Some kinds of repetition in prayer are good

Thomas Manton explains:

This repetition is not to be disapproved when there is a special emphasis and spiritual elegancy in it, as Ps. cxxxvi., you have it twenty-six times repeated, ‘for his mercy endureth for ever;’ because there was a special reason in it, his purpose there being to show the unweariedness and the unexhausted riches of God’s free grace, that, notwithstanding all the former experiences they had had, God is where he was at first. We waste by giving, our drop is soon spent; but God is not wasted by bestowing, but hath the same mercy to do good to his creatures as before (The Works of Thomas Manton, I, 24-5).

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Why daily prayer?

Thomas Manton has some good thoughts on why we need to pray daily.

To reprove those which neglect closet-addresses to God; they wrong God and themselves.

They wrong God; because this is a necessary part of the creature’s homage, of that duty he expects from them, to be owned not only in public assemblies, but in private. And they wrong themselves; because it brings in a great deal of comfort and peace to the soul; and many sweet and gracious experiences there are which they deprive themselves of, and a blessing upon all other things…How will your own hearts reproach you then, that have neglected God, and lost such precious hours as you should have redeemed for communion with him!…So, when God is in us and round about us, and we never take time to confer with him, it argues much hatred and neglect of him…Omissions make way for commissions. If a gardener withholds his hand, the ground is soon grown over with weeds. Restrain prayer and neglect God, and noisome lusts will abound…As they which are often with princes and great persons are better clothed and more neat in their apparel and carriage, so they which are often conversing with God grown more heavenly, holy, watchful, than others are; and when we are not with God, not only all this is lost, but a great many evils to be found (Works of Thomas Manton, volume 1, pp. 14-7).

A Resolution on New Year’s Resolutions

by reed depace

A Weekly Prayer Devotional Seeking God to Pour Out His Spirit in Revival on Us*

[This is a weekly prayer devotional I write for our church. It focuses on some aspect of our need for the Holy Spirit to bring revival to our church. Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you? (Ps 85:6;Isa 44:3-4) Each week, we ask our members to pick a 15 to 30-minute time-block, and use this devotional to focus their prayers for our revival.]

Image courtesy of Norwood Themes, Unsplash

Don’t Make New Year’s Resolutions

I talked with a brother this week who noted that he and his wife were not going to make their traditional New Year’s resolutions. They find the process only results in greater pressure and frustration in their lives. My response to him was, “Praise God!” Not that the custom of New Year’s Resolutions is inherently wrong for a Christian to engage in, yet this secular rooted custom presents some painful missteps for the child of God trying to learn to walk by faith.

The making of New Year’s resolutions goes at least back to the earliest period in the Babylonian kingdom, in the third millennium BC (around the time of the Tower of Babel, Gn 11:1-9). The Roman Empire also had a custom of making New Year’s Resolutions (around the time of Jesus’ birth). This ancient secular custom is basically the same as our secular custom. We make resolutions about making our lives better. Typically, about 40% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions.* Almost all of them can be categorized as self-help commitments to make one’s life better. Most of these resolutions are abandoned quickly: 25% after one week, 40% after one month, and 55% after six months. By year’s end, only 9% of people who made resolutions say they fulfilled them. As we might expect with efforts based on a resource that 100% of the time dies, New Year’s resolutions are but another example of the futility of life without a saving relationship with God (Eccl 12:1-8).

While the practice of making resolutions can be found in Church history, the adaptation of the secular custom goes back to John Wesley’s Covenant Renewal Service (1755), usually held on New Year’s Day. This was a service in which Christians recommitted themselves to discipleship. Notwithstanding the theological differences we have with Arminian Methodism, the liturgy for this service is Christ-focused. If informed by a specific commitment to the doctrines of grace, this adaptation might have some discipleship benefit.

Nevertheless, as is usually the case when the church adapts a secular idea, many Christians who make New Year’s Resolutions actually follow the secular practice. Being gospel presumptive, they’ve forgotten or were never taught that not only is salvation by the gospel alone, but so is growth in the Christian life (Col 2:6-7). Relying on self-help effort to grow in Christ, they’ve forgotten or never learned that there is no power for lasting change in their own efforts (Joh 6:63). Even with Jesus’ name on their lips and the intention to serve him in their hearts, Christians who rely on self-help techniques such as New Year’s Resolutions have forgotten or never learned that the Christian life is only lived by faith through the Spirit, not by flesh through self (2 Cor 5:7).

So, with my brother, I say, “Praise God! And good riddance!” to the custom of making New Year’s Resolutions.

