I recently received an email from Ron asking a great question. Here is the question and my response:
I have from time to time encountered people in jail and elsewhere who are concerned that they can lose their salvation. My discussions from Ephesian and Romans are somewhat convincing, but these folks still have lingering doubts. They seem to understand that we have been made alive; salvation is a gift we could never earn and did not deserve, God chose us, and etc. I always tell them that if my salvation in any way depended upon me or my performance, then I would be skeptical. What are your thoughts that you would direct toward these puzzled individuals?"
Ron: Thanks for the question. It is a common struggle, not just for those who are in prison. I would begin by digging around a little to discover their understanding of what it means to be a Christian and what happens when one becomes a Christian. Often it is that basic foundation that needs to be addressed. Has the person been born again by the Spirit of God? This is an important issue and one that is essential to helping a person with questioning whether they can lose their salvation.
Often evangelistic approaches are geared in one of two directions. First, they talk about the guilt of sin and its eternal consequence of hell. Christ is then presented as the sacrifice for sins and people are called to repent and believe in order to escape the consequences of their sin. So they “decide” they will be Christian because they don’t want to go to hell. They pray a prayer and then are told that they are saved, born again, and heaven is guaranteed. Many think that praying a prayer is all that is required.
The other approach is to offer Christ as a means of helping people build a better life. “Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. He forgives you wants the best for you: follow him!” Who doesn’t want to have a good life? You’ve messed up, now follow Jesus and you’ll have the best life possible. So they decide to use Jesus as a means to get the good life. Perhaps in the case of prison ministry that could mean as a means of getting out earlier. Perhaps for the addict it means getting clean of drugs.
People who respond to these approaches may not be born again. Who wants to go to hell? If someone says that to get to heaven I just need to feel bad about the rotten things I’ve done and repeat a prayer, why not? It’s cheap insurance! If getting clean from drugs is the goal, any guru who promises freedom will be followed (any boat in a storm!). Once the storm has passed, there is no need for the boat. If one wants good business contacts, “getting saved” may open up new networks of people eager to do business.
In all of these cases, a person’s “salvation” must be seriously questioned.
What is Regeneration?
Jesus told Nicodemus that a man needed to be born again to see the kingdom of God. Regeneration is the essential thing we need, but what is it?
Simply put, regeneration is an act of God whereby God implants a new nature in a person. The Holy Spirit comes to reside within a person and they are connected to Christ. Once dead, they were made alive by God. They were in darkness, but now they are flooded in light. Paul writes that this shining of the light is no less powerful than miracle when God said, “let light shine out of darkness” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
Regeneration is a great supernatural action of God that blows apart every defense and every objection to the gospel. The work of regeneration is a weighty life-transforming thing. It cannot help but have an impact on a person’s life, any more than something could have stopped light coming into existence when God commanded it. And like creation itself, it is totally a work of God (Ephesians 2:1-10).
This is why it is so critical in answering your question to know whether the person has been born again. I don’t know of a foolproof way of figuring out whether a person has been born again. Many people claim to have had an experience they call “getting born again” but whose lives show no signs of walking with Jesus. There are many biblical indications that a person is twice-born, but these are not guarantees. We cannot see into the heart. There will always be those who appear to be believers but are not (1 John 2:19), but these signs are helpful in dealing with people.
Here are three major things that are signs that regeneration has taken place. If they are not present, then the person has not been born again.
They repent and believe the gospel.
If someone does not believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and that he died and rose again for our sins, they have not been born again. Those who have been born again forsake their sin, bow in allegiance to Christ, and seek to follow him.
Of course, as a practical matter, many can outwardly respond to the preaching of the gospel and not be born again. As I mentioned, there are many motivations for responding and saying the right words. But all those who have been born again have repented and believe the gospel.
They have a deep and enduring love for the Lord.
Keith Green, the popular Christian singer from decades ago, used to have a simple definition of a Christian: Someone who is bananas for Jesus! The person who has been born again loves the Lord with their whole heart. Jesus has become their greatest treasure (Matthew 13:44-45). Like Paul, they say “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8).
They have a profound hatred for sin, particularly in their own lives.
1 John 3:1-10 is clear: those who have been born again do not make a practice of sinning. God’s regenerating seed has been planted in him and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. Sin has become offensive to them because it affects the most important relationship in the world to them: their relationship with the Lord. As a result, they strive to live a holy life. Those who are lackadaisical about sin are at best seriously ill in their faith. They may not even be born again. Sometimes people want to know if they can lose their salvation because they want a license to sin all they want! That’s a sign that the person may not be born again.
