I wrote a post back in 2013 that has been my most-read post to date. In it I set out to answer the question, “What, exactly, is God’s grace sufficient for?”
Apparently, a lot of you have asked that question, because over 57,000 of you have taken to the Google, entered a form of that question, and wound up reading my post on the subject.
Yesterday, I turned that post into a 2-part sermon and preached it to about 80 women at a conference at Slayden Baptist Church in Slayden, MS.
(Side note: they misspelled my name on the poster for the retreat, and I could not love that fact more. I see it as God’s way of saying, “This ain’t about you.”)
And, let me tell you something, brother [read that in a Hulk Hogan voice], they were a sweet bunch of ladies who encouraged me to no end. We had women in their 20’s to their 70’s, most of whom had been born in that country church, who knew how to love one another across generations and make a stranger like me feel welcome.
This morning I read Romans 15, and I became fixated on one verse in particular. Verse 30 says, “I urge you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me.”
Paul is wrapping up a long letter to the Christians in Rome, and in chapter 15 he is explaining his future plans. He is going to run an offering from the Christians in Macedonia and Achaia (think Greece) east to the poor Christians in Jerusalem. Then he is going back west to drop by Rome on his way further west to Spain. Why he didn’t just wire the money I’ll never know. I digress.
Paul is a bit apprehensive about returning to Jerusalem because, well, Paul’s “betraying” Judaism and becoming a Christ-follower was generally frowned upon by the Jewish establishment, and, thus, the general Jewish population in the region. Paul petitions the Romans to, “Pray that I may be kept safe from the unbelievers in Judea and that the contribution I take to Jerusalem may be favorably received by the Lord’s people there, so that I may come to you with joy, by God’s will, and in your company be refreshed,” (Romans 15:31-32).
I am struck by Paul’s vulnerability in his prayer request. Here is the greatest missionary of all time asking those he has discipled in the faith to pray for him because he is SCARED. He knows he is walking into a volatile situation in which he could quite literally be murdered if he falls into the wrong hands. But the poor Christians in Jerusalem need help, and he has the ability to help them. So he really does not think twice about going to aide them.
However, he still “urges” fellow believers to pray for his safety. “Dangerous conditions” won’t stop Paul from doing what God wants him to do, but the reality of the danger is still enough for him to plead for prayer. It’s like Paul thinks prayer really works or something… … …
I’m also struck by the verbiage Paul uses in his request. His “urging” the Roman Christians to pray for him communicates…urgency. He has a serious task before him and doesn’t take it lightly.
But beyond that, Paul describes a) the mechanisms by which he is urging the brothers to join him, or b) the mechanisms by which he and the Roman Christians are brothers. And those mechanisms are “our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of the Spirit.” Since there were no commas in the original language, it’s hard to say which possibility Paul meant.
Maybe all Paul means is he and the Roman Christians are brothers because they all were saved by God’s love exhibited through the Holy Spirit’s drawing each of them to Jesus (option b). And as spiritual brothers, they can and ought to join in each others’ struggles.
On the other hand, if the commas are right (option a), Paul is urging the brothers to join him in his struggle via Jesus and the love of the Spirit. It would seem these are the avenues of their joining together.
Perhaps, then, Paul means that their being Christians and their possession of the love of the Spirit make it possible for the Romans to truly unite with him in his struggle. Without the commonality of being believers, maybe it wouldn’t be possible for the Romans to join Paul in his struggle? Can non-believers really, fully join in believers’ struggles when non-believers lack the correct perspective of prayer and God?
And/Or, without the love of the Spirit working through them, maybe it wouldn’t be possible for the Romans to have the motivation to join Paul in his struggle? I mean, how fun does that sound, anyway? If the decision is left up to us selfish humans, I’m thinking most of the time we won’t be chomping at the bit to join anyone in struggles…Paul is essentially saying, “Hey, you guys? Wanna feel this incredible fear and anxiety I’m currently experiencing? It sucks big time! You’re gonna hate it. There’s a heavy weight on my chest, I toss and turn all night, and the panic attacks are coming every hour or so… but come on over and suffer with me! I’ll put on a pot of coffee, and you bring cookies.”
