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Prayer is asking

“Prayer is not asking. Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at his disposition, and listening to his voice in the depth of our hearts.” (attributed to Mother Teresa)

There are at least two big problems with the Mother Teresa definition.

  1. This is not the biblical definition of prayer.
  2. This is not even the biblical definition of guidance.

On the second one see a recent session on guidance. On prayer, the definition flies completely in the face of the biblical evidence which points overwhelmingly towards prayer as an activity of asking God. Look at all of the apostle Paul’s prayers. Look at the illustrations of prayer that Jesus gives in Luke 11:5-13. Asking for bread… whoever asks receives… if your son asks for a fish… give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. For a fuller argument look at the first chapter of Jensen and Payne’s Prayer and the Voice of God.

It is true that prayer should be accompanied with thanksgiving (Phil. 4:6) and it is natural if it starts in praise (e.g. Neh. 1:5; Isa. 37:16; Acts 4:24; the collects of the 1662 BCP) and it is appropriate if it is often shot through with confession (e.g. the prayers of Ezra and Nehemiah and Daniel) but the heart, the sine qua non of prayer is asking God. The posture is one of need and desperate dependence and the expression is in meaningful words, by the Spirit, through the Son to the Father.

It is also true that in the process of praying often God works on us and changes our perspective and desires so that we come out of prayer a different person than we went in – with a new perspective and joy and appreciation of this God we are praying to (e.g. some of the Psalms seem to show a development of thought). There is a special grace and peace beyond understanding promised to pray-ers (Phil. 4:7). But fundamentally prayer is not therapy or a means of listening to God’s voice. Prayer is asking.

The direction of prayer

The dynamics of biblical religion are: first God speaks to us and reveals himself and we are to listen; then we speak back to God and he (wonderfully) listens to us. First God blesses his creatures; then his creatures respond in dependent asking. First God makes gracious promises to his people; then his people respond in faith by asking him to do what he has promised.

Prayer direction

There are loads of biblical examples of this – it is really the whole structure of creation and salvation – but one nice example I saw the other day is the incident recorded in 2 Samuel 7 and 1 Chronicles 17. Nathan the prophet brings God’s Word to David – a word of  spectacular blessing and promise. Then David “went in and sat before the Lord” – a beautiful picture of intimacy with the Lord God. And what does he do there? Just sit and listen? No. He has already heard God’s voice through Nathan and now he prays, in humble words, back to God. It is a prayer full of praise and astonishment and gratitude but at it’s heart – the climax it builds up to – is a request that God would “do what you have promised and bless the house of your servant.”

The problem with the Mother Teresa definition of prayer is that it reverses the direction. Prayer is now the down arrow where God speaks to us. This means that we simultaneously lose two precious things:

  1. We lose the joy of truly hearing the voice of God. We turn away from the Law and the Prophets. We shut the Bible and we expect God to speak to us in a way that he has not promised to do. We turn to intuitions and imaginations rather than turning to the clear voice of the Bridegroom speaking from the Spirit-breathed Word (John 3:29; 6:63; 10:16; 20:30-31).
  2. We lose the joy of asking our Father for what we need. Instead of entering that great privilege of sitting before our Heavenly Father who loves us and pouring out our needs and fears and interceding for our brothers and sisters; instead of asking him, as little children, for him to do what is best – instead of that we refuse to talk – almost like an angry and rebellious child who won’t answer his parent and thinks ‘I don’t need anything from you’ or ‘You already know what I need anyway so why should I bother to ask’ or ‘I’m not happy with what you’ve already told me (in the Bible) so I’m waiting for you to tell me what I want to hear.’

Let’s grasp hold of the great joy of listening to the Bible and then speaking to the Father.

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Standing in Christ: Imara 2017

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Last week was our April Ministry Training Week. It was Easter week and the approaching celebration of the sufferings and victorious resurrection of our Lord and Saviour brought a sharpness and shone a bright light on our time together. Fidel opened up the neglected book of Lamentations for us, we walked through the last chapters of Romans and the letter to the Ephesians, chewing on all sorts of meaty issues along the way.

