Two Questions About Spiritual Discipline


January 7–13 is the national week of prayer in the Assemblies of God. Throughout this week, I will be sharing daily devotions on prayer. May you draw closer to God in 2018 as you seek His face.

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If you are going to experience God through prayer, you will need a better guide than me. Because I am a minister, I am embarrassed to admit that I am not the greatest at prayer. I experience moments when my prayers lurch along in fits and starts. I often find my prayers directing God’s attention to me rather than my attention to Him. I am not the best guide for your journey.

Fortunately, I am not your only choice — nor do you have to turn to other pastors or spiritual writers. God himself provides ample guidance on how to pray. Remember Hebrews 1:1–2: “God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets … but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son….”

God speaks to us in both the Old Testament (which focuses on the ministry of the prophets) and the New Testament (which focuses on the ministry of the Son).

What, then, does the Bible tell us about prayer? A whole lot, actually. Thankfully, Jesus offers a précis of prayer in Matthew 6:5–15. Those 11 verses are the central part of a larger discussion about acts of righteousness, or spiritual disciplines. They are bookended on either side by teaching about generosity to the poor (6:1–4) and fasting (6:16–18). The entire discussion begins with a warning: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (6:1).

As I read that warning, I find myself asking two questions: Do I practice the disciplines? If so, why — what is my motivation? Take a moment to ponder both.

First, “Do I practice the disciplines?” Generosity, prayer, fasting and other spiritual disciplines are habits we must develop to become the kind of people God wants us to be. Prayer and fasting remind us of our overriding need for God, for His tangible and spiritual blessings. Generosity to the poor reminds us that there is a greater purpose to wealth than mere acquisition — namely, meeting others’ needs and making the world a better place. Without disciplines such as generosity, prayer and fasting, we cannot love God with all our being; nor can we love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:37,39).

Second, “Why do I practice the disciplines? What is my motivation?” Jesus offers two possible answers: to be seen by others or to be seen by God. People who practice the disciplines to be seen by others are looking for a temporary spiritual reputation. But people who practice them to be seen by God are looking for an eternal spiritual relationship. According to Jesus, both groups will get what they want (Matthew 6:2,5,15), but only the latter group will receive what all of us truly need — the reward of heaven (6:4,6,18).

So, do you practice the spiritual disciplines? Why? Your answers to these questions are important if you want to experience God through prayer.

