Observations: Abraham’s Negotiating with God

I am sitting in a dark room in the hospital waiting for a PET scan, after being injected with radioactive dye. This scan will literally “light up” all the areas of my body that are infected by cancer. It will give a definitive view of where I am at after 3 years of living with this disease. Sometimes it is hard to know what to pray for at times like this. There is the human tendency to want to negotiate with God—”Lord, could you give me 5 more years . . . how about 3 . . . maybe 2?” Is it wrong to do this? I guess it all depends on if, in the end, we are willing to accept God’s answer.

Abraham is an example of someone who negotiated with God in prayer. In Genesis 19, we see the angel of Lord telling Abraham that he is about ready to destroy the city of Sodom because of its great wickedness. Abe is alarmed because his nephew Lot and family are living there. So he begins to negotiate with God about the baseline number of righteous people there would need to be living in Sodom before the Lord would stay his hand of judgment. Abraham starts high with 50 people- just 50 righteous people, Lord, is that too much to ask for you to stay your hand of judgment.” God “relents” and is willing to reconsider all the way down to 10—sounds like an Amish auction! It seems like God just can’t make up his mind and Abe is setting the agenda for prayer. Certain theologians and others who struggle with God’s sovereignty love this, because it seems to show that while God has a plan, it is set in wet cement allowing for input and adjustments.

Observation: Then the negotiations just end. And the angel of the Lord departs and it’s all over for Sodom. Why? What is going on here—why didn’t Abraham keep going down to 4 (Lot and his wife and their 2 daughters)? There were at least 4 righteous ones, right? Wait a minute, only 4? Ahhh . . . then the light bulb moment. Abraham comes around to realize what God is doing. Abe thinks: Wow, Sodom really is wicked— only 4 righteous ones and they don’t even belong there because they are my family? That city does deserve judgment and God is perfectly just in doing destroying it!

Thus, what initially looked like God relenting or changing his mind turned out to be a way of bringing Abe around to his way of thinking. We see a similar strategy (for an opposite reason) that God used with Jonah after Nineveh was spared judgment, and Jonah is beside himself with anger because God showed mercy. God grew up a plant to offer shade from the burning sun while the sulking prophet just sat there waiting for God to come around to his way of thinking. Then God used a little worm to destroy the plant which made Jonah angry, but showed him that he was more concerned for his own comfort than he was for the thousands in Nineveh who had just repented.

Someone once said that Jonah waited beneath the comfort of his shade-plant for God to come around to his way of thinking, while God destroyed Jonah’s comfort and waited for him to come around to his (God’s) way of loving.

Application: We tend to look at prayer as a way of getting things from God —and we are enjoined to ask, seek, knock. However, when prayer is just asking we often grow frustrated when the answers are not immediately forthcoming or not according to our expectations. The experience of Abraham (and to a certain extent, Jonah) shows us that God often uses the process of prayer (be asking, be seeking, be knocking) to bring us around to his way of thinking; to understand his mind and perspective on things. In prayer then, God often changes us to see what he sees and then ask for what he wants.

And so, Lord, you have heard my prayer (as well as the prayers of many others) concerning the outcome of these scans. I’ve asked you for the things that I want, but you have convinced my heart that this whole situation is not about me and my longevity. It is about you and what you want for my life and the faith of those around me. It is about you being glorified in my body whether by life or by death. I’m not sure I even understand what that means, but you have brought me to the place where that is what I want. I am in your hands; I bless you, I trust you, and I worship you my Father. Amen.

The Basic Things… this is a football!

The start of the NFL football season reminds me how my high school football coach would always begin our season by holding up a football and use the words of Vince Lombardi, “This is a football!” Pretty basic, eh? The older I have become in my journey of faith and the more I have counseled and mentored others, the more I have found the basic things to be the most important to spiritual growth and maturity. For me, these basic things have been (and continue to be) the daily reading of Scripture and the discipline of private prayer.

