How to Pray Better

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. 

 

What to Do When Pain Overwhelms You

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.

  1. There is peace that comes from Christ, and God wants that peace to control us because
  2. God expects Christians to live at peace with one another.
  3. 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. 

100 Times

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.

Spiritual Fathers

Yesterday I read through 1 Thessalonians because I had a question about the rapture.

(Why didn’t I just read “the rapture verses” (4:13-18), you ask? Because reading through entire books of the Bible all at once gives you invaluable context for the oft quoted verses we Christians like to lob out to people. I recommend you try it.)

What’s awesome about the Bible is I usually get more than I came for when I read it. That happened several times throughout my reading of 1 Thessalonians, but the verses that gave me the most pause were 2:11-12.

Context: Paul is writing to encourage and affirm the Thessalonians as they face persecution.

And smack dab in the middle of chapter 2, Paul says, “For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting, and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory,” (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12).

To say that I love this model Paul gives for what a spiritual father should look like is an understatement.

(I say “spiritual father” when Paul only says “father” because not all fathers do the three things Paul says they do. Though they should, not all biological fathers encourage their children or comfort their children or urge them to live lives worthy of God. And for kids who don’t have fathers who fit this bill, they can benefit greatly from having a spiritual father – someone who steps into their lives and does these three things for them as if they were these men’s own children. If you are blessed with a biological father who does do the three things Paul describes here, your biological father is your spiritual father.)

I think what strikes me most about this passage, aside from the warm feeling I get from this positive portrayal of an ideal father, is that Paul is talking to adults.

The Thessalonians – full-grown adults – still needed someone to deal with them as a father deals with his children. No matter how old these believers were (and, chances are, some were probably old enough for AARP cards), they all still needed a fatherly influence in their lives, at least in a spiritual and emotional sense.

The Thessalonians didn’t necessarily need anyone to protect them physically or to provide for them financially, like a father would’ve done for them when they were actually children. But they still needed encouragement and comfort – emotional support as they went through difficult times. And they still needed urging to live lives worthy of God – spiritual support as they faced trials and tribulations.

It is no stretch, then, to say that we probably need spiritual fathers, too. Yes, us. Independent, make-yourself, college-degree-holding, home-owning, don’t-want-for-anything Westerners. We need men like Paul to come alongside us and to speak into us in fatherly ways. We need spiritual fathers to encourage us when we’re discouraged, to comfort us when we’re out of sorts, and to urge us in loving ways to live up to our potential in the Lord for His glory and our benefit.

Do you have a spiritual father?

When We Suffer

Paul.

I can’t begin to understand the fervency of this dude’s faith. I think part of it is just his personality. He was a zealous Jew before he became a zealous Christ-follower. He seems to just be one of those people that never does anything halfway. It’s all or nothing for Paul.

As such, his vocal dedication to Jesus through every conceivable trial and tribulation makes sense… sort of.

I mean, Paul went. through. it. If ever there were a Christian who would have had reasonable cause to give up the faith, it was Paul. Beatings and imprisonments and persecution far greater than anything we could imagine – not to mention having to lead a bunch of knuckleheads in the faith who seemed to exasperate him in every city he planted a church… The whole thing sounds exhausting to me.

So what was Paul’s secret to staying the course? How did he muster up the emotional, spiritual, and physical energy to go round after round of his ridiculous life?

I think he gives us a little glimpse in 2 Corinthians.

He tells the believers at Corinth that he and Timothy suffered and had hardships in Asia. In fact, Paul says, “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death,” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9).

Can I just tell you I am there with Paul some days?

No, there is no bounty on my head. The government isn’t after me (although folks from the Department of Defense have been reading my blog – I like to pretend it’s Jack Bauer). I don’t have a physical malady that is threatening my life like Paul seemed to have had.

But I do often share Paul’s sentiments that I am under great pressure, far beyond my ability to endure… at home… at church… in new ministry ventures… in relationships… in my walk with the Lord… and sometimes I just want to pack it all up and go Home. My mind spins, like Paul’s, and I despair, thinking to myself, “Surely, this is it. Surely, this is the end of the madness because I cannot. take. any. more.”

And that’s usually where I stop. I identify with Paul’s emotions, and I sit down in the mud and give up. I stop reading his letter to the Corinthians right there, in the middle of verse 9.

And I miss out.

I miss out on the explanation as to why hard things happen in my life.

“But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead,” (2 Corinthians 1:9). I miss out on the invitation to intimacy with the Lord – utter reliance on Him – and seeing His power displayed in a new, tangible, personal way in my life. One reason we experience hardship is because God wants us! He wants us to realize we can’t really do anything – much less anything difficult – without Him. He wants us to draw near to Him, and we simply will not do that unless circumstances force us to. The human heart is a stubborn beast that way.

As if He Himself weren’t enough reason for us to draw near, God offers us even more. He is not “empty-handed”, as it were. He gives us an invaluable gift I miss out on when I give up during hard times.

I miss out on the deliverance offered me by the Lord.

If I would just keep walking, relying on Him, “…he will deliver [me],” as Paul says (2 Corinthians 1:10). Paul recounts how God has delivered him in the past and declares his belief that God will deliver him in the future. “On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us,” (2 Corinthians 1:10).

(Side note: what deliverance looks like in your mind may be far different than the deliverance God has in mind. His version is always better, even if it doesn’t feel that way at the time.)

