Pray – And Live – As Never Before
Pray – And Live – As Never Before explores – and celebrates – Scripture as a vibrant dimension of prayer and Spirit-filled living. As our shared heart language with God, Scripture abounds with supernatural transformation by the Holy Spirit toward Christ-likeness. Even a single verse when memorized, internalized, re-memorized, and repeated to God through times of meditation can transform our hearts and minds. As long as we’re going to pray, why not pray – and live – as never before?
By this one-word question, people seek to find out whether the seemingly unbelievable actually is believable, whether a sense of peace and purpose can be found in a world of upheaval, sorrow, and aimlessness.
This book, in attempting to describe a divine reality, welcomes that question in a world of tumult and anguish.
The reality: There is a supernatural God who imparts a supernatural faith that transforms people’s lives and enables them to pray as never before.
Yes, really. It is truly possible for everyday individuals – amid their joys, their uncertainties and fears, or their seasons of normalcy – to pray as never before.
No human attempt can capture the entirety of this reality. It’s as if I am looking at a majestic snow-capped mountain through a pair of binoculars and then invite you to take a look, even as gusts of arctic wind swirl around us. Perhaps I have seen it many times, while this is your first or second time. Perhaps, however, you have seen other mountains that are even more majestic in even more challenging terrain. And perhaps a mountain climber then comes along who has made it to the summit and to many more.
Although we are looking at the same mountain with the same pair of binoculars under harsh weather conditions, our experiences with mountains and the words we use to describe them are distinctly ours.
Just as our human conversations differ from person to person and situation to situation, so do our divine interactions – except that they are far more intimate. If we have begun to know God, these interactions reach deeply into our inner being and nourish our soul. If we do not know him, they are hollow and eerie.
In the first part of this book, Chapters 1-12, the attempt will be made to describe this supernatural God who invites us to believe in him and to meet with him in prayer.
Then, in Chapters 13-31, there will be an exploration of meditation – Bible-based meditation – as a key dynamic in supernatural prayer and its transformation of our lives. God’s wisdom and counsel as spoken in Scripture can help us pray as never before through times of struggle with depression, worry, or anger. And this supernatural infusion of God’s heart into our hearts via prayer can make us more gracious to those around us in our attitudes, speech, and actions.
The final part of the book, Chapters 32-44, will reflect on how our times of praying as never before likely will stir us to pray more for others, to be more welcoming of opportunities for acts of compassion and kindness, and to join in fellowship with other believers with a heightened sense of divine purpose in our communities and even throughout the world. And we shall consider how this life of prayer will usher us through the final breaths we draw on earth before entering heaven.
Yes, really – to the best of my ability, I will look to God for his guidance and help in communicating this wondrous faith to all who read this book.
I remember the despair I felt as a teenager and then as a young adult when I was alone and had no relationship with God.
My soul seemed so empty. True faith seemed impossible. Prayer was futile.
Almost nightly, it seemed, I hoped for a spark faith as I endured the moments before falling asleep.
I dutifully went to church, recited the prayers and creeds, listened to the minister’s words, and after each service returned to the vacant routines of my life.
I remember a clergyman once asking me, “Who is Jesus Christ to you?” With agony I replied, “I don’t know.” We were alone in his office; he said no more; and I didn’t understand why. But I wasn’t courageous enough to humbly request his counsel for how I might meet God.
I walked by a place where a group of vibrant believers was meeting; I knew they had gathered to learn more about the Bible’s teachings and to pray for each other. Otherwise, I didn’t have a clue to specifically what they were doing, although I instinctively knew it was something redemptive. Even so, I didn’t dare to enter in.
Whenever I was near a genuine, joyous Christian, although I knew nothing about the particulars of the person’s faith, I remember feeling that he or she was among the most fortunate people on earth. Even if heartbreak or calamity were to come their way, I sensed that they would survive it far better than I would.
I went to a religious retreat where goodhearted people urged me to just believe. But I couldn’t. I didn’t know how to believe so confidently. If I had any faith at all in my lost soul, it seemed like a tiny grain of sand.
I had a friend who gave God a deadline of midnight to manifest himself. For whatever reason, God let the deadline pass without taking action. My friend ended his search for God the next morning. I respected his decision, but I had set no deadline.
Somehow, I innately knew that true faith would be a precious blessing if, someday, somehow, I could find it or, better, if God himself would birth it in my heart.
Many of us have been– stuck, needing a rescue from our struggles toward meager faith and our seemingly hopeless separation from God. We have cried out toward the heavens, unable to lift our spirits to him. Amid a godless despair, some people have allowed anger to shape their lives. Some have drifted into pervasive sadness or desensitized apathy. Any flicker of faith has seemed so distant in the depths of our hurting souls.
Even meager faith, however, has wondrous potential. Meager faith is like a seed that can give rise to a marvelous flower or a stately tree. Almost imperceptibly within your soul, it can sprout, take root, and begin lifting its tiny greenery toward the sky. As you wait for your Creator to carry you to a joyous rescue in his timing and wisdom, realize that “without faith it is impossible to please God,” the Bible says in the New Testament Book of Hebrews, chapter 11, verse 6, “because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”
Simple faith is the starting point for yearning to know God and for learning how to pray as never before.
Maybe you have believed in God all your life, but a ho-hum attitude now characterizes your times of prayer. You pray because, well, you’re supposed to, but there is no expectation that it will change your life. You have no doubt of the importance of faith because, well, it seems important, but its vibrancy is a far cry from what you once believed it would be.
Or you may assess your life as pretty satisfactory, with such words as, “I pray as need be, I go to church when I can, and I’ve managed to survive whatever difficulties have come my way.”
Maybe you are in the midst of a crisis and have pled to God for help in finances, relationships, or morality. But you don’t know if he will become involved in your dire circumstances or if you’ll have to persevere on your own. Or maybe, amid a crisis in the past, you cried out to God. Now, months or years later when normalcy has returned to your life, perhaps you have continued asking for his help in lesser matters. Or maybe you have returned to a life of self-sufficiency.
A truly satisfying faith can be elusive. A person may hope for a faith beyond the mundane, and even dutifully record years of churchgoing, have numerous visits with religious advisers, read page after page of religious writings, and make countless pleas in prayer, to no soul-satisfying avail.
The agonies of a struggle for faith, as I have experienced them, can range from an inward gnawing to an emotional churning, from helplessness to an unrelenting, cavernous emptiness.
A seeker also may face a surge of mental exhaustion when he or she finally grasps that the human mind, despite all its glories, is incapable by itself of venturing into the spiritual realm.
A divine gift
Wherever you are spiritually, whatever your prayer life may be, think for a few moments about the many fruits of faith described in the familiar words of the 23rd Psalm. The psalm tells of a believer’s needs being met. It declares a contentment that fills one’s soul by following God’s guidance. It gives vision for a life rightly lived. The psalm holds forth the courage to face fear, death, and evil. It gives assurance of God’s blessing in our earthly lives and our presence with him in eternal life.
The psalmist, King David, declared:
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul.
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Such a life is so dreamy that, if it is real, it can only be a divine gift.
And there is a clear possibility that such a gift – because it is in the Bible – indeed can be a real human experience. Untold millions on every continent have been transformed by God through what he has spoken in Scripture. Even in “the valley of the shadow of death,” in tumultuous times, or in hardship, they have been sustained by a supernatural gifting.
Only you know if some serious rethinking is in order: Do you want, or need, such a gift? Whatever your answer, remember that a gift is simply this: something more than you had before.
This is a gift that adds a new dimension, a new depth to every facet of life. It begins with the first moments we receive it and then, over time, increasingly shapes, sustains, enlivens, and sanctifies our lives through prayer and companionship with God here on earth and throughout eternity in heaven. Day by day and year by year in various ways, it yields an increasingly abundant harvest of blessing within our souls, in our relationships, and in our communion with God.
One of the churches in your vicinity certainly may prove to be helpful in this journey. Churches, however, are far more than buildings with auditoriums, far more than organizations with budgets. In the divine order, they are communities of believers who should function as one of the primary channels of God’s activity on earth, the “body of Christ” as they are described in Scripture. Churches are an important setting for building relationships in an ever-more-impersonal world, for communicating the gospel to seekers, for imparting the teachings of Scripture from generation to generation, for family activities, for ministry to the needy, and as an advocate for cultural health that can only be attained by godly ethics.
Even so, churches are not the source of faith, nor the birthing ground for a faith enlivened by prayer. The source of faith is God himself; the birthing ground is the human heart.
This divine gift – a daily relationship with the living God – stirs believers to “pray as never before.”
Prayer may be a simple word in our vast vocabulary, but it is a paramount word woven throughout Scripture. Moreover, it is one of the foundational elements of Christian faith:
– One foundational reality – a supernatural God.
– One foundational person – Jesus Christ.
– One foundational dynamic – the Holy Spirit.
– One foundational revelation for insight, guidance, and study – the Bible.
– One foundational practice – prayer, our day-in, day-out connection with God.
– One foundational attitude – love toward people in our spheres of influence as well as the uttermost parts of the world.
– One foundational community – the church.
– One foundational purpose – to glorify God by living out our faith in word and deed.
– One foundational result – a joyous relationship with God in this world and the next.
– One foundational challenge – overcoming self-centeredness fueled by sin, Satan, and the lures of the material world.
Prayer is a word that places a fundamental choice before each person: embracing a supernatural faith or rejecting it.
It is the primary word used in Scripture for how we enter God’s supernatural realm to receive the fruit of the Holy Spirit – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control,” as set forth in Galatians, chapter 5, verses 22-23.
Panorama of prayer
As the means of entering God’s supernatural realm – whether amid the daily routines of life, its varied pleasures, or its unsettling uncertainties – prayer is momentous and marvelous. Although it takes place within our restless, sin-prone souls, prayer enlivens a range of human-divine experiences, such as an ever-deepening friendship with Jesus. It includes the effort to internalize the Bible’s teachings as a way of seeking God’s steady transformation of our lives through the Holy Spirit. And prayer certainly encompasses our petitions to God for his involvement in the lives of our loved ones and friends – and countless millions worldwide who, amid the agonies of poverty, disease, and/or oppression, need divine comfort and an eternal faith.
In a somewhat interchangeable fashion here, the following words and phrases can be used for the idea of praying as never before:
– The Bible’s exhortation to “pray without ceasing,” as 1 Thessalonians 5:17 is phrased in the King James Version, encompassing the reality of a day-by-day interactive relationship with God – at times, even a minute-by-minute or second-by-second closeness to God in prayer.
– Meditation, contemplation, or contemplative prayer, words that may seem perplexing to many Christians these days but which in a general sense have been used for centuries to describe intimate moments with God. Some religious traditions have attached various rituals or practices to these words, but the core idea of drawing closer to God remains the noblest of human aspirations.
– Spending time with God, a phrase often used within today’s church for prayer, Bible study, Scripture memorization, reflection, and responding to God’s call to “Be still, and know that I am God,” in Psalm 46:10.
– Yearning for more of God, reflecting the idea of our inner spirit turning to God, hungering and thirsting for even a moment of communion with him, embracing Jesus’ call to seek first God’s kingdom, as recounted in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 6, verse 33.
Another glimpse of the dynamic of prayer is in the apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church, chapter 3, verses 16-19. The apostle’s prayer draws upon God’s glorious riches. An inner strength flows from these riches, as does the ability to welcome Christ into our hearts through faith. Along with devout believers throughout the ages, we can have an ever-increasing experience in the vastness of the love of Christ, which culminates, as Paul puts it, in being “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”
“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being,” Paul writes, “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”
Reason and logic are two words not normally associated with prayer. But when we pray, it is reasonable and logical to pray with divine expectancy in harmony with what God has revealed in Scripture, indeed to pray as never before. Faith in Jesus abounds with opportunity. Imagine, for example, receiving a free trip to anywhere in the world; imagine the experiences that could unfold at your chosen destination, the people you might meet, the sights and sounds, the lifelong memories. Similarly, faith is an awesome adventure. Even in your day-in, day-out world, Jesus guides and accompanies you to heavenly vistas of prayer.
The New Testament book of 2 Corinthians, chapter 5, verse 17, shines forth with the apostle Paul’s declaration that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” This newness extends far beyond a person’s first moments of trusting Christ. As the psalmist declares, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24).
Thus, each day is new in God’s hands (although some days seem more momentous than others from our earthly vantage point).
And each time we look to God is an opportunity to pray as never before (although some of our petitions are much the same day after day).
When you are praying as never before, you may be amazed to find that your quality of life has improved significantly.
You may find yourself:
— more well-rested, even if times of prayer replace a half-hour or more of your sleep.
— more invigorated; you feel a gentle but unmistakable empowering by God and are more productive even as you are spending more moments in prayer throughout the day.
— more prepared for whatever crisis or agony may spring forth today or in the days ahead, even thankful that you are not excused from the human experiences of upheaval and pain. You understand and surrender to God’s intention to redeem our sufferings, to strengthen our spiritual character and deepen our empathy and love for others in personal crisis or physical agony.
— often able to take a deep breath while praying and find it immensely satisfying. You may yawn at times and you may fall asleep, all in the milieu of resting in God’s arms.
— emotionally prepared even to die whenever your time may come. Your communion with God may become so intimate that you ask yourself in quiet amazement, Is this a glimpse of what the hereafter will be like?
All this occurs, it should be noted, without the use of illicit drugs or intoxicating drink, without the latest in modern technology. Nor is any money required.
It’s fully natural. Just you and God. Just your openness to anticipating and enjoying a supernatural lifestyle with the Creator of the universe.
And there’s more
Praying as never before also can result in:
— experiencing an inner dynamic transforming your life for the better. One of the many references to this phenomenon in Scripture, Romans 12:1-2, exhorts, “… offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Many of your daily activities likely will remain the same, such as your responsibilities if you are raising children or where you may be employed. You may still enjoy various cultural events, community gatherings, and your favorite forms of recreation or your favorite foods. But all of these increasingly will be incorporated into God’s will for your life.
— a genuine humility coupled with a heightened desire to be kind and compassionate toward people.
— gaining a peace with God. Your relationship with him no longer is among the worries of your life. It becomes a continuous time of discovery of the divine.
— thinking in a new way. Your cares and concerns will be soothed by an inward tug to turn back to God after your mind may have struggled with the issues at hand for a few minutes or a longer stretch of time. If, at the end of the day, you sometimes are unable to fall asleep, or if you wake up in the middle of the night and cannot go back to sleep, peaceful moments with God can replace your restlessness.
— intrigue over the words of Scripture. A sobering yet celebratory realization of the optimal value of the Bible takes hold: Its truths have been illuminated and energized by the Holy Spirit over the ages to nurture a yearning in people’s hearts – and now, your heart – for divine realities to be infused into every dimension of daily living.
— a heart more responsive, more compassionate toward people who, locally or globally, are lonely, who are suffering, who are separated from God.
Over time, as you venture forth in prayer, you will discover a life unfolding with spiritual blessings of alertness and vigor, peace and joy – a quality of life reflected in Jesus’ words in the New Testament’s Gospel of John, chapter 15, verse 5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
On the day of judgment, Jesus will tell his followers that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine” – the hungry and thirsty, strangers in need of shelter, those who needed clothes, who were sick and in need of care, or who were in prison and lonely – “you did for me,” according to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, verses 35-40.
Certainly it is important for Christians, for those of other faiths, and for atheists and agnostics to work for an end to human suffering and injustice. But for a Christian, the starting point for compassion and for every facet of a divinely inspired life on earth and an even more joyous life after death is a relationship with Jesus anchored in the Scriptures and sustained by prayer.
If anything might provide the motivation for an atheist or agnostic to consider conversion to Christianity, perhaps it is the wholesome transformation of human life that occurs when we begin praying as never before.
Granted, there are imperfect people, hypocrites, and addicts of all kinds within the Christian community. To their credit, at least, these individuals have the courage to embrace a faith that challenges their sin and seeks to redeem their lives. Imperfect people, hypocrites, and addicts who lack such a belief system otherwise have only the frailty of human will upon which to build lives of integrity.
Granted, we can debate without resolution whether God exists, the extent to which he controls the universe, the merits of various world religions, why evil abounds, and why tragedy strikes the lives of so many people while so many others suffer in poverty and oppression. And we can debate a key question relating specifically to Christianity: whether the Bible is God’s message to mankind.
No Christian should ever be fearful of such debates. And no atheist or agnostic should be so misguided as to think that Christianity is not capable of meeting the same scholarly tests as other dimensions of human history.
