Posted in Christian Living

Learning to Pray

Hagar by Edmonia Lewis
Hagar by Edmonia Lewis

Next to our very precious salvation, prayer is the greatest gift we have from our loving Father. In prayer, we clumsy, defective humans get to communicate with the One who is so powerful, even our amazing brains don’t come anywhere close to comprehending His magnificence.

Besides the book of Psalms, which might be called a book of prayers, there are also many prayers throughout the Old and New Testament. Moses prays for Israel in the Wilderness. Solomon prays for the newly finished Temple. Mary prays for the gift of the Son of Man. In times of great trouble or tremendous joy, believers lift their voices to supplicate and praise an awesome God.

Before Christ tore away the curtain, the only people who had direct access to God were the High Priests, who went into the most Holy of Holies to be in communion with the most direct connection to God humans at that point had. But, when Christ died on the cross for our sins, we were given an intercessor who gives us direct access to God any time we take advantage of it. The Holy Spirit, who dwells in those who believe that Christ is the Savior, is who makes it possible for us to know that when we call out to God, He is always listening.

God promises to answer every prayer. Because His answer can be no, we often forget that God doesn’t break His promises. Have you experienced times in your life that, in retrospect, were important growth opportunities because God said no? Our limited perspective is incapable of seeing things from God’s big picture view. But learning to embrace faith in God’s ability to guide things to the good makes praying an act of truly trusting God’s will.

Jesus gave us all a pattern for praying, the Lord’s Prayer. Whether we say it word for word or use it as a pattern for our communication with God, this prayer is the starting point for any believer’s path to better conversations with the LORD.

Our Father, who art in heaven, the prayer begins, hallowed be thy name. Begin any prayer by coming to God in full knowledge of his holiness. God is the master of the universe and your life. When you approach Him in the humility fostered by this view of His awesomeness, you will be offering your most truthful, sincere self to the One who already knows what you are going to say and yet wants to hear it from you anyway.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven, is the next section of this prayer. We can only ever expect God to answer our prayers when those prayers are in alignment with His will. If you pray for a nicer car or other material luxuries, you are much less likely to be in the will of God as when you are praying for your relationship with Him or the welfare of yourself and others.

Give us this day our daily bread, the prayer continues. We have the right to ask of God the things we need to make it through each day. Because God takes care of us from day to day, we are encouraged not to let tomorrow, which might never happen anyway, or the past, which is done and unchangeable, not misdirect our focus from the present moment. The present, this day, is the only thing we really have, and Jesus encourages us to trust Him to take care of our needs each day.

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who trespass against us, comes next. The core value of prayer is the relationship we have with our God. Because sin separates us from God, only when we recognize our own foibles and bring them to God in our repentance do we come back into relationship with Him through the grace of Christ. Equally important, this section of the prayer reminds us, is our ability to forgive others just as Christ has forgiven us. If we can’t pay mercy forward, Christ tells us, then why should God be expected to overlook the sins we all carry?

Many manuscripts end the Lord’s Prayer with this plea: And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. The narrow path of walking a Christ-centered life in a fallen world means we will be exposed to evil. A prayer that acknowledges that we live in a world where the devil is very active helps us to understand how very important our ongoing relationship with God is to our survival. We can only stand against what we recognize as a threat.

Holiness, thankfulness, neediness, forgiveness, cleanliness–these conditions of our relationship with God are what should guide our conversations with Him. Ever wonder how we can call prayer a conversation when only we humans are talking? We can find God’s side of the conversation in His Word, where many of the answers to life’s questions can be discovered if only we will read and study the Bible in a Holy Spirit-guided way.

Your prayers don’t have to be award-winning poetry. Paul tells us they can even be groanings that are not words but still convey our needs to the Father. What prayers need to be are our honest, humble attempts to enter into a relationship with our most powerful, loving God.

Say what you feel to the LORD-ALL-POWERFUL. Anytime, anyplace, anywhere–He’s listening.