One of the highlights for many of us was the lecture by Dr Caleb Kim on the last day – Good Friday – where he helped us explore the theme of spiritual warfare in Ephesians. He helped us see that spiritual power is really all about knowing the gospel of deliverance and our identity in Christ and then standing firm in Him. He discussed truth encounter and allegiance encounter as neglected but crucial elements of power encounter, and he testified to how he had personally spent hundreds of hours witnessing and interviewing witch doctors and yet was unharmed: “Look at me. I’m still here. I’m ok. I’m not scared. I’m in Christ.” In this way he not only taught us some great rock-solid gospel truths but he also represented in his very presence a living proof of our security in the Christ who has been exalted far above all authorities and powers and every name that is invoked.

He is risen indeed!

Resources:

2nd year programme:

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When it seemed like your defeat

When you prayed beneath the trees,
it was for me, O Lord;
when you cried upon your knees,
how could it be, O Lord?
When in blood and sweat and tears
you dismissed your final fears,
when you faced the soldiers’ spears,
you stood for me, O Lord.

When their triumph looked complete,
it was for me, O Lord,
when it seemed like your defeat,
they could not see, O Lord!
When you faced the mob alone
you were silent as a stone,
and a tree became your throne;
you came for me, O Lord.

When you stumbled up the road,
you walked for me, O Lord,
when you took your deadly load,
that heavy tree, O Lord;
When they lifted you on high,
and they nailed you up to die,
and when darkness filled the sky,
it was for me, O Lord.

When you spoke with kingly power,
it was for me, O Lord,
in that dread and destined hour,
you made me free, O Lord;
earth and heaven heard you shout,
death and hell were put to rout,
for the grave could not hold out;
you are for me, O Lord.

Christopher Idle
© Christopher Idle/Jubilate Hymns

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Wake up! (part 3)

sleepwalker

Sleep walking towards disaster

Sleep kills. Thousands of people a year. That’s according to numerous studies into road traffic accidents. And spiritual sleepiness is a serious thing too. In case we still haven’t got it, the Puritan Richard Sibbes wants us to know how serious a thing a sleepy soul is:

  1. “Would a waking man run into a pit? Or upon a sword’s point? A man that is asleep may do anything… It is the inlet to all sins, and the beginning of all danger.” And it is all the more dangerous in that it comes on in degrees. “There is no man that comes to gross sin suddenly. But he falls by little and little; first to slumber, and from slumber to sleep and from sleep to [a dead, cold presumption and nominalism].”
  2. “A man in his sleep is fit to lose all.” He loses his moral footing, loses a clear conscience, loses assurance, loses the comfort of Christ, stands to lose his position of ministry, his family, his friends, his possessions, his mind.
  3. And he doesn’t even get to enjoy the false comforts of this world because his conscience is disturbed – it is sleep but a restless “broken sleep.”
  4. A sleeping Christian comes under the Lord’s discipline. If someone is a true child of God, the Father will not endure them to stay sleeping but will send them all sorts of storms and famines to rouse the Jonah and bring back the prodigal.
  5. Sleep is an “odious” thing to the Lord God. To be spiritually asleep, unfeeling of spiritual things, inactive in service, is so hideously out of keeping with our salvation. “Has The Lord been a wilderness to us? (Jer. 2:31) Does he not deserve the marrow of our souls? (Lev. 3:3-4) Does not his mercy deserve that our love should take all care to serve him that is so gracious and good to us? Is it not the fruit and purpose of our redemption to serve him with holiness and righteousness all the days of our life? (Luke 1:75)”
  6. Sleep is also hideously out of keeping with who we are as Christians. Why has God, in the new birth, planted in us understanding, love, faith, spiritual affections if not to use them in understanding, serving, trusting, feeling? These new graces which have been planted in us are verbs more than nouns – as we cease to exercise them is to be as if we do not have them. We might as well be dead. “To have [these graces] and let them sleep and lie unexercised, so far a Christian forgets himself and is not himself.”

Wake up!

