11. And So?

Zechariah builds the House Meditations: 11. And So?

Zech 1:3 ‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’

Zech 2:10 For I am coming, and I will live among you,” declares the Lord.

Zech 3:10 In that day each of you will invite your neighbor to sit under your vine and fig tree,’

Zech 4:6 ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’

Zech 6:13 he will be a priest on his throne

Eph 4:11,12 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service,

But: As so often seems to happen I thought the previous study was the last one of this series and yet as I have been praying this morning there comes what seems a natural completion of it that takes us into the realm of practically praying. My assertion in the previous study, that undergirds all the other studies, is that God was speaking through Zechariah to His people while they were building the Temple, the house or dwelling place of the Lord on earth. Yet the words were to prepare and equip His people to be His dwelling place themselves, as we now see so clearly through the New Testament. But it is so easy to just ‘do a Bible study’ and leave it at that, but the truth is that the word of God is designed to change us. How should these studies change us?

The Big Issues: As we have progressed through these studies I have become more aware of the two big issues: the first is the world ‘out there’, the world that God wants to reach. As we look at the state of the Western world today it is in a mess. I would recommend the sobering reading of ‘Morality’ the 2020 book by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks which systematically uncovers the moral bankruptcy of the West, with very specific practical outworkings. There is a desperate need for change. The second thing is the church. To Israel He had said through Isaiah that they were to be “a light to the Gentiles.” (Isa 42:6). To us today Jesus says, “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:16) If we dare be honest we have abysmally failed to be this resulting in the state the world is in today. We have carried on our spiritual ceremonies and failed to impact the world around us because, even though some of us have been doing a lot, it has rarely been as ‘the body of Christ’ with his power and his revelation.

And So? Whenever such truths really impact us, it is not that they pull as down in condemnation for our failures (which is what the enemy would seek to do) but challenge us to stand up and pray. Prayer has always been the precursor to true revival, it is the acknowledgement of the people of God of their helplessness and failure with the recognition that only a sovereign act of God can change things. But what to pray. I think it has been eighteen months that I have felt this call to prayer but only today did I feel a specific way to pray. When God moves on in His purposes, it seems so often He gradually reveals His strategy, even though in essence it was there in His word already. For those who will allow themselves to be moved by this may I offer the following, no doubt  very incomplete, things to pray, to start pointing us in the right direction. Please feel free to add what you will:

“Father, please forgive us, cleanse us, envision us and empower us and then release us as you start to move sovereignly.”

– To come in line with God’s heart must mean first being honest about our need, with the recognition that we need Him to change our hearts in preparation for being part of what He is planning to do, so we will start to become available to join in with what He is doing.

“Lord, please raise up an even greater army of prayer warriors who will not only pave the way for these things to happen but who will stand there overseeing the battle when it comes.”

–  Prayer in incomprehensible ways, is seen as part of God’s strategy to mobilize His people and enable them to rise up and conquer as Moses did of old (see Ex 17:10-13).

“Lord, release faith and vision in your people in new ways that they may become an army of witnesses in both word and deed to the world around us.”

– Will we become available, will we be trained to be confident as witnesses who move in both word and power to reach the hearts of those around us?

“Lord, please raise up an army of evangelists, anointed by you to bring the life-changing conviction that is needed to bring the watching world to its knees in submission to you as they receive Jesus their Savior and Lord.” 

– The gifted ministry of the evangelist is the one divinely anointed to remove blindness and bring conviction, bring the word of God to bear on individual lives. Nothing less changes people.

“Lord, please raise up an army of teachers, who will be there to feed, teach and equip new believers with divinely anointed understanding as they come as babes in Christ.”

– New believers will need to understand a new perspective and in the excitement of all that happens, establishing them in their new faith will be essential to enable them to stand in the years to come.

“Lord, please raise up an army of pastors who will be there to feed, care for, protect and bring healing to the many dysfunctional new believers come from this hurting and damaged world.”

– The people in the world around us today are so confused, so hurting, so anxious, so wounded, so disorientated, that they desperately need loving care and healing.

“Lord, please raise up an army of prophets who will bring revelation to keep your people on track, warning them against coming obstacles and distractions and revealing the way ahead.”

–  Revelation is at the heart of the working of God and we desperately need His vision, His insight, His wisdom to energize us, and move us forward.

“Lord, please raise up an army of apostles who will come with the humility of divine wisdom that builds and strengthens the rapidly expanding church and able to release your power in your people.”

– The gift of the apostle comes as a strategic wise anointed overseer to guide and equip and empower and  enable the people of God, not mere managers but equippers, envisioners, empowers, and senders.

“Lord, please release faith in each of us, your children, to enable us to receive your destiny for these days to be life changers, world changers and those who glorify you.”

– We are all called to be active parts of this body, with changed hearts and minds and wills, submitted to Him. This will require time and ongoing daily enabling to achieve as we pray.

“Lord, as I purpose to be available to you for you to achieve through me whatever you want, please clarify in me your gifts that enable me to be the unique part of your body you want me to be. Amen.”