Do Make New Year’s Prayers

Now, lest you think I’ve left the poor baby hanging by his fingernails on the window ledge in throwing the New Year’s Resolution bathwater out the window, I do think making a biblical resolution is a healthy discipleship practice. For example, Daniel and his three friends resolved not to break their faith in God by disobeying through eating King Nebuchadnezzer’s food (Dan 1:8). Paul made a resolution to travel to Jerusalem (Acts 19:21), a resolution he kept even after being told he would face persecution (Acts 21:10-14). Finally, the Scriptures themselves urge on us the practice of making resolutions as part of our discipleship:

To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Th 1:11-12, emphasis added

If we begin with a firm commitment to the sovereignty of God, recognize that our role is to express our God-given repentance and faith, want to achieve something which will glorify God, and rely on the Holy Spirit to be the presence whose power transforms us, then resolving to grow in Christ is actually a very spiritually healthy thing. Indeed, as we consider Paul’s admonition here for resolutions that are good works of faith by the Spirit’s power, and as we consider the generally weak and anemic condition of many Christians’ lives, we might even conclude that we need to make more such resolutions (1 Pt 4:7)!!

But what makes such resolutions expressions of faith-by-the-Spirit, instead of flesh-by-self? It is found in Paul’s words at the beginning of these verses, “To this end we always pray for you.” The difference between a secular resolution and a Christian resolution is found in believing prayer.

It is not found merely in prayer. A Christian who prays, “Lord, this year I promise I am going to do such and such …” is basically telling God what they intend to do this year, in their own flesh-based, self-help power. The only difference between that and the atheist who doesn’t pray, or the goof who prays to the Spaghetti God is, well, nothing. A self-help prayer does not honor God. Instead, it simply builds on “The Waterboy” lie Satan told our first parents, “You can do it!” (yourself)!+

The potency of biblical resolution making is found in believing prayer. Trusting in God’s sovereignty, wanting to show God’s glory, relying on the Spirit, it is through such believing prayer that we express our repentance and faith. So, instead of New Year’s Resolutions, let me encourage you to make New Year’s Prayers. Jot down a handful of sinful traits or habits you know are dishonoring God. Pray for these each week. Write down the four or five godly habits you want to develop (e.g., Bible reading, weekly worship – personal, family, and church, being discipled, regular witnessing, etc.). Then pray these each week as well. Don’t worry if you forget to pray for these in a given week. Just repent the next week and pray for them again! What you will find is that the Spirit will do exactly what Paul prayed for the Thessalonians (and us!). The name of Jesus will be glorified in and through you this year in more powerful ways, with a more lasting glory than even the most potent New Year’s Resolution could achieve!

Prayer Advice

Dear Lord, we confess that too much of this past year has been given to self-indulgence. Be it wicked sins we don’t want anyone else to find out about, or the common sins we excuse every day, because Jesus is the Resolute One who never wavered in his commitment to face the cross for your glory and his and our joy, forgive and cleanse us.

Then Holy Spirit, who love us enough to resolve to complete the work of holiness in us until we are perfect like Jesus, guide us to what we should be praying for this year. Show us the sins we need to regularly pray the promise of repentance upon. Show us the obedience we need to regularly ask for in faith that hears only Yes and Amen from our Father. Use us this year that your glory in and through us might draw others to yourself. We long for your glory!

Restore to us the years the locusts have eaten. Pour out Your Spirit in revival on us. To Your glory, together with Your Father and Your Spirit, we ask, Amen.

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Photo courtesy Olivia Snow, Unsplash

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* Statistics on New Years’ resolutions found at: https://www.statisticbrain.com/new-years-resolution-statistics/.

+ “You can do it!” is a line from the movie Waterboy (1998), epitomizing our culture’s belief in the power of self-help to overcome anything.

Amazing Thoughts on Prayer

Witsius knocks this one out of the park. He is commenting on the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer (“Hallowed be thy name”).

