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September 21, 2015

Prayer has always been a struggle for me, and I know I am not the only one. There’s a reason that books on prayer continue to flood our bookshelves. Very few of us pray as often and as earnestly as we would like. Very few of us are confident that we pray well. Fewer still feel like we really get prayer.

I have read the books and sat in the seminars and heard the sermons and even preached a few of my own. Along the way I have learned many truths and picked up many practical tips. Little by little, bit by bit, they have helped me grow in my knowledge and understanding of prayer. And, I trust, they have helped me to actually pray.

There is one practice I find myself working on these days more than any other, and I think it may be the most important of them all. It is a simple one: Never resist the least urge to pray.

I cannot remember where I first heard that. Was it Joel Beeke? Was it Martyn Lloyd-Jones? Was it a Puritan writer? It may well have been all of them. The truth behind it is simple: It’s never the wrong time to pray. Those impulses are invariably good. After all, it’s not like Satan or the old man will be the ones directing me to call out to God rather than resting in selfishness or self-reliance, is it?

Like me, you probably feel that urge to pray throughout your day. You feel it after church when you are speaking to a struggling friend. Something in your mind says, “I should pause right here and right now and pray with her.” And you fight a momentary battle over whether or not you will actually say, “Let me pray for you.”

You feel it when you are lying in bed beside your wife, you are about to go to sleep, and you think, “I should pray with her.” But even something so simple can feel like the hardest thing in the world.

You feel it when you are sharing the gospel. He has been at least a little bit receptive and you think, “I should offer to pray for him.” And right there, a whole cosmic battle rages within your heart and mind.

It happens just as often when you are alone and you are struck with the desire to pray or the impulse that you ought to pray. You see that you have the opportunity to pray. You believe that this is the time to pray. But will you pray?

Never resist the least urge to pray. What if you lived that way? What if we all lived that way? Our lives and our churches would be bathed in prayer. I believe we would be living in much greater faithfulness to God’s command to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

So why don’t you try it? See what difference it makes in your life, in your family, in your church, when you stop resisting those urges to pray, and when you joyfully respond to every impulse.

It turns out, by the way, that it was probably Martyn Lloyd-Jones I was reading. He gives the instruction in the context of sermon preparation, but it applies equally to all of life:

Always respond to every impulse to pray. I would make an absolute law of this – always obey such an impulse.

Where does it come from? It is the work of the Holy Spirit; it is a part of the meaning of ‘Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure’ (Phil 2:12-13).

This often leads to some of the most remarkable experiences in the life of the minister. So never resist it, never postpone it, never push it aside because you are busy. Give yourself to it, yield to it; and you will find not only that you have not been wasting time with respect to the matter with which you are dealing but that actually it has helped you greatly in that respect…

Such a call to prayer must never be regarded as a distraction; always respond to it immediately, and thank God if it happens to you frequently.

3 Reasons We Need to Pray
September 18, 2015

As a Christian, as a pastor, and as a church member, I find myself at a lot of meetings. And more often than not, these meetings begin with prayer. I don’t often think about why we do this—we just do it. We pray before we do business, and we pray before we do ministry.

As I drove home from a meeting yesterday, I thought about these little prayers and how much I enjoy them. I thought about their sheer significance.

Praying declares that we do not have the wisdom we need. My guess is that when the executives at Amazon or Google gather in their corporate settings to make major decisions, they believe that they have the wisdom, experience, and expertise they need right there in the room. As Christians, we know that we do not. We know that we are entirely dependent upon wisdom that comes from outside ourselves. These little prayers, prayed by even the best and brightest Christian minds, are a simple plea for help, a child’s plea to his father to give the gifts of knowledge and wisdom.

Praying declares that we do not have the time we need. There is something so deliciously counter-cultural about saying, “We have a very full agenda and only a couple of hours to make some major decisions. So let’s start by investing a few minutes asking for help from an invisible but all-powerful God.” And if your experience is at all like mine, you have probably found that the meetings that begin with heartfelt prayer often end up being unusually productive and generating unusually wise decisions—almost as if God really does hear and answer those prayers.

Praying declares that we do not have the motives we need. Prayer is a cry to God not only for wisdom and appropriate use of time, but also a plea that we will make decisions for the best of motives. We understand that without God’s help we will make decisions out of fear of man instead of fear of God; we will make decisions that are good for us even if they are bad for others; we will decide to do what preserves our comfort and security even if it skirts morality. So we begin our time together by asking God to elevate our motives so that every word, every thought, and every decision will bring glory to him.