– My gifts from God that make me who am, the gifts you have from God, are there just waiting for Him to energize and use them – all the above things, and musician, administrator, Internet Techie, writer, composer, whatever. A gift from God to be used by God as God stirs them, opens doors for them to be used, and then enables them to touch other lives and glorify Him.  May it be so.

42. Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 42. Q.4. Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?

Jas 4:2,3   You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives

1 Pet 3:7 Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect ….. so that nothing will hinder your prayers.

Jn 14:13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

The Question:  “Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?” is a fairly common question among believers and non-believers alike (yes non-believers often pray according to surveys.) There are, when you start thinking about it, some fairly obvious common sense answers as well as some less obvious spiritual answers.

COMMON SENSE PRAYING: The first answer has got to be very simply, because we don’t pray, as James said in our verse above. But perhaps there is more behind that. Prayer is talking to God. Now that may sound fairly obvious but are all words uttered ‘prayer’? If you don’t believe He is there or that He’s not listening, is that really prayer or a mere superstitious act? Do you genuinely pause up and focus on God, the Almighty, Holy, Creator God of the Universe, and address this One, or just utter words?

The second answer has got to be simply we are asking silly, unrealistic things. For example, “Lord please give me a parking space,” or “Lord, please provide a petrol station, I’m running out of petrol.” Such prayers seem to require God to create something. A better prayer might be, “Lord, please make me alert and help me spot a parking place.” A prayer for God to speak to you and guide you as one of His children is legitimate.

A third answer has to be that you are praying contradictory prayers – your prayer may be contradicting one another may be praying, e.g. “Lord please don’t let it rain today,” while down the road a farmer is praying, “Lord we desperately need rain for the crops. Please send some rain.”

SPIRITUAL FOCUS PRAYERS: Some praying is simply limited by our own spiritual limitations. So, for example, first of all there are selfish prayers. James added, “you do not receive because you ask with wrong motives.” (Jas 4:3)

Now that should perhaps be linked, second, to praying God’s will. One of our verses above speaks about ‘asking in Jesus’ name’. That simply means praying what you believe Jesus’ will is that will extend the kingdom and glorify the Father. Praying, “Lord, please give me a big yacht,” is probably a selfish, self-aggrandising prayer but many years ago when computers were first coming on line, I felt it right to pray, “Lord, please will you give me a PCW, a word processor,” because I sensed He wanted to open up writing for me. Where the money came from I don’t know but within a couple of months I had it.

We need an aside here: sometimes when praying, especially for healing of a person at death’s door, it is natural and right to pray out of love for them, sometimes even sure that you want them to live – but even that motivation and sureness isn’t enough. It may just be that God knows that this is their time to go home – and we have to accept that! It may be hard but there we have to humbly bow before the throne and accept their death. Jesus healed and raised the dead, so let us pray for it. The Father is not going to be stressed by our love for our loved ones – and He may intervene!

That in turns leads on to, third, prayers that are half-hearted from lack of assurance. Sometimes, to be sure we are praying in the will of God we just need to start praying and catch a sense, while we are in prayer, whether this is in fact God’s will. If it is, the Holy Spirit will witness to that fact and we can thus be encouraged to press on in prayer. Yes, this does mean we need to learn to be sensitive to the still small voice of God (1 Kings 19:12), but when we do we can listen for that encouragement. Sometimes, associated with this I believe, fourth, prayers are delayed because God is training us, training us to listen, training us to learn to wait upon Him, training us to persevere, and that only comes when we are confident about the things we are asking. Is that why Jesus taught, “Ask (and keep on asking) and it will be given to you; seek (and keep on seeking)  and you will find; knock (and keep on knocking) and the door will be opened to you,” (Mt 7:7 with the verb tenses added) and also, “told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” (Lk 18:1)

This takes us on to realize that in His training of us, fifth, we need to learn God’s limitations. Yes, there are some things God will not do. Yes, He will perform miracles that go against nature if it conforms to His overall plans. Jesus regularly healed people, sometimes raised people from the dead, and sometimes performed other miracles, but Jesus never forced people to believe. He would teach them, challenge them, and even rebuke them, but he never exercises sovereign power to make us change our minds. Thus, when praying for our loved ones who don’t know Him, “Lord, please make X believe,” is unacceptable, whereas, “Lord please speak again and again to X and help them see their need,” is I suggest legitimate.

We should also note, sixth, that we may be acting unrighteously and that will hinder our channel to God. In one of our verses above, Peter warns husbands to treat their wives properly otherwise that will hinder their spiritual activities, i.e. prayer!

SPIRITUAL WARFARE PRAYING: In addition to the above things, the mature believer realizes that we operate spiritually in a spiritual dimension and within that dimension there is warfare. May we not be casual about the apostle Paul’s teaching: “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph 6:12) There are instances in the Old Testament – “Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days,” (Dan 10:12,13) and the New Testament – For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way,” (1 Thess 2:19) that suggest to us the way is not always open and easy and when the enemy shouts, “Resistance is futile,” we need to laugh and press on!

RIGHT PERSPECTIVE: Our tendency as little children is to want Abba, daddy, to do it all for us but from the beginning we find, “God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it,” (Gen 1:28) or as the Message delightfully and succinctly puts it, “Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge!” There are times when God delights in stepping in to the affairs of the earth, for example when Jesus came, when Revivals occur, when Renewals of the Spirit occur, when He inspires healing crusades etc. but much of the time I believe the Lord wants us to grow up and “take charge” of our lives.