It is a very extraordinary and almost incredible familiarity of intercourse which a man is permitted to maintain with God in holy prayer. That a base wretch,—a sinner under sentence of condemnation, a worm that deserves to be trampled under foot,—should be admitted to intercourse with the Divine Being, whose majesty the brightest inhabitants of heaven approach with lively praise, and yet with the lowliest adoration, is certainly a high privilege. To be conducted to the throne of grace by the only begotten Son of God,—to have the words and the very groans supplied by the influence of the Spirit of prayer,—to be permitted to express, with the utmost boldness and freedom, every desire and wish which is not inconsistent with the honour of God, or the true interests of the worshipper,—is a privilege higher still. But the most wonderful of all, and one which almost exceeds belief, is that a man should be allowed to plead, not only for himself and for his neighbour, but for God,—that the kingdom of God and the glory of God should be the subject of his prayer,—as if God were unwilling to be glorious, or to exercise dominion except in answer to the prayers of believers…The honour of praying for God, which is thus granted to a human being, ought to be so highly prized by a believing soul that, loving God above all things, even above itself, it should overlook for a time its own concerns, until the matters which relate to the glory and kingdom of God have been carefully settled (from The Lord’s Prayer (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, facsimile of 1839 edition), 185-6).

Witsius goes on to note that we do not pray for God as if He needed anything. We pray in order that God’s glory may be declared.

Psalm 2 Prayer

Our one true and only king, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, not only do we desire to worship you, but we also desire to submit to you. We both lament the fact and are righteously angry that the nations to do not desire to submit to you. How dare the nations rise up in anger against you! How dare they conspire against the Lord, thinking that they can throw off the bonds of your sovereignty! How dare they use the intellect you gave them and resources that you gave them to rebel against you! How dare they seek to dethrone Jesus Christ, whose throne is utterly secure, beyond the reach of any who oppose you!

We know, Father, that such attempts, while offensive to us, are simply ridiculous to you. To you it must seem like these pitiful ants are crawling around on the ground seeking a way to bring down an elephant. And yet, you have also said that your mere words will be enough to put them in their place. For you have established your Son as King on Zion, high and exalted. You crowned Him with glory and honor, and have made all the nations his inheritance, the entire earth his possession.

These brittle nations who oppose you, you will break with a rod of iron, like a piece of pottery. Father, give us the words to say to these nations and rulers. Help us to advise them to be wise, such that they would serve you all their days, that they would fear you, instead of being arrogant; that they would rejoice in your name and your righteousness, and your kingdom. Father, may we all kiss your Son Jesus, submitting to him with deepest reverence, for we know that we want to avoid your wrath, and instead find in you the most blessed refuge for us.

Psalm 1 Prayer

I have taken to praying the Psalms in corporate worship, and what I am doing is making the wording corporate, interpreting the Psalm christologically, and seeking to make the Psalm ours. This is my effort at praying Psalm 1:

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you have revealed to us that we are blessed if we do not walk in the council of the wicked, stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of the scoffer. Make us instead to delight in your law, that we might meditate on it day and night. Make us to be like trees planted by streams of water, yielding their fruit in their season, never withering, gaining an internal, invisible nourishment so that, in anything that we do for you and for your kingdom, we will prosper. Make us not like the wicked, who have so little weight that the wind can drive them away. Though we feel alone in this, though we see and feel the pressures against righteousness by the world outside, we know, Father, that the whole congregation of the righteous will stand with us. Above all, you stand with us, for you know our path, the end from the beginning. You know that path of wisdom, and you delight to show it to us. You also illuminate for us the path of the wicked, and you show us its end. We praise you that Jesus walked not in the counsel of the wicked, nor did he stand in the way of sinners, nor ever sit in the seat of scoffers. We praise you that He delighted to do your will, that He delighted in your law, that He always meditated on it, that He therefore has become for us the life-giving vine who nourishes our faith always.

War Room – Actually Pretty Good

by Reed DePace

I tend to be down on Christian movies. They usually are very lame in both the Christian and the movie departments. But War Room is surprisingly not, lame that it is. On the contrary:

War Room – A Review (Yes, I’ve seen it)

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Good: good story, well told; uplifting, particularly Christian in content.
Bad: some weak, even dangerous, expressions of prayer.
Recommendation: positive for nominal to mature Christians; not necessarily for non-Christians.

The story line of the movie War Room is very credible – for the average middle class evangelical. This is not a criticism, but an observation. Indeed, in terms of the struggles and circumstances faced by the average evangelical believer in Christ, this movie is rather sound and well worth the time and money to see it. As most evangelicals fall into this social strata, this movie is rather well tuned to confront and challenge them about the purpose, power, and promise of prayer when one is in a saving relationship with Jesus.

At first I wasn’t sure about this movie. In the first 45 minutes there was no specific mention of Jesus or even anything that could be considered exclusively Christian. Up to that point if the Christian elements were removed the movie would still have made sense, and still have been interesting, to the non-Christian. Yet when the turning point came the gospel was presented in a clear, forceful, and particularly consistent with the Bible manner. In fact, this has got to be the best presentation of the gospel I have ever seen in a movie targeting a popular audience. I was quite surprised and encouraged.