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Posted in Christian Living

This Debt I Owe

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I have a confession to make.  Despite knowing that vengeance belongs to God, I love a good movie where the hero systematically eradicates all the villians.  Even in a story like Eastwood’s Unforgiven, I’m glad to see him take out his enemies because, even though Eastwood has given them every chance to back off, they just won’t give up.  Eastwood may have ultimately lost a bit more of his soul in shooting it out with the bad guys, but as a movie-goer, I am really glad the bad guys bit the dust.

How different are the realities of a world where people live according to the belief that God has the only right to vengeance.  In our modern age, I’m not sure how many of those communities actually exist, but in the pages of my Bible, I find a history of God’s people asking for guidance in dealing with their enemies and giving full credit to God for any victories that they attain.  When the Israelites are on top of their faithfulness with God, no force in the world can beat them.  Vengeance is God’s.

I’ve been reading the Psalms this week.  In David’s Psalms, he repeatedly acknowledges his own sinful state and how little he deserves God’s help.  But, David also acknowledges how he can do nothing without God, how great God is all the time, how willing David is to accept God’s will, whatever that may be.  For David, whatever happens is the will of God, and God is good all the time–even when what God decides to do makes David hurt.

When you read that attitude coming from a man who lives under the weight of sin, you understand more and more just how much David had a heart like God’s.  What I mean is this: in David’s time, there was no such thing as grace.  In order to renew one’s relationship with God, you had to perpetually offer blood sacrifices to make right what you inevitably had done wrong in the sight of God.  Even as David pours his heart out to God in the Psalms, he knows that the only man on earth that can most closely speak to the Maker is the High Priest one day each year when the Holy of Holies is entered after much sacrifice and even more sacrifices are made in the very presence of God.  During that ceremony, tradition holds that the people would tie a rope to the High Priest in which to drag him back out of the Holy of Holies in case God did not find favor with him.

Because Christ died for our sins once and for all, we Christians in this modern world are living every day, truly, in a state of grace that it can be so easy to take for granted.  David, who was persecuted by Saul, lived a life of war, lost children, and had children rebel against him, could always remember that God is good and worthy of praise. David knew he himself had no right to be proud, even though he was a great king in the eyes of men, because he only ruled by the will of God.  David knew that at any minute he could die in a state of sin that separated him from the God he loved so much.

You and I have been given the gift of starting each day and ending it in relationship with God.  The Holy Spirit dwells in us at the point that we accept Christ as our Savior.  We owe such a debt to Christ for His sacrifice, and yet He presents it to us as a gift, lovingly given.  We do nothing to earn our salvation except to accept that gift and submit to Christ’s will.

If David, living under the threat of unforgiven sin, could devote so much of himself in praising his God for the love and protection and mercy God gave him, how much more should we who have been given the gift of relationship with our God be daily loving, praising, believing, and submitting to His will?  Even though we cannot earn our salvation, do we not owe so much more of a debt to our God that He was willing to die for us, once and for all?

Make no mistake, Christianity does not equal inaction.  As James puts it, “faith without works is a dead faith.”  Reading the Psalms of David reminds us of the debt we all owe to our loving God, who gave His whole self for us.

Thank You, Jesus, for the indwelling of the Spirit that allows me to know that when I cry out to You, You always hear me.  And so often, You are my one and only source of comfort.  My job is learning to lean into this awesome debt I lovingly owe.

Our God is truly an awesome God.

Posted in Faith

3 Ways to Fertilize Your Faith

Grow your mustard seeds of faith
Grow your mustard seeds of faith

That the communication of your faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.  (Philemon 1:6)

 1: Know WHAT You are Fertilizing

When it comes to plant products that have been bottled to be sold as food supplements in a health store, I can tell you more than you ever wanted to know.  But, when it comes to real plants in the real world?  Well, I’ve been known to kill bamboo!

Despite my brown thumb, my West Texas roots have taught me that knowing your crop is the beginning key to success.  When to plant, when to harvest, when to pray for rain–these are just some of the elements that go into the very hard job of being a farmer.

