Monday, 15 January 2018

Speak to me

The boy Samuel heard the voice of God but thought it was his mentor and guardian, Eli the priest.

Fortunately, Eli knew better and told Samuel to go back to bed and ask the Lord to speak to him.  Samuel did and it was the start of a lifetime of being guided by God.

This Bible story in Samuel 3 is instructive.  It tells us something about listening to the Lord.

There are several lessons I draw from this episode:
  • I need to take time to hear God;
  • I need to figure out what is from God and what is not; and 
  • I need to accept and obey whatever he asks me to do.
Samuel learned to distinguish God from other voices and he obeyed the Lord to the letter.  His experience in asking God which of Jesse's sons to anoint as the future king showed that he did not let his eyes and mind decide who was best suited for the job.  He listened to God and chose the youngest and least likely son - David (see 1 Samuel 16).

As you know, there are various ways of hearing God - reading the scriptures, hearing God's audible voice, seeing images and visions, and receiving promptings among others.

Probably the most common ways are God giving us mental promptings and the Holy Spirit bringing scripture passages alive in our minds and hearts so that we act upon them.

For some years, I have kept a spiritual journal somewhat along the lines outlined in Mark and Patti Virkler's book How to Hear God's Voice.  I bring a question to God - most often it is "Father, what do you wish to say to me?"  And then I write down what comes to mind.

I trust the Lord to honour my request to speak to me as he did to Samuel many centuries ago.  I then enter a dialogue with God, pursuing some of the things he says.

So, how do I know whether it is God speaking?  I can tell from the responses that flow over my page.  If they are contrary to the words and character of God, they are not from him.

The vast majority of these journal entries are mundane, everyday things.  But they deal with heart matters that are important to me at the time. 

God's words help straighten me out when I have hurt someone - but he is gentle in how he does it.   And, more often than not, his answers are loving and encouraging and even uplifting.

Of course, getting to know God is essential.  That's where consistent reading and pondering Bible passages is so important.

Naturally, we don't all have time - or the inclination - to write.  But writers on listening prayer are quite clear that we need to find time and a place where we can say to God as Samuel did: "Speak, for your servant is listening." (1 Samuel 3: 10)

I have never had a life-changing word from the Lord in the years I  have kept this journal.  The Virklers and others say that we should never make a major decision without carefully examining God's word and discussing it with mature believers.

But I have found that this journaling exercise has refreshed me, brought me peace, and pointed me to the path I should follow. 

It has also underlined areas where I need to change.  That can be humbling.

But God does not condemn me. 

As the apostle Paul said in Romans 8:38, nothing in all creation "will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord".


Monday, 8 January 2018

The sacrifice of praise

I am an occasional praise-er and thank-er.

But the apostle Paul tells me I must give thanks in all circumstances all the time (1 Thessalonians 5:18).  That means praising and thanking God in both good and bad times.

Why is it important that I offer thanks and praise to the Lord?

I think it's because it's pleasing to God and good for me.

Praise and thanks are offerings to the Lord.  And he responds with pleasure and power.

The book of Hebrews says: "Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise - the fruit of lips that openly profess his name."  And the writer goes on to say that God is pleased with that and with acts of kindness.

It's interesting that the writer of Hebrews calls praising and thanking God a sacrifice.

On the surface, saying a few words to God doesn't seem very sacrificial.  But if I do it to please God, it becomes a sacrifice.

The key issue is: Do I mean what I say?  Am I offering heartfelt praise and thanks?

Terry Law, author of The Power of Praise and Worship, says that true praise is a choice and a discipline.  It is a choice that I must make all the time - to praise God for who he is and to thank him for what he is doing in my life.

He tells the story of a pastor of a large charismatic church in London, England who realized that people were just going through the motions during praise and worship in his church.  They weren't offering praise from their hearts.

So, the pastor told the congregation that the world-class worship leader Matt Redman and the worship band would cease playing during periods of worship.  Instead, people would offer worship on their own - out of their hearts.

