My Problem With Prayer

I have a hard time praying, not because I don’t believe God can answer prayer, but because I overthink the process. So I try to pray because God’s Word quite clearly directs us to pray constantly (Ephesians 6:18; 1 Thessalonians 5:17) even though I fail miserably.

Christ-followers of different stripes profess all sorts of beliefs about prayer. The brethren I truly admire simply obey God’s Word from a simple, childlike faith, without cognitive conflicts. They are the ones who pray for miracles and watch God provide those miracles. Unlike some believers who demand God’s obedience to their prayers, they don’t just pray in Jesus’ Name; they live in Jesus’ Name.

My problem with praying is the opposite of those who demand answers to their prayers, and it’s because of one Scripture passage:

The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. (James 5:16b)

While I correctly claim for myself the righteousness of Jesus, there is no way I can consider my life righteous in the sense of living without fault. Though I must claim God’s grace over my faults, I can’t ignore other Scripture passages that instruct us to be righteous:

If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone also who practices righteousness is born of Him. (1 John 2:29)
Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous. (1 John 3:7)
For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.” (Romans 1:17)

Where are my answers to prayer?

I’ve prayed for the same things over the years, things that would make me more Christlike, such as greater self-control, more active love, more intimacy with my Father God. I want to remember Scripture passages so I can recall them when needed for meditation or encouraging others. I want holy boldness to confront sin with love as my Savior did. I want to be remembered as a man after God’s own heart, and holy, because God is holy. And that’s all I want.

I ask, Is that too much, Lord?

His answer doesn’t satisfy, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” I know it’s true.

I ask, Why, then, do I not see godliness in my life?

He answers, So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight.

I ask, But I’m a mess, Lord. How can you use me like this?

He answers, Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?

I am humbled by His truth. Why couldn’t I see it before. Father, use me however you wish. As messed up as I am, I trust Your perfect judgment. Thank you, Lord, for all my faults and my strengths, for they are Yours.

THE PORN PROBLEM IN GOD’S CHURCH

I don’t know how old I was when I first became aware of pornography, but it impacted my life powerfully, taking over my mind and displacing wholesome priorities. But praise God, He gave me enough insight to keep me from pursuing the worst, most demeaning types of porn. Even so, my early exposure to that evil established a lifelong pattern that has interfered with God’s work in my life.

Most people might think that being born anew in God’s Spirit would end my fascination with porn, but it simply introduced a life-and-death battle where no such conflict existed before. Over the years I rationalized my appetite for erotic imagery by calling it a compulsion, but a particular Scripture passage dashed that deception:

No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it. Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. (1 Corinthians 10:13-14)

So much for that cherished rationalization. For me, the key truth here is idolatry, or placing something between myself and my God. In fact, I did exactly that with my “compulsion,” placing it outside of God’s reach, believing that He was unable to deliver me from that sin. Could that be anything but the most subtle of blasphemies?

Erotica is indeed common to man—and woman for that matter—and in the natural context of marriage between a man and a woman it is a beautiful thing. But porn is mass marketed erotica, and one of the enemy’s perversions of natural and good innate drives.


Fatal Attraction

What’s wrong with having a little fun? After all, no one really gets hurt, do they?

Oh my, where do I start? From personal experience I know that immersing myself in erotica both pulls the plug on my spiritual life support and interferes with my emotions and my creative and critical thought processes. Recognizing the spiritual aspect is no great stretch, but I suspect most people fail to realize how it messes with ones mind.

Think in the physical terms of a healthy lifestyle; most of us realize that our bodies work best when we take regular exercise and eat a well-balanced diet of minimally processed foods. The body receives both the exercise and the diet well because God created us for just that sort of natural maintenance.

We also have other needs, such as physical and emotional intimacy, and they are best satisfied when we meet them according to our Creator’s pattern. Shortcutting the satisfaction of those needs produces only frustration and heartache, and makes us ripe for the enemy’s picking.


The Lie

Every convincing lie is built around a kernel of truth, and the pursuit of sexual gratification through pornography is a powerful example of such truth-based falsehoods. God indeed created us with a powerful sexual drive that is fulfilled in a healthy marriage. Many husbands, however, tell themselves that porn’s erotic stimulation will help to spice up their marriages, often with their wives’ approval. Somehow they fail to recognize the probability that such perverse sexual gratification will displace their normal, healthy sexual relations. But men aren’t the only culpable parties to porn; many women consume “spicy,” romance novels that show a perverted view of romantic relationships, and that habit is every bit as damaging as graphic porn. Both encourage false ideals and expectations to which real people can’t possibly conform.

