Commonsense Christianity

Commonsense Christianity

Why You (Probably) Shouldn’t Pray for a Sign

posted by Carolyn Henderson

Does the sunlight breaking through the clouds mean anything? How about the shape of the clouds? Once we start looking for signs, we see them everywhere. Peace, original oil painting by Steve Henderson.

Signs and wonders: they fascinate us. We marvel at the crossing of the Red Sea, Jesus’ feeding of 5,000 and 4,000, even Gideon with his soggy sheep fleece.

One part of us asks, “Is this really true?” while another part says, “Do this for me, God! Do this for me!”

And within contemporary Christian culture, we are often encouraged to “ask for a sign,” because, we are assured, Gideon did this (multiple times), and God honored his request. He can do no less for us, we’re told, and indeed, if we have enough faith, we force His hand.

Good or Bad, We’re Not Gideon

But we’re not Gideon, my friends, (Judges 6-8) and God isn’t asking us to wipe out an overwhelming Midianite enemy by shouting, blowing on trumpets, and breaking jars. If the story of Gideon tells us anything, it’s that God gets the credit for winning our battles. Gideon’s story isn’t one extolling a man’s faith, but rather his reluctance, and God’s gracious understanding of that fear.

After Jesus fed the 5,000 with extremely limited resources, He was approached by the Pharisees, who tested Him (this is a telling phrase) by asking for a sign from heaven. He replied by sighing,

“Why does this generation ask for a miraculous sign? I tell you the truth, no sign will be given to it.” (Mark 8: 12)

“But the Pharisees were bad,” it’s tempting to reply. “And I’m good.”

I’ll send you to Luke 18: 10 for that one, but right now, let’s keep reading in Mark 8, verses 14-21, when Jesus cautions His disciples to “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”

It Doesn’t Have to Do with Bread

Clueless, like us, that they are, the disciples were convinced that somehow, Jesus was talking about bread, which they they presently lacked. But immediately before this passage is the encounter with the Pharisees, asking for a sign. If the Pharisees hadn’t been there for the whole bread event, they had to have at least heard of it. And apparently it wasn’t enough.

Perhaps the Israelites jumped from rock to rock, and the Egyptians were more clumsy. Convergence, original oil painting by Steve Henderson; licensed open edition print at ICanvasART.

Consider this: perhaps an aspect of the yeast of the Pharisees is this insistence upon a sign. And the problem with asking for signs is that they are never enough.

It doesn’t matter what we ask for: if we get it, the first thing we do is figure out why it happened, and settle upon a natural explanation. Once we get that, we say,

“But that’s not really a sign, Lord. Give me a real one!”

Don’t believe me? Mention the Red Sea to the average skeptic (and this includes many Christians), and he’ll say, “Oh, there was a wind, and it blew the water back,” or, “The water was only 2 feet deep,” which makes you wonder how the Egyptians drowned in it.

There Have Been Signs Already

“If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead,” Abraham, in Jesus’s parable, tells the rich man in hell who pleads that someone go warn his still living brothers. (Luke 16: 31)

Signs are never enough.

The desire for signs also distracts us from the real thing — Jesus, and our faith in Him. When we insist upon a sign as evidence that Jesus has heard, and will do something, about our prayer, His goodness, and His compassion, and His love are dependent upon whether or not He sends the sign. If He doesn’t, then we doubt Him, not the wisdom, or lack of thereof, of our prayer. We are more interested in what Jesus can do for us, then we are in Jesus ourselves:

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus tells a group who sought Him out after He fed the 5,000, “you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” (John 6: 26) These people didn’t even want a sign; they just wanted more food.

How about THIS Verse?

A popular verse, when it comes to justify asking for a sign, is Isaiah 7: 10, in which the Lord tells Judah’s King Ahaz, “Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.”

Ahaz’ response is interesting: “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.”

While we frequently express our doubt in God’s goodness by demanding a sign, Ahaz was reluctant — 1) because he didn’t want to put God to the test but additionally 2) because he still doubted God, even when encouraged to trust Him. It’s a thought.

If you, like Ahaz, are strongly encouraged to ask for a sign, then follow God’s leading — but make sure it’s God’s leading. You’ll be less likely to be fooled by the voices in your head, or Satan’s whispering over your shoulder, if you find, and read, the many promises God has given us in His word that He hears our prayers  (Psalm 34: 15,  2 Chronicles 7: 14); He will never abandon us (Deuteronomy 31: 8); and He knows our needs (Matthew 6: 8, Luke 11: 13).