The Bible, for example, is far more of a historical document than most atheists or agnostics realize. No original writings of any ancient work still exist, so the key measure becomes the dating and quantity of subsequent copies (substantive fragments of manuscripts or full manuscripts). The ancient manuscripts documenting Jesus’ life and the early church are far closer to the events recorded and far more numerous than the manuscripts of key works from ancient Greek culture, for example, such as the philosophical teachings of Plato and Aristotle, the plays of Sophocles and Euripides, and the epic poetry of Homer. Scholars date the writing of various portions of the New Testament from A.D. 40-100, with the earliest existing manuscript evidence dated at about A.D. 125. The earliest substantive manuscript evidence for Plato’s works, meanwhile, is about 1,200 years removed from its writing, compared to a span of twenty-five to eighty-five years for the New Testament writings. For Aristotle’s works and the plays of Sophocles and Euripides, the span is 1,400 years; for Homer’s Iliad, 500 years.
Help from above
No amount of argumentation, however, will impart to anyone the blessing of praying as never before, nor will a barrage of facts. No atheist or agnostic, even if persuaded by argumentation or facts, can attain this quality of life solely by human decision-making or sheer willpower.
Like everything else about Christianity, conversion is a supernatural occurrence.
“No one can come to me,” Jesus said, as recorded in John 6:44, “unless the Father who sent me draws him.…”
The process that begins with spiritual yearnings and then breaks forth as conversion is birthed solely by God and is nurtured by him as it rises to a life of praying as never before.
The Bible tells the story of a jailer who beseeched two of his prisoners, the apostle Paul and his co-worker Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” after an earthquake jarred open the doors of the jail in ancient Philippi (Acts 16:25-31). Scripture recounts that Paul and Silas “spoke the word of the Lord” to the jailer and his household, with their initial exhortation being, “Believe in the Lord Jesus … .”
Throughout the centuries, the “word of the Lord” in answer to the human plea of “What must I do to be saved?” has been understood to include:
- repentance for sin, a realization prompted by the Holy Spirit that it is right and good to be deeply sorrowful for all wrongdoing and for straying from God and his will.
- opening your heart to Christ, perhaps with a yearning akin to, “I know I need you in my life, Jesus. Only you can fashion me into the person I ought to be.”
- receiving him as Lord – the one to whom you give ultimate ownership and control of your life – and Savior – the one who “saves” you by implanting the Holy Spirit in your inner being and transforming your life on earth, giving you peace with God, meaning and purpose, forgiveness, help in overcoming sin, and, as you continue pushing forward, the joy of praying as never before. The Bible also assures that when you die, this spiritual rebirth will give you an eternal life with God in heaven.
To “Believe in the Lord Jesus,” as Scripture describes it, the starting point for securing one’s faith can be a simple prayer: Lord Jesus, I need you. I repent of my sinfulness and ask you to forgive me. I ask you to come into my life, to be my Lord and Savior, and to place your Holy Spirit in me for this life and for eternity.
You may or may not be joyous at first. You may or may not detect an inward peace. But, from God’s perspective, whether your feelings are stimulated is irrelevant. Rest assured, you have entered into the most wholesome of supernatural realms.
Conversion to Christianity – the supernatural rebirth – opens the door to a unique opportunity: the spiritual daring to truly believe and to begin praying as never before.
Some Christians do not realize how redeemed they really are once they have turned their lives over to God in an act of prayerful trust perhaps best reflected in Romans 10:9: “… if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
A person’s actions to receive a new birth, as described by the apostle Paul in the next verse, seem simple: “For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.”
But the truth is, Christianity is highly redemptive, somewhat like the field of chemistry properly labels the mixing of certain chemicals as “highly explosive.” Paul, continuing in Romans 10, notes in verse 12, for example, that God “richly blesses all who call on him.”
You can choose to believe that God’s blessing is but an empty promise from a religious propagandist, holding forth a quality of life that falls far short of what a person actually experiences once he or she has begun to trust God.
Or, just as easily, you can choose to believe that faith, as evident throughout the Bible, truly does connect you to a great and loving God – a life-changing faith and new sensitivities in prayer being imparted to you day by day and moment by moment via the Holy Spirit.
In the early days of new birth and as your faith grows in the years ahead, you will have a desire to share this new dimension of life with loved ones and friends. Some may celebrate your discovery and your ever-blossoming relationship with God. Others may have been yearning for faith themselves and will be intrigued and attentive. Still others, however, wary of or persuaded against the supernatural dimension of life, will not celebrate.
Those who have become antagonists to evangelical Christianity have ample examples to cite of Christians who do not seem to be transformed by their conversion. Some antagonists also can cite personal experience, having been treated harshly or unjustly by misguided Christians who have never ventured into deeper faith.
It is relatively easy to see when some individuals’ religious demeanor is under the sway of the world’s godlessness or their own self-centeredness. Such individuals likely can look within themselves, in fact, to see their failure to mature beyond conversion toward the many joys of praying as never before.
A continuing connection
Faith, at its best, is never a one-time event. It continues to guide us beyond what happened “way back then” or even a few moments ago. Conversion is only the starting point, albeit a glorious starting point, in a spiritual pilgrimage that progresses from a supernaturally invigorated life on earth – a life continuously in tune with God by prayer – to everlasting life with this majestic Creator of the universe.
One of the foremost factors reflecting the supernatural nature of Christian faith is the empty tomb where Christ’s body was laid after his crucifixion. Its emptiness was no hoax; nearly every one of his disciples subsequently died a martyr’s death, a fate that no group of individuals would ever embrace just to perpetuate a hoax.
The tomb was empty, the New Testament writers report, because a supernatural transition of eternal significance had taken place, a transition from the ministry of Jesus in bodily form to the ministry of Jesus in spiritual form. Ever since his resurrection from the dead, Jesus has been changing lives throughout the world through his Holy Spirit. Faith is the intangible dynamic by which the Holy Spirit – Jesus’ spirit – enters the lives of men, women, and children, imparting a spiritual birth and an ability to pray as never before.
The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, challenged their stunted faith by squarely reminding them of the full gospel he had proclaimed: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? … Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” (Galatians 3:1-3).
In his letter to the Romans (chapter 5, verse 10), Paul used a less-confrontational tone to relay the same message: “… if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!”
The crucifixion of Christ to pay mankind’s penalty for sin is only one part of God’s redemption. The other part, which empowers the practice of prayer, is Christ’s resurrection from the dead and his promise, ever steadfast over the ages, to dwell within his followers through his Holy Spirit.
As the apostle Peter once preached, “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you – even Jesus” (Acts 3:19).
The yearning to pray as never before should not cause the one who yearns to feel mentally or emotionally deficient, nor should the skeptic regard it as an oddity. Yearnings abound in the human family. Even our bodies inherently yearn for oxygen, water, and nutrients derived from nature’s bounty.
Various researchers at the start of the new millennium are studying whether one or more lobes of the brain evidence an innate responsive chemistry for spiritual experiences. Periodic news reports about such research are intriguing and, for those skilled in the sciences, it could prove highly enjoyable. But the answer already has been available for thousands of years in Scripture. As noted in Psalm 139:13, “… you [God] created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.”
The yearning to pray pushes forth from deep within our souls. Perhaps it is a desperation to release our hearts from the dark places within us, from our inner battlegrounds with evil. Perhaps the yearning is a search for healing from society’s drumbeat on our sense of worth or our sense of right and wrong. Perhaps it is plea for something – or someone – to enter into our places of crippling loneliness.
Unlike the yearnings of this world that often lead toward depression or depravity, the yearning to pray as never before advances in an upward direction. Uniquely, it yields wholeness. It heals brokenness. It sparks, then nurtures, and then energizes a relationship with a loving God and with a segment of mankind who, to varying degrees, have opened themselves to this divine dynamic.
We are decades, perhaps centuries, overdue for an awakening to one of the purest forms of Christian faith, drawn simply from Scripture made real in our minds and hearts by the Holy Spirit.
It may seem mind-boggling to fathom the idea of a supernatural God manifesting himself as a Savior who rises from the dead to impart an inner rebirth and a spiritual way of life to people through his Holy Spirit.
But some of the theories of men are equally mind-boggling, such as the notion of the spark of life arising from lifeless matter.
The foundational differences between the two beliefs are relatively simple. One belief (evolution) is more popular in society than the other (God’s design of the universe); one is rooted in the scientific community and its focus on the material world while the other is rooted in the faith community and an acceptance of the supernatural.
When the earth came into being, it’s been said that it had to look like something. Evolutionary theory puts faith either in a massive burst of energy that exploded the universe into being or the tiniest spark of energy that began the process of an ever-expanding universe. The Christian worldview, meanwhile, regards it as entirely possible for God to have created the earth with land, oceans, and skies, and with Adam and Eve living amid an array of wildlife and vegetation.
A courageous faith is required for either view. A key advantage of supernatural Christian faith, though, is not just the experience of praying as never before, but also in the substance of its ideals for human relations, such as the Ten Commandments and the call to love one’s neighbor. No matter how often they are violated from generation to generation, these ideals nevertheless remain foundational in human history.
If a supernatural God is able to create the heavens and the earth and to interact with untold multitudes through prayer, he certainly is able to guide human beings in the writing, compilation, and preservation of his revelation – his biography, so to speak. (Or perhaps it – the Bible – might be called his autobiography, penned with a divinely recruited and empowered team of co-writers.)
Both the universe and God’s life-changing biography are two of the most sweeping manifestations of a supernatural divinity.
God’s biography is even a best-seller year after year, yet it does nothing more than gather dust in countless homes and libraries. The Bible is tolerated as long it remains unopened.
The predominance of mankind regards God’s biography as out of date and irrelevant, difficult to understand, troubling in its content, and just one of a multitude of religious books seeking the allegiance of men, women, and children. God’s philosophies and the various instructions he communicates in Scripture are cast aside by society as too narrow or too otherworldly. The honesty with which the Bible speaks is frequently criticized and rarely seen as attesting to its credibility. Atheists and plenty of agnostics have no personal interest and, at best, only an academic interest in reading the Bible’s depiction of the depths of human depravity and God’s relentless vigilance against the impurity of sin. These non-believers likewise have no interest in tapping into the joys of divine redemption and the adventure of praying as never before.
Much of God’s biography, no doubt, is beyond our human understanding and cannot be fully experienced unless our minds and hearts are quickened by the Holy Spirit to its life-changing words. Many of the prayers recorded in Scripture stir our souls only during times of quiet meditation. Sometimes the Bible speaks in poetic or figurative language not intended to be taken literally but, rather, taken to heart. Sometimes it cannot be understood without a grasp of particular cultural settings in biblical times.
Clarity and certainty
But, for the most part, the Bible is unmistakable in holding forth a higher plane of living available to mankind. For centuries, Scripture has weathered the loudly voiced doubts of a skeptical, multi-faith world. Renowned thinkers have challenged its assertions and underscored its apparent internal contradictions, while capable theologians have rallied to its defense at every point of contention.
The biblical story of Jonah being swallowed by “a great fish” is but one example from the overarching spiritual battle. Plenty of atheistic and agnostic scholars say Jonah never actually existed and thus the Bible is recounting only a myth in the Old Testament’s brief Book of Jonah. But in dismissing Jonah, these scholars also must dismiss Jesus, who said “the sign of the prophet Jonah” would be a key sign of his redemptive death and resurrection. “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish,” Jesus said, as quoted in Matthew 12:40, “so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
The battle will rage on, as scholars on both sides of the spiritual fence debate the story of Jonah, the exact meaning of three days and three nights, and a myriad of other facets of God’s biography.
But while the battle rages, precious time is ticking away. Yes, God’s biography can be an intellectual and emotional mountain to climb. “The Bible can’t really mean everything it says,” some might reason. “I’ll live my life as I please. Maybe I’ll just accept whatever in the Bible feels right for me.”
Or God’s biography can be taken at face value. “It really does mean everything it says,” others, open to supernatural faith, might say, “and I will rely on God’s help as I attempt to live it out.”
Life is too short not to enjoy to its fullest. Taking God’s dynamic biography at face value, a life enhanced by praying as never before awaits.
Shall we heed the atheists and agnostics and bind ourselves in knots of confusion and hopelessness? Or shall we decide to heed God himself and shelter ourselves in his love and wisdom?
This, doubtless, is a bold statement: The Christian faith, at face value as described in the Bible and set in motion by prayer, is more gripping and more uplifting than any experience in human history.
Granted, life has its extraordinary moments from time to time and history books are filled with exhilarating triumphs (and mind-numbing tragedies). But with a humility and confidence inherent to their faith in Jesus, some Christians can propose that the resurrection of Jesus and his sending forth the Holy Spirit to dwell in his followers are unparalleled among all events since the beginning of time.
They say this from their personal experience in this ongoing eternal process, especially their connection to God through prayer and a day-to-day trust in his grace. They can attest that God’s biography, at face value, sets forth a unique and extraordinary faith.
Take, for example, the momentous juncture when God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses at Mount Sinai. The Ten Commandments “came with glory,” the apostle Paul recounts in 2 Corinthians 3:7-11, describing the commandments as “the ministry that brought death … engraved in letters on stone.” The reference to death stems from how the Ten Commandments make clear God’s uncompromising expectation of godly living despite the futility of human effort to live free of sin and failure. The only answer to the certainty of death from sin is the certainty of redemption in Christ.
The glory with which the Ten Commandments were given was so great “that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory,” which Paul notes was a temporary glory, “fading though it was.”
The apostle then poses this question: “… will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious?”
Then these declarations: “If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. And if what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!”
No wonder, then, that this glorious empowering by God can help a person be more well-rested, more invigorated, and more productive. Increasingly attuned to the great truths in God’s living biography, and increasingly attuned to God himself when the yearning to pray as never before is sparked, the follower of Christ becomes more loving, compassionate, and humble, as well as more prepared for crisis or agony, far more at peace with the divine, and immeasurably more prepared to die.
These and other glories of the Christian faith, not surprisingly, can leave a person eagerly awaiting the next encounter with the God of the universe.
Countless pages of Scripture, when understood at face value, reflect the joys to be discovered by a believer with an open heart.
A believer also can be guided, for example, by such truths in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will filled” and “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:6,8).
In the Old Testament, God states in Jeremiah 29:11 that the plans he has for each believer are “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” And in Jeremiah 33:3, the Lord sets forth an awesome invitation to pray: “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.”
These are but a tiny glimpse of the treasures of faith. The prosperity God promises, however, will never be measured by the currencies of this world; the unsearchable things of God will not be reported in the daily newspaper or explored in most academic settings. Rather, the blossoming of each facet of the fruit of the Spirit will be a lifelong process of Bible study, prayer, and fellowship with other believers.
Each person must decide whether life must be lived in only one world, the material world, or whether the things of God, while so unfathomable, also are an inherent part of our divinely designed human existence.
By living in the spiritual realm and praying as never before, a believer gains a new foothold for battling the dark facets of his or her humanity.
The apostle Paul well understood these inner wars, writing in Romans 7:21-25: “… When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Struggles with the inner churnings of such sins as bitterness and greed and even hardened addictions may continue to exist within a person after he or she turns to Jesus for salvation. Even when a yearning to pray as never before begins to take root, some believers may find that their earlier addictions remain ever-ready to erupt.
Rarely are addictions to various forms of depravity easily broken. A prayer relationship with Jesus always will prove to be a redemptive addition to a believer’s life, and some believers may see their weaknesses and addictions quickly fall away. But for others, it may be years before all of their entrenched sinful habits are eradicated.
In the interim, a believer has no choice. The communion with Jesus grows, increasingly becoming a desperately needed place of refuge after each defeat. The believer cries out to God, placing the entirety of his or her life under the Lord’s forgiveness as promised in Scripture. “If we confess our sins,” as 1 John 1:9 notes, “he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
Tumult of truth
The believer knows that sooner or later, “… you may be sure that your sin will find you out,” as Moses declared to the Israelites long ago, as Scripture recounts in Numbers 32:23.
When that moment of truth and tumult finally comes, the believer’s faith in Jesus will provide the grace and fortitude to face even public embarrassment or great personal loss if, ultimately, such tragedy is required in order to attain a long-yearned-for, more complete life of purity with God.
During these struggles, an accusatory type of guilt often sweeps over believers. Whether quietly nagging at their souls or aggressively pounding against not just their minds but their bodies as well, the guilt seems to have a demonic energy, demanding an answer to such taunts as, You’re despicable. How can someone like you call yourself a Christian?
This guilt is not confined to Christians who battle various addictions they had prior to conversion. After each episode of sin, open-hearted nonbelievers are beaten down by the roar of such taunts as, You’re a hopeless mess. How can someone like you ever think of knowing God?
