PRAYERS THAT MOVE GOD TO ACT – Part 3

More of, "How to Pray So God Hears and Acts"

We’re having a third bite at this topic: developing a healthy prayer life by praying in such a way as to be confident God will act.

Part one is here. Part two is here.


Filip Mroz

Sometimes being specific can be very important. Back in the ’80s together with a housing Association, we bought a part-share in a flat – 30% owned by us, 70% owned by the Association. After 18 months we had to move, but in the meantime, the housing market had crashed. The property lost £14,000 of its value (a lot of money now, but a whole lot more then!). We would have taken the hit if the split of the loss had been 30/70, but we had not noticed a specific detail in the small print. Profits were shared 30/70, but losses were wholly our responsibility. And there was no sub-letting clause. We made an agreement with the Association for sub-letting, but it was over a decade before we could sell the flat without making a loss.

Not being specific can have long-term consequences. Prayer is rarely satisfying nor meaningful if we go into our times of prayer without a willingness to be specific in our requests. Jesus was specific many times. For example, when he prayed for Peter:

“But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”” (Luke 22:32 NIV11)

In the previous two articles, we discovered two principles. Prayers that cause God to act are effective, 1. When God is who we are seeking; 2. When we are willing to be changed. Let me offer the final of these three thoughts…

Prayer is satisfying when what we’re praying about is specific.

God answers prayer! Reflect on these words of J. C. Ryle, “Prayer has obtained things that seemed impossible and out of reach. It has won victories over fire, air, earth and water. Prayer opened the Red Sea. Prayer brought water from the rock and bread from heaven. Prayer made the sun stand still. Prayer brought fire from the sky on Elijah’s sacrifice. Prayer overthrew the army of Sennacherib. Prayer has healed the sick. Prayer has raised the dead. Prayer had procured the conversion of countless souls.”[1]

Not so long ago I prayed with a friend. One of our prayers was for those who had lost their faith. Two hours later, through a combination of odd circumstances, I walked through somewhere I hadn’t planned to visit. I bumped into the son of a former member of the church. He told me his mother had said to him she wanted to come and visit the church again. After that encounter, he visited the church and his sister came regularly. Coincidence, or an answer to specific prayer? I forget who said it, but I love the quote, “The more I pray, the more coincidences happen.” God-incidences are more frequent when we pray specifically!

Let’s seek God’s satisfying presence, open our hearts to become submissive to His will and pray specifically for Him to answer our requests.

Questions: What stands in the way of you being specific in your prayers? What will you do differently in your next prayer time? Do you have examples of answers to specific prayer? Leave a comment in the comment section below.

What are we waiting for? Let’s exercise the prayer-nerve and God will move the muscle!

Your brother,

Malcolm

 

[1] A Call to Prayer, pp. 29-30

 

PRAYERS THAT MOVE GOD TO ACT – Part 2

More of, "How to Pray So God Hears and Acts"

We’re having a second bite at this topic: developing a healthy prayer life by praying in such a way as to be confident God will act. Part one is here.


Filip Mroz

It can be hard to change your mind. My wife and I were raised with different perspectives on many things. One that threatened to cause a divorce in the earlier years of our marriage was the right way to peel vegetables. With a peeler that peeled away from you, or a peeler that peeled towards you? We settled on a compromise. We have our own peelers. Mine peels away from the body (the correct way, of course), and hers peels towards the body (false doctrine if ever I saw it). Joking apart, some attitudes do not need changing. But some do. It’s going to be hard to have a healthy prayer life if we go into our times of prayer without a willingness to change our hearts and our minds.

In last week’s article, we focussed on the idea, summed up in the quote from Spurgeon, that, “Prayer is the slender nerve that moveth the muscles of omnipotence.”[1]. How should we pray? Our first insight was to see that, 1. Prayer is satisfying when God is who we are seeking. What of our second insight? It is this.