The reading of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation each year (or year and a half), has increasingly become more enjoyable for me. I use a different Bible version each time and make marginal notes so that I will have a Bible to give to each of my kids and grandkids, if I live that long. The reason why I enjoy reading Scripture is because it engages my intellect and my feeds my desire for knowledge. The danger for me, however, especially when I was in local church ministry, was to read the Bible with the thought of preaching and preparing my sermons. I still have that tendency, but I have learned that I must read the Scripture for myself first- to feed my own soul- before I can feed others. Remember the warning we get during the pre-flight instruction whenever we fly? “Put the oxygen mask on yourself then on your child.” Likewise, Paul warned young Pastor Timothy to “take heed to yourself and to your teaching…because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim 4:16).

The discipline of prayer engages something else in me – my heart, my emotions, the desire to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit. Rarely is it a “heady” experience. All of this is why I call prayer a discipline in my life because it doesn’t come as easy for me as reading the Bible. However, I have kept at it over a lifetime and the more I have prayed, the more I have learned to pray. And the more I have learned to pray, the more I have come to trust in the One who hears my prayers- he really hears my prayers. “I call on the Lord in my distress and he answers me” (Ps 120:1). “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call upon him in truth” (Ps 145:18). “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us through wordless groans” (Rom 8:26). I take this to mean that these groans are ours made at times of suffering when we really don’t know what to pray. The Holy Spirit takes those groans and articulates them before our Heavenly Father. I’ve experienced this while going through some of my cancer treatments when it was so hard for me to even think of the words by which to form a prayer. I could only groan, and I believe the Holy Spirit articulated that prayer and interceded on my behalf according to the will of God.

So, I want to challenge you in this area of prayer. “Dave, I’ve tried to be faithful at prayer, but I get so distracted and end up quitting because it seems so pointless to keep going.” Oh no, dear sister/brother, prayer is never pointless. It is difficult because our hearts are not naturally bent towards God. Even the Psalmist asks over and over again that his heart be inclined (bent) towards God. This is why you must keep at it, even when your mind wanders, ask God to incline your mind to him. Some people find it helpful to personalize the Scripture and pray it as a prayer back to God. This is easier to do with the Psalms, but you can pause while reading any passage and interact with God in prayer. Some have called this listening prayer, for as you communicate with God in this way you may hear him speak to you in a thought, in an impression, through the passage you are reading.

JC Ryle has said it well: But just as the first sign of life in a newborn is crying out in order to breathe, so the first sign of life in one who is born again is a desire, a need to cry out to God in prayer. The Holy Spirit is given to us to make us new creations but also to give us the disposition to cry out to God, “Abba, Father.” A hypocrite can preach from false motives, write books for personal gain, do good works to gain recognition for himself, but seldom will a hypocrite go into his [prayer] closet on a daily basis and cry out to his Heavenly Father. So, my dear brothers and sisters, if you have been born of God, you have within you both the capacity and desire to pray. If you do not, then you do not know God or share in his life.

What are you waiting for my dear ones? Get back to the basics!

How to spend an hour in prayer…

I am starting a prayer emphasis at the Wheaton College Graduate School tomorrow with a message called “Stop Dabbling at Prayer!” based on Mark 1:35-39. By the way, our once- a-week grad chapel talks are put up on YouTube the same day as they are given — Wednesdays, 10:40-11:25 am. Stop by our chapel service if you are in the area. The public is always welcome. We meet in Barrows Auditorium of the Billy Graham Center. Here is the link:   https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL9GwT4_YRZdBkdopwjSB4C4-JHcf9uEs_

As I was saying, before I interrupted myself, we are starting a prayer initiative and I will be handing out a very simple guide to help students spend an hour alone in prayer. Its probably similar to other guides that you have seen, but I have shaped it over the years. You are welcome to use it and can tailor it to your own situation.

