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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Prayer Is Not Enough

"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 I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land." (2 Chron 7:14)

Not Enough To Pray
At Prayer College we emphasis the fundamental importance of prayer in the Christian life, but it is good to remind ourselves that prayer alone does not fulfill God's requirements for our needs to be met. We must never fall into the "vending machine" mentality where we simply offer our prayer and wait for the answer to be dispensed.

This verse in Chronicles presents us with a process by which we are transformed into the kind of people that can receive answers to prayer.

Humility
Firstly, we are to humble ourselves. It is no good even beginning to pray if we have not first acknowledged the difference between ourselves and God. It is not simply that He is a superior being, that His power & understanding are beyond ours, but that He is the Creator and we are His creatures. We owe our very existence to Him and we should remember that as our Creator He has the absolute right to deal with us in any way He chooses.

Prayer
Secondly, we should pray. This should be obvious, but I often catch myself wishing, hoping or trying to solve a problem on my own instead of turning to God and asking Him for the answer. It seems to be part of the human condition for James had to remind his readers, "you do not have because you do not ask," (Jms 4:2). Part of the Problem is undoubtedly pride and our belief that we can do things on our own without the help of the Lord. Addressing the issue of humility before God will go a long way towards alleviating this problem.

Seeking
Thirdly, we must seek God's face. There is an important and significant difference between seeking God's face and seeking His blessing. Often when we pray we are asking the Lord to intervene in our lives or in the lives of others. This is not seeking God's face. At other times we may be seeking to experience fellowship with the Lord. Neither is this seeking God's face. To seek God's face is to lay aside our own desires and simply come to Him in worship. We are to be passionate about God but, as I once heard Christine Caine (Hillsong) say, we must not make the mistake of lusting after God. If we have had an encounter with God where we have experienced His love, comfort or power, we may be tempted to seek Him again simply for that experience. But He calls us to seek His face, not the experience.

Repentance
Finally, we are instructed to turn from our wicked ways. As Isaiah discovered (Is 6:1-5) when our seeking leads to an encounter with God we cannot help but become conscious of our sin. Anyone who claims to be a Christian but is not being transformed "from one degree of glory to another" is not regularly meeting with God. Of course we are fallible human beings who often make progress only to slip back again but, if we are consistently seeking God's face and being convicted of our sin, we will see long term progression towards holiness.

The wonder of Your presence, Lord,
And Your overwhelming grace,
And the mercy of Your mighty hand
Are mine
As I gaze into Your face.

This process described in 2 Chron 7:14 is not a linear one. We do not start at humility, work through prayer & seeking God's face, ending at repentance. The recognition of sin & subsequent repentance will bring us to a place of deeper humility. A cycle develops which leads us to deeper and more intimate communion with God so that our prayers conform more closely to His will and are consequently answered in increasing fullness.

Prayer College AssignmentTake time this week to meditate on the awesomeness of the God who is the creator of the entire universe but who also made & knows you in all your intricate detail. Consider how vast is the difference between you & El Shaddai, Almighty God, and consciously take this awareness into your times of prayer. Determine to seek Him for who He is, not just for what He can give you.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Have You Seen?

It was my birthday this week and the children gave me the Matt Redman album, Facedown One of the lines on the track, "Seeing You" is,

"No one can sing of things they have not seen."

For me this defines worship. In order to fully engage in worship we have to have had an encounter with God, otherwise there is no understanding of the words we say or sing. When we do come face to face with Him the only possible response is worship.

Seeing The Unseen
We see this time and again in Scripture and we have talked before about the worship of heaven, where God is seen in all His glory, being a model for our own worship. But in this last comment before Christmas it seems appropriate to consider the worship of God in the manger. The birth of Jesus was heralded by heavenly choirs and an angel whose appearance caused shepherds to quake with fear. Yet there was nothing visibly different about the newborn child those shepherds went to Bethlehem to find.

The gospels show us that throughout His life there were those who recognised the Lord Jesus for who He was while others were completely oblivious to the fact that God walked among them. They could not see and so they could not worship. Simeon and Anna, when Jesus was presented at the Temple, saw more than a baby and worshiped. But hundreds of other passersby saw just another young couple with a child, fulfilling their religious obligations.

Revelation
What makes the difference between those who see the truth and bow in worship and those who cannot? It is a matter of revelation. When Peter recognised the truth of who Jesus is he was told "this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven" (Matt 16:17). Jesus also said that He revealed the Father to His disciples (Jn 17:6). It is only when the Lord opens our spiritual eyes that we are able to comprehend and respond in worship.

God is sovereign in deciding who to reveal Himself too and when, often favouring the simple above the educated (Matt 11:25). In the account of Samuel we read that, "Samuel did not yet know the Lord: the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him" (1 Sam 3:7). Does this mean that we simply have to wait and hope that God will grant us an encounter with Him? Are we left to simply wonder why some people seem to have a more intimate relationship with the Lord?

Seek Him
God makes it clear in His word that we have our part to play. Hebrews 11:6 says that "He is the rewarder of those who earnestly and diligently seek Him" (Amplified Bible). The veil in the temple was torn from top to bottom when Jesus gave up His life for us on the cross, indicating that God has become wholly accessible to man. But we still have to decide to make the journey from the breadth of the outer courts to the small but sacred space of the Holy of Holies - we have to seek after God if we want that revelation from Him.

As Hebrews 11:6 indicates, it's not enough to have a vague idea that we'd like to be closer to God. Our desire for a revelation of His presence has to become our passion, it has to be the most important thing in our lives. We have to be earnest, seeking with all our hearts, and diligent, persisting in our pursuit of the Lord until He unveils Himself to us. As a teenager who believed in God, it took 5 years of passionate pursuit of Him, daily reading my Bible and endeavouring to pray, before He revealed Himself to me and brought me into His kingdom. When that happened my immediate instinct was to get down on my knees and worship Him.

Prayer College Assignment
Another line in that Matt Redman song says, "worship starts with seeing you". At this Christmas time determine you are going to do what the Magi did and seek after Jesus until He reveals Himself to you in a way you have not known before, until your worship of Him grows beyond what you are currently capable of.

Friday, December 14, 2007

When The Heavens Are As Brass

"The Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to Him." (Deut 4:7)

We've all had those times when we feel as though God is distant and our prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling returning to us with a dull thud as they drop lifeless to the floor. We want them to reach the Throne Room, to be included in the golden bowls of incense described in Rev 5:8. Instead we have this nagging sense that our time of prayer has been completely wasted.

Closer Than You Think
The Scripture says that God was near to His people under the Old Covenant whenever they prayed. It doesn't say that they had to be ritually clean or without sin. It doesn't say that they had to pray with faith or with right motives. It just says that whenever they prayed God was near.

If that was true under the Old Covenant, how much more so under the New. No matter how we feel when we pray, the Lord is close. Sometimes we forget just how close He is.

As Little Children
I remember working for a while with YWAM and overhearing a conversation between an evangelist and a young woman with severe learning difficulties. He asked her if she knew where Jesus lived. She replied that He lived in heaven. When asked if she knew where else He lived she said, "He lives in my heart". On another occasion one of my children came to me when he was about 5 years old and said, "Mummy, there's something special, Jesus lives in my heart".

Sometimes we make things more complicated than they are. Both of these individuals understood by experience what Scripture teaches, that Jesus by His Spirit takes up residence not just with us, but within us (Jn 17:22-23, Rom 8:9-11). When we pray we are not simply talking to the God who dwells in heaven, but the One who has come to live at the centre of our being and is nearer to us than our own breath.

Prayer College Assignment
When you feel the distance between you and God is too great for your prayers to bridge, remember that He is within you. Instead of trying to reach heaven with your prayers, simply let them settle in your heart. Then you will begin to experience how intimately close the Lord is whenever you pray.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Overwhelmed

"We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it" (2 Cor 1:8)

I have never known a time when so many of my friends and family have felt under such pressure. It can be almost overwhelming at times.

Paul Struggled Too
It should be some comfort to us that even the great apostle Paul found himself in extremis at times. But we take greater comfort from the fact that we have fellowship with "the God of all comfort" (2 Cor 1:3).

It has been said by someone far wiser than me that we only realise that God is all we need when we find that He is all we have. Paul says, "we stopped relying on ourselves and learned to rely only on God" (v9). He and his companions learned that the Lord was faithful and trustworthy, that he did rescue them from their difficult circumstances. Through these experiences their faith and confidence in God grew.

When All You Can Do Is Pray
Sometimes we look at the challenges faced by our loved ones and feel impotent. We may even say, "I don't know what else to do but pray". But Paul recognised the utmost importance of prayer. "You are helping us by praying for us," he says (v11). We should never undervalue the power of prayer.

