Why pray?

More Americans will pray this week than will exercise, drive a car, or go to work. According to Gallup polls and Barna surveys, nine in ten of us pray regularly, and three out of four claim to pray every day. But as multiple surveys dig a little bit deeper, they consistently find obstacles that keep those same people from experiencing satisfaction in prayer. About 6 in 10 Christians say that it’s “often” or “always” true that “the busyness of life gets in the way of developing my relationship with God through prayer.” (Van Morris, Mount Washington, Kentucky; source: “Survey: Christians Worldwide Too Busy For God,” http://www.christianpost.com)

Why does prayer rank so high on surveys of theoretical importance and so low on surveys of actual satisfaction?

Recently, I’ve asked others, How often do you pray? Approximately how long? What time of day? Are you satisfied with your prayer life? Do you sense the presence of God when you pray? All regard prayer as important, even paramount, and yet, many like me, feel guilty about their failure to pray more, blaming themselves, complaining about the busyness of life that keeps them from praying more.

Philip Yancey in his book on prayer writes, “Most of my struggles in the Christian life circle around the same two themes: why God doesn’t act the way we want God to, and why I don’t act the way God wants me to.” Our biblical theology tells us that prayer is the essential human act, a priceless point of contact with the God of the universe. In practice, however, prayer is, at times, confusing and fraught with frustration.

One of the primary purposes of the church on earth is to pray for God’s will to be done as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). In the beginning of the church, the believers in Jesus Christ persisted and persevered in the fellowship of prayer as the church (Acts 2:42). We know that we should pray. We know that we’re even commanded by God to pray without ceasing (1 Thess 5:16-18). Certainly, there are times when we do pray. But why should we pray?

Naturally, as if by instinct we cry out to God when trouble strikes. A parent hovering over a sick child, a job interview, a driver caught in a hail storm — we call upon God when in danger, sometimes with an appeal no more articulate than “Oh, God, help me!” During those moments, forget any lofty notion of keeping company with God. I want help from the God who is much greater than me. “There are no atheists in foxholes,” Army chaplains like to say.

Other times, we pray for trivial things. Take sporting events, for example. If two believers are competing against each other and praying for their team to win, whom does God listen to? Does He even listen? Is God more compelled to hear a player because he “Tebowed?”

Why pray? Especially when God’s presence seems so far away, I wonder if prayer is just a pious form of talking to myself. Richard Mouw tells a story about a tourist who observes a devout Jewish man praying at the Western (“Wailing”) Wall in Jerusalem: The Jew rocks back and forth with closed eyes, beating his breast, sometimes raising his hands. When he finishes, the tourist asks, “What do you pray for?” The Jew responds, “I pray for righteousness. I pray for the health of my family. I pray for peace in the world, especially in Jerusalem.” The tourist asks, “Are these prayers effective?” The man praying replied, “It’s like talking to a wall.”

Maybe like me, you’ve prayed for people to be healed – who weren’t. I’ve prayed for marriages to be reconciled and relationships to be restored, only to see people walk away from each other. If God really loves us as much as the Bible claims, why do we have to ask Him for what we need and want? Shouldn’t He give us these things without our having to ask for them? If God is sovereign and in control, why should He listen to my perspective and my pleas?

This week, a dear friend sent me a facebook message: “Larry, I do pray — without ceasing — but I have to be honest with you, at the risk of sounding like a “less than” Christian. I wonder if prayer actually does any good if God has already decided the outcome.”

If I had to answer the question “Why pray?” in one sentence it would be, “Because Jesus did.”  In order to become men and women who move heaven and earth by prayer, we need more than just information – we need to understand the motivation that leads to transformation. The Bible says we pray because of the Incarnation.  If we look to God’s Word for why should pray and how we should pray, it seems that the prayer life of Jesus is a great place to begin. Being the eternal Son of God and the incarnate Word of God, Jesus bridged the great chasm between the Father and humanity. While on earth He became vulnerable, as we are vulnerable; rejected, as we are rejected; as tested as we are tested. In every case, His response was prayer.

The twelve disciples whom Jesus chose were no doubt men who prayed. They had been raised in a culture that valued and practiced prayer, and each of their hearts must have been prayerfully tender toward God for each man to leave everything to follow after Jesus when He called them to follow. And yet, as the disciples went on to closely observe Jesus, they consistently noticed a stark difference between their way of praying and the prayer life of the Lord Jesus. In the presence of these Twelve men, Jesus both taught and modeled a radical life of prayer, and it caught their attention.