Trust God, not wonders. Seek Jesus, not miracles. Ask for wisdom, not signs. Then, when the wonders and the miracles and the signs occur, you will be able to discern which are from God, and which are not.

Thank You

Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity, where I have spent many fruitless hours praying, looking for, and expecting a sign, when Jesus just wanted me to look for Him instead.

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5 Blessings You Don’t Have to Be Rich to Enjoy

posted by Carolyn Henderson

Sunshine is so much a part of our everyday existence that we easily take it for granted. Can you imagine life without the sun? Three Horses, original oil painting by Steve Henderson.

Years ago, I spoke with a new mom about being lonely, and mentioned that I had experienced my share of that painful condition.

“Oh, I’m not LONELY!” she shot back, as if we were discussing leprosy or something.

You get the same reaction when you admit, “I would love to have a little more money, just to make things easier, you know.”

“Oh, I never pray for MONEY!” insecure Christians counter in alarm.

We All Worry about Money

Oh, come on, people — of course you pray for money. If it weren’t such a pressing need in our lives Jesus wouldn’t have told us not to worry about what we eat, drink, or wear (all of which require money) in Matthew 6: 31.

That being said, many of us have more than we think we do, especially in wealthier countries. And while it’s tempting to pray for enough money that we never have to worry about paying for anything again, we forget that we have access to some very precious treasures that cost little, or nothing. It’s worth recognizing their existence and being grateful:

It’s up There Every Single Day

1) The sun. Yes, I spelled that right — that great big golden orb lights up the day for everyone, and no matter how greedy some people get, they can’t restrict sunlight from the rest of us and keep it all to themselves:

“(God) causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous,” Jesus tells us in Matthew 5: 45.

The sun’s received a bad rap these last few years, and many people stay out of it or slather on a chemical concoction before darting from their home to their car. But the next time you’re outside, close your eyes, feel the warmth on your face, and be glad for something so big that we all can share it. Too many of the good gifts God intended for His creation to enjoy are grabbed and hoarded by a few.

Meant to Give Us Pleasure

2) Food. This is one of those good gifts that are grabbed and hoarded by a few — if not the food itself, then the means to purchase enough to feed oneself and one’s family, and thereby live a dignified existence.

If you have enough food that you eat multiple times a day and are satisfied, then be very, very grateful. In many families, it is tradition to “say grace” before a meal, but this can quickly become a meaningless rote. The next time, and every time, you eat, truly mean the words you express, and pray for those who don’t have enough. Then take the next step, and ask God what you can do to help someone who isn’t getting enough to eat.

We can’t know all 7 billion of us, but we all have special relationships with special people. Evening Waltz, original oil painting by Steve Henderson.

God intended food to be a regular blessing for all of us, and His consistent promise to the Israelites was that He would ” . . . bring them up out of (Egypt) into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”  (Exodus 3: 8)

Our People

3) Family and friends. The word “dysfunctional” is bandied about so generously these days that we forget that family is a good thing: our tribe, unique to each one of us, is there to love, support and care for for its members:

“If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever,” 1 Timothy 5: 8 tells us. Each one of us has individuals within our lives that we act with on a special basis: we are a father, a mother, daughter, son, niece, grandson, cousin, friend.

One of the worst things about being obscenely rich, famous, and influential is the uncertainty of really knowing who truly loves you, just because you’re you, and who acts like they love you because you’re fabulously rich, famous, and influential.

Rest

4) A good night’s sleep. People in chronic pain or poor health, or those under severe anxiety, know the gift that sleep can bring:

“I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety,” Psalm 4: 8 says.  When I pray for people, one of the first, and most frequent, items on the list is a good night’s sleep. If you got one last night, take a moment, close your eyes, and thank God.

One God, Available to All

5) Access to God. All of us can cry to God and be assured that we are heard:

“Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me,” Psalm 50: 15 promises. Psalm 34: 6 is a variation comforting to those of us not in the 1 percent:

“This poor man called, and the Lord heard him.”

Because God made everything and owns it all, He is not impressed by power, name, academic degrees, awards, money, appearances, or the number of people on your social media sites: “God does not show favoritism.” (Romans 2: 11)

Let’s say your prayers were answered, and 10 million dollars, tax-free, dropped into your bank account. Which of the five preceding items would you be willing to give up to get it?