It may be that our simple prayer is the key to resolving the problems faced by those we care about. For reasons best known to Himself God chooses to act in response to prayer. We can pray that those who are struggling experience the comfort of the felt presence of Jesus, or that they have the strength to stand firm in their troubles. We can pray that the Lord will stir the hearts of those who can help in practical ways, or that he will give wisdom, insight and understanding so that problems can be solved.

Prayer College Assignment
When you find yourself wondering how on earth you can support someone you love who is going through difficult times, don't think of prayer as a last resort. Use it as a starting point for helping others. It may even be that as you pray the Lord will prompt or inspire you with ideas that are just what is required to make a difference.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Shout!

"Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth" (Ps 98:4, Ps 100:1)

I can't say there are many times when I've shouted for joy to the Lord, but this week I've found that raising my voice has been extremely beneficial.

Raise a Battle Cry
The Hebrew word translated as "shout" in these verses is "rua" which literally means, "to raise a battle cry". Battle cries have two main functions. The first is to instill courage and passion in those going into the fight. The second is to put fear into the heart of the enemy.

When we're facing the storms of life, the temptation can be to emulate the disciples and cower in the bottom of the boat while we wait for the trouble to go away or for Jesus to rescue us. Whilst it is true that we must turn to the Lord in difficult times, that doesn't mean that we run away from the challenges. Jesus is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah who has triumphed (Rev 5:5) and we are "more than conquerors through him who loved us" (Rom 8:37).

Our enemy wants us all to feel overwhelmed, inadequate and vulnerable so that we are of no use to the Lord. We must raise a battle cry that will strengthen our spirits and enable us to stand and take the fight to him.

Raise God Up
Ps 47:5 says that God has ascended amidst shouts of joy. When we make our battle cry we exalt the Lord and bring glory to Him. In difficult times we may not feel like being joyful but scripture tells us to rejoice in the Lord always (Phil 4:4) because when we do our focus is on El Shaddai, the almighty God who is big enough to lead us into victory in all the circumstances of our lives.

Prayer College Assignment
There are all sorts of ways to raise a battle cry that will help us to stand up under the struggles we face and win the victory. One is simply to "shout for joy to the Lord". Yes, actually raise your voice and shout out praises to God. If that is just a bit too "off the wall" for you, you might try playing some praise CDs loud enough that you can join in and let rip with everything you've got. I've found that the car is an excellent place to do this as it doesn't disturb too many people, though the family hasn't always agreed with me! Whatever you do, give it your all. Just the fact of filling your lungs with enough air to belt out a good praise song will make you feel better and confessing the truth about our awesome God will build you up spiritually.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

When You Can't Pray

"The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express." (Rom 8:26)

Feeling Overwhelmed
This week we received the sad news of the sudden and untimely death of a friend. He was a towering figure in the church which he had faithfully served for many years and, together with his family, a whole congregation is left feeling bereft.

We all experience phases in our walk with God when we cannot make sense of what is going on. Loved ones pass away, illness dominates our lives or we are beset by severe financial difficulties. Tragedy is an all too common part of human existence and it almost seems sometimes as though even God has lost his mind. At such times it can become impossible to pray.

In Our Weakness
Paul tells us that, in our weakness, when we do not know how to pray, the Holy Spirit prays for us. He also tells us that Jesus Himself prays for us (Rom 8:34). No wonder he also says, "when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor 12:10). God's power is made perfect in weakness because we have nowhere else to go. We have to cast ourselves on the Lord and trust ourselves to His compassion and His prayers for us.

My Intercessor, My Friend
Job said,

"my intercessor is my friend as my eyes pour out tears to God; on behalf of a man he pleads with God as a man pleads for his friend" (Job 16:20-21).

We know the grief we feel when beloved friends are struggling with trials and tribulations. We long to be able to relieve them of their burden but cannot. We plead with God for His grace and mercy. Our dearest Friend, the Lord Jesus, feels our pain and comes to our heavenly Father and pleads with Him on our behalf with an intensity we cannot match in our most passionate prayers.

Prayer College Assignment
Whether you are experiencing personal pain or watching loved ones go through difficult times there is no fault in being unable to pray. But you can be assured that Jesus is praying and the Holy Spirit is interceding and the God of all comfort, whose name is Love, will pour out His compassion. When no other words will come, the name of Jesus on your lips is all the prayer that is needed.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Pray For Me

"Pray for me." (Eph 6:19)

Paul repeatedly asked those to whom he was writing to pray for him and for those working alongside him (Col 4:3, 1 Thes 5:25, 2 Thes 3:1).

Why is it then that we sometimes find it so difficult to ask for prayer for ourselves or even for our loved ones?

Self-Sufficiency
Perhaps we want to deal with the situation in which we find ourselves without seeking extra support. Either we think we should be strong enough in ourselves and not require divine intervention at all or, if we do need some help from God, we want to believe that our own prayers are sufficient and we don't need the prayers of others. There is a word for this - pride. "I can do all things," but only through Christ who strengthens me (Phil 4:13). It is our brothers and sisters who are the body of Christ and strength comes when we ask them to join in prayer with us for our needs. It is foolishness to think we can do it all on our own.

If the great apostle to the Gentiles, the writer of more than a quarter of the New Testament, a man who had experienced indescribable visions of glory could ask for prayer from those he had preached the gospel to, then surely we can humble ourselves to ask our brothers and sisters in Christ to pray for us in our need.

Fear
Another factor is fear. We are sometimes afraid to make ourselves vulnerable to one another because we don't want to be hurt or rejected. It is desperately sad that within the family of believers we sometimes have to be cautious about how much we share and with whom because not everyone is as trustworthy as they should be. If we have been honest with another Christian about a struggle we have faced and sought support and prayer only to be told how weak we are or to be gossiped about, it becomes so much harder to take the risk to be vulnerable again.

But this is precisely what the devil wants. He wants us to be isolated from one another, to feel that we are alone in our problems, that no-one else struggles with the same failures and sins that beset us. He knows the power of prayer and he doesn't want us to have access to the divine power which is made available through prayer. Jesus said that if we agree with one another in prayer, whatever we ask for will be done (Matt 18:19).

Prayer College Assignment
How reluctant are you to request prayer for yourself? If it is something you rarely do, try to find an opportunity to ask someone to pray for you. If you're not aware of any specific needs, simply ask them to pray one of Paul's prayers for you - that you will be filled with joy and peace (Rom 15:13). If you have a particular struggle at the moment, ask the Lord to guide you to the right person who can support you and stand with you in prayer. A mature believer will consider it a great privilege to be asked to pray for you in this way.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Thy Will Be Done

It struck me with renewed force this week how easy it is for us to delude ourselves about our true desires. I wanted a particular outcome to a problem but when it was resolved I was actually disappointed. What I thought I wanted was completely different to what I found in my heart when the whole episode was over.

We've talked before about the Lord giving us the desires of our hearts and how He works with us to transform our desires so that they conform to His will. But that is only part of the story. Sometimes we simply have to make an active decision to submit our wills to the will of God.

The concept, "thy will be done," occurs in more than one place in scripture and the circumstances are quite different.

The Prayer That Jesus Taught
It appears as a line in the Lord's prayer where Jesus instructs as to pray, "your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matt 6:10). Though we shouldn't treat this prayer as a ritual, it is intended as a guide for us of the bases we should cover in our personal devotions.

In this context, "your will be done," indicates an ongoing attitude of heart. We are to pray continually that God's sovereign will should be fulfilled in our own lives and the lives of the people around us. To pray this prayer is to put ourselves in a place of submission to God for it says, "Lord, reign in me and in my world, day by day."

We sometimes use this little phrase when we pray because we don't know whether what we're asking for is, in fact, the will of God. We have to be careful about what we mean when we say it. If we mean, "this is what I would really like but if it's not what's best for me, please don't let me have it," then that is a mature approach to prayer. But if we mean, "it would be nice to have this but I don't really expect you will give it to me," then we are being childish and not praying in faith.

The Prayer That Jesus Prayed
Having taught this little prayer to the disciples Jesus Himself makes use of it in Gethsemane where he is battling to submit His will to that of the Father in a very specific set of circumstances, "yet not my will, but yours be done," (Lk 22:42). None of us will ever understand what it cost the Lord Jesus. But He was able to make that one-off act of submission and say, "your will be done," precisely because He had been practicing living in the will of God all His life.

If we are to take the difficult situations in our lives and submit to the will of God ourselves, we will have to develop a lifestyle of submission in the details of daily life. If we don't do that, when the crisis hits us, our instinct will be to rebel and we will have a really hard time getting our flesh to do the right thing.

It's all about learning to trust God (Prov 3:5). My experience this week has shown me my need to trust that God does work all things together for our good (Rom 8:28). I don't even know my own heart so how can I possibly know what is best for me? That's why God reveals Himself to us as our Heavenly Father. It really is a case of, "Daddy knows best."