We see this for example in Luke 11:1. Jesus was praying at a certain place and when Hefinished one of His disciples said to Him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” They wanted the same reality and vitality of prayer that Jesus experienced. So He taught them. And everything He taught, He also lived out before them.  Jesus urged His disciples to “always pray and never lose heart” (Luke 18:1) and to “cry out day and night” to God (18:7) and to “keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking” on Heaven’s door with confident assurance of the Father’s loving heart (Matt. 7:7-11).

Hearing Jesus say these things, the Twelve could not forget that even while He ministered to “great multitudes” through continual preaching and healing, “He often withdrew to deserted places and prayed” (Luke 5:16).  They had witnessed how “very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, went out, and made His way to a deserted place where He prayed” (Mark 1:35). They knew that on the night before He chose them as apostles, Jesus  “went out to the mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12). Perhaps the Disciples most profound memory of Jesus’ prayer life was in the Garden of Gethsemane:

39 He went out and made His way as usual to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed Him. 40 When He reached the place, He told them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” 41 Then He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and began to pray, 42 “Father, if You are willing, take this cup away from Me—nevertheless, not My will, but Yours, be done.” 43 Then an angel from heaven appeared to Him, strengthening Him.44 Being in anguish, He prayed more fervently, and His sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground. 45 When He got up from prayer and came to the disciples, He found them sleeping, exhausted from their grief. 46 “Why are you sleeping?” He asked them. “Get up and pray, so that you won’t enter into temptation. (Luke 22:39-46)

The conclusion is inescapable: Jesus’ prayer life was the key to both His life and ministry. At each major juncture, and every key decision point, we find Jesus praying.

Why pray? The simplest and best answer that I see is because Jesus did.  Listen to what God says to us thru Hebrews 5:7:

“During His earthly life, He offered prayers and appeals with loud cries and tears to the One who was able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His reverence.”

Jesus, in His humanity, prayed to the Father, just as we pray to Him in our own humanity. The phrase “earthly days” or literally, “in the days of His flesh”  in Hebrews 5:7 draws attention to the human weakness that characterized Jesus during His earthly life.From the Bible’s perspective, God says that the characteristics of His Son’s prayer life, especially when we consider His complete humanity, are to be true for every believer and every church. In Jesus we have a high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, including our weaknesses in prayer. At no point can the objection be voiced that because He was the Son of God that praying was different or that it was easier for Him.

So often, as we read about Jesus we fail to make the connection between His example and our own experience. We reason that Jesus knew God the Father better and after all, He was God. As we look at the life of Jesus it becomes equally evident that there’s a significant difference between how Jesus prayed and the prayer life of many Christians today. Recognizing this gap, it’s easy to feel that His heart for prayer and the dynamic characteristics of His prayer life are things that will never become a part of our own experience. But God not only desires that we pray like His Son, but He enables us to do so. Through His Holy Spirit within us, the Father is working to conform us to the image of His Son, and this transformation through the renewing of our mind will preeminently involve and impact our why and how we pray. “Therefore, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us at the proper time” (Hebrews 4:16).

Jesus prayed with loud cries and tears, just as we pray to Him deeply from the heart. “He offered prayers and appeals with loud cries and tears to the One who was able to save Him from death” (Heb. 5:7). The fact that the Cup was not removed at Gethsemane (Luke 22:42) qualifies Jesus all the more to sympathize with His people when we are faced with the mystery and trial of prayer – especially when the Father answers “no” or “not yet.” We know that Jesus as our great High Priest was tested in the same way and did not seek a way of escape by supernatural means that we don’t have at our disposal.

To discount prayer, to conclude that it doesn’t matter, means to view Jesus as deluded. Jesus truly believed that prayer could and does change things. He taught us that when life gets too hard to stand – kneel.  Jesus offered prayers and appeals with loud cries and tears because He trusted the Father’s plan through His pain. You, too, can call out to God with loud cries and tears because He always has a purpose for your pain.

Jesus prayed with a heart of submission to God’s will, just as we pray by surrendering our desires. “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” Jesus teaches us to pray. “Not my will, but Yours, be done,” Jesus cried out “to the One who was able to save Him from death,” but didn’t. Jesus clung to prayer as a lifeline, for it gave Him both the guidance and the energy to know and do the Father’s will. For most of us prayer serves as a resource to help in a time of testing, conflict, or pain. For Jesus, it was the battle itself. Once the Gethsemane prayers had aligned Him with the Father’s will, what happened next was merely the means to fulfill it. Prayer mattered that much to Jesus, that’s why it matters so much to us, too.

Had I been there and witnessed Jesus’ struggle sweating great drops of blood, I would have worried about the future. “If Jesus is so broken up when all He is doing is praying,” I might have said, “what will He do when He faces a real crisis? Why can’t He approach this ordeal with the calm confidence of His three sleeping friends?” Yet, when the test came, Jesus walked to the cross with courage, and his three friends fell apart and fell away. Jesus prayed to the Father and it made a difference.

