Friday, April 3, 2015

MOVIE REVIEW: Killing Jesus

Killing Jesus", the movie based on the book by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard, debuted on National Geographic channel last Sunday night, and we decided to watch it. Although I had not read the book, I had read the first two books in the series, "Killing Lincoln" and "Killing Kennedy", and had also seen the NatGeo films based on those books.  I thought both the books and the movies were quite good.  However, I went into this one with some apprehension, as I had heard that they were going to be showing the life of Jesus from a "historical" perspective.  This can often mean that the writers or producers of the work are going to disregard the most authoritative and complete source about Jesus, the Bible. Yet, I tried to go into it with an open mind.  I decided to "Live-tweet" my reaction on Twitter and invited my followers to read and react.  

It didn't take long to find out that my apprehensions about the movie were not unfounded. Although a few scenes in the movie were well-done (such as the scene of the woman caught in adultery), I found three huge problems with the Jesus portrayed in "Killing Jesus."

1.  The Jesus in "Killing Jesus" doesn't know who He is - Early in the movie, the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist is depicted. In this scene, his cousin John the Baptist has to encourage Jesus that He has a calling. Jesus is so taken by this, that He asks John to baptize Him. Jesus doesn't know that He is called and has to be told? At this point I tweeted, "Jesus did not have to grow into His role. He knew who He was from the beginning", and provided this link to John 1:1-4, which describes Jesus as the eternal Word of God, who was with God from the beginning. 

There are so many scriptures that verify that Jesus knew exactly who He was, that I wouldn't have space or time to list them here. I will mention a couple here. The first is Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well:
The woman said to Him, “I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us. Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am He.”
Pretty plain, isn't it! And note, that this was very early in the ministry of Christ. He didn't discover somewhere along the way that He was the Christ. He knew it from the beginning.

Luke records an event much earlier in the life of Christ, which took place when Jesus was only twelve years old. (You can read the entire passage in Luke here.) In this account, Jesus and His parents have gone to the temple for Passover. His parents make the return journey back to Nazareth, assuming that Jesus is in the crowd with other members of the caravan. When they realize that He is missing, they go back to Jerusalem and find Him teaching in the temple. When they express consternation at Him, He replies "Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?" (Luke 2:49)

Now, this might not seem obvious to us now, because we are used to calling Yahweh "Father", but this form of addressing God was certainly not common to Jews before Christ. In fact, God is referred to as a father only fifteen times in the entire Old Testament. In most of those cases, He is described as the Father of people of Israel. In the passage in Luke, the young Jesus was making a statement at only twelve years of age that He had a special Father-Son relationship with God, and that the temple was His Father's house.  In fact, this would be the first of 165 times that Jesus would refer to God as "Father!" (For more on the Fatherhood of God and Jesus' unique relationship with God the Father, see this excellent article.) Bottom line is this: The Jesus of the Bible was far from uncertain about His role.  He knew that He was the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God from a very early age.

2.  The Jesus of “Killing Jesus” doesn't perform any miracles – Although miracles occur in “Killing Jesus”, it is not Jesus who actually performs them. The first one is Jesus’ encounter with Peter on the Sea of Galilee. In the Biblical account, Jesus gets in Simon Peter’s boat and begins teaching, after which He tells Peter to “let down your nets into the deep.” Peter argues with Him, saying that they have toiled all night and have caught nothing, yet he reluctantly accedes to Jesus’ request and puts his nets in the water. And then:
When they had done this, they enclosed a great quantity of fish, and their nets began to break; so they signaled to their partners in the other boat for them to come and help them. And they came and filled both of the boats, so that they began to sink. 8 But when Simon Peter saw that, he fell down at Jesus’feet, saying, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For amazement had seized him and all his companions because of the catch of fish which they had taken… (Luke 5:6-9)
In contrast, the account of this scene in “Killing Jesus” has Jesus’ requesting Peter to go out in his boat. After casting the net, they wait for a while, but nothing happens. Jesus says, “Let’s pray.” After they pray, the fish start swarming up, after which they pull in a boatload of fish. Jesus seems as astonished as Peter at this event. He attributes the miracle to the fact that they prayed and states, “Thank God!” This is obviously a far cry from the biblical account.

In the closest thing to a miracle performed by Jesus in the movie, another scene shows a young boy who has a demonic spirit. Jesus holds him until He convulses and lays as dead, then, after Jesus prays, the boy gets up, astonishing the crowd. No casting out of demons. Perhaps it was just an epileptic fit! 
Now, this is like no other Biblical account that I know of. In every account in which Jesus encountered demons, He spoke to them and ordered them to leave, which they promptly did. (See this account in Matthew, which is the only account in the gospels of Jesus’ encountering a boy with a demon.)

A little later in the movie, a young woman comes to Him with leprosy and He touches her, but there is no healing. He just seems to comfort her. At this point, I tweeted, "Jesus didn't treat lepers, He healed them!" and provided a link to the account in Matthew of one those healings.

3.  The Jesus in “Killing Jesus” does not appear to anyone as the resurrected Christ – The foundation of the Christian faith is the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without it, there is no Christianity, and there are no Christians. As Dr. William Lane Craig stated:

Without the belief in the resurrection, the Christian faith could not have come into being. The disciples would have remained crushed and defeated men. Even had they continued to remember Jesus as their beloved teacher, his crucifixion would have forever silenced any hopes of his being the Messiah. The cross would have remained the sad and shameful end of his career. The origin of Christianity therefore hinges on the belief of the early disciples that God had raised Jesus from the dead.
In “Killing Jesus,” after a mostly-correct rendering of the crucifixion (although even here they leave out key elements such as the three hours of darkness) and the burial of Jesus, we are shown the disciples going to the tomb on Sunday morning and finding it empty. Now, I will give them credit for the empty tomb. At least they did show this. However, the scene ends with Mary Magdalene looking to heaven in praise to God. (Contrast this with the biblical account of Mary’s encounter with the risen Christ at the tomb) The movie then cuts to the Sea of Galilee. There, Peter is back on his boat. casting out his net. As he looks at his empty net, he sees the fish swarm into the net. He also looks up to heaven in praise to God. (Contrast this with the biblical account of Jesus’ encounter with Peter after the resurrection.) So, is Jesus really resurrected? We are only left to wonder.

