Of Pharisees and Pointing Fingers

A Pharisee and a tax collector walk into the temple…

It feels like the beginning of a groan-worthy joke, but it’s not! It’s a scathing parable Jesus shared with His followers.

Jesus told about forty parables. Some are vague or cryptic. Some are difficult to sort out, while some are easily understood by what was around his listeners. And then some parables are so straightforward, so pointed, that I almost laugh. This one—about the Pharisee and tax collector—falls into that last category. Continue reading

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Observations from Psalms

A couple of separate observations from my daily time in Psalms…

The Last Meal of a Condemned Man

People who don’t care about God seem to have an easy life. They don’t get up early on Sunday mornings (unless it’s to play golf). They take shortcuts to prosperity and seem unfazed by it. They focus on themselves and what they can see. Pride is so much easier than humility.

I get it. I think that way sometimes, too. So did David. Continue reading

The Model Prayer in Question Format

What if Jesus’ example of prayer was in the form of questions? I’m not talking Jeopardy® here, as in, “Who is ‘our Father in heaven’?” but something more…versatile.

Maybe Jesus didn’t
expect us to recite
the Model Prayer.

There’s nothing wrong with reciting the Model Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) verbatim. I’ve done it many times and found it meaningful sometimes. But I wonder if such recitation was Jesus’ intention when He gave it to the disciples and other followers. Maybe He didn’t expect us to memorize it and repeat it all together. After all, He says, “This, then, is how you should pray” (6:9, italics added) not “This is what you should pray.”

In Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (2014, pg. 118), Timothy Keller shares how Calvin insisted that “the Lord’s prayer does not bind us to its particular form of words but rather to its content and basic pattern. … The Lord’s Prayer is a summary of all other prayers, providing essential guidance on emphasis and topics, on purpose and even spirit.” Furthermore, Martin Luther paraphrased and personalized the Model Prayer every morning and evening as a starting point for his own, more personal prayers.

If we use the Model Prayer as a template, we can create probing questions from it. These questions will help us pray more personally and effectively. Let’s give it a try. Feel free to formulate your own questions based on what you know of Jesus’ teaching and God’s Will then reflect on the questions to supplement your prayer time.

v.9b  Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,

God is the Father of all who believe in Jesus, and He reigns as King from heaven. “Hallowed” means valuable or precious, and His name represents His reputation, the respect others attribute to Him.

How can I honor You today, Lord? How can I boost God’s reputation in my circles of influence?

v. 10 your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

In heaven, everyone does exactly what God wants them to do. The kingdom…well, that’s a hard one to define, but it has to do with God’s reign. Therefore, when we talk about the kingdom coming, we’re looking at God’s reign expanding here on earth.

How do I want earth to be more like heaven? This might be in your personal spiritual growth, in a specific relationship, or in the nation/world at large.

v. 11 Give us today our daily bread.

Maybe you have a gluten allergy, so the last thing you want to pray is that God will give you bread! I get that. If I was praying for bread, I’d pray for a good, crusty whole-grain French baguette. Just saying…

The bread, as you’ve probably heard before, represents our daily needs. When we pray this, we’re asking God to meet our physical needs for today, which is also an expression of trust that He will again meet our physical needs tomorrow. Think manna (Exodus 16).

Most of us, however, don’t lack for tangible things on a daily basis. So while we thank God for food, shelter, etc., we can ask Him to meet daily personal needs for things like reconciliation or self-control or wisdom.

What personal needs do I have today that can I present to Him?

v. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

Our debts to God are our sins: all the times we’ve failed Him. Just as we ask Him for forgiveness, we’re reminded to forgive people who have offended or failed us.

What sin(s) do I need to confess today? Who do I need to forgive?

v. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

We know God doesn’t tempt people (James 1:13), and that testing will never exceed what we can bear (1 Corinthians 10:13). We do, however, find ourselves in tempting situations, often due to our own negligence. Satan takes advantage of those situations to entice us toward sin.

Where do I need help not to sin and/or not to give in to Satan?

I could have written so much more on each of these verses! There’s so much theology here, and so much for us to learn, but I wanted to get the questions to you. If you’re struggling with organization in your prayer life, try this for a day or two. I pray it helps you connect with God.

Jesus’ Model Prayer as questions will help us pray more personally and specifically. (click to tweet)

If there’s a section here that doesn’t make sense or something you want to suggest, please leave a comment below. Also, if there’s one question that’s particularly meaningful/helpful for you today, I’d love to hear about that, too!