Jesus prayed and was heard, just as God hears us when we pray. Just because God is silent, that doesn’t mean that He’s still. All prayer by the Son was heard by the Father, as is all prayer from all of His children. When we look at the life of Jesus we see an absolute trust and confidence that His prayers were not only heard, but answered. The author of Hebrews confirms it, “He was heard because of His reverence.”

When doubts creep in and I wonder whether prayer is just a sanctified form of talking to myself, I remind myself that the Son of God, who had spoken worlds into being and sustains all that exists, felt a compelling need to pray. He prayed as if it made a difference, as if the time he devoted to prayer mattered every bit as much as the time he devoted to caring for people. Jesus prayed because He knew the Father heard His cries and saw His tears. And we know that prayer matters because after leaving earth, Jesus made it one of His primary tasks in heaven to pray for us (Hebrews 7:25).

As we continue to learn how to really pray with faith that moves mountains and a dependency that moves us closer to the God who made them, it seems our first prayer to Jesus should be, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

Grace

Grace: undeserved, unearned, unlikely
Grace: pardoning our offenses, providing for our future, declaring sinners righteous
Grace: giving without receiving, loving without being loved, forgiving the unforgivable
Grace: a King born into poverty, a Priest accused falsely, a Prophet killed unjustly, a Savior risen triumphantly
Grace: good news of great joy for all people
Grace: treasuring, meditating, glorifying, praising 

What are you giving Jesus for Christmas?

At Christmas time we give gifts to one another as we celebrate God’s indescribable gift of Jesus (2 Cor. 9:15).

We make a Christmas list, we plan, we shop, and we present those gifts of love to one another as we celebrate the birth of our Savior. Hopefully by now, most of your Christmas shopping is done.

But what about Jesus? What are you giving Him this Christmas?

Consider how you would feel if you had a birthday party to celebrate your life, but rather than presenting birthday gifts to you, your family and friends only exchanged them with one another?

As you give presents to those on your Christmas list, let me ask you, What are you giving Jesus for Christmas? Maybe you’re wondering what the Creator of the World could possibly want as a present.  Here’s what the Bible says,

“Therefore, my brothers, in view of God’s mercy, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship.” Romans 12:1

What does Jesus want for Christmas? YOU.

The command in this verse tells us that the presenting of our lives takes place at a specific point in time to a specific Person for a specific purpose. This giving of our lives is also a specific response to God’s mercy in Christ Jesus. God tells us specifically what He wants for Christmas – He wants us to present (v.) our very lives back to Him as a generous, sacrificial present (n.).

Our decision to offer God the gift of our lives is not only an emotional decision, but also a completely logical one. The word translated in the HCSB version as, “spiritual,” is an interesting term that is difficult to find a specific translation that captures the full meaning. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT, λογίζομαι (logizomai) came to be synonymous with offerings that priests made in the Temple – that which is a spiritual offering. The Greek word literally means “that which is logical or reasonable.” Earlier in Romans (6:1-3; 15-16) the Apostle Paul stated that believers presenting their bodies to sin didn’t make logical sense. Why would freed slaves continue to serve their old master? However, in light of God’s mercy through Christ, presenting our bodies to serve the interests of our New Master, on the other hand, is completely logical — it just makes sense.   That’s why some translations render the phrase, “reasonable service,” “spiritual service” and others, “spiritual worship.”

When the wise men traveling from Babylon finally found the the Child born King of the Jews with Mary His mother, they fell to their knees and worshiped Him. Then they opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts. As they worshiped, they gave presents to Jesus as reasonable response to Him.

So if we were to amplify the Romans 12:1 we would see that, “Because of the miracle of Christmas morning, the sacrifice of Good Friday, and the power of Resurrection Sunday, the present that Jesus most desires is the gift of your life – this is not only an emotional and spiritual gift, but it’s the most logical present you can give Him.”

What are you giving Jesus for Christmas? What are you going to present Him? Here are just a few gift ideas —  seven idea starters:

  1. Give a sacrificial year-end donation or plan to give regularly and sacrificially throughout 2012 to the ministries, outreach efforts and missionaries of your church.
  2. Commit to meeting regularly with the Lord through daily Bible reading and prayer in 2012, beginning today.
  3. Go to church each week (unless work or health prevents it) and invite a friend to go with you. We need to be reminded of God’s mercy weekly because we are so likely to forget.
  4. Memorize and meditate on Scripture; how about starting with Rom 12:1-21?
  5. Commit to praying for 5 people each week who need to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ and look for opportunities to share the Gospel with them.
  6. Give back to the Lord a significant hurt or significant hurts that have kept you from worshiping the Lord Jesus fully and fellowshipping with His people completely.
  7. Surrender a personal habit or hang-up that is keeping you from experiencing God’s power and presence in your life.