Fullness of forgiveness
Sadly, we greatly underestimate God’s forgiveness, refashioning his grace into something on the level of our imperfect humanity. We who have found new birth fail to live in all its glorious dimensions. We allow ourselves to be bullied by the taunts that surely have their origin with the devil.
For non-Christians, this can be especially tragic if the taunts cut short their quest for faith, derailing their dreams of a new birth and a rescue from the despair of godlessness.
Instead of seeing God’s forgiveness as God himself offers it to hurting humanity, we heap devilish guilt and shame on ourselves.
Teachings about forgiveness, however, abound in God’s biography. Among the most frequently quoted:
- “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin” (Psalm 51:1-2).
- “… as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12).
- “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.…” (Romans 8:1).
God’s forgiveness is best experienced when taken at its face value from Scripture. Just as the new birth supernaturally gives people a totally new start in life, so God’s forgiveness supernaturally provides that same new start each time his followers realize they have acted wrongly toward other people or toward God himself and, turning anew to him in prayer, ask for his forgiveness.
By God’s supernatural grace, we gain the opportunity to become as fresh as the first day he entered our lives. From God’s standpoint, our peace with him is restored to return to praying as never before.
When faithful followers of Christ, as part of being human, somehow slip into occasional junctures of sin, it may be just a momentary lapse. It may be as simple as a few words spoken in a careless moment or when we are tired, but nevertheless the words are hurtful or devastating to another person. The sin may occur when we are in too much of a hurry or too preoccupied to give a helping hand to a person in need. Or it may involve excusing ourselves “just this one time” for a moral indiscretion or ethical breach rather than repenting of the destructive, even deadly path we may have embarked upon.
One of the most subtle yet most common sins is a mistaken presumption about a situation or a mistaken judgment about another individual.
Sadly, a believer’s seeming self-assurance in understanding God’s intentions can, on occasion, have tragic consequences in his or her actions affecting the lives of one or more loved ones, friends, or neighbors.
A believer’s actions and decisions affecting the lives of others can reflect a callous lack of understanding – or, in essence, a lack of love. It happens when we haven’t chosen to love effectively, to sacrifice whatever time is necessary to find out from other people what’s on their hearts in order to treat them with utmost dignity.
A person who is praying as never before especially should be on guard against sincerely held but dangerously mistaken self-righteousness.
Unintentional self-righteousness is not just a delusion periodically afflicting Christians, but all of humanity. The Holy Spirit’s presence in a believer’s life, however, makes it far more likely a deep sorrow will flood forth once he or she realizes the toll inflicted on one or more persons.
Scripture calls it godly sorrow in 2 Corinthians 7:10: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.”
Godly sorrow is first experienced as part of the new birth when a person grasps that the lack of an inner spiritual consciousness and purity is why we are separated from God and why we commit misdeeds toward others. This repentance clears the way for the Holy Spirit to enter our lives, to begin a wholesome transformation of our hearts and minds, and to lead us to a joyous faith in Jesus.
Along the way in times of prayer, we will sense a stirring for reconciliation with anyone who has felt the sting – or devastation – of our sin, whether the offense occurred moments earlier or years ago. We will begin to have the courage to say to others, “Please forgive me for what I did.”
Worldly sorrow, meanwhile, may prompt a person to say, “I’m sorry,” to someone on occasion and to really mean it. Nevertheless, a measure of death surely results from worldly sorrow. There is no peace with God in our souls and no way to take hold of a divine source of reconciliation and healing in our earthly relationships.
Time and time again, we must return to the cleansing, restorative power of God’s forgiveness. “God, forgive me for….” is a vital step to move beyond human remorse. It initiates a time of prayer in response to God’s amazingly gracious promise: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” No matter how often the Holy Spirit stirs us to ask forgiveness, our responsiveness is vital for regaining the life-giving intimacy with God of praying as never before.
There are some things that faith in Jesus does not tend to do, even when we are praying as never before.
It is not likely to increase a person’s intellectual capacity, for example.
Human intelligence certainly can be of great benefit to mankind in science and other realms of endeavor. Unless our minds are guided by Christian faith, however, they also are capable of devising ever-more-sorrowful ways to steal, to cheat, to be greedy, to tell lies, to engage in sexual immorality, and most horribly, to murder.
A lack of prayer, actually, can make a person less intelligent, less able to resist twisted opportunities to harm others, less likely to grasp the glories of supernatural faith. From my own failings and misguided notions, I can sorrowfully declare: Sin makes you stupid.
Human intelligence has never proven to be an antidote to sin; in fact, it does not even seem to be a key theme in Scripture. Although our intellectual capacities begin as gifts from our Creator at the outset of life, men and women who strive to develop their minds often are tempted to take pride in the scope of their knowledge and thinking skills, again lessening their capacity for a wholesome relationship with Jesus.
“Pride goes before destruction,” Proverbs 16:18 states with sobering simplicity, “a haughty spirit before a fall.”
Jesus, in answer to the question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” told his disciples that faith entails the kind of trust in God that children place in adults. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus said, as recounted in Matthew 18:3, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Wellspring of wisdom
Although praying as never before may not heighten one’s intellect (unless God chooses to initiate a highly extraordinary miracle), it can give rise to a special measure of wisdom and spiritual knowledge.
While an intelligent person’s gifting can lead to self-centered pride, a follower of Jesus tends to have the humility to entrust all of life to God’s care, which includes the Holy Spirit’s readiness to guide a believer’s mental abilities toward the wisest, highest of ethical standards.
A person’s brain functions better, in fact, when it is energized by and engaged in prayer. We are able to summon greater courage for honest self-examination and a greater measure of graciousness for interacting with people, especially those who are hurt us through unkind acts or pointed criticism.
Scripture provides a crisp definition of “the wisdom that comes from heaven” in James 3:17: It is “first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.”
This wisdom can be tapped by prayer, by a believer’s yearning for God to impart it to his or her life in ever-increasing measure just as he does the other supernatural fruits of the new birth.
All the while, this wisdom from heaven serves as an invaluable, readily accessible standard that can be utilized in prayer to assess our actions toward God and the degree to which Christian love has been lived out in our daily lives. This wisdom can help us realize when repentance is needed for a wayward attitude or action. And it can guide our intellect when we pray about the many decisions, simple or complex, that must be made from one day to the next.
In succinct, poignant words about Christ, the words of 1 Corinthians, chapter 1, verse 5 help us grasp that “in him you have been enriched in every way – in all your speaking and in all your knowledge.”
Two of the greatest words in the Bible are “Fear not,” as phrased in Scripture’s King James Version – a simple but compelling exhortation by which God has called forth great resolve in his people throughout the ages. Often by these two words God has summoned his people to the deepest of spiritual yearnings as well as the highest displays of courage amid social upheaval when, for example, self-absorbed authorities anxiously have undertaken harsh measures to stamp out the threat of life-changing faith.
In Scripture, these were among the words spoken to Mary, a young virgin in Nazareth, by the angel Gabriel before he relayed a stunning message two thousand years ago: “You will be with child and give birth to a son,” one who will be called “the Son of the Most High,” whose kingdom will never end, as recorded in Luke 1:26-32.
These words, “Fear not,” were spoken by an unnamed angel to stunned shepherds near Bethlehem as “the glory of the Lord shone around them” on the night of Jesus’ birth in a manger, as recorded in Luke 2:8-14.
These were the words God spoke to an aging, childless man who would be known as Abraham after being told in a divine covenant that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars, as recorded in Genesis 15:1-5.
These words of assurance were spoken by Jesus as he expanded his disciples’ grasp of faith in preparation for the challenge of carrying forth his redemptive mission. These words were spoken to the apostle Paul as he faced trial in Rome and to the apostle John as he recorded God’s description of the tumultuous conclusion of history, the Book of Revelation.
An enduring exhortation
These are the words in Scripture that believers often have turned to in every generation when bravery has been needed, and not just in times of confrontation with governmental authorities. God’s call to “fear not” has stirred believers in their daily lives to give witness to their faith to loved ones, friends, acquaintances, neighbors, and passersby both by verbal testimony and explanation as well as a lifestyle marked by the fruit of the Holy Spirit listed in Galatians 5: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control.”
No doubt, these words are perplexing to some people. Or laughable. Skeptics who regard Christianity as imagined or beyond rationality cannot fathom anything appealing about faith, anything marvelous about the opportunity to pray as never before.
To these, only a gracious comment needs to be offered: Go ahead and stay in the visible world until you sense a stirring to venture beyond it.
To everybody else, to those who already believe and those who yearn to believe, the simple truth is, There is nothing to fear with the Holy Spirit. Rather, there is every reason to place our lives in the care of the eternal God whose “perfect love,” as the apostle John describes it in 1 John 4:18, “drives out fear.”
This is a far-fetched notion, but imagine being a lone tourist in the Holy Land, with just the Holy Spirit as your tour guide.
As you select some of the sites of the great events of the Bible to behold, God quickens your spirit to grasp the awe of those divine-human encounters – at Mt. Sinai, atop which God put the Ten Commandments in Moses’ hands; at the temple in Jerusalem, the focal point of Jewish yearnings; at the manger in Bethlehem, where Jesus took his first breath as a human; in the Garden of Gethsemane, his preferred place of prayer; and at the tomb, from which Jesus exited in his divinity.
It is not a far-fetched notion, however, that you can be alone with God wherever you may live on earth. The joy of interacting with him can be experienced in any dwelling, in any workplace, in any natural setting.
In seeking a tender, ongoing relationship with God, you may find yourself being drawn to select one or more special places of divine encounter.
It might be a place where you can sit alone at home. And, yes, sit comfortably and, if you like, recline a bit. It may even be a closet with a small clearing for a chair or a place to kneel.
Another place of divine encounter might be in the workplace, perhaps in an unused room with a place to sit.
Or on a bench or a blanket in a nearby park.
Or sitting in a vehicle which you have driven to a relatively quiet spot for a short time.
Your bed may suffice as a place of divine encounter sometimes. But in being accustomed to it as a lifelong place of sleep, the tendency may be to return to slumber rather than fully turn to God.
And, in the most urgent of times, a place of divine encounter can be anywhere you may call out to God, anywhere you may even drop to your knees in prayer, anywhere you may fall face-down on a floor, prostrate in humility in desperation for God to pour forth from heaven his healing spirit into your earthly life.
At other times, a place of divine encounter can be a setting for meditating on Scriptures that are in the process of shaping your life or praying for God’s mercy to be evident in difficult or dire circumstances facing people near to us or in crisis spots throughout the world.
However, a place of divine encounter becomes a cherished part of one’s life only by being frequently visited over the course of time. It becomes personal holy ground only if a person has had the precious experience of meeting God there in good times, in bad times, and in seemingly mundane times.
Jesus’ divinity, at the outset of his mission, was manifested in the authority of his teaching, such as the Sermon on the Mount, and through various miracles of physical and spiritual healing. Thus, Scripture recounts, “the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses.”
But note what Jesus did: He “often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:15-16).
Psalms tell us it is good to pray in the morning. The prayer recorded in Psalm 90, verse 14, for example, asks of God: “Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days,” while the prayer recorded in Psalm 5, verse 3, declares: “In the morning, O Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation.”
Just as importantly, the Psalms tell us it is good to pray at night, such as Psalm 68, verses 6-8: “On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.” Especially amid bouts with insomnia, nighttime misery can be greatly reduced and perhaps transformed into precious, joyous moments with God whenever a believer remembers to redeem the time by praying as never before.
Jesus likewise prayed “early in the morning” (Mark 1:35) and he prayed at nighttime in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his arrest in the torturous chain of events culminating in his crucifixion the next day (Mark 14:34).
David, in Psalm 55:17, declared, “Evening, morning and noon I cry out in distress and he hears my voice,” while the apostle Paul exhorted fellow believers to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions, with all kinds of prayers and requests” (Ephesians 6:18).
You can be confident of Scripture’s endorsement to pray each day, both at a regular time and place of divine encounter that you select and, certainly, at any time amid life’s challenges, pleasures, and idle moments.
The place and time of prayer, while important, are but two facets of embarking on a journey in prayer. This journey can be awe-inspiring, perhaps like a series of vistas in the mountains. And it can be intensely captivating, like finding exquisite seashells on an ocean beach. The prayers recorded in the Bible are, in particular, an abundant source of spiritual riches, like gems to be mined from a vein of rock.
Perhaps the most familiar prayer in Scripture is the Lord’s Prayer.
More importantly: It is an integral part of Jesus’ teachings, recorded both in his watershed Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 and in the Savior’s answer to the one of the most foundational requests from any of his disciples, “Lord, teach us to pray,” in Luke 11.
It is peculiar, though, how religious people over the centuries have interacted with this prayer spoken from the heart of God.
In congregations that have shown reverence for the Lord’s Prayer by reciting it in unison in their worship services each week, it sadly has become a ritual often devoid of heartfelt yearnings for God.
In congregations marked by a less formal or a spontaneous style of worship, the Lord’s Prayer has fallen into disuse. If a worship leader dared to ask the people to join together in voicing the Lord’s Prayer, there would be a great awkwardness.
The sorrowful effect on people in both settings ultimately is the same: Not many men, women, or children draw close to God through the prayer squarely commended by his Son.
Despite its disuse, however, the Lord’s Prayer remains the most focused prayer instruction in the Bible, which recounts Jesus saying, according to Matthew 6, verses 9-13:
“This, then, is how you should pray:
‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.’”
(In the King James Version, the prayer concludes: “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.” This sentence, however noble, is not found in the earliest manuscripts and, thus, is omitted or bracketed in various modern translations.)
Saying the Lord’s Prayer is not just a matter of repeating it in a church setting. Like any other prayer, it can be prayed in solitude. It can be prayed in times of contentment as well as times of anxiety or crisis.
It can be prayed several times in its entirety. Perhaps numerous times.
It can be prayed phrase by phrase.
Or one of its phrases, such as “hallowed be your name,” can become a simple way of reaching out to connect with God, perhaps repeated several times or many times.
And it can be interrupted, even enhanced by moments of spontaneous prayer springing forth from one’s heart.
By pausing for a few moments between each repetition or phrase of the Lord’s Prayer, opportunity can be given for the Holy Spirit to draw near, for a deepened intimacy with the Father, an ever-greater awareness of one’s relationship with Jesus, and a continuously expanding grasp of the supernatural.
A great number of books have been written over the years delving into the Lord’s Prayer. Yet Jesus’ prayer itself, while only fifty-two words in length, speaks volumes. It is like a highly compact textbook on prayer, regularly updated and expanded by the Holy Spirit by utilizing our daily joys and challenges as well as the span of seemingly uneventful moments in between.
The Lord’s Prayer might be likened to a wondrous hallway, where we sometimes pause to admire an exquisite painting or sculpture and other times enter through stately doorways into expansive rooms displaying an even greater array of priceless objects of art. The treasures of the Lord’s Prayer, however, are more priceless still. They are Jesus’ foundational insights for engaging in spiritual conversation.
The first phrase, for example, notes clearly the focus of prayer: “Our Father in heaven.”
Even the single word, “our,” is significant: The God we have met is intent on calling forth a divine family from all races and nations, males and females, young and old from all walks of life and all economic strata. He is raising his children to love each other — and to love all others so amply that they, too, will be eager to be among his cherished adoptees.
The second phrase, “hallowed be your name,” sets forth the tone of our prayer: great reverence and love for the Creator of the universe.
This Creator, amid the cosmic expanse, has reached forth through his Son to redeem and transform people’s lives on this small planet, empowering them through his Holy Spirit to experience both the joys and rigors of life as witnesses to a supernatural, eternal, and glorious divinity.
On a mission
The next two phrases, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” remind believers of their foremost mission – to be coworkers with God in his redemptive work in our families, our neighborhoods and workplaces, and throughout the world.
In the Nazareth synagogue, for example, Jesus cited the thrust of his messianic purposes as he read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah: “… to preach good news to the poor … to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). And after his resurrection, Jesus spoke his Great Commission: “… go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).
The three sentences which conclude the Lord’s Prayer give assurance of God’s personal love for each believer, as he invites us to pray for our “daily bread”; for forgiveness of our sins; and for protection when we face temptation or the onslaught of evil.
As we pray, “Give us today our daily bread,” for example, we learn that this communion with God is extraordinarily nourishing. As Jesus, in pointing us toward the Father, noted, “… seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well,” as recounted in Matthew 6:33.
