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Saturday, April 26, 2008

When Not To Pray

"Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil." Matt 4:1

Scripture tells us there is a time for everything (Eccl 3:1) and whilst Paul tells us to "pray continually" (1 Thes 5:17) that is not quite the same as praying continuously. There is a time when prayer is an inappropriate response and we see this in the way the Lord Jesus deals with temptation.

Prayer Prepares
After His baptism, Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit to the place where He was to be tempted by Satan. As we read this passage we perhaps interpret the account to mean that the devil waited 40 days, until Jesus was weakened by fasting and hunger, before attempting the assault. But the parallel passages in Mark and Luke suggest that the temptation was going on throughout that time.

Fasting may weaken the body but, when accompanied by prayer, it strengthens the spirit. Knowing that it was the Lord's regular practice to find lonely places to pray, we can be sure that much of His time during these 40 days would have been spent praying. The prayer and fasting were part of His preparation for dealing with the tempter.

Triumphing Over Temptation
Jesus taught His followers to pray, "lead us not into temptation." In Gethsemane He urged His disciples, "pray so that you will not fall into temptation." If we are to triumph over temptation as the Lord did then our prayer against it has to happen before we face the trial. If we wait until we are tempted we are likely to fail for two important reasons. The first is that praying about a temptation focuses our mind on it at precisely the time we should be taking captive every thought and thinking about something else. Secondly, if we haven't prepared ourselves in prayer we will not have settled the matter, in our own mind and spirit, of whether we actually do intend to be obedient to the Lord, or if we might allow ourselves to be swayed. We open ourselves up to the possibility that the tempter may be able to convince us to do the wrong thing.

Wielding the Word
At the point at which Jesus came face to face with Satan, He did not pray. He simply quoted the Scriptures at him. He took God's word & wielded it as a sword to counter the devil's attack. All the quotations He used came from Deuteronomy. It seems He had been spending some of His time in the wilderness studying and meditating on God's Law.

It has become unfashionable in some churches to pray the Lord's prayer yet it contains powerful petitions to protect us from the onslaught of the enemy. To deal with temptation we need to pray for protection against it and for the determination to stand firm before we face the temptation. If we have a vulnerability in a particular area we need to search the Bible to find specific Scriptures we can quote at the enemy when the time comes.

Prayer College Assignment
Begin to incorporate prayers against temptation into your daily prayer time. Also, take some time this week to delve into the Bible and find some verses you can memorise to speak out to the devil when he tries to drag you down. Notice that Jesus spoke God's word out loud to the devil. We should do the same. For some reason speaking the words, rather than merely thinking them or whispering them under our breath, is more powerful.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Prayer and Peace

"Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. Ànd the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." (Phil 4:4-7)

When we're going through a difficult or challenging time, the last thing we want to be told is to rejoice. My instinctive response has often been, "do I have to?" But Paul is persistent. He repeats himself. We might be tempted to say, "if you knew what I was going through you wouldn't expect me to rejoice." We can't use that argument with Paul though, because he's been through the mill - imprisoned, flogged, stoned, shipwrecked, sleep deprived, hungry, sick and persecuted.

If such a man thinks we should be rejoicing through our trials we should pay heed to what he has to say.

The Lord is Near
This little phrase which almost seems to creep into the passage unremarked is actually the core issue. The very fact that the Lord is near gives us cause to rejoice. Whatever is going on we have not been abandoned by Him. He is present with us. Sometimes we find that hard to believe. That is precisely when we should rejoice because the Lord is enthroned on the praises of His people (Ps22:3). When we rejoice we become more aware of His presence.

Do Not Be Anxious
Rejoicing isn't the entire solution, for Paul goes on to tell us not to be anxious. According to this passage, once we have realised the nearness of the Lord we can avoid anxiety by turning to God in prayer. We are told to ask and be thankful. In our anxious state thanksgiving often gets missed, but it is key if we are to find peace. Being thankful for the things God has already done builds our faith that He will act for us on this occasion too. We should also express our thankfulness that the Lord has heard our prayer and that He will respond in His way and in His time.