What are you giving Jesus for Christmas? Write it down, wrap it up, and bring it to your church to present to the Lord Jesus Christ in worship. Give Him your life and the specific, spiritual gifts that He wants this Christmas.

Finding the Christmas Spirit

For many in our world, grabbing all you can to turn around and give all you can is what Christmas is all about.

“I just can’t get in the Christmas Spirit,” a friend recently said. “I don’t particularly like this month,” said another. Even good ole’ Charlie Brown became disenchanted with the commercialization of Christmas. With all the crowds, the impatient drivers, memories of lost loved ones, the financial pressures, and the fear of being pepper-sprayed – sometimes it’s hard to get in the Christmas Spirit.

In a world gone mad, how do we celebrate Christmas in a way that transcends the trappings of the holiday? How do we get in the Spirit of Christmas when we just don’t feel like it? How do we find the Christmas Spirit without it feeling forced upon us by our culture, by our world, or by our calendar? The Bible makes it clear – take on the Spirit of Christ at Christmas.

“Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus.” Philippians 2:5

The spirit of Christmas doesn’t happen externally – it requires an attitude adjustment from the inside-out. Make your attitude the same as Christ Jesus when He came into the world. To “have this attitude” means “to develop an attitude based upon careful thought.” The Apostle Paul is inviting you and me to rethink our attitude about Christmas based upon Christ’s attitudes (2:6) and His actions (2:7–8). Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus.

Mark Twain once said, “Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.” I think we’ve all felt this way from time to time about Jesus. In the same way I could think, “I’ll never be a major league baseball player, so why even try.” We can look at the life and attitude and Christ and surmise, “I’ll never be like Him, so why even try?” Obviously, living up to the attitude of Christ is not easy. It’s a pursuit that humbles every believer to dust; nevertheless, we are commanded to pursue this lofty goal today knowing that the Holy Spirit will internally empower believers in Christ to do what we can’t do on our own.

Again, let me ask you, How is your Christmas Spirit? How is your attitude about Christmas today? Does it line up with the attitude of Jesus Christ or with your natural tendencies and inclinations? Do have more of an Occupy Wall Street attitude or an Occupy Wal-Mart approach. The Scripture says, let the same kind of thinking dominate you today that dominated Christ Jesus when He came into the world as a baby and died on the cross to forgive our sins.

Three attitudes reflect the Spirit of Christ at Christmas:

1. We find the spirit of Christmas when share Christ’s attitude of giving rather than grabbing.

“Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage.” Philippians 2:6

Our Lord Jesus could have grabbed His pre-incarnate privileges with both hands like an X-box 360 on sale and not let them go, but instead He released them and gave Himself for us.  When Jesus became a man, He laid aside the freedom that His former manner of existence had afforded Him. He even gave up any special appearance that might have distinguished Him from looking like any ordinary Middle Eastern Jew. He gave up the benefits of living a long life and voluntarily died, misunderstood and ridiculed, as the worst kind of criminal. He gave up not just things, including His exalted and honored position in the heavenly courts, but He gave Himself to humankind so that we might enjoy an eternal relationship with God.

Rather than simply thinking about giving in the form of tangible presents this year, how about developing the Christmas Spirit by giving more of your personal presence; first to God and then to others. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Take on the Spirit of Christ this Christmas – give more!

2. We find the spirit of Christmas when we share Christ’s attitude of serving rather than hoarding.

Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men.”  Philippians 2:7

Jesus came down from heaven to earth in the greatest stoop of all time. Instead of climbing up the ladder, Jesus stepped down, one rung at a time.

But this leads to a question: What does the phrase “emptied Himself” mean? We can be sure of one thing: This phrase doesn’t mean that Jesus emptied Himself of any of His divine attributes – emptying by subtraction. If Jesus did such a thing for even one moment, He would cease to be God. Fortunately, the next clause in 2:7 explains the meaning of “emptied Himself”—“by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men.” Jesus’ act of “emptying” Himself was in His act of “taking” on a human nature. It was emptying by addition. In other words, Jesus, being God, “emptied Himself” by adding humanity. The phrase “emptied Himself” is only a metaphor, so the truth that the Holy Spirit reveals through Paul is that Jesus Christ practiced self-denial and self-sacrifice for our sake and added flesh to His eternal existence. What an astounding, unfathomable thought. Jesus left the glory and splendor of heaven and came to dwell on earth to serve others. He understood the way up is down.

