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.

Stop Being Fearful; Start Being Joyful

In college I had a professor that summarized the message of Christmas as “Stop being fearful; start being joyful.”[1]Thanks Dr. Doug McLachlan! This is from Luke 2 where the angel tells the shepherds not to fear, and he also brings them good tidings of great joy for all people (2:10). I’ve remembered this Christmas summary ever since then.  

In the midst of the busyness of this season, it’s hard to find time to consider Christ, isn’t it? Probably most of us have thought at one time or another that this time of year is so busy that we almost dread it. We’ve taken this special time of the year when we could consider Christ and we’ve made it so busy, so crazy, so frantic, that we don’t consider Him.

And it doesn’t help that our world has some suggestions for the message of Christmas.

  1. It’s a commercialized, trivialized story we see on TV specials or read in Instagram posts.
  2. It’s the story of every Christmas movie at this time of year—families overcoming their differences and getting together for a special day.
  3. It’s a time when we celebrate a fat man in a red suit who sneaks down chimneys at night. 😉
  4. It’s a time when we try to have warm feelings towards our fellow man.

But I think my professor summarized it far better than any message the world gives us.

Stop Being Fearful

Clearly the shepherds are being told not to be afraid of the angel standing before them and the brightness of the glory of the Lord (2:9). They’ve never seen anything like this. Fear would be a natural response in these circumstances. However, it’s an unnecessary response.

Maybe fear is the natural response to your circumstances. You’re uncertain about the future. Life in 2021 hasn’t gone as you expected it to go. But like the Shepherds on the night Christ was born, your fear is unnecessary.

Because of that babe in the manger, you and I don’t have to fear. Why? Why is fear the wrong response to your circumstances? For the same reasons that joy is the right response to Christ’s birth.

Your biggest need was not financial. Your biggest need was not relational. Your biggest need was not emotional. Your biggest need was not health. Your biggest need was your estrangement from God because of your sin. And the birth of Jesus took care of that (Luke 2:10-11). Jesus came so that He could die as the perfect sacrifice for our sin. The Bible tells us that all people are sinners and that their sin separates them from God.

Romans 3:23, 6:23 (ESV) for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.... For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

But because Jesus was born, lived, died for your sin, and rose again, you can have peace with God.

Colossians 2:13–14 (ESV) And you, who were dead in your trespasses [separated from God] and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us [you couldn’t keep God’s law.] with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. [You were guilty, but God nailed your sins to the cross.]

Peace is a great quality to have. It’s a good state to be in. It only comes through Jesus Christ. In fact, you and I can have peace in the midst of swirling circumstances.

Like the angel commanded the shepherds, you can stop being fearful because Jesus came to take care of your sin.

There is so much to fear in this world. Because of Jesus, I don’t have to fear financial collapse, war, environmental ruin, terrorism, aging, health issues, the future, viruses, or even my own death. I can stop being fearful.

Start Being Joyful

Our world is not very joyful. Oh we could find some people at a bar or someplace today having a good time, and I’m sure they would say that they are joyful. But biblical joy doesn’t come from outside circumstances (Jam 1:2).

One of the greatest American humorists ever to live was Mark Twain. In his day, he really made people laugh. However, in his personal life he was plagued with depression and sorrow. When his daughter Jean died, Twain reportedly said to a friend, “I’ve never greatly envied anyone but the dead. I always envy the dead”

Jesus said, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11, ESV). Paul tells us that “the fruit of the Spirit is… joy (Gal. 5:22, ESV). God wants to develop inside you a joy that flows out as a result of your relationship with Him.

Joy is a divine gift of God to believers. First Peter 1:8 says, “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (ESV).

Just like we are commanded not to fear, we are also commanded to be joyful. Philippians 4:4 says, “Rejoice in the Lord always. again I will say, rejoice” (ESV).

It’s been 2000 years, but I still believe you can stop being fearful and start being joyful because of the incarnation of Christ. That baby in the manger is the answer to our fears and the source of our joys.

Merry Christmas!

References

References
1 Thanks Dr. Doug McLachlan!

Massaging the Message: Believing the Gospel Needs Our Help

Have you ever been to a tent revival? When I was a child our church joined with other city churches to hold a tent revival for a week. Maybe it surprises you, but some churches were still holding tent meetings in the late ‘70s. They actually set up a tent in the parking lot of Lambeau Field where the Packers played, which for residents of Green Bay was about the best location ever. Since it was a tent, we got to use the bathrooms inside the stadium which I thought was really cool. An elderly evangelist and his college team came in to conduct the nightly services, and he led come-forward invitations at the end of each service. This means that when he finished preaching the gospel, the audience would sing several verses of a Christian song (a favorite was Just As I Am) and people were invited to come to the front and get saved. Lots of people have trusted Christ that way.