Prayer College Assignment
We sometimes struggle to know what God's will is and consequently, how we should pray. But living in submission to Him should be our main priority. That may be hard to do but it is not complicated, "what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (Mic 6:8). Determine that you are going to develop a submissive lifestyle so that when the real challenges come you will be able to pray, "thy will be done".

Friday, November 09, 2007

Feeding on Jesus

"I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again." (John 6:35, NLT)

Jesus goes on to talk about those who eat the bread of life having eternal life but we should not make the assumption that He is simply talking about our need to "feed" on Him for salvation. That is only part of the message.

Spiritually Hungry
The crowds that flocked to Jesus had been physically hungry and He fed 5,000 of them with just a few loaves and fish (v1-15). They had experienced a miracle which had satisfied their bodies, but they were not satisfied spiritually. They thought they needed another miracle (v30). Instead Jesus taught them that He is the bread from heaven and that feeding on Him is the source of eternal life (v57-58). Eternal life is not just our ultimate destiny, it is our present experience - "this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent" (John 17:3, NIV). To feed on Jesus is to have eternal life which means to have experiential knowledge of Him today.

We all have spiritual hunger though we sometimes try to satisfy it in the wrong way. We seek the company of friends, we look for sources of entertainment, we work for wealth, possessions or status. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these things, but if they are a substitute for feeding on Jesus, our spiritual hunger will never be satisfied.

How Much Food Do You Need?
I have found it is essential to my well being and my ability to cope with the day that I spend a substantial amount of time fellowshipping with the Lord before I do anything else. Actually, I don't even get out of bed until I've taken time to nourish my spirit with worship and Bible reading. If I fail to do that I struggle with the day and my family suffers because I become very short-tempered rather quickly.

We've looked before at the issue of how long we should spend in prayer and I'm still an advocate of Dick Eastman's method described in his book The Hour That Changes the World: A Practical Plan for Personal PrayerIt provides an excellent outline for developing a balanced prayer life, but for many people spending an hour in prayer is not possible.

I've come to the conclusion that the right amount of time for me to spend in feeding on Jesus is however long it takes for me to feel full. There comes a point when I know my spirit has received the nourishment it needs. To finish my prayer time before that leaves me spiritually weak for the rest of the day. To go beyond the point of feeling well fed is fruitless. I gain nothing extra from spending more time trying to pray. If I feel spiritually well fed after 30 minutes there's no point carrying on for another half-an-hour just so I can tick a box that says I prayed an hour today.

Where Intercession Fits
The "feeding on Jesus" that I've described here is simply a personal devotional time. Dick Eastman includes intercession in his hour of prayer but I found very early in my Christian experience that trying to include praying for others in the same slot as praying for myself didn't work.

I would be enjoying the Lord's company and then start to feel guilty because I wasn't mentioning the needs of others. Or I would be praying for friends, family and Christian workers but feel frustrated because I was neglecting feeding on Jesus.

What I have found most beneficial is to have two separate prayer times, one for just me and the Lord at the beginning of the day and a second period later in the day which I devote solely to praying for others. That way I feel I am giving my best to both my personal relationship with the Lord and to my intercession for others.

Prayer College Assignment
Do you feel spiritually well fed when you leave your devotional times? If not, ask the Lord to satisfy your hunger for Him each time you turn to Him in prayer.

Friday, November 02, 2007

When God Says, "No."

"You don't have what you want because you don't ask God for it. And even when you ask, you don't get it because your motives are all wrong - you want only what will give you pleasure" (Jms 4:2-3 NLT).

There are all sorts of reasons why our prayers are not answered in the way we would like them to be. The first is that we often don't actually pray for what we want and I've addressed that problem in April (check out the link on the side bar). Today I want to focus on what we can learn and how we can grow through unanswered prayer.

Ask God Why
I've often heard it said that it is not helpful to ask God the "why" question and that we should simply trust Him to work in our lives in His way and in His time. Many times that is true. We all go through phases of our lives when apparently inexplicable things happen to us and it seems that the Lord has failed to respond to our cry of desperation in our darkest hour. Our faith in a loving heavenly Father is stretched and we can either grow or crumble.

However, if we are not getting answers to our prayers we need to know if there is some fault on our part, a failure in us that we can rectify in order to get us to a place where our prayers will be answered. I learned this lesson 21 years ago whilst praying for friends who desperately wanted a child but were failing to conceive.

As I prayed with Karen I felt prompted to ask the Lord to show us if there was anything hindering the answer to our prayers. The Lord gently spoke to her heart through the story of the birth of Samuel. He revealed to her that she was seeking to fulfill her own maternal desires while God wanted to give her child she could dedicate to Him. Karen responded to the Lord and within a year her own son was born and she appropriately named him Samuel. It wasn't long before she had a daughter too.

The key to Karen's prayer for a child was in her willingness to hear the Lord explain why there had not yet been an answer.

Some Reasons
There are innumerable reasons why we might be the hindrance to our own prayers, or even to the prayers other people are praying for us. We need to be open to whatever the Holy Spirit wants to communicate to our hearts about our personal walk with Him. But there are some basic problems which, it seems to me, keep recurring.

The first and perhaps most obvious is unconfessed sin. Jesus responded to the paralysed man's need for healing by saying, "your sins are forgiven" (Matt 9:1-8) and James also relates forgiveness and healing when he talks about the elders anointing the sick (Jms 5:13-16).

That is not to say that sin is always the reason for unanswered prayers in relation to sickness. In my personal experience it is sometimes a case of enforced rest. The Lord allows us to be "set aside" for a while because we need physical or spiritual refreshment and we're too wilful to take the time out without Him imposing it upon us. I've seen this happen in the lives of others too. It's as though the Lord has said, "sit down and shut up for a minute and let me talk to you." Isn't this more or less what happened to Saul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-19).

The final thing I want to mention is that sometimes the Lord doesn't answer our prayers because we haven't yet learned all we need to learn in the situation in which we find ourselves. Perhaps we're not seeing a breakthrough in our finances because we haven't yet learned the lessons God wants to teach us about living a simple life, sacrificial giving, or trusting Him to supply all our needs. Perhaps there are problems in our marriage because we haven't learned to live out the roles defined in Scripture, our love for our partner is greater than that we have for the Lord, or we haven't truly learned to forgive.

The reasons for unanswered prayer will be uniquely personal to our individual circumstances and our walk with the Lord. But if we are prepared to ask the Lord why He hasn't responded in the way we have asked, and are willing to be humble enough to hear His voice and respond, unanswered prayer can be the key to significant spiritual growth.

Prayer College Assignment
Are you experiencing the frustration of unanswered prayer? Try praying, "Lord, is there something in me that needs to change before you will say yes?" Make sure you listen for the answer and respond when it comes.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Don't Look Back

"But Lot's wife looked back ..." (Gen 19:26)

A Bad Press
Lot's wife gets a very bad press over her failure to respond correctly to the word of God. It's not enough that she ended up as a pillar of salt. She is held up as an example to us of what happens if we're not obedient to God, or if we're reluctant to leave our sin behind.

If we're not careful, we can find ourselves taking a superior attitude as though we think we would never make such a fundamental mistake.

The Fine Line Of Obedience
What we perhaps miss is how close Lot's wife was to getting it right. She was, after all, being obedient and running away from Sodom and the depravity there. How many of us can say that we actually run from sin? We all know the experience of the internal struggle we sometimes have to do the right thing when what we really want is to do the wrong thing.

Lot's wife was being far more committed than we often manage to be but she still wasn't wholeheartedly obedient to the Lord. She had been told not to look back (v17) but she thought she could get away with a quick glimpse behind her as she ran. The result was devastating.

Responding To God's Voice
Was the Lord harsh on Lot's wife? Should He have punished her so severely for one little slip? Look more carefully at v26. The woman's fate was not God's doing, she brought it upon herself. Her death was a direct consequence of her disobedience.

When, in our Quiet Time, we hear the gentle voice of the Holy Spirit convicting us of sin there is one route away from destruction and that is rapid flight without looking back. Paul told the Corinthians to flee from sexual sin and idolatry (1 Cor 6:18 & 10:14) and Timothy to flee from the evil desires of youth (2 Tim 2:22).

There is no room for compromise in dealing with sin. Jesus said, "if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off" (Matt 5:30). He knows more about conquering temptation than anyone and we should heed His instruction. Lot's wife should be a warning to us. Don't take the slightest chance with sin. The consequences could be devastating.

Prayer College Assignment
Give some thought to whether there is an area of compromise in your life. Are you struggling with a besetting sin, but unwilling to make the commitment to run from it wholeheartedly and never return? Take some time, like David, to let God search your heart (Ps 139:23), and reveal the truth to you. Determine you are going to run, with everything you've got, away from sin and, fixing your eyes on Jesus, complete the race marked out for you (Heb 12:1-2).

