Spiritual disciplines

 
 

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.

 

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Spiritual Warfare XV: Thanksgiving, Prayer, and Spiritual Warfare

{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 ESV unless otherwise indicated).

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Image from pxhere.com. Published under a Creative Commons 1.0 Public Domain license.

As we pray in the Spirit, our attitude matters. Although one can list a host of proper attitudes for prayer (submission to God’s will, obedience, forgiveness of others, faith, and so on), one is especially important to mention in the context of spiritual warfare: thanksgiving.

Supplication often leads us to focus our attention on a problem. We pray for more finances because we cannot pay our bills. We pray for healing because we are ill. Financial problems, illness, strife, or other problems can easily become the center of our attention. The very attack of Satan—yes, even Satan himself—can suddenly become our focus. Prayer should not focus on Satan. It should focus on God and His goodness and against Satan and his attacks. Thanksgiving brings God back into our focus.

Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak (Colossians 4:2–4).

Even as we intercede on behalf of others, we pray with thanksgiving. The command to connect prayer and worship with thanksgiving occurs several times in the New Testament:

{Be} filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ… (Ephesians 5:18–20).

{Do} not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:6–7).

These are just a few examples. Thanksgiving is essential to prayer. Yet, sometimes, it is not easy. Perhaps we need to know how to find reasons to be thankful. Sometimes, it is tempting to merely thank God that “It could have been much worse.” While that is often true, we usually need more encouragement than that when in the midst of battle.

We can thank God for what He has done in the past. If your current dilemma is a physical illness, you can thank God for times He has healed you in the past. If it is a financial crisis, you can thank Him for times He has provided in the past. If it is a problem with a relationship, you can thank Him for the good relationships and positive people He has placed in your life.

Next, we can thank God for who He is. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). The God Who has answered prayer in the past—or may even have blessed you when you did not pray—has not changed. He is the same loving, merciful, forgiving, all-powerful, all-knowing, and always present Lord and Father. He is always able and willing to bless, preserve, save, heal, restore, and empower His children. You can thank Him for being Who He is. As the psalmist says,

For the Lord is good;
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations (Psalms 100:5).

This is praise not so much for what He has done for us, but for Who He is. We can trust Him because He is now and always will be faithful, loving, and good. Keep thanking Him for Who He is. If we forget how good God is, Satan will have the upper hand in our lives. To win our victories in spiritual battle, we must remember that the Lord is good, His steadfast love endures forever, and that His faithfulness never ends.

Next, we can thank Him that He is able to accomplish what we ask Him to do. If you are in a financial crisis, you can thank God that He is able to meet your needs. You can thank Him that He is able to heal you when you are sick.

Finally, we can thank Him for His promises. God has promised to answer certain prayers for His people:

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him (James 1:5).

God has promised to provide wisdom to those who ask Him for it by faith.

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you (Matthew 6:33).

Can you believe that promise? Are you willing to believe that God can meet your needs? Will you thank Him in advance that He has promised to do so, and then thankfully pray and trust until He brings it to fruition?

Life can bring discouragement and disappointment. As we fix our eyes on God, learn to give Him thanks and praise as we pray for our needs, and trust in His love and mercy, we can see Him answer our prayers and protect us from every spiritual attack.

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

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Spiritual Warfare XIV: Interceding for the Church

{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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Image from pxhere.com. Published under a Creative Commons 1.0 Public Domain license.

In the previous post of this series, we discussed intercessory prayer as a vital part of the Christian’s impact on the world around him. This post will look at the important need to pray for the Body of Christ, especially those who have devoted their lives to preaching and teaching the Word of God. They are often the enemy’s main targets in spiritual battle.

Unlike the modern American church, the first-century believers had no political influence and minimal certainty of legal rights to worship as they saw fit. Freedom of speech and religious liberty are very modern concepts, unheard of only a few centuries ago (and still absent in much of the world today). However, the early church had one thing we have lost: a spirit of prayer. When trials came, they believed God was greater than Caesar.

When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit,

“‘Why did the Gentiles rage,
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers were gathered together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed’—

for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness (Acts 4:23–31).

Instead of cowering in fear, deciding to “play it safe,” or imitating the surrounding culture in response to persecution, the church decided to pray. They did not ask God to change other people’s attitudes or to protect them from wicked rulers. Instead, they asked Him to empower them to preach with boldness and exercise the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Prayer provided a foundation for evangelism; it was not an alternative to action. Prayer gave them the power to do the work God had called them to do and to confront the enemy in spiritual battle.