I found out later that the evangelist had some directions for the churches to make the invitations more effective. Each church was supposed to assign certain people to come forward on each line of the first few verses of the invitation song. So as the audience starts singing, a few adults were supposed to leave their chairs and come forward. Then some more on the second line, and more on the third, and so on. They weren’t coming forward to talk to those that might be genuinely repentant and need some help understanding the gospel. No, they were essentially pretending that they were genuinely convicted by the Spirit. It was supposed to make it easier for an unbeliever to make the decision to come forward and talk to the evangelist and be directed to someone that could help them walk through the gospel.

I don’t know what you think about that. The deceit bothers me—pretending to be moved by the Spirit when you are not. I think it’s a gimmick. I think it’s manipulative. And I don’t think it’s how Paul presented the gospel.

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Cor 2:1-5, ESV)

Paul didn’t shape his message to appeal to the Corinthian culture. He didn’t try to manipulate his audience into trusting Christ. In fact, he was doing it all wrong. He didn’t come to Corinth and share the Gospel in any ways that took away the shame of the message, the unimpressiveness of the called, or the foolishness of his own presentation.

This should be encouraging. Paul didn’t do anything “right” and yet the Gospel took root in people’s lives, and a church was planted in Corinth. The success of the Gospel doesn’t depend upon you and your cleverness.

Sometimes we think that if we only had the exact right word at the right time, our neighbor, friend, or family member would trust Christ. Not so. Everything was against the Gospel in Corinth and God still planted His church. Paul didn’t have a great delivery—nobody was coming to hear his amazing oratory—and people still trusted Christ. Paul didn’t have a powerful personality—nobody was impressed by his charisma—and people still trusted Christ.

We share the Gospel and trust God for the results. We do have to share the Gospel, but the success of it doesn’t depend upon your words or your personality. Both Paul’s delivery and his message weren’t persuasive by the world’s standards. That’s encouraging. Frankly, if the success of my witness depends upon me, I will feel a lot of pressure. I know I’m an inadequate witness, and I will get discouraged from even sharing the gospel. But I just need to be faithful in sharing. God will do the work.

From the world’s perspective they had a terrible message, embarrassing converts, and a poor salesman in Paul. Yet, the gospel changed lives. The Spirit’s power is the only explanation.

If God can use Paul’s feeble presentation to save some in Corinth, he can use your awkward presentation with your neighbor. So trust God and take courage. You and I can do this. By God’s grace we can share the crucified Christ, and by the Spirit’s power we can see some trust Christ.  

The New Puritans Don’t Do Forgiveness

In an interesting article in The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum decries modern cancel culture, pointing out that some feel trapped in a world of unforgiveness. Who’s trapped?

  • An editor of the New York Review of Books that “was not accused of assault, just of printing an article by someone who was—Ian Buruma discovered that several of the magazines where he had been writing for three decades would not publish him any longer.” 
  • Daniel Elder, a prizewinning composer (and a political liberal) posted a statement on Instagram condemning arson in his hometown of Nashville, where Black Lives Matter protesters had set the courthouse on fire after the killing of George Floyd, he discovered that his publisher would not print his music and choirs would not sing it.
  • Alexi McCammond was named editor in chief of Teen Vogue, and then people discovered and recirculated on Instagram old anti-Asian and homophobic tweets she had written a decade earlier, while still a teenager. McCammond apologized, of course, but that wasn’t enough, and she was compelled to quit the job before starting.
  • One former journalist told Applebaum that his ex-colleagues “don’t want to endorse the process of mistake/apology/ understanding/forgiveness—they don’t want to forgive.” Instead, he said, they want “to punish and purify.” But the knowledge that whatever you say will never be enough is debilitating. “If you make an apology and you know in advance that your apology will not be accepted—that it is going to be considered a move in a psychological or cultural or political game—then the integrity of your introspection is being mocked and you feel permanently marooned in a world of unforgivingness… And that is a truly unethical world.”[1]Anne Applebaum, “The New Puritans,” The Atlantic, August 31, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/10/new-puritans-mob-justice-canceled/619818/.

Applebaum calls the self-righteous mob the New Puritans, and they are professional shunners. When “sinners” offer the apologies demanded, they know they won’t be accepted. They truly are trapped in a world of unforgiveness.

Unbelievers talk about forgiveness, but mostly just to say that something or someone cannot be forgiven. Cancel culture is just the latest example of unforgiveness, but we have been an unforgiving people from the beginning. Outside of Christ changing us, how could anyone forgive a debt—and that’s what forgiveness is. An offender has a debt that only the offended can write off. How can anyone do that? Only believers can, and only believers that recognize they have sinned greatly against the King and inexplicably been shown mercy (Mt 18:23-35).

So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. Matthew 18:26–27 (ESV)

If you don’t understand and appreciate the gospel, you will never be a forgiving person. We who have been so generously forgiven, must generously grant forgiveness.

Forgiveness is an exclusively Christian virtue. I’ve seen marriages invaded by adultery fully restored. Not left in an uneasy truce, not left weakened and ill, but completely reconciled and whole. I’ve seen daily verbal assaults and general selfishness of a spouse forgiven. A marriage that should have so much distance after years and years of sin has become a glorious example of Christ’s love for the Church. I’ve seen siblings reconciled after incredible hurt has been done. Again, I’m not describing holding the offender at arm’s length after proclaiming forgiveness. I’m describing real reconciliation. Can your religion—or irreligion—do that? I don’t think so.