Of course, we do not achieve perfect sinlessness in this life. The regenerated do sin. But when they do, the Holy Spirit will put increasing pressure on them to lead them to repentance. I John 1:9-10 will be a cherished passage, not because it is perceived to be a license to sin, but because it is a means of cleansing when one does sin.
There are more characteristics, but those three will help diagnose where a person is at spiritually. Do they love Jesus and his word? Have they repented and believed the gospel? Do they hate sin and live lives of quick repentance? These are signs that a person has truly been born again. If they aren’t then you need to go over that ground with them and truly lead them to the Lord.
Can a Regenerate Person Lose Their Salvation?
But let’s assume that the people you are dealing with are born again as far as you can tell. Can a regenerate person lose their salvation?
Regeneration is an act of God that he promises to carry through to its completion. The central issue then becomes God’s faithfulness rather than our ability.
“Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and my your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who called you is faithful and he will surely do it.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24).
“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in your will carry it to completionat the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6).
“In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is a guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” (Ephesians 1:13-14).
These passage in Paul’s letters point to God’s commitment to saving those who have been born again.
There are also the words of our Lord:
“For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:38-40)
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” (John 10:27-29)
Perhaps one of the most useful passages to understanding how this works in the life of the person who has been born again is found in Jeremiah 32:40. The prophet describes the new covenant this way:
“I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts that they will not turn from me.”
God promises not to turn away from doing good to the believer. He is committed to this relationship! He isn’t fickle. He doesn’t turn away at the slightest misstep. But there is more. He also implants the fear of the Lord in the believer’s heart to keep them following him. This fear is an love-filled awe of him that desires to please him, honor him, and obey him. It views his great glory and yearns to be close to him and disdains things that would lead away from him.
So we can rest in his faithfulness. He is fully committed. We have the fear of the Lord, so we take the warnings against falling away seriously. All of this is a gift of God’s grace and goodness.
For the person who is questioning whether they can lose their salvation, this more robust understanding of the nature of regeneration is often very helpful because they begin to see that it is God’s work and God will be faithful to finish it. All they need to do is keep following him and they have been given the Spirit and the fear of the Lord to keep them on the right track. So stay in the word and prayer (which they should hunger for), develop healthy relationships with other believers (whom they should have love for), and strive to live a holy life (because they have a hatred for sin).
If they are afraid of falling away, they need reassurance of the faithfulness of God. Perhaps they need to ponder the fact that the reason that they woke up a believer this morning is because of God’s sustaining work in their lives. He has promised to be faithful until they reach heaven. He will carry his work to completion.
Hope that helps.
Word of Life is part of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. But what does that mean, practically speaking?
It means that we are taking the Great Commission seriously.
Matthew 28:18-20 tells us that Jesus expects us to make disciples of all nations on earth. This is a fundamental aspect of what it means to be his follower. His love compels us to take the gospel to those who do not know him. This includes taking the gospel to our neighbors, but it also means that we are committed to taking it to the darkest places on the planet. Missions isn’t an add-on program: it is part of our DNA. It is our middle name!
It means that we recognize that cross-cultural ministry is hard.
Being an effective worker in a foreign land is difficult. Language mastery takes several years. Learning local customs takes just as long. This means that there is considerable investment that must be made before productive ministry can be expected. Alliance workers are thoroughly vetted so that we send workers that have both a clear calling and capabilities in handling the challenges of long-term international work.
It means that we value strategic planning in missions work.
The C&MA has some of the best minds in the missions world planning how we can most effectively reach the nations with the gospel. This multiplies the effectiveness that individual churches could have on their own. Our missions leaders target places with the goal of establishing churches that reproduce. When churches have been established, leaders have been developed and multiplication is established, we move resources to other places. For example, we have pulled resources away from the Philippines and invested them elsewhere because there are more Alliance churches there than there are in the United States! Sure, more work that could be done, but the network of Alliance churches in the Philippines is self-sustaining and growing. The US Alliance can take the gospel to new places.
It means that we value working together with other churches to support missionaries.
The Great Commission Fund is a key means of supporting workers so they do not have the burden of raising funds for their work. This frees our workers to do that which they were called and equipped to do rather than spend countless hours figuring out how to raise funds to stay on the field. It allows them to minister in ways that are effective in establishing churches rather than finding photo ops for fundraising letters.
It means that we are praying, giving, and sending in obedience to our Lord.
Fueled by the Spirit, we are committed to doing whatever it takes to see the gospel taken to the ends of the earth. We pray regularly for the nations. We give sacrificially to fund our common effort, and we send others to complete the work God has given us.