Yet, the bodily resurrection of Christ is one of the most attested to events of ancient history. Ambrose Fleming, who was one of England’s most outstanding scientists and the man considered to be the “Father of modern electronics”, stated of New Testament documents:

We must take this evidence of experts as to the age and authenticity of this writing, just as we take the facts of astronomy on the evidence of astronomers who do not contradict each other. This being so, we can ask ourselves whether it is probable that such a book, describing events that occurred about thirty or forty years previously, could have been accepted and cherished if the stories of abnormal events in it were false or mythical. It is impossible, because the memory of all elderly persons regarding events of thirty or forty years before is perfectly clear.
William Lane Craig states:
The empty tomb story in Mark is based on an earlier source scholars date to within seven years of the crucifixion. Contrast this with sources from Roman and Greek history which are usually one to two generations or even centuries after the events they record. The earliest biographies of Alexander the Great were over four hundred years after his death! Even two generations is too short a time to allow legendary tendencies to wipe out the hard core of historical facts.
(For more on the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Christ, read this booklet by Lee Strobel “The Case for the Resurrection" or watch his equally well-done DVD "The Case for Christ")

We can glean more about the roots of “Killing Jesus” from Mr. O’Reilly’s own words. His is quoted in an interview after the book came out saying a CBS interview, "It's not a religious book. There's no religion in the book, nothing. It's all about history." Really? What is historical about this twisted version of the Biblical account?

As Dan Delzell put it in this Christian Post article written about the book:

To spiritualize the historical Christ means to move the Messiah outside of the "historical" category into the nebulous category of "maybe." While that can be a helpful starting point when engaging in Christian apologetics with skeptics, it falls far short when attempting to write a history book about Jesus Christ. And that is exactly why "Killing Jesus" misses the mark. Bill wanted his book to present accurate history, but he left out way too much…Imagine writing about Babe Ruth but not mentioning baseball. Or writing about Dr. Martin Luther King without addressing racial prejudice. Or what about writing a history of Mormonism while leaving out the founder of their faith, Joseph Smith. Likewise, if you are going to write about the founder of Christianity, it is imperative that you get Him right. Bill got Him half-right…

As far as the movie is concerned, I’m not sure I can go even that far.

My final tweet of the evening sums up my view of “Killing Jesus.”

“Based on #KillingJesus movie, Bill O'Reilly may know Lincoln, Kennedy, and Patton, but He doesn't know Jesus!

I invite you to follow me on Twitter as I "live-tweet" "A.D - The Bible Continues" beginning on Easter Sunday, April 5 on NBC.  

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Jump Start Your Devotional Life! Part 2

This is the fourth article in a series on devotional life. To begin with the first article "Why Pray?" click here. To read the previous article "Jump Start Your Devotional Life! Part 1" click here.

In my previous article, I shared five suggestions for "jump starting" your devotional life. I continue with five more suggestions…

6.  Pray the Word – Devotional life consists of both prayer and Bible study. I hope to share more about Bible study in future articles, but suffice it to say that I can't write about prayer without also talking about knowledge of the Word of God. These two disciplines are interrelated. Although you can pray without having a firm grasp of the Bible (you have to start somewhere!), you really need to spend time in the Word on a daily basis to successfully develop your prayer life. The Bible is full of prayers from beginning to end, and understanding how men and women prayed in scripture will greatly help you to know how to pray today. In fact, you might be surprised to know that the longest book in the Bible is actually a book of prayers! That book is the Psalms, and it is actually a collection of one hundred and fifty prayers. The time I've spent reading through and studying the Psalms has helped me greatly to know how to pray. In fact, I often "pray the Psalms." I have tried to memorize several of them, and they often come out when I am praying, both corporately and individually. It is very true that we "do not know how to pray as we should" (see Romans 8:26a), but when we pray the Psalms or any part of God's word, we know we are praying the right thing!

While we are on this subject, I'd like to share something about Psalms. One reason that I love this book is that it is real. When you read these prayers, you are not just reading lofty platitudes. In fact, you might be startled by the stark language of some of them. Here are three examples of these real prayers by real people:

Psalm 51 – In this psalm, King David (who wrote most but not all of the Psalms) pours out his soul before God as he asks for forgiveness for the terrible sins of adultery and murder. You can really feel the pathos in his heart as you read "Against You, You only, I have sinned and done what is evil in Your sight." (vs 4) and "Do not cast me away from Your presence and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me." (vs 12)

Psalm 42 – Ever been in despair? The unknown writer of this prayer wrote this not on a mountaintop but in the bottom of a deep valley. He cries "My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all day long, 'Where is your God?'" (vs 3). Yet in the end, he encourages his own soul by saying, "Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why are you disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise him…" (vs 11)

Psalm 73 – Ever struggle with envy? This psalm is written by a man who is battling a jealous spirit. He readily admits that he envies men who have become rich through wicked means, who he states "are not in trouble as other men…" (vs. 5) and, in his envious state, he paints a picture of these men who are "always at ease" (vs 12) and their "eyes bulge with fatness" (vs 7). In despair, he cries out "in vain I have kept my heart pure" (vs 13). Yet, when he enters God's sanctuary, his eyes are enlightened as he perceives their end (vs 17). He realizes that God will "cast them down to destruction (vs 18) and confesses that he was "senseless and ignorant" (vs 22) to think in those terms. In the end, He writes these beautiful lines of praise:

Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever." (vs 25, 26)

7. Pray out loud – While it is certainly true that God can hear your prayers even if you pray silently, yet I and many others have found that there is great value in praying out loud. I know that this is not always possible when others in the home are sleeping, but, when you can, vocalize your prayers. The Bible certainly teaches this. Consider these passages:

I was crying to the Lord with my voice, And He answered me from His holy mountain. (Psalm 3:4)

Hear, O Lord, when I cry with my voice,
and be gracious to me and answer me
. (Psalm 27:7)

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in Your sight…
" (Psalm 19:14)

My wife recently shared with me an experience of hers that illustrates the power of the spoken prayer. She was coming home from work late one evening and was really burdened down about a loved one. She had the radio on at first, but it wasn't helping her, so she turned it off and began to pray…out loud. She first just began to praise the Lord and thank Him for all that He has done for her. After several minutes of praise and thanksgiving, she just began to pour her heart out to Jesus as she told him everything that was burdening her about this individual. After a short time, she realized that the worry and the anxiety that she had been feeling was completely lifted! She had the assurance that God heard her prayer and would act on her behalf for this person. I have experienced this many times myself. When you pray, remember that God wants to hear your voice!

8. Pray intercessory prayer – Luke tells a beautiful story about Christ that illustrates the value of intercessory prayer:

One day He was teaching; and there were some Pharisees and teachers of the law sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem; and the power of the Lord was present for Him to perform healing. And some men were carrying on a bed a man who was paralyzed; and they were trying to bring him in and to set him down in front of Him.  But not finding any way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down through the tiles with his stretcher, into the middle of the crowd, in front of Jesus.  Seeing their faith, He said,"Friend, your sins are forgiven you." (Luke 5:17-20)

This paralytic man was not able to go to Jesus himself, but he had some friends that were able to take him to the Savior. In fact, they were so determined to get him to Jesus, they brought up over the crowd, onto and through the roof! Now that is determination! Notice that Jesus healed the man, not because of his own faith, but because of his friends' faith. Have unsaved loved ones? Family members who are making bad choices? You can intercede for them and God has promised that He will hear your prayers. 

9. Pray persistently – Now, it would be great if every time we pray, God would move and the answer would be received immediately. However, my experience and the experience of many others is that it doesn't happen that way very often. More often than not, we have to persist in prayer to get our answer. Later in Luke, Jesus tells a parable of a man who wouldn't give up:

…Suppose one of you has a friend, and goes to him at midnight and says to him, 'Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has come to me from a journey, and I have nothing to set before him;' and from inside he answers and says, 'Do not bother me; the door has already been shut and my children and I are in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.' I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs. (Luke 11:5-8)

The point is clear. When we ask God for something, he wants us to keep at it even if we don't receive the answer right away. As I mentioned in my previous article "Why Pray?," some people have prayed for years before their prayers were answered. We want answers right away, yet, in His providence, God sometimes withholds those answers for a season…sometimes a long season. Solomon records these wise words in Proverbs:

Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but desire fulfilled is a tree of life." (Proverbs 13:12)

"Hope deferred" literally means "hope long drawn out." If you've ever prayed for anyone or any situation over a long period of time without any apparent results, you understand that it can make you "heartsick". Yet the message both in Jesus' teachings and in Solomon's words is plain: "Don't give up!"

After sharing the parable above, Jesus would go on to say these famous words:

…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 he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened.
(Luke 11:9-10)
The Amplified Version gives a deeper sense to these words. It reads there:
 Ask and keep on asking and it shall be given you; seek and keep on seeking and you shall find; knock and keep on knocking and the door shall be opened to you. For everyone who asks and keeps on asking receives; and he who seeks and keeps on seeking finds; and to him who knocks and keeps on knocking, the door shall be opened.

Do you see it? Bottom line is…Don't quit! Keep asking, seeking and knocking!    

10. Pray macro, pray micro – While still on the subject of intercessory prayer, I'd like to mention two basic kinds of petitions that we find in the Bible. This can best be illustrated in Jesus' model prayer that He prayed with his disciples. Jesus' first request is very familiar: "Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." (Matthew 6:10) Jesus was praying what we might call a "macro-prayer." "Macro" simply means "Big Picture." In other words, he wasn't praying for a specific individual or event, but was praying that God would bring His kingdom around the world into being. He goes on to pray that God's will would be done "on earth as it is in heaven." He was praying a prayer that literally encompassed the entire world! And remember, this was the model prayer for us, so we can understand that God wants us to pray these "Big Picture" prayers. However, the very next verse is an illustration of a "micro-prayer." He states: "'Give us this day our daily bread…" This prayer is a specific prayer for specific individuals. He is asking His Heavenly Father to provide "daily bread" to Himself and His disciples.

In my own prayer life, I try to pray both kinds of prayers each day. One of the great burdens that I believe the Lord has shared with me is to pray daily for the persecuted church. The church around the world is suffering an unprecedented amount of persecution at this time (as I shared in this article last year), and yet we Christians in the western world are largely oblivious to what is going on in other parts of the world. I sometimes pray "macro-prayers" for the Christian communities in some of these oppressive countries, such as North Korea and Iran, whose members are being brutally persecuted for their faith in Christ. On the other hand, I try each day to pray for a specific American pastor, Saaed Abedini, who has been held in an Iranian prison for years. This is an example of a "micro-prayer" that I hope will be answered soon.