Friday, October 19, 2007

Wholly Available?

A pentecostal minister I know told me this week that he had stopped his congregation in the middle of a hymn because they were singing words he knew they didn't mean. He had tried to set up a Saturday morning prayer meeting and the people had not responded. Yet on Sunday they were singing, "Here I Am, Wholly Available."

Why Aren't We Available?
Why do we do this? Why do we sing songs with words we don't mean? Perhaps we're not thinking about the words but we like the tune. Maybe we are being carried along by emotion - we really do mean the words at that moment, but get us outside of church and the enthusiasm fades. Sometimes, it's that our fear of man is greater than our fear of God and we're more concerned about what people around us will think if we don't sing, than what God thinks about the difference between what we say and what's in our hearts.

But to me, the more interesting question is, "why are we not wholly available to God?" I think the answer to that has to be that we don't know Him well enough to fully trust Him. We're afraid that if we do make ourselves wholly available He will ask us to do things we don't want to do. I've heard people express the fear that the Lord might call them to the mission field in a remote and underdeveloped part of the world. There are all sorts of fears - fear of being called to open-air preaching, fear of not being permitted to marry, fear of being told to give everything away and live in poverty. We all have fears and the devil plays on these to try to make us think that the Lord will tell us to do things that will be uncomfortable or embarrassing. This can be very effective at limiting our prayer lives because we become afraid of listening to God for fear of what He might say.

Heart's Desire
In Ps:37:4 David says, "take delight in the Lord, and He will give you your heart's desires" (NLT). This is a two-edged promise. On first reading it seems to be a simple counter to the fear that God will ask us to do things we don't want to do. It appears to be saying that if we delight in the Lord we will receive the things we really want. We just have to work out how to take delight in the Lord and then we'll have the key to answered prayer. But there is much more to this verse because there is a dynamic we miss as we rush towards the words "heart's desire" and start thinking about all the things we'd really like to have.

David says, "take delight in the Lord." We take delight in the Lord by spending time with Him, reading His word, praying and worshipping. As we do this we are changed, transformed, to become more like Jesus. Part of that transformation occurs within the desires we have in our hearts. Things which once seemed important to us slip away into the shadows as our priorities change and we fall in love with Jesus. The old desires fade and we find that God himself is planting new desires in our hearts. He literally gives us our heart's desires. Where we were once enthralled by sin, we want holiness; the obsession with material wealth gives way to a desire to build up a storehouse of treasure in heaven; boredom with church is replaced with a desire to spend time with our brothers and sisters in the Lord.

There is no need for fear of what God will ask us to do because, if we are delighting in Him, He works to transform our desires to conform with His will. That is not to say that it will always be easy to do what God wants, but when He asks something challenging of us and we look within ourselves for our response, we will always find there is a seed of desire within our hearts to be obedient to Him that will enable us to do whatever he asks.

Prayer College Assignment
God seems almost to take it as a personal challenge when we say, "I will never ...". Most Christians with some experience of walking with the Lord will find themselves doing and even enjoying, things they once said they would never do. Let's make it our goal to so delight in the Lord that we have no fear of what He might ask of us. Then we will be able to say, "here I am, wholly available."

Friday, October 12, 2007

Meditation

I'm rereading the old classic testimony of a devout Hindu who became a Christian, Death of a Guru. I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand more about the massive differences between Eastern mysticism and Christian spirituality. Any follower of the Lord Jesus who thinks yoga is simply a kind of exercise should definitely read it. Yoga is a form of Hindu meditation which has the "ultimate goal of union with the Absolute".

The Big Difference
There are Christians who have become sidetracked down the route of Eastern-style meditation. Some accounts I have read of such ventures sound remarkably like the experiences of Rabindranath Maharaj described in Death of a Guru. Consequently there is a backlash in some quarters of the Evangelical community against what is, in the Christian tradition, known as contemplative prayer which can appear to share some characteristics with Eastern meditation. It's important therefore that we understand the primary and fundamental difference between Christian and Hindu meditation.

Hindu meditation is practised by emptying the mind in order to gain a higher consciousness and ultimately to experience nirvana or "nothingness". Christian meditation is not about emptying the mind but about filling it with thoughts of God and this is best done by contemplating Scripture.

Christian Meditation
The apostle Paul says, "let the word of Christ dwell in you richly" (Col 3:16) and this beautifully describes the act of Christian meditation. In Ps 119 the writer says, "I have hidden Your word in my heart" (v11), "I meditate on your precepts" (v15) and prays, "open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law" (v18).

Christian meditation is about prayerfully absorbing Scripture into our very being and there are a number of practices which can help us to do that.

The first is memorising. When we memorise a single verse or a longer passage of Scripture it becomes available to us when we need it. There are countless times in my life when I have faced temptation or needed a word from God and a memorised passage has come to mind which has been pertinent to the situation. Memorising takes discipline and the older we get the more discipline seems to be required to lodge new things in our brains. I have heard it said that about the age of 7 is the best time to learn by memorising as that is the age at which the brain is particularly receptive to that type of learning. That's why traditional education had us all reciting our "times tables" in primary school. If you have responsibility for children in that age group it's a great opportunity to teach them Scriptures that will stay in their minds their whole lives. The rest of us will have to work harder at it, but repeat a Scripture often enough and it will stick.

The second practice I want to mention is what I call mulling over Scripture. Like a cow with the cud we can take a verse or two and, instead of just assuming we know what it means, we can chew it over in our mind, turning it around to look at it from different angles, thinking about what each of the words means. For example, 1 Pet 1:16 quotes several Old Testament passages - be holy, because I am holy. What is holiness? What does it mean that God is holy? How can I be holy? I am not told to BECOME holy, but to BE holy so what are the implications of that? We have to be careful that when we answer these questions we do so in the light of other passages of Scripture and not with our own bright ideas. But as we explore Scripture in this way we will come to understand it more fully.

The third form of meditation I want to mention is imagining. By this, I don't mean making things up, but rather taking a passage of the Bible, usually from the gospels, and using your imagination to place yourself within the scene described. There is a principle of learning which is expressed in the following way: I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand. By taking a passage such as Lk 8:40-56, the healing of the sick woman and Jairus' daughter, and using our imagination to place ourselves in the crushing crowds and follow the events as they unfold, we can gain a deeper insight into the intensity of the emotions involved, the pain and joy experienced by the participants and the awe of the bystanders at the power of Jesus to intervene in life-changing ways. The passage speaks more powerfully to us.

Prayer College Assignment
If there is one of these methods of meditation that you have never tried or not used in a while, why not explore one of them this week.

Friday, October 05, 2007

The Father's Song

My favourite song at the moment is Matt Redman's, "The Father's Song" from his album Blessed Be Your Name. I like his lyrics because he has a poetic way of writing which, for me, expresses what is in my heart. This particular song is inspired by Zeph 3:17,

"He will rejoice over you with singing."

It is an awesome thought that God sings, but it explains why song is such an important part of worship both here on earth and in heaven. Even more awesome is the concept that the Lord sings over us and does so with joy.

The Father's Song by Matt Redman

I have heard so many songs,
Listened to a thousand tongues,
But there is one that sounds above them all.
The Father's song, the Father's love,
You sung it over me
And for eternity
It's written on my heart.

Heaven's perfect melody,
The Creator's symphony,
You are singing over me
The Father's song.
Heaven's perfect mystery,
The King of Love has sent for me
And now you're singing over me
The Father's song.

God's People Sing
When I was training with Wycliffe Bible Translators I heard a missionary talk about the transformation the gospel had made to the people group amongst whom she had worked. Astonishingly their culture included no music or singing. But as they came to faith in Christ they literally found their voice and, without any influence from the missionaries they began to sing.

Wherever there are believers there is singing. A whole book of the Bible is dedicated to recording the songs of worship of the people of Israel. Something that interests me is that one of the features of the development of worship over the past 30 years has been that, increasingly, the words of Christian songs are directed to God rather than talking about Him.

Personal Singing
Most of us have no problem lifting our voice in song in corporate worship. Some of us are more tuneful than others, but it is regarded as normal to sing in church. Yet, somehow, we seem to be more self-conscious about singing in the course of our personal devotions. It's one thing to have a worship CD in the car and belt out a rousing chorus as we drive to work. It is something else to sing to the Lord whilst on our knees in the prayer closet.

Perhaps it is because we become very aware that we are all alone, centre stage, singing for an audience of one. We can't hide behind the rest of the congregation as we do in church, or the professional worship group on the CD. To sing to the Lord, on our own, during our quiet time is a very personal and intimate thing.