So how can we wake up from this spiritual coma? Sibbes has some more encouragement and counsel for us:

  • First, be encouraged that you are aware of your sleepy state. That is a good sign that you are in fact God’s child. The unregenerate unbeliever is not even aware that he is sleeping. The child of God has two natures – the old sleepy man and the new awake heart. Even in a sleepy state the child of God has some awareness of himself, some awareness of the danger, some unsettledness and unhappiness in his state. “So far as he says he is asleep, he is awake.” The conscience is not yet completely seared. There is, in the inner man, as Sibbes puts it, “a secret love to Christ” however deeply buried under other cares and loves. So there is strong hope that this current sleep is not the hopeless sleep of death but a bout of illness from which, by the power of the implanted Spirit, we will recover. “God’s children never totally fall from grace.” They may go as low as Peter in his denial and yet their faith does not completely fail – there is grief and, in time, restoration.
  • Attend to your heart. Our natural inclination is to rush to get our outward appearance sorted out, to think that we wake up from a sleepy state by filling our diaries with more work. But the first thing to attend to is the heart for from it flows everything else (Prov. 4:23). “The Christian does what he does from the heart; he begins the work there.” Jesus’ harshest words were for the hypocrites – who honoured the Lord with their lips and outward religion but had hearts full of love of money, love of praise, love of power and rebellion against God. So attend to the key issue – the heart. Cry out for the Spirit, cry out for a new heart.
  • Consider Christ. It was as Peter’s eyes met Jesus’ eyes across the courtyard of the high priest, that his heart was broken and he woke from his sleep (Luke 22:61-62). Consider the suffering of Christ for us. Consider Christ who came to us “when we had nothing good in us… nothing but enmity, rebellion… Consider how he debased himself and became man, in being united to our frail flesh, a wonderful nearness, and all our of mercy to save us.” Consider that because he lives, we live. Consider him ever interceding for us before the Father (Heb. 7:25).
  • Consider the greatness of the riches we have in Christ. What made Moses leave the glories of Egypt? “He saw that the basest things in religion were greater than the greatest things in the court (Heb. 11:26).” What makes us leave the spiritual sleep of intoxication with the riches of this world is to catch sight of the immeasurably greater riches that we have in Christ – adoption, forgiveness, righteousness, glory.
  • Consider the shortness and vanity of this life. We must number our days (Psalm 90:12). If the owner of a house knew that a thief could break in any moment he would not go to sleep (Matt. 24:43). We could die today or Christ could return today. We can keep awake a little longer. The dawn is almost here.
  • Consider him who has authority to throw you into hell. Jesus warned his disciples of hypocrisy and then immediately told them who they should fear (Luke 12). The spiritual sleep of a hypocrite is exposed when persecution comes – there is fear of man. In contrast, Jesus wants his disciples to have hearts fully awake to the awesome reality of the Lord God – the God of terrible judgment, stupendous grace and total sovereignty. “Labour for a fear of the Lord by all means… because fear is a waking affection… one of the most powerful.” Cry out for the gift of an awakening and preserving fear (Jer. 32:39-40).
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Wake up! (part 2)

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Still in the Richard Sibbes sleep clinic…

Sibbes notices five disturbing similarities between the nature and effects of physical sleep and the nature and effects of spiritual sleep:

  1. “Men disposed to be asleep desire to be alone. Those likewise that are disposed to take a spiritual nap, will avoid company, especially of such as would awake them.” (Sibbes). Be concerned for those who avoid Christian fellowship or avoid anything deeper than superficial conversation.
  2. “Men will draw the curtains and shut out the light when they mean to compose themselves to rest.” Jehoiakim cut up and burned the Word of God (Jer. 36). People hate the light (John 3:20). Sibbes: “Much of the anger that men bear against the word laid open to them, is because it will not suffer them to sleep quietly in their sins.”
  3. “In sleep, fantasy rules” (Sibbes). Sleep is the land of dreams. In spiritual sleep we accept the fantasies and false promises of the prosperity gospel and get-rich-quick schemes (Prov. 12:11). True Christianity is about waking up to the truth – True Truth, the solid realities of our sinfulness and God’s greatness and Christ’s coming. But in spiritual sleep we dream that we are good people, that we are at the centre of the universe, that this world will go on forever.
  4. “In sleep there is no exercise of the senses or motion” (Sibbes). In sleep we don’t use our eyes to see or our ears to hear or our mouths to taste. We are unfeeling, unconscious. And we are immobile in this state. It is ‘akin to death’. If we are not feeling any spiritual affections, if we do no good to anyone, or if the good we do we do without any love, then Sibbes says we are not only sleeping, we are little different to a dead man.
  5. In sleep there is vulnerability and danger. Sisera had a tent peg driven through his temple as he slept (judges 4:21). Saul had the spear and water jug taken from by his head while he slept (1 Sam. 26:12). “In sleep, the most precious thing men carry about them is taken away without resistance” (Sibbes). There is an openness to temptation. There is an openness to false teaching and an accumulation of traditions and dead ritualistic religion.

All this is not only applicable to the sleep of individuals. Sibbes points out that whole churches can be sleeping (e.g. Sardis in Rev. 3), whole periods of church history (e.g. the middle ages), whole countries.

Wake up!

How do we start to take note of our sleepy condition and pull up from the nose dive into the sleep of death? Some ideas prompted by Sibbes:

  • Consider how far we have fallen (Rev. 2:5). Compare your current state with how things were for you as a new believer, when you loved to be with other Christians, when you loved the light, when you rejoiced in the solid reality of the gospel, when you were joyfully busy in Christian service – and do those things you did at first.
  • Consider the profile of a normal Christian in the New Testament. Read passages like Mark 8:34-38 and 1 Thessalonians 1 (in fact the whole of 1 Thessalonians) and see there the normal, expected, Spirit-filled Christian life – compare yourself with that, repent, cry out for the Spirit, take up your cross and follow Jesus.
  • Consider examples of others in a better spiritual state. Read Christian biographies. Watch films like Amazing Grace and Luther. Be inspired by what it looks like to be fully awake.
  • Consider how we perform our service. How would we perform a service for a king or president or high official? What reverence and carefulness and sense of privilege would we have as we do it? Then think of the manner in which we tend to come into God’s presence in prayer and the attitude with which we minister. “Oh the mercy of our patient God, that will endure such services as we most frequently perform!” (Sibbes). May that mercy lead us to repentance and to a happy, eager, reverent approach to Him.
  • Consider what we admire, what we treasure, what we feast our eyes upon. Is it profit margins, Google images, Facebook likes? These are empty cisterns, vapid fantasies, sleeping pills. Will we not set our heart on Christ, treasure him, feast our eyes on him? He is true food and drink and life.
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Wake up! (part 1)

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Wake up! (Rev. 3:2)

The Puritans were masters of diagnosing spiritual states (e.g. see William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying, part 7). And one of the spiritual states they considered the most dangerous was sleepiness.

Why we sleep

Richard Sibbes, one of the English Puritans, in his third sermon on the Song of Songs, lists the similarities between the causes of physical sleep and the causes of spiritual sleep:

  1. Chemicals which bind the senses. Sibbes (writing a few hundred years ago) didn’t know all the biology but he got the basic idea. Our bodies produce chemicals which make us sleepy. Scientists now know there are two main ones – melatonin and adenosine. Melatonin production is inhibited by light so it only starts being created by the body in serious quantities when it gets dark. Adenosine is something that builds up during the day until it gets to a tipping point telling your body it’s time to sleep. It’s a great parable of the ‘spiritual fumes of worldly cares and desires that obstruct the senses of the soul’ (Sibbes). As we go through the day there is a cumulative build-up of worldly worries, riches and pleasures (Luke 8:14), internal weeds and thorns slowly choking the soul. And as we stop looking at the light of the Son, the flesh pulls us down into sleep.
  2. Grief which oppresses. Jesus’ disciples fell asleep, ‘exhausted from sorrow’ (Luke 22:45). It’s well known that lethargy and excessive sleeping is a symptom of depression and a stage of grief. The body and soul are tightly bound together and the lowness of the one often reflects and affects the other.
  3. Running which wearies. Just as an hour of Running for the Bibleless will quite obviously make you tired, so it is possible to wear yourself out running after riches (Prov. 23:4) or idols (Isaiah 57:10). There is good sort of running in the Christian life (see below) but weariness comes from running away from the God of life and rest to serve the hard task masters of this world (career, image, sex) and chase after their carrots.
  4. Music which enchants. There’s a section of C. S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair where the Witch “took out a musical instrument rather like a mandolin. She began to play it with her fingers – a steady monotonous thrumming that you didn’t notice after a few minutes. But the less you noticed it, the more it got into your brain and your blood. It made it hard to think.” In the same way our culture plays, an insidious music that says, “There is no God. There is no Sun. There never was any world but this one.”
  5. Lack of exercise. I’m a great culprit of this. I know the lethargy that comes from an aversion to getting trainers on. And I know that when I do get out and exercise (by my wife’s good persuasion) I always feel so much better for it. So in the spiritual realm there is a joy in running the way of Christ and a lethargy that comes from lack of training in godliness.
  6. Diseases which corrupt and numb. Just as illness sends us to bed, so the soul can get sickness which makes it sleepy. Whereas personal letters in the Greco-Roman world were heavily concerned with physical health (‘I was sorry to hear you were ill. How is your bad stomach? I pray to Zeus you will be well…’) in sharp contrast the letters of the New Testament are heavily concerned with the spiritual health of the churches. There is healthy teaching and there is gangrenous teaching (2 Tim. 2:17). Gangrenous teaching turns our affections away from heaven and Jesus and replaces them with ‘cold, earthly, gross affections about things here below’, numbs the soul and sends us to sleep (Sibbes).
  7. Poison which incapacitates. Snake venom – depending on the snake – can have various horrific effects. Some snakes use neurotoxins to shut down your nervous system causing paralysis. Some produce cytotoxins which eat your flesh away causing organ failure. Others inject you with hemotoxins which cause your blood to coagulate and stop flowing. Fortunately, most snakes won’t attack you without provocation. The vampire bat is particularly unpleasant because it gets you when you’re asleep and thanks to its needle-like teeth and natural anaesthetic you won’t know it’s got you. Satan combines all of that – he’s a stealthy, paralysing, eat-you-up, pull-you-down, slow-you-up, blood-sucker. He attacks when you’re low and you won’t even feel it. ‘Insensible evils are the most dangerous evils’ (Sibbes).
  8. Slothful company which is infectious. When someone yawns, you yawn. Being around sleepy people makes you sleepy. Sibbes sees this as the most common cause of sleepiness among Christians – surrounding ourselves with spiritual sluggards who are keen not too be too zealous, whose religion is proud and formal. They have lost their first love and they pour cold water on any one else’s passion for Christ, dragging you down into their own coldness.

Wake up!

What’s the solution? Well there are already some answers implicit in the causes:

  • Get close to people who are on fire for Christ and who will warm your heart and gently poke you to wake up. This doesn’t mean existing in a Christian bubble. It means that slothful cold ‘Christians’ are more dangerous to you than non-Christians (1 Cor. 5:9-11). Invest in good Christian friends.
  • Get under good healthy Bible teaching. That is the antidote to the venom of bad teaching. Don’t tolerate ‘a bit of prosperity gospel’ any more than you would tolerate a bit of gangrene or leprosy in your foot. Preach the true gospel of Christ crucified from the Scriptures whenever you get the opportunity – to others and to your own soul.
  • Get exercising. A friend said wisely the other day, “You love what you do. The more you do something the more passionate you are about it.” As I need to push myself (or be pushed) out the door for a run, we need to push ourselves (and gently push one another) to get back into the Bible, to get praying, to get serving, to get evangelising. And then we’ll find that we actually love it.
  • And most important of all, look to Jesus. Throw open the windows of your soul and let the light flood back in. Look in his radiant face and the spiritual melatonin will be driven away. Search the Scriptures for the Son and soak in his rays. Let his music drown out the music of this world. Let his comfort and presence heal our sad, sick souls.
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Christian Bubble-ism?

