Deliver us from careless prayers

are my prayers too small?

Prayer is probably the area I struggle with most on a consistent basis. Not so much in not doing it (although there have been days), but in praying carelessly. Praying as though I were on autopilot instead of communing with the Father.

That’s something I was reminded of and convicted by as I read a new book on prayer by Albert Mohler. The other day, my review of this book went live over at The Gospel Coalition:

I remember one night coming home from work, completely exhausted, and joining my family to give thanks for our dinner. As I opened my mouth, I began to pray in a way that didn’t make sense: rather than thanking God for providing for our needs, I was asking him to help us sleep well (which I clearly needed to do). I’ve had moments like this when praying with my children; I’ve realized that while I’m saying something true, it’s exactly the same as what I prayed the previous seven nights. A general blessing repeated on autopilot rather than a heartfelt desire to connect with our Father.

To help us connect with God in this deeper way, Albert Mohler—president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and TGC Council member—has written The Prayer That Turns the World Upside Down: The Lord’s Prayer as a Manifesto for Revolution. He desires that all believers be deeply engaged in prayer and recognizes that we, just like the first followers of Jesus, must turn to Jesus to discover what that means. We need to learn to pray as Jesus taught us in the Lord’s Prayer. And to do that, we must discover what the Lord’s Prayer actually means.

Keep reading at The Gospel Coalition.

He’s done the impossible

I never thought I’d see the day when the Canadian media would start talking about Canada’s position on abortion. Or rather, it’s lack thereof.

See, Canada is one of the only countries in the world with no restrictions on abortion. This isn’t because there are very progressive laws in place. It’s explicitly the opposite. There are no laws in place, with the preexisting ones struck down in 1988 following the Supreme Court’s decision in R v Morgentaler. Since then, it’s been a more-or-less untouchable subject. Unless a politician upholds a progressive view (i.e. is in favor of unrestricted abortions), the official alternative is silence, or to confidently state that you would vote in favor of legislation limiting abortion, knowing full well that such legislation would never be brought before Parliament.

And then the Summer Job Grant controversy began, which places an ideological test on grant applications. In the application, your organization must affirm, by marking a box on the electronic form that they respect Canadian charter rights, including “women’s rights and women’s reproductive rights.” Don’t check the box, and you’re guaranteed to not receive funding.

In the two weeks or so since the story broke, it’s been fascinating to see how pundits on the moderate/Right-ish side of the Spectrum[1. Politically speaking, Canada has no socially conservative political party, at least no in any meaningful sense.] and the Left have lambasted the law as ideologuing, particularly in officials’ use of language that insinuates that to not affirm abortion or women’s reproductive rights, you are in violation of Canadian law (which, again, you’re not).

Some of the most fascinating articles on this include the following:

I try to avoid politics in my writing whenever possible; generally speaking, I find it unhelpful. But this is not a post about politics. It is a post about hope—one I’ve harbored since shortly after becoming a believer. Something I shared elsewhere is that, prior to becoming a Christian, I affirmed that there should be a right to have an abortion. I mocked the pro-life view, largely out of ignorance. But as I grew to understand the value and dignity of human life, I could no longer affirm my former views. I turned my back on them because I was convinced it was wrong. It wasn’t because I heard multiple sermons on the subject.[2. I actually don’t recall ever once hearing the subject addressed in a worship gathering in all my time as a believer, aside from when I brought it up when preaching.] It was that I was constrained by the Word of God. I was convicted by Scripture’s view of human dignity and value, of our being made in the image and likeness of God.

And so now, I find myself praying for the nation of my birth—the nation that until recently I called home. I don’t know what’s going to happen as this conversation continues, or even if it will continue at all. I don’t pretend that there will be a sudden turn away from the views that have guided Canada for more than a half-century. Instead, my prayer is for those who are watching the story unfold. That they will recognize the problem in Canada for what it is. That they will begin to call for real laws, not simply the absence of them. But more than that, my prayer is that Canada’s collective conscience will be stirred to uphold the rights of all Canadians—especially those without a voice.

Praying to see his grace as sufficient

2 Corinthians 12:9

Here we are, once again preparing for the calendar to roll over to a new year. As I shared recently, this past year was good in many ways, but it was also extremely difficult, an experience I know is not unique.