At this point I’m thinking, “This is all well and good, Paul, but I am not an optimist like you seem to be. You may be able to ‘set your hope‘ on God’s deliverance, but I just can’t swing that in my own power.”

And Paul says to me, “Kelly, once again, you’ve stopped reading prematurely. Look at the next verse, friend.”

“On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers,” (2 Corinthians 1:10-11).

Whoa.

Zealous Paul – superhero Christian Paul – derives help keeping his hope set on God through the prayers of fellow believers!

I feel better.

Paul needed people to pray for Him. I need people to pray for me. And I need to be praying for other people, especially those who are struggling to keep their hope set on God.

And Paul really believed that the Corinthians’ praying for him helped him. Prayer to Paul was not some obligatory, trite ritual. It was an avenue of powerful support one believer could and should offer to another.

When we are suffering, we need to remember how the Lord has delivered us in the past, and we need to believe He will do it again. And when we can’t muster up that belief on our own, we need to ask believers who love us to help us set our hope on God by praying for us. 

 

Standing in Grace

“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.” Romans 5:1-2

Every word in scripture matters. Every word. God inspired Paul to use the word “stand” for a reason.

A posture of standing communicates strength. Standing commands a certain sense of readiness, stability, and power. Standing is an active posture, utilizing more muscles and burning more calories than sitting or laying.

Most of the time I don’t stand in grace.

I sit, head hung low, shoulders slumped, face downcast, enduring the days the Lord has allotted me.

I mentally assent to the fact that I am saved by grace through faith, and I continue to grow, iota by iota, because of that same grace… but rarely am I inspired to take hold of that grace in my heart and use it as a catalyst to live boldly and confidently in my position with the Lord.

If we correctly understand grace, and we never fully will this side of Heaven, we ought to be on a constant emotional high. We ought to be overtaken by joy and awe all the time because we have been redeemed – bought back from a life of self-induced destruction.

Our confidence ought to be off the charts, our security utterly unshakable, knowing beyond all doubt that we are His. It is finished. Nothing can undo our status as a child of God, forgiven, set free, and empowered by our faith in Jesus Christ to live a life fully pleasing to Him and, simultaneously, fully satisfying to us. (They are one in the same, by the way.) And it is only by grace that this is so.

Paul, the Christians to whom he wrote in Rome, and you and I are to stand in grace. I find it interesting that the text doesn’t read on grace.

The grace given us through our faith in Jesus is our foundation, yes, and we are definitely standing on that foundation. But we are also charged to stand in grace.

That tiny preposition implies we are surrounded and upheld not by our own power or merit or strength but by the very power of grace itself

If we stand in our own strength, it won’t be long before we fall, feint from all the work it takes to get through life. We can’t do it. Or, at least, we can’t do it well.

But when we stand in grace, it’s as if the Lord is holding us up with His own two hands, bearing all our weight for us, relieving our muscles of their duties to keep us upright. And, in that case, we don’t grow weary. We don’t stumble and fall.

You may be realizing about now that I am drawing opposite conclusions from this verse. At first, I said the use of the word “stand” communicates we have an active role in our standing in grace. But then I said the phrase “in grace” implies the standing is not of our doing.

So which is it?

Both.

It is a beautiful mystery how our free will and His sovereignty work together, and if you ever meet someone who can explain it to you fully, don’t believe them.

It seems to me that we have to consent to and cooperate with His desire to stand us up in grace. (I know, I don’t like that sentence either.)

Get out of your seat, Christ-follower. Stand up. It is by grace you have been saved, through faith. Stand in that grace. And allow the Lord Himself to keep you standing. 

How Sanctification Works

When we become believers, we’re given a couple of gifts.

1) We get to go to Heaven when we die.

2) We get to have a relationship with God now.

What we’re not given is instantaneous spiritual maturity.

We are the same ole shmucks we were before we accepted Christ, screwing things up, refusing to cooperate with God and His plan for our lives, oscillating between giving up on this life that’s just too hard and trying to control every little thing under the sun in an attempt to self-protect. We keep these patterns up when we begin walking with Christ. They don’t magically disappear.

And every day for the rest of our lives, we have a choice to make: will we cooperate with the Lord’s desire to gently grow us out of our self-defeating patterns, or will we hold onto our patterns more tightly than we hold onto our Christ? A lot of us mentally assent to the former while living the latter…

This whole process of “growing up” in the Lord is called sanctification. And the Bible speaks to it. In fact all of Paul’s letters to different churches contain encouragement for them to mature spiritually because it’s that important and it’s that central to the Christian life. So it’d behoove us to explore how sanctification works.

Today, I want to highlight just two verses on the subject.

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13)

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24)

Both these scriptures speak to growing spiritually… But did you notice how that growing occurs?

God does it.

GOD does it.

God DOES it. 

God does IT!

Is that not the best news you’ve heard in awhile?!

Our only responsibility in this whole “making ourselves better” thing is to be open to the Lord, to have a cooperative spirit. He does all. the. rest. 

We don’t have to try harder to be better Christians or read more or serve more or pray more or tithe more or ______ more or get our own hearts right or pull ourselves up by our boot straps.

We aren’t responsible for our own sanctification. We are only responsible for being willing to be sanctified by God, and He will surely do it.