Prayer is satisfying when we are willing to be changed

I’m not sure if prayer always changes God’s mind (he is sovereign after all), but I am sure it changes mine. Consider the example of Jesus. He prayed in Gethsemane for his will to be in line with God’s – “Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Mk 14.36. He was changed and strengthened (enabled to go through with the crucifixion) “because of his reverent submission.” (Heb 5:7)

How do we do this? I suggest three steps:

  1. Ask for the right heart. “Grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.” (Psalms 51:12 NIV11)
  2. Consciously commit the issues to God. “Commit your way to the Lord;” (Psalms 37:5 NIV11)
  3. Trust God that the outcome will be best for the kingdom, and for you. “In you, Lord my God, I put my trust.” (Psalms 25:1 NIV11)

Charles Finney wrote, “prayer produces a change in us that makes it fitting for God to do what would not have been fitting otherwise.”[2] In other words, we’re kidding ourselves if we think that God will act when we’re not prepared to be involved. We cannot be detached from what we’re praying about. In praying for something, I’m effectively saying, “I’m ready to be involved in seeing that prayer answered with whatever I can do.” Let’s be sure that we’re willing to be changed and used by God.

We’ll look at a final point in one more article next week.

Questions: What stands in the way of you being willing to do God’s will? Is there anything you know He is asking of you that you are resisting? What is at the root of the problem? Do you have some tactics for dealing with these challenges that have worked for you? What will you do differently in your next prayer time? Leave a comment in the comment section below.

Your brother,

Malcolm

Audio of this post can be found here.

[1] Twelve Sermons on prayer, Baker Books, p 31

[2] Lectures on Revival, Bethany House, p 38

The Weeping God

Luke 19.28-48

I’m preaching on Luke 19.28-48 tomorrow. What a corker! The verse central to the section is:

“As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it” (Luke 19:41 NIV11)

Jesus weeping. It’s not the first time (John 11.35) and he’s not the only one (Luke 7.13; 8.52; Romans 9.2-3) But why now? Why here? Is he weak? Is he controlled by his emotions? Are the tears motivated by regret, fear or horror? The word translated ‘weep” could equally be ‘wailed’. Jesus burst into sobbing. Something serious and meaningful is happening. But what? Let’s note three things:

  1. Jesus saw things as they really were. The crowd rejoiced (19.37), but Jesus wept. It was not that they should not rejoice, just that they could not see the bigger picture. How we all struggle with this. Are we willing to accept the reality of where we are in our faith, our relationships, our parenting, our marriage? Or are we so blind as to not see and admit where we are in the wrong, where we are weak, and where we need help? Are we also ready to accept the lostness of the world around us? We do not need to despair, but we do well to lament.
  2. Jesus lamented the lost opportunity. He did all he could to speak truth and act in love so as to convince people that the kingdom was coming/had come. Yet, the vast majority of the people who heard him, saw his miracles and felt his love did not respond. Jerusalem (city of peace) was to be a war zone in a few years. It’s ironic, but terribly sad, that the city of peace does not know how to enjoy peace. Has God put an opportunity before you to respond to his love? Take it while you can. You do not know how long you have.
  3. Jesus wept for others, not himself. The self-forgetfulness of Jesus is inspiring and, in fact, divine.¹ He was not weeping because he was to suffer and die in the city spread out before him. That would be reason enough, but his focus was not, and had never been, on himself. He knew God had a plan and, though it would be difficult, it was a good plan – for the the people he could help. How tragic, then, that those he longed to help and could help, are the very people rejecting such help. No wonder he wept!

Why is Jesus weeping? Because he saw things as they really were, because he longed to gather people to a place of peace with God, and because he knew how much he could help.

He did not weep every day, and neither should that be our goal, but a little weeping could go a long way to help us have the heart of Messiah.

God bless,

Malcolm

¹For more on this see Keller’s excellent short book:

Here’s just one quote, “The way the normal human ego tries to fill its emptiness and deal with its discomfort is by comparing itself to other people. All the time.” Jesus is so different, he feels no need to make comparisons. Instead, his energy is used for compassion.

“Unexpected Fall”, Matthew 10.29-31

bridgeAutumn is upon us (‘fall’ for my American cousins). The leaves are falling. Change is everywhere. However, not everything progresses as expected. An unusually warm season means we’re mowing more often that usual. Today I trimmed some hedges because they’ve put out new growth at a time when they would normally be conserving their energies in advance of winter. That’s not the only unexpected sight I’ve come across recently.