When we pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors,” we are reminded that nurturing a forgiving heart is vital to our spiritual health. We each have received and continue to receive a great forgiveness that releases us from the anguish and ravages of guilt. But we misrepresent and greatly cheapen this blessing from God whenever we lessen or withhold our forgiveness from those who may have wronged us.
And when we pray, “…lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” we beseech God for the divine help we so desperately need to avoid the heartbreak and devastation that sin can cause to our own lives and to our loved ones.
For a few moments dwell further in the Lord’s Prayer on the words “hallowed be your name.” The brief phrase is easy to gloss over, yet it is an exceedingly intense expression of worship. These four words of worship, while stated by Jesus with great simplicity, reflect some of the overarching mystery of faith: One of the foremost components of worshipful prayer is that our heavenly Father’s name is to be held high.
A name is, at the same time, a mere word and a mighty wellspring of awareness.
The word “city,” for example, abounds with vivid images of people, sidewalks and roadways, vehicles built for various purposes, buildings of all shapes and sizes, and homes ranging from meager to majestic.
At one moment, the word can carry our minds to cities as overwhelming as New York or Beijing; at another moment, it can carry us to a city in the American heartland or one in a remote region in the Andes Mountains of South America.
The word can bring us into the midst of a closeknit family reuniting for dinner after one or both parents have been at work and their children at school in different parts of the city that day. Or the word can bring us face-to-face with a lonely single mother in one of the city’s crime-infested neighborhoods or a wandering man who spends his day soliciting money from passersby and his night on one of the city’s street benches.
Countless names are part of our human experience. We can almost smell the aroma and see the beauty of a “rose.” From “tree,” we may think of a towering redwood or a tiny seedling. When “sky” comes to mind, we may think of a sunny, clear-blue morning, an ominous thunderstorm on the horizon, or a sweeping nighttime display of the stars deep in the universe.
Far beyond any everyday description, a name for God such as “our Father in heaven” in the Lord’s Prayer abounds with divine splendor. It is not to be worshiped above God himself, of course. Such a practice, even if well-intentioned, would be a form of idolatry.
Certainly because of Jesus’ encouragement in the Lord’s Prayer, it is right and good to say to God “hallowed be your name.” There is a power and purity, in fact, in all the names of God drawn from the Scriptures because each name that God has chosen for himself is sacred.
Each name is sacred because it is intimately connected with the one who is supremely sacred. Each name is his self-description; it is relayed to us from heaven where its fullness resounds.
And each name, each of God’s self-chosen descriptions is crucial to our faith. Each builds our faith by helping us know who he is, just as our faith grows from each life-altering encounter with him.
And each of God’s names, as we speak it or pray it, draws his attentiveness, just as we turn our attention to those who call our names during the course of a day.
Among the names for God drawn from Scripture:
- “the Lord God,” God’s self-description as he created Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:4).
- “I am” (Exodus 3:14), God’s self-assertion spoken to Moses, along with the name that continues to connect us today with God’s presence throughout history, “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:15).
- “Lord God Almighty” (Amos 4:13), a stirring name of God spoken through the prophet Amos.
- “Holy Father,” the name Jesus used in prayer in the hours before his crucifixion (John 17:11).
- “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6), the names describing Jesus’ divinity in a key passage of messianic prophecy.
The various exhortations to praise God found in the Bible may seem perplexing, as to whether God could be so egotistical as to require our praise.
More likely, it is not a cosmic ego but a divine love that stretches forth to nurture our praise. Each moment of praise is an opportunity for God’s people to gain an ever-deepening grasp of divine reality. Each worshipful use of God’s name is a dialogue with him about who he is – in us and the world around us.
Think, then, of “our Father in heaven.”
Of “God” and “Son of God” and “Holy Spirit,” of the array of words reflecting God’s revelation of himself in the Scriptures.
Indeed, “hallowed be your name.”
Atheists in times of war can pray as bombs explode around them or bullets whiz by. Agnostics with a child suffering from a terminal illness can pray. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, or Hindus can pray. People can pray to Satan or to idols of wood or stone. Once- or twice-a-year churchgoers can pray.
Some of these can find great emotional release through prayer to their respective gods. Some devotees begin their efforts in prayer by repeating a word or a sound over and over, seeking to enter a trance-like condition.
Like a blank sheet of paper, times of prayer can be filled with a wide range of religious traditions or spur-of-the moment notions.
Christians, of all people, should readily embrace the glories of prayer.
Just because repetitive prayer, for example, is part of the Jewish and Muslim traditions doesn’t mean Christians should avoid repetition in times of prayer. Heartfelt repetition may be quite helpful and healthy when yearning to connect with God or when praying in light of an intensely meaningful Scripture passage.
Just because the Buddhist and Hindu traditions may include “meditation,” “chants,” or one-syllable repetitive sounds typically called “mantras” doesn’t mean Christians should avoid meditation drawn from the words of Scripture or simple yet sacred words such as “Jesus” or “Lord God” when settling in for a time of prayer.
Neither should Christians be shackled by images of people sitting in a somewhat-contorted position on a floor. This posture is not a requirement for engaging in true prayer. It implies, for example, that people with limited mobility, those in physical pain, or those wary of injury cannot qualify for wondrous sacred experiences. Scripture, however, never minimizes the opportunity for anyone to yearn for God.
And just because some folks may close their eyes and sit in silence to attain a mystical experience of one sort or another doesn’t mean we Christians cannot sit in silence with the Creator of the universe, absorbing any of his glory and love that may come our way or surround us or lift our hearts heavenward.
It is neither blasphemy nor heresy for a Christian to meditate.
Psalm 1, for example, notes that each believer can experience the blessings of a godly life from God’s teachings in Scripture, such that “his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither” (verses 2-3).
The Bible also tells us that there are times when, as recounted in Romans 8:26, “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”
And when Psalm 46:10 quotes God as saying, “Be still, and know that I am God,” it is intriguing that some things about the Lord can only be known, or made clear in our hearts and minds, when we are still – when we excuse ourselves from the routines and demands of life to seek a place where we might experience a few moments of divine encounter.
It is a sign of spiritual vitality for a Christian to call “on the name of the Lord,” as the Bible often puts it, whether in silent yearning or attentiveness to him or verbally in a loud outcry or a whisper. These moments can remind us of who God is in our lives, how gracious he has been, and how he may want to guide us into his care in the hours and days ahead.
Even moments spent simply repeating the name of Jesus, for example, or any of the descriptions God has selected for himself can enliven our minds to relevant junctures in Scripture recounting Christ’s teachings or his interactions with people. Jesus’ name, in particular, was given to him by God as “the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father,” according to Philippians 2:9-11.
For each period of meditation or each word or groan, or each look from our hearts toward the Lord, a Christian must never lose sight of the sacredness of prayer. Remember, for example, the third of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God …” (Exodus 20:7). And remember Jesus’ counsel: “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words” (Matthew 6:7).
No matter the form of prayer, it must be the Holy Spirit – the supernatural presence of Jesus in his followers – who helps us lift our hearts to God.
A person’s faith may begin humbly, in a simple childlike trust in Jesus. At times, such trust is a believer’s only resource amid life’s character-building trials and crises.
But a spiritual hunger typically beckons each believer to grow – to read the Bible, to go to church on Sundays, to live every moment with integrity, and to help those in need.
Faith, however, pushes even further.
Many of the greatest joys in faith are discovered only through the spiritual adventure of praying as never before. Nurtured and sustained by prayer in an intimate relationship with God, we arrive at one spiritual vista after another – at new heights of celebration, new realms of understanding, and new breadths of love.
Life-changing prayer, however, does not occur in an empty mind.
In some forms of meditation, people in other religions are instructed to clear all thoughts from their minds. “That’s really hard for me to do,” one adherent once told me. More importantly, it may not be wise to circumvent one’s consciousness and render it a godless vacuum.
Christianity, meanwhile, encourages people to open their minds to the Holy Spirit, who often communicates to us through the words of Scripture, especially those we have sought to memorize and re-memorize, or in streams of thought marked by a purity and a serenity that can only originate with God.
Jesus, at the outset of his forty-day epoch in the desert with the devil, spoke a decisive truth, as recorded in Matthew 4:4: “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Jesus, above all others, knew the Scriptures in his innermost being.
He was and is the fulfillment of them. He brings them to life, infusing them with his Holy Spirit and energizing the connection they provide between heaven and earth.
We make optimal use of Scripture when, in prayer, we attune ourselves to who God is in accord with his self-revelation, so that our lives are optimally responsive to our Creator, optimally prepared to make him known in our generation, optimally committed to passing along this divine heritage to the generations to come, and optimally attuned to his heart for those near and far whose yearning hearts are in need of a Savior.
Your “optimal” is a matter between you and God. He may be pleased simply by an effort to memorize Scripture – yes, just an effort – regardless of any “success” you may have in even committing a single verse to memory. Never be shackled by any form of guilt when you embark on an ongoing practice of reading a Scripture, pondering its various words and phrases, and praying about its potential relevance to your life. This alone can become a fledgling lifestyle that may yield a life-changing form of meditation.
“Set your mind on things above, not on earthly things,” the apostle Paul counseled. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly …” (Colossians 3:2, 16).
We, then, should avail ourselves of pivotal passages in Scripture. We should seek to carry them with us – in our minds and hearts – wherever we go. We should have them ready for life’s daily challenges as well as its idle moments. Whenever wisdom and courage are needed for a looming crisis or an opportunity arises to sacrifice for someone in need, our preparedness is optimized day by day as we absorb the Bible’s insights into God’s compassionate responsiveness to the human condition.
Just as doctors, nurses, police officers, and firefighters spend numerous hours in training to develop an instinctive readiness for the various emergencies they may confront, such training is instructive in the spiritual realm. Whenever we find ourselves in a struggle within our souls or we encounter a lost soul seeking to know God or to survive one of life’s many crises, it is a call to urgency to utilize the divine resources we have stored up in our hearts and minds.
Returning to the words of Psalm 1, the significance and power of Scripture is underscored to anyone whose life has been infused with God’s Spirit: “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.”
Scripture’s potency, for example, can purify a person’s life. “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him,” Jesus said, as recounted in Matthew 12:34-37, “and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.” The “overflow of the heart” will have eternal consequences, Jesus said, noting that “men will have to give an account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
Scripture also is vital to avoid the tragedies of sin and to attain the greatest joys of faith. “I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands,” the psalmist wrote. “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. … I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches” (Psalm 119:10-11, 14).
Various Bible translations can be used for engaging in a process of Scripture memorization. The 1984 New International Version is what you’re seeing in this book primarily because it is has been part of my life for so long, though I am beginning to make use of the 2011 NIV. But I have an abiding reverence for the King James Version, great respect for the English Standard Version and New American Standard Bible, and warm appreciation for the Good News Bible. My daughter now prefers the Christian Standard Bible; my grandmother enjoyed the Amplified Bible. Some of my friends are drawn to the Revised Standard Version or The Message.
Sadly, though, memorizing Scripture often is seen as laborious. Some effort indeed is required, perhaps like walking from one destination to another or picking up a book in order to read it. Yet much of life is incremental. We take one step and another and another throughout each day; we read one word, then a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, and a chapter as we absorb what’s between the covers of a book. Even more important to our well-being, however, is one word of Scripture, one phrase, one verse, one passage at a time. Memorizing Scripture, without doubt, is a key path toward a tender yet dynamic communion with God.
“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul,” the psalmist wrote.
“The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.
“The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart.
“The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.
“The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever.
“The ordinances of the Lord are sure and altogether righteous.
“They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.
“By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward” (Psalm 19:7-11).
Granted, many people believe they have no ability to memorize Scripture. Or they believe they will soon forget anything they memorize. No one, however, should feel guilty in this regard or feel like a failure. Even a tenuous recall of a Scripture passage may entail several months, or a year or more, of periodic review and of patient re-memorizing whenever it slips from memory. Varying degrees of forgetfulness are part of our humanity – which God can utilize in highly redemptive fashion: Each moment of memorizing or refreshing a Scripture can be experienced as a divine encounter, even for a few seconds or a minute or two. An exacting recall of the words and phrases of a Scripture passage certainly will nourish our souls; even better, though, is the process of ongoing engagement with Scripture in our minds and hearts.
More than being memorized and re-memorized, however, Scripture must be internalized. It is as important for our spiritual health as food and vitamins are for our physical health, as well as rest, sleep, and exercise to maintain mobility.
An interest in internalizing Scripture begins with a desire for God to shape and guide our lives through the language we share in common with him. Scripture, as one of the most practical yet powerful ways of connecting with God, sets forth an understanding of the great privilege of prayer — of sensing God’s heart, of hearing from him and speaking to him. It is the source of learning who God truly is and, in turn, who we are because we have been created “in his own image,” as the Book of Genesis describes God’s design of humanity.
His image is reflected – or tarnished – in everything we do in the full scope of life. At times, we are able to revel in the pleasures of our earthly existence, from good food and good friends to soul-satisfying faith. Other days are filled with challenges – some momentary, some lifelong – and, periodically, the challenges erupt into crises. The rest of our time, it seems, is spent in the incessant flow of seconds, minutes, and hours. Whether we are enjoying life’s highlights, facing a challenge, enduring a crisis, or going about our daily routines, all of life can be enhanced – ought to be enhanced – as we pray the Scriptures as never before.
Scripture internalization can empower your life in numerous ways:
— It transforms your life. Certainly it is central to the process described by the apostle Paul in Romans 12:2: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Each phrase that you memorize, re-memorize, and internalize from Scripture or each sentence or verse enriches your storehouse of knowledge and becomes a part of your conscience and your thinking process and, most importantly, your prayer connection with God throughout the day – and throughout your life.
— Scripture internalization directs your prayers toward “the only true God,” as Jesus called his Father in John 17:3, rather than a god of your imagination or a god of a sin-warped culture.
— It can help you know more intimately the God to whom you are praying. As you memorize a verse or passage of Scripture and then others, pondering them and repeating them over the course of several weeks or months, the internalization of God’s Word will lead to an ever-deepening, ever-broadening awareness of his wisdom and love. As the apostle Paul put it, “For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us” (1 Corinthians 2:11-12).
— It can stir you to a heightened sense of God’s majesty and a greater readiness to worship him. Increasingly, you will be able to join in the kind of praise voiced in Psalm 100: “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs. Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.”
— Scripture internalization acquaints you with the resources of God for any of life’s rigors or troubles. It provides an assurance, as the apostle Paul noted in Romans 8:38-39, “…that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
— It can sharpen and widen your vision for the opportunities God sets before us – from deepening our faith and making it ever more joyous to becoming more responsive to people who are hurting and empty.
The seemingly impossible
The idea of internalizing Scripture may, at first, seem irrelevant to what you typically think about and what you typically do. You may not think it is possible to be rejuvenated by a few silent moments with God; passages from Scripture may not seem to be anything more than mere words.
You may feel that your soul is like dry, parched ground, barren and infertile, seemingly impenetrable to moisture. The first few drops of rain, like your first few glances heavenward or the first verse of Scripture that you ponder, may seem to be insignificant. Likewise, the first few minutes of precipitation, like the first few encounters with God, may seem to be of little effect.
But just as a steady rainfall begins to permeate the ground, an ongoing intake of Scripture via contact with the Holy Spirit begins to soften the soul. Before long, the seemingly impossible has occurred: The soil is becoming fertile again – and your soul is being renewed.
If, over weeks and months, the atmosphere releases an adequate amount of rain, the soil can become productive again. With God, however, there is no “if”; his quiet, life-giving nurture, over weeks and months, and over a lifetime, will transcend each day’s ups and downs and produce an ever-increasing harvest of hope.
At times when a crisis may erupt, time may be too short to search through the Scriptures for guidance from the heart of God. But if you are internalizing Scripture and, thus, praying as never before, your spiritual preparedness is in place – and continually growing – for life junctures when it will be needed most.
Perhaps the most productive starting point for Scripture internalization is Galatians 5:22-23: “… the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
This is the most succinct passage in Scripture describing the godly qualities that result from a person opening his or her heart to Jesus. Its simple words, when enlivened in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, nurture traits that not only will benefit you but also the people around you.
Most people may need a few weeks – or even a few months – to attain a speedy recall of this or any Scripture passage. In this instance, it may help to focus on the first letter of each life-changing facet of the fruit of the Spirit, perhaps in these groupings — LJ (love, joy) – PP (peace, patience) – KG (kindness, goodness) – FG (faithfulness, gentleness) – SC (self-control).
