“Many pray for the power of God. More every year. Those prayers sound powerful, sincere, godly, and without ulterior motive. Hidden under such prayer and fervor, however, are ambition, a craving for fame, the desire to be considered a spiritual giant. The person who prays such a prayer may not even know it, but dark motives and desires are in his heart…in your heart.

Even as people pray these prayers, they are hollow inside. There is little internal spiritual growth. Prayer for power is the quick and short way, circumnavigating internal growth. There is a vast difference between the outward clothing of the Spirit’s power and the inward filling of the Spirit’s life. In the first, despite the power, the hidden man of the heart may remain unchanged. In the latter, that monster is dealt with.

(Edwards, Gene. A Tale of Three Kings: A Study in Brokenness. 1980. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale. 1992. 40-41.)

Inward Power vs Outward Power

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The Desire of the Afflicted

I love the Psalms.  It is an Old Testament book chock-full of worship songs.  They portray the full range of human emotions from deep sorrow to exuberant joy.  Whenever I find myself somewhere along that spectrum, I mosey over to the Psalms for seeking either comfort, encouragement, or instruction.  Sometimes I do not know my motivation for turning to this Old Testament book, but invariably, I will land on a Psalm that speaks to my heart and soul.  For example, I parked myself on the following verses over the weekend, which close out the tenth Psalm:

17 O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear 18 to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more” (Psalm 10:17-18, ESV).

These words go deep.  They are what my soul longs to hear in addition to what every soul longs to hear.  The entire tenth Psalm is a plea for God to deliver the afflicted from the clutches of the wicked.  To be sure, there are many Old Testament examples of this that predate Psalm 10: Noah and his family during the days of the Flood; Lot and his family from Sodom and Gomorrah; and the Israelites from their bondage to Egypt (Genesis 6-8; 19:12-26; and Exodus 15, ESV).  What I find intriguing about Psalm 10 is that the author does not appeal to those past, historical accounts of God’s deliverance.

There are numerous Psalms where the writers do exactly that with their words.  Instead, the writer of Psalm 10 appeals to God and his character for deliverance.  The Psalmist declares about God that “…[he] hears the desire of the afflicted, strengthens their hearts, and inclines his ear to do justice toward the fatherless and the oppressed…” (Psalm 10:17-18, ESV).  Each of those pronouncements reveal the depth of the Psalmist’s faith and confidence in the Lord.  Clearly, his faith did not spring up in a vacuum.  It goes without saying that Psalm 10 never would have been written without the author being in a personal, relationship with God.  Another way to express this is to say that the Psalmist knows God rather than merely knowing about him.

When I step back and reflect on the tenth Psalm, I see how it serves as a model for coming into God’s presence with boldness.  The very first verse begins with the Psalmist saying, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far away?  Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble” (Psalm 10:1, ESV)?  These are not questions of doubt regarding God and his character rather questions that reveal to the Lord that the Psalmist knows him.  Abraham responds in a similar fashion in the fifteenth chapter of Genesis where he voices his anguish over being childless even though God has promised him a land and countless offspring (Genesis 15:1-5, ESV).  Moses speaks out God’s promises to his Lord and his anguish over being the chosen leader of a stubborn people; however, the Lord responds in kind like he did to Abraham (Exodus 33:12-19, ESV).  Here is where I am going with this train of thought.    

In the New Testament, the Spirit of God has provided every follower of Christ with explicit examples of men and women in the past, who walked by faith and approached the throne of grace with confidence.  Both Abraham and Moses end up as examples of them in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews (Heb. 11:8-10, 17-19, 23-28, ESV).  This is only the beginning.  The tenth chapter of Hebrews explains how Christ’s vicarious atonement on the cross is the ground for the believer’s boldness and confidence before the Lord.  Old Testament saints like Abraham, Moses, and the writer of Psalm ten looked forward to Christ whereas New Testament believers look back to the cross.  The object of our faith is the same: Jesus and him crucified.  The Father’s gift of his Son paves the way for the believer’s boldness while displaying his bold heart and concern for his people.

From my point-of-view, it seems to me that the Lord has the character to handle bold and challenging prayers from his people.  He responds to Abraham and Moses with firm words of assurance about his purposes and plans.  It is true that the author of Psalm ten does not include an explicit response from the Lord to whom he prays.  That being said, the Psalmist’s words illustrate bold, assurance in the Lord, which suggests quite strongly that the author had prior experiences with God’s deliverance.  If this is not the case, then the words themselves have no meaning whatsoever.  Of course, the Psalmist’s words do mean something within their historical context; however, they also transcend it by pointing to a time when God will vindicate the fatherless and the oppressed once and for all.  In New Testament language, this is Christ’s second advent also called the blessed hope (Titus 2:13; Revelation 19:11-21, ESV). Marantha, come Lord Jesus!