It’s a simple habit, this. But it’s both beautiful and meaningful.

I Am An Old-Fashioned Christian
September 16, 2015

I get the books. I read the articles. I see the news. Christianity seems ready to move on. And I realize anew: I am an old-fashioned kind of Christian.

I believe in the Bible. I believe that it is clear, complete, sufficient, true, and without error. It is God’s revelation to humanity and demands my full attention and full obedience. I do not expect God to speak to me apart from it. I read, He speaks, I obey. Or I try anyways.

I believe in the God of the Bible. I believe in a God who is one, yet three. I believe in a God who is loving, holy, just, kind and good. I believe in a God who has foreordained everything that has come to pass or will come to pass.

I believe that God, from nothing, made the world and everything in it in six days. Not six ages or six phases or six million years, mind you, but six days. 144 hours. That’s what he said, so that’s what he did. And it was good.

I believe in sin. I believe that Eve conversed with a talking serpent and that her act of rebellion and the sin of her husband was as simple as taking a bite of an especially meaningful piece of fruit. This is not metaphor or fable, but just what happened. Because of that sin, I believe you and I are both objects of God’s wrath. When Adam fell, we fell. And it was not good.

I believe that in my natural human state I am sinful. I delight in evil. I hate what is good. I am thoroughly, utterly depraved. Sin pervades every area of my life and turns me against my Creator.

I believe in justice and in judgment, that the holy and just God must demand satisfaction for any and all sinful deeds. I believe in hell—a literal, tormentuous hell, a place of justice where the sinner faces the terrible wrath of God for all eternity.

I believe in Jesus. Born of a virgin, the perfect, Holy Son of God, who lived a perfect and blameless life. He died, literally, was buried, literally, and rose, literally.

I believe in penal substitutionary atonement. Jesus died on the cross in place of his people. He faced God’s wrath in place of his people. Through this act, my sin was imputed to him and his righteousness was imputed to me. This was the greatest act of grace and kindness the world has ever known or ever will know.

I believe in the gospel, the message of the good news of Jesus’ perfect life, substitutionary death, and glorious resurrection. The gospel assures me that salvation comes by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. God freely offers this gospel to all who will believe and obey.

I believe there is no salvation outside of Jesus. God will not waive the requirements of righteousness at the final judgment. Not for anyone and not for everyone. Not for those who have never heard of him. Justice must be satisfied.

I believe that man’s chief purpose is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. My purpose is as simple and as joyful as living to bring honor and glory to God.

I believe in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit who gives the desire and the ability to put sin to death and to come alive to righteousness.

I believe in the church, the gospel made visible in the community of the elect. The church is the total number of God’s people living when they are where they are. It is the church’s honor and responsibility to take the good news to all the world.

I believe in families that honor God. I believe in families founded upon the marriage of one man to one woman, an institution created by God and for God. A husband is to joyfully, sacrificially lead his wife while his wife joyfully and willing submits to her husband’s leadership. Together, through this complementarity, they provide a portrait of the love of God for his people.

I believe in perseverance; that God, by his grace, will never let go of those he has saved.

I believe in heaven—a literal, beautiful, physical heaven that is far better than we can imagine. Heaven is the community of the redeemed together with God and is a place of no pain, no sorrow. I long for this place. I hope I see it soon.

I believe in glorification; that in the near future God will return and will bring with him a new heaven and a new earth. Those who have been saved will live together forever, new body and perfected spirit united, in the presence of God. My heart aches for this day, for on this day I will believe perfectly and fully. And so will you.

5 Ways to Ruin a Perfectly Good Dating Relationship
September 14, 2015

Somewhere along the way dating became too hard. There must have been a time when it was easy—people knew what was expected of them and how to behave (even if too often they just went ahead and chose not to behave). But today I talk to an endless succession of young people who are trapped between dating and courting and some weird hybrid of the two. Dating has become the most difficult thing in the world, probably because they’ve got a million books and web pages telling them how. They can’t just do it—they’ve got to do it by the book. And along the way they are ruining their dating relationships.

Here are some ways I’ve seen people ruin what could have been a beautiful thing.