Praying both "macro" and "micro" intercessory prayers does amazing things not only for those for whom I am praying, but it does great things for me when I persist in this discipline. I am by nature a self-centered person, but praying for others gets me off of "Me Mountain" and helps me to fulfill the scriptural commandment to "love my neighbor as myself." That's not only good for my neighbor, it's good for me too. And, I believe this discipline will be of great value to you as well.








Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Jump Start Your Devotional Life! Part 1

This is the third article in a series on devotional life.  If you would like to start at the beginning, click here.

I recently had dinner with a Christian friend who shared with me his struggles with his devotional life.  I asked him how he was doing in his time with the Lord.  In reply, he showed me his "verse of the day" on his phone.  He stated, "I read the verse that comes up on my phone, pray for my son, pray for my day, and that's about it."  He courageously shared with me that he knows that there is more to devotional life than this, but he can't seem to get there.

I encouraged him first of all that it is God's mercy that he realizes there is more to it than this perfunctory "cross it off the list" type of devotions.  I'm afraid many Christians go for years thinking they can pray for a minute or two in the morning, read a verse, and be off on their way, thinking somehow that they had "performed their duty."  There is so much more available to us than this!  If we think of devotions as a "duty", we really are missing it.  My friend got this.  He was asking for help, and I commended him for this.  I shared with him a few things that have helped me in my devotional life, and I'd like to pass them on to you here as well.

In this article, I'd like to share some "pointers" that may help you in your prayer life.  In a future article, I will share some ideas on how to get more out of your time in God's word.

As they say, let's "begin at the beginning!"

  1. Start early - David said, "In the morning, O Lord, You will hear my voice..." (Psalm 5:3a) and " the morning, my prayer comes before You." (Psalm 88:13b)  The best time to begin devotions for most people is in the morning, before the clamor of life hits us.  We live in an age where most of us are being pulled in many different directions throughout our day.  Whether you are a mom with kids to take care of, a factory worker, or perhaps a busy executive, your day is probably full of stress. You need the Lord's help early to help you to handle the stresses in life before they overwhelm you.
  2. Start Small - Think Big!  - We men especially tend to want to grab a problem and solve it immediately.  However, if your devotional life is like my friend's, you probably are not going to be able to start out praying for an hour or two.  I made this suggestion to my friend, and I would make this to you: Set your alarm fifteen minutes earlier than you usually do.  Can you handle fifteen minutes?  Most people can easily manage to come up with that small amount of time.  Now, in my case, I found I couldn't stay with just fifteen minutes for very long, and I hope that eventually you will find that you want to spend more time with the Lord than this.  However, if you are only praying two to three minutes (or not at all), fifteen minutes is a good place to start.
  3. Think Of Your Devotions As An Offering To God - This one suggestion seemed to hit home with my friend more than anything.  We all know that in Old Testament times, Israelites were expected to bring a daily offering to the temple.  In these New Testament times, we are not asked to make such a physical offering, but nevertheless, we are expected to bring an offering to God each day.  Paul said, "...I urge present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship." (Romans 12:1)  Many of us know this very familiar verse.  But what does Paul mean by "presenting your bodies" as a sacrifice?  It means many things, but I believe that part of what he is talking about is giving the Lord our time.  Our time is not really our time anyway, just like our money is not really our money.  However, we often live our lives like we think we own our time.  Is it too much to ask to get up a few minutes early each morning as an offering to the Lord?  You might say, "But I'm so tired anyway!"  My response to that is that maybe you are so tired because you haven't been giving the Lord his due.  Here's a truth that was shared with me years ago that I have found to be right.   If you get up early, God will redeem for you the time you've lost.  When I started getting up earlier several years ago for the purpose of prayer, I actually found that I felt less tired than I did before!  I believe you will as well.
  4. Praise and Thanksgiving - I spent a lot of time on the importance of thanksgiving in my last post, "The Greatest Single Ingredient Of A Successful Prayer Life," so I'll not spend a lot of time on it here. We often think of "Praise and Thanksgiving" together, and they are certainly related.  However, they are not the same thing.  Thanksgiving is thanking God for what He has done.  Praise is acknowledging God for who He is.  If God had never done anything for me (which is anything but the case!), He would still be holy, pure, and above reproach, and worthy of my praise.  Praising God for who He is gets me off of "Me Mountain."  In other words, it puts my focus not on me but on the reality of God Himself. 
 Here's a biblical suggestion on something to praise God for:  Praise Him for His three O's.  What do I mean?  Look at these verses with me from Psalm 139:
Praise Him for His Omniscience - This means that God knows all things.  All things about me.  All things about others.  He is never ignorant of anything.  David says, 
O Lord, You have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; You understand my thought from afar. You scrutinize my path and my lying down, and are intimately acquainted with all my ways. Even before there is a word on my tongue, behold, O Lord, You know it all. (Psalm 139: 1-4)
That is simply breathtaking!  To realize that God is "intimately acquainted with all my ways", all my faults and failures, all my eccentricities, yet He still loves me, has to move me to praise Him! 
Praise Him for His Omnipresence - This means that God is always present everywhere.  He is never absent anywhere.  Pretty startling!  David goes on to say,
Where can I go from Your Spirit?  Or where can I flee from Your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, You are there: If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.  If I take the wings of the dawn, If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, Even there Your hand will lead me, and Your right hand will lay hold of me. (Psalm 139:7-10)
Not only are these beautiful words, but they are bedrock truth.  What a comfort to know that no matter what is going on in my life, God is there!
Praise Him for His Omnipotence -  This means that God is all-powerful.  It wouldn't be much consolation for me to know that God knows everything about me and is always present with me if He couldn't do anything to help me.  However, that is far from the truth.  Let's look one more time at Psalm 139 as well as a verse from Revelation:
For You formed my inward parts.  You wove me in my mother's womb.  I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: Wonderful are Your works, and my soul knows it very well. (Psalm 139:13, 14)
And I heard, as it were, the voice of a great multitude, as the sound of many waters and as the sound of mighty thunderings, saying, “Alleluia! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigns! (Revelation 19:6)
If God created me, He is able to help me no matter with whatever I need!
5.   Don't forget confession! - Confession is a vital part of our prayer life.  Confession is actually telling God what He already knows.  In fact, just as I was writing this, I received some frustrating that I didn't handle very well.  I had to ask the Lord for forgiveness for allowing myself to get frustrated about something over which I have no control.  We don't confess to inform God of anything.  We confess to acknowledge that He knows.  We confess to ask forgiveness.  What an awesome privilege! John says, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (I John 1:9)  God is a God of grace and will forgive us of our sins and our failures...but only if we ask Him.  Confession draws upon a "well of grace" that is only open to us when we acknowledge our mistakes.  James makes a statement about this that seems harsh to our modern ears:
Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom.  Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you. (James 4:8-10)
Humility is rather humbling, don't you think?  This verse isn't telling us to go around in mourning and gloomy all the time.  Rather it is exhorting us to truly humble ourselves before God on a regular basis, even to the point of mourning for our sins.  The great promise is that when we acknowledge our sins and humble ourselves, He will exalt us!