Such is the way of perversions. Whether they be sexual, food related, or the pursuit of prosperity, possessions, security, or the power-trip of dominance over others, they’re all based on some God-given drive gone horribly wrong.


My Erstwhile Prayer

For years I’ve prayed for God to deliver me from my compulsion to use porn for sexual release, issuing anguished cries of desperation and shame. Through my stubborn refusal to apprehend God’s victory, I managed to covertly blame God for not taking it away from me. My muddled mind interpreted God’s “failure” to deliver me from the need for such perverted sexual release as His implied permission to continue.

We regularly hear a particular Bible promise that should put all these desperate pleas to rest:

But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39)

Why are we so unbelieving that we regularly gloss over such beautiful promises? Somehow they are good in principle, but our issues are just too big for God’s power. BALDERDASH! Isn’t it remarkable how the flesh can pervert even such a beautiful, God-given resource as prayer?


The Pornographic Church

We church folks can easily understand the unchurched world’s dependence on sexual and all other forms of perversion. Yet, we fail to grasp how easily the world system erodes the church’s holiness. Pollsters tell us that church-goers are mere percentage points less likely to frequent pornography web sites than the unchurched, and among those, ministers are just as likely to develop the habit of viewing porn. In fact, some of the most vocal in their condemnation of sexual sin are themselves deeply stained by such virtual voyeurism.

My personal experience demonstrates the futility of trying to maintain an intimate relationship with God while chronically involved with pornography. We church folks find Christianese verbiage easy enough to spout, but though we practice a form of godliness, we deny its power (2 Timothy 3:5). Remember; shame kills intimacy, whether with God or with ones spouse.


The Remnant

Despite all the successful attacks on the church’s moral purity, God has maintained a remnant of chaste brothers and sisters in Christ. Are all the rest hell-bound for eternity? But for God’s amazing grace they would be. Does that mean we can freely gratify our fleshly drives without consequence? As Apostle Paul wrote, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1-2) We must remember that making excuses for our sin is actually self-justification, which in a real way rejects Christ’s justification, and we all know what that means.

To avoid our enemy’s condemnation, we must remember a key Scripture passage:

Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh. (Romans 8:1-3)

The operative phrase is, “for those who are in Christ Jesus,” so anyone trying to fudge a free pass for sin is flat out of luck.
Glance back to Romans 6:1&2 for a moment; the phrases, “continue in sin” and “live in it,” mean there’s a huge difference between living in sin and inadvertently sinning. We all experience moments of weakness when we yield to temptation, but a true Christ-follower gains no satisfaction from such behavior. That’s why Jesus gave us 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Despite having been made dead to sin, we are certainly not immune to temptation. In fact, we suffer greatly from grieving God’s Holy Spirit within us, and the only remedy is brokenhearted confession and heartfelt repentance.

If your relationship with Father God lacks intimacy, there’s a strong probability that you have allowed something to block your access to Him. Even if that something is addiction to pornography, Jesus has already won your victory over it.

Dump your depravity! Shuck your shame! Claim God’s precious promises for yourself and join His holy remnant as an ultimate conqueror.

My Fickle Friend

No, Olive Oyl isn’t my fickle friend. She was Popeye’s fickle friend, ever impressed with the muscular Bluto.

Is a fickle friend really a friend? We’ve all known people who seem friendly, clapping us on the back and cheering us on to accomplish the hard things, but how many of those “friends” stick “closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24) through both the fat times and the lean times? Through both elation and depression? Through both gain and loss?

I have such a fair-weather friend. He lives between my ears. He pumps me up with pride when I do well, but points the bony finger of condemnation when I blow it. The Bible calls him “the old man,” “carnality,” “the flesh,” or simply, “sin.”

Even the eminent St. Paul had trouble with his inner, fickle friend. In his presentation on the place of the law in believers’ lives, he wrote:

Romans 7:14-25 For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. (15) For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. (16) But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. (17) So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. (18) For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. (19) For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. (20) But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. (21) I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. (22) For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, (23) but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. (24) Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? (25) Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.