They start having sex. The first and most common way of ruining a perfectly good dating relationship is by adding sex to the mix. Sex is for marriage—you know that. God created sex for marriage, not for dating. God created sex to seal and celebrate the marriage relationship, not to serve as an exploratory part of it. Dating relationships just don’t have the seriousness, the level of commitment, or the divine sanction to support sex. So don’t ruin your relationship by adding even the least little bit of sexuality. There will be plenty of time for plenty of that later on. You will not regret the wait.

They stop having fun. Dating is not the time for sex, but it is the time for fun. It is time to simply enjoy spending time with another person, to learn who the other person is, to learn what makes the other person tick. This can be approached with complete deliberateness: Sit down and answer my list of questions; Let’s read 6 books on marriage together. But it can be better approached in the context of service (find a place to serve together!), fun (find something you both like to do and do it!), and informality (you don’t need to plan absolutely everything!). Once you completely take sex off the table, you are free to just have fun with the other person. In the context of that fun you will learn who he or she is, you will learn what he or she values, you will learn whether or not the two of you are compatible. Don’t lose the fun!

They succumb to morbid introspection. Next up is morbid introspection. Now, obviously dating is a good time for introspection. It is a good time to look within and to ask whether you are really ready to be a husband or wife, and ready to commit yourself completely to another person. Well and good. But what I see so often is a paralyzing level of introspection that drives a person to despair. The simple fact is that none of us is fully qualified to be a husband or wife. You will never be worthy of the honor of having another person commit his or her life to you. None of us is the top pick out of the 7 billion other people on the planet. Yet the wonder of marriage is that a messed up, sinful man actually can marry a messed up, sinful woman and somehow build a beautiful, life-long relationship that shines a spotlight on God and his gospel. If you wait until you are worthy of marriage, you will never get married. If you wait until you’re perfectly suitable, you will be waiting forever. You can’t wait until you’re all grown up before you get married; sometimes you need to get married to really grow up.

They have unrealistic expectations. If people are prone to paralysis when they look inward, they are equally prone to paralysis when they look at a potential spouse. I see too many people who have unrealistic expectations of the person they would choose as a spouse. You know what? She isn’t perfect. She isn’t the best or godliest or most beautiful person on the planet. But who are you to think you deserve all of that, or that you need it? Who are you to think, “I deserve better than this”? And that guy, he isn’t going to be completely gentle and sweet and selfless all the time. But again, who are you to deserve a perfect man? We all marry as sinners. We all marry sinners. While you ought to expect a lot of your future spouse, it’s unfair to expect perfection.

They live in fear. If we look for a common thread in all of these other ways to ruin a perfectly good dating relationship, I think we come to fear. A lot of people are full of fear. They make major decisions out of fear. But dating is a very good time to remember that we serve a God who is sovereign and relentlessly committed to our good. His instructions on marriage are basic: Marry a Christian, live and die for one another, and remain married for life. He doesn’t lay down the long lists of criteria you’ll find in all of those books. He doesn’t describe technique or methodology. He just tells us of the good and glory of marriage and expects that those who wish to be married will figure out how to make it happen. And then, one way or another, through joys and through trials, he pours out his blessings.

The Greatest Wall
September 09, 2015

The Great Wall of China is one of humanity’s greatest architectural achievements. Its sheer size is almost incomprehensible. Extending across what was once the northern frontier of China, the wall stretches for over 5,000 miles—so long and so prominent that it is visible from space. And yet, for all its magnificence, today it serves no purpose beyond attracting tourists. In fact, many portions of the wall have been almost levelled by townspeople salvaging its bricks to build their homes.

From 1961 to 1989 the Berlin Wall divided East Germany from West Germany, communism from freedom. The wall stretched for more than 100 miles, reached twelve feet in height, and featured terrifying guard towers and dangerous no-man’s lands. For decades it stood as a symbol of a great divide in Europe and the world. But, over a period of just 2 years, it was dismantled and destroyed as Germany reunited.

The Mexico–United States barrier stands today as an attempt to keep people from illegally crossing into the United States of America. It covers 670 of the nearly 2,000 miles of shared border and is meant to prohibit illegal immigration from Mexico and the nations beyond it. In some places the wall is fifteen feet high, topped with barbed wire, regularly patrolled, and made of material strong enough to stop not only people, but also vehicles.

