Spiritual disciplines

Sacrifices of Praise

“Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (First Thessalonians 5:16-18; all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible).

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Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks. Praise God in all circumstances. If you have been a Christian for any length of time, you have heard these words of counsel. Maybe you have given this advice to others. It sounds like a few simple steps to become a spiritual giant.

That is not how Paul meant it. This was not advice for prosperous people with great health, social standing, high-paying jobs, and a comfortable lifestyle. This was written for people facing persecution. Some Thessalonians probably wondered if God had abandoned them. These were the people whom Paul urged to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in every circumstance.

The Thessalonian church had a brief but colorful history before Paul wrote his two letters to it. It was formed when Paul visited the city, with his partner Silas, on his second missionary journey. Not long before, they had been imprisoned in Philippi (Acts 16:16-40). Their ministry in Thessalonica got off to a good start: Paul preached in the local synagogue, and several people received the good news. Soon thereafter, though, persecution broke out against the young church, and the new Christians persuaded Paul and Silas to flee for their lives to Berea (Acts 17:1-10).

The church continued to grow, but persecution continued. Furthermore, false teaching arose in the church as some preachers claimed that the second coming of Jesus had already occurred. Some scholars think they were teaching that Jesus was not literally coming back and that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was His “second coming.” It would be easy to lose heart.

Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks. Even when times are hard. Even when you are suffering. Even when tempted to think God has forgotten about you. Do not give up.

I recently published my wife’s healing testimony on this site. In that, she shared how she had developed a habit of “memorizing scripture about healing, spending time praising God, thanking Him, and praying.” While her church was having a prayer meeting devoted to her healing, she was at home “worshipping and praying while listening to praise music.”

We might be tempted to think that 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 is a message to act upon when life is going well. That is not correct. It is easy to be happy when life is going well; rejoicing takes effort when sickness controls your life. It is easy to pray regularly when God seems to be taking care of you; it is difficult when marital difficulties and financial problems linger for years. It is easy to give thanks when your refrigerator and bank account are overflowing; it takes a lot of effort when you do not know how you will get your next meal or feed your children.

A statue of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus did not give in to despair or depression, but He prayed fervently during the hardest night of His life. Statue at the Malvern Retreat House, Malvern, PA. Photo by Michael E. Lynch.

Yet, this is when 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 becomes a power passage. This is when it becomes spiritual warfare. The real blessing and real spiritual power are when we follow these instructions when our circumstances and emotions tell us it is time to quit.

There are times when it is easy to get angry at God. Do not deny it. If you are angry, tell Him so. Feel free to yell at Him. Tell Him how furious you are. Tell Him how you really feel. Be honest. Be brutal. God knows how you feel. In fact, the Book of Psalms has several prayers/songs that are perfect for times like this. David and the other writers did not avoid expressing their anger, fear, or dismay in their songs and prayers. Jesus quoted Psalm 22 on the cross when He cried out, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46). He probably recited the entire psalm, including its expression of faith at the end (Psalm 22:25-31). When we bring our burdens to God—even when we think He is the burden—He takes our cares from us and brings comfort, hope, and healing.

No matter what happens, do not avoid Him. No matter how angry you are, God is big enough to handle it. He is also merciful enough to forgive you.

When your life hits bottom, it may be at that point that you will realize that God is all you have to hold onto. No matter what you are going through, hold onto Him with all that is within you. He will hold onto you with all of His power.

Rejoice always, and soon your joy will not just be an act of the will; it will be genuine and unstoppable. Pray without ceasing, and eventually, it will flow as you see God turning your life around. In everything give thanks: Before you know it, you may realize that you have had reasons to be thankful all along.

Scripture often urges us to offer up a sacrifice of praise to God (Hebrews 13:15; Psalm 50:23). Sacrifices can hurt. True faith worships God not only when it is easy, but even more so when it is a sacrifice—when we choose to worship God when it would be easier to ignore Him.

I would like to hear from you. How do you worship God in hard times? What helps you to worship Him when it is not easy to do so? Share your thoughts or suggestions by clicking the “Leave a comment” link below.

Copyright © 2021 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Spiritual disciplines | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thomas Aquinas on Prayer

Stained glass window at St. Joseph Catholic Church (Somerset, OH) depicts Thomas Aquinas conversing with the crucified Christ. Photo by Nheyob, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

“It is clear that he does not pray, who, far from uplifting himself to God, requires that God shall lower Himself to him, and who resorts to prayer not stir the man in us to will what God wills, but only to persuade God to will what the man in us wills” (St. Thomas Aquinas).

quoted from Mark Water, The New Encyclopedia of Christian Quotations (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000).

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was a Catholic priest, scholar, theologian, and philosopher. His masterpiece, the Summa Theologia, is considered one of the most influential works in Western thought. Many churches commemorate him on January 28.

The quote above provides timeless guidance for all Christians as we examine our motives in prayer. Do I seek to draw closer to God by allowing Him to lift me higher spiritually, or do I try to bring Him down to my level? Do I ask to know God’s will? Do I seek wisdom and courage from Him to do what He desires? Or, do I decide what I want to do, without considering God’s will, and then ask Him to bless my self-centered choices?