Paul fleshes out this attitude of Christ Jesus further by stating that He took “the form of a slave being made in the likeness of men” (2:7). Paul could have said that Jesus took on the form of a human being. That would be humiliation enough for God. There is a general Greek word for humanity that Paul could have used here, or he could have used a word that means a male as opposed to a female. But Paul uses neither of these. Instead, he chose the more specific Greek term δοῦλος, which means “slave” or “bond-servant.” In other words, Jesus became a particular kind of man, a slave, the lowest position a person could become in the Roman world.

Christ Jesus wasn’t born in a mansion or a king’s palace, but in a dirty stable among the animals. The Almighty God appeared on earth as a helpless human baby, needing to be fed and changed and taught to talk like any other child. The King of the Universe, the Lord of glory, voluntarily became a pauper for our sake. Although “from Him and through Him and to Him are all things” (Rom 11:36), He had to borrow a place to be born, a boat to preach from, a place to sleep, a donkey to ride upon, an upper room to use for the last supper, and a tomb in which to be buried. He created the world but the world did not know Him. He was insulted, humiliated, and rejected by the people He made.

The more you and I think about it, the more staggering it gets. Jesus went as low as He could possibly go. This means no matter what you go through, no matter how low you may get, you can never sink so far that Jesus cannot get under you and lift you up. He can identify with you in any situation, no matter how hard: poverty, loneliness, homelessness, rejection, you name it (Hebrews 4:15).

We glorify God when we share Christ’s attitude of serving Him and others rather than hoarding all the things that we think are ours – including our time, our words, our talents, our encouragement, and our treasures. Take on the Spirit of Christ – serve more!

3. We find the spirit of Christmas when we share Christ’s attitude of forgiving rather than withholding love, grace and mercy.

And when He had come as a man in His external form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death— even to death on a cross.”  Philippians 2:7-8

Jesus died because of our sin, our faults, our lies, our insecurities, and our fears. He died willingly for everything that was our fault. Rather than blaming us, He forgave us because of His love, grace and mercy.

This verse reminds us that Jesus “humbled himself.” No one humbled Jesus; He willingly and graciously offered Himself to death. Forgiveness requires humility. The implication is that you and I should do the same.

As we reflect on Paul’s words about Christ humility in dying, it is easy to sense his astonishment. He can’t believe that Jesus—God Himself—died for us! And to think that He experienced “even death on a cross” is mindboggling! Jesus suffered as no one else, but it wasn’t the physical pain that caused Him the most suffering. Neither was it the taunting and humiliation He endured from His enemies as they watched Him die. The agony Jesus endured on the cross was the abandonment He suffered as God the Father turned His back on His Son in order for our sins to be forgiven (Matthew 27:46).

God’s forgiveness because of His grace and mercy is one of the driving themes of God’s relationship with His creation. We deserve God’s wrath, but He forgives our many sins (Psalm 65:3). We deserve God’s judgment, but He forgives us because He loves us (Psalm 86:5). We deserve death, but by God’s grace Christ Jesus died for us (Romans 5:8). Taking on the same attitude of Christ Jesus enables us to forgive others (Matthew 6:14–15). Giving careful thought to Christ’s humility prevents us from keeping track of how many times you and I have to forgive (Matthew 18:21–35). When we have the Christmas spirit, we freely forgive others as God has forgiven us (Colossians 3:13).

The price that Jesus paid for humankind is staggering. Paul urges you and me to ponder the wonder of Jesus. We glorify God when we share Christ’s attitude of forgiving rather than withholding love, grace & mercy. This Christmas – forgive more!

In verses 9-11, there is an abrupt change:

For this reason God highly exalted Him and gave Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow — of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth — and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:9-11

The previous verses describe what the Lord Jesus did. But now we turn to a consideration of what God has done. The Savior gave Himself; God also has highly exalted Him. Jesus did not seek a name for Himself; God has given Him the name that is above every name. Jesus bent His knees in service to others; God has decreed that every knee shall bow to Him.

Christ was lifted up in Heaven after He had come down to earth! Living is found in dying. This is the spirit of Christmas. The way to truly live is to selflessly give, sacrificially serve and to humbly forgive.

This Christmas – give more, serve more, and forgive more in order to live more!

Lord Jesus, as we consider all it meant for you to become human, we stand in awe of your condescension. You hold the universe together by your power, yet you voluntarily gave up the glories of heaven. You forever infused dignity into our human existence that we only begin to understand. As we seek to defend our ‘rights’ we are taken back by Your humility. Help us to seek to understand and consider the needs of one another ahead of ourselves, that it may cause You to look great! As we live for You, give us the strength to give more, serve more, and forgive more. Amen.