What does that mean? I believe it means using them wisely, checking that regularly by keeping in close contact with Him, seeking Him for wisdom (see Jas 1:5) while all the while realizing that living in a Fallen World means that trials come so, “the testing of your faith produces patient endurance. And let patient endurance finish its work, so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (Jas 1:3,4) Note the order: trials create patience and endurance that produce maturity in us. Yes, God will sometimes move in sovereign power in our circumstances and sometimes wants us to pray for that, but the majority of the time He wants to speak to us, lead us, guide us, grant us wisdom, and where we get stressed, grace, and where we mess up, the reminder that the path is repentance, reconciliation, restoration, forgiveness, and the grace to press on.

To conclude: If we take a couple of biblical characters, look first at Abraham – the Lord spoke to Him a number of times but only stepped in with the supernatural power once, to enable Sarah to conceive. Look at how the Lord worked with Joseph – spoke prophecies to him, watched over him through the time of rejection by his brothers and being sold into slavery, spoke to his masters in prison to give him favor in their eyes, gave him prophetic understanding and dreams that resulted in him becoming the savior of the Middle East. Throughout Judges the Spirit empowered leaders with boldness, a right attitude. Moses was a different ball game because that involved national judgment and deliverance. David grew to be the warrior he was because of his relationship with God and everything else flowed from that. Do we get the message? Relationship! Listening, obeying, doing, ruling, triumphing! Hallelujah! Let’s pray, let’s keep on praying, sometimes getting it right, sometimes not, but all the while being children with a loving Heavenly Father, children who are gradually growing up and maturing, in knowledge, in understanding and in experience. May it be so.

2. Desperate Prayers

Meditations in 1 Samuel   2. The Anguish of Desperate Prayers

1 Sam 1:11   And she made a vow, saying, “O LORD Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the LORD for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.”

I happened to come across the following quote from a modern Christian writer the other day: “Prayer requires things of us that we are not always willing to give. Time. Attention, Vulnerability. Submission. Transformation. And often we feel inadequate to pray because we are stuck on works-based righteousness that makes us a slave to approaching prayer as a vending machine.” He continues in a similar vein but we’ll stop it there. Personally I find the biggest difficulty of praying at a set ‘quiet time’ every day, is monotony. I know what God wants of me and I ask for it. I know who I ‘should’ pray for (my family, church, friends, etc. etc.) and so I do, but it becomes a rote.

It is only when we come to a prayer like that of Hannah (and others in the Bible) that we realise that the most honest prayers, the real prayers, the prayers that pour out of the heart, come in a crisis. Let’s check it out with Hannah.

We saw in the first study that she is barren, which is bad enough in itself, but she is also the second wife in a polygamous marriage and the other wife is bearing children as fast as she can go – and then jeering at Hannah for her inability to become a mother: because the LORD had closed her womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her.” This other women was doing it purposefully “to irritate” or upset her. How unkind is that, and there appeared nothing that Hannah could do about it. She was locked into this marriage and was unable to do anything about her barrenness. (1 Sam 1:6).

This constant in your face chiding brings Hannah to tears: This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the LORD, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat.” (v.7) Year after year! It keeps on, nothing changes. Month after month and disappointment comes.  They go each year to the Tabernacle at Shiloh to worship the Lord. To be able to do this Elkanah must have been quite wealthy, for many Israelites could only do it rarely, but they do it every year. So here she is with a loving husband who tries to console her, an affluent and probably comfortable life, but all that is meaningless in the face of her inability to become a mother.

By the time of this present visit to Shiloh she is clearly desperate. It has gone on for so long it has broken her. She is so desperate that she would even give away the child to God if she would only have one – she bargains with God. Now we’ll leave wonderings about that until we think on God’s providence and simply focus on what she feels for the moment. Go back and read that opening quote above. How meaningless that all sounds when you observe Hannah. She needs no lessons in prayer, she is desperate, she is past caring, she just has one focus – God give me a child, I cant take it any more! ( I so want to talk about what is going on behind the scenes in heaven, but we must leave it for now).

A long time ago I researched all the prayers of the Bible – and most of them come in a crisis situation. The New Testament prayer that stands out most to me (apart from Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane) is that of the church in Acts 4, shortly after Peter and John have been threatened by the Sanhedrin and the church comes together and prays. I won’t do a breakdown of that prayer here, but one part of it shows the situation: “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.” (Acts 4:29)  It is a prayer of desperation in the face of the threats of the authorities – and God answers in power. When we get to a point of desperation, God turns up in power. It is almost, it seems, that He waits for us to come to a point where we KNOW the truth – we are helpless – before He steps in.

When our ‘prayers’ are nice and respectable – and boring – perhaps we need to ask the Lord to open our eyes to the plight of people around us or the world in general, so that we become moved to really urgent prayer.  When stories come back from the church in China, you realise you do not have a problem with prayer when you face real persecution. Our absence of desperation so often means we are not under pressure in the world of affluence that tolerates us but consider your life: is it childless when it comes to bringing spiritual children into this world? I am not wishing to impose guilt and not all of us are called to be evangelists, but would you dare pray, “Lord, burden my heart of the lost”? If you do, get ready for desperation.