Behind the Scenes of Daniel’s Prayer in Daniel 10:1-14

I’m a movie buff or in elitist terms, a cinephile.  In many ways, I speak and think using images and sounds.  The movie language is my language.  When someone asks me to name my favorite movies, I trip over the answers all the time.  There are too many, and I wind up making a list by genre.  What I find even more fascinating about movies is the behind the scenes footage.  I love seeing how they did it.  One gains a deeper appreciation and understanding for the movie and for those who brought it to life.  It is like being given new eyes and ears.  The passage below could be described as “behind the scenes footage” regarding prayer.  Here it is:

12. Then he said to me, ‘Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words.  13. The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia,  14. and came to make you understand what is to happen to your people in the latter days.  For the vision is for days yet to come'” (Daniel 10:12-14, ESV).

Before diving into this fascinating text, let me supply the background to it.  In the second and third verses of Daniel chapter ten, the writer records that the prophet had been fasting and mourning for three weeks (Dan. 10:2-3, ESV).  This sort of thing should come as no surprise to anyone who reads the book of Daniel.  The very first chapter records the young, Hebrew prophet leading his three friends into a time of prayer and fasting at the beginning of their captivity (Dan. 1:8, 12-16, ESV).  When King Nebuchadnezzar orders his soldiers to kill all the wise men of the land for their failure at interpreting his dream, it is Daniel who buys some time through prayer and fasting with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Dan. 2:12-19, ESV).

There are two other instances recorded in the book of Daniel about the prophet fasting and praying for God to speak.  One occurs in the sixth chapter and the other in ninth.  The former pertains to Daniel learning about a decree that punishes those who refuse to pray to Darius by casting the offender into the lion’s den (Dan. 6:6-10, ESV).  In the ninth chapter, the prophet’s life is not under any threat as he desires to know the outcome of his nation and people within God’s purposes and plans (Dan. 9:1-3, ESV).  All of these circumstances reveal a man committed to the Lord by submitting himself to a lifestyle of fasting and prayer.  Each time the God of heaven and earth either delivers Daniel from his situation, or grants him divine revelation into the matter at hand.

After reading account after account of God answering Daniel’s prayers, it comes as no surprise to see the same thing take place in Daniel 10:12-14. In fact, I would argue that this is precisely what the reader should expect at this point.  The difference this time around has to do with this particular account portraying demonic opposition toward the angelic messenger (Dan. 10:13, ESV).  What amazes me is that God’s answer to Daniel’s prayer had been given as soon as he began to pray; however, the answer had been delayed twenty-one days (or three weeks) because the prince of Persia fought against the messenger (Dan. 10:12-13, ESV).  This is a vivid depiction of God’s kingdom in direct conflict with Satan’s, who dispatched the prince of Persia after eavesdropping into Daniel’s prayer to the Lord.

What are we to make of this passage?  It is behind the scenes footage (or intel) regarding some prayers and their answers.  In the church, it is often taught that God responds in three ways to the prayers of his people: yes, no, or wait.  Waiting tends to stretch or test the faith of the one praying.  What this passage in Daniel chapter ten seems to teach is that a delayed response is not always God saying “Wait.”  In Daniel’s case, the Lord’s reply was actually an unmistakable yes. The delay had to do with the enemy’s opposition to the answer.  Of course, this raises plenty of questions, but I will not address them for the sake of time and space.  If there is one takeaway about this passage, then let it be persistence. Daniel prayed for three weeks, which was the same amount of time as the enemy’s resistance toward the angelic messenger.

Did Daniel know about this conflict?  The text does not say, but I think not.  Daniel kept fasting and praying right up until the moment the angelic being appeared to him (Dan. 10:4-5, ESV).  The prophet’s persistence in prayer brings to mind Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow in the gospel of Luke, the eighteenth chapter.  I do not have the time and space to unpack this wonderful parable.  I encourage my readers and followers to read that passage side by side with this one in the tenth chapter of Daniel.  Here is the point.  The spiritual principle of persisting or persevering in prayer is found in both testaments.  Prayer is spiritual warfare.  It positions God’s people to see and hear in the midst of a violent conflict.  This reminds me of Jesus’ words in Matthew’s gospel: “…the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:12b, ESV).  Prayer is the believer’s battle cry while on earth.  It is a cry heard by his God in his heavenly temple (Revelation 5:8; 8:3-4, ESV).