 

Turning Complaints into Thanks

Thanksgiving is this week. So the calendar tells us it’s time to begin contemplating why we are thankful. Giving thanks for family, friends, or our jobs in a general sense is fairly easy. Giving thanks for specific things and even for the heartaches of life? Well, sometimes that takes more emotional effort than we care to exert. Why is it that heartfelt gratitude is so difficult at times? Why are we more likely to vent our complaints than voice our thanks?

Journalist James Glassman declares that “a culture of complaint” has infected American society. The grievances of Americans are many, but include a protest against the prevalence of outsourcing, as U.S. companies move jobs to countries like China and India. Some Americans file complaints against food companies, seeking to hold a corporation responsible for making them fat. Others seek litigation against banks for lending them money even though they were a credit risk. There are complaints about overcrowding in schools, low paying jobs, and cheap foreign labor. There are complaints when baseball or soccer games get rained out and have to be rescheduled for another day that’s already jam-packed. There are complaints when others don’t meet our wants or needs. There are complaints when others are better off than we are. There are complaints when others don’t meet our expectations or personal preferences. The truth is that most of our complaints are either unfounded or ignore offsetting blessings.

In Psalm 106:1, we’re challenged to “Give thanks to the LORD” because He has been so good to every one of us and His mercy endures forever—our continued survival is proof of that. If we received what we really deserve, we would be lost and separated from Him forever (Rom. 3:9-20).

In the second verse of Psalm 106, we fast-forward to our eternal home where no human tongue will ever be able to recount all the miraculous interventions of God on behalf of His people “Who can declare the Lord’s mighty acts or proclaim all the praise due Him?” Eternity itself will not be long enough to thank Him adequately for all that He is and all that He has done. It’s here that we’re reminded that a significant part of our ability to give thanks is recognizing our need and what was done for us. When we thoughtfully consider who God is and what He’s done, we begin to turn our complaints into thanks!

Throughout the rest of Psalm 106 (vv. 6-46), the Israelites’ complaints against God remind us of our own. In 1 Corinthians 10:11 we are told: “Now these things happened to them (Israel) as examples, and they were written as a warning to us, on whom the ends of the ages have come.

The Israelites complaints, and ours, are reflected in…

  • Their ingratitude (Psalm 106:6-7) —they did not fully appreciate the wonders God performed in Egypt to purchase their freedom. If Israel should have been grateful for redemption by power from Egypt, how much more grateful should we be for redemption by the blood of Christ from sin and from Satan!
  • Their forgetfulness (Psalm 106:7) —too quickly the memory of God’s innumerable mercies faded from their minds. In the same way, how easily we forget the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus. How guilty we are of “the curse of dry-eyed Christianity.”
  • Their rebellion (Psalm 106:7)—when they came to the Red Sea, they complained that God had led them to die in the wilderness, and that it would have been better to have stayed in Egypt (Ex. 14:11, 12). It becomes a way of life to complain about the weather, about our living conditions, about minor inconveniences, and even about the poor reception of our cell phones or speed of our internet access.

But their sin did not throw cold water the Lord’s burning love. He found in their rebellion an opportunity to reveal Himself as their Servant and Savior. True to His name, He delivered them (vv. 8-11)! When they saw this marvelous converging of events, how could the Jews help believing Him and singing His praise (vs. 12)? They broke out in a spontaneous worship service. Today, they would have been posting His fulfilled promises on facebook or tweeting about it.

