As Christians, we scold ourselves a lot, not the least of which is about prayer.
Have you heard this one?
“God isn’t Santa Claus, you know, and He gets tired of our putting a wish list in front of Him all the time.”
While it’s true that God isn’t Santa Claus, the implication that He emits an exasperated sigh whenever we approach Him with our requests, belies the encouragement we are given to do so in Philippians 4:6:
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
The Santa Claus association also reduces the trusting belief of the average believer to childish demands, implying that we are focused on Me Me Me all the time when we express our fears about finances, health, relationships, or life direction — key areas all humans struggle with.
“Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you,” Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:7. This clear invitation to bare our hurts, needs, wants, and desires before the One who loves us doesn’t come with caveats, like — “Don’t pray for a new car. That’s selfish. And don’t pray for small, insignificant things. That wastes My time.”
All Prayers Matter
While it’s easy to look at other people’s prayers — especially if they have been vulnerable enough to share them with us — and discount them as immature, shallow, unimportant, and just plain wrong — it is not our job to police the thoughts of others, and the beauty of grace is that we can pray for something even with the wrong motivations, and Jesus does not impatiently thrust us aside, exclaiming,
“Come back when you have something worth talking to Me about!”
When we ask for a new car, and our motives are truly selfish, we may or may not get the car — but complementing the answer will be gentle teaching on the part of the ultimate Teacher, who is constantly forming and shaping us into better, wiser, more loving beings. (This is an aspect pointedly overlooked and ignored by the Prosperity Preaching crowd, which makes hay, and money, by preying upon people’s desire for material wealth.)
Unlike humans, Jesus does not resort to petty scolding, shaming, berating, censuring, and reproaching. In case we haven’t noticed, negative techniques, while they can bring about a temporary change, generally don’t work for the long term — and long term, as in eternity — is a big thing with God.
Jesus Does Things Differently
As an example of Christ’s way of doing things, John chapter 6 relates Jesus’s feeding the 5,000, in which He takes five small barley loaves and two fish, gives thanks, and executes the ultimate doing a lot with a little performance. People were impressed, so much so that the next day, finding Him gone, they seriously went looking, bundling themselves into boats and rowing across the lake to the other side — no easy feat.
They were looking for Jesus. Sort of.
“I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill,” was the first thing He told them in verse 26.
Signs and wonders always fascinate us, and throughout the Gospels, people seek them:
“Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders, you will never believe.” Jesus told a royal official seeking a cure for his dying son in John 4:48.
When we consider this as a reproof, it looks harsh, because the man’s response is, “Sir, come down before my child dies.”
It’s a prayer any of us would make, and Jesus’s statement, as opposed to scolding, is simply stating a fact — a true fact, as further verses show:
“The man took Jesus at his word and departed. While he was still on the way, his servants met him with the news that his boy was living. When he inquired as to the time when his son got better, they said to him, ‘The fever left him yesterday at the seventh hour.’
“Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, ‘Your son will live.’ So he and all his household believed.”
Notice the juxtaposition?
He Does Not Condemn Us
Jesus knows, but does not condemn us for, our sincere desire that He prove His power, grace, mercy, and love for us through His actions. It’s a sign of our spiritual immaturity, but our loving Father knows how to raise children.
Let’s go back to John 6:26-27, in which Jesus points out that His “followers” were satisfied with something far less than even signs and wonders — they would settle for bread and fish — extremely temporary desires that need to be fulfilled again and again:
“Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you,” He says.
In other words, seek the Creator, not the creation; the One Who answers the prayer, as opposed to the prayer’s answer. It’s a fine, but important distinction, one that may take a long, long period of frustrated, unanswered prayer before we see the importance of striving — asking, seeking, knocking — for.
Because once we get bread, once it’s eaten, it’s gone. Jesus encourages us to seek “the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die.” (John 6:50)
This bread will sustain us through everything, and it is ultimately what we should — but frequently don’t — seek, because we are temporal creatures, battened and battered about by our circumstances, and seeking relief from pain, anxiety, and fear.
That relief is there, but to avoid going up and down with our circumstances — happy because this prayer was answered, but unhappy because it wasn’t answered quite the way we wanted; relieved that the check came in, but panicking about the money needed for tomorrow’s bills — we have to focus less on the answer to our prayers, and more on the One doing the answering.
“Your forefathers ate manna and died,” Jesus tells the Jews. “but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.” (John 6:58)
Let us pray — confidently, trustingly, and many times with the wrong motivations — but let us rest in the hands of Him who loves us enough to guide us, teach us, hold us, and love us.
