God’s Hands Are Not Tied

A friend and I recently had a spirited discussion about international politics. Although we share similar ideals about peace and justice, our outlooks could hardly be more different. She is engaged, passionate, and righteously frustrated. She still hopes that governments will make good decisions that will improve the world situation. She quotes Edmund Burke who famously said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

I, on the other hand, sadly confess to being cynical, pessimistic, and resigned. As hard as I try, I see little hope that politics will ever do much to advance the Kingdom of God. I am fond of C.S. Lewis who less famously said, “I can hardly regret having escaped the appalling waste of time and spirit which would have been involved in reading the war news or taking more than an artificial and formal part in conversations about the war. … To strive to master what will be contradicted the next day, to fear and hope intensely on shaky evidence, is surely an ill use of the mind.”

After more discussion, my friend and I concluded a far better approach than either of these is prayer. We agreed that political “solutions” are temporary at best. Only Jesus can bring about the lasting peace and justice our world so desperately needs. And He accomplishes this through His church, through His people. That’s why asking God for revival seems like far more strategic than praying certain politicians and policies in and praying other politicians and policies out.

In the meantime, no matter how grim things seem to get, my friend and I reminded each other that God’s hands have never been tied. There is no government so bad that God cannot advance His kingdom in it, through it, or in spite of it.

David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, hit on these ideas during a talk he gave in Colorado Springs this past weekend. He offered Daniel as an example of someone who lived for God in a consummately pagan culture. He pointed out that Daniel didn’t have a victim mentality. He didn’t rail against the government. He didn’t act like a victim, and he didn’t give in to fear. Instead, he did what Jeremiah the prophet had urged the exiles to do. He sought the peace and prosperity of the city to which God had carried him into exile. He prayed to the LORD for it knowing that if Babylon prospered, he too would prosper (Jeremiah 29:7-8). He maintained personal purity and integrity while treating his leaders with respect and offering godly advice and humble service to them when the opportunities arose.

Kinnaman urged his audience to “cultivate a biblical hope and don’t give in to fear.” We don’t need to panic. We don’t need to throw up our hands in despair, either. If God can work in Babylon, then He can work just about anywhere. There is hope. We are not helpless.  Just as Daniel’s prayers accomplished great things in Babylon, our prayers also can accomplish much in our time and culture.

These are very good reminders for me on this eve of the National Day of Prayer (USA). Will you be praying for the peace and prosperity of your city and nation tomorrow? I will. I hope you will, too!

 

Whatever You Ask

Recently my church encouraged the entire congregation to read the New Testament through in eight weeks. A group of friends and I did it. It was like the New Testament on steroids. Ordinarily I like to chew and savor God’s Word.

But this approach almost required speed reading. Details were entirely lost on me. However, what I did come away with was the Big Picture. I noticed themes and ideas I’d never seen before as I water skied over page after page each day.

Like John’s emphasis on answered prayer. No fewer than six times, John repeated that we can ask God for whatever we wish and He will answer. I will quote them here, in their contexts, in case you need to see for yourself:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father. Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do.” (John 14:12-13)

“If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.” (John 15:7-8)

“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit–fruit that will last–and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.” (John 15:16)

“In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.” (John 16:23-24)

This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him. (1 John 5:14-15)

Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do the things that are pleasing in His sight (1 John 3:21-22)

Although I was aware of these verses, I didn’t know there were so many of them! Maybe that’s because I’ve never really known what to do with promises like those. My experience tells me that God does not always give me “whatever I ask” for in prayer. I’ve prayed many prayers that have seemingly gone unanswered. I know there are theological answers for this apparent contradiction, so I haven’t bothered myself too much about it. However, the sheer repetition of these promises (I read them all in the space of two days!) prompted me to look more closely.

What I noticed was the context. Whatever we ask is in the context of God’s Kingdom. It’s in the context of doing the kinds of works that Jesus did. It’s about bearing long-lasting spiritual fruit. It involves keeping God’s commandments, pleasing Him and doing His will. It means asking in Jesus’ name—that is, asking for the same kinds of things Jesus asks for.