But it wasn’t long before another cycle of sin and complaints began…

  • Their short memory (Psalm 106:13a)—they soon forgot His miracles for them. Life went on and new challenges came to life.
  • Their self-will (Psalm 106:13b)—they would not wait for His guidance. God’s Spirit continues to warn us against putting our will above the will of God and our feelings above the truth of God’s Word.
  • Their selfishness (Psalm 106:14-15)—they abandoned self-control in their craving for food (Num. 11:1–35). Their appetites and selfish desires came with a bill they weren’t able to pay (Rom. 6:23).
  • Their provocation (Psalm 106:14-15)— the wilderness generation challenged God’s will and ability to provide for their hunger, they received a two-edged settlement of their complaints. In the same way, we question and doubt God’s plan to provide for us when it’s not on our terms or on our schedule.
  • Their rejection of God’s leadership (Psalm 106:16-18)— Dathan and Abiram, the rebels, together with Korah and On, were leaders of a rebellion against Moses and Aaron (Num. 16:1–30). God’s Word warns us against being unmercifully critical of God’s leadership, whether governmental officials, leaders in the church, or employers in our workplace, or parents in the home.
  • Their idolatry (Psalm 106:19–23). Instead of acknowledging God as their Savior from Egypt, they gave all the honor to the lifeless man-made calf. Today, we are tempted with the worship of money, home, cars, education, pleasure, or worldly success rather than believe that true life is in Christ alone.
  • Their faithlessness to trust God’s faithfulness (Psalm 106:24-27) At Kadesh Barnea, the majority of the Israelites feared the eyewitness report of the 10 spies (Num. 14:2, 27, 28) rather than believe the scouting report of Caleb to conquer the Promised Land by faith. This sin caused Israel to wander in the wilderness for thirty-eight years and barred the guilty ones from entering the Promised Land. Our faithlessness causes us to wander away from the life and peace that comes with walking by God’s Spirit.
  • Their sinful worship (Psalm 106:28–31) – The men of Israel not only committed sexual immorality with the daughters of Moab, they also joined in sacrificing to the dead and in other pagan ceremonies involved in the worship of the Baal of Peor (Num. 25:3–8). God was so infuriated that He sent a plague to slay the people by the thousands. When Aaron’s grandson, Phinehas, saw an Israelite taking a Moabite woman to his tent, he killed both of them with his spear. This stopped the plague, but only after twenty-four thousand had died. As NT believers who are not under the Law of Moses, our zealous acts are not to be violent, but God still recognizes righteousness by faith and rewards us with His peace.
  • Their impatient frustration (Psalm 106:32-33)—At the waters of Meribah (strife), the people blatantly accused Moses – and by implication, God – of leading them into the wilderness to die of thirst. Instead of speaking to the rock, as God said, Moses struck it twice with his rod out of frustration. He also spoke rashly against the people for their rebellion (Num. 20:2–13). As a result God decreed that he would be denied the privilege of leading the people of Israel into the land of promise. When we are hurt and frustrated by the people around us, how often we, too, fly off the handle with our complaints.

Even after the Israelites finally entered the Land of Promise, the new environment of Canaan did not change the nature of the Israelites to continue their complaining ways, as seen by:

  • Their failure to obey God completely (Psalm 106:34) — The debased Canaanites were a gangrenous limb of the human race. After bearing with them for hundreds of years, God decided that the only solution was amputation, and committed the surgery to Israel. But they failed to obey Him (Judg. 1:27–36).
  • Their cultural captivity (Psalm 106:35) — By hanging out with and intermarrying with those who rejected God and His righteous standards, Israel corrupted their own relationship with God. The sex-driven culture of the Canaanites soon became the cultural norm of the Israelites. Instead of being instruments of God righteousness, they soon became objects of His wrath.
  • Their repeated idolatry (Psalm 106:36) — Soon the Jews were worshiping idols, again, instead of the true and living God. On our own, in our selfish mind-set, we all have hurts, habits, and hang-ups that weigh us down and trip us up. We’re powerless to escape the hypnotic gaze of a critical eye, but what we can’t do on our own, God did…and still does (Romans – pretty much all of it).
  • Their sacrifices of children (Psalm 106:37-39). Particularly revolting to the Lord was the sacrifice of their sons and daughters to appease the demons (2 Kgs. 3:27; 21:6; Ezek. 16:20, 21). Sons and daughters of God’s chosen people were sacrificed to the filthy idols of Canaan, and the land was polluted with murder. In a similar way, too often our children are sacrificed at the alter of our desire for financial success or for the fleeting desire of happiness. Our children are raised with the ambition to make a name for themselves in sports or academics as a precursor to success in business or their professions. We, too, raise them for the world.
  • Their rejection of God’s plan (Psalm 106:40-46) —In the book of Judges, we read the cyclical description of the Israelites’ rebellion to live life on their own terms in a time when “everyone did whatever he wanted.” Offended with His people the Lord turned them over to the Mesopotamians, the Midianites, the Philistines, the Moabites, and others. These ungodly nations lorded it over the Jews, oppressing them and persecuting them. In spite of this treatment, the people persisted in their sin and rebellion against the Lord. But whenever they turned to Him in repentance, He looked down on them in mercy. Mindful of His covenant, He turned from judgment to display His steadfast love. Even during the darkest hours of their captivity, the Lord caused them to be pitied by their captors—a touching example of mercy triumphing over judgment.

Life is just full of pain sometimes. And that’s what it takes to get our attention off of ourselves and back to God. In 2006, Bart Millard, lead singer for MercyMe (and huge Texas Rangers fan by the way) had a difficult year with his brother dying and his son being diagnosed with diabetes. As a follower of Christ, he continuously sought to give thanks to God—even when he had every reason to complain. It was after these troubled days that Millard wrote, “Jesus Bring the Rain.” It’s a challenge to not only say the words, but to be the kind of person that can sing…

Bring me joy – bring me peace
Bring the chance to be free
Bring me anything that brings Your glory
And I know there’ll be days
When this life brings me pain
But if that’s what it takes to praise You
Jesus, bring the rain.