When I first read that, I was amazed how the apostle faced the same issues that I faced. Verse twenty-five confused me, though; how could he thank God when he couldn’t find victory over his, “body of sin and death?” But finally I turned the page to chapter eight:

Romans 8:1-4 Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (2) For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. (3) For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, (4) so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

There was the victory I had sought! I learned that it doesn’t matter what my fickle mind tells me, but God is faithful in all things and I can trust Him absolutely.

So my fickle friend still tries to steer me toward sin and self-condemnation, but I cling desperately to God’s precious promises, knowing that His love will give me the victory.

Make Ready, But …

Proverbs 21:31 presents a valuable admonition, and not just for cavalrymen preparing an attack: The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord.

“Preppers” might well embrace the first half of this Scripture verse, intending to survive the upcoming holocaust. I watched a couple of episodes of Doomsday Preppers, amazed at the lengths they were willing to go in preparation for any eventuality.

When I listen to conspiracy theorists and survivalists I begin to feel unsettled, wondering what I would do in a “SHTF” situation. Fortunately, though, faith trumps fear, and I realize that whatever God has in store for me is infinitely better than trying to take control of my own destiny. Besides, my Social Security income won’t support much in the way of fortresses, rolling gun platforms or food stores. If the wandering brigands decide a can of soup is more valuable than my life, I’ve already done the most important preparation of all; I wear the whole armor of God, so they may kill my body, or eat it for that matter, but I can confidently agree with the author of Hebrews in chapter thirteen:

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say,

“The Lord is my helper;
    I will not fear;
what can man do to me?”

Through the Perp’s Eyes

While watching a murder mystery on Netflix (yes, I watched a secular TV program), I thought of how predictable such police dramas really are. The detective’s investigation presents certain telling facts to him, or her, as in the case of Miss. Marple, that the audience only knows about because of a change in the music track’s tone. At the climactic expose, the brilliant detective gathers everyone involved in the mystery and dramatically reveals everyone’s motives for committing the crime and all his clues until he points his finger at the perpetrator, who usually makes a silly attempt at escaping.

I wondered what sort of drama would unfold if the whole story were spun through the perp’s eyes. We would witness his disadvantaged childhood and his falling in with the wrong crowd, or the heinous act that drove him to murder. We would watch him plan the perfect murder, and applaud him for trying not to hurt any bystanders. We’d follow the insensitive detective’s investigation draw ever nearer to the poor, misunderstood murderer, hoping against hope that he would somehow escape. And if the program were executed well enough, we might even draw a tear or two when our hero is captured and sentenced to death.

As the prophet Nathan told King David, “Thou art the man!” The world doesn’t call us criminals because we sin, but we’re exactly that in God’s eyes. He sees the murder in our hearts when we hate another, or the inner adultery when we lust after that attractive someone, or our secret idolatry when we envy what doesn’t belong to us. Yet, even though we may be aware of those sins, we excuse them because, “I had good reason for that,” or, “I didn’t do anything really wrong.”

Apostle John tells us, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. (1 John 1) First comes conviction of sin, understanding that you are not perfect and are, in fact, a depraved sinner. Second comes heart-felt confession, which includes repentance. Then comes forgiveness and renewed innocence, leading to a changed life.

Quit looking at your life, “through the perp’s eyes,” and see yourself through the Judge’s eyes. It’ll pay eternal benefits.

Nevertheless

Jesus used that long word (or the Aramaic word translated as such) in His prayer while sweating blood in Gethsemane. He knew exactly what would happen in just a few hours. And He hated it.

So, why did He hate what was about to happen? Why did His sweat become “like great drops of blood falling down to the ground“? (Luke 22:44) The man Jesus saw His Father God turning away from Him, forsaking Him because He bore the world’s sin-guilt. “Nevertheless,” Jesus knew it was not a betrayal of His love, but that God—the Almighty God in whose palm rests the entire universe—had no choice but to turn away.

“Nevertheless,” the man Jesus resolved to endure all that sinful man could do to Him. Betrayed by those He existed to save, abandoned by His friends, mocked, tortured and crucified by the reprobate Roman garrison, yet perfectly innocent, He became the true Lamb of God.