Later, in Acts 12, the church would endure another period of persecution. James would become the first apostle to die as a martyr (Acts 12:1). Peter was also arrested, and Herod hoped to execute him as well. “So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church” (Acts 12:5). This time, God miraculously intervened to release Peter from prison (vv. 6-17) and judge Herod (vv. 20-23). “But the word of God increased and multiplied” (Acts 12:24) as Christians continued to share the Gospel. When hardship came, God’s people attacked it with prayer, received divine power, and continued to accomplish God’s will.

Likewise, Paul urged the disciples in the churches he established to pray for him during his imprisonment. After describing how his imprisonment had given more opportunities for the Gospel to be preached, he expected the prayers of the saints to lead to his release:

Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death (Philippians 1:19–20).

Paul expected prayer to have an impact. He did not see it as a psychological relaxation technique, merely giving a person peace of mind, mental focus, or emotional serenity. Paul expected prayer to somehow affect how God would intervene in the situation. He expected it to change the hearts and minds of people he prayed for. He expected prayer to change the situation in the spiritual dimension, thereby having a visible impact in the natural realm. It was not just a way to change the state of his own mind, but of circumstances beyond his control.

Therefore, we should always pray for our spiritual leaders, especially those whom God has called to proclaim His Gospel. All of the apostles emphasized their need for the prayers of the people:

He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many” (II Corinthians 1:10–11).

This is why I refer to prayer as a spiritual intercontinental ballistic missile in an earlier post. Our prayers can have a global impact. Believe it. Launch it. Watch it work.

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

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Spiritual Warfare XIII: Interceding for All People

{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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Image from pxhere.com. Published under a Creative Commons 1.0 Public Domain license.

The previous post in this series introduced the concepts of praying in the Spirit and supplication. I find that many Christians are tempted to view spiritual warfare as a means to address discomfort or difficulty in their own lives. However, spiritual warfare always looks beyond our own comfort zone and seeks to advance the kingdom of God. It is God-centered, seeking to see His will done not only in our lives, but throughout the world, the church, and in the lives of those whom we love (and, often, those whom we wish Jesus had not told us to love).

Although supplication may sometimes focus on our needs, God calls us to pray for all people, both inside and outside the church. We should pray for all kinds of people, especially if they have any influence over our lives:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way (I Timothy 2:1–2).

We need to remember that Paul wrote these things within a hostile culture, where the government persecuted Christians. Americans are eager to pray for our leaders as long as they belong to our party, or endorse our definition of Christianity. However, when New Testament authors told their audience to obey, respect, and pray for their political officials (see Romans 13:1, Titus 3:1, I Peter 2:13), they were speaking about officials who could easily decide to execute them. American Christians often refuse to pray for elected officials who do not agree with them. Yet, we have no excuse: If Paul could urge his readers to pray for “kings and all who are in high positions,” we can pray for pro-abortion Presidents, anti-traditional-marriage judges, and Congressmen who have publicly mocked Christian values. We are called to make supplication “for all people.” “I don’t like him” is not an excuse.

Many Christians want to change the culture. Prayer is a crucial element of that. Living out our Christianity day by day is vital. Evangelism is essential. Many Christians believe voting and political activism are the top priority, but if we want to change society, those are actually lower on the list:

{If} my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land (II Chronicles 7:14).

Spiritual warfare, exercising our spiritual weapons, is what we need. As we saw earlier in this series, we are not fighting natural enemies. Our real enemies are the forces of Satan—not another political party, Islamic extremists, or illegal immigrants. These are at most tools or pawns whom Satan has deceived and manipulated to achieve his agenda. We need to attack the source of wickedness, not merely the visible symptoms. Prayer and other aspects of spiritual warfare are our major tactics. We should expect God to answer prayer and empower us to proclaim His Gospel and change the world. This is how the early church responded after the apostles had been arrested and persecuted.

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

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Spiritual Warfare XII: Intercessory Prayer

{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 are from the ESV unless otherwise indicated).

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Photo from https://pxhere.com/en/photo/745052. Creative Commons.

Most studies and sermons about the whole armor of God end with the sword of the Spirit in Ephesians 6:17. However, Paul’s sentence does not end there, so it is apparent that these comments on praying in the Spirit are at least closely intertwined with the whole armor of God. The only reason many preachers and authors do not count this as part of the armor is because the military imagery is missing. However, the thoughts are connected. Even if we do not consider intercessory prayer in the Spirit as a part of the whole armor of God, it is an essential part of spiritual warfare.