We desperately need to be a people of prayer! My friend, Dick Burr, used to say that the reason our churches are no longer praying church is because they are made of people who are no longer praying “in the secret closet.” (Matt. 6:6)

Hope you find this guide helpful…

10 minutes of Preparation: Quiet your soul before the Lord by reading out loud a Psalm, like Ps 51; personalize it and pray it back to the Lord. Come before the Lord with humility and repentance, and remember to apply the gospel to yourself.

10 minutes of Adoration: Read out loud a Psalm, like Ps 103; sing a hymn, like “Praise to the Lord the Almighty the King of Creation” or a worship song like Matt Redman’s “Blessed be Your Name.” Let your heart be filled with adoration and praise; sense the presence God “inhabiting” them. (Ps 22:3)

10 minutes of Thanksgiving: Remember and recount the Lord’s recent blessings in your life; deliverances, answered prayer, encouragements, provisions, etc. “Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.” (Ps 118:1)

10 minutes of Petition: Bring your pressing issues and fears before Him. With what are you presently struggling: family, finances, studies, job, habits and patterns of behavior? “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! O Lord hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to my pleas for mercy!” (Ps 130:1, 2) “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God.” (Ps 143:10)

5 minutes of Listening Silence: Pray out loud 1 Samuel 3:9, “Speak Lord for your servant is listening” … then listen.

15 minutes of Intercession: Pray for your friends/relatives/neighbors/fellow workers/students and their needs. Pray for our college/grad school; faculty/staff. Pray for your church and its leadership; for its mission/outreach and its ministry to children and youth, widows, sick, and shut-in. Read Ps 107 out loud and then pray for your nation; its leaders, the poor/homeless, the oppressed/persecuted. Pray for the revival of God’s people (Acts 3:19). Also, pray for the global influence of the gospel; for the unreached, the planting of new churches and training of leaders for those churches, the ministries of care/compassion/justice/anti-slavery, and those in prison for the sake of the gospel.

How can God carry the burden of this world? 

I am at a place in my life where I can hardly pray without my heart being so burdened with the weight of the requests that it really feels like it is breaking. I have a dear friend who just passed away, another who has cancer, another who is in recovery from a broken neck, another who is recovering from back surgery. In addition, prayer for  the suffering places of the world where hunger and deprivation reign and where innocents suffer from the greed of the powerful. Lastly, prayer for the victims of senseless acts of violence wrought by terrorists or those motivated by anger in the workplace or by road rage.

Who can bear the burden of prayer for these things? And yet there is God… He hears my requests and yours as well, and the cries of those who are suffering alone and forgotten– constantly and all at once! He is not limited by the boundaries of a finite nature, a changeable character, or the whims and oddities of emotions.

I have never before thought of the infinitude of God in relation to prayer.  There is no waiting list or pecking order to his attentiveness.  There is no favoritism to his love. His answers don’t always come immediately nor in the shape of our desires or passionate pleas, which any parent can understand, but they will come because he hears them all.

He does not hear us according to our worthiness, but according to his love for us in Christ. Nothing that comes from his hand is meant for evil nor for our punishment, though it may involve suffering and hurt like … There is no one so sinful that God will not hear his cry of repentance.  There is no one so prodigal that she will not have the Father’s embrace.

The only prayer that God rejects (at least that I know of) is the prayer of the self- righteous heart.  In Luke 18:9-14 Jesus compares the prayer of the Pharisee who is obsessed with his own virtue with the prayer of the despised tax collector who humbly asks God for mercy. Jesus said,”I tell you this man (the tax collector), rather than the other, went home justified before God.”

So my dear sister or brother, why do you hesitate to pray? Are you afraid that you are not worthy enough or that God has more important things to do than listen to you? Do you feel you have prayed and prayed and God has not answered? Do you feel that what you are facing is the punishment for the sins of the past? Do you no longer feel like praying? I have felt all of these deceptive hindrances to prayer and found only one solution; to just pray!  After all this is what faith does; it humbly acts on what it knows to be true even though everything in and around it screams the antithesis.  One Puritan preacher said that when Jesus cried out “my God, my God, what have you forsaken me” faith was evidenced not at the nadir of joy and peace but at the meridian of darkness.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds ye so much dread, are big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head. 