You’ve no doubt heard this story hundreds or thousands of times. “Nevertheless,” we must all keep fresh in our minds the single most powerful proof of God’s unconditional love for His wayward creation, and realizing that, resolve to love our families, our brethren, and yes, our enemies as He loves us, who were His enemies. We must love—the action, not the feeling—in every deed, in every word, in every thought, because we want to be like Him.

C.S. Lewis on the Attractiveness of True Holiness

Here’s an excerpt from a letter that Uncle Jack wrote in 1953:

I am so glad you gave me an account of the lovely priest. How little people know who think that holiness is dull. When one meets the real thing (and perhaps, like you, I have met it only once), it is irresistible. If even 10% of the world’s population had it, would not the whole world be converted and happy before a year’s end? (from The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, vol. III)

How right he is. I’ve walked the path toward holiness—note, I didn’t say I’ve achieved it—for much of my adult life, and I’m seldom bored. Apostle Paul told us that we are dead to sin. Why, then, is living without sinning impossible for me? And I think it’s not just my own personal problem; Apostle John told us that … well, I’ll let him speak for God directly:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10 NKJV)

Anyone who says John wrote that to non-believers hasn’t read its context. While we are dead to sin, temptations and their resulting sins still plague us. So, if we are dead to sin, which God says we are through Jesus’ redemptive act, why do we still sin? Looking back to Romans 6:2, the apostle says, “How shall we who died to sin live in it any longer?”

Please know that this isn’t a cop out, but there’s a huge difference between living in sin and occasionally sinning. I make sense of it by comparing my attitude toward sin before I was saved, to that of after I was saved: From shortly after my birth to when I confessed my sinfulness and asked God to have His way with me, I sought out opportunities to sin. It was my way of life, and I didn’t want it any different. While my horrendous sins were relatively minor compared to some, I came to realize that God doesn’t grade on a curve. A deliberate lie is just as damning as adultery or murder, and I was a liar from early childhood.

Thing is, we’re habitual critters, and the life we live before we come to understand and accept the gospel leaves us with certain … ah … regrettable behavioral patterns. But God understands that and grants us grace as long as we refuse to take it for granted, striving to grow ever closer to God and live in a way that glorifies Him. And believe me, that is anything but boring.

C.S. Lewis, on Forgiveness of Sins

Topsy Turvy Church

This passage is from The Weight of Glory by C.S. Lewis. Though some may take exception to the idea that Christians aren’t automatically forgiven for all sins, he makes a very good Biblical point.

We say a great many things in church (and out of church too) without thinking of what we are saying. For instance, we say in the Creed “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” I had been saying it for several years before I asked myself why it was in the Creed. At first sight it seems hardly worth putting in. “If one is a Christian,” I thought, “of course one believes in the forgiveness of sins. It goes without saying.” But the people who compiled the Creed apparently thought that this was a part of our belief which we needed to be reminded of every time we went to church. And I have begun to see that, as far as I am concerned, they were right. To believe in the forgiveness of sins is not nearly so easy as I thought. Real belief in it is the sort of thing that very easily slips away if we don’t keep on polishing it up.

We believe that God forgives us our sins; but also that He will not do so unless we forgive other people their sins against us. There is no doubt about the second part of this statement. It is in the Lord’s Prayer; was emphatically stated by our Lord. If you don’t forgive you will not be forgiven. No part of His teaching is clearer, and there are no exceptions to it. He doesn’t say that we are to forgive other people’s sins provided they are not too frightful, or provided there are extenuating circumstances, or anything of that sort. We are to forgive them all, however spiteful, however mean, however often they are repeated. If we don’t, we shall be forgiven none of our own.

The Scripture passage to which he referred is from Matthew 6:11-15. One could try to dispute Lewis’ conclusion, but the Lord was pretty clear about it. Maybe you will tell me that He was speaking at that moment from the Law Dispensation, since He hadn’t as yet performed His Redemptive Act.

I’m afraid that goose won’t fly, friend. As with the balance of His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke from the only perspective he had, that of grace. Why would He speak from the Law’s perspective when He would, in a short time, fulfill the Law?

If you insist on the Law idea, what about First Corinthians’ love chapter? Remember all the awful things St. Paul did before he met Jesus? Loving forgiveness did not come naturally to that Pharisee. He had hated Christians and Gentiles, but he taught unconditional love to the Corinthian church.