To find out more, check out resources and opportunities online at cmalliance.org.
The April snowstorm made national news. It made me a little depressed. It was my birthday and I had plans that involved being outside. Why did it have to snow on my birthday?
Many would say that snowstorms are the result of high and low pressure systems which in turn are caused by the uneven heating of the planet. Meteorologists saw this storm system coming for days before it happened. While weather can be studied and predicted with increasing accuracy, there still seems to be a certain unquantifiable amount of chance mixed in. In searching for answers, science eliminates “God” from the answer, but only because they are looking for immediate rather than ultimate causes.
God reigns supreme in the universe. There is nothing that is beyond his control. The weather is not random. It moves at his command. In his wisdom, the elements behave in certain predictable ways, but they are held together and react the way he planned. He can rearrange physical laws or move elements at his will. We see this in the great flood, the plagues of Egypt and even the calming of the storm. While meteorologists predicted this week’s snowstorm, there can be no doubt that it snowed because God willed it to snow. These things are not contradictory.
I didn’t want it to snow. God did. And in the midst of my mild disappointment I needed to remember that God and his ways are always good and always best, even when they don’t line up with my preferences. From my perspective, the snowstorm was bad, but from God’s perfect perspective it was good.
This is true not only with inconveniences like snowstorms, but with the more difficult things in life. Let’s say that storm caused a tree to fall and land on the roof of my house. Was that outside of God’s control? No. God reigns over the trees that fall. He could have stopped it from falling, but chose not to. No one wants a tree to fall on their home. But even in this circumstance we are to remember that God is good. If the tree fell on the house and killed me, it would not be an accident or simple chance. God already knows the date, time, and circumstances of my death. It is in his control.
There is no rival for his sovereignty. Rebels against it, yes. Rivals to it, no. And in his sovereignty God uses the actions of evil rebels for good. This was the testimony of Joseph after being sold into slavery (Genesis 50:20). When God allowed Satan to test Job, he did not wonder what was going to happen. He knew what Satan was going to do. And Job responded the way God knew he would. In the suffering of Job, we see God’s sovereignty at work. He is refining Job and drawing him closer to himself.
Even the worst of actions fall under his sovereignty. No greater crime has ever been committed than the execution of Jesus, yet we are told that this apparent horror happened in the will of God. Here is Acts 4:27-28: “Truly in this city they were gathered together and against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”
God’s sovereignty holds firm even when we wonder how and why circumstances could possibly be good. Adam and Eve sinned. This was not a surprise to God. And yet it is clear that he created Adam and Eve knowing that they would rebel against him. Sometimes, for His own glory, God permits things to happen which He hates. The majesty of his mercy and grace would remain hidden were it not for rebellion and sin. God is not morally responsible for sin, but he created the world knowing that we would sin. And he will use the actions of sinful men for his glory.
How should we respond to the sovereignty of God in our daily lives?
1. Rejoice that there is nothing that will ever happen to you by chance.
Everything that happens has the ultimate purpose of bringing God glory. And living to the glory of God needs to be our goal in every circumstance. Whether life is working out according to our plan or whether things have become difficult and chaotic, we need to focus on bringing God glory. So, if the snow falls, we are to give him glory. If the sun shines, we give him glory. If catastrophe comes our way, we are to give him glory because he is always good.
2. Pour out your heart and complaint to God.
There is reason a third of the psalms are lament: Life is often hard. Tragedies happen. We don’t see how things that have happened can possibly be turned to good. We weep and despair. The psalms give voice to this and are a means of expressing how we feel to the Lord. Lament is not the absence of faith. Instead, it is a cry to God because of the difficulties that we are facing. Lament, like grief, is natural and healthy. The joy of the Lord does not exclude lamenting when things are hard and circumstances unpleasant.
3. The ways of God are often past our understanding.
We grasp some of God’s character and have insight into the reasons he does some things, but Job reminds us that “these are but the outskirts of his ways and how small a whisper do we hear of him!” (Job 26:14). We simply cannot comprehend the tapestry God is weaving from our perspective. We need to remember that God is good in all that he does. The disciples trembled at the sight of Jesus on the cross. It seemed to be the ultimate defeat, yet it was the greatest victory.
4. Remember God didn’t promise an easy life, particularly for his followers.
The basic call to follow him was a call to pick up a cross. Paul wrote that we are children of God, provided that we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him (Romans 8:17). Recalling that life is marked by suffering makes it easier to endure pain for his glory.