Without Ceasing

When I reflect upon the phrase, without ceasing, the word that comes to mind is constant.  Webster’s dictionary defines the word as characterized by steadfast resolution or faithfulness.  Two of the best synonyms listed for constant are steady and unchanging.  The apostle Paul uses the phrase without ceasing as an exhortation to the Thessalonian Christians with respect to prayer.  Here is the scripture text in question, “…pray without ceasing…” (1 Thessalonians 5:17, ESV).  This directive occurs within the closing remarks of the last chapter to the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians.  Many of the commands and exhortations between verses sixteen and twenty-two rattle off like machine-gun bullets.  They occur in such rapid succession that there is very little time to marinate in any of them.  It seems like the importance of any of these exhortations could get lost in the fray.  Do I think that Paul’s audience in the first century missed his point about praying without ceasing?  No, I do not.

For starters, Paul includes the words to “…[pray] without ceasing…” among the final words of his letter (1 Thess. 5:17, ESV).  This assigns his exhortation with importance.  When it comes to letter and essay writing, both require a solid concluding section to round out the central argument or message.  It affords the writer an opportunity to restate the main points in succession with added emphasis.  Concluding remarks enable readers or the audience to recall the key points in order to assess the strength of the argument or message as well as points of application or takeaway.  One of the main points that apostle Paul stresses to the Thessalonians is the importance of faithfulness or steadfastness with respect to prayer.  Their walk with Christ depends upon a lifestyle of constant prayer. It makes no sense to include this lesson within his closing statements unless he wanted the early church, and all churches throughout all ages, to get it, to really hear him on this point.

Now, if the exhortation to pray without ceasing occurs within the conclusion of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, then this means that he addressed it earlier on in the text.  Let me highlight some juicy morsels about letter writing, and this applies to essays and speeches, too.  The writer or speaker lays down the main points in the introduction, indicating where he or she intends to go, then the body of the letter or the speech becomes the ground for developing those key topics.  The following gardening analogy might be useful: the introduction contains the seeds, which blossom into fully, mature flowers at the conclusion.  Both the beginning and the end are corollaries to each other, inseparable in terms of logic and content.  What is the point, you say?  Because Paul includes the exhortation to “…[pray] without ceasing…” in his concluding remarks to the Thessalonians, I would expect to find it in both the introduction and the main body of the letter (1 Thess. 5:17, ESV).

Because the apostle Paul is a sharp thinker, speaker, and writer, he uses the word constantly one more time within the body of this first letter to the Thessalonians.  Here is the verse and how Paul uses the word constantly or without ceasing: And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thess. 2:13, ESV).   Again, Paul unites the without ceasing with a spirit and attitude of thankfulness within the context of prayer.  Timothy, Silvanus and Paul have been engaging in constant prayer, in constant thanksgiving, for these believers and their churches.  These men have heard about the Thessalonians’ growth in the faith, in their efforts in bringing the gospel to others, and in accepting their words as coming from God himself (1 Thess. 1:3-8, 2:13, ESV).  All of which grow out of the constant, vigilant prayers of Paul, Timothy, and Silvanus.

One of the major lessons that comes across in 1 Thessalonians is that prayer is essential for gospel living and ministry.  It characterizes the lives of Paul, Timothy, and Silvanus.  Sometimes the church and its pastor-scholars have elevated men like Paul and the apostles to a status unreachable by today’s layperson.  It is clear from my examination of this simple and clear clause, “[pray] without ceasing,” that it forms the bedrock of Paul’s life and ministry (1 Thess. 5:17, ESV).  This seems to be a good argument for why the apostle includes this exhortation about prayer in his conclusion.  He has reminded the Thessalonians of how prayer has guided the lives and ministries of his colleagues Timothy and Silvanus and himself.  Paul highlighted to Thessalonians how his prayers have borne fruit in their lives and gospel ministry.  Therefore, it makes perfect sense for the apostle to exhort the Thessalonians to engage in constant prayer for their lives and the gospel.  I submit to my readers and followers that we must do the same.  May we pray without ceasing.

Where are you?

Behold, he passes by me,  and I see him not; he moves on, but I do not perceive him” (Job 9:11, ESV).

There are seasons in life, which scream for the manifest presence of God.  Something in my heart and soul long for an unveiling or a pulling back of the curtain in order to make sense of the present.  When the temperature rises, or the tension increases, I desire either relief or an explanation.  It seems like those are normal, human expectations.  When I read scripture passages like the one quoted above, I take a step back for a minute.   Maybe those expectations arise from the wrong heart attitude.

There is something elusive about God’s character and his ways.  Job says exactly that in plain language.  He cannot see his God passing by him or working near him.  The one thing Job needs, seeing his God at work, is hidden from view.  Is the suffering so great that Job lacks the ability to recognize and sense God working in him, through him, and for him?  Based on the overall context of Job chapter nine, he gives assent to God as the orchestrator of creation and its fluctuations.  Those do not escape Job’s attention, yet God’s very presence eludes him.