Even more, as the characters then turned to practice their new found convictions in prayer, the scenes were (for the most part, see caution below) quite believable and compelling. As a pastor I could easily recommend any of these scenes as what sincere prayer in faith would look like in such circumstances. Further, the growing experience of answers to prayer were well balanced. These were presented not as things that could be written off as just ordinary coincidences. Nor were they so outlandishly “miraculous” as to strike at credibility. Instead, these answers to prayer were portrayed as exactly the kinds of changes one should expect if Jesus is real and the Bible is His inspired-infallible-inerrant word.

The movie was filled with little throw away lines that were actually gems of faith-wisdom, worthy of being placed on a church’s sign for the public to ponder. One of my favorites was the wife’s response to her husband, as he determined he needed to take a job paying about half what he was making, “I’d rather have a husband chasing Jesus than a house full of stuff.”

By and large the methods of prayer portrayed in the movie were biblically sound and worthy of emulation. I was especially encouraged by the primary use of Scripture as the foundation for prayers. I also appreciated the scenes at the end showing the key family, and others, praying together in scenes that were brief snapshots of a much neglected and much needed form of prayer called family worship.

Having said this, I do need to warn and caution against one glaring and dangerous error, that of rebuking Satan. The character did this as an application of James 4:7, and actually was doing EXACTLY opposite what the verse teaches. We do NOT resist the devil by having a conversation with him, by praying to him as it were, even if we speak the truth to him. Instead, as this verse says, we resist the devil as we submit to God. As we humbly bow towards God, with our backs to Satan, Satan is then face to face with the One who has already defeated him. That is why he flees, not because we’ve rebuked him, even in the name of Jesus. We are NOT to talk with anyone in the spiritual realm except for God, even for otherwise good reasons. The example of Michael the ArchAngel serves here to demonstrate just how much we are NOT to engage in conversation (which is what prayer is) with Satan (Jude 1:9). I understand this is a common prayer practice among some sister churches, and they mean well by it. Yet like prayers offered to Mary or the saints, this is nothing more than a worship practice that is a man’s good idea that actually breaks God’s law. Better we stick with neither adding nor subtracting, neither turning to the left or to the right, in our worship practices, especially in prayer (Deuteronomy 12:32).

As to the audience for this movie, it will work for those who think of themselves as Christians. This can be either the very weak, Christian nominalists who like the main characters are like lukewarm coffee, or more mature Christians like the prayer “general” Clara. This movie will be understandable and compelling to them. As a movie to be used for evangelistic purposes, well, I’d say again only with people who have some Christian background. It is certainly not going to mean anything to a Muslim, a Buddhist, etc. In fact, they might very well watch and reinterpret the movie to fit their pagan worldview and come out just as pumped as their Christian friend who took them. Now, if we’re talking about some non-Christian friends who are finding that their pagan faith is coming up short, then this movie might be a good conversation starter to get into the gospel. But for broad evangelistic purposes, the War Room is NOT the movie.

And that’s o.k. This is not a criticism as I gather from the nature of the movie that the Kendricks, as with their previous movies, were really trying to challenge those in/around the Church. This movie does that well, and on a vital topic. If I could get one prayer answered from this movie it would be that every Christian was moved to pray and submit to the last prayer in the movie. If that were to happen, then everything else isn’t even academic.

By way of follow up on the topic of this movie, let me recommend a recent book by Don Whitney, Praying the Bible (http://www.wtsbooks.com/praying-the-bible-donald-s-whitney-…). This is an exceptional book teaching the foundational practice of prayer, as taught by Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer. When Scripture forms the basis of our prayers, then we are truly blessed, and God is glorified. This IS the key secret to the prayer practice portrayed in the War Room. If you don’t do this, your prayers are hindered. Learn it and you will rejoice, and not because a movie made you feel good. (Even though that’s o.k., sometimes. )
images by Reed DePace

A Great Book for the Burned-Out Pastor

The author of this book is a pastor in the same Presbytery where I labor. He is the chairman of the shepherding committee in the Presbytery, and this book certainly helps explain why. Clay is a warm, pastoral man with a heart for hurting people. I heartily recommend this book to any pastors who are discouraged and beaten down with the routine or with crises in the ministry. This book is also a good antidote to the almost universal naivete afflicting good-hearted young men as they come out of seminary ready to fix all the world’s problems (if only the stupid world would listen to them!). Heck, I would even recommend it to pastors who are doing just fine, so that they stay that way!