Just like knowing the plant you want to grow before you can expect to succeed in growing it, you should also begin your goals to grow your faith by understanding what faith means.

Hebrews 11:1 tells us that faith:

is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Ralph Waldo Emerson states it this way:

All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen.

The heroes of faith are further examples to help us define the concept.  From Noah who believed enough to build an Ark to Mary who had the courage to bring the Son of God into the world, the Bible is replete with people who understood faith in the most profound way possible, by believing and doing.

The most important step of faith in this modern world is the one you take to submit your life to Christ as your Savior.  When you admit to Him that you are a sinner who has no chance of redemption without Him, you climb the first rung of the ladder toward a closer relationship with God that is the ultimate goal of faith.

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
― C.S. Lewis

Faith is believing in God when things are bleakest as well as when things are going well for you.  Faith is the beginning of hope, which is the most important quality for us to have if we expect to make it through the valleys of this life.  Faith is knowing that God IS and the He loves me.

2: Know HOW to Fertilize

 

With faith as small as this mustard seed, Christ says we can move mountains.
With faith as small as this mustard seed, Christ says we can move mountains.

 

“God will not look you over for medals, degrees or diplomas but for scars.”  –Elbert Hubbard

As Elbert Hubbard explains, in order to grow a belief in God, we cannot expect to proceed easily.  Christ promises us a light yoke, but not a life without trouble.  In fact, it is through troubles that we learn perseverance, which builds character and ultimately leads to hope (Romans 5:4).

Faith is not the belief that God will do what you want. It is the belief that God will do what is right.
― Max Lucado, He Still Moves Stones

In order to grow our faith, we have to exercise it, like a muscle.  As with all things concerning our relationship with God, we can begin that exercise by studying His word, spending time in prayer with Him and joining in fellowship with other believers to share our belief.

“Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”  ― Corrie ten Boom

Other ways to fertilize our faith is to learn to listen with intent to the voice of the Holy Spirit in us.  When we feel the pull to reach out to help a stranger or say something about our beliefs to our acquaintances, we should become more accustomed to following those feelings.  The more we know about what the Bible says, the more we will know it is God talking to us and not our own interests.

Fertilizing our faith will often be uncomfortable because it will mean stepping outside our normal comfort zones.  Sitting in my recliner writing a blog is not the easiest thing to do on a Sunday afternoon, since sitting here doing nothing at all would be easier, but writing has always at least been comfortable for me.  Making my way to church on Sunday is stepping outside my comfort zone.  As an introvert, I am highly challenged in group settings, and large groups can lead to sensory overload for me.

But, going to church improves my faith.  Besides learning things about the Bible I didn’t already know, my church attendance has also allowed me to meet a wide variety of people who share my same goals and struggles but who approach them in ways I would have never thought of but greatly admire.  I have learned better ways to approach life’s problems and even to pray by participating in church, fertilizing my faith.

3: Make Faith Personal

The beginnings of this blog post came when I was thinking about how helpful God has been to me in my life, despite my literally clinical problem with worry.

I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which comes with unhealthy bouts of depression.  With the proper medication, nutritional support, and help from my family and friends, I lead a pretty productive life.  But the thought that I had earlier this week was thinking about how I spend so much time worrying about things that are going to happen, but when something really does happen, I am somehow able to be really strong and make it through the bad thing.

My power in times of crisis doesn’t come from medicine or me, but from God.  So, as I was thinking about this earlier this week, I was asking myself, how come I’m not doing a better job at remembering how often God comes through for me when I let worry win out over my faith? 

So, when I suggest making your faith personal, I mean just that.  However you do it–journaling, scrapbooking, or making time to remember on a regular basis–make your faith stronger by building on your personal experiences with faith.  We don’t have to be prophets to have real experiences with God.

In fact, when Christ sent the Holy Spirit to dwell in us, He made it more possible than ever for “regular” people like you and me to experience God every day.  Of all the people in history, we can have as close a relationship with God as any of the heroes of faith you’ll find in Hebrews 11.