Thank You

Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity, where I got a phenomenal night’s sleep a few days ago. I love my noisy, quirky, chaotic family; ate muffins for breakfast; and swung in the hammock this weekend, the sun warming my skin.

But most precious of all is that God is in my life: He loves quirky, chaotic me enough to stretch and pull and hold and love me moment by moment.

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When Our Dreams Never Come True

posted by Carolyn Henderson

Dreams are living, vibrant things, like flowers, and trees, that have a season and a time, and they’re always changing. But they’re alive. Field of Dreams, original oil painting by Steve Henderson

From the time we are schoolchildren, we are regularly assured,

“You can be anything you want to be. Just dream it, and it will come true.”

Do an Internet search on “following your dreams” and you’ll come up with everything from Dream Believe Achieve (or, Dream Believe Receive for the Christian version) to You Can Do It! Just Believe! (Christian version: God Will Do It! Just Believe!)

We all have dreams, desires, hopes, and aspirations — part of being made in the image of God is that we desire to create, just like our Father. The significant difference between us and Him is that while He creates out of nothing, we create under His guidance, teaching, and direction:

“To a man belong the plans of the heart,” Proverbs 16: 1 tells us, “but from the Lord comes the reply of the tongue,” and in 16: 9, “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.”

God Is Involved in Our Dreams

These verses take us beyond inane reassurances that Belief alone, and enough of it, will lead us to our goal, because even as schoolchildren we say to ourselves,

“I want to do this impossible thing, but how?”

Only believe! just doesn’t cut it, although if you watch too much TV and read too many You Can Do It! books, you will consistently belabor under the impression that things aren’t working out because of you, somehow.

“What, specifically, am I supposed to believe in?” is a valid question. “In me? In some power within me? In my influence with God? If it’s God I believe in, then aren’t I supposed to trust that He knows best what to do with my life, including my dreams?”

God Really Isn’t Irritable

On the other end of the spectrum, if the god you serve is the impatient, destructive, irritated being that too many Christians mistake for God, you don’t even bother having dreams, because your substitute has his own plan, and he’ll squeeze you into it, no matter how painful it is to you.

“God wants you out of your comfort zone!” is the sing-song response by some shallow creature stomping on your pearls — your aching, longing dream — which isn’t coming true.

Let’s shoot that sentence and bury it once and for all, okay?

Following our dreams is a dance that involves letting God lead, because,

“If the Lord delights in a man’s way, he makes his steps firm; though he stumble, he will not fall, for the Lord upholds him with his hand.” (Psalm 37: 23-24)

A Valid Question

So now the valid question is: “How do I know if the Lord delights in my way?”

When we allow God to direct our steps, we can walk with confidence on the path set before us, because we’re not walking it alone. Cadence, original oil painting by Steve Henderson; licensed open edition print at Great Big Canvas and iCanvasART.

Excellent question. One of the reasons it frequently takes so long to achieve our dreams is because the dreams, and the dreamers, need finessing. Back to Proverbs 16, verse 2:

“All a man’s ways seem innocent to him, but motives are weighed by the Lord.”

In the rare moments when we are truly honest with ourselves, and God, we admit that we want that position at work not just because we can help more people (which is the reason we give to God), but also because we’ll get a hefty salary increase and its attendant social distinction. Or we seek additional speaking engagements not only because we have a message about God’s love and acceptance we want our hearers to hear (God version) but because we want more hearers so that the people who said we were losers in high school would be proven wrong, if only in our minds.

A Pure Heart Is Priceless — and It Protects Us

It’s not wrong to pray for the job position or the speaking engagements, but if God grants them to us while our heart is divided about why we want them, you can bet that our negative motives will overshadow our positive ones. We mean too much to God to be spoiled.

“You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want,” James 4: 2 tells us.

“You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with the wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”

If you’re like me, you are convinced, that within your dreams, you have the right motives, but the waiting period — which seems so fruitless and exasperating — is a time to continually draw before Him, learn from Him, and allow him to bring about the renewing of our minds (Romans 12: 2) that purifies our heart — so that it is not damaged by the additional temptations that accompany the fulfillment of God’s answer.  Part of “directing our steps” is keeping them side by side with His, and this involves — moment by moment — submitting our will, and our dreams, into His hands.

Thank You

Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity. I find great comfort in knowing that my primary job, on this earth, is to trust God, and that He will direct the outcome. While it’s hard to trust, it’s feasible, which is more than can be said about tapping into non-existent internal power — or worse, tapping into very existent power that does not draw from God.

