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


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.”

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

The Passover was weird too. Jesus said some unusual things, and He even got down on his hands and knees to wash all the disciples’ feet. There was a little…exchange with Peter, and there was also that moment when Judas got up and ran off. John 13

After they finished eating, Jesus started talking. He talked for a long time. Some of it was encouraging, but some was just plain confusing. He may have continued talking as they walked over to the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus liked to go there in the evenings. Maybe it reminded him of the Garden of Eden. John 14-1

Mark 14:32-42.

The closer they got to Gethsemane, the more anxious Jesus must have become. He didn’t normally get anxious, so this must have been puzzling to the disciples as well. Once He had Peter, James, and John alone, He confessed, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mark 14:34a). They still had no idea what was going on. Then Jesus asked them to stay back and pray while he went off by himself.

Stop to think: When I was in college, I had this one history class right after lunch. The professor always lectured using slides (Yes, I’m that old.) so the lights were off…for an hour and a half…on a full belly…after five or six hours of sleep the night before. You know what happened. There were multiple illegible lines in my notes every day because I fell asleep. Study groups met hoping everyone hadn’t fallen asleep at the same time so we could each fill in our gaps. I didn’t want to go to sleep. I did everything I could think of to stay awake! But nothing worked.

That’s the situation in which the disciples found themselves. It was super-late at night. They’d had a stressful, puzzling day followed by a traditional holiday feast (think turkey and dressing: tryptophan, people!). It was quiet in the garden, and Jesus? Well, He was gone for a long time.

Our three disciples fell asleep. Three times. Frankly, after that first scolding, I think I would have tried walking around, doing some jumping jacks, whistling…anything to prevent disappointing Jesus again. Jesus even called Peter “Simon”—ouch (Mark 14:37). But they fell asleep. Again.

I don’t want to make light of what happened that night, when Jesus struggled with His humanity (more on His prayer), when God’s ears must have ached with the pleas of His Trinitarian self even as the blood-sweat dripped from Jesus’ forehead, when Jesus resubmitted His will to the Father’s. At the same time, there’s a real lesson for us back there with the disciples, and it’s bigger than “Don’t fall asleep while you’re praying.”

Spiral of Temptation: Discounted Obedience

Jesus told the disciples, “Keep watch” (Mark 14:34b). But the disciples didn’t do that. Maybe they chose one person to be on guard, but from what? They didn’t know why a watch was needed, so they didn’t prioritize obedience. They sat down, and they weren’t paying attention. That’s when temptation loomed large.

An attitude of I-know-better is the
ladder to the spiral slide of temptation.

Because His ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:9), sometimes we can’t see the purpose in His commands. That makes it easy to discount them, to consider them unimportant. But an attitude of I-know-better is the ladder to the spiral slide of temptation. If you never go up, you never have to worry about going down.

Stop the spiral slide of temptation before it starts with a little attention to His voice. (click to tweet)

Spiral of Temptation: Inertia

When you start down the spiral
slide, it’s almost impossible
to stop on your own.

For the Christ-follower, as for the disciples, there usually isn’t a conscious decision to sin. Instead, inertia sets in. Peter, James, and John sat down when they should have stood up; they slumped when they should have walked around; they were silent when they could have prayed out loud. There was no sin in being sleepy, but it tempted them, and disobedience became virtually inevitable. When you start down the spiral slide, it’s almost impossible to stop without external intervention.

When Jesus returned the first time, He said, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38). He knew how sleepiness was stalking them, drowsiness was dominating them. (Sorry, random moment of alliteration there. I was overcome by temptation. Haha.)

We have to break out of the inertia that propels us toward sin. When you’re going down the slide, you really don’t do anything. Everything happens to you. On our figurative slide, however, we have to put our feet down, sneakers squeaking on the plastic slide, hands gripping the shallow rails, until we win the fight over gravity and come to a stop mid-slide.

But what if we don’t stop on the way down?

Spiral of Temptation: When Your Butt Hits the Dirt at the Bottom

The disciples didn’t
stop themselves…

The disciples didn’t access the power available to them. They didn’t stop themselves on the spiral slide of temptation. (In their defense, they didn’t have the Holy Spirit like we do.) As a result, Judas and a crowd of weaponized temple representatives came upon Jesus without warning. Had Peter, James, and John been watching, I think they would have warned Jesus a few minutes earlier, and everyone could have taken a deep breath before the kissing, the ear-cutting, and the fleeing.

Their attention wouldn’t have changed the final outcome (Jesus’ inevitable crucifixion), but it might have changed their perspective, their sense that everything was going wrong.

Spiral of Temptation: Jesus Pulls Us Out

Like a parent swoops in to lift
a frightened child off the playground
slide, our God separates us from the

If we can recognize that inertia, or the slide, or the compulsion (whatever you want to call it), we can break out of the spiral before we actually arrive at sin. We can stop ourselves. Then, like a parent swoops in to lift a frightened child off the playground slide, our God either separates us from the temptation or coaches us through it to a successful dismount.

Consider verses like these…

That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand… -Ephesians 1:19

No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. -1 Corinthians 10:13

So there is a way out, even if you can’t see it. Those twists in the slide sometimes obscure the exit.

That powerful pull on the spiral slide of temptation? It can be thwarted. (click to tweet)

Just so you know, I have nothing against slides. I like them, as long as they aren’t metal on a sunny summer day when I’m wearing shorts. I like tall slides and spiral slides and water slides…especially water slides. We once went down the highest water slide in the southern hemisphere just because we could (no pictures, unfortunately!).  I always loved “catching” my children at the bottom of the playground slide when they stretched their arms out to me and I did nothing but slow them down a little. So I hope I haven’t ruined your playground or water park experience with this comparison.

Also, my apologies to my college history professor. It wasn’t that she was boring…

So. The spiral slide of temptation…ever had to dust your pants off at the bottom? Want to share what you could have done differently? Want to add your own analogy for temptation? I’d love to hear from you!

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?

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 Him 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, which is 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.

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

“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.



*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.

This is another post about that same night in the garden.

Link up:

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

The understanding that
arises 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 that arise 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

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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