At any rate. Paul tells the Romans they can join together with him in his struggle by doing one thing: “praying to God for me.”
I don’t know about you, but I don’t pray enough. I hardly pray at all, really. I’d never say this out loud (yeah, I would; I have no shame/filter/verbal boundaries), but I feel like prayer is pretty boring and is more of a chore than a privilege. I don’t like feeling this way; I know it is wrong. But prayer is a pretty passive thing to me most the time. I rattle off some thanks and some requests while God sits by trying not to yawn in my face.
But there have been a few times in my life where a friend desperately needed prayer, and I fervently prayed for him. About a year and a half ago, for example, a friend of mine was in a car wreck. He was airlifted, had emergency surgery, was in a medically induced coma in a trauma ICU unit for 6 weeks, etc. Things were broken, breathing was inconsistent, infections arose. He almost died numerous times. Due to the emotion of the circumstances, it was easy for me to “pray without ceasing.” I “joined” this friend and his family in their struggle for life. And there was nothing passive about it. Praying for him and them consumed my thoughts most of every day. Worship songs about depending on God and trusting God came alive to me in a whole new way. I actively worshiped God as I learned how to live what those songs say I believe. I grew spiritually, my friend eventually recovered, his family made it through the worst couple of months of their lives, and God was glorified.
It kind of blows me away that we believers have this ability to actually enter into someone else’s struggle. We can actively join together with them, experiencing at least some level of the pain they are experiencing. We can suffer along with them. And, yes, at first glance, this seems sadistic. Why would anyone purposefully subject themselves to suffering, esp. on someone else’s behalf? Hmm…I don’t know, why don’t we ask Jesus?
Jesus chose to enter our world and our lives to suffer on our behalves. In salvation He takes all the suffering for us. But in daily living He enters our lives and suffers alongside us when we are hurting or scared or anxious or depressed because we still live in a fallen world. He is with us always (Matthew 28:20), even when we’re broken-hearted (Psalm 34:18). We may forget He is there most of the time, but that doesn’t change the fact that He is, and He is feeling all the same emotions of the moment we are (Hebrews 4:15). And just knowing that makes our suffering a little more bearable.
There is something beautiful about us humans loving someone else like this. When we willingly volunteer to walk so closely with someone who is struggling that we actually feel their pain ourselves, we’re showing Jesus to them. A holy communion of sorts takes place, and we come to see that joining them in their struggle is actually a privilege. And the chief way we do this is by praying for them.
When we struggle, we are to struggle together.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13
Paul wrote this to the Christians in Rome as a blessing after exhorting them to be unified and accepting of one another.
Not unlike the Romans, God is attempting to teach me about the power and freedom of acceptance and trusting Him with the question marks in my life.
This preposition-laden verse catches my eye because Paul is saying a lot of important things in one poorly crafted sentence.
(Can I say that? Can I say his grammar was awful and the English translators need some lessons on when to use commas? I digress.)
It strikes me that God has a job–to fill us–and we have a job–to trust in Him. As we trust, He fills. The two actions are meant to occur simultaneously.
It doesn’t necessarily follow that if we don’t trust, He won’t fill. However, I’m willing to bet that more often than not we have to get the ball rolling by trusting Him first.
Because of what God is filling us with: all joy and peace.
Dare I say it is probably impossible for us to experience all joy and peace while not trusting Him?
So we start trusting Him, and He fills us, and we skip off into the sunset, hand in hand, in this beautiful unending bliss of simultaneously trusting and filling forever and ever, amen.
At least that’s how it is supposed to be.
I find it interesting that God doesn’t only fill us with joy or peace but with both. Again, perhaps we can’t have one without the other.
I also find it interesting Paul asks God to fill the Romans with all joy and peace. Not some; not a lot. All.
