Unanswered Prayers and “Ask and it WILL be Given to You”

There is a super famous Bible verse that is super misused, causing two super problems. So that has got to stop.

In Luke 11 Jesus is teaching His followers about prayer. He models prayer for them via what we know as “The Lord’s Prayer,” (as if He only prayed the one time…).

Then He tells them a parable to reinforce the fact that God likes it when we annoyingly ask Him for the same thing over and over until we get it.

(The NIV calls this “boldness”. Other translations call this “persistence”. But, I can’t help but think of it as nagging. Nevertheless, God wants us to keep asking sometimes.)

After the parable Jesus says this, “So I say to you: ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened,” (Luke 11:9-10).

Most people stop there. And that’s where they run into problems.

The first issue is people take this to mean they can ask for anything and God will give it to them. After all, it appears to be a pretty straight-forward guarantee right here in God’s Word. So He is obligated to deliver, right?

Many a preacher has taken these two verses out of context and centered his entire ministry around them. Such preachers stand in pulpits across the world gleefully telling the masses that God wants them to be healthy and wealthy and these verses are the proof! These preachers claim that if the pray-er just believes enough and nags enough (er…has enough “boldness” and “persistence”…) and gives enough money to God (i.e., to the preachers’ private jet funds), God will literally make their bodies healthy and fill their pockets with cash money.

This is called the prosperity gospel, and some of the biggest churches in America teach it. Many of the preachers on TV teach it. And then it makes its way across the international airwaves to third-world countries where desperately poor people so want it to be true that they convince themselves it is.

The problem is the prosperity gospel isn’t true. The Bible does not promise good health or wealth to anyone who follows Jesus. In fact, He promises we will have trouble (John 16:33) and suffer if we follow Him (John 15:20). Yes, we will receive blessings, too (1 Corinthians 9:23), but nowhere does the Bible report those blessings will be physical and financial.

The actual gospel is we have all sinned (Romans 3:23), and those sins have earned us death (Romans 6:23), which is another word for eternal separation from the blessings of God. But God so loves us that He created an exchange program in Jesus, who never sinned during His life, thus earning Himself eternal life with God. God decided to offer every human being the chance to exchange their earned ticket to hell for Jesus’ earned ticket to Heaven (Romans 4:22-25).

The prosperity gospel preachers never get around to the actual gospel. The only “need” for Jesus they present is we “need” Him to give us good health and money. Unfortunately, our need is much greater than that. We need Him to take the punishment our sinning deserves and give us the blessing His obedience deserved.

All that to say, millions of people are being led to believe Christianity is about manipulating God into giving them whatever they want by taking these verses out of context. And that is a huge problem. Not only will those people not get what they are trying to get, they will also not get Heaven when they die because/if they have not properly understood and accepted the actual gospel.

The second problem from misusing these verses applies to those of us who do understand and believe the actual gospel but are then left disappointed, doubting, and/or in a state of self-loathing when we persistently ask God for something and don’t get it.

We start to think, “Maybe the Bible isn’t true after all,” or “Maybe I don’t have enough faith,” or “Maybe God doesn’t really care about me,” or “Maybe God isn’t even real.”

Our faith can be seriously challenged when we think these verses mean if we pray enough times, God promises to give us whatever it is we are asking him for no matter what. We can become bitter, angry, distant, depressed, and even turn our backs on God completely if our “bold” prayers aren’t answered the way we want them to be…the way we think these verses teach that they will be.

So what’s the solution to these two huge problems?

CONTEXT.

Don’t stop reading after verse 10! Read through verse 13.

“So I say to you: ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!”

The first verse uses a little pronoun: it. We have to ask ourselves what “it” is in reference to.

The previous verse is part of the parable Jesus told. The subject of the sentence is what the ask-er needs. So, perhaps the “it” covers what we need, but not necessarily what we want. And that accounts for why we don’t always get what we ask Him for.

But in the parable the “need” presented isn’t a true need; rather, the ask-er is wanting some food to entertain unexpected company with. They likely will not starve without said food. The host was following the cultural rules of hospitality and did not want to dishonor his visitors, the worst insult in that day.

So his “need” is more of a “want”, which would make the “it” in “ask and it will be given to you” more of a want. We’ve all experienced God not giving us our wants, so we are back to square one. How can this verse be true if we can make “it” be anything we want it to be?

Maybe “it” doesn’t refer to a noun in the previous story. Maybe it refers to a noun in the verses that come after it.

After the promise “it will be given to you,” Jesus makes a comparison to illustrate His teaching. Then, in verse 13, Jesus summarizes everything He has just taught on the subject of prayer: “How much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!”

What is being given?

The Holy Spirit.

To whom?

To those who ask Him for it.

It.

IT.

We found our “it”!

Take the “the Holy Spirit” back up to verses 9 & 10.