5. Remember that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
The Lord told Paul when he was converted that he would suffer for him. Paul experienced tons of trauma in his life. He was put in prison, people tried to kill him, he was shipwrecked, and went for days without food to eat. He discovered that through all of these trials, nothing could separate him from the love of God. In fact, these trials were part of the plan of God for taking the gospel to the Gentiles.
When Jesus says, “Pray like this…”(as recorded in Matthew 6:9-13), He’s not just giving us instruction on how to pray, He’s giving us insight into the way He – God the Son – talked to God the Father. WOW… We can actually talk to God the same way Jesus did?
So…we don’t need to be afraid to pray out loud. We don’t need to feel like we don’t know how to pray. It is only the enemy of our souls who wants to convince us that our prayers aren’t good enough. Jesus – God with us – has told us exactly how to talk to God.
The model He gives us in Matthew 6 is one we can use every time we pray. In his book, Building a Discipling Culture, pastor and author, Mike Breen, developed a visual that can help us better understand and remember the model of the Lord’s Prayer. It’s a shape – of all things. 🙂
Our prayers can be as simple as one sentence for each of these different parts of prayer. As we continue to pray this way, we will likely find that there is one particular area of prayer that we want to linger in – depending on the day. The important thing is to just start doing it…whether or not we feel like we have time for it, whether or not we feel inadequate, and even if we feel like we don’t know what to say. We can use Jesus’ words until He puts different words in our hearts.
God is not limited by our weakness or feelings of inadequacy about prayer. His strength is made perfect in our weakness. He loves the humble and simple prayer of honesty and repentance. It is only we who are bound to our own limited strength, love and wisdom when we allow the enemy to convince us not to pray.
We live in an era when it is common for churches to promote the “benefits” of being a follower of Jesus. Certainly there are benefits! I am concerned that we teach and preach the whole truth rather than simply acting like salesmen to get people to buy a product. The reality is that we are not in a competition with other ideas or philosophies. We are not trying to out-sell others by touting the highlights of a relationship with Jesus.
There are many blessings that come from being in a relationship with Jesus. There is the practical nature of the wisdom of the Bible that can lead to a more productive and enjoyable life for anyone.
There are also the blessings that Jesus said that apply just to his children. He told his followers not to be anxious about anything because his Father would take care of their needs (Matthew 6:25-34). He promises peace and security that is unavailable elsewhere (John 14:27). He promises to answer our prayers (Matthew 7:7-11). We have these promises highlighted in our Bibles, don’t we?
When he walked the earth his power and care was demonstrated multiple times. He healed the sick and raised the dead. When the crowds grew into the thousands and they were hungry, Jesus fed them all with equivalent of a child’s lunch box of food. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of following a man like this?
Not only that, his message of love resounds with the modern audience. He was a friend of the outcast, the foreigner, the sexually immoral, and the handicapped. They were drawn to his love like a moth to the flame. This type of inclusiveness is in-step with our times.
It’s no wonder that churches, in an attempt to be successful, hold up this all-embracing love and the wonderful benefits of following him. Churches that preach this “you can be successful” message grow. Their ministries are trumpeted across the land and around the world.
But something is wrong. These things were not the whole message of Jesus.
Jesus said radical things as well. He wasn’t interested in saying the things that would bring in the greatest number of people. He wasn’t interested in having the most followers on Instagram. He said things that made people unfriend him on Facebook. (I know, I know, those things weren’t around then).
Consider these three potential followers and his response to them:
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."
This person volunteered to follow Jesus wherever he went. This sounds like someone ready to be led in the sinner’s prayer! Jesus did not respond enthusiastically, instead he throws cold water on him. Instead of assuring him that all of his needs will be taken care of and that he will experience one blessing after another, he warns him that he has nowhere to sleep. Jesus made it clear that being a follower was not going to be a guaranteed life of ease. Jesus was a homeless man. Those who follow him must understand that.
To another Jesus said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father." And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
This one said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” Jesus tells him to let the dead bury their own dead. Scholars have debated the exact meaning of this phrase. Some say that the man’s father wasn’t dead and he wanted to take care of him until he died. Others argue that the man’s father was dead, but had not been buried yet. Still others think that Jesus was referring to the spiritually dead. Whichever is correct, Jesus is pointing to the priority of following him over every other priority. Notice that the man was willing to be a follower, but said, “Let me first…”. Such a attitude shows that one is not in full submission to Christ.
Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”(Luke 9:57-62 ESV)
This man wants to simply say goodbye to his family. Jesus tells him that if he sees that as important, he isn’t fit to be a follower. What kind of leader wouldn’t let his follower run home to say goodbye? But he said even stronger things than that about the priority of family for those who would follow him.