Every year, even our best years, have a mix of joy and sadness.

Some years, the sadness wins more than joy.

Others, joy comes out on top.

And as we look ahead to the next year, some of us can only pray, “Lord, let this year be a little better than the last.”

I’m tempted to pray that way sometimes. I have prayed that way, in fact. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that might not be the best attitude.

At least, not for me.

So instead, here’s what I’m praying for as we begin the new year: that God would help me to see that his grace is sufficient for me.

Because it is. It always has been. And it always will be.

When I am weak, when I am frail and feeble, when I am at my worst, all I have is grace. When I am strong, when I am confident and resilient, when I am at my best, all I have is grace.

His grace is sufficient for me.

When writing takes longer than it should (a lament and a prayer request)

vintage typewriter

Today, I need to begin by sharing a brief lament:

I’ve spent the last several months trying to get a major project knocked out for work. It’s taken a long time, and I keep hitting block after block, with every word I’m writing like pulling teeth. I’ve never experienced a writing challenge like this before. Ever.

My two books were comparatively easy. The two documentaries I wrote were, relatively speaking, a breeze.

But there’s something about this project. I love what I’m writing, it’s just taking a long time to get there. Embarrassingly long, as I’ve been agonizing over every sentence. Starting and restarting the outline for each part as I go. Trying to boil down some very complicated ideas into something digestible and meaningful. Showing how these different concepts relate to one another and grow us in our affection toward Jesus.

And I still can’t officially talk about what this thing is yet. But you’re going to like it when I’m done. (Promise.)

That’s my lament: Writing is hard.

Now, if you’d be so kind, I would love to ask you to pray:

  • That I would be able to knock out the last of this thing (it’s sooooooo close to being done!).
  • That it would be God glorifying.
  • That it would be encouraging and helpful.

Thanks gang; looking forward to sharing more about what this thing is in the new year!

One thing you can’t afford *not* to do when reading the Bible

An open Bible being read

Reading the Bible is absolutely essential to a Christian’s growth in his or her faith. All of us probably know this (even if we don’t always do it). But it can’t be overstated: There is no book more important to us as believers. There is no book that will shape us like this like this one. And there’s one thing that is absolutely essential for us to commit to as we read it. Prayer. I love the way J.C. Ryle put it:

Is the Bible the Word of God? Then be sure you never read it without fervent prayer for the help and teaching of the Holy Spirit. Humble prayer will throw more light on your Bible than any commentary that ever was written. You will not understand it unless your heart is right. You will find it a sealed book without the teaching of the Holy Spirit. Its contents are often hidden from the wise and learned, and revealed to babes.

Reading the Bible is essential, but it isn’t enough without prayer. We need the Holy Spirit’s help in understanding the text. We need Him to transform us as we read the text. We need him to give us the humility to repent and believe as we read. Of all the things we should do, this is one thing that should never be overlooked.

What matters most in prayer

are my prayers too small?

A number of years ago, I read a book by a well-known pastor that described a God-focused church as a praying church. That is, it is a group of people who are passionate about prayer. They’re fervently pleading before God, on their knees in tears. That’s certainly true, sometimes. But there are also times when prayer is a struggle. When my prayers feel weak, and nothing at all like what I’ve just written.

I know I’m not alone in this; it’s just that most people who feel weak as they pray, tend to not talk about it too much. And when we feel this way, most of the advice that’s given about prayer feels like a pile of burning coals being dropped on our heads. It is painful. It is punishing. And sometimes when I read these kinds of descriptions of what prayer “should” look like, I often think back on the tax collector and the Pharisee. One was a braggart, boasting of all that he did “for” God, and how observant he was. The other, a broken man, one who simply and weakly said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

It’s easy to default to looking at the former as an outwardly positive model of prayer. His prayers seem powerful, even if it’s just his boasting. But the tax collector is the one who shows us what truly powerful prayer looks like. He models what we need to always pursue: not a passionate form of prayer, but a passionate belief in the One to whom we pray. This is what Robert Murray M’Cheyne encouraged when he wrote, “Urgency in prayer does not so much consist in vehement pleading as in vehement believing. He that believes most the love and power of Jesus will obtain most in prayer.”