Transcendent Peace
The promise, if we follow these instructions is that we will have peace. Not that peace may come, so it's worth trying. It is a firm promise. Peace will come. Not the kind of peace that the people of the world know, but a transcendent peace that goes beyond human understanding. It is the peace promised by the Lord Jesus in Jn 14:27.

Prayer College Assignment
Oh what peace we often forfeit,
Oh what needless pain we bear -
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer!
Joseph Scriven

There is no need to be subject to fear and anxiety. If we need peace we have a simple plan to follow: rejoice in the Lord, make your request known to Him, be thankful.

I found this to be extremely effective while I was sitting in the dentist chair having a tooth extracted this week. The mistake I made was in allowing anxiety to take hold beforehand!

Determine that as soon as you begin to feel the anxiety rising, you will start the process of combating it by using Paul's method. Don't let it get a grip on you before you start to tackle it.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Speed Camera Christians

We've all seen the drivers who consistently ignore the speed limits until they reach the cameras. Then the brakes go on. They drive impeccably for the few yards where they might be caught breaking the law and then accelerate away. To my shame I was one of those drivers until about a year ago. The Lord challenged me on it and I determined to change.

Who's Watching?
We sometimes live our Christian lives as though we're being watched by speed cameras. When the eyes of the world, and particularly other believers, are on us we can behave in a quite godly manner. We are more careful what we do and say than when we're alone. Paul illustrates this very human tendency when he instructs slaves to work hard even when the master isn't watching (Eph 6:5-6).

Everyone does this to some extent. We present an acceptable front to the world but behind closed doors our standards are not so high. Our families often see things in us we would rather our Christian brothers and sisters didn't know. And then there's what we allow our minds to dwell on, where even those closest to us cannot see. Even if our heart's desire is to live a holy life, the very fact that we have a private life and an inner world, means that temptation within these realms is more difficult to resist.

The Great Delusion
Of course, we are deluding ourselves because the Lord sees everything we think or do but for some reason we conveniently forget about that at the point at which we dip our toe in to the ocean of sin. Why is that?

The Lord Jesus said, "if you love me you will obey what I command" (Jn 14:15). A corollary of that statement might be that our level of obedience to the Lord is determined by how much we love Him. In other words, the more we love Jesus, the more determined we will be to resist temptation and stay away from sin.

Consequences of Sin
We all know that feeling of conviction when we've missed the mark of God's perfect will. We know what it's like to have that black cloud between us and the Lord. It's not a comfortable place to be. Like the prodigal we eventually come to our senses and repent.

Our sin doesn't just affect us, it affects the Lord. Whilst He is never surprised by what we do, it saddens our Father's heart that his children should go astray. But it is more awful than that. In one sense it is as though we ourselves are hammering the nails into the hands and feet of Jesus. We are contributing to the sins which made his sacrificial suffering necessary.

It may be helpful to focus on the cross when we need to find the resources to resist temptation. But the crucifixion has already taken place and whatever we do now does not add to the suffering of that dreadful day. Consequently it's easy to convince ourselves that one extra bit of sin doesn't really make a difference.

An Adulterous Bride
Throughout the Old Testament, when God's people turned away from Him, He sent prophets who accused the nation of being an adulterous wife. Poor old Hosea even had to live prophetically, instructed by the Lord to take an unfaithful wife as a sign of the guilt of the people (Hos 1:2).

We are part of the Bride of Christ and, like a husband, He is jealous for our affection. When we sin, He may be angry and disappointed. But He is also deeply hurt. When we fail to be obedient to Him we show a lack of love for Him. Our devotion should be that of a bride. When we sin we are looking to something or someone other than the Lord Jesus to satisfy our desires. Put bluntly, this is spiritual adultery. It is a shameful thing.

The more in love with the Lord Jesus we are, the greater will be our desire to remain faithful to Him. No one who is truly in love could even contemplate adultery. The Lord's character is such that the more time we spend in His presence, the more deeply we will love Him. Spending quality time alone with Jesus is not only good for our souls, it leads us on a journey away from sin and towards holiness of life. Time spent with Him is never wasted.