"When you come through the doors of the church on Sunday, what are you bringing as your offering to God?" asked Pastor Mike Pilavachi. "What are you going to sacrifice today?"

At first, there were awkward silences during the church service.  Not much singing.  But gradually the congregation learned how to worship the Lord from the heart.

After a few weeks, Matt Redman and the worship band returned to lead singing.  But the congregation had changed and the experience led Redman to write his song "The Heart of Worship".

I can see a few easy things I can do in continually praising God and thanking him:

  • I can spend time thinking about him and who he is as I read the scriptures - the Psalms are full of good material;
  • I can recall the good things he has done in my life during the day - the little things I usually take for granted; and
  • I can turn to him when I'm down and recall Christ's great words to his disciples in Matthew 28:20: "Be sure of this, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."
I know from experience that praise changes me and my outlook on life.

I just need to practice it.


Monday, 1 January 2018

Submit

Most of us accept that an army can only succeed if the soldiers submit to authority.

Susie Larson says the same is true of Christians as members of the army of God.

An earthly army would quickly lose a war if soldiers decided they would only obey orders that they like and reject others.

"When answers seem slow to come, when the battle rages on, and when we wonder why the enemy continues to harass as like he does, we need to step back and take an inventory of our attitudes and actions," says Larson in her book Your Powerful Prayers: Reaching the Heart of God with a Bold and Humble Faith.  "Our choices are often our biggest roadblocks to a thriving, powerful prayer life."

I ask myself: Are there issues in my life where I insist on doing things my way - no matter what God says?  Am I hanging onto things that run counter to what God is telling me?

Larson offers a checklist for me and other believers to consider.  Do we hold a grudge; refuse to forgive; complain and grumble; usurp God-given authority; disobey; gossip; embrace selfish pride and selfish ambition; and embrace envy and jealousy?

There are a few in that list that give me a twinge.

"We are citizens of the Lord's army, and like it or not, we need to stay in rank and respect God's order of things," she writes.

One of the most telling scriptures is Psalm 66:18: "If I had cherished sin my heart, the Lord would not have listened."

Cherishing suggests holding onto something and defending it against all comers.

The first step to getting back in rank in the Lord's army is to "surrender our hearts, our agendas, and our toxic attitudes" to God, says Larson.

"First he helps us win the battle within, where battles are won or lost.  Then he teaches us to stand in the authority he has given us."

She quotes A.W. Tozer who said: "Strange as it may seem, we often win over our enemies only after we have first been soundly defeated by the Lord himself."

The evil one is out to destroy us.  He will use whatever openings we give him to bring us down and keep us from praying with power.

As the apostle James says in James 4:7: "Submit yourselves, then, to God.  Resist the devil and he will flee from you."

James is telling me that when I am submitted to the Lord, I can resist Satan and he will leave me alone.

Once we are submitted to God, we can better determine his will in our lives.  And once we know and pray according to his will, we are promised in 1 John 14-15 that God will answer and give us what we request.

A timeless lesson for me.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Angels and prayer

A woman was driving on the freeway when cars in front stopped too quickly for her to respond.

"It all seemed like it was happening in slow motion," she told Jennifer Eivaz, author of The Intercessors Handbook: How to Pray with Boldness, Authority & Supernatural Power. 

"I watched myself drive into the car in front of me, pass through the vehicle and even the person inside, and then to a clear space on the road without damage or harm."

Several cars were hit in the traffic tie-up.

"The driver of the car she passed through jumped out of his vehicle in surprise and fright, asking, 'What was that?'" Eivaz writes. "He knew some type of miracle had happened.  This is the work of angels."

In his book Angels, famed evangelist Billy Graham tells the story of pioneer missionary John G. Paton who was surrounded by hostile tribesmen in the New Hebrides intent on burning out and killing him and his family one night.  After praying all night, the Patons discovered the tribesmen had vanished.