I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”  –Psalm 91:2

In Nicole Nordeman’s song, What If?, the singer asks:

What if you jump, just close your eyes?  What if the arms that catch you, catch you by surprise?
What if He’s more than enough?  What if it’s LOVE?

Faith is personal, but it’s not something to be hoarded.  Sharing our experiences of faith with others is what helps us spread God’s love in a broken world.  Faith has the courage to admit that what good we do comes from God and not ourselves.  Faith has the courage to step out knowing we may stumble.  Faith knows that even if we wind up with egg on our face, God catches us and always loves us.

“I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?” ― C.S. Lewis

Each time I hit post, I risk offending somebody, looking foolish, or making an actual mistake in a cyberspace where they say nothing ever actually goes away.  But faith without works, as James tells us, is a dead faith.  How can I not risk everything for the One who gave everything for me?

Grow your faith muscle this week.  If we truly believe, what other choice have we?

Posted in Christian Living, Christianity, Faith

3 Lessons from Numbers for Christians

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My Bible readings have me in the beginning of this only Book that truly matters, and so I am asking God to help me see the lessons I should be learning from what can sometimes seem tedious study, since so much of the story of the Jews’ time in the desert is filled with specifics about measurements for building the tabernacle, the specific punishments for different crimes, etc.  Still, I believe God is showing me some pretty interesting things because I have asked for Him to, in faith.

Reading in the book of Numbers, I tried to see myself in the shoes of the Jews.  They might have had the privilege of witnessing God’s miracles and seeing His presence up close–like having manna and water delivered to them out of nothing and seeing God appear in a great cloud and column of fire to guide them, but I have the knowledge of God’s greatest miracle: that He gave His only Son to die for our sins.

Knowing this, can I see my own worries and misplaced concerns about everyday life as the same kind of backsliding that I scoff at when I read about the Jews and their golden calves or whining about being tired of the same kind of food every day?  Reading the early parts of Numbers in this way, I have come up with three conclusions I can try to apply to my walk with Christ.

  1. God keeps His promises
    • God said He would rescue the Jews from Egypt and take care of them.  But, every time you turn around, the Jews keep wanting to go back to Egypt, back to slavery and harsh taskmasters.  However, the Jews don’t remember these negative sides to life in Egypt when they are whining to Moses.  All they remember is having a variety of food there and not just manna.
    • Don’t we Christians do similar things?  Christ promises that He will be with us always.  Christ admonishes us to look toward treasures in heaven and not on earth.  He wants us to understand that our relationship with Him is what matters most, not the car repair we have to find a way to pay for.  And yet, how many times do we fret instead of trusting that Christ also keeps His promises?  He brings us through the storms in this life, often not in ways we expected, but usually we can look back and see the good Christ works in the things that happen to us, especially when we approach those things by putting our belief in Him first.
  2. God doesn’t want us to fail.
    • I think it is a mistake to place on an omnipotent God an understanding of emotions that is limited by our human perceptions.  In other words, when God gets angry, it is in no way the same as when we humans get angry.  There just isn’t a way for us to understand God’s “emotions” unless He chooses to reveal them to us.
    • I say all that to propose that the punishments that God metes out when the Jews fall short should not necessarily be seen so much as an anger response as a disappointment that borders on mourning.  And what, exactly, is God mourning except the loss of those who fail to have faith in Him despite everything He is doing to show the Jews that He alone is God?
    • If God mourned the failure of the people He had chosen to establish Himself as the one and only God of the universe, how much more must he mourn when people reject Christ, or when we Christians reject the lessons Christ worked so hard to teach us?
    • The bottom line of the cycle of lack of faith and punishment as the Jews wandered in the desert is the lesson that God does not want us to fail.  Think about how many times God allowed the Jews to begin again with their relationship with Him.  Then, think about how Christ allows us to awake each morning as a new creature.  As long as we acknowledge our sins to Him and repent of them, we get to walk with Christ in the presence of God once again!
    • No greater love….
  3. God wants our BEST.
    • Every sin or uncleanness in the book of Numbers requires sacrifices that begin with the offering of the best that the person has to offer.  Lambs with no defect, the best grain, the finest incense.  Only by giving the very best that a person owned could the person really feel the sacrifice required to make things right with God again.
    • The Jews’ relationship with God in the desert always involved barriers.  God spoke to Moses directly, who then conveyed God’s messages to the people.  Thick, wonderfully made curtains separated the unconsecrated masses from the inner sanctuary, where only the anointed, clean priests could enter to present the best of the best to God to redeem those who had sinned.
    • With Christ, the inner curtain has been rent in two!  With the Holy Spirit dwelling in us and with Christ as our High Priest, we can speak to God directly and know that He is listening and hears us.
    • If God wanted the best of what the Jews in the desert had to offer, what do you think He wants from those of us who have chosen to accept the Grace and gift of the Cross?  Do you give Christ your BEST every day?  Do you at least think about giving Him your BEST?
    • If you are wondering what the BEST is for a Christian, begin with a study of the Sermon on the Mount, where Christ expounds what it looks like to be a true citizen of the kingdom of heaven.  He doesn’t promise that it will be easy, but He does promise to be with us every step of the way.

