do, we will never pray until we are in a crisis.

Perhaps many of our lives are too cluttered. It is difficult to pray while listening to the radio or your IPod. It is even harder to pray while watching television. We need to decide whether prayer or worldly pleasures are more important for us.

Prayer is our spiritual lifeline. We need constant spiritual protection. In First Peter 5:6–9, we read the following:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.

Satan prowls as a vicious predator seeking souls to devour. Everything can be flowing smoothly in your life. You can be walking in victory. You might feel like you have finally overcome that addiction or life-controlling sinful habit. Suddenly and unexpectedly, life throws you a major crisis. In the midst of that stress, you are tempted in your weakest area. Maybe that sin, which you thought you had overcome, suddenly crops up as an overwhelming urge. If you have not tapped into the Lord’s power through prayer, you will be at Satan’s mercy until you call on the Lord. By the way—Satan has no mercy.

Remember to give thanks in all circumstances. If we pray continually, thanksgiving will flow. It is hard to thank God in hard times. However, when we recognize that in all things God is working for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purposes (Rom. 8:28), we can thank him for what he is doing, even if we are not currently comfortable in our circumstances.

Let us take these exhortations to heart. Rejoice always, even when you should feel like crying. Pray without ceasing, especially when you feel like God is ignoring your situation. Give thanks in all circumstances, even if you are not sure what God is doing. You may not see the blessing now, but if you remember that God loves you and is in control of all situations, you can rest confident in the hope that he will produce a good outcome in your circumstances.

Most importantly, remember that God is the One who will sanctify you and declare you blameless. His power strengthens us. His love encourages us. His guidance leads us. His Holy Spirit seals us. He holds us in His hands, and he will not let go of us. We are precious in his sight, so he will preserve us against any trial as we draw closer to him.

iScripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Spiritual disciplines, Spiritual reflections | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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