The Six Parts of Repentance

Repentance is such a loaded word, one that doesn’t mean much outside Christian circles and bears various meanings even within those circles. Like justification and propitiation, we know what repentance means but find that meaning hard to articulate.

Both John the Baptist and Jesus shouted over the crowds, “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:2, 4:17). Peter told a gathered crowd, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you…” (Acts 2:38). And Paul talked about a Godly sorrow that produces repentance, which in turn leads to salvation (2 Corinthians 7:10).

Repentance shows up in the Old Testament too, and Hosea gives us one of the best explanations of it in Hosea 14:1-3. This comes after all the very tangible imagery involving Hosea’s marriage to a prostitute, the weird naming of his children, and the many chapters of pleading with the people. All the way at the end of Hosea, this prophet supplies the people with an exact set of words to say. We know repentance is a turning (or a returning) that results in a lifestyle change. Hosea covers that in verse 1. Then take a look:

Take words with you
and return to the Lord.
Say to him:
“Forgive all our sins
and receive us graciously,
that we may offer the fruit of our lips.
Assyria cannot save us;
we will not mount warhorses.
We will never again say ‘Our gods’
to what our own hands have made,
for in you the fatherless find compassion.”
  -Hosea 14:2-3

When we break it down, we find these six parts of repentance.

  1. Ask for forgiveness. “Forgive all our sins”

Confession is the act
of agreeing with God
about our sin.

Repentance begins with an acknowledgement of our sinfulness, specifically yet comprehensively. We know that confession (the authentic plea for forgiveness) is the act of agreeing with God about our sin and sincerely desiring to remove it from our lives.

  1. Request acceptance. “Receive us graciously”

Our sin separates us from God, so it’s necessary to ask for readmittance to His presence (even though, in another way, He never leaves us). It’s like saying, “May I please sit back down at the table with you?”

  1. Deny outside sources of power. “Assyria cannot save us”

In our humanity, we tend to turn to tangible strengths: things we see and experience as powerful in the world. For the Israelites, it was a strong political entity. For us, it might be political or it might be financial, social, or some other aspect of life that makes us feel safe and valuable. In repentance, we say with the Psalmist, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God” (Psalm 20:7)!

Nothing will ever be more
trustworthy or more powerful
than the mere name of Yahweh!

Brief aside. Psalm 20:7 is one of my favorite verses in the Bible, and I always feel the need to exclaim it (hence the exclamation mark above). Consider this: Chariots are man-made contraptions, the technological marvel of their day. Horses are a powerful part of nature that we can tame and teach. However, nothing ever invented or built by humanity—no technology, no machine, no application—nor anything existing in nature, whether we can tame it or not…nothing will ever be more trustworthy or more powerful than the mere name of Yahweh! Shout hallelujah with me, won’t you? And can we get some more exclamation marks up in here?!?!!!

  1. Relinquish self-sufficiency. “We will not mount warhorses”

If we don’t look outward, we look inward to fulfill our needs when we’re in a state of sinfulness. We think we can overcome temptation on our own. We dig down deep, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, or invest our time/money in whatever fad promises quick and easy self-fulfillment this month. Letting go of self-sufficiency is part of full repentance.

  1. Turn from idolatry. “We will never again say ‘Our gods’…”

Idolatry is almost always a factor in our sinfulness. When we prioritize anything above God, that thing or idea has become an idol. Some spend a lifetime building the ideal home, the business empire, or the dominant social network. As long as they look to those things for help or expect those things to supply their needs, they cannot truly repent.

  1. Acknowledge God’s compassion. “in you the fatherless find compassion”

Allow Him to take over…

Finally, repentance reconnects us with God. It’s easy to fall into a cycle where we admit we’ve done wrong then ask for a chance to try again. No! That’s not repentance. Instead, He calls us to accept His gentle embrace and allow Him to take over, to be sovereign, to direct our inward and outward lives. Then, He has responded to our request for acceptance and we have completed the repentance process.