But a penultimate thought: I have been taking it for granted that when people get desperate, they pray, but that isn’t always so. If prayer isn’t a natural part of your life it may be that you don’t think to ask for God’s help. Don’t you realise that our loving heavenly Father just longs to help us and is simply waiting to hear from us?

Which brings me to a final thought. In the previous meditation we thought about a number of women in the Bible who were barren and who only had children in older age. The temptation from the enemy is to think badly of God who ‘stopped’ them conceiving, but was that ‘stopping’ more a case of simply He had not intervened in the affairs of this Fallen World where things go wrong – one of them being women remaining childless? One of the things the enemy wants us to forget is that in every case we considered, God DID intervene and did enable them to conceive. It is easy to jump to wrong conclusions as we’ll see in the next study.

14. Reasoned Prayer

Meditations in Colossians: 14. Reasoned Prayer

Col 1:9   For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you

People pray for a variety of reasons – but they always have reasons.  Paul will go on to say what he prays as we read on, but for the moment he looks back. He prays because of the things he has been saying. What were these things?

Well in many ways this is a recap of what we have already considered, but it does make clear Paul’s motivation. He started out by saying that he prayed for them (even though he has never been to Colosse) and always gave thanks for them when he prayed (v.3) and the reason he gave thanks for them was because of what he had heard about them – their faith and their love (v.4), which was their response to the hope of their eternal inheritance (v.5) that put purpose into their present lives and gave assurance about their life after death.  This had come with the Gospel which had born the fruit of salvation in them, and in many other places in the world where it was preached (v.6). As well as releasing faith and love, this Gospel impacted their lives as they heard and came to understand the wonderful grace of God (v.7). This Gospel had been brought to them by Epaphras (v.7) who returned to Paul and told him of the love that was exhibited in them by the work of the Holy Spirit (v.8)

All of that explains why Paul now says, For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you.” The reason? What Paul had heard from Epaphras about them, the outworking of their having received the Gospel and of the work of the Spirit in them. As soon as Epaphras told Paul about them, Paul’s spirit soared in praise (assumed) and thanksgiving (stated). But Paul is also an apostle-pastor and he knows what the people in this church need, and that is what he goes on to speak about and which we will consider in the coming meditations.

We did consider the thankfulness aspect of Paul’s praying but it may be worth asking again, are we aware of our fellow believers in our area and do we have a sense of gratefulness and thankfulness for them? It is so easy to become isolated in my little church in our little corner and forget that we are part of the universal church where, although they do it so differently perhaps from us, the believers are nevertheless our brothers and sisters.

I have observed over the years that it is so easy to feel superior about what is happening in our church, where God is blessing, and assume that it is not so elsewhere. Such an attitude is accompanied by a lack of thankfulness for others. The fact that others worship in different ways to us and may be doing more/less to share the Gospel than us, means that sometimes we feel different from ‘them’ and so we have negative feelings about other churches who we may either look down on or feel threatened by. Thankfulness is something to be worked on. I sometimes wonder if we ought to shut down our own building once in every two months and send our people to go and experience life with other believers elsewhere in our area. A challenge, a threat or an opportunity for blessing?

But we’ve noted that we are going to go on and  see specific things Paul is going to pray for these people at Colosse and we may summarise it as praying for their blessing. We will go on to see a variety of things he wants for them but they are summarised as things that will build and bless them (and lots more! Exciting verses to come!) But this raises another question: are we passive about how we view our fellow believers? What I mean by that is are we happy to just observe them as they are, and happy that they stay as they are, or do we have a sense of the so many more things God wants to bring into our lives and the lives of those around us in the believing community?

In many churches we are just content to let the preacher bring his little message (which may be informative) each Sunday, but the thought of moving on, growing up, maturing, experiencing new gifting, moving into new areas of service and ministry etc., are alien to us. We are comfortable in our Sunday services, our prayer meeting and maybe even our Bible Study, but the thought of change and growth is both challenging and threatening and, for some of us, uncomfortable. Very often we lack vision of what could be and our faith level is sufficiently low as to be completely non-expectant – nothing is going to change today, tomorrow or next month.

But this non-expectant, passive, almost inert spiritual life is quite different from that found in the New Testament. Indeed it is alien to the things Paul is going to say in the verses that follow and so in order to appreciate them fully, we need to challenge ourselves now, before we get to them, are we willing to have our faith stretched to reach out and appropriate so much more than we might have at the moment?  These following verses are absolutely dynamic and the potential, if we will open our hearts to the Lord, is for our faith to be expanded greatly and our Christian experience deepened immeasurably. Because Paul is an apostle with a pastoral heart, he knows what is on his heart for these people he has never seen before, simply because they are new Christians and he doesn’t want them to stand still. They are part of the army of God, the servants of God called to change the world, but before that can happen, various other things need to come into place first, and it is these things that he now goes in to pray for.

Are we ready?

24. Pray Continually?

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 3 :  24. Pray Continually?