“So I say to you: ask and [the Holy Spirit] will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Our verses are not a blank check waiting for you to fill out so the Bank of God can cash it.

Our verses are a specific check God filled out and is waiting for you to cash through prayer!

Ask for a greater awareness of the Holy Spirit and it will be given to you; seek deeper intimacy with the Spirit, and you will find it; knock and the door to more powerful connection with the Spirit will be opened.

These are promises God will keep. These are the guarantees Jesus was making when He said these words to His followers.

Don’t let foolish preachers pluck these verses out of context to convince you God wants you fat and happy above all else. Don’t take these verses out of context yourself and then allow doubt and disappointment to overtake you when you don’t get what you want.

Rather, read these verses in context and get to praying for the “it” God is offering you if you are a follower of Jesus: greater intimacy with the Holy Spirit.

That’s a far greater gift than whatever else you wanted from God anyway.

 

One Benefit of Being a Sinner

Over the weekend, a teacher at my church blew my mind. Allow me to plagiarize him so your mind can be blown too. (It’s okay, he probably read this idea in a book he didn’t write.)

He said when Christ comes back and establishes the new earth, it will not be a “return to Eden” type of situation. Yes, He will wipe out sin, there will be no more pain, etc., but it will be even better than the pre-Fall Eden was.

Why?

Because before the Fall, Adam and Eve were clueless about at least one characteristic of God (and I suspect many more). Without sin in their lives, they were unable to experience God as Redeemer. There was nothing from which He needed to rescue them. All was well.

Not so with us.

Because we’ve committed more sin and experienced more effects of sin than we can quantify, we are perfectly positioned to experience God as Redeemer. And, if we make it to Heaven, we definitely will have experienced God as Redeemer in at least one way: His saving us from the death our sin deserves.

So, when we’re standing there in Heaven, enjoying the complete absence of all things bad and the complete fulfillment of our souls, our memories of our lives on Earth will stand in stark contrast to our experiences in our eternal home. No doubt, our hearts will swell with thankfulness and appreciation of our God, our Redeemer.

I’m taking this idea a step further and saying we don’t have to wait until Heaven to appreciate this aspect of God.

Psalm 130:5 (NIV) reads, “I wait for the LORD, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope.”

Read a couple different translations for different nuances.

“I am counting on the LORD; yes, I am counting on him. I have put my hope in his word,” (NLT).

“I hoped [for] Jehovah — hoped hath my soul, And for His word I have waited,” (YLT).

The psalmist isn’t hanging out in a hard circumstance, playing Solitaire, flipping through a magazine, waiting for God to do something. No, the writer is hopefully expectant of God, confident God will come through, according to His Word.

In other words, the psalmist believes God is the Redeemer. The writer has read about God acting as Israel’s Redeemer in the past. He’s read about God’s promise to be Israel’s Redeemer in the future. He’s choosing to believe God will come through.

We need to do that, too.

God has redeemed us from hard, broken situations in the past. His Word says He is redeeming us from current painful circumstances right now (Romans 8:28). And He will redeem us in the grandest of fashions when Christ returns (Revelation 21).

Count on the Lord. Hopefully expect the redemption His Word promises you.

 

Why I Think Judas is in Heaven

Today is Good Friday, the day Christians mark the anniversary of Jesus’ crucifixion. To focus my heart on the event, I cracked open Matthew 27 to read about the details. I got 5 verses in and stopped to ponder Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus to the Jewish leaders who wanted Him dead.

I think a lot of Christians assume Judas is in hell. After all, he betrayed God. That’s kind of a big deal sin. He also committed suicide, which some brands of Christians wrongly consider an unforgivable sin. For these reasons, I think if you polled your church, the majority would say there is no way Judas is in Heaven.

But I think they’re wrong.

When he realized the Jewish leaders weren’t just going to give Jesus a talking to, Judas freaked out.

When Judas, who had betrayed him, realized that Jesus had been condemned to die, he was filled with remorse. So he took the thirty pieces of silver back to the leading priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he declared, “for I have betrayed an innocent man.” “What do we care?” they retorted. “That’s your problem.” Then Judas threw the silver coins down in the Temple and went out and hanged himself. -Matthew 27:3-5

Judas screwed up. He let greed get the better of him. He chose to turn on his friend for money. Several sources on the Google tell me 30 pieces of silver in New Testament times was the equivalent of about 4 months’ wages, so a few thousand dollars, depending on the profession to which they are referring. It would have been a nice chunk of change, but nothing too life-altering. But money wooed, and Judas’ true allegiance won out.