Prayer College Assignment
Take some extra time this week, over and above what you would normally spend with the Lord, and "waste" it on Jesus. Ask Him to reveal His love to you so that you may "know this love that surpasses knowledge," (Eph 3:19). This isn't being indulgent. It is spiritual warfare for it will strengthen you in your resistance to sin.

Friday, April 04, 2008

The Spirit In Worship

And Mary said, "My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour." Luke 1:46-47

In the best Hebrew tradition, Mary's response to a divine encounter is a song of praise. This is such a well known passage, included in the liturgy of some denominational churches and a familiar part of Christmas celebrations, that it is all too easy to rush through it without thinking about its content. But the first few phrases can help us to understand something about the nature of worship.

The Christian Constitution
In 1 Thes 5:23 Paul blesses those he is writing to by saying, "may your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless." This verse clarifies what is hinted at elsewhere in Scripture, that we are tripartite beings. There are three elements to our nature. We have no difficulty understanding the concept of body but there is sometimes confusion around the meanings of "soul" and "spirit", both of which are used at the beginning of Mary's hymn of praise. The words are often used interchangeably by Christians but this is incorrect and leads to all kinds of confusion and sometimes to a limitation in our understanding of worship.

In fact, the soul consists of the mind, will and emotions whereas the spirit is that part of us which communicates with God. As one preacher puts it, "I am a spirit, I have a soul and I live in a body." The Lord Jesus taught us that those who worship God must do so in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). He did not say this because worship is a purely spiritual activity, but to emphasise that true worship goes beyond what is going on in our body and soul. Mary's song helps us to understand this.

Body, Soul and Spirit Worship
First, the blindingly obvious - Mary's words were spoken. When we sing songs of worship we use our bodies. We inflate our lungs with air which, when released, passes over our vocal cords to produce the sound shaped by our mouths. Often we use other parts of our body in worship too. We may kneel down, raise our hands or close our eyes.

The soul is also engaged when we worship. We use our will to decide to worship, our mind comprehends the words we use and our emotions are often also involved - we are thrilled by a rousing hymn, inspired to love and perhaps even moved to tears by more devotional songs. This is where we can slip in to thinking that we are worshiping in spirit when, in reality, our spirit has not yet been involved. Even secular music often arouses an emotional response in people but that is not the same as making a spiritual connection with God.

Spiritual Worship
While Mary says that her soul "glorifies the Lord" she states that her spirit "rejoices IN God". Any soul can glorify God by making a decision of the will to do so. A Buddhist or Hindu could stand and read aloud passages of the Bible which speak about how wonderful our God is. This would bring glory to Him even though the reader was making no spiritual connection. He or she might even find the words and concepts emotionally stirring. But they will not be worshiping.

Mary, however, was making a spiritual connection. That little word, "in" is not there simply because of the grammatical structure of the sentence. It shows us that there is communion between God and the worshipper. This goes beyond mind, will and emotion to revelation.

It is impossible to adequately describe spiritual experiences. Unless someone has had an encounter with God they cannot understand. Because a spiritual experience often invokes an emotional response, such as love or joy, or even a physical response, weeping or trembling for example, it may sometimes be explained in the language of body and soul. This can lead to some people believing that if they have an emotional response they are worshiping.

One of my favourite passages is Lk 7:36-50. Here the sinful woman expresses worship physically, wetting Jesus' feet with her tears' drying them with her hair and then pouring perfume on them. The tears show that her soul is also involved as she is overwhelmed with emotion. The Lord tells the Pharisee who complained about her behaviour, "she loved much." He tells the woman, "your sins are forgiven" and "your faith has saved you." This is the nub of the matter. Worship in spirit is a matter of faith, the unavoidable response of the sinner who recognises the extent of their own depravity and the divine love that brings salvation. This is the revelation Mary also had when she said, "my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour."

Prayer College Assignment
Five times in Ephesians Paul uses the phrase, "heavenly realms" to describe the spiritual dimension which is outside time and space. This is the place where we connect with God and worship Him. It is where we are seated with Christ (Eph 2:6) and the one place we can experience the totality of what it means to be human because our entire being (body, soul and spirit) can be active in worship. Even experienced worshipers need to grow and be stretched. This week ask the Lord to give you a fresh revelation of Himself that will inspire you to greater and deeper worship.