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Our Conversation with God


January 7–13 is the national week of prayer in the Assemblies of God. Throughout this week, I will be sharing daily devotions on prayer. May you draw closer to God in 2018 as you seek His face.

~~~~~

God is not an idea to be contemplated but a Person to be loved. According to Matthew 22:36–37, “the greatest commandment” is this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”

This summarizes everything the Bible teaches about our relationship with God.

The Bible also teaches that God loves us. According to John 3:16, “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.”

God’s love for us precedes our love for Him and in fact makes it possible. First John 4:10–11 tells us, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”

So, our relationship with God consists of giving and receiving love. It is a personal relationship, and like all such relationships, it requires communication, which is a two-way street. The Bible is God’s side of the conversation. According to Hebrews 1:1–2, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.”

Prayer is our side of the conversation. “Do not be anxious about anything,” the apostle Paul says in Philippians 4:6, “but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

When we think of our relationship with God as a conversation, we see why Bible reading and prayer must be practiced together. A relationship cannot exist when only one person talks, after all. Both speak, and both listen. In our relationship with God, first we hear God’s Word to us, and then we respond to Him.

A little story from the Old Testament offers a powerful example of this principle. According to 1 Samuel 3:1–4:1, God spoke to Samuel when he was a boy living in the household of Eli, the high priest of Israel.

“Samuel!” the Lord called.

Thinking Eli was calling him, Samuel said, “Here I am; you called me.”

But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.”

This happened three times. The third time, Eli realized that God was speaking to Samuel, so he told him: “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”

Samuel did what Eli recommended, and God “revealed himself to Samuel through his word.” Because Samuel paid attention to what God said, God expanded his sphere of influence: “Samuel’s word came to all Israel.”

God speaks to us through the Bible. We respond to Him through prayer. From this conversation, we experience God’s love for us and learn His plans for our lives.

Speak, Lord, we are listening!

What Christ Redeems Us From and To | Luke 1:67-80


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 1:67–80.

 

Whether the songs are sacred or secular, Christmas is a singing season. In the Gospel of Luke, we read the original four Christmas songs: Mary’s “Magnficat” (1:46–56), Zechariah’s “Benedictus” (1:67–80), the angels’ “Gloria” (2:8–14), and Simeon’s “Nunc Dimittis” (2:25–33). We have already looked at Mary’s “Magnficat”; today and tomorrow, I want to look at Zechariah’s “Benedictus.” It tells us something important about Christ and something important about ourselves.

Here’s the first half of the song:

Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us —
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days (verses 68–75).

Notice the past tense of the verbs in the second line: “has come” and “redeemed.” When Zechariah offers this prayer, Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection lie 30 years in the future. Yet so certain is the victory God will accomplish through Christ that Zechariah can speak of it as an already accomplished action.

What redemption does Jesus’ coming into the world purchase? Zechariah uses two prepositions: from and to. Through Christ, Zechariah says, God has redeemed us “from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” Zechariah is no doubt thinking in national and religious terms. As a good Jew living in the hill country of Judea, he interprets the birth of Jesus as deliverance of Israel from the oppressive power of the Romans. And in a sense, he’s right. The work of Jesus Christ ultimately undoes the oppressive power of any government that disobeys God’s law and violates the human rights of its citizens. Jesus does this as His Church earnestly follows Him and applies truly Christlike principles to the society in which it lives. But more immediately, the work of Jesus Christ delivers people from the original Axis of Evil: sin, death and the devil. Compared to that Axis, human governments are mere pikers.

So, deliverance is deliverance from. But it is also deliverance to. Pay attention to verses 74–75: Through Christ, God redeemed his people “to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”

Zechariah says “without fear” because “perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4.18). When we receive God’s love and return it to Him, our fear of divine judgment gives way to joy in divine grace. And out of that grace, our spiritual and moral character changes. God replaces our sin with his “holiness and righteousness.”

What has Christ redeemed you from? What has Christ redeemed you to? Let your life in Christ become your personal Christmas song today!

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

Magnificat! | Luke 1:46-56


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 1:46–56.

 