Going back to Psalm 139, David writes a prayer that would be worthwhile for all of us to pray:
Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; And see if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way. (Psalm 139: 23, 24) 
Not sure what to confess?  Well, God doesn't want us just making up things.  But I believe there are few prayers that are more pleasing to God than the prayer to "Search me, O God, and know my heart..."  I try to ask God daily to show me my "secret sins." (Psalm 90:8), both sins of commission and sins of omission (see James 4:17)  My "secret sins" are things about me that He knows but that I am blissfully unaware of.  Believe me, when you pray this prayer, it will be answered!  As He shows you more about yourself and you acknowledge your failings before Him, He will reveal more of Himself to you.  As James says, "Draw near to God and He will draw near to you!"

To read "Jump Start Your Devotional Life! Part 2 click here.

Want To Read More?  Here are links to related articles on this site:

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The Greatest Single Ingredient Of A Successful Prayer Life

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Greatest Single Ingredient Of A Successful Prayer Life

 This is the second in a series of articles on devotional life.  You can read the first article "Why Pray?" here.

Like any good habit, developing a successful prayer life takes effort.  Rembrandt didn't just wake up one morning and paint the Mona Lisa.  Michael Jordan didn't decide one day to play basketball, and the next day was signed by the Chicago Bulls.  Yet, the big difference in worldly successes and  being a successful person of prayer is that it takes no special talent to pray.  IQ doesn't matter.  Physical dexterity means nothing.  But what does matter is that prayer is made and made habitually.

There are many ingredient that make up a successful prayer life, some of which I hope to share in future articles.  Yet, there is one ingredient which I believe stands out above all others.  Without it, there is no chance that your prayer life will in any way be satisfactory to you or to God.  With it, you can and should have a vibrant prayer life.  What is this all-important key?


If you think about it, you know that this has to be true.  Without gratefulness, prayer is an empty shell.  We become like the whiny little kid who is always unsatisfied with what his parents do for him.  Annoying, right?  Well, when we go to Christ with all of our little requests, but don't first incorporate gratefulness, we really can't expect to get our prayers answered in the way we would hope.

How do we become grateful people in this gimme gimme gimme generation?

Here are a few suggestions:

1.  Delight yourself in the Lord.  Psalm 37:4 states "Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart."  Want your prayers answered?  First of all, delight in the Lord and in Him alone!  If you are a Christian, no matter what bad things might be going on in your life, you have a wealth of things for which you can be thankful.  In my case, I try to start each morning just being grateful for what the Lord has done for me.  I often begin with my salvation in Christ:
  • "Thank you Jesus that You died for me, that You were willing to pay the ultimate price for my salvation."
  • "Thank you Father that You sent Your one and only Son to die in my place." (John 3:16)
  • "Thank you Holy Spirit for leading me to salvation,"
  • "My name is written in Your book." (Rev. 3:5)
  • "My name is written on Your hand." (Isa. 49:16)
  • "Because of You, I have a hope and a future!" (Jer. 29:11 NIV)
  • "Because You died for me, I have everlasting life...I'm going to live with You forever!"
Notice that none of these things have anything to do with what might be going on in my life right now.  You or I could be facing seemingly insurmountable troubles, yet if we are followers of Christ, these eternal facts are still just as true as if we were dealing with no troubles at all.  These are things that every Christian everywhere should express thankfulness for every day!