From Hadrian’s Wall to the Maginot Line, we could almost tell the tale of human history by mankind’s attempts to protect themselves from other people, from other nations. Each of these barriers was intended to separate one group from another group.

There is one barrier, though, that was much stronger and much greater than any of the others. This barrier, the most powerful divider of all, was a simple curtain.

The curtain in the great temple of Jerusalem separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. It separated holy God from unholy humanity. And that curtain, with all that it was meant to display, was impenetrable. While other walls rose and fell, this one remained unbreached, at least in what it represented. Generation after generation, from the wilderness tabernacle to the first-century temple, that barrier remained, sealing and signifying the separation between God and man.

And then, in a moment, at the uttering of a single word, at the death of a single man, that barrier was obliterated. The greatest wall called for the greatest man to complete the greatest act. And he did. The barrier was ripped apart, not from bottom to top as if by the hand of man, but from top to bottom by the hand of God. It was rendered completely unnecessary, utterly obsolete.

The barrier fell, and it fell forever. It took with it all of the hostility that had made it necessary. God and man could now, at last, be reunited. Man and man could now, at least, be reunited. The fall of the greatest wall brought the greatest peace, the greatest unity—eternal unity. 

Image credit: Shutterstock

The Curse of a Godly Wife
September 08, 2015

I have seen him far too often. He is the man who rarely takes the lead in his home. He is the man who almost never calls the family together for devotions. He is the man who feels dumb when asking his wife if he can pray for her, or when asking if she would like to sit and read the Bible with him. He is the one who seems almost afraid of being godly.

Why is he like this? In many cases it is because his wife is godlier—godlier than he is. She may have been a Christian for longer. She may have a deeper knowledge of the Bible. She may have read more books and listened to more sermons. She may be the one who loves to study the Bible and whose heart goes pitter-pat when she adds a new term to her theological lexicon. And when he compares himself to her, he feels inadequate. He feels like a poser. He feels embarrassed to do those things he knows he should do. He finds it easier to do nothing.

Do you see what he has done? Somewhere along the way he has made his wife’s spiritual maturity a problem. He has entered into a kind of competition with her that has made her love for the Lord a liability. He has come to see her godliness as a curse rather than a blessing, as if he has been cursed with a godly wife.

My friend, if this is you, you need to know that you’ve got it all wrong. No husband or father leads because he is worthy of it. No one is adequate to the task. Each one of us falls short in a million ways. Each one of us goes beyond the edge of our abilities every single day. We can’t do it. But we must do it anyway.

The solution is not to give up. The solution is not to do nothing. The solution is to do—to do what God calls you to do despite your fears and despite your misgivings. The solution is always simple obedience.

Rejoice in your wife’s godliness, and thank God for such a precious gift. Celebrate it by pursuing godliness of your own. You don’t need to be a brilliant theologian or a renowned Bible scholar. You don’t need to read The Institutes. You don’t need to be godlier than your wife. You just need to own your sin and inadequacy, and to do those things God calls you to do. And it all begins with admitting your complete inability to do even the least of it apart from his strength.

Image credit: Shutterstock

September 07, 2015

It is a theme I have been thinking about quite a lot. It is a theme I have known in my own life at various times and in certain circumstances. I have pondered guilt and shame, and today I want to return to some reflections on them.

So many Christians live their lives racked with guilt and shame. They think back to the things they did, the sins they committed, whether two days ago or two decades, and they live under a cloud of shame. This shame hurts, it burns, it incapacitates. It raises this question: What is the place of guilt, what is the place of shame, in the life of the Christian?

We need to begin by distinguishing between guilt and shame. Here is how I differentiate between them: Guilt is the objective reality that I have committed an offense or a crime; shame is the subjective experience of feeling humiliation or distress because of what I have done. God has made us in such a way that sin incurs guilt and guilt generates shame. But there is a catch and a caution: Guilt and shame come in helpful forms and in paralyzingly unhelpful forms. Guilt and shame can be a good gift of God or a curse of Satan.

When I sin against God I may find that my conscience accuses me, that it convicts me that I have done wrong. My guilt, the realization that I have sinned, brings a feeling of shame. This guilt and shame is a good gift of God when it motivates me to repent of my sin, to look again to the cross of Christ.