As I wrote at the outset of this series, Christmas is a singing season. With today’s Scripture reading (Luke 1:46–56), we get to the first of the four songs Luke records. It has come to be known as the Magnificat because that is the first word in its Latin translation, meaning “My soul glorifies!” And it is sung by Mary, who is “the Lord’s servant” (Luke 1:38) and a profound theologian.

Mary begins by praising God for His goodness to her personally:

My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me —
holy is his name (verses 46–49).

All true worship begins with personal testimony. It is rooted in the story of the encounter between “the Mighty One” and “me.” Although none of us can claim Mary’s particular story as our own, we have stories of “great things” God has done for us. What is the story of your encounter with God? Do you praise God daily for it?

Of course, true worship never ends with personal testimony. It is rooted in personal encounter, but it sees that God’s purposes lie beyond our small selves. While He is “my Savior,” He also desires to save others:

His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation (verse 50).

The favor (literally, “grace”) God gave Mary (Luke 1:28, 30) is available to us as well — and to all others. But grace must be received with faith, that is, trust. Unfortunately, too many people trust in idols, not God. So, in order to save us, God becomes a great iconoclast:

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty (verses 51–53).

When I mentioned idols, perhaps you thought of gods of stone and metal and wood. But the idols God opposes most are idols of faithless hearts. And so, here, Mary teaches us that God opposes pride, power and possessions. Why? They keep us from seeing our need for God. Instead, we should be humble in God’s presence and hungry for His grace. God can do nothing for those who think they already have everything, but He can do everything for those who know they have nothing to offer Him but themselves.

Mary concludes her song with these words:

He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised to our ancestors” (verses 54–55).

Is God worthy of our praise? Is He good to us today, but not tomorrow? Will He oppose pride, power and possessions today, but change His mind tomorrow? No. His character is consistent. But so is His history. Mary cites the history of Israel’s relationship with God to remind us of this important point: God has been merciful. He is merciful. He will be merciful.

Magnificat!

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

The Blessings of Believing | Luke 1:39-45


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 1:39–45

In Luke 1:39–56, the stories of Elizabeth’s and Mary’s miraculous conceptions intertwine when the two women meet. They are relatives, it turns out, and what could be more natural than family members sharing good news? It also helps that Elizabeth lives in the Judean hills, a far piece from little Nazareth; and young Mary no doubt needs a respite from the gossip about her pregnancy.

At their first encounter, Elizabeth says four things worth pondering:

First, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear” — literally, “the fruit of your womb.”

This line of Scripture makes an appearance in the Catholic rosary as the second line of the “Hail, Mary” prayer. But if Catholics pay too much attention to Mary, Protestants pay too little. Mary was uniquely blessed among women because she gave birth to the Son of God. We do a disservice to God’s Word when we fail to remember Mary with honor for her obedience to God, which played an important role in our own salvation. Had Jesus never been born, after all, He could not have possibly died on the cross for our sins or risen from the dead for our eternal life.

Second, “But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

This is an astonishing question at two levels: (a) in traditional cultures, the young pay homage to the old, not the reverse, as is the case here; and (b) Elizabeth calls Mary “the mother of my Lord.” This is the first time — but certainly not the last — in which Jesus Christ’s coming into the world reverses traditional cultural patterns of relationships.

Third, “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.”

That baby is John the Baptist, of course. This is the first time — but certainly not the last — that John will witness to the messiahship of his kinsman, Jesus.

And fourth, “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”

In my opinion, this is the key statement. None of us will ever be become the mother of the Son of God, like Mary. Elizabeth will never announce her favor at meeting us. John the Baptist will not leap for joy at our arrival. But the Lord will bless us if we believe His promises to us, just as He blessed Mary and Elizabeth.

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

The Songs of Christmas, Part 1

The Songs of Christmas, Part 2

The Songs of Christmas, Part 3

The Songs of Christmas, Part 4

The Songs of Christmas, Part 5

Responding to God with Simple Faith | Luke 1:26-38


Today’s Scripture reading:Luke 1:26–38

Luke pairs the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5–25) with the story of Mary so that, among other things, we can compare and contrast them for our spiritual benefit.