This wasn’t really news to me. But it hadn’t profoundly affected the way I prayed, either. I don’t like to admit it, but my prayers for personal comfort for myself and those I love usually outweigh by far my prayers for the things that build and grow God’s kingdom.

I decided to take inventory. Which of my prayers has God answered recently? Well, He has powerfully answered prayers for the ministry I get to be part of. He has creatively responded to prayers I’ve prayed for friends who are doing His work overseas. He has brought healing to broken relationships I’ve interceded for. He thwarted a specific enemy attack I prayed against. He has given me plenty of answers to the kingdom-oriented prayers I’ve prayed. That encourages me!

Does it mean I should stop praying for temporal relief, and comfort for myself and those I care about? No! God says that because He cares about me, I can pray about whatever concerns me (1 Peter 5:7). But what it does mean for me is that I want to be praying more of those fruit-that-lasts prayers. I want my “whatever you ask” prayers to be about the things He wants, the things that glorify Him and bring both Him and me joy forever.

Direct Access

It’s easy for me to take for granted the direct access I have to God. Anytime of the night or day, I can go to Him. Whatever mood I’m in—fearful, trusting, depressed, joyful, angry, peaceful—I can know that He will be happy to see me. I can count on that.

But it hasn’t always been that easy. Until that terrible-wonderful day on Golgotha, this kind of free access to God was unheard of.

The gospel writers give only the briefest mention of this event that forever changed everything about our freedom to approach God.

Matthew says, “At that moment [when Jesus gave up His spirit] the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split” (Matthew 27:51). Luke adds that the sun stopped shining (Luke 23:45; see Mark 15:38).

A rock-splitting earthquake would have been terrifying—especially in the dark. But what was more incredible than those catastrophic natural events was what happened in the temple.

The torn curtain the gospel writers wrote about was no ordinary curtain. It was long, wide, and thick. It measured something like 60 feet from top to bottom, 30 feet from side to side, and 4 inches thick. The Jewish historian Josephus is quoted as saying that “horses tied to each side could not tear it apart.”

The curtain served as a barrier separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple. In other words, it separated holy God from sinful people. Only the high priest was allowed to go behind the curtain into God’s presence, and even he could only once a year, after he had made a bunch of animal sacrifices.

However, the moment Jesus died, that imposing barrier was forever destroyed. No more separation from God. No more need for priests. No more need for animal sacrifices. No limited, once-a-year access to God. Jesus’ perfect, once-for-all sacrifice means that you and I may enter freely into God’s presence whenever we desire.

It is because of this torn curtain that the writer of Hebrews is able to invite us to “approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (4:16).

So this Passion Week I thank Jesus not only for buying me eternal life by His death on the cross, but also for gaining for me direct access to the Father through prayer. I cannot imagine life without being able to talk to God whenever I need to, whenever I want to, without fear, without shame, without doubt about whether He will receive me or not. Thankfully, I don’t have to.

 

Until God Says No

Someone cautioned me recently about the begging and pleading prayers I wrote about a few weeks ago (Nagging and Begging). She wisely reminded me that we need to be open to times when God might say “no” to our requests.

She’s right, of course. To continue to plead with God for something that clearly goes against His will is just asking for trouble. You think I’m kidding? Read about the quail that came out the Israelite’s noses if you doubt me (see Numbers 11:20).

But how do I know when God is saying “no”? That seems to be an important question. So, I spent some time thinking about this and considering other examples from Scripture. My pondering has led me to believe that while we do need to hold our requests before God with open hands, we also need to make sure we don’t give up too easily or too soon.

What would have happened, for example, if the widow in Luke 18 had stopped too soon? The judge paid no attention to her day after day after day—but she kept asking. Finally, he gave her what she needed. Jesus used her story to illustrate the need to “always pray and not give up” (verse 1).

