Since it is the most central theme of the Christian faith, much thought goes into my presentation of the gospel. For those who are Christians, I hope you will find this presentation refreshing and inspiring, and I hope it will remind you of the awesome gift you have received through Christ. For those of you who are not Christians, are seeking answers, or just wanting a basic overview of the central theme of the Christian faith, I hope this post will be exactly what you’re looking for. Please check out my new post under Gospel: Response, titled “Guilty or Not?”
Much has happened over the last couple weeks that is worth comment, but I will contain my comments to one particular event which happened the last Sunday before Christmas (12/18/11). I had been leading the youth in preparation of a Christmas play/cantata that we were to perform that Sunday. We were about 10 minutes into the play, and during the second song, while I was leading the congregation in “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” Mrs. Ethel Brown (our pianist) suffered a massive stroke and collapsed into the floor. We cancelled the remainder of the service and play (which we were fortunate enough to be able to perform the following Wednesday evening) and I immediately began leading the youth in a prayer vigil. At the time, I assumed that she had suffered from a stroke, but none of us knew the severity. Mrs. Ethel (as we all call her) had suffered from two simultaneous aneurisms, one in each hemisphere of her brain, both too far interior for operation. In other words, there was nothing the doctors could do but sit and wait.
Now, at this point, you’re probably thinking exactly what the doctors told us: “There’s no hope.” One doctor, as I recall, even told us that he’d never seen someone live who suffered that severe a stroke. He told us, “I deal with facts, not hope.” (Some bedside manner he had! Quite the charmer…) So, we continued praying. Oddly enough though, not even the family was praying for Mrs. Ethel’s survival just out of a desire to keep her around. Even the family was praying for God’s will to be accomplished and for him to be glorified. Many of us prayed for God to spare Mrs. Ethel to prove to an unbelieving doctor that God–not facts and statistics–is in control. And he answered our prayers. Mrs. Ethel Brown is currently undergoing therapy and rehab. She has regained much cognitive ability and awareness, and though she still has a long road of recovery ahead, her survival is nothing short of a miracle and an answer to prayer. It gave me great joy as I was able to tell the youth on Wednesday night that their prayers had been answered.
There are many examples in the Bible of specific answers to prayer. One that caught my eye today while I was reading is David’s requests in Psalm 21:1-7. David asked for God’s blessings and length of life, and “You have given him his heart’s desire and have not withheld the request of his lips” (v. 2). I have often wondered what the difference is between prayers that are answered and prayers that are not. David tells us, though, why his prayers were answered in verse 7: “For the king trusts in the Lord…” Those prayers which are answered are those which are prayed from faithful reverence to God. In our drive-thru society, all too often we approach prayer like a fast food menu. “God, I’ll take a number 1–a happy life–and can I get some wealth and prosperity on the side? Oh, and that’ll be to-go; I’m in a hurry to get to work.” But when Jesus modeled prayer, the first thing that he prayed was praise (“Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…”) and a request for God’s will to be done on Earth just as it is done in heaven. How is God’s will done in heaven? Without question, complaint, doubt, or reservation.
Many people assume that if God is in control of everything that happens and knows or predestined the future then prayer is pointless. After all, if God is going to do what he has already planned to do anyhow, then your prayer is not going to change anything! But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of prayer. Do we really wish for the infinitely wise, all-knowing God of the universe to change his plans based upon our sinfully tainted desires and finite understanding?!?! How absurd! How dare we approach the throne of God as if we were sitting in Santa’s lap reciting our Christmas wish-list! Prayer that works, prayer with the right purpose, is prayer for God to align our desires with his, not prayer that asks God to align his desires with ours. We do not pray for God to change his plan, but for God to change our hearts. David’s prayers were granted because he trusted in the Lord, and it can be inferred from other passages in the OT that God’s desire to prosper David was firmly rooted in his desire for the other nations to see Israel’s prosperity and come to serve Israel’s God. David knew that. When he prayed for blessings and prosperity, he didn’t pray from a selfish, greed driven desire to get rich and live a good life, he was praying for God to be glorified (see v. 13).
Similarly, our prayers for Mrs. Ethel to be healed were answered because it brought God glory to demonstrate his power in impossible circumstances, not because God felt sorry for her family and knew how much it would hurt them to lose her. Though God does love his children and has compassion on them during the trials of life, we all must die someday. It is simply a matter of when and how. When we pray for a loved one, or a difficult circumstance, or for blessings, let us not pray out of vain, selfish ambition, but out of a desire for God to be glorified. God may be glorified in demonstrating his power over sickness and death by healing our loved ones. God may be glorified in giving great material wealth and many possessions to his faithful servants. But, God may also be glorified through the persistent faith of his children who suffer unimaginable difficulties, loss, and poverty (See the book of Job). Regardless of the outcome, let us pray to align our will with God’s and save our wish-lists for Santa.