Listen to what he said to the great crowds that followed him:
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, 'This man began to build and was not able to finish.' Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:25-33 ESV)
Those who follow him must be completely in love with him and completely satisfied by him. Family, position, wealth, and comfort must be left behind. Read that last sentence again. Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. The word “renounce” means to forsake, to say goodbye to, or to separate yourself from something. Jesus is telling the crowds that they need to leave everything behind to follow him.
It’s the same thing that he said to the rich man who wanted to have eternal life. He told him to sell everything he owned. All of his possessions needed to be sacrificed. This wasn’t a fundraising appeal by Jesus. He wasn’t looking for the rich man to transfer the ownership of his possessions to the ministry. Jesus told the rich man to give it to the poor. Once he had renounced all that he had, he was free to become a disciple. When the man went away sad, Jesus didn’t run after him to soften the requirement. Instead, he said to his disciples, “How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mark 10:17-27).
These radical crowd-dispersing sayings don’t make sense, unless we understand that Jesus is God Incarnate and that he is offering us something a million times better than anything the world has to offer us. He is offering us himself. He is offering us the relationship that we were created to experience forever. This is the greatest thing that we could ever hope to receive.
This is the central message of the gospel and must be at the core of our lives and ministries. Jesus Christ is God Incarnate. He died for our sins and was raised to life. He offers himself to all who will follow him. At the core of following him is understanding who he is. This is what led Paul to write, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish in order that I might gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8).
The message of the Scriptures is not things like “Five Steps to a Happy Marriage” or “Keys to Financial Freedom” or “Have a Peaceful Center in Troubled Times”. Let’s say a person has a happy marriage, is financially secure, leads a relatively calm life, and is nice to their neighbors. Is that person a Christian? Maybe. Maybe not. There are plenty of atheists, Muslims, and Hindus that live “good” lives. What if we add attending church regularly to the mix? Does that make them a Christian? No.
Can you look your successful Muslim neighbor in the eye and tell him that following Jesus is better than the success that he has enjoyed? Can you tell him that even if it means losing his family? What about your scientist friend who fears rejection by his peers if he becomes a follower of Christ? Remember, the early Christians were not financially secure. They were persecuted and often fled for their lives. Even though they were considered the scum of the earth, they rejoiced in what they had found in Christ (1 Corinthians 4:11-13).
John Piper has said it well: “Christ did not die to forgive sinners who go on treasuring anything above seeing and savoring God. And people who would be happy in heaven if Christ were not there, will not be there. The gospel is not a way to get people to heaven; it is a way to get people to God. It's a way of overcoming every obstacle to everlasting joy in God. If we don't want God above all things, we have not been converted by the gospel.”
Jesus isn’t against having a nice house or a good job. He is against people having idols. And an idol is anything else that we turn to for satisfaction and security. It could be our money or our career. It could be family or a car. It could be our tools or our talents. All of these things have the potential to be soul-destroying idols. We are to love him with all that we are because he is worthy of being loved.
Our message must be one of exalting Christ above all things. He is worthy of our complete love and devotion. He died on the cross so that we might be forgiven of not giving him priority in our lives. We can be freed from the guilt of this sin and all the behaviors that flow from it. This is the message of the Bible and it must be the central message of our lives and of our church.
After the disciples had walked with, listened to, observed, and learned from Jesus, one of the specific things they asked Him to teach them was how to pray. As I look at my own life - listening to, learning from and following Jesus, I find that I need to start with something even more basic. I need him to teach me to WANT to pray.
Why is that, do you suppose? The God of all love, all wisdom, and all power wantsus to ask Him for what we need. The Creator of the ends of the earth wants us to be still and know Him. The Everlasting God wants us to rest in His ability to do all things and use all things for our good. But far too often, we cannot “stay awake” for even one hour to spend time with Him.
Several years ago, I attended the International Council for the Christian and Missionary Alliance in California, and I came away with one over-riding conviction. As Christ-followers, we will spend time in prayer because of the incredible love God has given us for Himself and for the world. OR we will spend time in prayer because we are convicted of our lack of lovefor God and the world. (And our prayers will be focused on asking Him to change us.) If we are notspending time in prayer, can we honestly say that we love the Lord our God with ALL our heart, ALL our mind, ALL our soul and ALL our strength?
Remember - it’s the simple, honest prayer of a repentant and humble soul that He desires… “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”…from the privacy of our room, our closet or wherever we can find a quiet place. He will teach us how to go deeper in our prayers as we spend time in His presence.