Matt Redman talks about the Father's song over us being one of love, one that is written on our hearts. It seems to me to make sense that our response to such a love song should be our own sung expression of love. With the volume of Christian songs that have been produced in recent years, alongside the old favourite hymns, we should be able to find songs that express our own love for the Lord Jesus.

A New Song
But there is something which I believe will touch God's heart even more than singing a song written by Matt Redman, Darlene Zschech or Graham Kendrick, and that is the song with words and a tune that spring up direct from our own souls. "Sing a new song to the Lord," says the psalmist (Ps 98:1). God has created us all as individuals and he loves to hear the sound of our own voice singing our own song and He really doesn't mind if you make it up as you go along.

Prayer College Assignment
You are created in the image of God and He sings so why not try singing as part of your daily time with Him. You could use a hymn book to start with but do try just pouring out your heart with the words and music that come from your own soul. When you feel liberated to do this you will find it adds a great blessing to your devotional times.

Friday, September 28, 2007

A Question Of Confession

This week I picked up Paul Yonggi Cho's book, "Praying With Jesus". As is my normal practice when looking at a book for the first time, I read the blurb on the back cover and then turned to the contents page. I found myself staring at the list of chapter headings with disbelief as I saw for the first time a truth about prayer which had been staring me in the face for years but which I had never seen before.

The Lord's Prayer
Cho's book is a study of the Lord's Prayer, that prayer Jesus gave His disciples when they asked Him to teach them how to pray. With complete simplicity Cho has based each chapter on a line of that prayer. There they are, laid out starkly on the first page of the book:

1. Our Father Which Art in Heaven
2. Thy Kingdom Come
3. Give Us This Day
4. Forgive Us Our Debts

And that's where I stopped reading. Surely that line of the prayer about forgiveness is in the wrong place!

I was taught that sin separates us from God and that He cannot hear our prayers if we have unconfessed sin in our lives. As a young Christian I was taught the ACTS model of prayer - Adoration, then Confession, and after that Thanksgiving and Supplication. It's a good model because it gets all the important bits, but it's not the model Jesus gave His followers. In the Jesus model requests for our own needs precede asking for forgiveness!

Does God Hear When Sinners Pray?
So can God hear our prayers when we are still living under the shadow of unconfessed sin? Several thoughts come to mind. The first is that in the book of Job, Satan, the accuser of the brethren, stands before God and engages in discussion with Him (Job 1:6-12). If Satan, the ultimate rebel, can be heard by the Lord, how much more so His beloved children who have put their trust in Jesus for their salvation, even if wearing the filthy rags of sin.

Secondly, how could we be saved if God does not hear the prayers of sinners? In Romans 10:13 Paul quotes the prophet Joel, "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved". He does not add, "as long as they confess their sin first". In verse 9 of the same chapter he says, "if you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved". There is no mention of sin or forgiveness here. Yet those who respond to the Lord in his way are clearly heard by Him.

Be Holy
This is not to say sin is unimportant. The Lord repeatedly calls upon His people to turn from sin - "be holy because I am holy" (Lev 11:44-45, 1 Pet 1:16 etc). If we truly love our Saviour we will want to live lives that please Him. Confession of our sinfulness is part of the Lord's Prayer and should be part of our daily walk. I once heard it said that our goal should be to continually reduce the length of time between sin and subsequent repentance until we reach the point where the two come together and we do not fall into sin at all. But thoughts of sin should not be the dominant feature of our prayer lives.

Prayer College Assignment
Read Lk 11:1-13. See how much of the teaching on prayer in that passage is about having our needs met. The Lord does not want us to be so condemned by our sin (Rom 8:1) that we give more priority to recounting our failures to Him than to asking Him to provide for us. Give some thought to whether you are praying with the priorities Jesus taught in that passage.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Healing Prayer

This week I watched a film set in the period of the crusades. The plot was very weak but the battle scenes were dramatic - the sort of thing my 16 year-old son would enjoy.

During the film a knight, played by Jeremy Irons, is hit in the side by an arrow whilst fighting to protect his son. In order to carry on with the battle he breaks the shaft of the arrow leaving its head in his side. After the fight he has to go through a lot of pain to have that arrowhead removed.

Battle Scarred
We live in a battle zone. A preacher I heard recently referred to Christians as being a colony of heaven on earth. It's a fantastic image. But being part of that colony places us in a position of being at war with the one the Lord Jesus described as the prince of this world (Jn 12:31) and sometimes, if we haven't kept our guard up, we get hit by his arrows (Eph 6:16).

It's all too easy to be hurt by things said and done by the people around us. Sometimes these things are inflicted on us with malice, more often through thoughtlessness or ignorance. I went through a time earlier this year when it seemed as though every week somebody made a comment which brought painful memories from my past back to the forefront of my mind. It was a very difficult time. None of these people intended to hurt me - they had no idea their words were causing me problems. But the devil used the opportunity to inflict a lot of psychological pain.

I had made the mistake of breaking off the shafts of the arrows of past hurts but leaving the heads in the wound so that people didn't know there was a problem, but every time the sore spot was touched it caused a great deal of pain. The tendency when we're hurting is to curl up and protect the painful place but that doesn't solve anything. Nor does pretending there is no pain and trying to carry on stoically. The arrowhead has to be removed. Until it is, we will continue to be vulnerable to the same hurts over and over again.

Dealing With The Arrows
So how do we do this? How do we deal with the hurts from our past that continue to impact negatively on today?

There is only one solution and that is to bring them into the prayer closet, to Jesus our Healer, to show Him the wound and ask Him to touch it. It is as valid to pray for emotional or psychological healing as it is to pray for physical healing. We have souls as well as bodies. What happens from the point at which we open our pain up to the Lord will vary depending on the individual and the particular problem. Each of us is walking our own unique path and the steps the Lord leads us through will be specific to our own journey. The important thing is that we do follow the leadings of the Master or we will not reach the place of peace.

Prayer College Assignment
Do you find yourself over-reacting to certain comments or actions from other people? That could well be an indicator of an unhealed hurt from the past. The first step in resolving this is to bring it before the Lord in prayer and ask Him to deal with it. Jesus is both compassionate (Matt 14:14) and gentle (Matt 11:29). There is nothing that compares with the beauty of His touch. From that point He will lead you to the place of wholeness. There may be mountain tops and valleys on the way. There will be people you need to forgive and people He will bring into your life to encourage you and support you. There will be places of rest and challenging rugged terrain. But the journey that starts in the prayer closet and is offered daily to the Lord will reach the place of peace.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Praying Friendship

This week we've been to a friend's funeral. It was what I would call a good funeral. The natural grief that follows the death of someone who has been a valued part of our lives was tempered by a celebration of his life and the comfort of knowing we will see him again in glory.

What particularly struck me was the number of people who claimed Doug as their best friend. It is a remarkable personal quality to be able to make so many people feel that special. For Doug's special friends his company and comradeship were important to them. They loved their opportunities to spend time with him.

Friendship With Jesus
To me that is a great illustration of what our relationship with the Lord Jesus should be. We should be passionate about the friendship we are privileged to share with Christ and should want to spend time both working in the world with Him and being alone in prayer. He is, after all, the best friend we can have.

The question is, is Jesus your best friend? The level of your desire for meeting Him in prayer could well be an indicator of the extent to which you regard Jesus as your friend.

If Jesus is the most important person in our lives we will want to give him the best part of our day. Our prayer time can be as much a time of fellowship as a time spent with any other beloved friend.

Personal Significance
But Jesus is not simply a special friend. He is the Lord of glory and being the friend of God is an awesome position to be in. Some people like to associate with powerful or influential men and women in the hope that they will somehow gain some significance or more credibility. They don't believe they have status in their own right so they seek the reflected glory of others.

But prayer and fellowship with Jesus give us an awesome significance. We don't just hang around Him hoping that we might get noticed because we're in His company. We are the temple of the Holy Spirit. God has come to live on the inside of us. We are intimately and inseparably united with the Lord and consequently prayer enables us to participate in God's action plan for the world. We become history makers, not mere observers or subjects. We are involved in the most important events not just in time but in eternity.

Making A Difference
"There is a lot going on all around us, with very little of the real action reported by newspaper or television," says Eugene Peterson in the forward to Stanley Grenz's book "Prayer: The Cry For The Kingdom".

For some reason God chooses to make us His friends and partners in the building of His kingdom. One day we will understand, in a way we cannot now comprehend, just how insignificant all the concerns of the world have been and how vital our activity of prayer was to God's purposes.

Prayer College Assignment
As we stood round Doug's grave we sang the old hymn, "When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder." It begins, "When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound and time shall be no more." The last verse of that hymn exhorts us to "labour for the Master from the dawn to setting sun". It seems appropriate as Jews all over the world are celebrating Rosh Hashanah (New Year or the Feast of Trumpets) and looking forward to the coming of their Messiah that we take the challenge to recommit ourselves to spending time with our Best Friend and labouring with Him in prayer for His kingdom to come.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Scripture Union Mobilises Christians to Pray

Scripture Union has come up with a great initiative to promote prayer. Find out more by visiting the Christian Today website.