To be fair, Judas didn’t seem to realize he was turning his friend over to be executed. He probably was thinking Jesus was going to get some church discipline for bucking the established rules, like healing on the Sabbath and speaking out against traditional Pharisaical thinking. Judas may have envisioned Jesus being put in religious time out, but being put to death was not on Judas’ radar. A few thousand dollars in exchange for Jesus’ chastisement seemed worth it. Judas may have even rationalized that the disciples were poor and could use that money to minister to even more people once Jesus got ungrounded.

But once the reality of the situation set in, Judas was filled with remorse. He called his sin what it was – sin. He confessed his belief in Jesus as Messiah by calling Jesus innocent of the charges – namely, that He was falsely claiming to be the Messiah.

In my estimation, Judas repented and acknowledged Jesus as God. And scripture tells us that’s all we have to do to be saved.

I cannot wait to get to Heaven and see Judas and Jesus laughing together. That picture of grace overwhelms my soul.

How great is our God that He would forgive even the likes of Judas!

(Shortly after I published this post, I changed my mind. See the comments below to understand why.)

How to Deal with Pain Well

It’s not often I read the same book twice in a year’s time, but it happened this year. Partly because it is an excellent book. And partly because I am quick to forget what I “learn”. (Have we really learned something if we forget it?)

If you’ve read this blog before, you can probably guess the book is Ann Voskamp‘s One Thousand Gifts. I may not know you, but I know you need to read this book. Which says more about the book and human nature than it does about my arrogance.

The summation of the book is this: Life goes so much better when we remember we are not entitled to ANYTHING; all is grace, all is gift.

I forgot this for a few days around Christmas. And in crept a spirit of sadness, emptiness – a sense of just how broken this world is and how it won’t be fixed until Christ returns. I dwelt on that too long, developing a discontent rooted in the idea that I deserve perfection now.

I went down this rabbit trail: I feel pain because I lack something. The lack is bad because it causes pain. Fix the lack, fix the pain. There is no fixing the lack permanently in this broken world. Hopelessness.

Do you see the entitlement in this thinking?

I’m not entitled to not feel pain this side of Heaven.

Nowhere in the Bible is this mentioned. In fact, the opposite is harped on quite a bit. There will be pain, there will be trials, there will be suffering. A pain-free existence is incongruent with how the world works.  It’s a logical impossibility. Therefore, feeling entitled to such bliss is absurd.

That’s a kick to the gut.

We cannot have a continuously pain-free life, no matter what we do, what god we worship, or how well we serve Him.

It’s almost enough to make you want to give up on the whole thing… religion… God… life.

And that’s what Satan would have us do. He would have us zoom in on our present lives and dwell on the hopelessness of now.

But God zooms us back out so we can consider the eternal value of our present perseverance.

The author of Hebrews puts it like this:

So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For in just a very little while, “He who is coming will come and will not delay. But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him.” But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved. (Hebrews 10:35-39)

There is an eternal reward for those who continue to serve and obey the Lord in the middle of the hopeless feelings of our painful lives. Salvation – eternity in a pain-free Heaven – awaits those who believe and press on.

We are not entitled to anything, least of all a pain-free now. Count all as grace – as gift – and it will help you press on through the pain and take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of you. 

 

 

Now is our Time for Grief

My kids and I talk about Heaven a lot.

My 3 year old is just trying to wrap her brain around the concept of Heaven. She knows it is a place where God lives, and if you love Jesus, you get to go there. When I remind her of these facts, she inevitably says, “I love Jesus! When can I go to Heaven?” I always tell her the same thing, “When God decides it’s time.” And she always tells me the same thing, “I want to go right now…”

My 5 year old has more complex thoughts about Heaven. She mostly wonders what it will be like. She wants to know details and  wishes God had given us more descriptions of Heaven in the Bible. She wonders if we will all live in one big house, or if there will be lots of houses… She wonders if the houses will be made of gold… She wonders if we will walk or float in Heaven… She wonders if we will be singing praises to God all the time or just some of the time… She wonders if there will be Burger King in Heaven… I don’t tell her that would be my version of Hell.

I like my older daughter’s imagination. I like how she daydreams about eternal life with the Lord. I can’t tell her for sure what Heaven will be like other than Heaven will be all good and no bad (which is why I’m pretty sure Burger King won’t be there…).

I am more on my younger daughter’s plane, longing for Heaven, no matter what the details are. I know it’s good, and I want good now. I know it is pain-free, and I want pain-free now (Revelation 21:4).

But it’s not time yet.

Jesus was talking to His disciples right before his murder, and he told them, “I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy… Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy,” (John 16:20,22).

The immediate context of the passage is Jesus describing the Jews’ joy over finally killing the “blasphemer”, Jesus, while the disciples grieve over the gruesome loss of their Friend and failure to understand the spiritual victory that was taking place. Jesus is telling the disciples their grief will turn to joy on the third day when He rises and proves Himself God by defeating death.