Lord, teach us to want to pray…
A Year-long Journey through the Psalms.
I (Pastor Nick) made one resolution for 2019. I resolved to read the book of Psalms every month.
All 150 chapters each month for the whole year, so basically five chapters of Psalms a day. I am happy to say January and February were a success.
But why am I doing it?
The obvious reason is to be in the Scriptures every day with a goal. However, if you spend enough time with me you will know that I think that checking the required boxes and hitting a measurable and attainable goal in following Jesus is more like the starter in an engine or the feather sticks that can help get the campfire going.
At some point, the Spirit moves to change our desires and thinking so that following Jesus becomes natural, logical, and enjoyable. Then the engine runs and the logs in the campfire burn. Though, it is not natural, logical, and enjoyable because you are hitting goals. Rather, it is natural, logical, and enjoyable because we experience and recognize His presence to greater degrees and want more if it. Sure, you’ll hit all the required boxes, but you’ll do it without even thinking about it or being motivated by the empty, unchecked boxes.
A different reason is to grow in knowledge of the Psalms. For a guy like me that loves learning, this reason fills that bucket. It is a big book of the Bible. There is a lot in there. There are countless ways that the Psalms connect with other passages in both the Old and New Testament. It is almost as if all verses lead to Psalms and vice versa.
It is also a notoriously difficult book of the Bible from multiple different disciplines. Is it difficult to translate? Yep. Trying to translate 10th century BC Hebrew poetry, with all its metaphors, unique vocabulary, innuendos, syntax, and mechanics, into 21st century English is a chore. Is it difficult to interpret? Yep. Beside the losses in translation, there are layers of meaning and fulfillment while also being a piece of art. Growing in my knowledge with the Psalms should help ease these difficulties to an extent.
The deeper reasons why I want to do this are more in line with the Spirit being at work in my life.
One side of that coin is that I want to have the Spirit work in me so that I appropriate the Psalms into my life. I am not saying that I want to apply the Psalms to situations in my life and come up with a to-do list. My reason here is different. I want the Psalms to become my Psalms. I want the realities discussed in the Psalms to become my reality. I want the worldview in the Psalms to become my worldview. I want the truth found in the Psalms to become my truth. I want the Psalms to trigger in my mind as I go about life to help me define life. I want the language of the Psalms to fill my vocabulary in both prayer and even simple conversations.
As an example, take a look at Acts 4:23-26. After Peter and John were released from the Council that had told them not to speak or teach in Jesus’ name, they went to their friends and reported what had happened. Then that group of believers prayed for boldness. In their prayer they quote Psalm 2:1-2. They had appropriated the truth in that passage and it filled their vocabulary. They saw for themselves how people will gather together against the God the Father and Jesus, the Anointed One.
The other side of that coin is to have the Spirit work in me so the Psalms appropriate me. I want the Psalms as the Word of God to go beyond me. I want to see how the Psalms go beyond me, but take me into its words and put me in my place. The Psalms talk about grander realities than I can sense with my bodily senses. The Psalms talk about greater experiences of God than I have ever had. It will give greater meaning to everything it touches. The Psalms will make you feel small but still connect you to it.
As an example, take a look at Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2:14-36, specifically verses 25-36. Peter quotes Psalm 16 and 110 and shows how, though David wrote them, those Psalms are talking about Christ. Then Peter shows how the Psalms connect himself and his listeners to the overarching narrative of redemption history displayed in those verses. The Psalms appropriated them. It did a good job too. Here is the next verse.
"Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."
Then about 3000 people were baptized.
If this language of appropriation is a bit odd, stay tuned; I will be fleshing it out over the next few months. Overall, I want the Spirit to work through the Psalms.
There is also a bonus reason I am fulfilling my resolution of reading the Psalms every month. I realized it after I made the resolution to read the Psalms every month. That bonus reason is hearing the Spirit nudging me to keep going and fulfill my vow. GULP. Apparently, the Almighty likes where He is taking me with this. He brings up verses like...
Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion,
and to you shall vows be performed.
O you who hear prayer,
to you shall all flesh come.
When iniquities prevail against me,
you atone for our transgressions.
So why am I sharing this with you?
I want to help your treks through Scripture, your personal meditation, and encourage your interaction with the Spirit as you read. Maybe some of my reasons and the ideas behind them will resonate with you and give some clarity to movements of the Spirit in you.
I also want to challenge you a bit with this. Not in a confrontational way, though it may do that, but more in a physical training way. I want to challenge you with more weight. I want to challenge you to go deeper and further.