1 Thess 5:16-18   Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

The very human side of me thinks that Paul is making fun of us in this verse (I know he’s not!) in the way he started out “Be joyful always,” and now “Pray continually.”  It is the words ‘always’ and ‘continually’ which is why I’ve put a question mark behind the title of this meditation. Does Paul mean we should be praying every waking hour of our lives? Well we worked through the first one to a good conclusion so let’s see if we can do the same here.

Now earlier in this letter Paul had said, Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith,” (1 Thess 3:10) which again has a continuous feel to it.  In his second letter to them he writes, “With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may fulfil every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith.” (2 Thess 1:11) However in those verses, although we could think it has this continuous feel to it, it could easily mean, “When we do pray for you we always ask that…” putting the emphasis more on the content of what they ask for being the thing they ask for whenever they do pray.

When writing to Timothy he says something interesting: “The widow who is really in need and left all alone puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help.” (1 Tim 5:5) There is an urgency about her praying that causes her to pray, not necessarily every minute but regularly and that urgency comes out of her situation.

Very well, think about this realistically?  When Paul was in the midst of his shipwreck situation (Acts 27) I suspect that his praying focused more on the current desperate situation rather than run through a list of all the churches he knew of, so although the 1 Thess 3 verse was no doubt true – at a particular point of time he kept on coming back to the Lord about the issue – at other moments other things caught his attention.

So what does “pray continually” mean? He instructed the Romans, “Be faithful in prayer,” (Rom 12:12) meaning continue to make prayer a regular part of your life.  To the Ephesians he said, “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.” (Eph 6:18) The emphasis there, though, is first of all on the nature of your praying – being Spirit led – and then on taking any and every situation to the Lord in prayer. To the Colossians he said, “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.” (Col 4:2) The indication there is that we need to make prayer a vital part of our lives as we watch and see enemy attacks, hostile situations or even great opportunities, as well as realizing the goodness of God to us for which we should be thankful.

That prayer was a key feature of Paul’s life is obvious as we saw above (1 Thess 3:10. 2 Thess 1:11). We might also add, “I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe,” (Eph 1:16-19) and later in that same letter, “For this reason I kneel before the Father…. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power …… And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.” (Eph 3:14-18)

The overall thrust of what we have seen must be, at the very least, to ensure you make prayer a vital part of your life so that you are regularly referring matters to your Father in heaven and seeking His heart and mind on all issues in your life. Now to do this supposes two things. First, that we have this relationship with the Lord that we can take things to Him like this. Second, is that we have come to a point where we realise that without Jesus’ leading, without the empowering and directing and wisdom of his Holy Spirit, we can do nothing effective, productive or fruitful: “If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (Jn 15:5)  We have noted before, Jesus saying, “the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing.” (Jn 5:19)  One of the things that happens when we pray, is that we become more sensitive to the Holy Spirit, more sensitive to Jesus’ leading, more sensitive to the Father’s will.

So, to summarise, we will pray continually, will pray regularly bringing any and every situation to the Lord, when we realise His headship and His provision, without which we can do nothing. Prayer is the cry of a man or woman who realises they are lost without Him! Prayer is the cry of a man or woman who realises they are a child of God and want to share everything in their life with their heavenly Father. Prayer is the cry of the man or woman who knows the call of God on their life and realise they need His guidance, His wisdom, His enabling and His direction. Can we not pray!

27. Prayer Life

Short Meditations in Mark’s Gospel: 27. Jesus’ Prayer Life

Mk 1:35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed

I have to confess, if there are mysteries in the Christian life (and there are!) prayer rates very highly on the list. Over the years I have pondered prayer long and hard. On one hand I find it so easy as to be almost pointless; on the other hand it is hard to be real.

Why does the Bible encourage us to pray when the Father knows every word we utter before we’ve said it?  Why is it that sometimes the Father seems to hold back acting until we have prayed? How is it that sometimes break-through doesn’t happen until we have prayed our socks off? Why is it that if prayer is so important so many of us find it so difficult?  I’ve got answers now to each of these questions but I’m not going to utter them – they are probably only a quarter of the truth!

Eventually I have reached a simple conclusion: God encourages us to pray, simply because He likes hearing His kids talk to him. I’ve also come to a second, slightly more complex conclusion: often when I pray I come away strengthened, clearer in mind and purpose and surer of my calling,   i.e. in some way God talks to me, whether I am aware of it or  not, and I am changed – and I need changing!

Now I don’t believe Jesus needed changing but in the verse above we find Jesus going out to be on his own, away from anyone else, to pray early in the morning. Some have suggested he needed to lay out the day before the Father, to check it out with Him, but we aren’t told that he did that every day. Perhaps he did but we just aren’t told.

The emphasis in this verse, it seems, is the thing about being on his own. Praying with others is good but sometimes it seems it is better to be just alone with the Father. I suspect those are times when we need to pour out our hearts and need to hear what is on the Father’s heart. Other people might be a distraction then. Beyond that there is not a lot we can say. Prayer obviously was a feature of Jesus’ life, even as the Son of God – perhaps more so because he was and is the Son of God.