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense; but trust him for his grace; behind a frowning providence he hides a smiling face.

William Cowper, 1774

Praying for the Nation

prayerAs we face the New Year and the threat of the Fiscal Cliff, let me suggest that we spend time in prayer for our nation. Most of my readers are from the USA, but I know this blog is read in at least 40 other countries. Perhaps the following will prime the pump of prayer for your nation as well:

• The Bible teaches that God blesses those nations that keep His standards of justice and righteousness. “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.” (Proverbs 15:34 NIV)
• It also teaches that God will discipline nations that defy His standards. “For the nation or kingdom that will not serve you will perish; it will be utterly ruined.” (Isaiah 60:12 NIV)
• Our nation has clearly violated many of God’s moral standards.
• The Bible gives examples of individual believers who, convicted over the sins of their nation, confessed those sins to God. Thus, Nehemiah prayed: “O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we have committed, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.” (Nehemiah 1:5-7 NIV)
• God commands us to pray “for all men everywhere,” and especially for our national leaders, with the overarching goal of peace and salvation. “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone– for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim 2:1-4 NIV)
• Holy Scripture teaches that Satan binds the hearts and blinds the minds of the lost, and that we should pray for their release from that bondage. “… if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.” (II Timothy 2:25-26 NASB)
• Jesus taught that we should pray even for our enemies. “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44 NIV)
• The Bible teaches that we should not be anxious, but instead that we should present our requests to God with thanksgiving, which results in the experience of God’s peace. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7 NIV)

A blessed 2013 to you and your family, and may God lead our nation along the path of repentance!

North Korea

North Korea is more than a dictatorship, it is a totalitarian regime where citizens must not only obey their leaders but worship them as gods. This is a very consistent theme throughout history.  Dictatorships have often been accompanied by emperor worship or at least hints of deification: the Roman Caesars, King Herod (Acts 12), Hitler, Stalin, Emperor of Japan, even the anti-Christ (2 Thess 2:4). Kim Il Sung, the founder of “modern” North  Korea created “Juche,” (literally, self-reliance) the country’s ideology which has become the state religion and the government uses cult indoctrination to see that it prospers. North Korean children are annually given one piece of candy, which is a luxury in a country where 40% of children are malnourished. These children are taught that before they eat their candy they are to give thanks to their country’s dictator-god.  They are also taught to sing worship songs found in a book of 600 hundred hymns to Sung and his son Kim Jong-il. In fact, there is a Christian ministry that has put Christian lyrics to at least thirty of these hymns and is broadcasting them into the country. (The reverse of what Hitler did when he took Christian hymns and changed the lyrics to support the worship of the State.) To keep “Juche” in place, the government harasses, tortures, imprisons, and kidnaps those who dare follow “the God of heaven” and his Son Jesus Christ. Thus to disavow “Juche” is tantamount to treason just as refusing to step on the “Fumie” was in sixteenth-century Japan or to burn incense to the Emperor was in second and third-century Rome. I wonder what test of citizenship we might someday undergo in the West? Pray for the Church in North Korea.

What is Your Hope for the Church?

Christianity Today is celebrating a “rebranding,” which includes a new visual identity and the launch of a new ministry website, ChristianityToday.org. As a part of its celebration, it is asking people to respond to the question “What is my hope for the future of the Church”? Since I am a contributing editor to Leadership Journal, also published by Christianity Today Int’l, I was invited to write something in answer to the same question.  To be honest, when I went on the website and started to read people’s hopes for the future of the Church, I got scared. Call me Mr. Sensitive, but after being a pastor for 40 years all I’ve heard have been people’s preferences for what they want the Church to be like, and these preferences are often hidden behind their hopes, dreams, and “suggestions.” I believe that many of these “suggestions” are based upon flawed Continue reading “What is Your Hope for the Church?”