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Four Lies Creeping into Today’s Christian Church

posted by Carolyn Henderson

In the shadows, all sorts of things can lurk. We must use the light we have available to us to truly see. Moonlit Night on the Coppei, original oil painting by Steve Henderson, sold.

Apostasy is nothing new in Christianity. Two thousand years ago Jesus warned that false prophets “come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” (Matthew 7: 15)

Given that we, the people of God, are frequently referred to as sheep, the term “sheep’s clothing” imparts the disquieting concept that these false prophets will inveigle their way into the church itself, potentially fooling the saints (Matthew 24: 24).

According to the apostle Peter, false teachers arise not only in the general populace (“among the people”) but in the church as well (“among you”). Peter is scathing in his commentary:

“They will secretly introduce destructive heresies . . . In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up.” (2 Peter 2: 1, 3)

Some Things Never Change

While these words were written two thousand years ago, some things never change, and many of Satan’s appealing lies just never go away. They just remove the robe and put on a suit. Here are four we are battling today:

Riches

1) God wants you to be rich! Advocates of the prosperity doctrine assert that true Christians are wealthy Christians.  Through an interesting twisting of Scripture, they convince followers that God proves His love by bestowing material gifts:

“How much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7: 11) and “If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land.”

Aside from deliberately misinterpreting the word, “gifts,” these teachers noticeably avoid verses like:

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” (Matthew 5: 6), or

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16: 24)

A cursory reading of the Bible emphasizes that God wants our hearts and obedience, and while the one thing He gives us, unconditionally, is love — money’s not guaranteed. Christ Himself claimed no place to lay His head at night: why would the Father withhold from His Son the material blessings He is apparently obligated to shower upon us?

Power

2) You have the power, in your mind, to change your life! Theoretically, because the Holy Spirit lives in Christians, we can “tap into” this power, if only we know the right words, methods, and incantations, all of which are taught through various authors’ books.

We’re much smaller, and weaker, and defenseless than we think we are. Bold Innocence, original oil painting by Steve Henderson, sold. Licensed open edition print at Great Big Canvas and iCanvasART

The power to be like God — because this is what this teaching promises — goes back to Eden:

The serpent said, “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Genesis 3: 4)

God will not abdicate His absolute power to any of His creatures, including us, who demand, declare, proclaim, announce, aver, assure, and insist that He do what we say. This includes “visualizing” the answer to your prayer — it doesn’t matter how hard you believe that a rock will fly, your mind can’t make it do so. If it does fly, you didn’t do it, and think twice before you drag God into it. There is one other person in the garden, however, who is always happy to oblige.

Failure

3) You are the sum of your choices, and what you become in life is ultimately up to you. We all make bad choices, and we manage a few good ones in there as well, but if we are dependent upon the outcome of our choices to make or break our lives, we’re screwed.

“In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength,” God tells us in Isaiah 30: 15.

The apostle Paul hurt a whole lot of people before his conversion; Peter denied His Lord three times; Abraham, the great Patriarch, lied, twice, about Sarah being his sister or his wife; Isaac repeated the same lie a generation later, with his wife Rebekah.

All of these bad choices should have resulted in bad lives, but God’s intervention and guidance brought about mercy and redemption. So it is with all of us, my friends: overcoming our bad choices doesn’t depend upon our strength, but God’s.

Self

4) The lack of self-esteem is a huge problem in people’s lives: if we can’t love ourselves, how can we love others?

The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5: 1 – 12 is distinctly lacking in encouraging us to lift ourselves up — rather, we find blessing in being poor in spirit, meek, mournful, merciful, pure, and seeking after God. Ironically, it is through pain — physical, mental, and environmental — that we draw closer to God, because otherwise, when things are going fine and we’re enjoying all those material blessings we’re told we deserve to demand, we don’t need God.

As St. Augustine said, “God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.”

You don’t have to focus on yourself first, before you focus on others, and indeed, if it were a requisite, then Christ would have quoted three most important commandments, as opposed to two.

The best lie is mostly truth, with just a hint of falsehood cleverly woven throughout. Good lies are also appealing, because otherwise, why would we believe them? Anytime we focus our goals on money, position, or security, we set up a false God in the place of the real one.

“Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5: 21)

Thank You

Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity, where I encourage people to seek God’s truth by reading His Word — you can’t spot a lie, unless you know the truth.

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