Prayer That Starts With God

On Sunday I started a brand-new series on the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) entitled, “Teach Us to Pray.” Let’s remember that this is not a prayer Jesus prays, but that a prayer He offers for his disciples to pray. One of the things that really strikes me about Jesus’ model prayer is just how God-centered this prayer is. The Lord’s Prayer contains six humble requests, the first three are God-directed and the last three involve human needs. This is very similar to the structure of the Ten Commandments, which first begin with our vertical relationship to God and then end with our horizontal relationship with our fellow man. It’s similar to the way Paul constructed his letters to the churches: he often began with who we are in Christ before fleshing out how that affects the way we live.

A.W. Tozer said this (and I paraphrase), “The first thing that comes to your mind when you think about God is the most important thing about you.” I hear a lot of Christian says things like, “I don’t worry about theology.” Well, yes you do. Everybody has a theology, whether flawed or otherwise. Sadly, most of our theology begins with me. We start our prayers with what we think we need and then, if we have time, throw in a few God cliques. But the most healthy theology begins where the Bible begins: with God. You will notice that the first words of the very first book of the Bible begin like this, “In the beginning, God.”

It’s easy to subtly devalue God by our prayers and our life. We say things like, “I don’t imagine God is like this.” Or “The God I worship doesn’t do this.” But if God is truly God–that is to say if God is sovereign, powerful, holy, compassionate, just–then it behooves us not to define God on our terms, but to bow before the God who is already there.

How does this affect our prayer life? Why did Jesus say to start our supplications with God? Because the way we view God affects the way we live. How much we reverence God informs the respect we have for our fellow man. And beginning with God in our prayers filters out the frivolous. It considers prayer as an act of worship, an acknowledgment that we are, in deed, not God. That God is God.

It means our prayers are in God’s will. It keeps us from destructive theology. It prevents us from saying foolish things like, “God told me to (fill in the blank)” when really it was our own fleshly desires that spoke. I once had a person tell me, with a straight and somber face, that God was telling her to divorce her husband of 15 years and go marry a convicted felon. Um, God won’t tell you to do something against His sovereign will.

Praying God-centered prayers takes some discipline and practice. I’ll admit that this is a struggle for me. I often want to begin what I think are my own needs rather than letting my Father in Heaven shape my them. But there is something refreshing about beginning with God. It reminds us of the awesome miracle of access to the throne room of Heaven, purchased at great price by Christ on the cross. It reminds me that God takes great delight in hearing my prayers and meeting my needs, needs he knows well before I know them. It comforts me to realize that I do, indeed, have a Father in Heaven with a hallowed name.

What Evangelism Is

I’m highly skeptical of mechanics. If you are one, I’m sorry, but I think you probably realize that it goes with the trade. It’s this way with pastors, too, so perhaps we can commiserate some time.

But there is one shop in our community who does exceptional work, whose proprietors rise above the usual price-gouging and fake repair needs. These are guys I trust with every need my car has. They give good advice. They only fix what is needed. They give good referrals for other work. And when you are with them you just get the vibe that they are genuine, not slick salesmen trying to make a deal.

Here’s the thing about service like this. It’s so rare that when you find it, you want to tell the world about it. That’s what marketing experts get paid big money to tell their clients: perform good service and let the word of mouth build your business. Why is this? Because people are natural evangelists.

I think about this when I think about evangelism. If you have had a great experience with something, you don’t have to be prodded to tell ten people. It’s the same way with a bad experience. Guarantee you that you will not only tell ten people, you’ll post on your social networks. Companies are desperate for this.

When we evangelize the gospel, that is when we fulfill our calling to share the good news of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, it should be as natural as me telling ten people about my experience at Hainseville Firestone near my house.

And herein lies the problem with our evangelism for God. It’s not that we are afraid to tell people. It’s not that we want people to like us. The deeper reason we don’t share Christ is because we’ve lost our first love. We’ve forgotten how great Christ is. He’s become sort of familiar to us, Someone we aren’t all that excited about, not excited enough to tell people.

I find it interesting in the Great Commission verses in Matthew and Mark and Acts that the imperatives are not in the going and telling, but in the teaching and baptizing. Why is that? I think this is because Jesus assumed the disciples would tell everyone the gospel. And why wouldn’t they? They’d just seen Jesus rise again from the dead. They’ve had a radical, life-changing encounter with the Risen Lord. Who could shut up about that?

Perhaps the key to our evangelism is not adopting a new strategy or finding the perfect method or being guilted by Hellfire, but simply to revisit the wonders of the gospel message itself, to reread passages like Ephesians 2 to realize how sick and dead and lifeless we were before we met Christ. To bask in the wonders of regeneration and rebirth. To look at ourselves before we were Christians and how we are now.

Evangelism is really a natural human instinct. Every single one of us is an evangelist of something. Listen to yourself talk. What do you tell your friends and neighbors about? What excites you? What is that you can’t wait to share with someone?