Clay is certainly honest about his own journey, which makes the book all that much more interesting and compelling. The first five chapters are diagnosis, and the last five are solution. The diagnosis section is painful but healing to read. Chapter 3 comes to mind. Here are a few things that zapped me: “It’s as if God has been saying, ‘Clay, let my people go!'” (p. 51). “Yet we often want to press fast-forward on our ministry remote and make people mature faster and our churches grow quicker because we so desperately want these things now” (44). “Constant conflict made me seek comfort anywhere I could find it, especially in a quiet office with a closed door in the safety of reading books” (60). “Resurrection power may heal the hurt, or it may simply give us the strength to endure. Either way, resurrection power meets us in our weakness” (85). “[T]he love inside of our hearts can be padlocked, whereas our anger often has a hair trigger” (89). The book is well-designed to make a pastor feel really, really guilty, and then really, really forgiven in Christ.

I don’t have any quibbles with what he says. There are a few things that I would like to see in, say, a second edition of the book, or a “revised and expanded” edition (or a second book!). Of course, one can’t say everything in one book, and this is Clay’s first book. One question that nagged at me throughout the book was this: how do we pastors get this grace, when we are the ones “dishing it out”? I don’t mean that we are the source of grace, of course. But how do we get the benefit, for instance, of the Lord’s Supper and of the sermon, when we are the ones presenting those things to the congregation? This goes along with a parallel concern: I would like to have seen more emphasis on the means of grace, and how those factor in to relieve the burdened pastor. A second thing I would like to see addressed is the day off. How do we see our roles on Sunday? As work, or as our part in the worship services? And then, what do we do for a day off during the rest of the week? A third thing is coordinated with the last chapter. He has an admirable and biblical emphasis on pursuing unity (unity achieved is a great stress reliever!). What I would like to see is how that relates to the pursuit of truth and purity of the gospel. How do we avoid burnout, for instance, when we are fighting wolves in sheep’s clothing? What about the temptation to avoid conflict about gospel issues for the sake of our own comfort and avoiding burnout? What is the difference between pursuing our own comfort versus avoiding burnout? I would love to see these questions answered, if not by Clay, then by someone building on what Clay has done here.

This is a great little book. It doesn’t take long to read (and it is, by and large, well-written). It lays a great foundation for thinking about the ministry in a grace-driven way. It deserves a very wide readership by pastors of all stripes. Tolle lege.

Pray in the Spirit

Ephesians 6:18-20

5/4/2008

Audio Version

A man took his small son with him to town one day to run some errands. When lunch time arrived, the two of them went to a familiar cafe for a sandwich. The father sat down on one of the stools at the counter and lifted the boy up to the seat beside him. They ordered lunch, and when the waiter brought the food, the father said, “Son, we’ll just have a silent prayer.” Dad got through praying first and waited for the boy to finish his prayer, but his son just sat with his head bowed for an unusually long time. When the son finally looked up, his father asked him, “What in the world were you praying about all that time?” With the innocence and honesty of a child, he replied, “How do I know? It was a silent prayer.” Certainly, this is a good example of how not to pray! Paul is going to tell us about how to pray. Prayer is one of the means of grace. And it is so important to us, that, in effect, Paul tells us that the entire armor of God has to go on with prayer. It is with prayer that we buckle that truth around our waists. It is with prayer that we receive that breastplate or righteousness to put on our chests. It is with prayer that we put on that readiness of the Gospel of peace. It is with prayer that we take up that shield of faith. It is with prayer that we fasten on that helmet of salvation. It is with prayer that we take up the sword of the Spirit. Prayer is not one of the pieces of the armor of God. Rather, it is the way in which we put on all the armor of God. This is really one of the most comprehensive statements about prayer in the entire Bible. It tells us how to pray, when to pray, what to pray, and for whom to pray. Let’s take these one at a time.

Firstly, we are to pray in the Spirit. This is how we are to pray. Just as the Sword is the Sword of the Spirit, so are we to pray in the Spirit. What does this mean? It means that we recognize that the Holy Spirit is the one who prays our prayers to God. The Holy Spirit intercedes for us with groaning too deep for words. When our prayers ascend to God like the incense did in the Old Testament, it is the Holy Spirit who purifies our prayers, takes out that sin from our prayers, and presents the purified result to the Father. So it means recognizing that the Holy Spirit is our Comforter.