When memorizing Scripture, often a good first step is to identify the key components of a passage, perhaps in a brief list or outline. Alphabet-based shortcuts such as LJ, PP, KG, FG, SC may then prove helpful as well as patterns that may involve key words, phrases, or concepts drawn from a passage.
Another way to memorize Scripture is to focus on the first phrase of a passage and, when it can be called to mind with relative ease, then add the next phrase or the remainder of the sentence. Even a full sentence might be a good starting point, especially if there are a few key words or a hint of rhythm in the flow of the words. If there are multiple sentences in the overall passage, continue the process toward a cumulative recall of the full passage.
Also – at the outset – be sure to memorize the Scripture reference, such as Galatians 5:22-23, so that you can find it in the Bible in case part of it slips from memory or someone expresses an interest in reading it later in a quiet moment.
— writing out the passage a number of times, enjoying and contemplating each phrase.
— copying it in a small notebook or onto spiral-bound notecards (available on many stores’ school supplies aisles) to carry with you to glance at from time to time, especially in idle moments here and there, in order to refresh your memory of the passage as well as other passages you previously memorized.
— copying each new passage onto individual notecards or pieces of paper, keeping them atop your dresser, and picking one up as you leave home each day to review whenever possible.
— telling a relative or friend that you’re trying to memorize Scripture and asking if he or she would look at a Bible passage as you attempt to speak it aloud in order to check for any missing or misplaced words or phrases.
The Scripture initially may seem to be a murky mass of words. Or it may seem almost unwieldy. But be patient. The first week or two (or three or four!) of learning a new Scripture passage perhaps can be likened to a musician’s initial days of practice toward mastering a classical composition, or an artist’s early thinking, sketches, and selection of paints to attempt a crowning work of art, or a hobbyist’s efforts to begin putting together the many pieces of an elaborate picture puzzle.
With Scripture, new insights can begin to blossom from every few repetitions of a phrase or a sentence – new insights about God, about yourself and your life’s circumstances. Over time, even more than anything ever learned in school, it will become an invaluable inner resource increasingly available to you – and to the Holy Spirit.
A second passage that can be meaningful in the early stages of Scripture internalization is the Bible’s succinct description of wisdom in James 3:17: “… the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” (A possible memory aid for this passage: PP, pure and peace-loving; CS, considerate, submissive; FMG, full of mercy and good fruit; IS, impartial, sincere.)
When faced with a significant decision, this kind of wisdom guards against runaway human reasoning devoid of God’s guidance. Moreover, it can enhance and elevate our everyday thoughts and actions as we live in the present; as we look to the future, whether a couple of minutes or a couple of weeks from now; and as we look back over recent days to assess our relationship with God and with others.
There are times, of course, when worries, frustrations, or sinful thoughts invade our minds when we are trying to pray.
But Christians need never languish. Help for their embattled minds is available as soon as they remember to return to their spiritual senses and tap into a great reservoir of truths for inner wellness – truths that abound across the expanse of the Bible and, yet, are brought into focus and made active in our hearts through the simple but dynamic power of Jesus, who calls us to “remain in me” and to let “my words remain in you,” according to John 15, verse 7.
A few uplifting words from the Lord’s Prayer or any life-changing words from Scripture – or Jesus’ name itself – can be spoken, whispered or pondered, and repeated, and then repeated several times or perhaps many times.
Such a practice may seem childlike, yet it was Jesus who once called forth a little child and then declared great value in moments of childlike faith. “I tell you the truth,” he said, as recorded in Matthew 18, verses 3 and 4, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Whether seen through the eyes of a child or an adult, the Bible at first glance simply looks like a book. But it is immeasurably more.
A glass of water may not be a marvelous sight, unless you are desperately thirsty; then it becomes invaluable.
Coins or paper currency are passive objects, but when they are taken into the marketplace they provide food, clothing, or other personal needs. Money can fulfill a person’s wishes and, unfortunately, fuel a person’s self-centeredness and eventual ruin.
It is entirely plausible, then, that “the Word of God is living and active,” as the Bible is described in the Book of Hebrews, chapter 4, verse 12, and thus is vital to praying as never before.
“Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow,” the passage continues with a metaphoric touch; “it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
This stark transparency before our Creator’s eyes might leave us undone and hopeless, but instead, God intends for it to deepen our intimacy with him.
“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess,” the Scripture counsels in this passage from Hebrews, reminding us that God’s intense knowledge of our thoughts and actions should stir us to “approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (verses 12-16).
Our time of need isn’t just when a crisis has erupted; it encompasses every moment of awareness of our dependence on God to draw another breath, to experience life at its fullest even while coping with its rigors, and to preserve our souls into eternity.
A confident faith
Through God’s love, we will have “confidence on the day of judgment,” we are told in 1 John, chapter four, verse 17, “because in this world we are like him.”
Knowing that the “living and active” Word of God is a key dynamic of the Holy Spirit by which we become “like him,” the internalization of Scripture provides momentous opportunities to take hold of an ever-deepening faith.
More and more, we become the kind of people Scripture envisions and we experience the kinds of things that occur in God’s supernatural realm.
Increasingly, we are attuned to the inward transformation and outward flow of the “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control” noted in the Galatians 5 passage that describes the fruit of the Spirit.
Frequently, we contemplate what’s on God’s heart as conveyed in Scripture and by the Holy Spirit. We begin to ponder his wisdom, seeking in prayer to apply the intriguing qualities set forth in James 3:17: that the “wisdom that comes from above is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.”
And when we lovingly speak forth God’s Word, it has a way of enriching us as well as those who hear it. The words of Scripture stir us to lift our minds and hearts heavenward.
In listening to music, we often become absorbed by it, allowing it to infuse and reverberate in our souls. Scripture, though its impact may be more subtle, is far more crucial to our well-being than any melody or set of lyrics.
Internalizing various life-changing Scripture passages is as important spiritually as an elementary school student learning the basics of addition and subtraction, or a worker attaining the skills necessary to do his or her job, or a driver knowing the various road signs that assure safe travel.
When we are rooted in Jesus and open to his Holy Spirit, Scripture is far more likely than any other resource known to man to help us pray in tune with God. Each Scripture passage that we internalize is like a new path toward God’s love and wisdom and his eternal riches.
Some people mistakenly associate the word “rote” with Scripture memorization and internalization as if it entails mindless repetition. They see no good reason nor any potential for great gain by engaging in what they believe is a laborious effort. The idea of Scripture being “living and active” is just one of a myriad of fleeting notions about the Bible that may come to mind from time to time.
Such attitudes are understandable. The words printed on the pages of the Bible are produced when ink is applied to paper. As mere words, they are no more extraordinary than the words printed in the great books of literature, philosophy, history, and science.
Words begin to have influence through a two-way process that involves those who have written the words and those who are reading and absorbing them. They are the foundational tools for communication, the starting point and channel through which ideas are relayed.
The words of Scripture are living and active because they were framed by God and they convey his revelation to mankind. An array of supremely momentous junctures are recounted in the Bible, such as the creation of the cosmos in Genesis; the coming of Jesus the Messiah in the Gospels; and the prophetic, sweeping culmination of world history in the Book of Revelation.
And, certainly, God sets forth his guidance to men, women, and children through the Bible, in retelling for each generation the supernatural ministry and teachings of Jesus and the leaders of the first-century church as empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Examples from daily life abound that reflect the living and active nature of Scripture, how the words of Scripture are simply tools in God’s hands by which he reaches out to believers and seekers through his Holy Spirit and transforms their lives.
As an artist uses a set of brushes to produce a painting, God uses the words of the Bible as a way for the Holy Spirit to produce an increasingly Christ-like person.
As a sculptor uses chisels to break stone into a work of art, God uses passages from Scripture to turn cold human hearts into hearts tender to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Just as a craftsman provides the precision in using a set of knives to create a piece of furniture or an intriguing carving, or a woodsman provides the power in using an axe to make a stack of firewood, God’s Holy Spirit is the source of Scripture’s precision and power in meeting people’s innermost needs. As plumbers and electricians use their tools to fix household problems, the Bible contains innumerable words by which the Holy Spirit can begin to restore broken lives.
When a person uses a telephone, he or she provides the voice that can be heard at the other end of the line. Through Scripture, God’s Holy Spirit provides the voice that can be heard in the human soul.
In fact, the reading of Scripture and, all the more, memorizing and internalizing it are a sacred conversation with God.
It can be difficult to have an extended conversation with God through our human thoughts or our conversational ability. We can humble ourselves before God by praising him for the many facets of his grandeur. We can thank him for the blessings he has entrusted to us. We can ask him to forgive us for the latest of our sinful actions and inaction. We can ask him to take hold of our weaknesses and enable us to be better Christians. And we can pray for others near and far who, amid their crises, pain, anguish, and/or loneliness, need his loving intervention in their lives.
Despite the vast scope and potential of prayer, many of us often complete our encounters with God in incomplete fashion. Our time in prayer may seem lengthy even though it has spanned only a few minutes. And rarely do we return to God in this vital kind of intercession during the day. Only in the most excruciating circumstances do we seem capable of crying out to God over the course of hours or throughout the day and night.
But when we begin to memorize and internalize Scripture, we gain an added dimension of prayer. We begin to speak a common language with our Creator. (Remember: Do not let any notion of attaining perfect recall of Scripture verse after Scripture verse divert you from engaging in Scripture in whatever way nourishes your soul). In prayer, his words extend into more and more of our waking hours, and they can impart peace during seasons of sleeplessness. Innumerable passages of God’s words in Scripture can provide a supernatural alternative to our worldly cares. At moments when even one Scripture comes to mind, it may nudge us into praise, intercession, or other modes of prayer.
And we begin to ponder what “pray without ceasing,” the phrase in 1 Thessalonians, chapter 5, verse 17, truly can mean.
Words, then, are God’s everyday tools to help lead us to a glorious supernatural faith. In him and through him, they truly become living and active as we become more and more attuned to praying as never before.
You may emerge with a variety of reactions to your initial attempts to pray as never before. Perhaps you had a glorious spiritual experience each time. Even after twenty or thirty minutes of prayer, you yearned for more. On the other hand, it is possible that you became bored or impatient after just a few minutes. Or you may have had a few moments of intimate encounter with God amid a stretch of time of wondering if something life-changing actually would happen.
There may be times when, in trying to pray, your thoughts wander among the myriad cares of this world. And perhaps you are among those who feel guilty about such mental restlessness.
Spare yourself the condemnation.
There is no better way to soften the wear and tear of these distractions than listening anew to God’s call as it sounds forth, often in the reassuring, nurturing words of Scripture that rise above the inner clatter every few moments or minutes.
There may be times when you fall asleep while sitting comfortably or perhaps reclining for a time of praying the fruit of the Spirit or the wisdom that comes from heaven – or any segment of Scripture.
Again, fret not.
There is no better way to enter into sleep or emerge from it than in prayer, perhaps in repeating the name of Jesus or a godly phrase, in pondering a Scripture you are seeking to internalize, or in intercession for someone on your heart. Don’t shortchange Jesus’ invitation: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” as recorded in Matthew 11:28. Physical, emotional, and/or spiritual exhaustion may be among the best starting points for turning to God.
Even if you fall asleep or persevere through an onslaught of noise and distractions, a few moments or a minute or two of divine encounter can be extraordinarily precious. They are like the blossoms on a fruit tree: They are beautiful to behold, but they also herald the start of a miraculous process by which a crop of fruit will emerge and grow toward nutritious maturity.
These early flickering times of prayer also can be likened to a medication that is taken over the course of a week or two to achieve a cumulative effect capable of overcoming a disease. Or they are like the efforts to clean up a polluted river or stream. The first day’s effort is important — as are the first month’s efforts and the first year’s. An ongoing endeavor over time will yield a flow of clean water.
Certainly one prayer can be eternally significant. But a lifestyle of prayer can be exponential.
Perhaps at the outset or perhaps later, there may be times in contemplative prayer when you feel as though you are entering into a semi-conscious state, as if you may be sinking deep into God’s trustworthy arms or rising to his throne in the heavens.
Do not be alarmed if you depart from your normal earthly existence for a time. There is no better pathway to life-changing moments of awe with God than one illuminated and guarded by prayer and Scripture.
In Isaiah 26:3, this song of praise to God declares, “You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast because he trusts in you.”
Perfect peace is not impossible. It is experienced when everything else has fallen away in moments of praying as never before.
At times, worry and/or depression push forth like schoolyard bullies to challenge our good intentions to pray as never before, even when we’re in the midst of resting in the Lord, meditating on Scripture to grow in godly character, interceding for others’ needs, or attaining times of perfect peace.
For the problem of worry, Philippians 4:4-7 and 1 Peter 5:5-7 can be quite helpful.
Philippians 4:4-7 relays an exhortation to: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
1 Peter 5:5-7, meanwhile, counsels: “… All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”
These passages do not relay suggestions; they relay God’s commands – his loving instruction – to supplant worry with faith.
In Philippians 4:4-7, when we internalize God’s counsel to rejoice and pray instead of worry, we are moving toward an extraordinary degree of God’s peace. When we rejoice in God, he is near, at least in part because we have drawn near to him.
When we internalize 1 Peter 5:5-7, meanwhile, we absorb the truth that those who are “proud” – who think they must do everything on their own, without God – are on a path to pervasive worry and loneliness. Believers, on the other hand, increasingly grow to realize the folly of forfeiting the blessings promised to those whose first course of action is to seek God’s empowering and guidance.
Up from the depths
If there are times when depression clouds your life, perhaps in moments of saying to yourself, “I hate myself and I hate my life,” “I can’t go on another day (or minute),” or “I wish I were dead,” Scripture again offers substantive help. Consider, for example, internalizing Jesus’ answer to a question posed by one of the first century’s Pharisees, recorded in Matthew 22:36-40, as a possible source of emotional uplift and healing:
“‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’”
Note, first, Jesus’ commands: to love God and to love your neighbor.
As you look to God – spending time with him, seeking to pray as never before, and being transformed by Scripture – the more you will love him, perhaps slowly over time, perhaps quite quickly. As your love for God deepens, you will begin to experience an accompanying love for your neighbors – those who are part of your everyday world and those with whom you have interacted in the past. Increasingly, as God touches and shapes your heart, you will treat these neighbors with respect and kindness. You will begin to do good things for them as opportunity permits. At some point, you may even make a great sacrifice for one of them. As you grow in godly compassion, you also will begin to see people in distant lands as your neighbors who likewise are worthy of sacrificial efforts to introduce them to a sustaining faith in Jesus and to extend a helping hand amid the poverty and/or oppression they may be enduring.
But, then, look at the complete command: to love your neighbor as yourself.
Good thoughts and good deeds are not just God’s will for how you interact with your neighbors, but also God’s will for how you interact with yourself.
Internalizing these brief sentences from Scripture can deepen your capacity for loving God, then loving your neighbors and, just as importantly, learning to love yourself with his supernatural love.
In addition to worry and depression, another spiritual battleground is sin. Because we haven’t murdered anyone, however, or been taken to court for a major crime, we may assume all is well. Many of us have become quite adept in rationalizing away our sins. Or we may compartmentalize our lives into the “Christian” part on Sunday mornings and the “real world” part during the rest of the week in our work and recreation.
In varying ways, we tend to lack the good sense to be deeply concerned about our ethical lapses, our rudeness or insensitivity to others, our negative attitudes or self-centeredness.
We need, with regularity, to be sobered up to the holiness of God, to be reminded of our nakedness before him, and to courageously move beyond our unworthiness by embracing the wholesomeness of repentance and renewal.
Galatians 6:7-9 can be a helpful Scripture passage for memorizing/internalizing in confronting our sin: “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
As often as this passage comes to mind, it can reawaken our conscience, shake us from our complacency, and redirect us toward repentance and restoration. It can renew our vigilance, unveil our spiritual blind spots, and chip away at our hardness of heart.
Sometimes, even when our outward behavior is without fault, our minds can wander toward godlessness, stretching from depraved thoughts to vengeful imaginations. These private moments, however, are never beyond the purifying reach of the Holy Spirit.
Drawing from the apostle Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 10:5 to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ,” one of the surest ways to reign in a wandering mind is to latch on to Scripture that exhorts us to a higher plane of living, such as Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God,” as recorded in Matthew 5:8.
Ongoing or one-time sins also can be uncovered for repentance by repeating the fruit of the Spirit – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” – not only as a general prayer but also as a spiritual checklist, asking God such questions about ourselves as:
In what ways might I need to have more love toward people in general or a certain person in my life?
How might I be missing out on some of the joy you intend for me?
What’s the quality of my peace with you and my family and friends?
Do you have anything to say about my patience with you and with others?
