What Is Prayer?: A Definition that Prompts Prayer

Often the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Westminster Catechisms are particularly well-worded. This is something I’ve learned to appreciate as I grew up without any familiarity with these historic expressions of orthodox doctrine. For example, the Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 98 says,

Q: What is prayer?

A: Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.

This definition is really helpful, memorable, and applicable.

Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God…

Psalm 10:17 (ESV) O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear  (cf. Ps 62:8; Mt 7:7-8)

It’s okay to pray for what you want to happen. God created us as desiring beings and desire alone is not evil. In fact, as we grow in Christ we more and more want the right things. We want what God wants.

So prayer is an offering up of our desires. I hope you don’t pray for things that you don’t care about. Even intercession is about desire. I want the best for others, and I ask God for it. The Bible doesn’t forbid praying for what you want.

Prayer is actually an act of dependence. The proud and independent don’t pray much. So prayer is me recognizing that only God can do what I’m asking for. Only he can fulfill my desires.

for things agreeable to his will…

1 John 5:14 (ESV) And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. (cf. Rom 8:27)

This is the caveat, isn’t it? The things we want should also be the things God wants. Of course, we don’t always know what God wants. Often His sovereign will is not apparent. What I like about this definition is it doesn’t demand that we know the mind of God. We just need to ask for things that are “agreeable to his will.”

One time on the way to church I saw a portable basketball goal being thrown out. We wanted one for years, but I wasn’t willing to spend the money. I am famously frugal. I prayed that if God wanted us to have it, it would still be available after the worship service.

Is praying for a basketball goal agreeable to His will? I think so. I don’t know that it is His will, but I know that it doesn’t violate His will. It’s agreeable to God’s will.

What things do we know with certainty to be God’s will? Salvation and sanctification for sure. We can pray for those with no doubt. Many other things need to be prayed for with some humility. I don’t always know what God wants.

in the name of Christ…

John 16:23–24 (ESV) In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. (cf. Heb 4:14-16)

Why can I pray? Only because Christ has paid the penalty of my sin. My sin separated me from God. The only prayer of the unbeliever that God is obligated to hear is the prayer of repentance. But I can pray because of Jesus and Jesus alone.

Now I don’t believe that praying in the name of Christ means that we add “in Jesus’ name” to all of our prayers. I often do, but it’s not a magic formula that assures you that God hears your prayers. What it means is that we pray with the conscious awareness that we can only come to God through Jesus Christ. This awareness will show up in our prayers. At times we will pray things like, “God, the only reason I can make this request is because Jesus paid for my sins on the cross.”

What this definition of prayer explains is that we can only come to God because of Christ. Don’t ever get cavalier about coming to God. You should have no confidence if you are praying on your own merits. It’s only the merits of Christ that count.

with confession of our sins…

1 John 1:9 (ESV) If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (cf. Dan 9:4; Ps 32:5-6; Ps 66:18)

It saddens me that some Christians believe that salvation means they never need to admit they’re a sinner again. That’s just wrong. Sin still indwells you and affects the quality of your prayers. The Apostle Peter claimed that a husband’s prayers could be hindered by his disobedience (1 Peter 3:7).

You and I probably cannot admit that we’re sinners too often. Confessing sin benefits us in several ways.

  • Growth in humility
  • Ability to be gracious to others that sin against us.
  • A cleansing of our conscience in our relationship with God.
  • A regular return to the truths of the Gospel—even that sin is paid for. An appreciation for the Gospel.

and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.

Philippians 4:6 (ESV) do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. (cf. Ps 103:1-5)

It is good to thank God for His mercies. You have received grace from him today. We’re so blind to God’s overflowing grace and mercy. Gratitude gets us better at seeing moments of His mercy. What can you thank God for already this day?

May you and I pray better and more often.

How to Know If a Sin Characterizes a Professing Believer

The New Testament has several passages that claim certain sins cannot characterize genuine believers (Gal 5:19-21; Eph 5:3-5; etc.). These passages mean that some people that claim salvation don’t actually possess it.