I find this rather mysterious.  Job knows that God is at work in him and in creation.  In fact, those truths are inescapable to him, but his desire to see God or to perceive him speaks of something greater.  It seems like Job longs for relational connection with the Lord.  All he wants is to be able to see him.  Where are you?  Why are you hiding?  Maybe those two questions capture a little more of Job.  I have many instances in my life where I have asked those same questions.  On some level, I knew what the Bible said about trusting and obeying in the midst of suffering.

There is a chorus to a hymn that goes trust and obey for there is no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.  It is a wonderful hymn and one of my personal favorites.  Sometimes singing that hymn is not enough.  Reading the above scripture text is not enough.  What I need in times of suffering is to perceive my Lord.  I want to know in my heart rather than my head that he is present with me.  I think this is Job’s longing, too, which he is unafraid from expressing.  This is a crucial point.  If I have deep longings and questions like Job, then it behooves me to voice them.  The Lord never rejects him because of the questions.

I think it is vital for believers in Jesus to come to a place where they can express their hearts with raw honesty like Job.  If God is omniscient, if he knows what is on our hearts before we pray, then why act as if everything is fine before him?  One thing that I am learning fast is that an unwillingness to share my heart is evidence of a lack of trust on my part.  Something in my heart needs healing and restoration for the trust to return.  It may mean that I lay aside my right to express the hurt to the Lord and simply acknowledge his holiness and greatness.  This is not easy, and it is not my desire to paint such a picture.  May the Lord grant me the courage and the faith to speak with raw honesty about my longings, fears, dreams, and hopes.

 

 

The Best Part of the Day

“And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35, ESV).

Mark’s gospel is known for its clear and concise prose. He cuts to the chase. For this gospel writer, each word is important. The above quoted verse illustrates this point; however, it also sheds light on an important facet of Christ and his life. Mark shows us that Jesus carves out time in his day to spend it in prayer with the Father. Our Lord rises early in the morning to meet with God in a desolate place, a solitary place, a lonely place. This reveals the importance Jesus attaches to spending time with the Father in midst of a busy life of ministry.

In the first chapter of Mark, the writer leads us to the above, quoted verse after conveying the initial stages of Jesus’s ministry. He calls the first apostles, casts out a demon from a worshiper in a synagogue, and heals Peter’s mother-in-law. It is a nonstop start to our Lord’s ministry. In fact, Mark illustrates in verses 32-34 that Jesus heals many who are sick and demon-possessed into the night. It is conceivable that our Lord went to bed late, and then rose early the next morning to pray. When I read this section in Mark, exhaustion floods my soul. Why didn’t he sleep in? I would’ve after such a long day.

Jesus’s actions raise a few more questions for me. When did he get enough sleep? Was he ever completely rested and energized for a days’ worth of preaching, teaching, healing, confronting the religious leaders’ hypocrisy, performing miracles and casting out demons? Where did Christ’s strength come from in order to rise early after pouring himself out physically, emotionally and spiritually? The answer to all those questions lies in the reason for his rising early: to spend time with the Father, the source and sustainer of life. Jesus expresses this very fact during his temptation in the wilderness, which Mark’s gospel truncates down to two verses. In Matthew’s gospel, the Lord rebukes the enemy by saying that “man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Father” (Matt. 4:4; Deut. 8:3, ESV).

If Christ demonstrates the importance of relying on God’s word and his presence for sustenance in life and ministry, then it goes without saying that his people need to do the same. We are not exempt from feeding on the bread of life nor drinking up the living water. Everywhere Jesus minsters throughout 1st Century Israel, he encounters people starving for the bread of life and thirsting for the living water. The needs of the people are great, and the gospels convey this objective fact time and time again. This is precisely why I love the fact that Mark included the thirty-fifth verse in chapter one. Jesus carves out time to be with the Lord in order to demonstrate his dependency upon the Father in his human nature. In effect, Christ’s example serves as a model for his people to follow.

One other key tidbit deserves some mention at this point. I do not believe that Christ’s example in Mark 1:35 means that the early morning hours remain the only blessed time to hear and receive from the Father. Jesus chooses this time as an example to begin his day with the Lord first on his heart and mind. Do I begin my day with the Lord first on my heart and mind? Let me widen the scope out a little more. Do I set aside any part of the day as the best part of the day to be with the Father? Life is busy and just downright hectic at times. The foggy and dusty conditions make it difficult to see, walk, and breathe. I will need something more, something greater, and something truer in order to sustain me. Jesus demonstrates in his life that God’s word and his presence sustain the human life. Do you carve out time in your day to be with the Father?