Let’s begin with the comparisons. In both cases, the angel Gabriel announces the imminent birth of a baby boy who will play a decisive role in Israel’s history (and in the world’s). In both cases, the conception is miraculous, either because Elizabeth is barren or because Mary is a virgin. And in both cases, the women experience God’s blessing upon them.

The NIV uses one word, favor, of both Elizabeth (Luke 1:25) and Mary (verse 30), but in Greek, there are two different words: epeidon (“to consider”) and charis (“grace”). Both words connote God’s favorable disposition toward Elizabeth and Mary. Interestingly, Luke also uses charis to describe God’s blessing on Jesus’ childhood (Luke 2:40,52).

Now, consider the contrasts:

  • Zechariah and Elizabeth are old; Mary is young.
  • They are married; she is an unmarried virgin.
  • They live in Judea, near Jerusalem; she lives far north in Nazareth of Galilee.
  • They are priestly; she is a peasant.
  • Zechariah doubts. Mary believes.

That last contrast is the important one. Staring an angel in the face, Zechariah doubted the good news. Staring at the same angel with similar good news, Mary believed. By pairing Zechariah and Elizabeth so closely with Mary, Luke shows us the importance of simple faith.

Over the years, based on my theological reading and experience with Christians of different denominations, I have come to believe that Catholics place too much emphasis on Mary and Protestants not enough. Some time ago, one of the networks aired a two-part docudrama on the life of Pope John Paul II, for whom I have great respect. Just after being elected pope, John Paul II prayed, “Totus tuus, ego sum,” which is Latin for “I am wholly yours.” And he said that to Mary! Despite my admiration for the late pope, I cannot help but think that this is fundamentally wrong. We are wholly Christ’s alone, in my judgment. That does not preclude loyalties to other Christians, but it does preclude total loyalty.

On the other hand, Protestants give Mary little credit. Perhaps as an overreaction to Catholics, we downplay her role in the story of our own salvation. Think of it this way. Without Jesus dying on a cross for our sins and rising from the dead three days later, we cannot be saved. But Jesus could not have died or risen again without being human, and being human requires birth. So Jesus could not have been born without Mary. And Mary could not have given birth unless she had given assent to becoming “the Lord’s servant” (verse 38). Therefore, to a certain degree, the progress of the gospel hinged on whether Mary said “Yes” or “No” to the angel’s announcement.

But isn’t that just what salvation is all about — the grace (charis) of God calling out for a response of faith? The progress of the gospel in us, it turns out, also hinges on whether we say “Yes” or “No” to God’s grace.

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

The Songs of Christmas, Part 1

The Songs of Christmas, Part 2

The Songs of Christmas, Part 3

The Songs of Christmas, Part 4

The Antidote to Shame | Luke 1:23-25


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 1:23–25

“You should be ashamed of yourself” is one of the most powerful combinations of words in the English language, both for good and for evil.

At best, those six words shake people out of their moral stupor, show them how their deeds or words fall far short of God’s standards, and cause them to act and speak in more honorable ways. For example, if a father with a secret drug habit gets caught shooting up in the bathroom by his young son, he should feel ashamed of himself. But rather than wallow in that shame, he should get clean and sober and give his son a reason to be proud of him.

At worst, however, those words imprison us in a cage of other people’s opinions and arbitrary standards. Some time ago, Dr. Phil aired the story of a mother who despised her older daughter because she was stocky, but lavished love, attention and affection on her younger daughter, who was petite. Through her words and actions, this mother created a deep feeling of shame in her older daughter. Did I mention that both girls were under 10 years of age? There was nothing wrong with the older daughter. The problem was the mother and her arbitrary standards and loveless criticisms. She was the one who should have been ashamed of herself.

When Elizabeth became pregnant, she said God had taken away her “disgrace among the people” (verse 25). Which kind of shame had Elizabeth felt up to this point: the better kind or the worst kind? Obviously, it cannot be the better kind. Luke 1:6 says Zechariah and Elizabeth were “righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” Elizabeth’s feelings of shame (or disgrace) did not arise from anything she had done wrong. She did not need to change her ways.

Rather, her shame arose from what her community expected of her as a wife, namely, that she would also be a mother. Unfortunately, through no fault of her own, Elizabeth was “not able to conceive” (Luke 1.7). And this childlessness lowered her several notches in her neighbor’s estimation of her, and, consequently, in her estimation of herself. She had no reason to be ashamed, but she was ashamed nonetheless.

God is in the business of taking shame away from people. He does so in several ways. First, He removes our shame when we repent of the deeds and words that are shameful. Second, He removes our shame when He exposes the arbitrary social standards and expectations that society unfairly imposes on us. And third, He gives us grace, in both spiritual and material ways. In Elizabeth’s case, that grace was a baby boy named John, Yohanan, “The Lord is gracious.”

