Posts Tagged With: prayer

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

Act, Speak, and Pray

“I am giving you three ways of exercising mercy toward your neighbor: the first—by deed, the second—by word, the third—by prayer. In these three degrees is contained the fullness of mercy, and it is an unquestionable proof of love for Me. By this means a soul glorifies and pays reverence to My mercy” (Diary of St. Mary Faustina Kowalska).

I recently read these sentences in a daily email devotional. St. Mary Faustina Kowalska was a Polish nun and mystic, whose diary contains dialogs between the spirit of Jesus Christ and her spirit. The above words are a statement she felt Jesus spoke to her heart. Most of the discourses are about Jesus’ mercy for souls and His call for Sister Faustina to pray for the conversion of sinners. Mercy is the central theme of their conversations.

Perhaps one can substitute other aspects of God’s love here. Where He says “mercy,” you can usually think of God’s love or grace. Here, the Lord calls us to show His mercy and love in three ways: deed, word, and prayer.

Does it seem as though most Christians get this backward? St. Faustina was a woman of prayer, and intercession for souls was her primary calling and ministry. Nevertheless, Jesus says prayer is the third means of showing mercy.

How many of us, though, would put that first? How many would put deeds last? When we encounter someone who is facing trials and hardships, our first instinct is to pray. We are happy to pray for a person who has lost everything he owns or is going through a divorce. We will gladly pray for any person whose life is falling apart.

“Clothing the Naked,” a stained-glass window in St. Mary’s Church, Ashwell, Hertfordshire, UK inspired by Matthew 25:34-36. Photo by Steve Day via Flickr. Published under a Creative Commons 2.0 License.

We may also be willing to show God’s love in words. We will tell the addict that God loves him. We will share the gospel with anybody who has wrecked their lives through sin. We love to share our testimony about how God has provided when we hit rock bottom or how He delivered us from addiction.

Deeds, though, do not come easily. Deeds demand action. Action requires effort. It often involves sacrifice. When a friend has lost all of his possessions, are we willing to sacrifice some of our money or help him buy the basic necessities of life? If a friend is going through a divorce, are we willing to help him or her through the crisis? Are we willing to sit and listen while they talk about their problems—without offering advice or quoting Scripture? Just listen? Just care? Maybe offer to babysit their children so that they can run some errands or just go to a movie?

God’s Word calls us to action:

“What good is it, my brothers, if a man says he has faith, but has no works? Can faith save him? And if a brother or sister is naked and in lack of daily food, and one of you tells them, ‘Go in peace. Be warmed and filled;’ yet you didn’t give them the things the body needs, what good is it? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself. Yes, a man will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:14-18; all Scripture quotations from the World English Bible).

It is easy to say, “I hope God meets your needs.” We can easily assume we have served God when we see such a person and ask God to meet his needs. However, could it be that God sent this needy person to you in answer to someone else’s prayer? Maybe God does not want you to pray; maybe He wants you to be the answer to another person’s prayer.

This thought hits me whenever I read the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). In this parable, Jesus tells us how He will separate the righteous (sheep) from the unrighteous (goats) when He returns. The sheep will be blessed because they fed Jesus, gave Him something to drink, clothed Him, visited Him in prison or when sick, etc. “The King will answer them, ‘Most certainly I tell you, because you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me'” (Matthew 25:40).

A sculpture of “homeless Jesus” (his feet are nail-pierced) sleeping on a park bench outside St. Ann’s Church, Manchester, UK. © Copyright David Dixon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The goats, on the other hand, did not feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, or visit the sick or imprisoned. Jesus counted this against them. I often wonder: did the goats pray for these people? Jesus does not welcome the sheep into His joy because they prayed, but because they acted. Jesus condemns the goats because they did not act, even if they prayed.

Of course, I am not saying we should not pray. When we pray, we call God’s power into a person’s situation. However, our prayers should be one part of our faith, one element of our walk with Jesus. Our prayers should motivate our action, not replace it.

Many years ago, when I was in seminary, I had several conversations with a retired Baptist minister. In one of our conversations, he offered this word of wisdom: “I refuse to pray any prayer unless I am willing to be the answer to that prayer.”

Do not use prayer as an excuse. Do not use it as a substitute for loving and serving others. When you pray for others, remember to ask, “God, is there anything you want me to do in this situation?”

Act, speak, and pray. This is how we show the love of God to others.

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

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Abiding in the Vine: V. Fruitful Prayer

“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love” (John 15:7–9; all Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated).

Image via pxhere.com.

Finally, as we abide in the vine, we can experience power in our prayers.

Biblical prayer is not the self-centered shopping list recital many Christians think it is. Numerous preachers will quote John 15:7 and tell you that you can demand from God for whatever you wish. After all, He said He would do it for you. He promised! He has to fulfill His promise!

Read further, though. He answers our prayers so that He may be glorified and so that we may be much fruit. God does not answer our prayers so that we can have fancy houses and expensive cars. He does it so that we can glorify Him, bear fruit, and impart His life to those around us.