Get Some Enthusiasm For Prayer

"Do your best ..." Paul said to Timothy (2 Tim 2:15) He was particularly encouraging this young pastor of the Ephesian church to give his all to the ministry to which he had been called and so to receive God's approval. We are all called to prayer - we are a royal priesthood created to minister to God (1 Pet 2:9). We should give of our best to prayer.

No Enthusiasm For Prayer?
I have to say that I haven't seen many churches where the members are truly enthusiastic about prayer. This is indicated by the prayer meeting which is often the most poorly attended activity of the church. Just because a church claims to be Bible-believing and evangelical doesn't mean that its members will join together to pray.

My first experience of a church prayer meeting was at a large (200+ congregation on a Sunday) evangelical Anglican church. I turned up expecting to see dozens of people. The only ones present were the vicar, the church administrator and one other member of the congregation. Another church I went to for a while had a prayer meeting which could be attended by invitation only. A third had no weekly prayer meeting at all. All these churches (in different parts of the country) at one time had a reputation for being "alive". But they lost their vitality and descended into division and dissension primarily, I believe, because the majority of the congregation were not engaged in praying together.

Giving Our Best To Prayer
If there is any activity undertaken by any group of people, the one which should be most enthusiastically pursued is Christians at prayer. I'm grateful to Christine Caine of Hillsong who pointed out that the very word "enthusiasm" comes from the Greek phrase "en theos" which means, in God. Having a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ should stir up enthusiasm within us to pray both individually and corporately. If we don't have a passion for prayer there is something wrong.

Perhaps we make the mistake of thinking that if we don't feel enthusiastic or passionate we have to wait for the Holy Spirit to somehow impart this to us. If so we are missing the point. Paul told the believers at Colosse, "whatever you do, work at it with all your heart" (Col 3:23). We have to make a decision to give our best to prayer. We have to decide it is the most important thing we can do, that it undergirds every other aspect of our lives, spiritual or secular, and that we are going to pursue prayer with more enthusiasm than we have for any other activity.

Prayer College Assignment
Is it right that worldly people should be more enthusiastic about their favourite sports team, their efforts to get a promotion at work, their politics or redecorating their home than Christians are about prayer? If the root of true enthusiasm is to be "in God" should we not be far more enthusiastic about pursuing prayer? Review your prayer life. Are you giving your best to your time alone with the Lord? Are you doing all you can to spend time with other believers in prayer? Or are you someone whose enthusiasm will stir others to action (2 Cor 9:2)?

Monday, September 03, 2007

Fasting

"When you fast ..." (Matt 6:16)

Does Anyone Fast Today?
I don't know when I last heard any teaching on fasting. This leaves me with the uncomfortable feeling that for many believers, despite the words of Jesus, fasting is not seen as a vital part of a Christian's prayer life. Of course, if we take the Matt 6 passage seriously, no-one will know when we fast and this can add to the impression that nobody's doing it. I may be completely wrong about whether or not people are fasting but I want to use this week's blog to bring the subject to your attention. There is not space here to do the subject justice so I would thoroughly recommend Arthur Wallis' classic book, God's Chosen Fast (sadly it is out of print but second-hand copies are available through Amazon). It has been my manual and guide since I began fasting in the early days of my walk with the Lord and I have found this book to be both scriptural and practical.

Reason For Fasting
One of the big mistakes we can make is to think that fasting is somehow a way of twisting God's arm to persuade Him to do what we want. On the contrary, the fundamental reason for fasting should be to give glory to God. Last week I mentioned that worship is a discipline. We do it because God is worthy to be worshipped. We see an example of this in Acts 13:2. Fasting is an act of worship and needs to be undertaken with discipline and primarily because the Lord is worthy to receive our fast.

Types of Fast
Our first thought at the mention of fasting may be the idea of going without food for a period of time. This is usually described as the normal fast. Often this is undertaken for a 24 hour period but simply missing a single meal would be a fast. I have found it possible to make a 3 day fast without any significant adverse consequences, but a longer fast might require some forward planning. You cannot expect to carry on your normal routine when you are not supplying your body with its usual fuel. In any case, I am inclined to think that you probably need clear direction from the Lord to undertake anything more than a one day fast and in doing so you will probably be asked to spend significant times in prayer which would inhibit your normal life-style. It is vitally important to mention here that if you have any kind of medical condition you should seek a doctor's advice before undertaking a fast, but for most people any health issues should not affect the ability to fast.

Simply going without food is not the only kind of fast. There are many different types mentioned in Scripture. We see Daniel and his friends refraining from eating certain types of food and this is sometimes described as a partial fast (Daniel 1:6-16). This type of fast could well be suitable for those for whom a normal fast is medically problematic. A favourite for some people is to give up something for Lent and this is a legitimate fast if it requires a genuine sacrifice and self-discipline.

There are instances of people going without food or water for a period which we might call a total or absolute fast (Acts 9:9, Est 4:16). I have never undertaken such a fast and I am absolutely convinced you need a very clear call from the Lord to a total fast. The human body can survive a long time without food but deteriorates very rapidly without water. No-one, however healthy, should make a total fast without medical advice.

Fasting from food is not the only kind of fasting described in Scripture. For example, Paul indicates in 1 Cor 7:3-5 that sexual abstinence for the purpose of devoting ourselves to prayer is a form of fasting. Forsaking any kind of activity can fulfil the function of a fast. Fasting from TV to have more time to pray is something I have found beneficial.

Results of Fasting
Arthur Wallis lists a number of possible benefits of fasting but this is Prayer College so I want to focus on the impact fasting can have on prayer rather than on aspects of personal sanctification or self-discipline.

The first and most practical thing is that fasting frees up time you would have spent eating. This means there is additional time for prayer.

Fasting can help to clarify our own prayer requests. The psalmist says that if we delight in the Lord He will give us the desire of our hearts (Ps 37:4). Fasting can be both evidence that we delight in the Lord and proof that what we are seeking God for is truly our heart's desire. If I want to see a particular answer to prayer, is it important enough for me to fast over it?

Fasting can sharpen the spiritual senses. In fasting we humble ourselves before God and whilst our stomach may growl loudly our spirit often becomes more sensitive to the voice of God, making prayer easier.

Practical Suggestions
If you have never fasted begin by making a partial fast or simply miss one meal. Over a period of months you can build up to a 24 hour fast. You may feel that you can begin with a day long fast but you should not attempt anything longer than that until you have gained some experience.

If you consume caffeine (coffee, tea, chocolate, energy drinks) or high levels of sugar on a daily basis your body is going to suffer withdrawal symptoms from these addictive substances when you fast, the most common problem being headaches. You have a number of options: allow yourself to consume these things during the fast; live with the effects of withdrawal; or prepare yourself in advance by weaning yourself off them a few days before you fast.

Some people find difficulty in consuming only water during a normal fast. But you should try to drink plenty of water. If this is a problem try adding some unsweetened fruit juice to your water.

Prayer College Assignment
The Islamic fasting month of Ramadan begins on 13th September. During this time devout Muslims will not let anything, food or drink, pass their lips during the hours of daylight. You might want to think about using this time to undertake a partial fast and pray for your Muslim neighbours to come to know the one true God personally.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Worship in Personal Devotions

Over the past couple of months I've heard several people comment that they find it difficult to worship within the context of their personal devotions.

For myself, I'm in agreement with the man who talked about how rewarding worship can be, so I want to spend some time this week thinking about what worship is and make some practical suggestions which I hope will be helpful.

What Is Worship?
I am absolutely convinced that part of the problem people have with personal worship is that they get it mixed up with adoration. The two are not the same for one very important reason. Adoration requires the involvement of emotion but worship does not.

I might say that I adore my children and you would understand that I mean I have deep feelings of love towards them. But I do not worship them.

The best way to understand worship is to look at those passages of Scripture that describe the worship of heaven. One such is Rev 5:6-14. Here we have the vision of the Lamb and the scroll. The living creatures and the elders fall before the throne in worship and begin by saying, "You are worthy." Our word 'worship' comes from the Old English word 'woerthscipe' which literally means to tell someone their worth. This is exactly what we see the worshippers doing in this passage. They tell the Lord that He is worthy because ... He was slain, He bought men for God through His blood, He has created a kingdom of priests. All of these are statements of fact. There is little emotional content here.

When we come to personal worship, the place to start is with telling God facts about Himself. In doing this we are acknowledging to Him, before all the powers of the spiritual realm, and to ourselves that we recognise He truly is God. We are reminded of His nature and His character. This takes a lot of pressure off us. We don't have to worry about how we feel or whether we're worthy to come into His presence. We simply worship because He is worthy to receive our worship, not because we feel like it. In fact, if we wait until we do feel like it we may never enter in to worship at all.