Have you ever thought about whom[2]Meaning, which person? All of our sin is ultimately against God, Ps 51:4 you’ve sinned against most in your life? For me, it’s easy. I’ve been married 29 years, and while I’ve sinned against my parents, my siblings, and my own children, I’ve sinned most against my wife, and it’s not even close. Yet she is the one person I am closest to in this world. We are best friends. How? God has forgiven her, and therefore she regularly (often daily) forgives me. That’s the only explanation. So many marriages eventually crumble under the cumulative weight of each other’s undealt with, unforgiven sin. Why is ours stronger than it was before I started sinning against her almost three decades ago? There is only one answer—Christ-honoring, God-glorifying, Gospel-motivated forgiveness.

Real, genuine, biblical forgiveness is amazing. The world has nothing like it. They have no way of healing broken relationships. They continue to harbor bitterness. Only God could come up with forgiveness. The New Puritans don’t do forgiveness. They don’t do grace. They don’t do mercy. Aren’t you glad that God does all three, and because he does, we can as well?

References

References
1 Anne Applebaum, “The New Puritans,” The Atlantic, August 31, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/10/new-puritans-mob-justice-canceled/619818/.
2 Meaning, which person? All of our sin is ultimately against God, Ps 51:4

Hebrews 2:9 and New Coke?

Do you remember New Coke? You have to be a certain age even to be aware of this story. It happened during my teen years, so I remember this pretty well.

In the Spring of 1985 some knuckleheads at Coke decided they would launch the reformulation of Coca Cola to compete with their rival, Pepsi. Obviously this was months, even years in the making.

Just after World War II Coke’s market share was 60%. By the 1980s it had fallen to 24% and Pepsi was beginning to outsell Coke in supermarkets. Coke was still dominant because of its vending machines and restaurant sales, but the executives thought the handwriting was on the wall. They were scared.

Pepsi was promoting taste tests that kept coming back with Pepsi being the preferred drink. Coke downplayed them, but their own internal research showed the same thing. They were afraid Pepsi was going to overtake them.

So in a bit of hubris they decided to change the taste of Coke and make it sweeter, like Pepsi’s taste. They completely eliminated the old Coke formula and went 100% with New Coke. They were all in. It was a marketing disaster. Within three months they brought back the taste of Coke under the Coke Classic brand name. Eventually that went away and New Coke died the death it needed to die. Coke completely reverted to its original formula.

Why did they change the formula? Why not just add the New Coke taste as another product and still keep the Old Coke too?

I read a story on this a few years ago in the book, Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell that said part of the problem was how they conducted taste tests in the ‘80s. Pepsi was winning taste tests head-to-head with Coke, but they were a particular kind of taste test. They were actually called sip tests. As you can guess, you didn’t drink an entire can, you just took a sip or a small cup. And in sip tests Pepsi would win hands down. But the problem is nobody drinks pop like that. Nobody takes a sip and puts it back in the fridge. Another taste test involved giving tasters a case of Pepsi and a case of Coke and checking back with them in a few weeks. In those home tests Coke would win.

So the Coke executives changed the formula for Coke on the basis of sip tests even though that’s not really the way to taste a product.

Hebrews 2:9 (ESV) But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

Jesus tasted death for all of us, and it’s important to know that this wasn’t a sip test. The word “taste” might make us think that it was just a little mouthful, but that’s not the intention of the Greek word.

When our oldest son was a baby, my in-laws visited us one time. We were at a restaurant and I think my mother-in-law put a little pop in the end of a straw and put it on Justin’s tongue. His little baby face showed shock at the taste of Coke. You could say that he tasted Coke.

The word in Hebrews 2:9 doesn’t mean a taste like that. It actually means that Jesus thoroughly tasted death. He experienced it all. He didn’t take a sip test or just the little drop in the end of a straw. He drank it all.

This means that we don’t have to face death like Jesus did. He took the punishment for sin. He faced God’s wrath in death so we don’t have to.

Jesus tasted death for you. That’s what this passage says. Now it’s not saying that you won’t die if you trust Jesus. He’s saying that death has been stripped of its power, or its horror. We don’t need to fear death. You will die should Christ tarry His coming, but you won’t experience what makes death truly horrible—separation from God.

Paul the Apostle says it this way.

1 Corinthians 15:55 (ESV) “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

Death has been stripped of its sting for the Christian. Jesus faced the sting of death. He was separated from God the Father for six hours on the cross so you don’t have to be. God the Father condemned Jesus as He became sin for us. That’s the sting of death and Jesus took it for you.

Death has been emptied of its power for the believer. We don’t need to fear it. Many Christians have believed this at the point of death, and they have calmly, joyfully, gone to see their heavenly Father.

Now, because of Jesus, we don’t lose with death. We only gain. We gain heaven. We gain Christ. We gain freedom from sin. We gain presence with the Lord. Death has been emptied of its power by the One who tasted death for every man.

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