2.  Cultivate a grateful heart: Being a grateful person is to swim against the current of negativity that inflicts our sin-cursed society.  Like a gardener cultivating her plants, you and I must cultivate gratefulness.  How do we do that?  Here are a few suggestions:
  • Thank Him for the people He as brought into your life.   Has the Lord blessed you with a faithful spouse?  Thank Him for him or her!  Children? Grandchildren?  Thank the Lord for each member of your family.  Do you have friends and co-workers with whom God has enriched your life?  Be thankful for them, even if they do bring challenges.  (You probably bring challenges to them too!)
  • Review the events which have happened in your life that only God could have done.  Looking back, I see so many different places in my life where God led.  He brought my wife Kathy into my life in 1982.  He led for my us to move to Indiana in 1987.  He led for us to go into foster parenting in 1990, and because of that decision, he would later bring three lovely daughters into our lives.  Our lives would have been completely different if He hadn't directed in these key events.  What about you?  What forks in the road has he brought you through, that, had you chosen a different path instead of the path He led you in, your life would have been far less rich?
  • Learn to identify the hand of God in recent events in your life.  I like to review every morning the blessings of the previous day.  Just a few hours perspective can make me realize that the Lord was leading in many ways. Maybe it's the "chance" encounter with someone I hadn't seen in years. The unexpected material blessing. The kind word from a co-worker.  Whatever it is, thank the Lord for it.  James said, "Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights..."  If a good thing happened to you, thank Him for it!
Dennis Prager (who is Jewish, not Christian, but still has some great insights in these matters) wrote the following in his book Happiness Is A Serious Problem:
When I was looking for an apartment in Manhattan as a graduate student at Columbia University, the only one available to me was on the ground-floor, and I rented it.  When I mentioned this to New Yorkers, they winced.  I had made a big mistake, they would all tell me.  Ground-floor apartments are to be avoided-they are the most easily burglarized.  These reactions, and the fact that the area in which I rented was a high crime area, could easily have made me unhappy over my choice.
They had no such effect on me.  Instead of becoming unhappy, I developed a series of reasons to believe that a ground-floor apartment was the best choice: unlike almost everyone else in the apartment building, I would never have to wait for the elevator; I had immediate access to the superintendent, who lived in the next apartment; moving in and out was cheaper and faster; and I never had to worry about climbing flights of stairs when the elevator broke.
As a result, instead of regretting what I had done and worrying about it, I loved that apartment from the day I moved in (moreover, it was never burglarized, and I became somewhat of a big brother to the superintendent's son). 
As I have matured, I have cultivated this blessedly innate tendency to find the positive in almost all situations.  Some people accuse those of us who have this attitude of deluding ourselves in order to be happy, but these people miss the point.  There is almost always a positive element in a negative situation, just as there is almost always a negative aspect to a positive situation.  Choosing to find the positive and emphasizing it is not in any way a form of self-delusion.
Pretty good insight, don't you think?

3.   Learn to thank the Lord throughout the day.  We can't just be thankful in our morning prayer time and then forget to be thankful throughout the day. Paul gave the church at Thessalonica these timely instructions:
Be happy (in your faith) and rejoice and be glad-hearted continually (always);
Be unceasing in prayer (praying perseveringly);
Thank (God) in everything (no matter what the circumstances may be, be thankful and give thanks), for this is the will of God for you... (I Thess 5:16-18 Amp)
Pretty powerful stuff, don't you think?  To be "happy in your faith and glad-hearted continually" takes vigilance and determination.  Everything about this world wants to bring us down.  Yet, with the help of the Holy Spirit (which is available to every Christian), we can live above the downward trend of this world!  When we walk in this way, we become a "living Bible" to the people around us. People aren't used to seeing someone who refuses to be down no matter what the circumstances.  A happy Christian is like a billboard for Christ, while a grumpy Christian is a like an advertisement against Christianity!  Who would want to buy that product?

Yes, life is tough.  Sometimes very tough. And frankly, there are some things that happen to each of us that get us down.  Yet, the Lord will always provide grace for those difficult events in our lives.  The point is, we may get down, but we can't stay down.  No matter what the circumstances, we can learn to be grateful and to "Thank God in everything!"  That is why having a grateful spirit is indeed the single most important ingredient of a successful prayer life.

To read the next article in this series, "Jump Start Your Devotional Life!  Part 1", click here.

Want To Read More?  Here are links to related articles on this site:

Why Pray? 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Why Pray?

This is the first of a series of articles on devotional life. I start with a simple question:

Why pray?

If God is all powerful, omnipotent, and all knowing, what is the need for prayer anyway? Can't God do what He is going to do without us humans' puny little help?

Does prayer really make a difference anyway?

What is the purpose of prayer?

These are just some of the questions that come up when we talk about prayer. I hope to provide some answers to these questions and others in this and future articles. However, I think the first question we need to answer is the most basic one:

What is prayer?    

When we think of prayer, what images do our minds conjure up? Perhaps a child kneeling by his bedside with his hands folded, praying a childlike prayer. Perhaps we might think of some (very old) nuns in their habits, again with hands folded, looking up to God with saintly expressions. We might even think of a soldier in a foxhole praying for God to save Him from the bullets whizzing overhead.

Well, those are all pictures of prayer…but they are incomplete pictures at best.

When we think about prayer, we almost always think about asking God for something.  Dear Lord…Please send me a new "this". And I definitely need a new "that." Or…Lord spare me from "this" or "that" thing. Yet asking God for things (which we call "petition") can and should be only a small part of our prayer life. Prayer is simply talking to God in faith. It can include petition, but it certainly should include far more than these oftentimes selfish prayers. Prayer can be spoken or unspoken. It can be done literally anywhere, with any postures, using any words that are respectful to God. Prayer is being real with God. It's not just for nuns, children, and scared-spitless soldiers. Prayer is a grand privilege that is available to anyone who wants to avail themselves of it.

This is the "what" of prayer. Now let's get back to the "why" of prayer.

Why pray?

  • Because God told us to pray. This is the most basic answer to the question. Our Lord in His wisdom has told us as Christians that we are to "pray without ceasing." (I Thess 5:17) He is pleased when we talk to Him.