That begs the question, what does it mean to be characterized by a sin? If believers can commit any or all of those sins (and they can), but they cannot be characterized by them, then what constitutes being characterized by these sins?

I think another of the Apostle Paul’s epistles helps us.

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. 1 Cor 6:9–11 (ESV)

This occurs in a section forbidding lawsuits among believers, and it seems like a rough segue by Paul. He prefaces this paragraph by saying don’t be deceived. Apparently, what Paul is about to say is controversial. He knew that it’s easy to get it wrong even though what he says is very plain. It’s important that you get this right because your eternal destiny could be in danger. Going astray from the truth (being deceived) in this context means believing that these sins could characterize a genuine believer. No. Believers don’t habitually commit these sins. Don’t be deceived. Don’t let your sin tell you otherwise.

Paul then lists ten sins in verses 9 and 10.

  • sexual immorality
  • idolatry
  • adultery
  • passive homosexuals
  • active homosexuals
  • thievery
  • covetousness
  • drunkenness
  • slander
  • swindling

The passage says that none of these sins can characterize believers. Unbelievers will not inherit salvation, and these sins are characteristic of unbelievers. So what does it mean that these sins characterize you?

Here’s how I’ve thought through this.

No One Sin Is Worse than Another—Any Is Evidence that You Are Unregenerate

That’s not how we look at this list, is it? There’s one sin reflected in two words that we think is worse than any other sin on the list.

The two words for homosexual conduct have some controversy, but only because it’s not culturally acceptable to say that engaging in homosexuality is sin. It’s hard to deny the plain understanding of condemning homosexuality in these two words unless you have a bias or an agenda. There is no linguistic controversy here.

So homosexual behavior is clearly condemned, but it’s no worse than any other sin on the list. Any of these sins is evidence that you are unregenerate—that you’ve not truly been saved.

It’s just our culture that singles out homosexuality. Corinthian culture might have said that covetousness was the worst sin on the list. Corinth was a sex-drenched city, so the sexual sins on the list probably didn’t seem so bad to them. But covetousness might have been frowned upon.

Both the Corinthians and us are wrong if we try to single out a sin and say that one is worse than the others. It’s not. Any sin on this list is evidence that you are unregenerate. Greed is just as likely to keep you out of the kingdom as homosexuality.

No One-Off Is Condemning—It’s the Inability to Say No to Your Sin that Condemns

Paul is not telling us that the single slip makes your salvation questionable. It’s the persistent unrestrained practice of these sins that prove your salvation was never genuine. 

These behaviors cannot characterize genuine Christians. Persisting in such sins is the problem. It’s the habitual practice of them. When you quit fighting the good fight against these sins, your profession of salvation is questionable.

This is again where we get it wrong. It’s not having homosexual temptations that proves you are unregenerate. It’s consistently giving in to them that proves you’re unregenerate. Just like it’s not having adulterous temptations that proves you’re unregenerate. It’s refusing to fight them and giving in that puts your salvation in danger.

As long as you are fighting the good fight against these sins, then you are not the one Paul is talking about. It’s when we give in and become characterized by them that we are in danger. The occasional slip-up is not what Paul is talking about here. It’s the habitual practice of these sins that puts your salvation in jeopardy.

What About Homosexuals (and Others) that Still Claim Christ?

Sometimes homosexuals that claim Christ and their sin will say essentially, “Nothing is different. I still love Christ. I’m just being true to who I am.” You could have this discussion about many of the sins on the list. A drunkard can say that he’s being true to who he is. So could the fornicator. And then they go a step further and say it hasn’t affected their relationship with God. “My prayer life is just as good—maybe better—than it ever has been.” Is it possible that nothing is different?

Do we believe God’s Word or do we believe their experience? One likely answer to this dilemma is this. Their Christianity has always been external. They may have grown up in church and served in so many ways, but they’ve never known a real relationship with God, so nothing is different. It was all works righteousness before, and it’s still works righteousness. God was absent from their religious experience before, and He’s still absent. They never were genuinely saved, that’s why they don’t notice a difference.