I want to emphasise that there is no need for any emotional content at the very beginning of worship. I do not have to say, "I love you because you are the Prince of Peace." I can simply say, "you are the Prince of Peace." It is a statement of fact, it is fundamentally true, it is what Scripture tells me the Lord is like, and to tell Him so is worship even if the concept does not initially excite me. Worship is something we have to discipline ourselves to do.

However, my experience of this kind of worship is that it immeasurably enhances my devotional times. Firstly, acknowledging and recognising who God is gets my perspective right. When we are privileged to call Him our Father and to come to Him as little children, it is all too easy to become overly casual with God and to forget how holy and awesome He is. Secondly, when I worship in this way I find it inspires me to adoration. Where I might not have been feeling much love towards God when I started, the emotions well up inside of me as I focus on His character and nature. Thirdly, the Lord often responds to this kind or worship by making His felt presence a reality. If I am feeling far from God a simple decision to offer worship can be all that is required to restore a sense of fellowship with Him. Fourthly, it is often in these times of worship that the Lord puts His finger on something in my life that needs to change, especially if my focus has been on His holiness.

How Do We Worship?
So, how do we actually do this thing called worship? I have a number of suggestions.

For many people the easiest place to begin is with singing. We find this simple because we are used to doing this corporately. Get a hymn book and look for songs and hymns that are truly worshipful and speak directly to God (you'd be surprised how many things we sing are really only addressed to ourselves or other people and not to the Lord). In your quiet time you can read the words or sing them.

Look through Scripture for statements about who God is and what He's like and simply repeat them back to Him. The Psalms and Isaiah are particularly good sources for this when you are just starting. But you could keep a note pad and record any phrases you come across in your daily readings which you can use in your worship times.

Use your own life as a source for worshipful thoughts. How have you seen God work in your life in the past? What does that show about His nature? That He is faithful, long suffering, kind, tender, powerful, your healer, your comforter, your best friend? Tell Him that you have seen that these things are true from your own experience.

Some people find that particular postures in prayer enhance worship. I tend simply to follow my heart and do what feels appropriate at the time but if I am aware that I am struggling to focus on God in worship I find kneeling or "bowing down" in what might be described as the Muslim posture can be helpful. But the most important thing is attitude of heart rather than our physical position.

Prayer College Assignment
Make a list of 20 statements from Scripture which describe the nature and character of the Lord. Write them down in the form, "You are ...". Use some of them at the beginning of each prayer time over the next few days. Don't just rush through them but think about the meaning and implications of each one and try to expand on them in your own words.

Friday, August 17, 2007

A Big Red Answer To Prayer

"You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it." (Jn 14:14)

"But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things (that you need) will be given to you as well." (Matt 6:33)

"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you." (Matt 7:7)

Last weekend our family experienced a jaw-droppingly amazing answer to prayer which illustrates beautifully some of the important concepts we have to understand if we want effective prayer lives.

Let me say right at the start that I give all the glory to God. It's not my intention to boast about my ability to pray - I'm still wearing "L" plates when it comes to prayer. My intention is to boast about our awesome God who loves to give good gifts to His children (Matt 7:11).

The Request
For some time our growing (in size, not number!) family has been complaining every time we try to squeeze all 5 of us into our Ford Escort. I love that car. It's nippy. You put your foot down and it goes, unlike its predecessor which almost seemed to be saying, "do we have to?" whenever it pulled away. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Escort except that it has become too small. The general consensus in the family was that we needed something bigger. But there was simply no way we could afford to replace it.

So about 6 months ago I started praying for a new car. I could have just asked for a bigger car, but having recently been challenged about being specific in prayer and asking the Lord for what you really want I decided to ask for a red (yes, red) people carrier. Why red? Simply because every car I've ever owned has been one shade of blue or another and all of us wanted a change. Childish? Maybe, but aren't we supposed to come to God as our heavenly Father? And He's quite capable of saying "no" if we're asking for the wrong thing.

I didn't mention the request for the new car every day in my prayer time. I didn't plead for it with any great fervor. I simply asked, every so often, "please can we have a red people carrier" and occasionally I would remind the Lord how much we needed it - most frequently when all three children (two of whom are adult size) were squeezed in the back of the Escort.

The Answer
At the end of last week, completely out of the blue, a family member, who knew nothing of my prayers (and isn't even a Christian), phoned and asked me to look at a silver Nissan that was for sale at their local dealership. I explained that, yes we did need a bigger car, but there's no way we can afford to buy one at the moment. He said he'd like us to take a look at it anyway. But by the time we got there the vehicle had been sold.

Well, it hadn't actually been a people carrier and it certainly wasn't red so I wasn't greatly disappointed. But our benefactor declared that if he could find the right car at the right price he would buy it for us. So I sat back and waited while he made calls, looked in the newspaper and surfed the net hunting down second-hand 7 seater vehicles. Every single one he found was too old or the mileage was too high or the price was unreasonable or it had a dubious history. He looked at dozens of adverts for people carriers but the first one he found that he thought was worth looking at was a 5 year-old RED Renault Espace!

I was excited. But we were on holiday in Taunton and the car was 140 miles away, in Walsall, just 20 minutes drive from our home! Steve (hubby) phoned the seller to find out if it was still available. It was, but the owner was going on holiday the next day himself. We made a decision. This was too good an opportunity to miss. Steve, our generous relative and I jumped in the car and were inspecting the potential purchase within 3 hours of first making contact with the seller.

To cut a very long story slightly shorter, we drove back to Taunton the following day in a red people carrier which had cost us not a single penny.

Lessons Learned
I've learned so many things about prayer through this experience. Here are just some of them.

Yes, do be specific in prayer. Not only does our heavenly Father love to give good gifts to His children, the little details help give you confidence that you've found the right answer.

Prayer is not complicated. You don't have to find the right form of words, take up a particular posture, or even have oodles of faith. Simply ask for what you want and wait and see what God will do.

Persistence in prayer doesn't require you to nag God. We should keep asking, but we don't have to take the , "can I have a new car please, can I have a new car please, can I have a new car please" approach that children sometimes do.

Seek first the kingdom of God. When you are praying diligently for God's kingdom to be extended you get more answers to personal requests.

Seek His righteousness. Obey God in even the small things. A few weeks ago I felt God was challenging me to drive within the speed limit, something I struggle with as I like to get everywhere as quickly as possible. But I've made a real effort to get my driving speed down and whilst I sometimes forget and the speed creeps up, I'm getting better at it. I didn't make the connection at the time between my prayer request and that decision to be obedient and it certainly wasn't a case of trying to twist God's arm by being extra good! But I now wonder if we would have the new car now if I hadn't responded to the prompting of the Spirit to be more righteous in my driving.

Don't go running on ahead, be patient. We actually looked at the possibility of hiring a people carrier for the holiday and borrowing the money to pay for it! Instead we had our very own people carrier for most of the holiday, and beyond, and it was free.

God doesn't leave you in any doubt when the right answer comes along. He adds little details that show you His hand in the situation. The colour of the Espace was listed in the advert as Mars Red. That would be a completely insignificant detail to most people. But my husband's big hobby is amateur radio and he belongs to Midland Amateur Radio Society (MARS). He goes to MARS weekly! It was almost as though the Lord was saying, "just in case you're in any doubt, here's another little clue," signed God. Actually, according to the Renault dealer in Taunton, the car is not Mars Red or any other shade of red - it's just plain red!

God's not going to allow anyone else to get their hands on your blessing. If it's meant for you he will keep it for you. This car had been up for sale for at least 5 weeks - listed on Autotrader on the web, three "for sale" posters in the car. The seller had not had a single enquiry about it until Steve phoned him.

The Lord can use anyone, even unbelievers, to bless his people. The seller was not a Christian, the benefactor is not a Christian but the Lord brought the two of them together to pour out a blessing on His children.

God's resources are not limited by our circumstances. The day before the original phone call from our generous relative a verse in Jeremiah had leaped off the page during my quiet time - they will find blessings even in the barren land (Jer 31:2). I didn't know what the Lord was specifically saying, but I knew it was something to do with blessing us where we couldn't provide for ourselves. That's exactly what happened.

Prayer College Assignment
The kind of dramatic answer to prayer I've described here doesn't happen to us every day, or even every year. But it does illustrate how, when we partner with God in prayer, miracles can happen in the lives of ordinary believers. Whatever it is you're asking the Lord for, take encouragement from this personal story and persist in prayer.

Friday, August 10, 2007

A Time And A Place For Prayer

"Every time and every place is a time and place for prayer."