He’s bigger — and better — than Santa Claus.
Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity. Quite frankly, I have told God more than once, “I’m less interested in growing in maturity than I am in Your answering my prayer.”
We are free to be honest with Him — that’s what grace is all about.
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On a recent visit to my middle daughter (note to self, and parents with three or more children: we MUST find a better term for “middle child”), I was convinced to join her, and a group of ridiculously fit others, at the local CrossFit Gym.
CrossFit– a strength and conditioning program that is remarkably suited to individual tailoring — is a bit controversial, simply because its members are serious about their workouts. They lift extremely heavy weights. They do an insane number of push ups. Unsatisfied with the average pull-up, of which many people, like me, cannot do even one, they create variations, many of which leave you, mouth agape, with the thought, “Are you kidding?”
They push themselves and their bodies beyond what their minds think they can do, and therein lies the controversy:
“It’s too hard.”
“This demands too much.”
“The average person can’t do this.”
As an average person who has survived the experience not only once, but three times (weird, I know — I kept going back for more), I can assure you that yes, it is hard, and yes, it demands a lot, but also yes, it can be done — because the workouts are scaled — read, adjusted — to the ability of the person doing them.
So, while some people in the room are jumping up on, and down from, a two-foot wooden box, I chose to step up, one foot at a time, and down, for the 21, 15, and 9 scheduled repetitions. And while this was laughably easy for my daughter, it was perfectly tailored to me.
When it was time to lift a bar, with weights — 21, 15, and 9 times — I was fine with 11 pounds and figuring out proper form. In front of me, the Middle Daughter was lifting 90? 100? 110? The man in front of her had even more weights on the bar; the man behind me had less.
Tailored to Our Abilities
We all did what we felt we could do, pushing ourselves as hard as we could without “failing,” as the coaches phrase it, and everyone was so focused on getting through the workout, alive, that no one had time to watch, and judge or envy, those around them.
I don’t think I can overemphasize the, “tailored to one’s ability,” part — an option that is structured and customized by the individual doing the workout, in conjunction with advice from the coach. This coach knows the people in the class, and his or her goal is to encourage each participant to work as hard as they can, without being ridiculous about it.
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me,” Jesus, who could be called the ultimate CrossFit coach, says in John 10:27.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” He says in Matthew 11:28-30. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
For all that the yoke is easy, and its burden light, it’s still got some weight to it, which is something we forget about when we walk as Christians: when things get difficult, when we find ourselves breathing heavily, when we can’t possibly keep going because “it’s too hard,” “it demands too much,” and “the average person can’t do this,” we say it’s because we don’t have enough faith, when really, we could very well be in the midst of a high-intensity workout, one tailored to our abilities, and one that will cause us to emerge stronger than we were before.
Life Is a Workout for Everyone
Rather than put ourselves down because our life isn’t running smoothly while everyone else’s appears to be doing so, we can,
“rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character hope,” (Romans 5:5) much in the same way that lifting weights builds muscles, and running and jumping enhance aerobic endurance.
Now like most human beings, I don’t particularly jump up and down with joy over the high anxiety, stress-inducing circumstances that insert themselves into all of our lives, but the apostle Peter tells us in 1 Peter 4:12,
“Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice (there’s that word again) that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.”
Life happens, to all of us. Sometimes it feels like there’s too much weight on the bar, but,
“God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.” (1 Corinthians 10:13). This verse is not meant to alarm us, because God is tossing bad things our way, but to relieve us from the fear that we will fail because the weight is too heavy, and result in our hurting ourselves. If need be, He’ll act as spotter from behind, and take some of that weight off.
Off the Sofa, Away from the Chips
In 2 Peter 1:5-8, the apostle encourages us to,
“make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Ineffective, unproductive, and weak — that’s what our bodies become when we sit in a chair all day and eat chips. And that’s what our spiritual life could look like if we never had any problems, but life doesn’t let us get away with that option.
We all have problems. We all have concerns. We all have worries and sorrows and pain and suffering — but we also have the ultimate CrossFit coach — He will not lead us to failure.
Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity, where, though I am not continuing CrossFit, I have created my own version of Cross Pilates, and push myself in my own insane manner in the comfort of my bedroom.
And every day, in life, I keep moving, pushing, jumping, leaping, stretching, trying, and resting in God, as I grow in wisdom and grace. May you, my friend, do likewise as well.