“Lord, teach us to pray…” (Luke 11:1).

Share your thoughts about prayer by clicking the “Leave a comment” link below.

Copyright © 2021 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

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

Ash Wednesday: Rules or Relationship, Faith or Fellowship

I was a young Christian when I attended college in the mid-1980s. I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior following my freshman year, in the summer of 1984. During my senior year, 1986–87, a hall-mate in my dorm asked me once, “So, I hear that you’re a born-again Christian? What does that mean? Does that mean you’re not allowed to drink or smoke or have sex?”

Cross of ashes on a believer’s forehead. Photo by Jennifer Balaska (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons).

I replied, “Actually, I’m allowed to do everything that God allows you to do!” For a few brief seconds, I enjoyed the slightly confused look on his face.

“To be born again means to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” I continued, probably quoting John 3:3 while sharing some other details about the Gospel. “Because I have a relationship with Jesus, I want to know His will and do it. He has forgiven my sins and I want to honor Him by trying to be more like Him.”

God’s kingdom extends to all. The greatest difference between Christ’s followers and others is that Christians recognize that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. We are forgiven, and we follow Him.

Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent in many churches. The season lasts 40 days, plus Sundays, culminating in Easter. Many Christians will receive ashes in a cross shape on their foreheads, as a reminder that “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Those who observe Lent will fast during the 40 days: some may give up a favorite food, beverage, or activity. Catholics and some members of other churches may give up meat on Wednesdays and Fridays.

For those who are observing Lent: Do not let it become a season of “Does that mean you’re not allowed….” Let it be a season of renewal in your relationship with Jesus. Yes, give up those cookies, if that’s what you feel God is leading you to do. But, do not stop there. Figure out how you can use this time to enhance your relationship with Christ.

One of the ministries in my church is hosting a series of “Life in the Spirit” seminars during Lent. This made me think: How can I allow the Holy Spirit to more clearly direct me? How can Lent become a time when I become more in tune with the leading of the Holy Spirit and less driven by habit or routine? How can I hear more clearly from the Holy Spirit?

This leads me to one of my goals in Lent. I have developed a routine of praying at the computer: I have my online Bible open in one tab, the Book of Common Prayer open in another. It can be easy and convenient to have everything I need right in front of me.

Unfortunately, this convenience can lead to distraction. It is too easy to open another web browser that goes directly to Facebook. My email client will keep popping alerts onto my screen. This Lent, the computer stays in sleep mode during my prayer times. I still have a few “ancient” Bibles from the 20th century, printed on paper with actual covers and binding (OK, one or two have lost their covers!), along with an equally-old copy of the Book of Common Prayer. Neither of these artifacts from the last millennium give email alerts or social media links. This will avoid the temptation to allow my prayers to be distracted by less important things. It is rude to stare at your computer screen when a person in the same room is telling you something important. Could it be just as rude, perhaps, to wander off to Facebook and email while talking to God or, even worse, when He is trying to speak to you?

Lenten fasts and practices should be personally meaningful and relevant. God may be calling you to do something very different from what He is calling others to do. I have shared some advice regarding Lenten fasts here and here.

Ask God: “Is there anything I can try to do differently in Lent? Should I pray differently? Should I spend more time in Bible study? Should I find ways of serving You that might challenge me to step out of my comfort zone?”

Lent, like the rest of the Christian life, is not primarily about what you are allowed to do. It is about who God is in your life. May this be a time when you invite Him to claim a greater role in your life.

Copyright © 2020 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons, Spiritual disciplines | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Spirit of Truth and Scripture Memorization

“But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26; all Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated).

Jesus’ Upper Room Discourse. Painting by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319), public domain, via Wikipedia Commons.

During the night before He was crucified, Jesus gave one of His longest recorded teachings, “The Upper Room Discourse,” which appears in John 14–17. It contained His final instructions before death for His disciples, and one of its key themes was the role of the Holy Spirit in the disciples’ lives. Jesus had taught His disciples for three years. After He was gone, His Holy Spirit would continue that work. He would teach the disciples “all things.” Some of that teaching would inspire some of them to write the New Testament. Since then, the Holy Spirit continues to teach us.

An important aspect of the Holy Spirit’s teaching is that He brings Christ’s words to our remembrance. Remembrance means that one recalls something they had already learned. We have to hear God’s Word before the Holy Spirit can bring it to our remembrance. This is why a committed Christian should read the Bible daily. Perhaps a verse of Scripture may seem unimportant while we are reading. Later, though, it may take on a life of its own as a problem arises and the Holy Spirit reminds us of that verse. “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63). The Word of God does not lie dead in the pages of a book. It is not a lifeless set of thoughts and ideas. It is spirit and life. It imparts life to us as we need it. When problems and temptations arise, the Holy Spirit will bring the Scriptures that we have read, meditated upon, and heard to our remembrance. He will show them how they relate to our circumstances and how God wants us to respond.