I make time to talk to my wife, not because I have issues to sort out with her, but simply because I love her and it is the most natural thing to do, to talk and share. Perhaps that is how it is with Jesus and his Father.   Father, thank you that you are just a word away and you delight in hearing from us.

37. Right Asking

Meditations in James: 37 : Right Asking

Jas 4:2,3    You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

Something goes wrong. What do you do? Do you struggle to cope with it, or do you go down under it, or do you turn to the Lord to ask for His help. A measure of spiritual maturity, I believe, is how fast we turn to the Lord for help. The spiritually wise and mature will place their day into the Lord’s hands at the beginning of every day, I believe. There are some people who say, “Oh, I’m an evening person so I have my quiet time in the evening.” It’s not a case of whether you are a morning or an evening person. It is a case of whether you think you can get through the day without the Lord, and coming to Him in prayer, as brief as that may be, is a sign of your acknowledgement  that you need His help, you need His blessing in the hours ahead of you. Wise people don’t wait for a crisis before they talk to the Lord.

Now our verses today need to be seen in context: You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God.” Do you see the connection between the beginning and end of this quote from verse 2? You want something but don’t get it…… You do not have, because you do not ask God.” Do you remember yesterday, as we examined the process that James was speaking about? It starts with insecurity and insecure people struggle to achieve, struggle to get, struggle to make themselves feel they are somebody. They want things but don’t get them, so they get frustrated and more stressed. Their overall problem is that they are being godless. The have not sought the Lord and they have not come into a position of Sonship where they can come and ask their heavenly Father for all their needs.

We all of us lack. That’s what Sin does for us. We have great big needs which are only satisfied in God. He alone can bring the sense of fulfilment to us that we so long for. He alone can enable us to achieve in such a manner that we are feeling satisfied with who we are. You could say that the main lesson in living in this Fallen World is learning to turn to God. Many don’t and so struggle on and get deeper and deeper into the mire of unfulfillment and frustration.  It’s a hard world without God.  But He’s there and He longs for us to come to Him like little children; He longs to bless us, if only we will come. So here is James’ starting point in these verses: You do not have, because you do not ask God. But note that it is only the starting point.

When we start coming to God and asking Him for help, we are embarking on a major learning exercise, because as we ask we often find that either we’re not happy asking for some things, or we simply don’t seem to get answers for some of the things we do ask for.  James uses a very basic idea to explain why this so often is: When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. Yes, when we come to God, we learn that motivation is a key issue in God’s mind. Suddenly we realise that God is concerned with WHY we are asking.  Much of the time we ask simply for our own comfort or well-being.  In other words we ask selfishly. Now Jesus addressed this in the Sermon on the Mount: So do not worry, saying, `What shall we eat?’ or `What shall we drink?’ or `What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Mt 6:31-33). What he is saying is, don’t worry about the mundane things of provision of daily life, for God will look after them for you and will provide them. Instead be more concerned with what His will is. Yes, it is right to ask for daily provisions: Give us today our daily bread.” (Mt 6:11) but pray that as a sign of your reliance upon the Lord. Don’t let worry overwhelm you for that is a sign of lack of trust.

No, the key thing about asking God is this: your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Mt 6:10). The key question is, what does God want for my life? When you have found that answer, then ask for it. Read the prophets in the Old Testament and you will see they declared God’s will – and then prayed for it! But of course, that will is not something objective, it is what affects us. So yes, we will find ourselves praying for our needs, but it will now be so that we can fulfil God’s will. So it may be quite legitimate to pray for the provision of a car, say, if a car is needful for you to work out God’s declared will for your life. But if it’s just a case of, “I’d like this…. or that,” then that’s simply selfish asking and, as James says, you won’t get it.

Spiritual maturity learns what to ask for. It learns what God’s will is for my life and then prays it out, and if that will includes material things, then ask for material things, but that is very different from self-centred, godless desires. Think on these things, and then get praying!

9. Frustrated Longings

Meditations in Romans : 9 :  Frustrated Longings

Rom  1:11-13 I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong– that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.

We concluded the previous meditation struggling with the thoughts of Paul praying but only getting partial answers. Many of us would like the Christian life to be a neat package with no questions and everything working out just as we want it to. Unfortunately we live in a Fallen World where lots of people do their own thing in rebellion against God and that means bad and harmful behaviour. Because God has given us free will, He respects our use of it, i.e. He allows us to exercise it, even when we make wrong decisions and exhibit wrong behaviour and speak wrong words. We also have an enemy called Satan who God permits for a variety of reasons. Thus everything does NOT work out exactly as we might hope.

Paul has this yearning and, as we go through the passage, we see that it is being frustrated. He longs to go to see them so that, by the ministry God has given him, he can impart something to them to strengthen them in their faith. This is part of the apostolic gift, the ability to impart faith and grace, in a variety of forms.  Apostles are both ‘fathers in the faith’, and ‘master builders’, and God gifts them in such a way that they are able to pass on or impart faith and grace. By doing that, says Paul, both you and I will be encouraged and (by implication) strengthened.

But then he expresses the frustration that he feels: I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now).” He doesn’t say here what it is that has hindered him but when he wrote to the Thessalonians he said, “out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. For we wanted to come to you–certainly I, Paul, did, again and again–but Satan stopped us.” (1 Thess 2:17,18).  There he didn’t just put is down to ‘circumstances’ but specifically to the work of the enemy.