Remember how Paul starts verse 9? Don’t be deceived. They are deceived.

What About Addictions?

If someone is addicted to alcohol—they’re a drunkard, does drunkenness characterize their life? Or if a young man is addicted to pornography, does that characterize his life?

I think the key with addictions is whether the person is fighting it or giving in. A believer will fight sin. He might have lots of failures and only a few successes, but he won’t give up. He will keep fighting until sin is eradicated in his life.

What does progress for a believer mired in an addiction look like? You should see incremental steps in the right direction. Ed Welch developed some guidelines, and I like them.[1]Edward T. Welch, “Breaking Pornography Addiction,” CCEF, https://www.ccef.org/resources/blog/breaking-pornography-addiction-part-1, Accessed on August 10, 2022.

  • A decrease in the frequency of a sin is a true good. It’s not good that you are still indulging in pornography, but if you are doing it less, you are going in the right direction.
  • A change in the actual nature of the sin is progress. If you are no longer having an affair or premarital sex, and now you are battling pornographic fantasy, it’s good that your struggle has changed from your actions to your imagination.
  • A change in the battleground is progress. When your battle has moved from purchasing materials or going onto explicit internet sites to battling the old fantasy tapes that are still in your mind, that’s movement in the right direction.
  • An increase in honesty and accountability is progress. You are moving forward when you are willing to be truly candid and accountable to a trusted friend, spouse, or pastor and say, “Here’s where I’m struggling.” An appropriate openness to others is a very significant step towards change.
  • Not always responding to difficult circumstances by indulging in sin is progress. If your life gets hard and instead of going straight to your fantasy life, you pray for help and ask others to pray for you, then God is at work.
  • Repenting more quickly is progress. Learning to go more quickly to the Lord of life, instead of wallowing for days, weeks, and months in the gloom of “I failed again,” is a sign that God is at work in your life.
  • Learning to love and consider the interest of real people is progress. Your immoral fantasies use other people in an imaginary world. Caring for others, even in small ways, means that Jesus is changing you

So a believer can be addicted to, but cannot be characterized by sin.

God’s Saving Grace Will Change Your Behavior

“And such were some of you.” What a great verse! The Corinthian church was full of ex-drunks, ex-fornicators, ex-idolaters, ex-swindlers, ex-adulterers, and ex-homosexuals. They were washed, sanctified, and justified.

If what I’ve said about the list of sins in 1 Cor 6:9-10 is true, and it is, then it’s possible that your fellow Christian that struggles with homosexual temptations is the genuine Christian, and you are the so-called one. They’re fighting against their temptations, but you’ve given in to yours. You don’t fight your slandering tongue. You don’t fight your covetous heart. Even though they’re tempted by a sin you find appalling, you’re the one in danger of hellfire because you love your sin. You don’t hate it. You covet all the time and don’t fight it. That’s not characteristic of a Christian.

Salvation changes people. They cannot habitually do the same sins they used to. You cannot experience God’s grace and have behavior that contradicts that grace.

Fight the good fight. The fact that I want to fight against these sins is evidence that my salvation is genuine. Real Christians hate these sins—even the ones that come naturally to them, like adultery. Fight them in the power of the Holy Spirit. Don’t give in.

References

References
1 Edward T. Welch, “Breaking Pornography Addiction,” CCEF, https://www.ccef.org/resources/blog/breaking-pornography-addiction-part-1, Accessed on August 10, 2022.

Awed by Favor

This past week I had the joy of speaking at our state association’s campground for a Family Camp. I was the morning speaker which means my time was supposed to be more teaching and applicational than preaching. Besides my wife and I experiencing some fun activities like jet skiing, zip-lining, slip-n-sliding, etc., it was an immense privilege to share God’s truth with people. Sometimes I feel like pinching myself to see if it’s real. Why would God allow me or really, anyone, to share his eternal truth with others? How come I get paid to be a conduit of God’s instruction for his people? I can empathize with the Apostle Paul’s thoughts.