One of the first verses I memorized after becoming a Christians was Proverbs 17:22:

“A joyful heart is good medicine,
but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.”

Having suffered depression for much of my life, verses like this are lifelines. I will not claim that I am totally healed of depression, only that it is in remission. If I am not careful, I can slip back into self-destructive thought patterns. At times, I may be tempted to wallow in the mire of negativity. The Spirit, speaking through the Word, will remind me to pursue a joyful heart. Get outside! Go for a walk! Listen to worship music! If that does not work, find someone who has an encouraging personality to spend time with.

During a particularly difficult time in my life, I wrote 50 or more Bible verses on index cards to carry with me. Some spoke of the joy of the Lord; others spoke of God’s promises to His children; still others reminded me of who I am in Christ. I would pull the cards out and read one whenever I had a chance. Stopping for a red light became an opportunity to hear from the Holy Spirit. Eventually, those verses would come to my mind whenever I needed them.

Those of you who struggle with depression or other emotional illnesses may try the same approach. Go to author Neil T. Anderson’s website at https://ficm.org/free-downloads/. Scroll down to “Truth About Me.” Download the PDF file. Memorize and meditate upon the Bible verses that are listed. Let those words seep into your soul. Then, the Holy Spirit will bring those words to your remembrance as you need them. You may try a similar approach for whatever temptation or besetting sin causes you the most difficulty. There are similar resources available with Bible verses about other life-controlling problems. Meditate on the Word of God so the Spirit of God can bring it to your remembrance when you need it.

Copyright © 2019 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Revelation, Revelation and Scripture, Spiritual disciplines | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Spiritual Warfare XVI: Perseverance and Watchfulness

{Pray} at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak (Ephesians 6:18–20; all Scripture quotations from the ESV unless otherwise indicated).

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Jesus’ life was marked by persevering watchful prayer, as illustrated in this statue representing Him in the Garden of Gethsemane. Photo taken by Michael E. Lynch at the Malvern Retreat House, Malvern, PA.

Attitude matters as we pray in the Spirit. As we saw in the previous post, we must remain thankful even as we ask God to do something new. Sometimes, the answer to prayer does not come immediately. As we engage in prayerful spiritual combat, we must persevere and keep alert:

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you…. Brothers, pray for us (I Thessalonians 5:16–18, 25).

(I included verse 25 here to remind the readers about the importance of praying for our spiritual leaders.) Is it possible to pray too much? According to I Thessalonians 5:17, the answer is “no.” In fact, it seems that few of us can pray enough. In recent years, as the Lord has led me more deeply into a ministry of prayer and intercession, I find that my prayer list keeps growing. There is always something and somebody to pray for. Sometimes, particular needs and burdens can become so overwhelming that my mind can become obsessed with them. There is only one solution: keep praying. Philippians 4:6–7 reminds us that we should pray if we feel anxious. If you think it is something to worry about, you should pray.

A subtle lie persists among some Christians who claim that we should pray only once for a need. They believe we should claim God’s promise, believe we have received it, and never pray for it again. They assume that, if we pray a second time, we are showing unbelief. There is simply no biblical basis for this claim. Prayer persists. We can see this in an Old Testament passage, which illustrates the spiritual battle that often coincides with earthly circumstances. After the prophet Daniel had prayed and fasted for 21 days, an angel appeared:

Then he said to me, “Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words. The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia… (Daniel 10:12–13).

The answer to Daniel’s prayer had been dispatched on Day One. However, “the prince of the kingdom of Persia” (apparently a demonic principality) withstood the angel for 21 days. While Daniel persisted in prayer, an unseen spiritual battle raged. This is why Jesus told His disciples “that they ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). God is able, eager, and willing to answer speedily. Are we willing to contend in spiritual battle on His behalf until the answer to our prayers is manifested? When Jesus returns, will He find this kind of persevering faith on the earth (Luke 18:8)?

Being alert in prayer is related to perseverance. Paul wrote, “Keep alert with all perseverance” (Ephesians 6:19). We need to keep our spiritual eyes open, watching to discern the spiritual climate. Where is God moving in our lives and our world? Where is Satan seeking to interrupt God’s will? What are the great needs to advance God’s kingdom right now?

One Latin word for watchfulness, wakefulness, or alertness is “vigilia,” from which we derive our English word “vigil.” A vigil often refers to an extended period of prayer. Many monastic orders wake up in the middle of the night for a prolonged period of prayer, beginning around 2:30 AM. Some churches may use the word “vigil” in a less-formal sense for a prolonged period of watchful prayer.

Sometimes, we need a vigil. We occasionally need to devote extra time to intense prayer for a situation. God may call us to wakeful, watchful focus on the needs of His people and the circumstances of His world. A devoted spiritual warrior will be
committed to such vigilance.

As we clothe ourselves in the whole armor of God and take up the sword of the Spirit, God will lead us to devote our lives to prayer. The battles we face are too great for normal solutions. We need to come against our unseen enemy with the supernatural power that comes only from God. Let us use that power by praying in the Spirit.

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

 

Categories: Spiritual disciplines, Spiritual Warfare | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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