What opportunities are you giving me for showing kindness to people in the days ahead?
Look into my soul, God, and let me know how you might want to increase whatever goodness is there.
What do you want me to learn about faithfulness?
To what extent do people see a gentleness in me imparted by your Spirit?
In what areas do I need to pray for self-control?
For each sin, return to the forgiveness and restoration God promises in 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” And for each area where spiritual growth is needed, find an appropriate passage in Scripture and begin to internalize it.
Good things happen when, in praying as never before, we confront our tendency to fall into sin. Among them:
- Prevention. We may reinvigorate our conscience and gain a new resolve to avoid dabbling in sin, thus preventing its destructiveness in our lives along with the damage our sin can cause in others’ lives.
- Abbreviation. We may come to our senses more quickly when we have fallen into sin and take corrective action by whatever steps are necessary to return to the Lord.
- Restoration. We seek and accept God’s forgiveness for our sin rather than wallowing in guilt and shame.
- Healing. The sooner we turn to God for forgiveness, the sooner he can begin healing our hearts. In some cases, our suffering from sin can be reduced by months or even years.
- Rejoicing. At times, by using the fruit of the Spirit as a checklist when we are praying as never before, the Lord may show us ways he has been supernaturally transforming our lives, giving us cause for humble, godly moments of thanksgiving and rejoicing.
Any spiritual checklist for assessing our relationship with God is incomplete unless it contains a number of queries probing our relationships with other people. Our accountability for how we conduct our lives is first and foremost to God, yet it extends beyond any “God-and-me” attitude. One of our most pivotal proving grounds of faith involves our respect for – and love of – people, from the youngest and smallest to the oldest and most frail. Our relationships are the only earthly setting in which we can complete Jesus’ commands to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and, then, to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Perhaps no Scripture is more crucial for our personal relationships than Ephesians 4:29-32: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up, according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
Much of this Scripture squarely describes our relational sins. It describes what we often do to loved ones, friends, neighbors, acquaintances, and passersby. It is a sorrowful listing of the hurts and heartbreaks we inflict on each other.
And yet this Scripture is wonderfully redemptive. It is a call to repentance in our families, neighborhoods, places of worship, and work settings.
As often as we repeat this Scripture in prayer in order to internalize it, it increasingly fashions within us a divine respect for others and a readiness to forgive and seek forgiveness and, wherever possible, the healing of strained or ruptured relationships.
Within a few months, or maybe only weeks, you may be amazed as you hear and see the graciousness of your language and actions resulting from memorizing and meditating upon these four sentences. (One key to memorizing this passage: Begin by focusing on the first few words of each sentence: 1) “Do not let.…” 2) “And do not grieve….” 3) “Get rid of….” and 4) “Be kind and compassionate….”)
When anger soars
One of the most common relational sins is abusive anger, an emotion that explodes or festers in a way that harms another person or sometimes extends its upheaval to a crowd of people.
Scripture sets forth a balanced view of anger; we are told, for example, in Ephesians 4:26-27, “In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” With each anger episode, turn to God as soon as possible to ask for his help in turning your heart back toward the fruit of the Spirit. By addressing anger during times of praying as never before, it can become an emotion that need not leave a tornado-like trail of destruction.
Numerous other biblical exhortations can be helpful in working to push anger back from the threshold of sin, including:
— Pray for God’s control over your words as well as your tone of voice. Here is particularly where Scripture internalization can bring transformation, in focusing on such passages as James 3:9-10, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.” Several passages in Proverbs also can be helpful, such as “He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity” (Proverbs 21:23) and “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise” (Proverbs 10:19).
— Seek restoration with anyone harmed by your anger. Because prayer is one of the most tender gifts we exchange with the Lord, the words of Jesus recorded in Matthew 5:23 set forth a foundational practice for human relationships: “… if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”
If you seek to internalize Ephesians 4:29-32, be careful never to use it in anger, sarcasm, or a lecturing tone toward someone with whom you are at odds. When spoken to another person, it should only be with someone who is hungry for, or at least open to, a word from God. Otherwise, we join Satan in the role of “accuser of the brothers,” as Revelation 12:10 puts it. Sadly, even a wondrous word from Scripture can be used in a sinful manner.
Marriage, certainly, is the most foundational of human relationships, abounding with challenges and growth as well as joys and, potentially, companionship until the onset of death. Anger and other lamentable behaviors can grip a marriage at a moment’s notice or fester for years. Countless books on marriage have been written and countless counselors are available to help struggling couples. Yet, any of these can be enhanced when one or both spouses begin to deal with anger and their other shortcomings by a heart-level repentance drawn from God’s counsel in Scripture.
When provoked to anger, whatever the context, you can continue to give yourself over to dangerous emotions, a bit like attaching yourself to a rocket soaring out of control or jumping into a mighty river in flood stages. Or, over time, God can guide you toward better choices as you internalize Scripture by praying as never before.
The Holy Spirit, in fact, can lead you to be more gracious than you ever thought possible. The words, “Please forgive me…,” will become easier to say. At some point in the future when angry and unkind thoughts are reverberating and multiplying in your mind, you may be humbled to hear gracious words somehow emerge from your lips. “I can’t believe I said something nice,” you may marvel to yourself before realizing, “Oh, it was you, God, who helped me.” Or, you may come to a point someday that whenever anger is beginning to erupt, your lips seem to be divinely restrained from speaking it. At such times, you likely will recall, and celebrate, the words of Scripture, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths….”
It is a wondrous experience when, in praying as never before, God begins to utilize the words of Scripture to infuse a supernatural peace and hope into our hearts in ever-increasing measure. But when a problem threatens to take a toll on our physical well-being, a troublesome bit of doubt can arise.
While we are thankful for the grace God has imparted to our souls, many of us wonder what it would be like if a looming problem were to take away our livelihood and thrust us into financial ruin. We sometimes wonder how traumatized we would be if a doctor were to relay a diagnosis of ominous illness or if, in an instant, we were to suffer a debilitating injury.
Many others, meanwhile, know what it is like. They have experienced it.
When prayer encounters hardship (whether real or induced by worry), it becomes very personal. We ask God such questions as: Will you truly take care of me? Yes, you’ve changed my life, but in the worst-case scenario, will I have food to eat? Will I have shelter or will I be left homeless? Will I have family and friends or will I be alone?
When physical ailments buffet our bodies, we may turn to God in our uncertainty and ask: Will I be able to walk despite the pain in my body, or put on my clothes? Will I be able to see if my eyes continue to decline?
Only rarely do we have an opportunity to ask a close friend who has weathered an ordeal: Did God really provide? Otherwise, we don’t tend to hear of people who have renounced their faith in deep disappointment or anger toward God. Yet we wonder: Did God take care of them? Or are they just keeping quiet, not wanting tell others that their faith had been folly?
Our doubts, despite the many glories of faith, are ever-persistent, much like the penchant of the ancient Israelites to stray from their faith even after witnessing momentous moments of God’s revelation.
Perhaps from time to time we ponder the passage from Matthew 5:45 in which Jesus states that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Whether it may seem fair or not, the forces of nature as well as the pleasures and hardships of the physical world are inherent facets of daily life.
In responding to each day’s circumstances, however, the believer has a wider range of options, each connected to the redemptive purposes of God.
In times of blessing, Scripture adds this option, for example, in Romans 2:4: “Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?” Blessings are far more than momentary; their true purpose is to keep us turned toward and attuned to God and his call on our lives.
In times of hardship, one of the many options in Scripture valuable for memorization and meditation is 2 Corinthians 4:7-11: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”
In times of relative normalcy from a financial standpoint, Proverbs 30:8-9 can impart a steady measure of contentment: “… give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.”
In times of financial crisis, Scripture can give us a divine perspective, such as the apostle Paul’s outlook, expressed in part in Philippians 3:7-11, that “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things,” and in 1 Timothy 6:6-12 that “godliness with contentment is great gain,” whereas, “Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”
From a physical standpoint, 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 can provide encouragement toward healthier choices that, over the course of our lives, conceivably could reduce the extent of our battles with illness: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.”
In times of excruciating physical pain, however, when it is only possible to cry out a few words of agonized prayer, we may be able to take fleeting solace from the horrors of Jesus’ suffering in his crucifixion at the hands of Satan. Our suffering, upon later reflection, can help us better understand the unfathomable depths of Christ’s love as a sacrifice for our sin and give us heightened empathy for others who suffer debilitating pain.
No one but you may ever know how God has shown his love amid your trials and tribulations. You may not be able to fully describe the intimate ways that a supernatural God has intervened into circumstances that were preying on your physical, mental, and emotional frailties. You might undertake a tally of God’s blessings and soon feel that anyone who hears your recollections would regard them as unfathomable or boastful. Or you might not be able to cite a single example of God’s deliverance except that, almost inexplicably, you were buoyed by the Holy Spirit and enabled to persevere until the crisis eased.
It is possible to “greatly rejoice” in our faith, according to 1 Peter, chapter one, “though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.” Such trials produce a genuine and enduring faith, much like fire refines gold, we read in verses 6-9. Faith is “of greater worth than gold,” these verses declare, and is the path toward “an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”
Memorizing/re-memorizing one of more passages of Scripture to address your most immediate and innermost needs generally happens in small increments, even when a passage is internalized in moments of prayer day after day. God, likewise, often changes our lives in similarly small increments through Scripture, until at some point we find ourselves awed by the more godly nature of our thoughts as well as our spoken words and our actions toward others.
The transformation God enacts through Scripture is so wholesome that, unlike sumptuous food or an abundance of material possessions, we desire more and more without fear of negative consequences for our lives. What, after all, can be more fulfilling and enduring than an ever-increasing closeness to God?
No matter how stirring our faith becomes as we pray as never before, new realms of human-divine encounter continue to flow forth like fresh water from a mountain spring. In a fledgling prayer life, the fruit of the Spirit of Galatians 5:23-23 perhaps can be likened to a life-giving trickle to a thirsty wanderer. In an ongoing life of prayer, meanwhile, Scriptures such as the Beatitudes spoken by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount can be likened to a scenic river fed by streams and creeks birthed by a multitude of mountain springs.
In the Beatitudes, as recorded in Matthew 5:3-10, Jesus taught:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The Beautitudes, when internalized for times of prayer, hold forth an eloquent, inspirational grasp of faith. They can help carry a believer to new realms of prayer and meditation by nurturing both an overarching awareness of the Christian life and a tender focus on key facets of following Christ.
Breadth and depth
To be “poor in spirit,” as seen in the Beatitudes, includes an awareness of our need for God, an awareness that only his indwelling Holy Spirit can lift us from being full of ourselves to a godly dimension of spiritual poverty in which we are empty, ready to be filled by God.
To mourn includes an openness and courage to fully experience sorrow both for our own sin and for humanity’s vast affliction with sin in its many manifestations. As we receive the cleansing of God’s forgiveness, we gain an empathy for those who mindlessly engage in the follies of youth, those who are suffering from the consequences of sinful pursuits or enduring turmoil and tragedy without the resources of faith, and those whose earthly existence is drawing to an end.
To be meek includes a celebratory yet quiet certainty that God’s love can empower those who, with humility and a gentle spirit, seek his will in all things. While we continue to do our personal best in both spiritual and earthly endeavors, we also grow in the joy of encouraging and rejoicing over the best in those around us.
To hunger and thirst for righteousness includes a yearning for godly character, embracing God’s call to the most wholesome and redemptive of heart-level attitudes and and a growing passion to reflect his holiness and nobility in all our actions and relationships on earth.
To be merciful includes a tenderhearted readiness to forgive and love others in all their human frailties, shortcomings, and failures. Every human being yearns for mercy; Jesus graciously leads us to receive it and then extend it to others.
To be pure in heart includes a trust in God to call us to his forgiveness and restoration for any sin that separates us from him. This is one of the most unique passages in Scripture in promising the almost-unfathomable honor of seeing God to those whose hearts have been cleansed by his love. In this purity, when nothing is blocking our view of him, we increasingly gain a clarity of spiritual vision of his will for our lives.
To be a peacemaker includes the high calling of helping people discover a supernatural provision of inner peace from God as well as his healing balm for relationships within families, churches, places of work, communities, and, someday in his divine plan, within and among nations. The words, “they will be called sons of God,” mean that peacemaking is to be the reputation of his people.
To be persecuted because of righteousness includes an acceptance of the world’s label of “fool” and worse — emotional and physical pain, even torture, and perhaps death – as a possible consequence of, and witness to, a wondrous faith.
After memorizing the Beatitudes or any passage from Scripture, it is wise – and invigorating – to review the passage from time to time.
We should never descend into worry or frustration, however, when a few words or phrases or a sentence or two from a Bible passage fade from memory on occasion. A lack of recall actually is a subtle but potentially glorious opportunity. We may gain new and precious realizations in restoring the passage to our minds and hearts or we may find that the passage is amazingly relevant and helpful to new circumstances that have arisen in our lives.
Similarly, we should never fret if we stumble or forget parts of a Scripture passage when trying to quote it to a loved one or friend. The ability to verbally proclaim a Bible verse, while always good, is not the most important measure of its significance in our relationship to God.
If only a phrase from God’s revelation comes to mind in a moment of personal prayer, in a crisis, or in an opportunity to voice our faith, it likely will be quite sufficient for the need of the moment. After all, we have spent time with our Creator through Scripture, not just with mere words, and those cumulative moments have shaped our souls. The Holy Spirit will use far more than words, but also our humility of heart and our readiness and yearning to be utilized in God’s great purposes. As Isaiah 55:11 records God as declaring, we are reminded that his word “will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”
The joys of faith, while pleasantly simple at times, can be likened to the array of exquisite listening experiences emanating from a great symphony. The intrigue of divine words woven together – sometimes overflowing with spiritual power, while at other times conveying great subtlety – is reflected in passage after passage of Scripture.
One of the Bible’s most celebratory passages, 2 Corinthians 3:7-11, asserts the joyous reality of faith:
“Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, … will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. And if what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory that lasts!” (A possible memory aid for starters: “Now if the ministry that brought death.… If the ministry that condemns men…. For what was…. And if what was….”)
Abundance of joy
This passage, in essence, underscores the glory of a faith birthed and continually invigorated by the Holy Spirit whom Jesus sent forth after his resurrection, in contrast to the glorious manifestation of God as he gave the Ten Commandments to Moses. (The portion of the passage reflected in the ellipsis amplifies the resultant glory reflected on Moses’ face.)
Poignant moments of sensing God’s glory indeed can flow from times of realizing how much our lives are being transformed by the Lord through prayer.
Another celebratory passage, Romans 5:8-10, proclaims: “… God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!”
Even the commands of God, wherever they are found in the Bible, are far from being burdensome. As the writer of Psalm 119 prayed, “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law. … Let me understand the teaching of your precepts; then I will meditate on your wonders” (verses 18, 27).
Jesus, early in his earthly ministry, likewise told his listeners in the Sermon on the Mount, “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9-11).
And every command is an opportunity to pray that the Holy Spirit will move us toward living a joyous God-filled life.
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you,” Jesus said, as recorded in John 15:9-11. “Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s command as remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”
Some of the purest moments of joy this side of heaven can be experienced while praying as never before.
The Ten Commandments continue to have great relevance no matter the juncture in human history, but, to society’s pleasure-seekers and atheists, the commandments’ “thou shalt not” tone regularly sparks a negative reaction. The seemingly regulatory nature of the commandments over human behavior is inconvenient, perturbing, and/or maddening to those who strongly prefer to self-regulate.
Christians, meanwhile, sometimes hold forth the Ten Commandments when taking a stand for biblical morality, with the commandments serving as one of the rallying points for their side of a cultural issue. In such instances, whether intended or not, the Ten Commandments can become a dividing line, differentiating those who seek to uphold the Bible’s commands from those who readily disregard or dispute them.
It is unclear, however, whether proponents of the Ten Commandments have a substantive grasp of these bedrock teachings. Perhaps, given a few minutes, they can list all ten and maybe even list them in the order they were given to Moses centuries ago on Mount Sinai.
Yet these are lesser matters. Of far greater importance is the extent to which the Ten Commandments, or any passages from Scripture, are imbedded in our minds and hearts. Imagine the vast difference between an occasional passing thought about the Ten Commandments versus their potency when, in praying as never before, we take a periodic look within our souls to recall and ponder the commandments one by one, or we spend a few minutes restoring them to memory, to help root out our various sins and usher us back to God’s forgiveness and restoration.
Ponder, then, as recorded in Exodus 20:1-17, the Ten Commandments from a meditative standpoint:
“And God spoke all these words: ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.
