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.

 

Advertisements

On Doctrine and Why You Don’t Have to Have it All Figured Out

While studying Church history from Christ’s death to Martin Luther (1500s), it is interesting to me that I have yet to agree 100% with any one person’s doctrine. I don’t even fully agree with those who, like I do, hold scripture to be the highest authority and earnestly seek to believe and apply all that it teaches.

I’m a Protestant, and I don’t even agree with the founder of Protestantism on all points (Luther believed infant baptism regenerated their souls and doggedly defended transubstantiation).

This observation tells me two things:

1) It is highly unlikely there exists one person with totally correct doctrine, and

2) That’s okay.

The first point should serve to humble me regularly, as it implies I probably don’t have totally correct doctrine.

And the second point should serve to remind me my salvation nor my value in God’s eyes depends on my having perfect theology. Nowhere does the Bible say we have to have all of our theological ducks in a row to have a relationship with God and eventually enter His Heaven.

The Bible teaches this: if you confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9).

See? No mention of having all the right doctrine, just some of the right doctrine.

These thoughts prompt me to give myself grace while studying God. It’s okay if I don’t figure it all out

And, equally important, these thoughts encourage me to show other believers respect, love, and grace if they hold a belief I don’t.

Spiritual Legacy: God Provides (Again), Edition How He Got Me a Job

I’ve been seriously looking for a job since March, 2014 (unseriously for even longer…) If you’ve looked for a job recently, you know how fun it is.

My journey went something like this:

  • March, 2014: had small crisis that was more than likely going to require a lot of money to resolve. Decided I needed to get a job to remedy the situation. Scoured job search engines for approximately 2,039 hours, only to discover 93% of the links were broken, out dated, or bait and switches. The other 7% appeared legit but didn’t list locations or pay information. In order to become privy to the name of the company, I had to register, at which time they a) signed me up for 42 email lists that didn’t pertain whatsoever to my search criteria I had meticulously entered and b) gave me the name of the company and a way to submit an application which I would never hear back about ever from any of these companies.
  • April, 2014: reached the end of the internet. THE END. Still no job, although, several applications were sent, and, I’m sure, are still sitting in some dummy email account no human will ever check. God remedied our small crisis Himself in glorious fashion. Decided it would still be wise for me to get a job in case the crisis emerged again. Told people I was looking for a job in case anyone had a hook up. They did not.
  • May, 2014: felt discouraged.
  • June, 2014: quit looking for a job.
  • July, 2014-October, 2014: ate ice cream in large quantities.
  • November, 2014: enrolled in seminary because it’s more fun to SPEND money than to earn it.
  • December, 2014: remembered the reason for the season.
  • January, 2015: began aforementioned seminary degree.
  • February, 2015: remembered I was supposed to be looking for a job. Repeated the process from March, 2014.
  • March, 2015: felt discouraged. Told more people I was looking for a job in case anyone had a hook up. They all thought, “Seriously? It’s been like a year since you started looking. Frankly, we’re tired of hearing about it.” Ok, no one said that because my friends are too amazing, but I’m sure they thought it. I was tired of hearing about it…
  • April, 2015: began to feel more in need of a job than ever due to our perceived need to and leading from God to move out of our neighborhood. Repeated the process from March, 2014.
  • May, 2015: tired of making negative zero headway job hunting, I quit again and decided homelessness wouldn’t be so bad. Especially in Florida. Looked for beachfront RV resorts to accommodate our new lifestyle.
  • Late May, 2015: decided to trust God was hand-crafting a job for me and He would bring it when He was good and ready.
  • June 1st-ish, 2015: my mother-in-law saw a small need for help where she works and talked to her boss about it. He saw a much larger need and decided now was the time to create a new position. She suggested he interview me.
  • June 3rd, 2015: had the interview. Liked the employer, felt capable of meeting his needs, and was pleasantly surprised the job was going to meet ALL of my 34 needs in a job (more on that later) as well as 5 of my nit-picky preferences.
  • June 8th, 2015: was offered the position.
  • June 10th, 2015: started my job.

I tell you all that to say this: 1) job hunting on the internet is for the birds, and 2) God knows our needs and will meet them when He sees fit to meet them, whether you hit your head against the wall fruitlessly googling “ANY JOB THAT PAYS MONEY. ANY JOB AT ALL,” or not.

(To be fair, my husband found his current job, which is a perfect fit for him, on Craigslist. Like, the first time he entered a search term. It’s a super annoying story.)

Not only will God meet our needs when the timing is best to do so, He will do so in ways that far surpass what we’d “settle for” if job search engines really worked.

Listen to this ridiculous list of non-negotiables I had (as a result of the goals we have for our own family. It’s perfectly wonderful if you don’t have the same goals for your family. No judgment here. Don’t send me emails.):

  • 20 hours/wk. No more, no less. (I need two days each week to continue seminary, so I can only work 3.)
  • Work day over by 2:30p at least two of the three days I work. (I would work anywhere as long as I did not have to put my kids in aftercare. It’s important to me to pick them up from school and have the late afternoons with them the majority of the time.)
  • Flexibility to shift days I work around so I can be free to go on field trips and attend programs and parties and other tomfoolery at my kids’ school. (Again, I would work anywhere that would allow me to do this because my kids will only want me to come to school events for so long…)
  • At least $__/hr. (We knew what I had to make, minimum, in order for us to feel comfortable moving.)
  • 30 minute or less commute. (In the Memphis area, this is totally reasonable. Add in the fact that when my kids are out of school I have to drive them 25 minutes to the baby sitter before I can even start making my way to my office, this really translates to an hour commute, each way.)