This should be our objective. The mature Christian wants to glorify God, bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit, and impart the life of Christ to those around him. The one who abides in Christ is eager to do evangelism and/or discipleship. Our prayers should be focused on a few important areas:

  1. Our genuine physical needs: Yes, we should pray for our needs. However, “needs” and “wants” are not the same things. I need food to survive; I do not need to eat at the most expensive restaurants in the New York area seven nights a week. I need a place to live; I do not need a mansion. I need money to survive; currently, that means I need to go to work. Because of my job’s location, a car is the most efficient way for me to get to work. I do not need a Lamborghini. (I may add that, if I lived closer to my job or worked in Manhattan, where I could take a train to work, I would not need that car.) Learn to discern between your needs and wants. Do not be so demanding about your wants.
  2. Our spiritual needs: We should spend more time asking God for wisdom, freedom from sin, the gifts of the Spirit, and so on. We should want God to be glorified in us. We cannot do that on our own. We need His strength, wisdom, and power.
  3. The genuine needs of those around us: Let us pray that God would prove Himself real to those around us as He heals them, meets their needs, and guides them through the difficulties of life.
  4. That God would be glorified throughout the world: How often do you pray for persecuted Christians in other countries? How often do you ask God to intervene with His grace and mercy in international affairs? How often do you ask God to be glorified in federal, state, and local governments?

The point of all of this is that the committed Christian will pray upwardly and outwardly. We pray that God is glorified (upwardly). We pray that His life and blessings may be imparted to others (outwardly). Even our prayers for ourselves should answer the question: What is God doing in and through your life? How can He use me to bless others? How can He make me more like His Son, Jesus?

To abide in Christ is to live a life in consistent connection with Him. We remain close to Him. We seek to be one with Him. Our greatest joy should be found in bringing Him joy, praise, and glory.

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:20–23).

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

Categories: Abiding in the Vine, Bible meditations | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Rooting Out Pride and Cultivating Humility

To follow up on my recent post about pride and humility, I would like to offer a few biblical suggestions for rooting out pride and cultivating humility. This is not an exhaustive list. The Bible has a lot to say about pride: the word appears about 50 times, depending on which version you are reading. This does not count synonyms (“haughtiness,” “arrogance”) or related vices like self-righteousness or hypocrisy. I guess I should study all of those verses; I had to look up how many times the word appears, so I have a lot to learn!

Prayer: James writes, “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:2-3; all Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version, unless otherwise indicated). Prayer prevents pride in two ways. First, it forces us to acknowledge that we need God’s help. Many of my prayers involve situations that are completely out of my control. I cannot control other people’s actions; sometimes I can barely control my own! When I pray for a situation that is beyond my control and the situation turns out okay, I am reminded that Someone greater than me is in control.

Second, when done properly, prayer forces us to face our motives. The Book of Common Prayer contains four daily sessions of prayer known as the “Daily Office.” Three of those include confession of sin near the beginning. Whether you follow a structured form of prayer like the Daily Office or a more freestyle approach, make certain to set aside time at the very beginning for confession of your sins.

Confession sets the tone for our prayers. As we pray, we have to look at ourselves honestly. Where have I fallen short? Where do I continue to fall short? What are the odds that I am going to give in to my weaknesses before I get to the Old Testament reading for this evening? That can set the tone for a related spiritual discipline.

Scripture reading: If I have been forced to focus on my motives during prayer, I am ready to ask myself the hard questions while reading the Bible. What can I learn from this? What is this saying to me? How am I like the person who sinned in this passage? How am I not like Jesus? How am I failing to live by what He said? How can I be more like Jesus, or at least a little bit more like some of the other heroes of the Bible?

If you read a particular passage of Scripture and cannot find a way that you are falling short, thank God for His grace. He is working on you. If you read a passage and can find excuses why you do not have to follow it, admit it for what it is: pride.

Fellowship: Few things will tear down our pride like other people. Fellowship with other believers is a key part of overcoming pride. Other people will annoy you. They will reveal where you lack patience. They will expose your weak spots. Sometimes, this is unintentional; all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and they will grind your gears in the process. Sometimes, it is intentional and mean-spirited. Jesus calls us to forgive. This will take humility. Sometimes, it is intentional, but with the best of intentions. When somebody lovingly points out your shortcomings or misguided motives, it is an opportunity to learn, repent, and grow.

Over the years, I have known numerous church-hoppers. They do not remain members of a particular church for a long time, but will move on to a new congregation when they feel like “I am not being fed here anymore.” I have also known several people who stopped going to church, even though they say they are still disciples of Jesus. In both cases, they usually leave when a person or teaching attacks their pride. Rather than learn humility, they run. Don’t run; God is working on you. He is just using people to do it.

Shut up and listen: “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). You can always learn something. Do not try to show off that you are your Bible study group’s resident theologian or should be the next pastor. Take some time to listen. Understand why people believe what they believe. See if they have some insight that you need. You will probably learn something and grow closer to the Lord as a result.

Finally, measure yourself against God’s standard: Romans 3:23 tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” God, who has revealed Himself to us through Jesus Christ, is our standard. I have sinned because I have not lived up to God’s standard. Whether I am better or worse than another person is not the issue. Even though I have not killed as many people as Hitler did, I still need God’s forgiveness. “Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding” (2 Corinthians 10:12). You still have room to grow, and that is okay. It is part of being human. God becomes our standard, so we have eternity to learn and grow.

Somebody has said that humility is an elusive quality: As soon as you think you have it, you lose it. However, rooting out pride and cultivating humility is not a one-time event. You cannot schedule it on Google Calendar and seriously hope to complete the task by January 1. It is a crucial part of our lifetime journey of walking with Jesus and growing in grace.

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

Categories: Bible meditations, Character and Values, Christian Life, Renewing the Mind Reflections | 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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