It also means that we pray for God’s will to be done, since it is the Holy Spirit who accomplishes the will of God. So often we pray that our will be done, instead of God’s will. We pray to God with a laundry list of things that need to be done, or things that need to be ours. Instead, we should remember the helpful acronym ACTS. A stands for adoration. We adore God in our prayers. We praise Him for who He is, and for what He has done. C stands for confession. We must confess our sins to God if we expect Him to hear us. It is better to pray for the forgiveness of sins right after you praise God for who He is, since praising God for who He is reminds us of how far short we fall. And it is good to confess sins before you ask God to give you anything. I fear that we oftentimes tack on our request for the forgiveness of sins at the very end of our prayer, as if it is an afterthought. There is a reasonable order to these things. That is not to say that you have to pray this way every time. However, we need to think about how we pray, and not rush into things. Well, after we have confessed our sins, then we thank God for His blessings. That is what the T in ACTS means. Thanksgiving is so important. We must be grateful to God for all He has done, and for all He has given us. Again, we usually give a long list of things we want from God without giving God thanks for what He has given us. Our prayers often sound a lot like Anne’s prayer in Anne of Green Gables: “Gracious Heavenly Father, I thank Thee for the White Way of Delight and the Lake of Shining Waters and Bonny and the Snow Queen. I’m really extremely grateful for them. And that’s all the blessings I can think of just now to thank Thee for. As for the things I want, they’re so numerous that it would take a great deal of time to name them all, so I will only mention the two most important. Please let me stay at Green Gables; and please let me be good-looking when I grow up. I remain, Yours respectfully, Anne Shirley.” Another great example of how not to pray! And so, rather than pray selfishly, we should pray as God has taught us to pray. We should pray in the Spirit.

We should also pray with great vigilance. Paul tells us to be alert when we pray. Oftentimes, we think of prayer as a thing to do when we’re tired. And, since we usually close our eyes to pray, that’s the next thing to a nice long nap! We should rather be awake and give all due diligence to our prayers. When Martin Luther’s puppy happened to be at the table, he looked for a morsel from his master, and watched with open mouth and motionless eyes; he (Martin Luther) said, ‘Oh, if I could only pray the way this dog watches the meat! All his thoughts are concentrated on the piece of meat. Otherwise he has no thought, wish or hope.” I have said this before, but it bears repeating. You can pray with your eyes open. This means that you can pray when you are driving your car or tractor. What a great way to use all of that time! Yes, you do need to pay attention to what you are doing. However, most people can have a radio going on while they drive. If you can have a radio going on, then you can also pray. So, the “how” of praying has to do with praying in the Spirit, and praying with great vigilance.

The second thing we need to know is when to pray. Paul says to pray on all occasions. Then a little later he says that we are always to keep on praying. Everyone knows how to pray when they are in danger, or when the stress level is as high as it seems possible to have. Anyone can pray in that kind of situation. However, are we so quick to pray when something good happens? Are we quick to pray when things are peaceful and quiet? Are we quick to pray when small irritations come our way? The fact is that we need to be in a praying frame of mind all the time. One author put it this way: we should lift up our hearts to heaven, and keep them there so that we can always run to our Heavenly Father and pray to Him. Certainly, as John Newton said, “He who runs from God in the morning will scarcely find Him the rest of the day.” Stay close to God all the day. You will find that temptation has much less hold over you. And you will find it easier and more fulfilling to pray to God in this way. So, we are to pray in the Spirit, and we are to pray all the time. Of course, we don’t have to be in actual prayer every minute. However, we are to have that praying frame of mind.

Thirdly, we are to pray all kinds of prayers. As we have seen, we should pray praise to God, confession to God, thanks to God, and supplication to God. It is not wrong to pray for the things you want, though it is far better to pray for the things you really need. Our wants and our needs are not the same things. We want what we need, but we certainly don’t need all the things we want! What do we really need? Physically, we need food, clothing, shelter, and transportation. Spiritually, we need Jesus. Those are our needs. Everything else, and I mean everything else, is something that we want rather than need. We need to be content when God gives us everything we need, even if that doesn’t mean we have everything we want. Still, we are to pray all kinds of prayers. No kind of prayer is to be ignored.