This probably seems like a strange encouragement; at the very least, it could be twisted into saying, “Just believe harder.” Which is not what I’m saying at all. Instead, my point, and hopefully encouragement, for those of us who often feel weak in prayer is to focus less on our eloquence or our ability to outwardly display our thoughts, desires, and emotions. This doesn’t necessarily mean we’re praying faithfully. We might just like to hear ourselves talk. Instead, let’s continue to keep our eyes on the One who gave everything for us—Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. The object of our faith. Jesus is greater than our ability to express ourselves.

He is what matters most.

What do we do with Psalm 137?

An open Bible being read

The psalms of lament are nothing if not intense. One of the most difficult passages in the Bible is Psalm 137:7–9, one that displays the white-hot anger of the psalmist over what had been done to God’s people:

Remember, Lord, what the Edomites said that day[a] at Jerusalem: “Destroy it! Destroy it down to its foundations!” Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who pays you back what you have done to us. Happy is he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks.

It’s tempting to think this is saying that the Bible justifies horrific violence against children and against the enemies of God’s people. There are many—particularly non-Christians—who think that’s what this psalm tells us. But does it really?

Let me ask you this: would we be right to wish for the death of the children of every atheist, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu or Bahai on the earth? Would we be justified in rejoicing in the death of the late abortionist Henry Morgentaler? Should we wish for the death of those who commit acts of terror around the world?

Of course not.

Simplistic biblicism and hard passages

Why not? Because the Scriptures command us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Because it is better for us to suffer for the sake of Christ than to seek vengeance. And yet so many believe this is what this passage tells us to do. That, friends, is what some scholars that I love dearly call a simplistic biblicism. I prefer to call it being obtuse. Because they pick up so strongly on the psalmist’s anger, they misinterpret what’s happening here.

That, I realize, is a rather lengthy preface, but I want you to understand something: these verses are here for our good. It is, like all Scripture, inspired by God and “profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).

So God clearly wants us to know learn something from a passage like this. Here’s what I think it is (it’s going to take a bit so stay with me): Trust in God’s promise of deliverance.

The people of Israel had been devastated by the Babylonians. Jerusalem was burned to the ground. The Temple was ruined. The people were murdered and those who were kept alive were taken as slaves. And through it all, the Babylonians—who had been used as instruments of judgment against God’s wayward people—rejoiced. They delighted in the destruction they caused.

But God promised through Jeremiah that “for a destroyer is coming against her, against Babylon. Her warriors will be captured, their bows shattered, for the Lord is a God of retribution; he will certainly repay” (Jeremiah 51:56). And through Isaiah, he said the Babylonian’s “children will be dashed to pieces before their eyes” by the Medes (Isaiah 13:16). Just as the Babylonians had delighted in the destruction of Jerusalem, so too would the Medes delight in the slaughter of Babylon’s children.

So the psalmist here is wishing not for vengeance in human terms. He is praying for God’s justice. He is putting his trust in God’s promise to repay the Babylonians for what they had done. He is trusting that God will deliver his people, as God had promised. Throughout this psalm, he calls the people to remember. Remember Jerusalem in your grief—and remember the Lord’s promise of deliverance.

This is what he calls us to do as well.

Hoping in God

This is truly the blessed hope we have in the gospel—Christ died on the cross to deliver us from the most horrible suffering imaginable: An eternity in hell. And yet he took upon himself the wrath our sins deserved so we might be free. And even now, He sits in Heaven at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us, praying for us, preparing a place for us with Him.

What glorious hope that is!

That’s the hope that’s driven Christians from the beginning of the Church. It’s the truth that sustains us.

Brothers and sisters, we are clay jars and God has placed this treasure—this great hope—in us. That’s why we can say with the Apostle Paul:

We are afflicted in every way but not crushed; we are perplexed but not in despair; we are persecuted but not abandoned; we are struck down but not destroyed. We always carry the death of Jesus in our body, so that the life of Jesus may also be displayed in our body. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’s sake, so that Jesus’s life may also be displayed in our mortal flesh. So then, death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Corinthians 4:8–12)

Death is at work in us daily. But Christ is being revealed. That’s what our trials do. They make us look more and more like Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, the one who suffered for us so we might be delivered from death.

Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16–18)

Christian, trials will come. Grieve them, but do not let your despair distort your thinking. Instead, put your hope in God’s deliverance.

My short prayer for #SBC17

are my prayers too small?

Last night the Southern Baptist Convention Pastor’s Conference kicked off this year’s annual meeting here in Phoenix. Today is the first full day, and I am excited to see how this all goes. Mostly. I say “mostly” because it’s been an interesting year in the SBC. The fallout from the strangest presidential election cycle in modern history still casts a long shadow in particular. There are more issues, of course, but we don’t really need to read the laundry list.

So as we prepare for the first full day of the event, I find myself praying. Here’s what I’m praying for in three words:

Humility, grace, unity.

I thought about trying to explain each one individually, but I can’t. They all tie together. We all need to see God work these three things in us. We need to continue to grow in humility, by God’s grace, so that we might better understand one another and grow in unity for the sake of the gospel. That we would be humble enough to own our faults and failings, to be good repenters when we fall short of the goal. That our humility and grace for one another would draw us closer together, that we would be one in spirit as we seek to live on mission throughout the world

Would you join me in praying this for SBC17? The world needs us to be united. We need us to be united. May God give us the grace and humility necessary to see it happen.

Act as though everything depended on God too

I’ve been listening to an audio edition of Church History in Plain Language on my commute for the last couple of weeks (it’s a long book). A few days back, I was listening to the events of the Catholic Reformation,[1. The response to the Protestant Reformation.] and specifically the founding of the Jesuits, the society of monks formed by Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatius caught my attention, in part because of his evangelistic zeal and devout spiritualism. He cared about communion with God, about the pursuit of holiness, and the spreading the Roman Catholic faith.

But for all his zeal, he struck me as hopeless, largely because his vision of the Christian life is empty. “Pray as though everything depended on God alone” he advised. “But act as though it depended on you alone whether you will be saved.”

We’ve heard different versions of this co-opted with an evangelical spin, but the point remains the same: despite the call to prayer, it’s all up to you. Sola bootstrappa, y’all.

But the Scriptures call us to something better. To pray and to act as though everything depends on God. Because it does. When God called the Israelites to take the Promised Land, it was he that would fight for them (see Deuteronomy 31:8). Before David struck down Goliath, he declared that “The Lord will hand you over to me” (1 Samuel 17:46). When Paul called the Philippians to obey and work out their own salvation, it was with the knowledge that God was at work within them “both to will and to work according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13). I could list more examples, like 2 Chronicles 20:17, Deuteronomy 20:4, and Isaiah 41:10, but I think you get the idea.

The Lord is not absent in our working. We don’t get prayed up and then go do everything out of our own effort. We work, yes. We struggle, yes. We strive, yes, especially in the context of growing in our faith. Becoming more like Jesus, growing in holiness, takes work. But in all our work, God is before us, in us, and working through us. That’s the point of what Kevin DeYoung once described as “grace-driven, Spirit-empowered, faith-fueled work.”

So maybe a better piece of advice would be to pray as though everything depended on God alone, and act as though it depended on God, too. Because it does. And work like that will be completed. You can count on it.

Coming soon: a new book on prayer

I knew it was going to be bad, but I didn’t know how bad.

Before moving to Nashville, I had a 15-minute commute… on foot. My drive was five minutes when traffic was bad. I didn’t know how bad things could really be until it took me two hours to drive 20 miles.

But during that time, I began to realize that, in placing me in the gridlock of Nashville Interstate traffic, the Lord was giving me an opportunity to draw nearer to him. And so, I began to use that time to pray. For my fellow commuters. For myself. And for the witness of the church.

Now, I’ve collected those prayers into a new book, Praying the I-65: Everyday Prayers for the Commuter Life.

In this book, you’ll find 30 readings for your commute, including:

  • Of “maniacs” and “idiots”—a plea for justice;
  • Of bran muffins and really strong coffee—a prayer of lament; and
  • Of pulling the Jesus fish off your bumper—a prayer of repentance.

Praying the I-65: Everyday Prayers for the Commuter Life is coming soon. Look for it wherever books are sold.