A year later, the tribal chief became a believer.  Paton asked him why the tribesmen left them alone that frightening night a year before.

The chief asked him who all the men were who surrounded the Paton hut that evening.  Paton said there was no one there.  But the chief insisted that there hundreds of big men wearing shining garments with drawn swords around the hut and the tribesmen were afraid to attack.

Evangelicals tend to overlook the activity of angels, partly because many others have worshiped angels or otherwise distorted the truth about these servants of God.  God makes clear that only God can be worshiped.

Yet there are quite a number of stories about angels in the Bible.  Angels are actively carrying out the commands of God, serving the Lord and serving us as human beings.

God often sends angels in response to our prayers.

In Daniel 10, the prophet Daniel says he was praying in deep distress about his people when an angel appeared before him, terrifying him.  The angel told him he had come in response to Daniel's prayers but had been held up for 21 days in battle by a powerful demon.  Finally, the archangel Michael had come to his aid so that he could deliver God's answer to Daniel.

So, God calls on his angels to respond to his people's prayers with supernatural help as needed. 

Wesley L. Duewel writes in Touch the World through Prayer that angels protect us from danger (2 Kings 6:17); they deliver God's children (Acts 12:1-11); they bring messages to God's people (Luke 2:9-13); and they renew physical strength (Luke 22:43).

"Undoubtedly the angelic assistance of God's people is usually invisible," Duewel says.  "But it is real just the same."

Eivaz says that just as Elisha asked God to reveal the angel armies protecting him and his servant in 2 Kings 6, we too can ask the Lord for angelic help.  But "asking the Father for angels needs to be done in alignment with the Word of God and the will of God".

Knowing that angels are there to help us in our need is a great encouragement.

Monday, 18 December 2017

Prayers that please God

Humility is vital for prayers that please God.

Of course, some humility is essential if we pray at all.  A proud person sees no need of God, believing he or she can handle life without help.

But great men and women in the Bible leaned on God.  They knew they were weak and he was strong.  They turned to him for support, guidance, and a lasting relationship.

Indeed, as the apostle Paul notes in Philippians 2, Jesus himself did not cling to his status as equal to the Father in heaven, but humbled himself, taking on human flesh and dying on the cross for us.

So, how about us as ordinary praying people?  Are we humble or proud?  Are there areas of our lives that we wall off from God?

Are we like the Pharisee or the tax collector in Jesus' story in Luke 18 of the two men who prayed in the temple?

The Pharisee - a member of the religious elite in Jerusalem - looked over at the taxpayer and thanked God that he wasn't like robbers and the tax collector.  He pointed out to God that "I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get."

On the other hand, the taxpayer knew he was doing wrong.  He couldn't even look up to heaven, but "beat his breast and said 'God have mercy on me, a sinner.'"

"I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God," said Jesus.  "For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

As I think about humility, I think about the areas in my life that I am proud of.  There are a number of them.  Yet, the older I get, the more I realize that I have to let them go - release them to God.  In the end, my relationship with God is the only thing that will matter in eternity.

As well,  I have yet to let God have full entry into other areas that I am reluctant to surrender to him.

I am mindful of the great passage in 2 Chronicles 7:14, a verse I often quote in this blog.

The Lord tells King Solomon there will be times when he will punish his people for turning away from him.  However, he adds that "if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land."

The first step to healing is humility, seeking God's face and calling out to him in prayer.

God honours humble, honest prayers.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Faith challenge

Like many Christians, I have long wrestled with Jesus' powerful promises on faith and prayer.

How much faith do I need to see my prayers answered?  How do I build my faith?

Some years ago, Andy Stanley, the well-known American pastor and author, gave his definition of faith which I found satisfying: "Faith is believing that God is who he says he is and that he will do what he has said he will do."

In other words, faith is trusting God and his promises.  It is not me working myself into a lather, hoping that God will say "Yes" to my requests because I have hit a "10" on some faith index.