Or, what would have happened if the blind beggar mentioned later in Luke 18 had given in to the people who tried to dissuade him from asking Jesus for help? He begged. They told him to stop. But he didn’t accept that as a “no”—he just cried out all the louder. And Jesus heard him and gave him his sight. Not only that, but Jesus commended him for his faith.

How about the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15? If ever there were a reason to give up, she had one. She cried out to Jesus and He ignored her. She kept crying out, and the disciples tried to send her away. She kept on crying out, and Jesus gave her a discouraging response. But she kept on asking. Ultimately, instead of chiding her for pushing Him too far, or for asking inappropriately, Jesus praised her. “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted” He told her (verse 28).

When God wants to say “no” to our prayers, He has ways of telling us. Take Paul, for example. Three times Paul pleaded with God to remove the thorn in his flesh. Paul didn’t assume God’s answer was “no” just because his repeated prayer requests were not answered. Paul waited until God actually said “no” and gave him grace instead of removing his thorn (2 Corinthians 12:1-9).

Similarly, when James and John asked for seats of honor in God’s kingdom, Jesus made His “no” very clear (see Mark 10:35-40).

If I’m asking God for something He doesn’t want me to have, I believe He will find a way to tell me that. My job is to humbly listen for Him and to trust Him enough to accept His decisions for me.

However, too often I misinterpret circumstances, God’s silence, or long delays as a “no” from God. I wonder how many of my prayers have gone unanswered because I thought God was saying “no” when instead He was saying “Pray a little longer. I love to see your faith.” Rather than giving up too soon, I want to learn to pray until He says “no.”

Dare to Be Desperate

This post is taken from an article I recently wrote for Prayer Connect magazine.If you aren’t already familiar with Prayer Connect, I hope you will check it out!

Walking in an orchard in the middle of a violent thunderstorm probably wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever done. But I needed to connect with God, and I didn’t know how else to do it. My life was falling apart, it seemed. I had recently moved 1,000 miles from the place that had been home for 35 years. I had not found a church. I had not yet made friends. And, after many months of mysterious, alarming neurological symptoms, my husband had just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

I had never felt more lonely and scared. And I had never been more desperate for God. But no matter how much I prayed, He seemed silent and far away.

My Bible reading at the time was in the Psalms. I remember being surprised by how raw David’s prayers were when he was hurting. 
“How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?” (13:1–2).  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest” (22:1–2).  “My life is consumed by anguish and my years by groaning; my strength fails because of my affliction, and my bones grow weak” (31:10).

Yet David was a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22). It surprised and encouraged me to realize that apparently God wasn’t offended by David’s desperate honesty.

So one day, while lightning flashed, thunder cracked, winds howled, and rain fell at three inches per hour, I went outside to have a talk with God.

I honestly don’t remember what I talked to Him about. I just know I was raw. As I poured out my heart to God, my tears mingled with the rain and my shouts were drowned out by the thunder and wind.

I returned to the house 45 minutes or so later—my body drenched, my spirit drained. But to my surprise, I felt peaceful. God didn’t strike me dead for shouting at Him though He easily could have done that since I was walking amongst trees in a severe electrical storm! Instead, I sensed God had heard me and drawn near to me. Oddly and inexplicably, I thought He might have even been pleased that I trusted Him with my deep pain.

That day marked a turning point in my prayer life. Until then, my prayers had seldom involved emotion of any kind, let alone unfiltered dread, angst, or hopelessness. Somehow to me, that had seemed inappropriate for prayer. I had come to believe that prayer was supposed to be nice, polite, and controlled. But I have since come to realize that’s not what the Bible teaches.

After that day, I started noticing what God says about praying from a place of desperation. I learned that rather than disapproving of desperate prayers, God encourages them!  

To continue reading this article, go to: http://www.prayerconnect.net/magazine/issue-14—help/desperate