So taking the truth of Psalm 1 and keeping with the topics discussed, I want to give you fuel for your meditation and delight in the Word with this post. For that, the best I can give you is questions. Not answers. Not pragmatic practices of application. But simple questions that can help as you and the Spirit explore the Scripture and your own heart.
Do I believe the passage I just read is still living and active today? Is it still sharp? What do I believe in my heart that goes against the truth of this passage? What do I believe in my heart that goes with this passage? As a child of God, how does this passage express the history or the circumstance of His children? These questions will hopefully help you see where you are in appropriating the Scriptures into your life.
How does this passage go beyond me? And where does it place me in its grandeur? How does this passage refine me and my mind/internal life? These questions will help you see where the Scripture is appropriating you into God’s reality, His work, and His history with humanity.
Where else is this passage referenced? Where else does this passage connect? Cross-references are some of the most fruitful exploratory tools in reading Scripture. Don’t miss them!
Prayer rooms are interesting places. The Lord has a way of sneaking up on you while you are in them. Just today I was spending some time praying through the requests from the people in our church. They filled a basket. There were dozens of requests for healing. Cancer, MS, back problems, and heart issues were mentioned multiple times. Then there were the requests for marriage problems. And requests for the breaking of addictions. And requests for the salvation of so many friends and family members.
I’ve prayed through many such requests before. But today was different. The requests began to feel like an overwhelming weight. The more prayer cards I looked at, the heavier they seemed. Its weight was oppressive, almost crushing. And strangely familiar.
Suddenly, I had a flashback to the Saddam Hussein Museum in Kurdish Iraq. Friends had taken me there. It was a converted jail and what was displayed were the unspeakable horrors that the regime’s prisoners suffered at the hands of the brutal jailers. The scene in my mind changed again and I was on a mountaintop not far from Strasbourg. It is an idyllic place, except for what happened there: Nazi medical “experiments” on interned Jews. Few survived the barbaric procedures. The images in my head shifted again and I was at the Dachau concentration camp. Do I even need to recount the things that happened there? All three places had the same nefarious spirit.
Such was the heaviness that I felt as I leafed through the prayer requests this morning. It was the feeling of the grinding agony of the hopeless captive. And I was feeling just the pain of a handful of requests for deliverance from suffering from the people known by this church. Pain, broken relationships, and addictions were painful shackles on so many people, and this was just a fraction of the people in my city.
Then I remembered walking away from the ovens at Dachau with tears in my eyes and anger in my soul. I looked at my son and said with gritted teeth, “If ever there was a reason for war, stopping this would be it.”
Sitting in the prayer room this morning I realized something. The weight I felt and the anger I felt were exactly the things that the Lord felt as he looked at a world held captive by sin. People were tortured and deceived by Satan and faced eternal suffering. The prisoners had no hope and no possibility of escape from their bondage, unless God did something.
The cost would be enormous. It would be a battle unlike any other. He would send his only Son to fight for the release of the captives. His Son would freely give himself to be tortured and executed. During his execution, he would not only suffer physical agony but he would have the guilt of every sin placed upon him. It would crush him.
He did it to set the captives free. He did it to put an end to suffering. There is hope. There is a way out of the suffering, a path to freedom from addiction, and release from the prison of sin.
I began to pray with new fervency. The situations on the prayer cards in my hand were not hopeless. The battle had been waged on Calvary and victory declared at the tomb. The wounded can be healed. The broken can be mended. The captives can be set free. There is a way out of the prison.
Jesus reigns victorious. Satan has been defeated. Hallelujah!
Strasbourg, France. The stunned gasp from the congregation was totally unexpected. I racked my brain trying to figure out what had happened. I had been preaching and used a big theological word and suddenly realized that many of the non-native English speakers in the room might not know the word. So, I had stopped and asked if someone could define the word for the benefit of everyone. A young American university student raised his hand and I called on him.
His definition of the term was correct, but contained several equally difficult theological terms. I rolled my eyes and said, “Thanks, that was SO helpful. It REALLY cleared things up.” He, and a few others in the room laughed, but their laughter was drowned out by the loud gasp of many others in the room. What could the problem be?
I suddenly realized that I was the cause of the gasp. Rather than understanding my remark as light-hearted teasing, many thought that I had ridiculed a young man’s attempt to be helpful. He had been bold enough to answer my question, and I had made fun of him in front of everyone.
The awkwardness was a common problem in France. The humor of one culture doesn’t translate well into other cultures. On the Iron Range of northern Minnesota, where I had spent 14 years, the teasing among friends was almost constant. But in France, I would think of some quick retort only to find it falling flat and the people around me looking confused or sometimes hurt. I found myself constantly find myself biting my tongue to keep from saying things that people wouldn’t think were funny.