I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service…. 1 Timothy 1:12 (ESV)

Pastor, Christian worker, godly layperson, there are lots of disappointments in serving other members of the family of God, but don’t forget that you are also immeasurable blessed. That God would allow us… would entrust us with the perfect, trustworthy Word of God is an awesome stewardship and amazing privilege. Whether you are teaching 2s&3s, the senior saints, or anyone in between, you have the joy of sharing truth that came from God! We can say with the Old Testament prophets, “thus sayeth the Lord.” How incredible!

I’ve had people come up to me and thank me for teaching them God’s Word. I’ve had them tell me that it was exactly what they needed at that moment. This has happened many times in group settings, but also individually. It’s been senior saints, teens, college students, young parents, and others. Why would God let me have that privilege? It’s too much to fathom.

Marriages have been healed by the truth of God’s Word. Straying teens have come to Christ through the preaching of God’s Word. Relationships have been reconciled by believers that finally understand what Scripture says. And I get to be part of all of that. A tiny part—it’s always God’s grace that changes someone—but God uses willing instruments.

Do you get the favor that God has bestowed on you? You know you’re not giving financial advice like a broker, right? You’re not teaching the three Rs like an elementary teacher. You’re not teaching CPR like a first-responder. All of those are important, but none match the majesty and glory of telling people what God has said in his Word. I’m stunned by the glory of our God as Scripture describes him, and I get to share that same astonishment with others.

I’m awed by the privilege and responsibility. I hope you are too. Never forget the grace bestowed on you.

I Hate Neediness. Do You?

My family has driven tens of thousands of miles for vacations and visiting family. We’ve driven to Florida, Maryland, Arizona, Wyoming—you get the picture. Our cars have always been iffy. We’ve never owned a new car or even a newer used car. However, we’ve also never been in an accident, and we’ve never had any real mechanical problems. We did have three flat tires within a few hours on one excursion, but that’s another story. 😉 We’ve trusted God and prayed for safety, and God has been gracious—especially with the amount of miles we have driven. One Spring break we drove from Minnesota to Maryland to North Carolina to Florida and back to Minnesota—over 3500 miles!

Last week we drove 10 hours home from Wyoming. At one point in Iowa the opposite lanes were completely blocked because of a motorcycle accident. The person was life-flighted out right from the highway. We saw the helicopter on the interstate. Less than 10 miles later we came across another accident that had just occurred where the interstate split—cars were in the opposite direction and blocking one of our lanes.

My kids are grown and we now drive to see them. They’re all over the country—from Florida to Washington State. I’m now fighting a spiritual battle that I don’t remember fighting as often when my kids were in our house. Maybe with how I introduced this, you guess I’m anxious about a car accident. No. That’s not really the case. However, my heart is anxious about a car breakdown. That’s far less serious, and yet it causes me far more angst. I pray and worry about our car having a mechanical problem on the highway. I pray, but I dream of getting a newer car that I wouldn’t have to fear might have mechanical problems. I want a dependable car rather than trusting my dependable God. Certainly it can be good stewardship to sell a car that’s too risky and buy a more dependable one. But in my heart it’s an exchange. I want a newer car because then I won’t have to trust God. That’s what I see in me.

It’s remarkably similar to why I maintain the balance in my savings account that I do. If a financial emergency comes, I will pray, but I don’t want to have to depend upon prayer. I want to know that I already have it covered in my savings. God has provided my savings, so certainly I’m dependent upon him somewhat. However, I don’t like to be unprepared. Maybe, rather, I don’t like to be needy.

Yet neediness is good in Scripture. It doesn’t seem good in my heart, but God likes it. I want to depend upon God when I know it will work out as I want. But that’s not really dependence, is it? God wants his people to call out to him. He wants them to depend upon him. If Proverbs 3:5-6 means anything, it means that.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Proverbs 3:5–6 (ESV)

Consider also,

I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. Psalm 121:1–2 (ESV)

I can have a full bank account and a new car, but it’s all unsuccessful if God is not watching over me. And he is.

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep. Psalm 127:1–2 (ESV)

I think as a family we’re done with the long trips for the summer. We have another one over Labor Day weekend, and I will need to trust God. I need to be needy. I must know and live as if dependence upon God and not my own plans is better. God, help me love neediness.