Yesterday morning’s prayer walk took me over a bridge. What did I see? A leaf. But not in its normal place. It was not on the river bank, or the path, not floating on the water. It was suspended in mid-air. It was as if frozen. A freeze-frame leaf moment. I continued over the bridge and found that from a different angle it was possible to see a spider’s web stretched from a tree on one bank right across to a tree on the opposite side. Kudos to the 8-legged beastie. That was one weird web-tastic wonder!leaf

We don’t always ‘fall’ as we expect. Neither do events. Last night Joe, another member of the Watford church of Christ, & I met on a similar nearby bridge to pray. One of our themes was asking God to give us the humility to be useful to Him as He sees fit, rather than as we would like be used. The early church did not expect to be scattered as they were (Acts 8.1-4). Paul did not expect to be confronted with Jesus (Acts 9.4), nor to be “the apostle to the Gentiles” (Romans 11:13 NIV11). It doesn’t look like Timothy expected to be a church leader (2 Tim 1.7), and Philemon didn’t expect to get Onesimus back – as a brother! (Philem. .16). I could go on.  Have you ‘fallen’ into a place in life you did not expect, desire or like?

We know not what will befall us. Worry could set in. How do we avoid anxiety? Perhaps this passage helps:

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:29–31 NIV11)

If God knows all the sparrows and hairs we can be sure he knows what’s going on. Even the tiniest details of our lives matter to him. And if we are worth more than a bunch of sparrows we’re confident in his consistent care and company as we walk through the unexpected lifts and falls of life.

Whether you’re on the path, the river bank, the water, or suspended in a spider’s web, I hope and pray you’re able to trust God that he’s watching out for you and only has your best interests at heart.

God bless,

Malcolm

How to Beat Burnout

ZealA review of “Zeal without Burnout” (seven keys to a lifelong ministry of sustainable sacrifice) by Christopher Ash.¹

Preamble

Burnout is prevalent in church leadership.² How do we avoid it? Not by becoming lazy, but keeping ourselves, “fuelled and aflame.” (Rom 12:11 MESSAGE) Christopher provides us with seven simple but profound practical truths to maintain spiritual fervour instead of experiencing spiritual failure. These apply to those serving in Christian ministry, whether on staff of a church or not. Anyone practicing the seven keys with diligence will undoubtable find refreshment and renewed faith.

Summary

The most important aspect of maintaining spiritual health while under strain is soberness, “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.” (1 Cor 10:12 NRSV) A buyer of the book is, presumably, aware enough of their challenges to recognise the symptoms of burnout either in full view or coming over the horizon. However, we are not the best judges of our fitness and need books like this to conduct a periodic review. I recommend this as a readable and succinct book that could be best used by pulling it off the shelf at least once a year for a checkup.

Body of the Book

Christopher reminds us that sacrifice (good) is not the same as burnout (bad). Statements such as, “I would rather wear out than rust out” (George Whitfield) may be well intended, but smack too much of machismo. The problem with burnout is not simply the effect it has on us, but also on colleagues, friends and especially family. In essence, burnout is avoidable and thus is akin to selfishness. We are called to present our “bodies as a living sacrifice,” (Rom 12:1 CENT) – not a dead one! It helps to remember that we are creatures of dust (Gen 2:7; Psalm 90:3; 103:14).

Having reminded us of our limitations Christopher gives us his “Seven Keys” to sustainable sacrifice:

  1. We need sleep
  2. We need sabbath rests
  3. We need friends
  4. We need inward renewal
  5. A warning: beware celebrity!
  6. An encouragement: it’s worth it!
  7. A delight: rejoice in grace, not gifts

Rather than go into detail, I’ll simply add a couple of points not covered in my vlogs.

Each short chapter reviews differences between us and God. We have needs that He does not, and thus we do well to take advantage of the resources He has provided to continue to do the work He has in mind for us. Christopher carefully treads the line between self-care and selfishness.  Christian work does make you tired! Paul and others had “sleepless nights and hunger” (2 Cor 6:5 NIV11). Our writer is not advocating a comfortable cross, but a sustainable life of discipleship.

The example of a firefighter is a helpful thread throughout the book. It is not selfish to guard our devotional times any more than it is selfish for a firefighter to take a break before heading back into the fire. Remaining in the burning building beyond his or her capacity for strength or air would be folly, not faith. “To neglect sleep, sabbaths, friendships and inward renewal is not heroism but hubris.”

In essence the book is concerned with self-awareness. Once we are aware, we then must be humble enough to surrender any fears or selfish ambition to God. Hard to do unless we also share our predicament with at least one trusted friend. Perhaps, if I have a criticism of this book, it would be that it lacks detail on what to do when you find yourself in a place without ‘safe’ people around. It’s a situation I have faced in the past as do many in Christian service. I’d like to have heard Christopher’s thoughts on this topic.