Nope, if you harbor a grudge, refusing to love and forgive anyone, you can’t expect Jesus’ blood to cover your unconfessed sin. Otherwise, you’d be no better off than members of the Islamic State or the KKK. Is your grudge worth that?

Lord, Don’t Let Me Fall

Falling isn’t fun, whether it’s caused by clumsy feet or weak spiritual will. By God’s grace, however, the latter isn’t necessarily fatal. Psalms 37: 23-24 says, The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord, And He delights in his way. Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down; For the Lord upholds him with His hand. (NKJV)

Lots of people try to avoid sinning because they’re afraid of going to hell; they view God as the Heavenly Parole Officer, just waiting to slap the eternal cuffs onto their weak wrists. The Lord’s apostle John took a different view: There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.  (1 John 4:18 ESV) According to that powerful passage, we are not to fear God’s punishment. But how can be “perfected in love”? Verse nineteen gives us the answer to that key question. We love because he first loved us.  (4:19)

So then, loving God is automatic for Christians. Right? Wrong! Just because we’ve, “decided to follow Jesus,” doesn’t mean we know of God’s love in giving His Son over to ridicule, torture, and death to free us from the eternal penalty of our sin’s guilt. To know of God’s love we must at least begin to know God, and only His Holy Spirit, working through our ever-deepening understanding of His Word by prayer and meditation, can give us that knowledge. But heed Apostle Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 8:1, Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that all of us possess knowledge. This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. Some in the Corinthian church understood the liberty we have in Christ, but they were proud of that knowledge and ridiculed the “weaker brethren” without such understanding. Bible knowledge alone makes us no better than Satan’s minions. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe–and shudder!  (James 2:19)

While I’m not afraid of going to hell—praise God! Jesus took care of that—I am petrified of damaging my Savior’s holy name through my thoughtlessness and sin. When I pray, “Lord, don’t let me fall,” I’m deadly serious. I love my Lord and will not besmirch His name.

 

Where Is Your Closest Idol?

An idol is anything you place between yourself and God. It’s something to which you pray and offer sacrifices. The Bible speaks of idols manufactured of wood, stone, silver and gold, but it doesn’t limit them to those materials. Idols can be of flesh and blood. Instead of the dumb idols of heathen religions, we hold idols such as money, possessions, property, vocations, recreation, power, and even loved ones, if we place a higher priority on them than on God. But possessing idols doesn’t stop there; if we spend more time primping before our mirrors than offering our heartfelt praise and petitions to the only living God, we have an idol. If the TV demands more of our time than ministering to our families, or helping others in need, we have an idol. The same could be said of gaming, shopping, or even working. If that is the case we may just have idols.

How can we pray and offer sacrifices to all those things? If we gain gratification from them in exchange for time offered to them, they may be our idols.

Please don’t think I’m trying to guilt trip you. I’m not suggesting that you have to live as a monk, constantly praying and reading your Bible. Not at all! I’m simply urging you to keep worldly pursuits and spiritual pursuits in balance. For instance, after a day’s work in the New Life Center thrift store … my sore feet prove it … I looked forward to just vegging with Netflix, but after watching one program I felt led to read today’s Our Daily Bread, which suggested this topic.

Am I “Saint James” for doing that? Hardly! I simply enjoyed a moment’s lucidity, motivated, I’m sure, by God’s Holy Spirit. He wanted to speak to me through the devotional which, in turn, motivated me to write this piece, preaching to myself all the while. I don’t know how to type with fingers pointed back at myself, but I’m trying (figuratively).

Don’t think that praying and offering sacrifices to yourself is always positive. I well know that engaging in negative self-talk, instead of asking God for positive change, can be a prayer of sorts. I also know that flagellating yourself emotionally can produce a perverse sort of self-gratification. I know because I spent many years doing just that, even after I offered my life to God through Jesus. Nothing can be a greater joy-kill than negative self-talk.

Our most devastating idols are the ones closest to us, because they make seeing beyond them well nigh impossible. Please, pray for God to open your eyes to all the idols in your life, then ask Him to give you the grace to strike them down. Only then will you gain power over them. God worked through prayer in the Old Testament, and He can work for you now.