Today as I was reading in the Psalms, something I read brought Isaiah 53 to mind, so I flipped to the passage and continued my reading there. Isaiah 52:13-54:3 is probably my favorite of the many Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament which speaks of how Christ’s atonement brought gentiles under the covenant blessings alongside Israel (see esp. 54:1-3, where the “barren woman”–think ‘Sarai, Leah, or Hannah’–is told to “stretch out her tent” because more “children” are coming in). What struck me most today in my reading of this passage is how despite the fact that Isaiah never uses the words “Messiah,” “Christ,” or “Jesus,” this passage seems to be screaming all three as you read it! When read this passage, even my youth group—comprised largely of 10-13 year old kids—agreed in unison (and without prompt!) that this passage was about Christ.
Having recently read and studied the Levitical system of sacrifice, I was also overwhelmed by the beautiful, poetic imagery of this passage which depicts Christ as a sacrificial lamb offered as a guilt offering for the sins of the nations. Isaiah 52:14-15a says, “Just as many were astonished at you, My people, so His appearance was marred more than any man and His form more than the sons of men. Thus He will sprinkle many nations…” (See Ex 29:21). The very Son of God was slaughtered as a guilt offering for the sins of His own creation.
Sin is serious. It has serious consequences. So many times I am tempted to believe that my sins are “no big deal,” or that they are just simply “shortcomings” or “slip-ups.” But it seems to me that we don’t call actions which cost the lives of others merely “slip-ups.” If a president utters a rash statement to a foreign dignitary which sparks a war, do we excuse his “slip-up?” How much more serious are those sins which nailed the sinless God of the universe to a cross! I know of few words in the English language which effectively communicate the gravity of sin. Perhaps “wickedness” comes close. But we don’t often like to refer to ourselves as “wicked.” That rubs us the wrong way. But it is the unfortunate truth. I’m reminded of an old, anonymous poem (which I’ve adapted slightly):
Man call is an accident, God calls it abomination.
Man calls it a defect, God calls it a disease.
Man calls it an error, God calls it an enmity.
Man calls it a liberty, God calls it lawlessness.
Man calls it a trifle, God calls it a tragedy.
Man calls it a mistake, God calls it madness.
Man calls it a weakness, God calls it wickedness.
My sin cost my dear Savior an agonizing death. To use the language of Isaiah 52-53, he was “marred, despised, rejected, pierced, crushed, oppressed, and afflicted.” Why? Because I “slipped-up?” Because I made a “mistake?” No. Because I sinned. Because I, in my wicked rejection of my very Creator and God, decided that my way was better than His. And because our sin is against not simply another sinful human, but the infinitely sinless, Almighty God, the penalty is infinitely severe: death (Romans 6:23).
But thank God that isn’t the whole story! Isaiah 53 (and the latter half of Romans 6:23) also tells another side to the story: redemption. God—in His infinite love and mercy—despite my sinfulness, chose to love me and save me anyways, through the sacrificial death of his Son. What a great God I have.
He was despised and rejected— a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care. Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his own sins! But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the LORD laid on him the sins of us all.
Great article by Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (where I am currently a student). I am reminded of I Corinthians 1:18-28:
As New Testament believers, we often classify the words of Christ in Luke 6:27-28 as part of the group of Christ’s teachings which were radical reformations of Old Testament (OT) Law. We all too often assume that it was biblically acceptable in OT times to hate those who had wronged you. After all, wasn’t the law of the day “an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth?”
But even an “eye for an eye” is in context of legal jurisdiction as demanded by a judge (see Ex 21:22-25) and does not allow for the victim to exact vengeance himself (see Lev 19:17). The OT never endorses hate as the proper response to our mistreatment by others.* This became quite clear to me as I was reading and meditating today on Psalm 35, especially verses 13-14:
But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth; I humbled my soul with fasting, and my prayer kept returning in my bosom. I went about as though it were my friend or brother; I bowed down mourning, as one who sorrows for a mother.
When those who sought for David’s life experienced sickness or difficult times, his reaction was not one of smug satisfaction or pleasure at their expense, but of genuine, sincere sorrow on their behalf! He fasted, prayed, and mourned on their behalf as if they were his own family.
While I would not consider myself the most vindictive or begrudging person that I know, I fall quite short of the mark of David’s empathy for his enemies. Though it is a rare occasion that I seek revenge toward someone who has wronged me, it is an even rarer occasion that I mourn their calamity, pray, or fast on their behalf. Frankly, these are actions that I rarely do for friends, much less enemies! When someone cuts me off and flies past me on the interstate and I pass by them and a state trooper a mile up the road, I’m not mourning their calamity! In fact, I’m tempted to stop and tell that state trooper just how fast and reckless they were driving before he saw them! (And it’s not because I’m concerned with justice being done—which is a perfectly legitimate attitude—it’s because they’ve wronged me and I’m glad to see them suffer!) But David’s reaction toward the calamity of those who’d wronged him is exactly what Jesus meant in Luke 6. This is the love that both David and Christ demonstrated: the love that turns the other cheek and prays for the forgiveness and well-being of those who have wronged us, even those who would kill us given the opportunity. This is that attitude I must imitate. This is part of what it means to be Christian and the essence of what it means to show the love of Christ to the world.