A 6-step model of repentance in Hosea. Because we all need a reminder occasionally. (click to tweet)

I know this is not the most exciting or funny blog post you’ve ever read, but sometimes we need to look at fundamental truths in different ways. Sometimes we need an Old Testament dose of prophetic bluntness to shake up our New Testament theology. What did you read here that helped you in your walk with God today? What have you read elsewhere that would be a good companion piece for this post? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

The Spiral Slide of Temptation

Imagine Peter, James, and John sitting in Gethsemane, waiting for Jesus to come back from praying…

It had been a long and significance-laden day, starting when Jesus sent a couple of disciples into town to find some man carrying a water jar. Random. But that man had a room available for Jesus and the disciples to observe Passover. Who still has a room unoccupied on the morning of the biggest celebration of the year? But there he was, and there it was. Mark 14:12-16 Continue reading

Help! I don’t even know how to pray.

We’ve all been there: the pain so fresh, the desperation so palpable, the weakness so overwhelming that we don’t even know how to pray. You stumble into His presence and heave that burden off your shoulders. As it thuds on the floor, the impact reverberates through your feet and ankles so that you lose your balance. Sprawling at His feet, you seem to have lost the ability to speak. What then?

Mark 14:34-36.

Been there. Done that. Got the t-shirt scars.

“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” –Mark 14:34

Jesus experienced the same kind of desperate moment. In Gethsemane the night before He died, His preparation for the biggest moment in history involved falling on the ground and begging God to change His mind (14:35)! It’s not Jesus’ finest moment. But it is, in fact, His most human moment.

If Jesus can ask for relief, for a different outcome…

If Jesus can be weak, desperate, maybe even afraid…

Then we can, too.

First of all, know this: There is no sin in pain, in desperation, in weakness…even in longing for a different outcome. Let me say it again: Desperation is not a sin. Jesus was desperate (see also John 12:27-28, Psalm 55:4-5). Satan will try to make you hide your desperation or tend your pain yourself, but God already knows about it and already plans to take care of it.

The words of this
prayer aren’t for Him;
they are for you.

Secondly, you’ve already done enough. The fact that you brought your burden to God is enough. He can take it and act even if you say nothing. He doesn’t need your explanation. It’s you who needs to speak. The words of a prayer like this aren’t for Him; they are for you. That’s often the case with prayer, wouldn’t you say?

Let’s look at how Jesus prayed there in Gethsemane. Here we find a simple formula for our most desperate moments—one that reorients our minds toward God Himself.

“Abba, Father,” he said, “Everything is possible for you. Take this cup from Me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” –Mark 14:36

Address Him: To whom are you speaking?

“Abba, Father.”

Just by saying the name of God, we begin to put Satan in his place and turn our eyes toward the One we serve. Use any of the names of God that He places in your mind. Ultimately, this situation is about Him, not about you (or me).

Acknowledge Him: What do you know about Him?

“Everything is possible for you.”

God is omniscient, omnipotent, Creator, loving Father, Healer, Sovereign Ruler… He is whatever you truly need in your moment of desperation. He may not supply what you want (in your selfishness), but He is what you need.

Ask Him: What do you want Him to do in light of Who He is?

“Take this cup from me.”

Having recognized who God is and what He can do, you then apply that knowledge to your current situation. Ask Him for what you know He can give. In Jesus’ case, He wanted to avoid the pain and separation of crucifixion, and justifiably so!

Accept His Will: Will you give your burden to Him to do with as He wishes?

“Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

God may grant your petition or He may have a greater plan. Either way, you release the burden to Him and follow His leading from here on out. God could have thwarted the crucifixion of Jesus, but His glory (and our good!) was better served by allowing Jesus to continue in the path laid before Him. You know (Don’t you, friend?) that His will is greater and higher than any solution you devise on your own (Isaiah 55:8, Romans 11:33, Proverbs 3:5-6, Job 38:2, Romans 8:28…need I go on?). I’ve written about this in other places, if you want more.

Prayer Ratio

I noticed something interesting as I first wrote this in my quiet time journal awhile back. (Yes, my journal is sometimes alliterative; I can’t help it.) Three-quarters of this three-sentence prayer focuses on who God is and what He does. Only one-quarter focuses on what I want. As I pray, whether I fall before Him in desperation or dance before Him in joy, I’m trying to keep that ratio: ¾ Him, ¼ me.

“Prayer is not simply getting things from God—that is only the most elementary kind of prayer. Prayer is coming into perfect fellowship and oneness with God.” –Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, 9/16.

Because, even in my desperation, my orientation must be Godward.