The 4 Elements of Courage

I recently finished a sermon series in the book of 1 Peter. It’s a remarkable book, really. Peter addresses the Church and reminds them they are exiles, they are temporary residents of this world. They belong to another Kingdom, the Kingdom of Christ.

At the end of 1 Peter, the apostle closes with a stirring call to courage. You will notice in the text the words, “stand firm” and “be firm.” He encourages the believers to “resist, to testify to the truth.” In a word, Peter is telling the people of God to summon up courage, the courage to stand strong, defending and proclaiming the very words of life found in the Scripture: the gospel story that God has rescued mankind from sin and offered hope and forgiveness in the person of Jesus Christ.

These are words that must be given to every generation of believers. Every generation must rise against evil. Every generation of the church must “hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21) must “guard the deposit of faith” (2 Timothy 1:14), must “contend for the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3).” We cannot just “assume” the gospel, we must study it, articulate, and proclaim it anew in our day.

D.A. Carson has said that a church is never more than three generations from losing the gospel: one generation to believe it and proclaim it, a second generation to assume it, and a third generation to lose it.

For this, we need courage. Every generation needs leaders willing to sacrifice, to stand, to hold firm to the faith once delivered to the saints.

Peter here is writing to the believers—he’s an aging apostle passing from the scene shortly. And his parting words of this letter contain a stirring call to courage. One of my favorite quotes on courage comes from Winston Churchill:

To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour. Winston Churchill

In his final words, Peter gives us a four-fold blueprint for courage:

1) Embrace Godly Ambition (1 Peter 5:6-7)

We often talk of ambition as something less than godly. But clearly, in Peter’s famous words about humility, he doesn’t condemn ambition. Notice Peter says that “in due time” God will exalt you. Now, this exaltation likely isn’t a promise of success in the way we identify it. It could be pointing to exaltation in Heaven, when we’ll be in glory with Christ. But the words “in due time” seem to indicate, to me, that this is referring to the point in your life when you are most used by God, when your gifts, your desire, and the world’s needs maximize into God’s calling for your life.

You will notice that the pathway to this kind of platform is humility. You’ll notice that it is God who exalts, not us. You’ll notice the words “in due time.” I think courage has to include the willingness to live out a radical mission for God and the humility to accept the call when that opportunity comes. It turns the world’s economy on it’s head by reminding us that greatness in God’s kingdom begins by stooping low and grabbing a towel. Too often Christians confuse courge with incivility. But disciples of Christ are called to be both gracious and stedfast.

2) Engage the Battle (1 Peter 5:8-9)

It’s not fashionable to talk about such things in polite company, but the Bible teaches us that there is an enemy out there who prowls the earth looking for souls to devour. Sometimes Christians say ridiculous things about the devil that are worthy of satire. But a courageous Christian is mature enough to understand reality. He realizes that he is in a war, not against people, but a spiritual war against the “rulers of darkness” (Ephesians 6). Every temptation, every opportunity to sin, every chance to give up the gospel is a skirmish in a long, cosmic war between God and Satan.

Courage rejects both head-in-the-sand naiveté and conspiracy-mongering panic. Peter’s letter warns against both. Genuine courage has an honest appraisal of the war between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, understands that God’s people are enlisted soldiers in the war, and rests in the confidence that God has already won at Calvary. In my experience as pastor, I find two disheartening extremes among Christians: those who see a world-dominating conspiracy behind every news article and those who are blissfully ignorant. Satan feasts on both.

3) Entrust Your Life to God (1 Peter 5:10-11)

Peter reminds us that our lives are not our own. To be a disciple of Christ is to die to the old life and to live a new life. It is to entrust ourselves to God. At first glance, courage seems like the opposite of faith. How can one be brave and yet dependent  fearful and yet fearless?  The answer is this: we are not the source of our own strength. I love how Peter writes that God will restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.

God purposely calls us to things greater than us, to a life that is impossible to live. The only way we can live for God is to live in God through Christ. It is the Holy Spirit who equips us for the battle. All Jesus asks for is the one thing we can give: our lives. Surrender. Are you willing to live?

4) Enjoin Yourself to Christian Community

Courage is not a solo enterprise. When you are baptized by the Holy Spirit into the Christian community, you are enjoined to the family of God, with members of every nation, tribe and tongue. You are joined not only to God’s people alive today, but to God’s people gone before, the great “cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1)” who have gone before. You are linked to 2,000 years of Church history.

American Christianity has often invividualized the faith, often over-emphasizing the personal, the private walk with God. But it’s a mistake to live apart from Christ’s body, for doing so severs you from the life and love and fellowship you need to fight the good fight. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with God’s people is courage. Standing alone is foolishness.

5 Reasons We Don’t Share Our Faith

Let’s face it. As Christians, we all know we are supposed to share our faith. Most of us have heard countless sermons on the importance of evangelizing. But . . . most of us don’t take the time to do it. Or we do, but not nearly as much as we should. So what’s the problem? Why don’t Christians share the good news of the gospel message?