Don’t think too hard about the title of this article, I made it up. It came about as I thought about how I’ve spent most of my Christian life with other Christians! You might be wondering why that surprised me or even why that is something to write about but bear with me. It’s something to write about because I realized that because I had spent so much time with Christians, I couldn’t therefore interact comfortably with unbelievers and that affects aspects of my Christian life!

It all started innocently enough with good intentions, “You need to find Christian friends who will help you to walk as a Christian.” That is great advice that I would still offer a new Christian today. But as I’ve been considering my ‘bubble’ I would add a simple caveat, “but as you do that, don’t isolate yourself from unbelievers.” Let me tell you why.

Firstly, it affects our evangelism. As Christians we have been sent out by our King and Lord to tell of Him and His good news of salvation so that others can know His love and salvation, come into His kingdom (believe) and follow Him. This means that we need access to people who are not yet in the kingdom, unbelievers. This means that we are not to close ourselves off from interacting with them because only then can opportunities arise for us to tell them of Christ Jesus.

For this reason alone it seems that we should actually be deliberately exposing ourselves to circumstances that will allow us access to unbelievers (this might sound like taboo, especially in the Kenyan context). I remember being surprised by my friend who spoke to me about joining a local club to play volleyball even if she had no real interest in volleyball. She told me that it was so that she could interact with more unbelievers and have the opportunity to evangelize. That just blew my mind! It also helped me diagnose my Christian ‘bubble-ism’ that proved a hindrance to my evangelism.

living-in-a-bubble-without-christ-pop-300x172Secondly, though closely tied to the first point, is that interacting with unbelievers allows us the opportunity to be faithful witnesses. Whereas the first point was about speaking the gospel, this point is about character, how we live out the gospel. Matthew 5:16 says, “In the same way, let your light so shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory your Father, who is in heaven.” Peter also gives that same advice to those who are facing persecution for their faith, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good works and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (1 Peter 2:12)

We are to be in the world but not of it – ensuring that we are distinct and godly so that God can be glorified. Have you ever thought that by cutting yourself off from unbelievers you were actually denying glory to God? When we live out what we believe we add weight (evidence) to the gospel we proclaim – people have the opportunity to see in our lives the power of renewal and regeneration in our transformed lives.

Thirdly, interacting with unbelievers gives opportunity for growth in our character and godliness. When are we most challenged to have love, joy, peace, patience, kindness goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control? When we are with unbelievers! (At least that’s what it’s like for me, on the rare occasion I’m hanging out with them) Sometimes they challenge us just because their default position is the complete opposite of what the Spirit is working in us. Sometimes they are deliberately pushing us just to see how far we will go before we snap!

And saddest of all, sometimes they do it in utter rejection and hatred of what is Christ’s and persecute His church. When considering suffering, Paul said to the Roman Church, “. . .we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame . . .” (Romans 5:3-5a) Persecution brings forth endurance and endurance character and character hope, looking forward to the joy of heaven. Hardship is useful in shaping us and causing us to look ahead to the fulfillment of God’s promises!

bubble_burstingAs I conclude, I should mention that I am not saying that we should seek out unbelievers at all cost. Don’t get me wrong, and end up putting yourself in compromising situations for the sake of ‘being a witness and growing in Christian character’. How and when you expose yourself to unbelievers requires wisdom. It’s obvious that we should not to seek out unbelievers who will obviously tempt us back into an ungodly lifestyle so that we fall away from the faith. But I do hope that we would be so eager to make Jesus known that we would be willing to burst our bubbles. We can begin to open ourselves up to unbelievers in our lives, deliberately including them in our social circles so that we can speak of and show Christ to them. Who knows but that Jesus should work the great miracle of saving them from their sins and reconciling them to Himself for eternity? Then what rejoicing shall be ours!