*There is a proper time and place for righteous indignation, or “hate,” but not in response to the infringement of our “rights.” Look for a later post on the usage of “hate” in the Bible, which is used quite frequently by the psalmists.
One of the passages that I read today was Psalm 120. It is, as are many other psalms, a prayer for God’s deliverance of the psalmist from wicked men who seek his life. One thing that I really took note of while reading this psalm was the very first verse: “In my trouble I cried to the LORD, And He answered me” (Ps 120:1, NASB). It’s really quite a simple verse, and is probably one that I’ve read over before quickly and without notice. However, it resonated with a truth that I had read previously today in Donald Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life about the fact that God answers prayer. The psalmist states a simple truth in this first verse of Psalm 120: “when I pray, God answers.”
Though this is a very simple verse with a very simple meaning, it has profound application for our lives. I am certain that I am not the only Christian who has not always experienced a consistent, powerful prayer life in the past. I am not sure what the reasons others may have for a lack of prayer, but to be brutally honest, my reason for not praying—whether I was willing to admit it or not—was never that I didn’t know how to pray, or didn’t have the time, but simply that I doubted its efficacy. That’s bad, especially coming from a minister, but it’s the unfortunate truth. I didn’t really believe that God would answer my prayers. I didn’t think they really had any effect. As a left-brained scientist, I saw nature as a series of causes and effects, and chain of natural events that was only ever broken in Biblical times. My view of God was so small that I subconsciously (though I would have never said this or admitted it!) thought that God was somehow bound by the laws of nature and cause and effect. I found myself saying things like, “Sure, prayer is great, but God helps those who help themselves.” Prayer, to me, was simply an obligation or, at best, a method of requesting forgiveness for sins. If I was experiencing financial difficulty, I didn’t truly pray expecting God’s help, I began searching for ways to “pull myself up by my bootstraps.” When I struggled in school to understand a concept, I rarely prayed for God’s help, but instead would exhaust every other possible option until, sitting in my desk taking the test, I would mutter a last ditch plea for God’s mercy.
But that is not what the Bible teaches. Why would God tell us “And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive” (Matt 21:22) if He didn’t mean it? Certainly, there are exceptions. Scripture teaches that God will not answer our prayers if we have unrepented sin in our life (Ps 66:18) or if we ask out of selfish motives (Jam 4:3), nor does God always answer the way we want him to (2 Cor 12:8-10), but these are exceptions, not the rule. The rule is: when God’s children pray from a faithful, selfless heart, God always answers their prayers. Recently, Jennifer (my wife) and I have had to trust God more than ever, financially speaking. I am a full time student with a part time ministry position (which does not pay much!) and Jennifer is a waitress. Financially, things have been tight. But I’ve noticed a trend: when I pray for God’s provision, Jennifer makes more money in tips! Thus far, I have not ceased to be pleasantly surprised by the results. There have been a couple times when I even prayed for a specific amount, which God either granted or surpassed! And there’s a corresponding trend I’ve noticed as well: Jenn has had her hardest nights on nights when I didn’t pray for her. Frankly, I’m quite embarrassed to admit that it’s taken me 23 years to really grasp the truth of the Bible’s claims about prayer. My wife, on the other hand, seems to have never suffered from this lack of faith in prayer that has been so epidemic in my life. When she looses her keys (which seems to be a daily occurrence! lol), she’ll pray for God’s help to find them. And, while I’m rolling my eyes and silently laughing that she would pray over such a small and petty thing, she’s found the keys. Sure, some may call it coincidence, but in the words of one man, “I sure have a lot more coincidences when I pray than when I don’t!”
Now, that doesn’t always mean that he will necessarily grant my request. I can remember many times praying in junior high and high school that God would allow me to marry my current girlfriend. Thanks be to God that he denied my requests! (Garth Brooks’ “Unanswered Prayers” anyone? though perhaps “unanswered” isn’t the best way of putting it.) I would have never met or married Jennifer, whom I am eternally grateful for. My relationships as a puppy-love-stricken teenager pale in comparison to the love that Jennifer and I share. God knew that I didn’t really understand what I was praying for, and he, in his infinite wisdom, denied those requests. But, he did answer my prayers–he provided the perfect woman for me to marry. He answered, just not in the way I’d expected. Assuming that I have faith that God will answer my prayer, am not hindered by unrepentant sin, and I’m not asking for something out of selfish ambition or pride (like a Ferrari or the lottery, for instance), “when I pray, God answers.” And while he may not always answer the way I’d like him to at the time, in hindsight I have never been disappointed.
“In my trouble I cried to the LORD, and he answered me.”
Over the next few weeks, you may notice several new pages on my blog. I am attempting to add some more theology discussions and will try to update my Gospel pages, also. (Warning–some of the theology pages are papers written for school, so some may be a bit dry! Most will be lengthier than a typical post, also.) I think you will find these especially thought provoking, so be sure and check ’em out!