Still, it's clear that I have to do something - I have to act on what I believe.

Jesus said something particularly challenging in Mark 11:24: "Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours."

I think this verse needs to be looked at in connection with another powerful promise in 1 John 5:14-15:

"This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.  And if we know he hears us - whatever we ask - we know that we have what we asked of him."

The great George Muller, who cared for hundreds of orphans in 19th century England, read and pondered scripture, seeking God's will in particular circumstances.  He also prayed, asking the Holy Spirit for guidance.  Once he was convinced about the path God wanted him to take, he waited expectantly for the Lord's answers to his prayers.

Mueller was able to feed, clothe and house the orphans over many decades without ever asking anyone for money.  He received gifts constantly from people, sometimes receiving just enough money for food in the morning mail.  He kept track of these daily answers to prayer over many years.

Another thing to consider is the state of our own hearts.  In the Mark 24 passage, Jesus says in verse 25: "And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins."

While God hears all my prayers, my own disobedience can stand in the way of God responding the way I desire.

With all that said, Jesus's promise in Mark 11:24 is tremendous.

If I know I am praying according to God's will, I can be sure I will receive the answer I am asking for.  In fact, I know I have already received a "Yes" answer.  Sooner or later, I will see the results in my life.

Prayer warriors often thank God for the positive answers they know are coming.  That is acting on what they believe.

Thank you, Lord, for this gracious promise.



Tuesday, 5 December 2017

When you fall, think about Jesus

Many Christians get discouraged - and their prayer lives suffer - when they sin or make mistakes.

Susie Larson says that's exactly when we should turn back to Christ and bask in the wonders of his grace.  That's when we must pray.

Rather than thinking about how hopeless we are, we should gaze at God and drink in the truth about what he has done for us.  The Christian life is not about us, but about him.

"When we fall or fumble the ball, the worst thing we can do is stay in the dirt and berate ourselves for our weakness," Larson says in her book Your Powerful Prayers: Reaching the Heart of God.  "Why? Because Jesus says it is precisely in our weakness that we can know his strength and power."

The devil loves it when we wallow in our weaknesses and accept his condemning words.

As I noted in last week's post, Larson declares that Christians should realize that, in God's eyes, we are heirs with all the privileges of children of God.  We are not orphans who should cringe in the Lord's sight and beg for crumbs from his table.

Still, many believers - myself included - have approached the Lord with diffidence.  We have worried that God must be unhappy with us for our failures.

Larson says that "the moment I catch myself feeling or acting impatient, suspicious, or unloving, I think about the Lord".

"I look past my weakness and I look to the cross.  I remember that my Jesus who died in my place is pure and loving and patient and kind.  All the things I'm not at times.  And he has imparted his righteousness to me."

She praises him "for a grace so priceless that I cannot, for the life of me, wrap my brain around it".

She adds: "Still it's mine.  And I worship."

Some may think this attitude leads to people assuming they have a licence to sin.

"I'd say the exact opposite is true.  Jesus himself said those who have been forgiven much, love much (Luke 7:47). That's certainly been true of me."

As she thinks about the Lord, she considers the characteristics that draw her to him - his might, his patience, his kindness, his care for the poor and oppressed, his faithfulness.

"He is discerning, unwavering, and keeps his word.  He loves humility, hates pride, and refuses to be manipulated."

In her book, she goes on at length with other things she loves about Jesus.  She urges us to reflect on Jesus every day.

Even so, we can fall again once we begin to think we can stand on what we have accomplished.  We must recognize that God is good and that he has poured out on us gifts and grace that we do not deserve.

"If we stay humbly grateful, we will be protected in prayer and protected from the self-sins that threaten to derail us," Larson writes. "If the Spirit of God convicts us for our wandering ways, we're wise to humbly respond and thank Jesus for his mercy and grace."

Think about Jesus.  What a radical concept!