In the same vein, God fills us with these things. He doesn’t just offer a little of each; He gives us as much as we can take.
Paul isn’t shy about praying for an abundance of awesomeness. Maybe I shouldn’t be either…
So we trust God; God fills us with all joy and peace.
But why does Paul want this for the Romans?
Well, the obvious human answer is because joy and peace feel good. Paul must want the Romans to live their best lives now…or then, as the case is.
Maybe. But the scripture says more.
We trust God; God fills us with all joy and peace, “so that you may overflow with hope…”
Paul wants the Romans to overflow with hope, and their trusting God is the first step on the path to get there.
When God fills us, on account of our trusting in Him, we overflow with hope. He fills us with all joy and peace, and then we flat spill over with hope.
I can’t remember the last time I brimmed with hope. I have to admit it sounds appealing.
Why would Paul want the Romans to overflow with hope?
Maybe because it’s a privilege Christ-followers have that is worth taking advantage of…non-believers don’t have access to the True Source of hope.
And/or maybe because when we reflect hopefulness to the world, they are attracted to Christ in us. Our overflowing with hope is an evangelism tool, if you will, which sounds like a win-win to me.
What’s interesting is the cooperation between God (the Father) and the Holy Spirit in this process. God does the filling with joy and peace, and the Spirit empowers the overflowing of hope. I don’t really know what to do with that observation, but I’m sure Paul stuck it in there for a reason.
All this to say, trusting God sounds like a pretty good idea.
I know, anti-climactic.
One thing I love about Paul is his ridiculously eloquent and powerful prayers. Every opening and every closing and, usually, somewhere in the body of each letter, Paul tells whoever he is writing to that he is praying for them. But he doesn’t just say, “Hey – I’m praying for you, brother,” and then totally forget to pray for that guy.
No, Paul tells each recipient what he is praying for them and why. And, even more awe-inspiring, Paul’s prayers are always Kingdom-focused. He doesn’t tell people, “I’m praying for your sick grandma to feel better,” even though I am sure he would be concerned about Mee Maw. He doesn’t tell them, “I’m praying the Grizzlies win Sunday night,” because a) he already knows they will, and b) as much as Americans hate to admit it, the NBA playoffs are not important in the scheme of things. No, Paul prays prayers that are focused on God’s ultimate purposes for His Church.
One such prayer hangs out in 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12. Verse 11 tells what Paul is praying for the believers in Thessalonica, and verse 12 tells why he is praying to that end (and, if you care to get technical, the last clause of verse 12 tells how the why will be accomplished).
11 With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith. 12 We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
When was the last time I prayed like that? And then told someone I prayed like that for them?
How on-cloud-nine would you feel if someone sent you a text or pulled you aside one Sunday morning and said, “Hey, I am constantly praying for you. I’m praying that our God may make you worthy of His calling on your life and that by His power He will make everything you desire that is good and everything you do by faith succeed. And let me tell you why I’m constantly praying these things for you – so that people will see Jesus glorified in you, and you in Him. That will lead unbelievers to marvel at His mysterious power and believers to rejoice over His work in your life. Much will be made of Him. And I know all of this can happen by God’s grace.”
(All right, so maybe this wouldn’t be a great thing to text someone. It’s so long your phone would splice it up into at least four different texts, and you’d inevitably receive them in the wrong order and have no earthly idea what that person is trying to say to you, but bless them for trying… perhaps an email of this nature would be more beneficial?)
The point is, if we want to learn how to pray better, we should spend a little time pondering Paul’s prayers and his communication to others about his praying for them.
I know it’s probably politically incorrect to say some prayers are “better” than others, but I’m okay with that. Some prayers are better than others… I’m sorry if that hurts your feelings… God loves to hear from us, but when we pray boring, rote prayers that our hearts aren’t in, I don’t think He gets real excited. I myself have been praying prayers like that with my children lately, and I’ve had about all I can take of that nonsense. But when we pour our hearts into meaningful and biblical conversation with Him, I think He can hardly contain His joy.