He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, 8 to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people. Psalm 113:7–8 (ESV)

Showing Up Mattered

Every Christian who serves sometimes wonders if his or her efforts are having any effect. With some people it’s not obvious that God is working. Am I really helping this person change? Does my faithfulness really matter?

I added a Youth Ministry Concentration to my M.Div. while in seminary and the primary faculty member suggested that I teach a Youth Sunday School class at my church. He warned me, however, that this particular group of 7th grade boys was notorious. Several teachers had quit over the past year, and he didn’t want me to be another one–these boys didn’t need that. He related to me that the teacher just before me was another seminary student who naively promised the guys on his first Sunday that he wasn’t going to quit on them—he lasted about a month.

The youth pastor at my church was a friend of mine; we had worked at the same Christian camp one summer and were now in seminary together, so I wanted to help him out while also investigating if youth ministry was for me.

While my wife attended an adult S.S. class, coincidentally taught by the father of one of the 7th grade boys in my class, I made my way to my class on that first Sunday. It’s not my default to be optimistic, but I was certainly naïve. I wondered how bad could they really be? I was a little late finding my way to the classroom—this church had famously labyrinthine hallways, and by the time I got there, the boys had arrived and had locked me out of the classroom. They saw me and heard my knocking, but wouldn’t open the door. I had to get my youth pastor friend so he could unlock the classroom for me! He gave them a talking to that morning before I could even get into the day’s lesson.

On one of the next Sundays they stole my curriculum and hid it. For a while they wouldn’t tell me where it was. They were a rambunctious lot: interrupting me, not listening, intentionally creating distractions, speaking out of turn, trying to sidetrack me—it seemed they were purposely trying to annoy me. I continued to invest in them primarily on Sunday mornings, but I also went to Winter Retreat Camp with them as their counselor (they loved shooting me with paintballs!). We did work days and other teen activities together. I was their teacher for 7th, 8th, and one half of 9th grade. By that time I was done with seminary and was moving away to my first ministry. This isn’t a Hallmark story. They didn’t come up and hug me on my last day, and there are a few whose lives since then have proved they were never believers. But they knew that I didn’t quit. I was their longest serving teacher.

Picture taken on my last day teaching them.

About ten years later one of those boys that was married and on the road representing a Christian college stayed at our house. He confessed that all the boys decided that first day of class to see if they could make me quit. They literally plotted this together! It wasn’t personal; they really didn’t even know me until that first day. It’s just that others had quit, and they suspected they could make me quit too. They were, as my wife said at the time, “naughty little boys.” They were hoping to set a record for how fast I would quit; they actually discussed that. I’ve had others in that class confirm that story since then. It’s funny now, but it was certainly difficult at the time.

A surprising number of them went to seminary and into vocational ministry serving as pastors and at least one as a missionary in a closed country. Others are active in their churches. I don’t live on the East Coast where I went to seminary, but over the years I’ve run into a few of them and now we laugh about their antics. Their spiritual growth had very little to do with me; I don’t remember one lesson that I taught them those 2.5 years. But they had parents that had the patience of Job and the wisdom of Solomon and a youth pastor that loved them. And, most importantly, they had a God that was working in their hearts even when I couldn’t see it.

I thank God for those 7th grade boys. They taught me dependence upon God. I found out that God’s grace could keep me serving even if it were difficult. Sure, probably most people could have endured an hour a week (although several teachers that quit belie that claim) ministering to ungrateful little rascals. It wasn’t that impressive. But it is an example of God’s faithfulness to me. He gave me strength and actually joy (?!) every week as I anticipated serving them.

I was just trying to be faithful as God commands.

Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. 1 Cor 4:2 (ESV)

Faithfulness is not all that is required for effective ministry. Other attributes are important too. However, sometimes that’s what ministry is. Being faithful in the little things and trusting God even when His work seems invisible or impossible. The little things are where we show faithfulness. For those boys and for me, just showing up every Sunday mattered.

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