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 "...in 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 you...to 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 news...news 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:

Why Pray?
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? 

Check Out My New Facebook Page - Flyover Country!