Not only could I not find a job without these specifications, finding one with them seemed impossible. But I had to stick to my guns. While I was busy running into dead ends on the internet, it turns out God was doing what He’s always doing: sitting quietly in the background, arranging the puzzle pieces of the world, including my life, one at a time. And in the case of my job, it seems He was making a more beautiful picture than I could’ve guessed.

Not only was every single non-negotiable met or exceeded, God threw in very personal “extras” just to make me happy because He loves me.

  • I’m working for a ministry. (I had basically given up the idea of getting paid to do what I love – teach the Bible. And while I am not doing that directly in this job, the things I am doing enable others to disciple and evangelize more people all over the world, and I am excited to contribute in a supporting role.)
  • I’m doing work that actually interests me. (I am assisting this ministry in web development and internet marketing, among other things. I have heavily dabbled in these areas since 2008, sometimes for pay, but mostly for fun. The dabbling has led to a fairly proficient knowledge of some of these things, and now I get to use those skills for work. I’ll also get to learn new skills that excite the computer nerd in me. There has also been talk of allowing me to write.)
  • I get to work with several people I already know and love.
  • My primary office is housed in a gorgeous retreat center that’s a relaxing environment to work in.
  • Because I don’t work with clients directly most of the time, JEANS!
  • The coffee is not awful. In fact, it is palatable. (Who am I kidding, this should have been on the non-negotiable list…)

If any of you are still reading, I’ll end with this: see? See how God knows and cares and works everything for our good (Romans 8:28)? See how God is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20)? Sometimes we need to hear stories like mine to inspire us to really believe those scriptures when life gets hard and those scriptures don’t necessarily feel true.

He loves you. He’s for you. He’s got you.

Grief and Joy

I’ve been mulling over an oxymoron the last 24 hours or so.

At church yesterday, somebody (Keith Thomas – give props where props are due) brought up the idea that, as Christians, we can have hope and joy in the midst of grievous situations.

We can trust Christ is at work – doing His best work, in fact – and the hope we have in Christ will not disappoint us, according to Romans 5:5. The person discussing this issue said, “We can experience the depths of grief and the heights of joy at the same time.”

It was an interesting concept… He used an example of a mother losing her teenager whom she knew was a believer. Deep grief, yet tremendous joy…

To be honest, the idea didn’t really take hold of me emotionally the first time I heard it. Sure, I agreed with it, but it remained in the philosophical compartment of my brain for the next hour.

Then I went to service, and as the Lord is wont to do from time to time, He put His finger on a part of my heart I’d been trying to pretend wasn’t hurting and communicated, sans words, “You are experiencing deep grief and tremendous joy simultaneously right now.”

He was right.

I’d been trying for so long to convince myself I was only experiencing the joy Jesus was offering in my situation, subconsciously believing that if I never admitted to myself that I was also extremely sad, then I wouldn’t be. I’d be able to keep the feelings of grief at bay.

Except I couldn’t anymore.

Things came to a head, and I – superior emotional wall-builder that I am – couldn’t keep the bricks in place any longer. The wall fell, and I felt firsthand the truth I’d been exposed to earlier that morning… we can experience the depths of grief and the heights of joy at the same time…

I scribbled something down on Twitter so I wouldn’t forget it…

Grief and Joy

From experience, I think this is a true equation. Prior to my becoming a believer in Jesus, I was hopeless in times of grief. After I became a believer, I was hopeless in times of grief when I neglected to focus on Christ. But those rare moments, like yesterday, when I’ve considered Jesus’ faithfulness and goodness in the midst of my grief, I’ve found hope and joy.

But, to be honest, it doesn’t matter at all if I think this equation is true. My feelings and experiences don’t make something true. Truth is defined in the Bible, and our experiences only serve to confirm truth. But that’s another post.

My point is, I don’t want to post this idea without biblical proof. And Peter gives it to us.

In 1 Peter 1:6, Peter writes to believers, “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.”

Joy during suffering and grief…

How? What are they rejoicing in while they suffer so greatly?

If we back up to verses 3-5, Peter tells us.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.

Verse 6 begins, “In all this…” That is, the believers are rejoicing in the 4 things (at least) I highlighted in verses 3-5 while they “suffer grief in all kinds of trials.”

So, it can be done…

You, me.

We can experience the depths of grief and the heights of joy at the same time… if we keep Christ in the center of our suffering. 

 

How to Be Satisfied with God When You Feel Dissatisfied with God

Sometimes it’s easy to feel God’s love.