Fourthly, we are to pray for all the saints. This is as broad as the church itself in all parts of the world. Pray for those saints you know by name. (And, by the way, the word “saints” here means Christians, not first-class citizens of the kingdom of God, as opposed to second-class citizens). Anyway, pray for those saints you know by name. Then pray for all those saints you do not know by name. Pray for saints in other countries. Pray for the persecuted church. Pray for new believers. Pray for missionaries and pastors. Notice here that Paul even requests the Ephesians to pray for him! It is most instructive to see what Paul asks the Ephesians to pray for. He doesn’t ask them to pray for an easy life, free of pain. He asks them to pray for boldness so that the Gospel will go forth. He wants the Ephesians to pray that evangelism will happen! Paul wants the Ephesians to pray that he will not fear man, but only God. Notice something very striking here. Paul calls himself an ambassador in chains. That is almost a contradiction in terms. In normal societies, ambassadors have diplomatic immunity. Countries need to be able to talk to each other, so most countries grant diplomatic immunity to ambassadors from other countries. This is very important to the right relationship of countries. However, Paul does not have diplomatic immunity! And he is an ambassador for the greatest kingdom that has ever been or ever will be! He is ambassador for the King of kings and Lord of lords. And yet, he is in chains! So also we cannot expect such diplomatic immunity. There is a price to pay for sharing the Gospel. And we are to be willing to pay that price. So, we are to pray in the Spirit and with great vigilance. We are to pray all the time. We are to pray all kinds of prayers. And we are to pray for all the saints.

I will close with this illustration of the power of prayer. Dr. Helen Roseveare, missionary to Zaire, told the following story. “A mother at our mission station died after giving birth to a premature baby. We tried to improvise an incubator to keep the infant alive, but the only hot water bottle we had was beyond repair. So we asked the children to pray for the baby and for her sister. One of the girls responded. ‘Dear God, please send a hot water bottle today. Tomorrow will be too late because by then the baby will be dead. And dear Lord, send a doll for the sister so she won’t feel so lonely.’ That afternoon a large package arrived from England. The children watched eagerly as we opened it. Much to their surprise, under some clothing was a hot water bottle! Immediately the girl who had prayed so earnestly started to dig deeper, exclaiming, ‘If God sent that, I’m sure He also sent a doll!’ And she was right! The heavenly Father knew in advance of that child’s sincere requests, and 5 months earlier He had led a ladies’ group to include both of those specific articles.” So pray, dear brothers and sisters!
 

Thank the Lord for Jerusalem!

Psalm 122

There are many things for which we can be thankful. For instance, I am thankful to God for my wife and our children. Many people are rightly thankful for family, work, bank accounts, and many other things. How many times, though, have you been thankful for the church? Not just that the church exists, mind you, but thankful that you can be part of it. There is this rather hideous idea out there that the church needs me, and the church needs my patronage, my money, my talents. That really is quite arrogant. It is much more true that we need the church. Of course, what we mean by that is that we need what God gives us through the church. But it is quite arrogant to think that the church is dispensable to us. Our Psalm here is a good antidote to such thinking.

The Psalm can be divided into three parts. Verses 1-2 talk about the joy of church; verses 3-5 talk about the esteem that we ought to have for the church; and verses 6-9 talk about prayer for the church.

But before we get into these three points, there is one preliminary point that we must consider. The Psalm doesn’t use the word “church.” Rather, it uses the word “Jerusalem.” Why is it legitimate to say that this speaks of the church? Well, I will point you to one passage in the NT that gives us this indication. That passage is Galatians 6:16, which reads (in my own translation): “And to as many as walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, even upon the Israel of God.” Earlier in Galatians, Paul speaks of the church as being the true heirs of Abraham. We are the children of Abraham, who believe by faith. Therefore, the church is the NT Israel belonging to God. That is because there is a new way of being Israel, namely, by faith in Christ. Christ is the true Israel. That is proved in the early chapters of Matthew, where everything Christ does reenacts the people of Israel in the wilderness, in Egypt, in the Jordan river. Christ embodies Israel in His person. Except that Christ was righteous, whereas Israel was sinful. But now, the church consists of all those who are IN Christ. That means that we are IN Christ, who, in turn, is the true Israel. Therefore, we are the true Israel. Nowadays, it is not whether you are circumcised or not, it is whether you trust in Jesus. That marks you out now as the true Israel. Just as the people gathered from all Israel to be in Jerusalem to worship, so also do we now all gather together in church to worship together. In fact, that is what verse 3 says, “Jerusalem is built like a city that is closely compacted together.” The church, by the way, is not a building, but rather the people who meet together. It is the city of people who are in Christ.