There are lessons in the Bible for all of us, not just in the New Testament.  Even though the Old Testament books include some cultural references and ways of life that are thousands of years removed from modern life, people still retain the same basics of human nature that can bring us closer to God or push us farther apart from Him.

The choice, as always in a fallen world where free will exists, is ours to make.  As you study the Bible, remember to ask God to show you ways you can apply what you read in your every day life, no matter how far removed the events you are reading about seem to be from your usual experiences.  God keeps His promises.  And one of those promises is that those who ask, believing, will receive.

Posted in Christian Living, Christianity, Living

No Lie

We can lie to our friends and to ourselves, but let’s not lie to each other.
How many times have you heard this pithy comeback when you’ve just said something that you wished were true, but that everyone knows is just not the case? How often have you really needed to hear that comeback because what you’ve just said is something you are trying to convince yourself is actually true, even though your subconscious is screaming at you that you just aren’t right?
Under perfect circumstances, our relationship with God is one in which we do not lie to each other. Of course, God’s ability to hold up His end of the relationship is a given for those who believe in His infallibility. God never lies, does what He says He will do, and takes His promises seriously.
Since God is omnipotent, it’s really silly on our part to try to lie to Him. In essence, when we lie to God, we are really only deceiving ourselves.
It’s silly of us, really. God makes it easy to be honest with Him. Christ serves as our intecessor. His death has made it possible for us to ask for forgiveness and actually receive it.
Think on Christ’s companions on this earth: wayward women, tax collectors, lowly fishermen. He even died on the cross alongside two criminals (and extended redemption even then). We don’t have to be squeaky clean to be accepted by Him. We just have to willingly step into His open arms.
But stepping in requires that we first step in truth. One of the main things Christ required from His followers was honesty. When Peter claimed his loyalty to Jesus, Christ told him he would deny Christ three times before the rooster crowed. When the woman at the well was honest enough to admit that her fifth relationship with a man was not a marriage, Christ acknowledged her truthfulness and encouraged her to discontinue her life of sin.
Not lying to God means truly repenting of our misdeeds. Repentance involves not only recognizing a sin, but also determining to do one’s best not to submit to the tempations of that sin again. When we repent in honesty, we don’t lie to each other.
Don’t know if you’re lying to yourself? The fact that a little voice in your head has asked you the question should be the first indicator that you need to stop to address the issue you may be lying to yourself about. Analyze it. Take it apart. Look at it as if you aren’t you, but somebody else, like God, for example. And see how well your truth stands up against the test of the Bible.
One of the easiest tests of a truth versus a lie is asking yourself whether what you are doing is an action that shows love to those around you. Loving God first and loving others as we want to be loved ourselves sums up the law, according to the One who best knows.
Let’s not lie to each other. Being a Christian is a wonderful gift that deserves our best thanks–a life lived striving to be as Christ-like as we possibly can be.