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Dreams are great things. They push us, prod us, exhilarate us, give us hope for a brighter future.
They also frustrate us to no end, especially when we have a dream, a desire, a longing, an aching — for years and years and years — but despite how much we work toward it, pray about it, give it back to God in case we’re worshiping it too much — it doesn’t happen.
But it also doesn’t go away.
Does this strike something deep inside you?
If it doesn’t, then you may be one of those people who tells others,
“Just have faith! God ALWAYS answers prayer, and maybe you just need to pray more,”
“There must be some sin, or something, in your life that is causing God to not hear your prayers,”
“Give that dream to God. You’re trying to control the situation, and this prevents Him from doing as He wills.”
“Why not me, God?”
If you do understand the frustration of a long-term, chronic desire about which you pray and pray and pray, it’s pretty much a given that you know God answers prayer, but you wonder why your particular prayer is taking so, so, so long. While coveting is a bad idea — not because God is going to “get” us if we do so, but because the end result of comparing ourselves to others rarely engenders a positive mental outlook — it’s hard not to look at others, receiving their gifts and answers and joys, and wonder,
“Why not me, God?”
I am reminded of a woman who lamented, “I need this situation taken care of, soon, because I’m really very impatient,” as if patience were something most people have, and she is genetically incapable of exhibiting.
Danged if her prayer weren’t answered, quickly. And while one part of me delighted in a her being relieved from high anxiety, another part thought,
“Why not me, too, God?”
Living in Limbo-Land
Quite recently, God has opened my life to a number of people living in limbo-land, as we call it — deeply committed followers of Christ who read Scripture, meditate, seek to know God, and ALL have some strong, unshakable dream or desire that is at least five years old.
Now while we in this limbo-group know well the story of God’s promise to Abraham for a son even though “his (Abraham’s) body was as good as dead — since he was about a hundred years old — and that Sarah’s womb was also dead,” (Romans 4:19), we are also acutely aware that none of us experience personal visitations from the Almighty, verbally promising us the fulfillment of our dreams. And so, when time continues to pass with little or no advancement of this deep, aching, insurmountable desire that many of us never asked for in the first place, our prayers start to look like this:
“Is what I want, what I ache for, in Your will? Is it taking so long because it’s just, like the promise to Abraham, going to take a long time? Or is it taking so long because it will never happen?”
It does not help, my dear friends who do not know what I’m talking about, to comment,
“Maybe God doesn’t approve of this dream — have you ever thought of that?”
All the time, amigo, all the time. It’s not like we haven’t asked Him.
You Know What I Mean?
If you’re nodding your head right now, and you are tired of wondering what is wrong with you, allow me to share what I’ve learned in nine years, and counting, of waiting:
1) God isn’t playing games with you, because that’s not what He does.
“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” Jesus asks in Luke 11:11-12.
“If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?”
I know, I caught that part, too — He’ll “give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him.” Like you, I’m more interested in getting the answer to my heartfelt prayer, but I have an idea that the guidance, teaching, care, and love of the Holy Spirit is a fairly necessary component to a truly spiritual life, one that communes with God and rests in Him.
2) I know you’d rather have a solution, now, but in the process of it happening, you really do become a better person.
James 1:2-4 tells us,
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
Remember the impatient lady above? She gripes and whines a lot, which isn’t a characteristic of a mature person. She is one of the last people I would go to for wise, thoughtful, considered advice.
3) Nobody gets an easy ride.
The apostle John in Revelation 1:9 writes that he is our “brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus.”
Prosperity doctrine, which has seeped into our very consciousness even when we slap it away, constantly whispers that, “God has a plan for your life, and He wants you to be happy, prosperous, safe, and secure — NOW.”
This empty promise, not backed by Scripture, causes many to falter in their faith when things don’t turn out the way the preachers promise; unfortunately, the faith in the preachers remains at the expense of faith in God. It’s important to recognize that the most put-together person we envy isn’t as stupendously successful as we think they are. We only see superficial externals — not the pain that is masked within, nor the changes that inevitably take place as time passes.
4) Your dream may not go away because it’s a valid one, and a very good one, and it will take time for God to transform you into the person who can live it.
When you’re tempted to ask, “Is this dream real, God?” read Romans 8:26-27:
“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.
“And he who searches our hearts know the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.”
The Spirit knows God’s will. Let Him take over on this matter.
Are you living in limbo-land? Believe me, you’re not alone. You never are.
Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity.
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In a recent conversation with a five-year-old, it came out that using a pen, in kindergarten, is a prohibited activity. Violation of this particular law results in the punishment of putting one’s head down on the desk.
What strikes me most about this issue — other than that it still is an issue, because 46 years ago, when I was in kindergarten, using a pen at school was also disallowed for those under the age of 8 — is how petty, small, and unnecessary it is. While I’m sure that there are all sorts of reasons why young children should use chubby pencils and not ballpoint pens, many of this five year old’s (and incidentally, my) generation successfully employed pen technology at the age of 4, 3, or 2. The kids pick up, and use, the resources in their homes.
What also strikes me is that the punishment allocated is a perversely humiliating one: perverse, because it looks harmless, but when your head’s burrowed in your arms, and you’re in the midst of your peers, everybody knows that you’ve done wrong. In an arena where peer pressure reigns supreme, the grown-ups in the room really shouldn’t use it as a weapon for their convenience.
I’d say that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime, only that there is no actual crime — just a violation of a silly, little, rule.
So it is, far too often, in the walk of many Christians: we obsess about the infringement of rules, violation of statutes, transgression of dictums, except that, as theoretical vessels of grace, we never admit this outright: we simply spend a lot of time castigating ourselves because “we don’t have enough faith,” “we don’t trust God enough,” “our thoughts are not pure,” “we don’t have an attitude of worship,” “we’re too anxious,” or “our words are not seasoned with praise.”
In franker terms, we watch the “wrong” movies, read inappropriate books, swear, think a negative thought, speak aloud a negative thought, allow our bra strap to show, sleep in on Sunday because we feel like it, ingest an impermissible food, make a snippy comment, throw away a religious tract we find in a public bathroom — if the infractions are sounding minor and inconsequential, it’s because they are.
If they’re not sounding minor and inconsequential, then it’s time to get out of the Old Testament for awhile, and pay attention to the New:
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus, the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death,” Romans 8:1-2 tells us.
“What Does This Mean?”
I’ll never forget being in a Bible study (as a guest in another’s house, I had no choice) when the members mused, with great confusion, “What does it mean, that ‘there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus’?”
“What it SAYS!” I wanted to shout.
There. Is. No. Condemnation. In. Christ. Jesus.
Now while at this point some helpful voice inevitably reminds us that we do need rules, after all, and if we don’t have them, there will be anarchy, Paul addresses this matter throughout chapter 6 of Romans, concluding:
“For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.” (6:14)
Grace. We say the word a lot, but when it comes to allowing it, realistically, to flow in and through our lives, we resist: God loves us, that’s true, we tell ourselves, but He expects us to be good and obedient and law abiding.
And in those last two words lies the problem: as long as we focus on the law, and whether or not we keep it, we don’t live grace. We simply break laws, because we are incapable of not doing so, no matter how hard we try to be good. We may as well expect ourselves to walk on water.
Jesus did that. He’s the only one who can. He’s also the only one who can live a sinless life, which He did, and His point in coming to the earth, living that life, dying that death, and being resurrected from it was not to damn us, and condemn us, and berate us, and consistently put us down because we are not perfect.
For all we quote John 3:16 — “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life,” we stop before John 3:17:
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
In our efforts to simplify things and make them fit onto a gospel tract, we like to make a clear-cut outline of what Christ did, and within evangelical circles, this generally requires us to make a rigidly constructed statement of faith (“I accept the Lord Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord”) in exchange for which we receive eternal life, the rest of the world, quite literally, being damned if they don’t fulfill this formula to the letter — but all we really know is that Christ has overcome the world (John 16:33) and whatever He came to do 2,000 years ago, is finished (John 19: 30).
We are not Jews. We do not live under Old Testament law, and there is nothing in the good news of the gospel that encourages us to make a New Testament one.
Understanding Christ’s love and compassion is a worthy and essential pursuit, because as long as we persist in creating, finessing, perfecting, and imposing rules on ourselves — and others — to earn that love, we will project a false, harsh God, one who does not love, unconditionally, but who commands that we bury our heads in our arms, on the desk, because we used a pen, when the rules say to use a pencil.
Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity, where I encourage you, always, to read the Bible for yourself and grow in grace, wisdom, love, mercy, and knowledge as you immerse yourself in the entire message — and that message, the one we call the gospel, does mean “Good News.”
If it’s not sounding good, then it’s time to find out why.
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