These history lessons from God’s Word and lessons from His chosen people are recorded so that we can choose to give thanks when it’s easier to post our complaints: “these things happened to them as examples, and they were written as a warning to us…” 

Save us, GOD, our God! Gather us back out of exile so we can give thanks to Your Holy Name and join in the glory when You are praised! Blessed be GOD, Israel’s God! Bless now, bless always! Oh! Let everyone say Amen! Hallelujah!

Complaints turn to thanks when we remember God’s warnings and rest in His salvation (Psalm 106:47-48).

Before I’m asked to pass the potatoes or dressing on Thanksgiving Day, I want to take some time to count God’s specific blessings, remember His Word, and simply rest in Him as He continues to care for me, for my family, and for my friends.

Turn my complaints into thanks, Lord, as I trust in You and walk with You. Help me remember You, Your promises, Your character, and Your love. Oh! Let everyone say Amen! Hallelujah!

Quitting the Rat Race

In this mad world where we live, we’re constantly getting beat down under pressure, zooming down the fast lanes of life, trying to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s, straining to keep pace. Maybe, like me, you feel the weight of trying to measure up as a man, husband, father, friend, provider, worker, etc.. So you get up earlier, work harder, work longer, and stay up later trying to stay ahead of the all the demands and expectations of running the Rat Race.

Alex Parks laments this same strain singing,

All around me are familiar faces
Worn out places, worn out faces
Bright and early for their daily races
Going nowhere, going nowhere
And their tears are filling up their glasses
No expression, no expression
Hide my head I want to drown my sorrow
No tomorrow, no tomorrow
It’s a very, very
Mad World 

Some of us are oblivious to what we’re doing and how we’re living. Some are starting to wonder about it. Others are weary. Still others have “hit the wall.” In the process of pursuing career goals (or maybe worse, ministry goals), it’s easy for us to neglect our wives emotionally, and slowly, we grow apart. Taking a cue from us, our kids today often run in their own mini-rat races by juggling sports, school, band, youth group, etc.. As dads, we can begin to feel left out and unappreciated. Twenty years later it will slowly dawn on us that we gave our best years to careers that promised what they couldn’t deliver. We may be well respected as “the Closer” in the workplace, but feel disrespected in our own home.  As a result, many guys have been knocked off balance. Of those, many guys never make it back on their feet, so they just stay on the couch controlling the remote and grabbing another beer. It’s a very, very sad world.

Others of us, however, ask honest questions: “How can I be successful and yet unfulfilled at the same time? Is this all there is?” The rat race charges an expensive toll. It will take everything we are willing to give.

What is the rat race? It is the conflict between who we are created to be and who we are tempted to be. It is the endless pursuit of an ever-increasing success that results in never-ending frustration rather than fulfillment. Tired and and restless, the rat race delivers a pervasive lack of contentment. Feeling the constant criticism of others, most of us feel the heat of the spotlight or the pressure to perform for our next review. We walk until we run and then run until we’re out of gas and have to walk again without ever seeing the finish line. The high price of this fast pace is peace. We have created and we live in a culture that requires more energy than we have to give.

How do we get caught up in the rat race? In Galatians 5:7 Paul asks the question this way: “You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?” He teaches the answer two verses later: “A little yeast works its way through the whole batch of dough” (Galatians 5:9). Although the context of Galatians is about living in legalism rather than by grace, the application to the rat race is clear: Craving the approval of others, we become slaves to working and living for things that have no lasting value. Like George Jetson, we get trapped on the treadmill with Astro but realize we’re going nowhere. Ruh-roh!

Hane Wagner said it well, “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.” It’s time we quit the rat race.

There is another race. The race that matters in this mad world is a life of faith working through love (Gal. 5:6). Perseverance in life comes from fixing our eyes on our Invisible Friend, Jesus, “the author and perfecter of our faith” (see Hebrews 12:1-3). When we look to Him and His grace as sons rather than relying on the performance of ourselves or trying to meet the expectations of others, we find the rest that’s elusive in the rat race. God’s grace – unmerited without any basis on performance – is where we find peace. It’s time to get off the treadmill (and stay off) to join the walk of life we were created for (Eph. 2:10).

Twenty years from now, I want my wife and kids say that I gave my best years to relationships with them. Thirty years from now, no one will remember what I did or even one single sermon I preached during my life, but I pray that my kids, grandkids and friends will remember how I lived and for Whom I lived it. Forty years from now, I want the One who called me to fellowship with His Son to say I finished the race and kept my eyes on Him as I longed for Him (2 Tim. 4:7). That’s a race worth running in this very, very mad world!