One of the things that I noticed was that American humor (along with British humor) tends to be filled with sarcasm. It is the quick jibe or clever put-down that gets the laugh. The late Don Rickles was a master at it. Living in Strasbourg, I learned to restrain myself. There were also difficult conversations trying to explain that if Americans said something that seemed mean to you, it probably meant that they actually like you. It reminded me of a pastor I knew who was devastated when he woke up and saw toilet paper hanging from all the trees in his yard. He assumed that someone in the church hated him and had a hard time understanding that the youth group had done it because they loved him!
Now that I am back in the United States, I find my tongue is looser. But I don’t like what is coming out. The light-hearted put-down which so rapidly comes to my mind tastes sour, even though my intent is to build relationships! The sarcastic quip doesn’t feel “right” anymore. But why? Is it one of those things that is just a normal part of culture and requires some “translation” to understand (like toilet papering someone’s house), or is there something else going on?
Since I observed that much of American humor is sarcasm, I decided to look up the word in the Bible. While there are examples of sarcasm in the Bible, the word itself isn’t found there. Interestingly, the word sarcasm comes from a Greek word meaning “to strip or cut the flesh”. The dictionary goes on to define the English word to mean “the use of remarks that clearly mean the opposite of what they say, made in order to hurt someone's feelings or to criticize something in a humorous way.” So, we use the excuse of humor to say things that can wound or injure others. After all, we were only joking!
I did some more searching online about sarcasm and came across several interesting sites that were devoted to fiction writing. They said that sarcasm in dialogue can be used to show that a character in a story is cynical, bitter, and usually arrogant. Sarcastic characters are typically impatient and do not respect the person at whom the sarcastic comment is made. Those character traits didn’t seem to fit with the fruit of the Spirit. Things like love, joy, peace, and patience hardly produce snarky sarcastic comments.
Then I ran across a quote from Ellen DeGeneres (of all people). Here’s what she said, “Most comedy is based on getting a laugh at someone else’s expense. And I find that’s just a form of bullying in a major way.” That made me pause and think about the quick-witted jest that tears at someone’s flesh just to get a laugh. It is not really much different than the brute who pushes the little kid into the mud puddle because it is funny.
This way of joking is a far cry from Ephesians 4:29. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouth, but only that which is useful for building others up according to their needs so that it will benefit those who listen.”
What is the driving force of the sarcastic quip? Perhaps it is a desire to fit in with a group of people that loves put-downs. We all feel the desire to be accepted by others, but you would think that we would have overcome succumbing to peer pressure when we left our teen years behind. Perhaps there is bitterness or arrogance inside of us. Perhaps we are cynical and have become deeply pessimistic. Perhaps we harbor a secret desire to tear others down to make ourselves feel better or to look good. These things poison the well from which our speech flows. They cause us to excuse hurtful speech in the name of humor.
As followers of Christ, we are called to live lives of radical love. When our hearts are full of his love, our mouths will be filled with a sweetness that will build others up according to their needs. Our desire to encourage others should far outweigh our need to fit in with a group that loves to tear one another down. And so, I am setting a guard over my mouth these days. But even more, I am paying attention to the words I speak and asking the Lord to reveal what is behind what I am saying. I want my words to be full of grace and seasoned with salt so that it will benefit all who hear them. To do that I need to be willing to look at the source from which my words flow.
May the words of our mouth and the meditations of our heart be pleasing in His sight (Psalm 19:14).
The disciples watched every move Jesus made, listened to every word He spoke, saw every miraculous work He did. As they watched Him in action, they learned from Him. As they listened to Him pray, they must have recognized something that was lacking in their own prayer life.
Has anyone ever taught you how to pray? Do you want to spend more time in prayer, but you just don’t know what to say – or like the disciples, do you get distracted or sleepy? (Matthew 26:40-41) Do you struggle with confidence when there’s a chance to pray out loud?
Perhaps we – as disciples of Jesus – also need to learn to pray the way Jesus did. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, He said, “Pray like this…,”and he goes on to give them a model of how to pray (Matthew 6:9-13). We are also disciples of Jesus, so it is our joyful duty to pay attention to His teaching. As we use Jesus’ teaching as a model for our time in prayer, we will find prayer to be an incredible gift from our Heavenly Father – one that we will cherish every day.
Each month, in this blog, we will unpack the different parts of the Lord’s Prayer as we learn to pray the way He did. As we seek to know Him more, He will counsel us with His eye upon us.(Psalm 32:8)