Looking at my own life, my own disobedience in this area, I’ve found five reasons we aren’t more vocal about telling others what we ourselves believe:

1) We don’t share our faith because we don’t realize we have a mission. The command to follow Christ as a disciple, as an ambassador, as a proclaimer of the good news is just that . . . a command. And yet if we were honest, most of the time we treat our mission in this world as something that is optional. We look at the calling of a Christian, to die to ourselves, to take up the cross, as something we should do, if we have time. We don’t take our mission seriously. Or we think that perhaps this mission was given only to a select few specialists, such as the pastor or the missionary. This is why the world hardly notices a difference between God’s people and the rest of the world. We are so preoccupied with our own well-being, our own survival or success, that we blow off the mission of God.

2) We don’t share our faith because we misunderstand our mission. Even if we want to obey the sending mission of God, we often fail because we misunderstand the mission. Let me explain. I think much of the fear that keeps Christians from sharing the good news of the gospel with their friends and neighbors and coworkers stems from a confusion of two things: method and message. Sometimes we confuse the method with the message. So to evangelize means to dump the entire book of Romans on an unsuspecting mall clerk or it means reciting a memorized spiel of the steps to salvation. But while methods are good–they change with the audience. Paul knew this and so he didn’t necessarily try out the same method on every people group. When we do this, when we put so much confidence in a few Christianese phrases and memorized, out-of-context verses, we end up sounding like a salesman for something we don’t really want to sell. I think much of the fear would go away if we, instead, relied on the Holy Spirit to guide us in each interaction, if we resisted impatience, and worked to build long-term relationships that can one day lead to conversion. What if we were so in love with the gospel message, if we never lost our awe and wonder, if we made it a lifetime study? Perhaps that passion would so fill our souls that it would leak out into every single sphere of life and thus . . . the good news would be less of a canned pitch and more of a lifestyle. The gospel is good news, after all.

3) We don’t share our faith because we misunderstand the Holy Spirit’s mission. Many evangelistic methods, while good and helpful and fruitful, put an emphasis on “closing the deal.” We mistakenly think that it is the cleverness of our methods that turns a soul from death to life. But it is the Holy Spirit who does the work of regeneration in a heart, it is God who saves people, not mere men. Our job is to articulate, to share, to proclaim and then we must trust the Spirit to do the work we cannot do. I want to be careful here, because part of our mission is to persuade  to exhort, to call people to repentance and faith. Yet it is God who saves, always. Every time. Releasing ourselves from the pressure to “close the deal” and “make the sale” allows us to be faithful. It releases us from the humanistic thinking that wrongly puts confidence in a method. It often takes several contacts in a person’s life before the Spirit helps them understand the message of the Gospel. Sometimes you may be the person present when someone trusts Christ and in doing so, you see the harvest of many years of careful work by others. And at times it may be that your first conversation with an unbeliever is just the mustard seed that the Spirit implants in their heart, a seed that others will water and see brought to full flower.

4) We don’t share our faith because we misunderstand what it means to be a friend of the world. There is a certain tension in Scripture. On the one hand we are called to be different from the world. We are called to live above the world. We are citizens of another kingdom. Christians should live and think and act differently than nonChristians. And yet, we are called to go into the world and make disciples of Jesus. We are to bring the gospel to the farthest reaches of the planet. Sometimes we put such an emphasis on our difference that we intentionally avoid unbelievers. But while we are called to live differently, we are also called to live among the lost of the world. If we are really on mission in our communities, if our commission from the Lord is to spread the fame of his name among all peoples, we need to start making intentional connections. It’s hard to share Christ with people we don’t actually know. It’s hard to love people from a distance. As our culture becomes more and more post-Christian, it will become even more important for Christians to develop intentional relationships with unbelievers. It’s pretty difficult to obey the Great Commission if we are never actually exposed to people who don’t know Jesus.

5) We don’t share our faith because we are ashamed of our identity. Christians should be wise to articulate the gospel in the way that most suits their audience. But even if we perfectly “get out of the way” of the gospel, there is a point where the cross of Christ becomes a point of conflict. Some will embrace the message of salvation and others will reject it. And sometimes our refusal to evangelize is tied to our desire to be liked by the people who may not like Jesus. We don’t want to be social martyrs. We don’t want to be uncool. We don’t want to lose friendships and alienate important people. So we stay silent. But the call of the gospel is the call to come and die, the call to give up our prestige, our desire to be affirmed by the world. We shouldn’t be obnoxious jerks. We should be kind, loving, gracious, giving, generous. But we can sometimes do all these things and still be considered a backwards bigot, simply for loving Jesus. It’s a question of what we value. Do we value the limitless grace of the gospel that brought us from the enslavement of sin to the arms of the Father or do we value our own fleeting approval by world system? The way to get motivated to share the good news is not by guilt or manipulation, but by plunging once again into the heart of the very gospel itself.

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