As we saw in Part IX of this series, we can think of the sword of the Spirit as the weapon for close-range combat, whereas praying in the Spirit is effective for long-range combat. Prayer in the Spirit can impact the entire world.

To understand this, we need to consider a few terms. First, what do we mean by “prayer in the Spirit?” Some of my fellow charismatic Christians will claim that this means “praying in tongues.” While that is one way that we can pray in the Spirit, I do not believe Paul is limiting it to this practice. Any Christian who has the Spirit of God dwelling within him or her can pray in the Spirit. When we consider prayer as one element of worship, this becomes somewhat more obvious:

Jesus said to {the Samaritan woman}, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:21–24).

What can we learn about worshiping (and, by extension, praying) in the Spirit from this passage? A lot, especially when we see the opposite of worship in the Spirit. The Samaritan woman had raised a question about where the true worshipers of God will meet. Jesus said it was not a matter of location. As a related question, it was not a matter of form or liturgy. It did not matter whether one prayed at the Samaritan temple, the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, or a synagogue. It does not matter whether you pray at church, home, or elsewhere. Likewise, it did not matter whether one followed Samaritan or Jewish prayer forms. Formulas and location are not as important as some might think.

What does matter, according to Jesus, is that we are worshiping One whom we know. Our prayers and worship should grow out of a direct intimate knowledge of God. We pray in the Spirit, Who dwells within us and guides us.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (Romans 8:26–27).

Sometimes, our burdens can be so great that we do not even know what we need; if we think we know what we need, we do not know how to express it. The Holy Spirit knows our needs. Whether we express them in a heavenly language, groans, sighs, sobs, or jumbled pleas of “Oh, God, please help me!”–The Holy Spirit knows our need and expresses it to the Father, even when we cannot find the thoughts or words.

Next, it is helpful to consider the word “supplication,” simply because it appears throughout Scripture, but most of us do not use the word normally. I might make requests or ask for things, but I do not usually talk about making supplication in everyday life. Therefore, it is easy to think the Bible is commanding something complicated or unusual, even when it is not.

According to biblehub.com, the Greek word is δέησις (deesis), meaning “supplication, prayer, entreaty.” It has its roots in another Greek word which means “to be in want or need.” Thus, when we are making supplication, we are “praying for a specific, felt need,” making a “heart-felt petition, arising out of deep personal need.” Although Paul expands this to prayer for the needs of others here, our spiritual warfare prayers must be heart-felt, seeking God to meet deep needs. We feel the urgency of a need, so we pray for it.

As you pray, recognize that it is not just a ritual or an obligation. It is even more significant than starting your day well or ending it peacefully. Prayer is a battle. As we bring our requests before the Lord, we are not merely bringing a shopping list. We are fighting a battle against the forces of hell.

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

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

Putting on the Armor of God: St. Patrick’s Breastplate

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Stained glass image of St. Patrick. By Nheyob [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Shortly after posting the recent article about the breastplate of righteousness, I began thinking about one of my favorite prayers: St. Patrick’s Breastplate.

This is an ancient prayer for divine protection. Although some scholars think it is more recent, tradition claims that St. Patrick wrote this prayer in the fourth or fifth century. As he was preaching the Gospel throughout Ireland, he knew he needed God’s protection. According to one legend, the soldiers of a hostile king sought to ambush St. Patrick and his companions while they traveled through a forest. The men of God were transformed in deer while they prayed the Breastplate, thereby passing the soldiers unnoticed. Yes, it is a far-fetched tale, and St. Patrick himself never mentions this event in his writings. Still, it is a great story.

Some people pray this prayer in the morning to claim Christ’s presence and God’s protection for the coming day. I know other people who may have no rote traditional prayer, but while they pray in the morning, they claim each part of the whole armor of God onto themselves during the day. However you go about it, do not start a day without seeking God’s presence and protection to follow you.

Here is a brief excerpt from St. Patrick’s Breastplate. You can read it in its entirety at https://www.irishcentral.com/roots/st-patricks-breastplate-poem:

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.St. Patrick’s Breastplate,” traditionally attributed to St. Patrick, is in the public domain.

 

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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).

brooklyn_museum_-_the_transfiguration_28la_transfiguration29_-_james_tissot_-_overall

“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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