A 4-step method of prayer for our most desperate situations, based on Mark 14:36 from @Carole_Sparks…because my #prayerlife is #NotAboutMe. (click to tweet)

How do you pray when you are most desperate, when the words don’t flow because the pain is so palpable? What do you think of this simple example? I would LOVE to hear from you in the comments below!

By the way, in my Bible Study, Dwell: Mary, Martha & Lazarus, we examine another of Jesus’ prayers—when he prayed just before calling Lazarus out of the tomb.

Why Do You Ask? 3 types of questions put to Jesus

The understanding arising
from the search for an
answer outweighs the
value of the answer itself.

I learned a long time ago that God relishes our questions. When we come to Him with an authentic desire to know more, trust more, glorify more, He welcomes even the toughest of questions and points us down a path of discovery. Sometimes God doesn’t give us a straightforward answer—oftentimes actually—but the depth and breadth of understanding we receive from the search for an answer outweighs the value of the answer itself, had we received it.

When Jesus walked the roads of Galilee and Judea, people asked him lots of questions. I read somewhere that he directly answered only three questions. Usually, he pressed into the question somehow, and often he replied to that question with a question of his own. Remember these?

Whose image is this? And whose inscription?  -Matthew 22:20

What is written in the Law? How do you read it? -Luke 10:26

It wasn’t the status or appearance of the person that affected how Jesus answered. It was the person’s heart. John said, He knew what was in each person (John 2:25). Jesus deliberately led the questioner to the Truth behind the question, which, like our own inquiries today, was actually more important than the specific answer.

As we read through the Gospels, we find at least three types of people who asked Jesus questions. In our examples, let’s limit ourselves to Pharisees, just to make it interesting, and we can find all three types of askers among this group.

Demonstrators declare, “Look what I know.”

I’ve seen this type of person in classrooms and lecture halls. He asks a question to impress the professor and students, not because he wants to learn. In front of Jesus, this type is most clear when the Pharisees and Sadducees asked Jesus about the resurrection (Matthew 22:23-33). They asked in order to trick Him, to show how clever they were. They weren’t sincerely interested in Jesus’ answer.

Debaters challenge, “Prove it.”

This is the one who says, “I’m not going to take your word for it. Show me the evidence.” Sometimes the Pharisees were indignant about Jesus’ claims and/or actions. How could Jesus be so bold? Then they asked things like this:

The Jews then responded to him, ‘What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this? -John 2:18

Or this:

To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. He sighed deeply and said, ‘Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.’ Then he left them, got back into the boat and crossed to the other side. -Mark 8:11-13

Jesus wasn’t interested in giving signs (a.k.a. miracles) to people who weren’t interested in trusting Him. He just walked away. He left them standing there in His dust, looking slightly foolish.

Discoverers plead, “I just don’t know, but I want to believe.”

I almost called this section “Doubters plead.” I am convinced that it’s okay to doubt…when you take your doubts straight to God. Doubting is really about what you discover in the process. So keep reading.

Immediately after the Pharisees challenge Jesus at the temple (John 2:18), John gives us the contrasting story of Nicodemus, an individual Pharisee (John 3). Did you ever wonder why Nicodemus came to Jesus at night? According to the notes in my Bible, either he was afraid of being judged by his peers or he just wanted to avoid the interruptions of a day-time crowd. Doesn’t matter, really, because Jesus saw his heart. Jesus saw that he honestly wanted some answers. Nicodemus thought Jesus might actually be the Messiah, but things weren’t happening the way he had always been told they would happen. Nicodemus was sincerely trying to wrap his mind around all this new, tradition-busting information.

Jesus didn’t condemn
Nicodemus for asking
questions.

So this time, Jesus was patient. He answered Nicodemus’ questions in the best way he could, according to Nicodemus’ understanding. The answers aren’t as straightforward as he—or we—might wish (“Born again?” What?), but there’s no sense of impatience on Jesus’ part…maybe frustration because Nicodemus should have understood, but Jesus didn’t rush off, and He didn’t condemn Nicodemus for asking.

This is where we find ourselves, so may years later. Before we go to God with our questions, we must ask ourselves why we are asking. What do you hope to gain from questioning God? To demonstrate, to debate, or to discover Truth? Because it’s not the questions themselves that are the problem.

Suppose three people come to Jesus with exactly the same question, but the motivation behind each is different. Jesus’ reply will be different for each one. How are you asking questions? First, don’t be afraid to ask. Second, know that the answers you get (or lack thereof) probably tell you more about yourself than about your God.

 

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