That reminds us that we are in a spiritual battle which Paul spells out best in Ephesians 6.  Why ever does God allow Satan to hinder us?  Surely God is much greater that Satan so surely He could stop his activities if He wanted to? Of course, but Scripture indicates that God uses Satan and one way that He uses him is to allow him to bring hindrances to us so that we will learn to persevere and overcome and, in so doing, will be strengthened.  A world where everything was laid on and life was very easy would produce a weak humanity, characterless and grey.  Instead we rise to greatness in the face of obstacles, even though we may not like those obstacles at the time. If only we could see them as activities in the gym of life designed to strengthen us and make us fit, we might feel happier about it!

So here was Paul with the best of motives – to come and bless the church in Rome – being thwarted, whether by people, circumstances or the enemy, we don’t know. If that happened to this great saint, then we should feel happier when it happens to us. It is not a sign of our sinfulness but it may just be that God is allowing it to sharpen us up and teach us some things along that way. Of course it is just possible that we’ve got it wrong and the course or path we are trying to follow isn’t the right one, or perhaps not the best one and so the Lord allows us to be slowed up or redirected.

In Acts 16 we see examples of Paul trying to go one way and being redirected by the Lord.  See: “Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” (Acts 16:6-10) That is possibly the classic passage on redirecting by God, but what it means is that initially Paul had one idea in mind – to preach in the province called Asia – and then another one – to preach in Mysia and Bithynia – and finally a third one – to preach in Troas – but in each case was stopped because the Lord was trying to lead him over into Europe to Macedonia. Does that mean that Paul was wrong or obtuse? No, of course not, simply that it isn’t always easy to hear the Lord even when you are an apostle!

So, as we said in the conclusion of the previous meditation, that’s what faith is all about – listening with imperfect ears and seeking to do our best at obeying what we believe is right.  Hopefully much of the time we’ll get it right; sometimes we won’t – but God will always we working in the background to bring good out of it all. Pray, seek God for guidance and step out on what you believe you have, and if you get it wrong, the Lord still loves you and will be working to bless you anyway! So, go on, go for it!

7. Prayer

Meditations in Romans : 7 :  Living with Prayer

Rom  1:9,10 God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times;

I often think that the subject of prayer is one of the things that is most spoken and written about, and least done. Paul prays – often!  Some of us do as well, but from talking around I would suggest that most of us find prayer the greatest enigma in life. We’d like to pray more but we don’t. We’d like to understand prayer, but we don’t. We read big books on prayer, but still we find it a struggle and, to be quite honest, people like Paul make us feel guilty or embarrassed. When I was once asked to produce a series of seminars on prayer, I did a study of every prayer in the Bible and found that the vast majority of them came out of a crisis. We pray best when we are under pressure. Ah, here may be the reason we pray so little. Perhaps our life is very ordinary (we think) and there are no big crisis issues. Well let’s see what we can learn from Paul.

These two verses together give us clues as to the nature of his praying and the causes or motivation for his praying. He calls God to be his witness that what he is saying is true, but his descriptions of God reveal something about the nature of his life. He speaks about serving God, and we’ve seen that aspect of Paul at the beginning of the chapter. But it isn’t a half hearted serving; it is serving with his whole heart. When we do something with all our heart, we go all out for it. We are enthusiastic about it and it takes up all our thoughts and our energy. We want to be successful in it, we want to do it well and, maybe, we want to please the Lord in the way we do it. For all these reasons we have a sense of urgency in it. But there is often an even bigger motivation. Perhaps we have a clear sense of calling on our lives from the Lord, and we have a distinct ministry. Now that calling will provide an urgency within us, for a desire to exercise our ministry for the blessing of others will also provide an urgency within us.

That was how it was for Paul. What was it that he did with all his heart by way of serving the Lord? Preaching the Gospel! That was the all-consuming fire within Paul, the desire to take any and every opportunity to share the good news of Jesus Christ, to bring people into salvation through Jesus Christ, and then to establish them in their faith in the church. So Paul had, as an apostle, this two-sided thrust to his ministry: to bring people to the Lord and then to establish them in their faith in the church. For that reason he had a concern for all Christians. As a father in the faith, wherever he heard of the Gospel being spread and churches being established, he had a concern – even if he had not ever met them!  That is the truth here: Paul has never yet been to see these Christians in Rome – but he still prays for them whenever he thinks of them.

So what is it about prayer, what was it about prayer that made Paul pray?  Well, what is prayer? It is simply talking to God. It may be sharing our hearts, our feelings and our concerns with Him; it may be thanking Him for what he has done, praising Him for what He has achieved, worshipping Him for who He is – or asking Him for help.

Now it is that last thing that I suspect so often motivated Paul to pray for others. I am sure with the revelation he had he would often have been worshipping, praising or thanking, but when it came to asking for others, it would have been the recognition that he (or the recipients of his prayers) needed help. Now that recognition is a major revelation for most of us don’t recognise our need; we think we can just get by as we are, but as we’ve noted already, grace is something we need because it is God’s resource to enable us to live as His children and do the things He puts before us in such a manner that He is glorified. So, as we face the day, do we realise that if we are to live and work at more than a boring mundane level of survival, we need God’s help?