Some prayers are just better than others. Let’s resolve to pray better.
I’ve had a heavy heart the past week or so. I’ve been blaming gray winter clouds hiding the sun that I need to light me up and the beige walls of my home closing in as winter weather held our family hostage all last week.
And maybe they have something to do with it.
But the Lord brought it to my attention this morning that those things aren’t the true source of my disquieted spirit.
No, my sullen disposition lately is a product of my internalizing a lot of hard news instead of exporting it to the Lord.
I’ve struggled to get the savage murders of the 21 martyrs off my mind. The images of them in orange jumpsuits with knives to their throats are still all over the internet. And today I woke to news that at least 90 more Christians have been kidnapped. We know in our sickened guts which way that’s going to go…
A couple of high school kids drove a rural road two weeks ago and slammed into a tree. Dead. I drive by the gifts laid at the bottom of the giant oak every day. A headlight still hangs on a branch, and part of the bumper lies unclaimed a few feet away. My heart aches for those boys’ moms. My lungs burn when my imagination jumps to “What if my kids…”
Last night a 16 year old in a nearby community took to a highway I’ve driven many times and threw himself off a bridge into oncoming traffic below. Gone. Every overpass I drive under I hurt for his family… his classmates that had to digest the news this morning… his teachers who had to keep it together enough to guide teenagers through tragedy… and the driver who struck the boy as his body fell in darkness…
All of this news is devastating. Although none of it “personally” involves me, I am a person with a soul and emotions and so it goes that I am personally affected by each horrific story.
I think I may have forgotten this.
I took each piece of news as it came. I heard about it, I read about it, I saw images of it, I have tangible reminders of it. But I never processed it with the Lord because I never considered it mine. Sure, I uttered a plea for mercy, “Oh, God,” each time I learned of an event, but I never said, “Lord, this hurts my heart.” I didn’t sit with God and let Him minister to me.
So these pains piled up in my soul. I drove to a ministry this morning where I knew it was highly likely I would face more deadly news. Driving under overpasses and imagining what that boy who jumped must’ve been feeling before he leapt, God connected some dots for me.
I wasn’t even particularly thinking about Him as I drove until my heart got so heavy a sentence fell out of my mouth: “I can’t handle this!” The weight of the emotions inside had become too much. And the Lord responded in turn, “You’re not meant to. I will handle this.”
I marveled. Then I tried to decipher what, exactly, He meant. I had meant that I couldn’t handle the hurt in my heart anymore. And He knew what I had meant. So logic tells me what He meant in His response was I am not meant to handle all these emotions that are too big for me; He is supposed to handle them for me.
After giving me time to come to that conclusion, He continued, “Just bring me your heart.”
Ah. That’s all I’m supposed to do during heavy times. And I’ve known God long enough to know His solution would work. If I brought Him my battered heart, He’d tend to it.
To be honest with you, I didn’t have time to let the Lord stitch up my heart at that moment. I was walking into a war zone where Satan tries to do some of his best work by convincing women who have made mistakes that they are unlovable and that having an abortion will somehow solve their problems.
But I did have time for a quick band aid.
The Lord brought to mind a verse I had discussed with my kids a couple days earlier.
Colossians 3:15, “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.”
Paul was instructing the Colossians on how to live holy lives with one another. I told my girls we can learn three things from this verse.
- There is peace that comes from Christ, and God wants that peace to control us because
- God expects Christians to live at peace with one another.
- And when we don’t feel peace in our hearts, we can get some if we start giving thanks for things God has already done.
Although, linguistically, it doesn’t necessarily follow that thankfulness causes peace to rule in our hearts, I am certain these ideas were put next to each other for a reason. The ideas are connected in some way. And experience tells me, whether this verse does or not, that cultivating gratitude does lead to peace in my heart.
This mini lesson resurfaced in my mind this morning, and I asked myself, “Okay, am I going to do this and live this thing out or not? I have a choice right now, what’s it going to be?” Most days my heart rolls its eyes and the heaviness wins. But not today.