“‘You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. …
“‘You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God….
“‘Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. …
“‘Honor your father and your mother….
“‘You shall not murder.
“‘You shall not commit adultery.
“‘You shall not steal.
“‘You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
“‘You shall not covet….’”
While several of the Ten Commandments were abbreviated here by ellipses (…), the omitted sentences should not be taken lightly and, ultimately, should be included whenever this passage is being memorized/internalized as a resource for prayer.
Cause for concern
Perhaps the most sobering words are found in the second sentence of the second commandment’s instruction against worshiping idols: “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
This is but one dimension of God’s character, but the thought of a supreme being who permits the “punishing” of children for a father’s godlessness can stir up a tempest of emotions. To some Christians, it speaks with honesty about the “fear of the Lord,” as the Bible often puts it; to others, it is also tragic, or sad, or baffling. To atheists and agnostics, meanwhile, such a declaration may give added motivation to continue to remain outside the realm of the divine.
Plenty of theologians have developed explanations for how God can be both supremely loving and unwavering in his holiness, as well as the convergence of Old Testament law and New Testament grace. But even if God didn’t exist, some children would be permanently scarred – and, yes, punished – by their parents’ immorality, abusiveness, and/or neglect, while some children would be permanently blessed by parents who seek to love unconditionally and discipline wisely. And, without doubt, these first-generation behaviors will affect how the second generation nurtures their own offspring years later.
Moreover, the crucial fact is that the second commandment and all of the Ten Commandments in their entirety reflect the stark choice every individual must face: whether to choose the blessings God gives “to those who love me and keep my commandments” or to accept the danger of a godless life.
It is not an understatement to say that this can be a life-or-death choice. At times, death eventually can result from unchecked greed and ambition; seeking the attention of self-absorbed individuals who may become manipulative or abusive; engaging in criminal activity; contracting an otherwise-avoidable disease; and an inner turmoil that grinds toward suicide.
Worst of all, and without exception, spiritual death will follow the last breath drawn by every person who has chosen a godless path – a deadly separation from God for all eternity.
The Ten Commandments and other commands in Scripture, rather than being restrictive or repressive, are part of God’s redemptive revelation. The Holy Spirit can use them to rejuvenate our consciences, stirring us to turn from sin wherever we see its encroachment into our lives and to turn to Jesus in repentance. For the godless person, this can be the moment of salvation, asking God for forgiveness and placing every facet of life in Jesus’ hands. For the believer, it can be a precious time of experiencing anew God’s promise of forgiveness for our failures and of renewal in his grace.
The Ten Commandments, properly understood, truly are a cause for rejoicing. As the writer of Hebrews in the New Testament explained in chapter 12, verses 10-11, “Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”
Righteousness and peace are among the joys that result from looking into God’s heart through Scripture – and readily embracing its supernatural counsel – whenever we are praying as never before.
It is usually good to be cautious – even when you are praying as never before. Yes, cautious. If any practice, including prayer, drifts toward the pampering of “me,” “myself,” and “I,” it is surely a reason for concern.
The unfolding joys of faith are not for you alone.
When a farmer plants an orchard, for example, he and his family may consume a portion of the harvest and they may give some of it to relatives and friends. But the farmer likely will send much of the harvest to market.
So it is with prayer that cultivates the fruit of the Spirit.
Once the fruit of the Spirit has begun to nourish your soul and infuse a godly graciousness into your relationships, the harvest from praying as never before continues to expand. And it is our responsibility and privilege to share the ever-increasing abundance with a hurting world.
A believer who understands that all facets of faith flow from a supernatural God is someone who is skilled in intercessory prayer, which, simply put, is the practice of praying (interceding) for others. We may fail to utilize our skill in intercessory prayer as often as we should or never realize how extraordinary an opportunity it truly is, but the fact is: The God of the universe has created the dynamic of prayer and instructed us to use it.
The prophet Samuel understood the importance of intercessory prayer when he told the people of ancient Israel, “… far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you” (1 Samuel 12:23).
Looking for answers
Skeptics, however, are quick to taunt that God seems to answer very few prayers. Some believers, meanwhile, are fond of saying that God, in his wisdom, always answers prayer, sometimes with a “Yes,” but sometimes with a “No” and sometimes, “Wait.” Some folks seem to exude great confidence in wielding Jesus’ promise to “Ask and it will be given to you…. For everyone who asks receives….” as recorded in Matthew 7:7-8. Some of them, unfortunately, feel the liberty to chide or chastise those whose prayers are not answered as lacking in faith.
I know of no one who has a reputation for seeing every prayer speedily answered in the way he or she prayed. And it seems obvious that some of the most desperate pleas for God’s intervention go unanswered. Parents who moments earlier lost a son or daughter in a sudden mishap or to terminal illness may cry out for God to turn back the clock and bring the child back to life, but to no avail.
God does not have favorites when he listens to people pray.
Rather, he has intimates.
Those who are intimate with God accept him without human conditions; they place their trust in him when he says, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. …” (Isaiah 55:9).
They pray, come what may.
Quite possibly, God may be protecting us from ourselves by not answering every prayer in the way we ask it.
We would be prone to tarnish the purity of prayer if God, in essence, were to give us the sweeping ability to enact our own wishes and thus bypass him in our personal petitions and our intercession for others.
Even the most noble individuals are not immune from times of sinful selfishness while praying. Many of us, I think, would raise most of our prayers to God for ourselves, for people we know and like, or those with a captivating personality or an attractive physical appearance, whereas God’s love extends far beyond our self-centeredness.
By not answering every prayer according to our human wishes, God might be blessing us with a new depth of love for other people.
Once we suffer a wrenching heartbreak or hardship or a life-threatening injury or illness, we are far more likely to have compassion toward others weathering the same situations. Our eyes and ears are more sensitive to agony on their faces or despair in their voices. Our hearts are stirred to stop and listen, to lift them in prayer, to offer encouragement and whatever help we can. There can be great gain in our souls when the Holy Spirit helps us set aside our own pain in order to comfort and carry faith to those who share our burdens or afflictions.
Proceed to intercede
Seemingly unanswered prayer, however, is no reason to quit praying. God has called us to pray without ceasing, and he surely has his reasons.
Prayer is far more of a divine mystery than we can ever fathom. Even when we are alone, our prayer, whether sustained or momentary, can be the means by which God intervenes to change a life on the other side of the world.
When we think we can do nothing, we can pray. Though we may never know until we enter heaven, perhaps our intercessory prayer achieves as much or more than if we were on the scene.
Intercessory prayer, like other modes of prayer, can be done at any time of day or night. Any idle moment can be turned into a time of intercessory prayer. Especially when we are settling in for a time of contemplative prayer, waiting for our minds to quit racing to and fro, our restlessness can be diverted into a purposeful period of intercession.
The apostle Paul set forth a helpful model for intercessory prayer in his letter to the Philippians. He began with an exhortation to “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice.” There is, after all, ample cause for celebrating God’s grace. In rescuing us from lives of sin, he has enabled us to experience the many joys and privileges of wholesome faith, and it is to this loving, supernatural God that we pray.
Next, Paul writes, “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.” A gentle spirit – a spirit tender not only to God but also to people’s needs and yearnings – certainly results from God’s personal touch. One of the clearest signs of a true faith is its uplifting effect on other people.
“Do not be anxious about anything,” the apostle continued, “but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:4-7).
Sometimes, unfortunately, we slip into a subtle form of anxiety after we have prayed by wondering whether God will take action. Without realizing it, we run the risk of undercutting the faith that is an essential element of prayer. It is better, instead, for us to learn to settle our doubts at the outset of our prayers. We might ask ourselves such simple questions as, Is God capable of answering the requests I intend to lift to him? Of course he is! Do these requests seem consistent with his love and his righteousness? If so, then move forward in prayer.
We may or may not see all of God’s answers to our prayers on this side of heaven or, with our ears, hear people tell of his intervention in their lives. But simply by being obedient to his call, we gain the blessing of God’s peace whenever we carry the needs of others to heaven in intercessory prayer.
During the first three or four years of internalizing and meditating on Scripture, I would periodically return to the fruit of the Spirit whenever my heart seemed to need a simple, back-to-basics nudge. (And it still needs this nudge.) One morning while asking God to rejuvenate my “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control,” he seemed to instruct me to take note of the first of the godly traits listed in Galatians 5:22-23.
It was, of course, love. It’s amazing how something new can burst forth after you have pondered a Bible passage for years, such as a deepened call to love.
I wondered for the first time whether God placed love first among the fruit of the Spirit for a reason. After all, Scripture tells us that “God is love” (see, for example, 1 John 4:8,16), and frequently we are exhorted to “love one another.” Love, like faith, certainly is a foundational dimension of our relationship with God, and it is foundational for our relationships with other people. It is a necessity even as we look at ourselves in the mirror each day.
Months later a similar realization came during moments of meditating on God’s definition of wisdom. Noticing the first description of wisdom, as recorded in James 3:17, is that it is “pure,” I realized that wisdom begins with a pure heart, a heart that is in tune with God’s heart, regularly taking every sin to him for forgiveness and every uncertainty to him for guidance. From that purity, then, emerge the other facets of God’s wisdom, that it is “peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” – all of which lead toward acts of graciousness toward others.
Thus, one of our first checkpoints whenever we begin to pray should involve love and purity. As we read in 1 John 4:20, “… anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.”
Jesus likewise stated, as recorded in Luke 6:32,35, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. … But love your enemies, do good to them” so that “your reward will be great and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.”
Believe it or not
Yes, God is “kind to the ungrateful and wicked.”
Our first reaction, perhaps, is to be dismayed or perturbed that God might lift a finger for such folks.
But then it may dawn on us: We once were among their number until God, in his ultimate kindness, quickened our hearts to cry out to him for mercy, forgiveness, and salvation. Some people may have deemed us to be too impossible, too hopeless, too self-absorbed, but God never did.
Scripture also sets forth God’s love for the poor and oppressed. Jesus taught his disciples that they will be rewarded in heaven for their acts of compassion, telling them, as recorded in Luke 6:35-36,40, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. … I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’”
In short, we cannot pick and choose whom we will love. Our human nature is quick to make such choices, to bestow favor on those who, for whatever reason, are enjoyable or tolerable to us. Everyone, however, is tolerable to God. Everyone, in fact, is precious in his sight. He has placed in each of us an eternal soul and entrusted us with choosing whether our destiny will be with him or with his rival, Satan.
No, our love will never be as vast as God’s. Our only hope is to cast ourselves on his mercy as we pray as never before, that he will stir us to repentance when we fail to love and that he will grant us an ever-more-abundant capacity to be a channel for his love. Our most joyous celebrations of God’s grace hopefully will not just revolve around tender moments with him in prayer, but also the precious breakthrough in our hearts when love begins to sweep forward – love for those who are in our daily lives, for those we have regarded as enemies, and for the sea of faces who comprise the world’s masses.
Sometimes, without taking even a minute to count the cost, people risk their lives for the sake of others before their heroism suddenly turns into tragedy.
In war zones, for example, sometimes a soldier dashes forth to pull a fallen comrade to safety, but his valor is cut short by a mortal wound from enemy fire.
Sometimes when a person is in danger of drowning in a rain-swollen river or the undertow of the ocean, a would-be rescuer becomes a second drowning victim after running out of energy to stay afloat and complete the valiant effort to save a life.
It’s almost easy in these circumstances for someone to sacrifice his or her life. Adrenaline surges at the sight of a life-or-death struggle and, sometimes, a person almost instinctively rushes in to help, losing all thought of safety precautions.
Otherwise, however, adrenaline rarely summons us to good deeds.
Apathy exerts far greater sway over our readiness to reach out, perhaps because our consciences have been damaged by the world’s conflict between good and evil, whether by just watching the two sides as they skirmish or unwittingly becoming ensnared by the wrong side.
Meanwhile, opportunities for acts of kindness arise steadily throughout each day; much of the time, however, we tend to be too busy to notice. We struggle during our waking hours to carry out even our most basic responsibilities — to pay the bills, to show our family members the love they need, to go to church.
Or maybe it’s a matter of fear. We’re afraid to ask, “What can I do to help?” because we may have to expend a seemingly precious half-hour – or a couple of hours or even a day or two – in order to truly care. Another fear, of course, is how much it might cost us when we come face-to-face with someone in financial crisis. The only thing we are ready to expend, it seems, is a moment to rationalize away any consideration of reaching into our stretched incomes to help someone pay for shelter, nutritious food, or an appointment with a doctor.
An adventure in compassion
On occasion, relevant Scripture may edge into our minds.
Such as James 4:17: “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.”
Or Proverbs 3:27-28: “Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in your power to act. Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Come back later; I’ll give it tomorrow’ – when you now have it with you.”
To sidestep these passages is to step in the wrong direction. There is never a good or wholesome reason for turning away from God’s truth, nor any measure of wisdom in doing so.
Instead of settling for a stunted faith and the minimal love it produces, the opportunity to trust in God’s truth is a spiritual adventure that can unlock a supernatural provision of time and finances or, if sacrifice is what God asks of us, it can yield a new or deepened measure of his peace to warm our hearts.
It is amazing, for example, how something we think is valuable in human terms – a handful of money, a personal possession, even an antique or an heirloom — can be divinely energized and infused with heavenly value when we are stirred by God to give it to someone in an act of love.
Don’t be afraid, then, as you are praying as never before to internalize and meditate on the words from God that can lift you from the shackles of selfishness to new heights of joyous compassion.
One such poignant Scripture, for example, was penned by the apostle Paul: “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:9-11).
There is one priceless gift that any Christian, rich or poor, can bestow on another person. In fact, a Christian can bestow this gift not just on another person but on countless others.
This gift is priceless even though it has no monetary value. It was priceless even before the earliest human civilizations.
This gift of eternal value is our witness about Jesus Christ who, through his crucifixion, paid the penalty for his followers’ sins and, through his resurrection, sent the Holy Spirit to dwell in their hearts and transform their lives.
We should never lose sight of the Bible’s words that exhort us to share our spiritual riches with others.
“I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith,” the apostle Paul wrote, as recorded in Philemon 6, “so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.” Although various other Bible translations render this verse as urging a full knowledge of and participation in our faith, the core concept is the same: We may have many intimate moments with God in prayer and be able to understand many things about him over the course of our lives, but something of great significance will be missing if we are not looking to the Lord for opportunities to speak words of saving faith to those whose souls are empty.
In all likelihood, God calls us to share our faith in order to involve us most directly and deeply in his redemptive plan for mankind. Jesus’ overarching mission reverberates throughout Scripture: “the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” King Solomon, for example, stated, “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and he who wins souls is wise” (Proverbs 11:30), while the apostle Paul reminded, “As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” as recorded in Romans 10:15.
Opportunities to share our faith may emerge from times of prayer for a loved one or a friend, or simply from a smile and a friendly greeting, a series of gracious encounters, a helping hand in a time of need, or the courage to ask a person, “How are things between you and God?”
It may even be possible to enlist a person’s help in opening his or her heart to faith by simply asking, “Would you do me a favor?” If the person, although wary or intrigued, agrees to help, turn to Philemon 6 in a Bible, or quote it from memory, to explain that “sharing your faith” will help you have “a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.”
“So, would you help me,” you might ask, “by letting me tell you about my faith in Christ?”
Granted, it seems easier to write about sharing our faith than to actually share it with someone. Despite its great value, many of us have trouble giving a word of witness to our loved ones and to those in our everyday world. It’s odd and, moreover, tragic that we have the gift people need most, yet we are not sure how best to give it away.
Christians ought to be the ultimate community servants in generously sharing this precious gift with people everywhere. But a Christian unable to share his or her faith is a bit like a policeman or a fireman who is unable to protect the community.
I certainly am thankful for a man, Cliff Estes, who was spiritually prepared to ask me if I was a Christian. I was twenty years old and had traveled with my family from Ohio to visit our relatives in Mississippi. One evening, I learned that my grandmother was going to a revival. How quaint, I thought; attending a revival in rural Mississippi surely would be something to tell my college friends about back in Ohio.
The evening started out as everything I had hoped for. The small church’s pews were the most rustic I had ever seen. The wooden windows were open, letting in a robust outdoorsy aroma and the sounds of backwoods birds and insects. The singing seemed dutiful yet happy. When it came time for the preacher (Cliff) to speak, his voice was fiery, bold, and loud. But midway into his sermon, my soul somehow urged me to listen to what this fellow had to say. The essence of his message was that, compared to any of the world’s social systems, philosophies, or religions, Christ offers the most hope of changing people’s hearts. Good point, I admitted. My heart sure needed changing. But when the altar call was given, I was much too sophisticated to go forward.