Grace, you see, is always the antidote to shame.

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

The Songs of Christmas, Part 1

The Songs of Christmas, Part 2

The Songs of Christmas, Part 3

The Lord Is Gracious | Luke 1:13-17


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 1:13–17

In Luke’s account of Christ’s birth, silence precedes singing. Zechariah and Elizabeth’s home was silent because they were childless. Zechariah’s mouth became silent because he doubted the angel’s good news. And Israel’s prophets were silent too.

Malachi is the last prophet of the Old Testament. He ministered in the fifth century B.C. Speaking on behalf of God, Malachi’s final words are these: “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction” (Malachi 4:5–6).

In this prophecy, Malachi promises three things: righteousness, revelation and reconciliation. The day of the Lord is the day on which God right-sizes the world. It is currently under the grip of the Axis of Evil (sin, death and the devil). So it is awash in unrighteousness. What should be isn’t, and what shouldn’t be is. But on the day of the Lord, God will make all things right.

A prophet’s ministry has to do with revelation. He sees a vision of God, or hears the Word of God, and communicates it to the people so that the people might hear and obey God’s will. Elijah was a great prophet in an age of great prophecies, and Malachi promises a fresh outpouring of divine revelation as the day of the Lord draws near.

But neither God’s actions nor prophetic revelation alone determine what happens to you and me as the day of the Lord draws near. We are given a choice: reconciliation with one another and with God, or a curse. What must happen in us is a turn of our hearts.

After Malachi spoke these words, prophecy in Israel went silent for over 400 years. And then, the angel Gabriel spoke good news to childless Zechariah. He would have a son, but not just any son. In the Old Testament, the prophets were filled with the Holy Spirit on occasion, at the moment of divine revelation. But Zechariah’s son “will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born” (Luke 1:15).

And this son’s ministry will be a ministry of turning: “He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous — to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:16–17).

After Malachi, silence. Beginning with Zechariah’s son, a new voice. And that son’s name encapsulates his message: John (Luke 1:13). In Hebrew, his name is Yohanan. In English, it means “the Lord is gracious.” And God is. To the childless, to the doubting and to us.

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

The Songs of Christmas, Part 1

The Songs of Christmas, Part 2

Struggling with Disappointment and Doubt | Luke 1:8-23


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 1:8–23

The singing season of Christmas begins in the silence of a childless home. It becomes even quieter with the doubts of Zechariah.

While Zechariah is offering incense to God in the temple, an angel appears to him and tells him that he and Elizabeth will soon give birth to a son to be named John. According to the angel, this son “will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous — to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (verse 17).

The angel’s words allude to Malachi 4:5–6, which foretells the ministry of a prophet “before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.” John is that prophet. (And Jesus Christ is the Lord!)

You might think that the angel’s good news would fill Zechariah with joy. Instead, when the angel appears, Zechariah is “gripped with fear” (Luke 1:12). This seems to be the natural reaction of human beings to heavenly beings (see Luke 1:29–30 and 2:9–10, for example). But Zechariah’s fear gives way to doubt. Here’s how Luke describes Zechariah’s reaction to the angel’s message: “Zechariah asked the angel, ‘How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.’”

Have you ever struggled with disappointment and doubt? Have you ever wished that God would part the clouds and send a message directly to you, to comfort you in your situation? Many of us seem to think that we would have more faith in God if only He were a bit more forthcoming about His existence and plan for our lives.

Zechariah’s encounter with the angel Gabriel dispels such illusions. Through Gabriel, God spoke directly to Zechariah. He spoke directly to the issue of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s childlessness. He offered hope not only to them, but to all Israel (and to us as well). But Zechariah doubted anyway. And so, the angel struck him silent.

Why did Zechariah doubt? Because he put greater faith in earthly realities than in heavenly revelation. He trusted his experience more than God’s message. He believed that childlessness was his lot in life, even when an angel from heaven told him otherwise. Reason told him that he and his wife could not have a son, but reason did not factor God into the equation and so became irrational.

God speaks good news to us as well. Let us believe his Word, so that our silent fears and doubts may give way to joyful song.

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

The Songs of Christmas, Part 1

 

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