If we are at school, we need His help to learn. If we are a teacher we need His help to enable us to teach well. In whatever is our work, we need His help if we are to rise above the mundane. Do we face every day as a fresh opportunity to live with God’s enabling, God’s resources there to bless us, bless our work and bless other people through us? If we see our life and work like this, we will see new possibilities and those new possibilities will stir within us a recognition of our need which can only be fulfilled in Him. It is a need that will stir us to pray for somehow we know deep down, and we witness it in the Bible, that when we pray it opens the way up for God to move in and through us in ways which otherwise remain absent.

Paul had a calling, Paul was aware of his life purpose and Paul had an urgency as a result of that. To cope with that urgency, and the need that forced itself into his awareness, he prayed. If nothing else it was off-loading the burden to the Lord but, in reality, it was something far more than that; it was opening a channel of blessing from heaven, a blessing that would change him and change the people he was praying for. THAT meant Paul was praying much of the time. What an example!

16. Spirituality

Meditations in James: 16 :  Practical Spirituality

Jas 1:27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

The Human Race seems, so often, to go in for extremes. In Christian circles, in the past at least, there have been charismatics who have never wanted to touch the world, activists who are only concerned with the world, fundamentalists who huddle in holy corners protecting the truth, and liberals who shy away from dogmatic truth. James isn’t such a person. Scan back over his letter so far and you will see signs of faith and works.

On the ‘spiritual’ side he has spoken about our faith (v.3), asking God for wisdom (v.5), not getting things from the Lord (v.7), the crown of life that God promises (v.12), God not tempting (v.13), all the goodness coming down from God (v.17), the new birth from God (v.18), the righteous life that God desires (v.20).

Yes, very God-centred for there is plenty on the spiritual side, but what about the practical side?  Well all along he’s been speaking about the trials of everyday life (v.2), the realities of poverty and riches (v.9,10),  falling in temptation (v.14,15), getting rid of anger and evil (v.19-21), and controlling the tongue (v.26). However when you consider these two lists, they overlap or interlink so really it is difficult to distinguish between them. The truth is that James really sees all of life as coming under the spiritual umbrella, everything coming in the ambit of our relationship with God.

Now it is necessary to say these things because James has had a bad press historically. There have been those who say that because he hardly mentions Jesus (twice only in passing) he is not very spiritual. We want to suggest that such people entirely miss the point. James is very much concerned, as we have already noted a number of times, to be a pastoral help to the Christians now scattered far and wide. He wants to help them as they combat the ways of the world, and therefore his letter is, in many ways, very down to earth yet, as we have just noted, his thinking of these things is completely saturated with the recognition that we are God’s children and everything we do comes within the range of our relationship with Him. Our relationship with the Lord is what under-girds everything that James speaks about. If he chides us about anger, it is because anger doesn’t conform to the righteous life God desires for us. If he chides us over the use of the tongue it is because the wrong use of the tongue doesn’t fit with the idea of us being religious, having a relationship with God. No, every practical issue comes back in some way to our relationship with the Lord.

When he talks about ‘religion’ he is meaning the practical expression of our spirituality, the way we express our faith as Christians in our daily lives. Very well, he says, you have a religion, a faith, an expression of your relationship with God being worked out in daily life, then check it against the sort of practical faith that God wants of you. After all, he surely implies, the most important thing is to be doing what God wants. So you want to be religious? OK, he goes on,  then express your faith, the love from God you have, His love that He wants to express to His world, by looking after those who are in need, the widows and orphans who are in distress because they have no one looking after them. You want to be real in the expression of your faith? Then reach out and bless those in need.

Before we go any further, can we counteract any tendency you may have that leads you towards extremism, wanting to go out to one or other of the extremes we started off thinking about. Merely because he is saying express your faith towards people, he is not therefore saying, don’t express it towards God. That has already been covered and he will come back to it. Oh no, it’s not one or the other; it is both. God wants us to relate to Him AND to people.  God wants us to have a strong spiritual aspect to our lives, reading the Bible, praying, worshipping etc., but He also wants us to have a strong practical faith dimension to our lives as well. He wants to see that we are reaching out, not only to bring the word Gospel to people but the whole Gospel to people, expressed in words and deeds, just like Jesus did.  How tragic that we so often divide these two aspects of the spiritual life and then only focus on one.

Perhaps to conclude we would do well to check out both sides of the spiritual equation as it applies to us personally. Do we have a strong spiritual dimension whereby we do read the Bible regularly, pray regularly, worship regularly and fellowship with other Christians regularly?  We need all those things.  How about the practical dimension to our lives, first as it affects those closest to us? How do we treat our partner, our children, people we encounter in the world, those we work for or work with? Are our emotions under control yet free to be expressed in a good way, do we have our tongues under control – just the issues James has covered so far! But what about the wider practical expression of our faith that James has just been referring to, caring for those in need, for those who have no one else to stand with them – there are a lot of such people. There is a whole world out there to be loved with Jesus’ love and he’s just longing to go to them through you, as you work out your relationship with Him.