I started thanking God for what I knew to be true about all these tragedies. “Thank You, Lord, that You are in control of all these situations. Thank You that You are willing and ready to comfort all the hurting right now. Thank You that You care.”
That was it. That was all I had time for before I walked through the doors of my clinic and had five counseling sessions with women who were hurting in their own right. But my short act of giving thanks had birthed enough peace in my heart that I was able to offer some to them.
Pain and suffering and grief are hard. They are big, ugly problems we can’t handle. But we’re not meant to. It’s His job to handle our hearts. We just have to let Him.
I love Peter. He’s not afraid to say what everyone else is thinking, and he wears his heart on his sleeve, for better or for worse. I think we’ll be good friends in heaven. (Until we call each other out and get into a fist fight…)
Anyway, I read an interaction between Peter and Jesus last night in Mark. Jesus was telling the disciples it’s basically impossible for man to get into heaven on his own merit. (Mark 10:23)
And Peter didn’t care for that.
Peter was pretty sure people ought to be able to earn their way into eternal life, and, as Jesus repeated himself, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!”, Peter blew up. (Mark 10:24)
Peter yelled incredulously, “We have left everything to follow you!” (Mark 10:28)
To be fair, I am reading intonation into the text, which probably says more about me than about Peter, but I can hear Peter’s tone inflect in a manner bordering on the line of being disrespectful to the Messiah. (Okay, running clear over the line at breakneck speed…)
Peter was hacked. He had left his family, his livelihood, and the comfort of home to follow Jesus, and now he felt like Jesus was telling him that wasn’t enough to get into heaven… “We have left everything to follow you!” I think Peter was totally exasperated.
I’m not sure if Jesus responded calmly or heightened his emotion to match Peter’s frenzied speech because that’s all Peter would understand in the moment… either way, Jesus responded, “Truly, I tell you…no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields–along with persecutions–and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29-30)
Jesus spoke to Peter’s concern: those who give things up for the gospel will have eternal life, for it’s by that very gospel that man is saved.
But that’s not what garnered my attention in this passage.
I found it peculiar that Jesus promised one hundred times as much of what we give up in this present age. In other words, He will provide now above and beyond what we lost or gave up when we became followers of Christ. God will meet those needs this side of heaven, perhaps in different ways than when we were unbelievers, but He will meet those needs nonetheless and in a much more abundant fashion.
My pastor postulated last night that God meets those relational and felt needs through the body of Christ. I think that’s true.
The relationships are most intriguing to me. When we accept Christ, sometimes the people around us don’t understand it. So they distance themselves from us. Or sometimes we distance ourselves from them because we no longer feel like we have anything in common with them. Or sometimes God calls us away physically to be a witness for Him in another town or state or country. We lose relationships for the gospel.
But Jesus doesn’t leave us hanging. He created us; He knows we are relational. He knows we need emotional intimacy to thrive. He promises to supplement those lost relationships 100 fold in this lifetime.
That’s a little bit exciting.
We don’t lose relationships and spend the rest of our lives alone when we become Christians. We get to have a whole bunch of new relationships – relationships that are truer than the ones we had before because both parties are their fullest selves – most actualized, to borrow a term from the world of psychology – when they are Christians.
Paul and Timothy are examples of this. Without taking too much time to elaborate, they both literally left their homes and families and day jobs to take the gospel all over Eurasia (there’s a word I want to start using more often…). No doubt they felt lonely at times… but the Lord blessed them with each other. On more than one occasion Paul refers to Timothy as his son or son in the faith, and Paul even tells the Philippians he has no one else like Timothy. They had a special relationship they wouldn’t have had if they hadn’t given up other relationships for the gospel.
I’m thankful I have a handful of brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, and children in the faith. They get me better than any of the people I had to leave behind when I became a Christian. I’m nowhere near 100 yet, but if I’m willing to open my heart to a few more people and invest some time in a few more relationships, maybe I’ll get there.