Conclusion

The book’s brevity does not indicate a superficial treatment of this vital topic. There is enough between the pages to bless your burnout – or even prevent it in the first place. A more detailed exploration of many of the themes can be found in the works of Gordon MacDonald (“Ordering your private world”, “Restoring your spiritual passion”, “A resilient life” and others).

Let’s hope and pray that we can live out the instruction that Paul gave the Romans, and that he himself lived, “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord” (Romans 12:11 NIV11).

His concluding poem/prayer is a helpful meditation:

“I am – and will never, this side of the resurrection, be more than – a creature of dust. I will rest content in my creaturely weakness; I will use the means God has given me to keep going in this life while I can; I will allow myself time to sleep; I will trust him enough to take a day off each week; I will invest in friendships and not be a proud loner; I will take with gladness the inward refreshment he offers me. I will serve the Lord Jesus with a glad and restful zeal with all the energy that he works within me; but not with anxious toil, selfish ambition, the desire for the praise of people, and all the other ugly motivations that will destroy my soul. So help me God.”

Malcolm Cox

3 October 2016

¹ thegoodbook company, hardback, 123 pages, 2016

² In the USA it is estimated that some 1500 people leave pastoral ministry each month due to burnout, conflict or moral failure. A third of pastors say they feel burned out within just five years of starting ministry, and almost a half of pastors and their wives say they have experienced depression or burnout to the extent that they needed to take a leave of absence from ministry.

 

Miscarriage – A Death in the Family

008-jesus-diesWhat do you say when friends lose a baby? Tomorrow I take a memorial service for the son who arrived too soon. The experience of preparing what to say has prompted deeper thinking and searching. Here I share a few thoughts that may connect for those with similar circumstances. But even if you’ve not had this harrowing experience, you’ll doubtless know someone who has – or you will.

1. A Death in the Family

This is not a ‘miscarriage’ nor a foetus. It is an personal tragedy. A death of a loved one. Our friends have lost their eagerly anticipated son. We do well to remember this and talk about ‘him’, not ‘it’.

2. We Don’t Know Why

Well-meaning people can be the most cruel. Offering our opinion as to why this happened is unhelpful – and actually dishonest. We don’t know why God causes or allows things any more that Job. Let’s be humble. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God.” (Deuteronomy 29:29 NIV11)

3. We Can Trust God

We may not know why God allows pain, but we know he has experienced it himself, “Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).” (Mark 15:34 NIV11). If he knows our pain he will make sense of it at some point – just not maybe while we are on this earth.

4. Give God the Future

We are not the judges of what happens to those who die young. God knows how to judge correctly, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”” (Genesis 18:25 NIV11). Let’s leave such matters to him and look to a better future. When David lost his son he said, “I will go to him, but he will not return to me.”” (2 Samuel 12:23 NIV11)

5. Look to God for Peace

My friends sent me two beautiful scriptures. Here is the first, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27 NIV11). Peace is possible with the presence of Jesus. This is not a peace of forgetfulness, but a peace that embraces reality, yet retains hope.

Conclusion

And we also need strength. Where to find strength in such stressed moments? “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” (Ephesians 3:16–21 NIV11)

God provides a strength beyond human capacity, just as he offers compassion of divine quality, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:3–5 NIV11)

My friends have conducted themselves with spiritual integrity and human honesty. I admire them greatly. I hope that those of us present tomorrow at the memorial service will be what they need us to be. I know God will be what we need Him to be.

Malcolm Cox

 

Footnote

I’m indebted to the book, “The Hardest Sermons You’ll Ever Have to Preach.” contributors: Tim Keller, John Piper, Michael Horton, Jerram Barrs, Dan Doriani, Robert S. Rayburn, Mike Khandjian, Wilson Benton, Bob Flayhart, Jack Collins, George Robertson, Bryan Chapell

“True Treasure”, Luke 12.22-34, as preached at the Watford church of Christ

Don’t: worry about stuff – Because: God’s got your back – Therefore: give stuff away (be generous) – And you will have lasting treasure

“How to Feed 5,000 People”, Luke 9.10-17, Watford church of Christ

Jesus feeds 5,000 people, but what is the spiritual lesson for the crowd, the disciples and us? We see how he sets up a faith opportunity for the disciples, and how he supplies the inspiration for future times when their faith will be tested further.

“The Jesus Prayer”, Luke 6.12-19

Why did Jesus pray all night before choosing the Apostles? What part did that prayer have in helping him to trust God regarding Judas? And, where did the power come from for him to heal the sick?

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