When I repent of sin, I am assured by God that Christ himself has already dealt with the guilt of it. At the cross the guilt of that offense was transferred to Christ. He took that sin—the full, objective, legal guilt of it—upon himself to such an extent that my sin became his sin. Jesus Christ took every hateful thought and adulterous glance and spiteful word and every other sin upon himself. He took that sin to the cross and suffered God’s wrath against it to the point that justice was satisfied. This means that the offense has been truly and fully paid for. It is gone. I am no longer guilty before God!

But Christ did more than that. Not only did he take away my guilt, but he also gave me his righteousness. This is the great exchange of the gospel, that my sin was transferred to him and his righteousness was transferred to me. I am not only not sinful, but I am actually righteous. Because the guilt of the offense is gone, the shame is gone as well. Because that sin is no longer my own, the shame is no longer my own.

Think about this. The sin is no longer my own, which means the guilt is no longer my own, which means the shame is no longer my own. The guilt and the shame of that sin now belong to Christ. If anyone ought to be feeling shame for that sin, it is not me but Christ! Do you think Christ is at the Father’s side today racked with shame because of the adultery and murder and envy that he took upon himself? Of course not! Christ knows that those sins have been dealt with, that they have been forgiven, that they have been removed as far as east is from west. There is no shame left for him to feel.

So why, then, do I feel shame for sins I committed so long ago? Why do I get all wrapped up in guilt and shame? Because Satan wants me to be incapacitated by that shame, to doubt that it has been dealt with, to convince me that I still need to carry the weight of it. He wants to destroy my joy, to cripple my usefulness to the church, and he can do this by wrapping me up in guilt and shame.

The hymn “Before the Throne of God Above” speaks powerfully about forgiveness for guilt and shame.

When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within,

Here is Satan, actively drawing old sins to mind, and convincing me that I still bear the guilt and shame of each one of them. But…

Upward I look and see Him there
Who made an end of all my sin.
Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free.
For God the just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me.

The guilt of my sin, the shame of it, cannot withstand just that one glance at the cross, for there I see the death of Christ and with it, the death of sin, guilt, and shame.

Christian, when you commit sin and feel shame, embrace it as an opportunity to turn again to the Lord, to repent of that sin, to preach the gospel to yourself, to assure yourself once more of the Lord’s grace for those who put their faith in Christ. And then embrace the freedom of forgiveness and let Jesus feel the shame.

Got the Wrong Guy
September 02, 2015

So much of what life brings is beyond my skills, beyond my experience, beyond my comfort zone. In many ways I could tell the story of my life through the times I have been forced into action, forced to confront my fears, forced to do things that make my natural disposition scream out in fear. Left on my own and living by my own preferences, my life would look very different than it does today. This is true in my character, my home, my church, and pretty well everywhere else.

One of my great comforts and challenges has been a funny, often-overlooked little passage from the book of Exodus. God has told Moses that he will lead the people out of Egypt. God has told Moses that he, Moses, is to serve as God’s voice to both Israel and Egypt. And Moses is none too pleased. Moses takes it upon himself to remind God why he obviously isn’t the man for the job. “But Moses said to the LORD, ‘Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue’.” You’ve got the wrong guy, can’t you see that?

But God has not made a mistake. God hasn’t chosen Moses because of his abilities, but for reasons that are all his own. Far more likely, God has chosen Moses precisely because he has no natural abilities. God looks for people who are so weak that they will have to depend fully upon him. “Then the LORD said to him, ‘Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak’ ” (Exodus 4:10-12).

God’s answer is simple: That mouth you’re worried about—just think for one moment about who made it. It’s not your mouth, it’s my mouth. It may be on your face, but I made it and it belongs to me. If I made it, I can use it. Just trust me with it, and you’ll be amazed at what I can do. Moses had it all wrong. Moses wanted to serve God out of his strength, but God wanted Moses to serve out of his weakness.

At so many times and in so many ways—from the dinner table to the elders’ meeting to the conference podium—I have wanted to run away from opportunities and responsibilities. Many times I have, in one way or another. I have wanted to remind God that he’s got the wrong guy—I’m not able to lead this family, I’m not able to make decisions on behalf of this church, I’m not able to speak truth into this situation, I’m not able to stand up there and speak. I am quite certain that you have found yourself battling similar fears.

But think of Moses, and think of God’s patient response, and believe that the God who calls is the God who equips. Right there you will find your comfort and your confidence.

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