The broader context, I suggest, is the modern world enjoying their sin while the modern believers grieve over the state of brokenness we find ourselves in. People are broken. We don’t work right. Bad stuff happens. Pain is the norm. And believers grieve because we know in our hearts and from the scriptures THIS IS NOT HOW IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE!

But just as Jesus told His disciples, He tells us today, “Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice.”

The believer knows Jesus is coming back. We’ll either go to Him or He will come to us, and our joy will be unbounded!

But it’s not time for that yet. Sure, we can experience joy today while we daydream about Jesus coming back. But that joy is limited. Bounded. By the confines of broken people in a broken world.

No, now is our time of grief. Expect it. Accept it. But don’t get stuck in it.

Instead, learn to view the pain differently.

I’m learning by revisiting One Thousand Gifts, by Ann Voskamp.

Now is our time for grief, and we will not waste that grief. We will use it to experience the Father more deeply.

Feel Good Article of the Year

One thing I haven’t come to grips with yet about this life is that friendships don’t last forever.

In fact, all relationships are fluid. People move in and out of our lives as time goes on. It’s just a fact of life.

A fact of life I despise.

Whether it’s circumstances, choices, disagreements or death, everyone we hold dear will eventually leave us. And, of course, we will also eventually leave them.

Even our familial relationships will end. We may live in the same city for 60 years with our parents, our siblings, our spouses, our children… we may have great emotional intimacy with them, picture perfect (yeah, right) relationships, but, if nothing else does, death will prevail.

Circumstances separate us. Our best friends we grow up with move away for college or for a job or for a significant other. We get absorbed into creating our new families, pursuing our new careers and exploring our callings. We keep in touch as best we can, but time and distance defeat our resolve.

Choices and disagreements break our relationships. Our spouses file for divorce. Our children flee in rebellious huffs. We push our friends away out of self-protection.

The list goes on… the point remains the same. No relationship is forever.

We are utterly alone. The only companion we have through it all is ourselves, and we don’t even really like ourselves all that much. Realizing this is hopelessly depressing. We fold our hands and choose to insulate ourselves from this painful reality by retreating from our present relationships. Avoid pain at all costs – this is the human mantra.

But we can’t live like this.

We soon discover the pain of being a hermit equals or surpasses the pain of loving others we know we are going to lose one way or another.

Who will rescue us from this catch 22?

“…the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father,” (Galatians 1:3-4).

Jesus gives us the solution. He offers us all eternal life so death will no longer separate us from those we love. We may be temporarily separated on earth, but we will be reunited in heaven forever, enjoying sweet and perfect friendship.

What’s the catch?

Both parties must accept Jesus’ solution.

It’s not hard, but it does break down our pride quite a bit to admit we can’t right this ship ourselves. We can’t over come loneliness or the inevitable fact that all our relationships are coming to an end. We’ve already lost so many – proof we can’t control anything.

But there is One who is offering us hope – hope we literally and figuratively cannot live without.

Choose hope.

Soul Sick

Some things about life suck.

This has nothing to do with my natural bent toward pessimism or my forgetting to take my depression medication.

It has everything to do with the Fall.  (The event, not the season.)

When sin entered the world, it ruined stuff.  And ever since then, stuff has had the propensity to suck.  Deep, no?  This sucking takes on two forms: 1) some stuff has bad components, and 2) some stuff is good, but it can never be as good as it was meant to be this side of Heaven.

The first kind of stuff is the clearly bad/evil stuff.  I don’t have a hometown, but if I did, it would be Collierville, TN.  And right now, there is a high school student there who was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer.  That cancer is BAD.  There is nothing good about the cancer itself.  That component of Trey’s health is an evil, destructive result of the Fall.  And that sucks.

The second kind of stuff is the good stuff that can’t reach it’s fullest potential because we live post-Fall.  Relationships come to mind.  Relationships are generally good things – good things that can’t be best things because sin limits them.  Dysfunction taints them.  Conflict strains them.  And a myriad of complicated reasons can limit them, even though the two people care about each other.

When I think about these kinds of effects of the Fall, I get sad.  I am bummed that things can’t be as great as they were meant to be because of that crappy day in the Garden.  I used the phrase “soul sick” to describe my feelings about these kinds of things today.

It’s not depression – no pill or talk therapy will change the fact that we live in a fallen world, stained with sin.

It’s not a matter of being more optimistic, trying to look at things differently so I don’t see the bad.  The bad IS there – it’s not dependent on my outlook.

It’s soul sickness.  It’s a weariness that comes from understanding what the world was supposed to be like and grieving the fact that it can no longer be that phenomenal, no matter how hard I try.

Some days it is hard for me to get past the reality of soul sickness.  It is comforting to know that this reality is only for a limited time.  Heaven gets closer every passing minute.  And that will be the perfection I long for.

But the waiting isn’t easy.