For whatever reason, every worship song you hear and Bible verse you read floods you with absolute confidence in the Lord’s personal affection for you. You walk around with a smile on your face, knowing, like the psalmist, that His love really is better than life, and you have the warm tingly feeling in your soul to prove it (Psalm 63:3).

Other times, not so much.

No amount of Chris Tomlin lyrics or scripture perusing resonates. You feel empty as a tin can and can’t figure out why the Lord doesn’t seem to satisfy you. Your attempts to draw near to Him fall flat. And you feel guilty.

After all, He’s supposed to be all we need… He wants to be our heart’s main desire, everything and everyone else paling in comparison.

And we want that to be the case… but sometimes it just isn’t. We don’t feel His love all the time, and when the feeling escapes us, we often grow dissatisfied with Him.

Does it have to be that way?

What if we could learn to be satisfied with God even when we don’t feel warm, lovey feelings for or from Him?

I’m just throwing out the question because, as the valedictorian of basing beliefs on feelings instead of facts, my personal opinion is this tall order feels dang near impossible. (There I go again, letting my feelings tell me what’s true/possible…)

In Romans 5 Paul talks about how we have peace with God through faith in Jesus, and that brings us hope (Romans 5:1-2).

Verse 5 reads, “And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us,” (Romans 5:5).

In other words, believers have God’s love in their hearts… all the time… whether they feel it or not. It’s a permanent condition of our souls, to be inhabited by the love of God. It’s a fact.

So even when we don’t feel love for or loved by God, we can choose to believe the truth that we are loved by Him, and we have His love within us (and Romans 5:5) to prove it.

God’s love is in our hearts – the feeling component of ourselves. If we aren’t feeling it, something is askew. We need to ask Him to help us feel His love again.

In the meantime, perhaps we can choose to be satisfied with the knowledge that His love has not left us and that He will help us feel it again, sooner or later.

The One Thing We Can’t Lose

My heart fell as I watched this pastor whom I’ve never heard preach, whom I’ve never met personally, whose books I’ve never read, and whose church I’ve never set foot in tearfully apologize to his congregation for, in his own words, choices he has made that were “wrong”.

Yes, his humility struck me. In this day and age, our ministry leaders are quick to offer excuses and self defenses, but not public apologies, and certainly not recorded public apologies for the entire world to watch.

But his humility is not what spoke to me most.

I found myself tearing up when Mark Driscoll teared up during his statement, not because I in any way have an affection for or a connection to him, but because I can identify with the truth represented in his statements about both his failures and the immeasurable grace and forgiveness of Christ.

The truth is we are ALL one choice away from losing our families and our ministries (no matter how small or large), but we can NEVER make a choice that will cost us our Jesus.

I think Mark’s tears were indicative that he gets this at the most personal level possible. I get it, too, and it a) scares me to death that I am FULLY capable of making one choice that could cost me my family and ministry, and b) humbly thankful that I can never make a choice that would ever cost me EVERYTHING – nothing I do will ever make me lose Jesus.

So I am wondering, how do I – how do we – balance this fear that comes from an acute awareness of our own propensity to sin with the promise that Jesus will not leave us (Matthew 28:20)? 

We don’t want to be paralyzed by the fear. Yes, our ability to sin and to sin in extremely destructive ways faster than we can blink should be a reality that is always in the forefronts of our minds. Foolish is the person who believes he would never do ______. We must have a healthy respect for the fallen nature that still roars its ugly head in each one of us every day of our lives.

But we must guard against the temptation to condemn ourselves for having this nature and operating out of it from time to time. I’m NOT saying sin is okay. I’m saying self-condemnation – punishing ourselves mentally or otherwise – over our sin is not okay.

God is the only one in position to condemn us for our sin, and if you’ve accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior, God has decided NOT to condemn you. That’s His choice, as laid out in the well-known verse “…there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” (Romans 8:1). And if God isn’t condemning you, then you shouldn’t be either. (Confess and repent, yes, but condemn, no.)

And why must we not condemn ourselves? Because when we sit around thinking about how much we suck on account of our sinful choices/nature, we are effectively paralyzed. Our focus is no longer on going and making disciples (ya know, our main job on this planet) nor on loving and worshiping the Lord (ya know, the very thing our hearts were created for). The focus is on ourselves.

No, instead of living in the paralysis that can come along with our understanding of our abilities to sin, we must balance ourselves out with the second truth: we can never sin to such a degree nor too many times to cause Jesus to give up on us. That’s grace, folks. We can’t out sin God’s grace. Once we’ve accepted Christ, He’ll never reject us. He is the one thing we can’t lose.

When we’re feeling the weight of our bent to sin and are tempted to kick ourselves, maybe we ought to pray something like this:

“Lord, I know at any given moment I am capable of great sin. Protect me from making choices that dishonor you and hurt me and the people I love. Empower me to never make choices that could cost me my family or the ministry you’ve entrusted to me. And thank You, Lord, that, although there are choices I could make that might cost me everything tangible in this life, there is no choice I could make that could cost me You. Thank you that you will never leave me but are with me always, even until the end of the age. Help me walk in that confidence instead of sit in the self condemnation that comes so easily. Nothing can take me from Your hand – not even my own sinful choices.”

 

 

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.