  • Because prayer itself is a fantastic opportunity bought for us at a very steep price
Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way…let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean… (Hebrews 10:19-22 NASB
This "new and living way" of approach to God was only made available to us through the blood of Christ, through His sacrifice of Himself. You see, under the old covenant (as outlined in the Old Testament), no one could approach God without a blood sacrifice. Even then, the average person was not allowed to approach God themselves, but had to use a priest as intermediary to take their sacrifice to God. However, now, because Jesus Himself was both our Great High Priest and our sacrifice (by giving himself up to God as the spotless Lamb of God), we now can enter His presence "in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean." Isn't that amazing! Jesus Himself is now our intermediary to the Father! What an incomprehensible privilege we have to be able to talk to the Maker of the Universe, the Creator of All Things, anytime, anywhere!
  • Because God's kingdom operates through prayer. This is really an awesome thought. The kingdom of Christ could have been built solely by God without any input from us, but that is not the way God chose for it to be built. The first petition that Jesus gave in his "model prayer" (which some call "The Lord's prayer") is "Your kingdom come" and then "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." (Matt. 6:10 NASB). It is awe-inspiring to think that we can pray here in America and, because of that prayer, God moves in an outstanding way in the life of someone in India or China or Saudi Arabia or anywhere else, but this is certainly true. Believers praying for believers without regard to distance or time.
  •  Because God meets us through prayer. No relationship that is of any value to us is possible without spending time with each other. A marriage where the husband and wife seldom speak to each other is a marriage in name only. A friend that doesn't ever see you, call you, or communicate with you in any way is not much of a friend. What about God? If we say that we are Christians and don't spend a significant amount of time in prayer with our Heavenly Father, what kind of a relationship is that? He wants a relationship with us and will talk to us…if we will only talk to Him. He's not going to push Himself on us. We can have a relationship with Him if we want it bad enough. Job said "…I have treasured the words of His mouth more than my necessary food." (Job 23:12) What does he mean? Well, our "necessary food" is the bare basic amount of food that we need to sustain life. He's saying, "I want to hear from God more than I want to eat the food that keeps me from dying." That is REALLY wanting to hear from God!
  • Our ability to trust in God increases as we pray. This is certainly true when we see prayer answered in a positive way. I related one such account of an immediate answer to prayer which I experienced in my post a few months ago entitled, "God Can Do Things In Prayer That Are Just So Cool!" However, anyone who has spent time in prayer knows that an immediate answer to a prayer is the exception, not the rule. I know one lady who prayed for a deliverance for her daughter from a really bad situation. She received the answer to her prayer and her daughter was delivered…fourteen years later. Yet, rather than this discouraging her that it took so long for the prayer to be answered, I think she would attest now that the delay actually strengthened her ability to trust in God.   Even in cases where a prayer is not answered the way we would have hoped, there is great value in prayer. In a February 16, 2014 article "When Heaven Is Silent: The Value of Unanswered Prayer", in Psychology Today, Professor Krystine Bacho Phd. makes some interesting observations about prayer, as she quotes Viktor Frankl:
…Frankl compared our relationship with God to that between pet and owner. He offered the metaphor of a pet's trust in its owner even when asked to accept frightening and painful veterinarian exams or treatments. The dog "cannot understand the meaning of pain, the purpose of a shot or a bandage, but the way it looks at you reveals a boundless trust in you, out of which it feels that the doctor will not harm it." What is lost when one gives up on prayer is much greater than the request made. Recent research shows that although most people relate to God in human terms, the sacred is embraced as mysterious and beyond human comprehension. To feel connected with the transcendent is more important than having the sacred solve earthly problems…
Jesus taught us to pray "Your will be done" (Matthew 26:42). So when we are making specific requests to God, we must pray with open hands and open hearts, knowing that He knows what is best for us. Like the dog that can't understand the purpose of a shot or a bandage, we can't always understand why God allows some things to happen in our life. When we learn to trust Him even in those times, our faith can take us through the most difficult crises.
  • Because prayer changes us. Learning to be a man or woman of prayer is a difficult process, as I can attest myself. In my own experience, I have found that the greatest benefit of prayer to me has been the way God has used it (and is still using it) to take me from the place of being an utterly selfish individual to being a person who cares for others more than himself. By no means am I there yet. This sometimes decades-long process of change in us is what the Bible calls "sanctification." Literally, it means the process of setting apart, or said another way, the process of making us saints. Saints are not people who go around with halos on their heads spouting off angelic sayings. Saints are just people who God is in the process of setting apart for Himself. And make no mistake. You can never be sanctified, you can never become a saint, without being a man or woman of prayer. God daily works on me in this process of conforming me into the image of His Son (see Romans 8:28). In my case, He's got quite a job on His hands! The Lord wants to do this with all of us. He will change you for the better, if you will let Him.
I welcome your comments on this! Let me know what you think!
You can comment below if you are signed in to Google account. You can also comment on Facebook, Twitter, or Google +.

Want to read more?  Here are more links to related articles on this blog: 

The Greatest Single Ingredient Of A Successful Prayer Life
Church Etiquette-Wisdom From A Bygone Age
God Can Do Things In Prayer That Are Just So Cool!
Thoughts At Fifty-Living Between The Dash





Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Year's Challenge: Start A Bible Reading Plan!

As we start 2015, many people will be making New Year's resolutions.  I actually think this is a good thing.  I find it a good time to reassess my life prayerfully, and try to make changes that will improve my life.  Many people resolve to lose weight, exercise more, eat less junk food, etc.  All are noble goals (and some that I could use myself!), but I'd like to suggest to you one goal that should surpass them all.  I would like to challenge you to start a Bible reading plan in 2015.

Why read the Bible?

First of all, simply because it is the Word of God.  2 Timothy 3:16 states, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness..." The Bible, both New and Old Testament, is inspired.  This doesn't mean "inspired" like a book or a movie is "inspirational." It literally means "God-breathed."  God was in the writing of his Word from the beginning to end.  This doesn't mean that God just dictated the words to men and they wrote them down.  It's very obvious that men's personalities largely come through in the writing.  I like that.  Though it was "God-breathed," God used many different men with varied personalities living in distinct cultures over thousands of years to pen the Bible.  

