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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.