That being said, then, we can proceed. Everything in the chapter that talks about Jerusalem now applies to the Christian church. So, do we rejoice when someone says to us, “Let us go to church.” Do we rejoice? Or do we say, “Not again!” Children, I think, are especially susceptible to this kind of thinking. It can be difficult for children to pay attention for an hour at a time. And there are some things which perhaps the children do not understand. That is where we must train our children to understand what is going on in the worship service. Why are we called to worship? Why do we pray? Why do we listen to a preacher? Why do we give offerings? Why do we worship at all? These questions must be answered if our children are to have joy in worship. We must remember that many cannot worship, either by choice or by necessity. There are many people in this world who do not have this opportunity to do what we were made to do. Our very country was founded so that we could do what we are doing right now in worship. Do you rejoice?

Secondly, in verses 3-5, do we esteem the church? The church, as it says in verse 3, is closely compacted together. I don’t really think that this is hard for us to understand, since everyone in this church is related to everyone else. The old saying goes like this, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Have we let our familiarity with one another breed contempt? Of course, when people are living so close together in terms of family, it is very easy to have some people rub other people the wrong way. That is where we need to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, the church. Pray for peace in our church. This is vitally important.

Thirdly, how do we pray for the church? Do we pray for the church? It is very easy to forget to pray for the church. Maybe we think that the church doesn’t need the prayer, really. Maybe we think that other people in the church don’t need our prayers, or don’t deserve our prayers. Scripture here plainly tells us in verse 6, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. May those who love you be secure. May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels. For the sake of my brothers and friends, I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’” Notice that verse 8, “For the sake of my brothers and friends.” You see, our brothers and friends do need our prayers. And since God has called them into the church, they deserve our prayers.

Well, if we see there for whom we ought to pray, then we can also easily see for what we are to pray. Notice just how often peace is mentioned in this Psalm. We are to pray for peace. Peace comes in two forms: peace between God and man, and peace between man and man. We must have peace with God. That is to say, we must have the Prince of Peace ruling over us for there to be any hope of reconciliation with God. That peace will, in turn, result in peace with our fellow believers.

But how is peace to be achieved? It is plain that we are to seek for it, as verse 9 tells us explicitly. How are to seek for the peace of the church? Firstly, we must cultivate our peace with God. That involves confessing our sin, repenting and turning away from it. And then we must cultivate our peace with one another.

I wish to talk briefly about some obstacles that get in the way of peace with one another. The first obstacle is idolatry. We all have idols, the things we want most in the world. Ask yourself some questions, “What do I think about the most?” “If only I had ___, then I would be happy.” Fill in the blank. “Is there something I desire so much that I am willing to disappoint or hurt others in order to have it?” That is one way of finding out what your idols are. Be careful here. We are so good at masking those idols in the form of something good. We might say, “But it is my right to have this.” Or we might say, “But look at how much they hurt me.” We might say, “But all I want is for them to be godly.” All these can be used as excuses to cover over our own idolatry. But idols we still have. Idols get in the way of peace, since we will pursue our idols, and anyone who gets in the way will be crushed. Not exactly conducive to peace.

Another major obstacle that gets in the way of peace is our pride. We have two rules in our lives. 1. I am always right. 2. If I am wrong, see rule number 1. It is absolutely impossible to live at peace with people if every difference of opinion means that you are automatically right. It is the same pride that says, “I don’t need the church; the church needs me.” Jesus doesn’t need you, you desparately need Him. The same is true of the church. God will make sure that His church lives. He doesn’t need you to keep His church running. But you desperately need the church. That is why we should all seek the peace of the church.

A third major obstacle to peace between brothers and sisters in Christ is our words. We have practically a war of words going on much of the time. And we have a really hard time controlling our words. In fact, our words get the better of our brains a good deal of the time. We think that we are the fountain of all good thoughts, all righteous thoughts, all good advice. The fact is, we should be very slow to talk, and very quick to listen. And by listening, I don’t mean standing there while the other person talks, and you’re thinking, “When is this person going to shut up so that I can talk?” That is not listening. Listening means that you are always trying to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and you are always asking, “What does this person really mean?” It might very well be different from what you think they mean. One good way of listening is to try to repeat back to them, in a somewhat summarized form, what they said. That way, they will tell you whether you got it right or not. If someone says, “I’m just sick and tired of working. I hate the long hours, I hate the people with whom I work, and I hate the lousy pay,” you are not listening if you say, “You lazy bum.” You are listening if you say, “So you’re exhausted with life and work, and feel that the whole world is against you.” I think that we could have a great deal more peace in our churches if we were quick to listen, and slow to speak.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and rejoice in the church.

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