Catherine of Sienna quoted in Listening to God by Joyce Huggett

Prayer and Service
Much of our thinking in Prayer College has been about personal devotions within the "prayer closet". But maturity in prayer requires us to learn how to take that spirit of prayer and the sense of the Lord's presence out into our world.

It is clear from the gospels that the Lord Jesus spent extended periods alone in prayer. He also devoted huge amounts of time to giving of Himself to others. Last week we compared Mary's worship with Martha's service and saw how the Lord commended Mary for her devotion. But in Jesus we see the perfect marriage of prayer and service.

The Priority of Prayer
The really important thing to grasp as we attempt to live the Christian life is that both prayer and service are important, but prayer must come first. Service must flow from what happens in our personal devotions. Not only so, our service should be saturated in prayer. Once we have learned the art of fellowshiping with the Lord in the quiet place of our sacred space, we need to learn how to maintain that awareness of His presence in the noise of our daily lives. As Catherine de Hueck Doherty says in her book "Pustinia",

"The Lord is calling us to stand still before Him while walking with men. Yes, the next step ... is the ability to walk with men and be contemplatives while we are walking."

Joyce Huggett quotes Guy Brinkworth as saying,

"A background yearning for God can be sustained in the middle of any activity as a kind of 'celestial music while you work'".

The Fragrance of Jesus
The goal is to take "the fragrance of Jesus" wherever we go, to be so filled with His love that it overflows and touches the lives of those with whom we come into contact, not in any ethereal way, but in practical expressions of compassion and service. If we haven't taken the time to saturate ourselves in the love of God our service will be dry, lifeless and of limited effect.

At first it is not easy to maintain that awareness of the Lord when we leave our place of prayer. It is an art that has to be learned. The 17th century monk, Brother Lawrence, described this learning process as practising the presence of God. As he performed his menial tasks within the kitchen of his Carmelite monastery he made the conscious effort to keep turning his thoughts towards Jesus and to worship Him. It is not easy because the distractions of daily life call for our attention with louder voices than that of the Spirit. But there are very simple things we can do to get started and, as is always the case with prayer, when we take just a few faltering steps towards the Lord, He runs with giant strides to meet us.

Prayer College Assignment
In her book The Power of Simple Prayer: How to Talk with God About Everything Joyce Meyer says, "prayer needs to be like breathing - regular, easy, second nature - and we need to just pray our way through life as part of the way we live". Try these few simple ideas to help you "turn your eyes upon Jesus" throughout the day: play worship songs or get hold of the Bible on CD (several versions available in the Prayer College bookstore) and listen while you drive; pray a blessing on people as you pass them in the street; look for opportunities to thank God for things like the bargain you find in the discount aisle at the supermarket; ask Him to help you find your misplaced keys; pray as you watch the news for the situations being reported and the people involved; and simplest of all, tell the Lord you love Him at any and every opportunity. He never gets tired of hearing you say it and you may even hear Him reply, "I love you too."

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Thirsting After Jesus

Thirst after Jesus and He will satisfy you with His love. - St Isaac the Syrian

Seeds of Desire
This week I have been re-reading Joyce Huggett's classic book on prayer, "Listening to God." It's been a good number of years since I last picked it up but doing so has been like renewing an old friendship. Her journey towards a desire for deeper communion with the Lord in prayer, which she describes in the book, has not been the same as mine. But we seem to share many of the lessons learned and the discoveries made.

One of those discoveries is that when the Holy Spirit plants in our heart the seed of a desire for greater intimacy with God the only thing that can satisfy our soul is to experience the love of Jesus in a deeply personal way. It is clear from Paul's prayer in Eph 3:14-21 that this was his desire for the Ephesian believers.

Song of Songs
Throughout Scripture, both in the Old and New Testaments, the relationship between God and his people is described in terms of a marriage. The word "bride" is frequently used as, sadly, is "adulteress" when there is a turning away from the Lord to foreign gods. In Paul's teaching on marriage in Eph 5:22-33 he makes it clear that marriage, including in the "one flesh" aspect of the relationship, is designed as an illustration of Christ's spiritual relationship with His Church. As Paul says, this is a profound mystery but, if the physical intimacy between husband and wife is intended as an illustration of the spiritually intimacy the Lord desires with His people, our longing should be to cooperate fully with the Holy Spirit in developing our prayer lives.

Many of us as evangelicals are uncomfortable talking about personal prayer in these terms. Perhaps the language sounds too close to that used in Catholic mysticism or monastic spirituality. But then we are faced with Solomon's Song of Songs. What is this account of passion doing in our Bibles? I have been told it is there to show us that physical intimacy between a husband and wife is a God-given gift to be enjoyed. If that is the sole reason for its inclusion then, we evangelicals, have an even bigger problem because, as Anne Atkins points out in her book "Split Image", the wedding doesn't occur until the end of chapter 3 and there is much love-making before that! The primary reason for the inclusion of the song in Scripture is that it is, like the relationship it portrays, an illustration of the depth of spiritual communion possible between the believer and their Lord.

Too Indulgent?
Is it too indulgent for a Christian to take time simply to develop their love relationship with the Lord? Shouldn't prayer be for intercession on behalf of others? Wouldn't an hour that has been given to basking in the love of Jesus be better spent performing some act of service?

It is impossible to have an encounter with God and not be changed. The mark of whether genuine intimacy with the Lord has occurred in prayer (or whether it is purely a self-satisfied delusion) is the extent to which the rest of our lives are different. The evidence will be a greater awareness of sin and increased desire for obedience to the Lord; more heart-felt intercession; a longing for corporate worship; a passion for Scripture; and an increased, divinely inspired love for people which shows itself in practical ways.

Prayer College Assignment
Read Lk 10:38-42 and Jn 12:1-8. Mary is twice commended for putting time with Jesus before service for Him. Martha is focused primarily on service in both narratives. Yet it is clear from the account of Jesus raising their brother, Lazarus, from the dead (Jn 11:20-27) that Martha had genuine faith in Jesus. Are you satisfied with the balance of worship and service in your life?

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Flesh Is Weak

When you want to pray, have you ever noticed that "the spirit is willing but the body is weak" (Matt 26:41)? Jesus said these words in Gethsemane to Peter when asking him to pray. I've always thought of it in this way, "Peter you need to pray so that you have the strength to do what you know is right". But perhaps the Lord was explaining to Peter why he was finding it hard to pray. It wasn't that Peter didn't want to pray but that his physical body was rebelling against the idea.

Who's In Charge Here?
It is probably universally true that when we try to change our behaviour from a negative pattern to a positive one our flesh cries out against it. It could be eating more healthily, taking more exercise, giving up smoking, watching less TV, getting our tongue under control. Whatever it is, we may be very sincere in our desire for change but our body craves the taste of the chocolate, longs to put the feet up on the couch and share that little tidbit of gossip (just for prayer you understand).

So it shouldn't surprise us that when it comes to something as important as prayer our flesh tells us we really would be happier doing just about anything else. The problem we all face is the power struggle between our body and our spirit to see which is really in control. The first stage in gaining the victory is to recognise that we are spirits which happen to live in a body. It is the spirit who should be in control and not the body. You will never find true joy and you will never develop a powerful prayer life as long as the body is dictating the terms of the relationship. That's why Paul says, "offer your bodies as living sacrifices" (Rom 12:1). Getting our body into line is part of our worship and a prerequisite for becoming a pray-er.

It's About Choices
Here's an example. Almost every day in the past month it has rained. When it's time for my prayer walk my flesh starts telling me how much it doesn't want to get wet and cold and how it would much rather sit down with a hot chocolate and good book. At this point I have a choice. I can give in and do what my body wants and neglect my spirit. Or I can tell my body that the walk will do it good and get on with doing what I know will nourish my spirit and give me the space I need to intercede for those on my prayer list. It's like disciplining a child - each time it gets a little easier to do the right thing, but give in once and you're back to square one.

It's not easy to get up half-an-hour earlier to fit in a quiet time before going to work, it's not easy to go to the prayer meeting every week, it's not easy to commit to praying for your church leaders on a daily basis, it's not easy to take time to be quiet and listen to God. In fact, anything to do with prayer is not going to be easy. It requires utter commitment and determination. That's why Paul claimed, "I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should" (1 Cor 9:27, NLT). It takes time and effort. But if we will persist and not give up, our flesh will come into line, submit to our spirit and our prayer lives will be transformed.

Prayer College Assignment
It has been said that it takes 6 weeks to develop a new habit. In my personal experience it often takes a lot longer, especially in spiritual matters. If you are aware that the grumblings of the flesh are restricting the development of your prayer life make a conscious decision to put your spirit in control and to persist with the self-discipline required to develop a new habit. It's not good enough to say you are going to give it a try. That leaves a loophole for the flesh. The only thing that works is to make a firm decision and determine to see it through whatever happens.