Yet there is a continuous narrative from Genesis to Revelation.  That narrative is the unfolding of God's promises first of all to his people Israel and then to the greater Kingdom of God as it is revealed in the New Testament.  From first to last, it is all about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  As I have heard it described elsewhere, the Old Testament is Christ concealed: the New Testament is Christ revealed.  

The Bible has stood the test of time.  Pastor Rick Warren makes some very good points about this:

Despite all the attacks throughout history, today the Bible is the greatest single source of culture. It’s the greatest single source for music, art, and architecture. If you take the Bible out of culture, you would destroy most of the major music, artwork, and architecture of the past 2,000 years. Even much of our English language comes from the King James Bible.
He goes on to tell this story:
Voltaire, the famous French philosopher, was a brilliant atheist. He wrote a number of tracts deriding the Bible. He once made a very bold statement: “One hundred years from today the Bible will be a forgotten book.”...After Voltaire died, for nearly 100 years, his homestead was used as the book depository for the French Bible Society.  They sold Bibles out of his house! It’s now a museum. People have forgotten Voltaire.  Nobody forgets the Bible. 
I hope you believe every word of the Bible.  But anyone who wants to consider themselves educated shoudl read the Bible.  Though our culture has become increasingly secular, it's scriptural roots are still there. You can't really understand American culture without understanding the Bible on which it was based.

Many well-meaning Christians only read the New Testament, thinking that reading the Old Testament is a waste of time. Nothing could be further than the truth.  In fact, you really can't understand the New without understanding the Old.  Jesus himself stated, 
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. (Matthew 5:17)
The Law and the Prophets was the Jewish way of describing what we now call the Old Testament.  You can't understand the full import of what Jesus came to do if you haven't read the first three-fourths of your Bible.  He came to fulfill all the was foreshadowed in the Old Testament.

There are many more reasons why you should read the Bible.  (You can read an excellent article with many more great reasons to read the Bible here)  For me personally, one of the greatest reasons is that it has been a major force in shaping my worldview.  We don't talk about worldview much these days, and some might not understand what I'm talking about.  A good definition of "worldview" that I've found is " The overall perspective from which one sees and interprets the world."  Having a Biblical worldview changes the way you see the world.  You don't see humanity as a "cosmic accident," but as a creation of God made in God's very image.  Therefore, you treat other humans not as annoyances but as fellow creations of a loving Creator.  

Having a Christian or Biblical worldview also helps you make sense of the world around you.  The Bible teaches that man is a fallen creature.  God's original intent for man (and for all of creation) was marred by the fall, and henceforth chaos often ensues.  People ask why there is so much war, disease, famine, and tragic weather events in the world. These human and cosmic tragedies only make sense when you look at creation from a Biblical lens.  They are the result of the fall and the subsequent curse that God put on the earth as a result. (See Genesis 3:17-19).  However, a Christian or Biblical worldview also gives you great hope, as we have sure promises that one day mankind (at least, that portion of mankind which has accepted the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross) and creation itself will be redeemed and purified.  (See Revelation 21)

I have been reading the Bible since I was a child, but it wasn't until 1996 that I committed to reading it daily.  That year, I read an article by Pastor Jack Hayford which challenged readers to commit to daily Bible reading.  It made a profound impact on me, and I've been trying to read the Bible daily since then.  This one phrase has stuck with me since then.  Pastor Hayford stated, "I don't turn the light out (on a day), until I've turned the light (the Bible) on!"  I've made that a cornerstone of my life since then, and I've never regretted it. I don't think that I could count on my hands (maybe even on one hand) the number of days in the last nineteen years that I haven't read something from the Word of God.  I try to get up every morning early and spend time in prayer and then read a section from the Bible.  I am constantly amazed how that God can take a passage that I may have read dozens or even hundreds of times and reveal fresh truths from that section.  I love to read other books, but no other book has that power! 

What translation should you use?  I primarily use NASB (New American Standard Bible) as I believe it is still one of most accurate, but there are a lot of good translations out there.  I grew up in a King James only environment, and I still love the beauty of the King James Bible, but our language has changed so much in the four hundred years since it was translated, that much of it doesn't make sense to us now.  I actually like to use several versions when I'm studying the Bible.  I don't know Greek and Hebrew, but I do have access to both a Greek and Hebrew dictionary.  I use them on occasion to help me understand some of the sometimes obscure wording, but also to bring out some of the subtle nuances that we miss in the translation  Using these and other Bible study tools really enhances my time in the Word.

Today, I'm starting a new Bible reading plan.  I'd like to invite you to come along with me.  The one I have chosen is the M'Cheyne Bible reading plan (which you can access here). It was developed by Pastor Robert Murray M'Cheyne (1813-1843), a Scottish pastor from the nineteenth century.  Using this plan, you will read the Old Testament once and the New Testament twice this year.  It's not a straight chronological reading, but includes reading from two sections of the Old Testament and two from the New Testament each day. (By the way, if you've never read the entire Bible before, you might want to use a different plan than this, as this "jumps around" quite a bit.  I would suggest this plan which has daily readings from the Old and New Testament and is not quite as demanding.)  There are other plans available, which you can find here.  Whichever plan you use, I would encourage you to start today!  This New Year's Challenge could change your life!

Here's more links to some of my favorite blog posts:

My Top Eleven Posts of All Time (And Some of My Personal Favorites As Well!)
My Top Eleven Blog Posts for 2014 (Since Everybody Has a Top Ten!)
Another Silent Night?

For an inspirational lift, check out my new book, "Grace In Shoe Leather." It's an amazing story of grace and forgiveness that has made a difference in the lives of so many. You can download it here:    

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