The next day, to my surprise, Cliff dropped by my grandmother’s house. Deep down, I was glad to see him. As we talked, he asked me, straightforwardly yet in a caring way, whether I was a Christian. No, I said, because, to be honest, I had always wondered whether Christ had really existed, whether he was as real as Abraham Lincoln or as mythical as Paul Bunyan. My hope soared as Cliff handled questions that, during my teenage years, I had concluded would never be answered.
Then I was ready. Cliff and I prayed — just like countless others who have turned to Christ, I told God that I was repenting and asking him to forgive my sin and my sinfulness; I asked Jesus to come into my life and change it as my Lord and Savior.
It is true that many people have no interest in this gift.
But this also is true: Many people have ears to hear and hearts willing to ponder all that God has for them.
Even though I have been a Christian for about forty years, I have been among the many who are ill-prepared, hesitant, and, bottom line, in need of repentance for how minimally I have shared this glorious faith.
And I have been confused over which methodology is best for me. Years ago I memorized a word-by-word presentation of the gospel, but it slowly faded from memory. I wrote out my own religious tract and, from time to time, have given it to someone.
More recently, I have found new hope for my witness by learning to set forth the gospel through God’s own words. In the Book of Romans, for example, there are a number of passages that the Holy Spirit used to rescue me from a life of sin by birthing a supernatural, joyous faith in my heart and then nurturing it over the years.
Ten of those passages from Romans follow for your consideration as a possible catalyst for our hearts and minds. These verses are framed in a four-step process to aid in memorizing and internalizing them. The overall process may take a number of months or stretch beyond a year if you embark on it, but it will be time wonderfully spent if even one person’s life is changed by our witness.
First, for a week or two, simply memorize this basic truth: Many people have ears to hear and hearts willing to ponder all that God has for them.
Second, add in an admittedly unorthodox, acrostic-type letter pattern drawn from that sentence: EAIRR-WLTPA — Many people have EAIRRs to hear and hearts WiLling To Ponder All that God has for them.
Third, over the course of a month or two, add in the description and passage from Romans for each letter:
— E: God is Evident, Romans 1:20.
— A: All have sinned, Romans 3:10,23.
— I: Christ has Intervened for us (with the I “intervening” in EAIRR), Romans 5:8.
— R: We must Repent of our sin, Romans 2:4.
— R: We must Receive Christ, Romans 10:8-10,13.
— W: Salvation is Wondrous, Romans 1:16-17.
— L: We are saved by Christ’s Life, Romans 5:10.
— T: We are Transformed, Romans 12:1-2.
— P: We find Peace with God and Perseverance, Romans: 5:1-5.
— A: We have Assurance, Romans 8:28,38-39.
Finally, in subsequent weeks and months, add in the full passages. Even in the interim, God can use the essence of these Scriptures to help you express your faith.
— E: God is Evident, Romans 1:20: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”
— A: All have sinned, Romans 3:10,23: “As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one.…’ for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
— I: Christ has Intervened for us, Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
— R: We must Repent of our sin, Romans 2:4: “… do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?”
— R: We must Receive Christ, Romans 10:8-10,13: “‘The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,’ that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved … for, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”
— W: Salvation is Wondrous, Romans 1:16-17: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’”
— L: We are saved by Christ’s Life, Romans 5:10: “For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!”
— T: We are Transformed, Romans 12:1-2: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
— P: We find Peace with God and Perseverance, Romans: 5:1-5: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”
— A: We have Assurance, Romans 8:28,38-39: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. … For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
One step at a time
No doubt, memorizing this or any overview of our salvation experience is a substantive undertaking. But, like building a house, it begins with a foundation. A framework comes next. And then everything else, day by day and week by week.
As we internalize these Bible passages while praying, as well as writing them down to carry with us, they become a part of the fabric of our faith. They are far more likely to become a natural part of any conversation. They stir within our hearts and quicken our motivation to lead others to Jesus.
Even a simple grasp of the short description and location of each passage can help you in any God-ordained encounter with someone yearning for faith, simply by reaching for a Bible and then turning to the most appropriate source of insight – the words of God himself in his divine revelation.
If, while reading this, you realize that you have not yet made your peace with God, know that salvation is the most wholesome, healthiest experience a person can have this side of heaven. “For the wages of sin is death,” the simple words of Romans 6:23 tell us, in reference to dying without faith, “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
There is not a reason in this world to spend a minute longer separated from God.
Ask God to forgive your sins.
Ask Jesus to come into your heart.
Trust him with every facet of your life from this day forward.
Seek out a church – a fellowship of believers – where there’s a readiness to experience more and more of God through his life-giving, life-enriching Scripture.
And whether you are a new believer – or one who has known the Lord since childhood – meditate on these Bible verses regularly to grasp more and more of the glory of your new birth.
Sometimes confidently, sometimes with hesitation, we feel an urge to tell someone in the midst of a problem or crisis, “Here’s what you should do….” or “If I were you, I would….” Our human nature, to varying degrees, seems to welcome moments when we can act as a wise counselor or noble rescuer; rarely are we stingy with our advice.
Certainly it can be good to kindly suggest that the best the way to face a daunting challenge is to place it in God’s hands. (It is best, of course, if our suggestion flows from our times of praying as never before, continuously absorbing God’s love and wisdom and being on the lookout for opportunities to share our gains with others.)
When unsolicited counsel is offered to us, however, we often tense up or become indignant. “[So-and-so] is trying to run my life,” we may mutter. Like my daughter frequently declared when she was two and three years old, “I can do it myself.”
An independent spirit can be helpful, if we choose to relocate to a community where we don’t know a soul, or if we embark on a trip to a distant city for a wedding or a funeral, or if go for a hike in the woods.
But in some instances, independence can lead to loneliness, if we never befriend anyone in the community. It can lead to physical danger or financial hardship, if we set out in a vehicle likely to break down midway into the trip. It can lead to death, if we venture too far into a wilderness and become trapped by inclement weather.
Spiritually, an independent mindset is commendable if we must stand alone for what is right when others are racing into godlessness and immorality.
But it also can be costly. It can prevent us from experiencing the fullness of faith.
Among the spiritual dangers of independent-mindedness: a self-assured but, in reality, tragically misguided “God-and-me” attitude. A person may pray and even memorize Scripture and enjoy seemingly tender times with the Lord yet be in the subtle grip of self-centeredness and judgmentalism.
“Most people who go to church aren’t really serious about God,” someone with a “God-and-me” attitude might say. “They just ‘play’ church.”
Other possible manifestations:
“Worship is boring, dreary, and outdated at this church. The Holy Spirit is nowhere to be found, or so it seems.”
“The sermons at church have no depth. I rarely, if ever, hear anything substantive.”
“I wonder if anyone is really praying in this congregation, if anyone truly knows how to pray.”
Some of these complaints may have a measure of truth.
Yet none of them is a reason for us to be absent when the body of Christ comes together for fellowship and worship, no matter how flawed some churchgoers may seem to be.
Quite possibly, some of these complaints may reflect our own flawed human judgment and our inability to look inside people’s hearts and know their motives as well as their struggles.
In reality, they may be well-meaning people who have never been grounded in the dynamics of new birth, faith, and prayer. They go to church because they know it is a good place to seek a faith that will fill their souls with supernatural glory.
Many church members may never have met anyone who is praying as never before. Only God knows how many of them are yearning to meet someone who, in all sincerity, can tell them about a wondrous faith.
Without doubt, the church needs you.
And you need the church. It can be an entryway through which you begin to touch the lives of people in the everyday world, especially those who are making a good-faith effort to find a vibrant connection to God.
The word, “church,” typically is used in such statements as “I go to church,” “I am a church member,” “I worship God at church.”
These are commendable activities, but they are only part of a far greater spiritual enterprise. Church is more than a place to go, more than a steeple-topped structure or a downtown storefront. It is more than an organization that people join, more than a place where they get married and, years later, where some of their funerals are held.
For many years as I went to church, I really didn’t know where I was going. I knew where the building was located, of course. I knew it was a place where people felt they should be on Sunday mornings. I wondered if some of them were there for the same reason I was – hoping for a breakthrough to God. But we kept our reasons to ourselves. We exchanged a few pleasantries as we came and went, but nothing more.
It seemed obligatory and mundane. Little did I know, however, that I was participating in an otherworldly and marvelous phenomenon: I was at a meeting where, quite possibly, some extraordinary people were in attendance. Even if I had been sitting alongside a top government official or a famous entertainer, artist, philanthropist, or entrepreneur, someone of potentially greater significance may have been to my right or left, a row or two ahead of me or behind me, or on the other side of the room.
These extraordinary individuals can only be described in spiritual terms drawn from Scripture. Because, for example, their human nature is being transformed by Christ, they are “a new creation,” as noted in 2 Corinthians 5:17. These individuals also are described as “Christ’s ambassadors” who are called to a “ministry of reconciliation” in verses 18-20. It’s “as though God were making his appeal through us,” the Bible says, “… [to] implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”
Elsewhere in Scripture, these extraordinary individuals are described as having a “new self … in the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:10); as “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God” (1 Peter 2:9); and, in figurative words, as “the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing” (1 Corinthians 2:15).
Certainly the simple statement in 2 Corinthians 5:16 conveys a great truth: “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view.”
One plus one
If one follower of Christ is so distinctive, imagine how distinctive a gathering of his followers must be, which helps explain why Galatians 6:10 states, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”
But the anointing that rests upon individual believers is only part of the divine magnificence of “the church of God, which he bought with his own blood,” as Acts 20:28 notes in reference to Christ’s death on the cross by which God put in place a permanent wellspring of redemptive forgiveness.
The depth of Christ’s interconnectedness with the church is amplified in such foundational statements in Scripture as:
— “Where two or three come together in my name,” Jesus said, “there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20.)
(It should be acknowledged that verse 19 records a sweeping statement by Jesus: “… if two or you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” While I sometimes wonder, then, why many prayers seemingly go unanswered, I will be content to wait for Jesus’ promise to be made clear in heaven. Such earthly uncertainties pale in comparison to the multitude of ways he has evidenced himself in the lives of his followers.)
— Jesus is “the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy” (Colossians 1:18). “… God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Ephesians 1:22).
— In Christ, “… we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others,” while at the same time, “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us” (Romans 12:5). “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26).
Thus, it is “a profound mystery … Christ and the church,” the Bible says in Ephesians 5:32 amid a passage that also conveys God’s ideals for marriage. “… Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (verses 25-27).
None of our finite minds can fully grasp these divine declarations. But, in praying as never before, in meditating on the sweeping scope of God’s love, we can begin to see from an eternal viewpoint: God has bestowed on us the high honor of joining in the incredible identity and mission of the church.
As an earthly outpost or spiritual colony of God’s people, the church has a unique place in human affairs. Having been specially created by the God of the universe, the church’s priorities and pursuits should reflect a passion for his outpouring of love for all mankind.
Although the crucifixion and resurrection of the King of kings has elevated the church to a distinctively royal status, its members must guard against such self-absorbed tendencies as haughtiness and dictatorial wielding of authority. “If anyone wants to be first,” Jesus said, as recorded in Mark 9:35, “he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
And while the church’s earthly imperfections can be hurtful or exasperating at times, those who have been wronged must be careful to pray that their hearts stay tender toward God rather than hardening into a critical spirit and bitterness. Especially as people begin praying as never before, they will have a far greater measure of God’s love and wisdom in times of tension in the church. They will be quick to realize that God, first and foremost, is the one to bring healing to any problem that may arise among his people. All human relationships can pass through periods of discord, whether within the church or elsewhere in society, but only the church – the gathering of God’s people – places a premium on grace and reconciliation.
It is easy for a critic to assert in disdain that the church is filled with problems. In most instances, it is probably too easy. Has this individual actually set foot inside a church building? Has he or she surveyed nearby churches to substantiate the claim? And has the critic taken stock of the good that various churchgoers have accomplished within their spheres of influence?
Compared to the critic’s claim, the church is a community of people who, although aware of their shortcomings, failures, and unfulfilled potential, continue to endeavor to live for God. The church’s various activities are unique settings that can help its members survive – and at times make a difference – amid the world’s callousness and turmoil.
Whenever the church meets for worship, for example, our attitudes about heaven, and our preparedness for entering its splendor, become evident. Scripture, after all, seems to indicate that worship is the primary activity in the hereafter, marked by such emotions as jubilation, awe, and quiet reverence.
Sour or ho-hum attitudes, meanwhile, usually fall far short of worship. Unease or unconcern in worship should cause spiritual alarm and inner examination of a key question: Am I ready to dwell with God for eternity?
Christian fellowship also involves the challenge of expanding beyond our earthly tendencies. Although churches should be friendly and welcoming, sometimes they may not seem any chummier than a bank or supermarket.
Remember, however, that most church members are normal people who also struggle with first impressions and introductory conversations. A newcomer likely will need to be patient and understanding over the course of several visits to a church, as acquaintances become friends and conversations deepen. In time, the “newcomer” will become a “regular” with a sense of belonging and a personal stake in the well-being of the church.
It is good to be a “regular,” but our spiritual journey must continue on within the church, especially so in praying as never before.
Although worship and fellowship are key elements within the church much like air and water are vital to the earth’s atmosphere, worship and fellowship – and air and water – are part of a greater genius.
God’s design for the church also includes:
— Learning. While it’s important to teach Bible stories to children and adolescents, it’s also important to teach Bible truths to adults throughout their lives. Some longtime church members may think they’ve heard countless sermons on almost every topic imaginable. They may have participated in innumerable Bible studies spanning almost every part of the Bible. Even so, sermons and Bible studies – as well as conversations with fellow believers and our reading of Scripture and books in tune with the historic church – help keep us pointed in the right direction for godly living. On occasion, we are alerted to Scripture passages that sound vaguely familiar but, now, we are awakened to a yearning to memorize and internalize them.
— Spiritual growth. No individual is so “wise” as to live apart from the collective wisdom of the church, and no individual is so astute as to be above an occasional reminder of the essentials of the faith. It is good to challenge the human propensity for self-centeredness, especially, for example, in regard to our money. Sermonizing on generosity often is derided, yet it is a much-needed external exhortation that can stir us to key Scriptures such as Proverbs 11:24: “One man gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty.” Scripture abounds with God’s call to stewardship and, in praying as never before, it can become a supernatural facet of our faith.
— Prayer. Four simple words, “Please pray for me,” whether spoken in a church gathering or a casual conversation, are filled with supernatural potential. For those who summon the honesty to ask for prayer, it can be a significant step toward experiencing the biblical truth that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble,” as recorded in 1 Peter 5:5-7. It is possible that such honesty also may liberate others to share the prayer needs that weigh on their hearts, whether major or seemingly minor. And: Perhaps the intercession of fellow believers may carry the requests to our heavenly Father in a way that those in spiritual need may not have the wherewithal to do. Nurturing the freedom to ask each other, “How can I pray for you?” can yield as harvest of trusting relationships.
In one unique mode of prayer, called “prayerwalking,” believers engage in intercessory prayer while walking through part of a city or other geographic locations. Prayerwalkers, usually sent out by a church or other Christian organizations, ask God for spiritual breakthroughs in the vicinities they visit, from the blessing of newfound faith in people’s empty hearts to the birthing of churches to carry forth God’s redemptive purposes.
— Protecting human dignity. Government, education, science, philanthropy, and commerce play important roles in guarding and enhancing human life, but none of these have proven fully dependable. Some governments, for example, have slaughtered thousands and even millions of citizens in order to maintain their grip on power. Likewise, education, science, philanthropy, and commerce sometimes have fallen victim to self-absorbed dogmas. Over the centuries, only the communities of steadfast Christians and Jews have been rooted in such transcendent truths as “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not steal.” People of faith have faltered at times, but their stumblings have never erased the life-giving truths they uphold in human society.
— Ministry. Compared to government agencies and secular charities, churches can provide an added dimension of help to the poor and oppressed and those who are in trauma. All such efforts begin at the point of human need, but only churches extend their heart to those who, in addition to their earthly struggles, may be in spiritual poverty, spiritual oppression, and spiritual trauma. Only churches in sync with God’s eternal revelation can relay the soul-nourishing message of his love. And, for many volunteers who sacrifice time and money to help people in the midst of hardship or crisis, churches were the setting in which they were stirred to action, received training, and were sent forth into community ministry.
— Missions. In addition to our basic survival instincts, people everywhere seek the freedom to explore such questions of the soul as “Is there something – or someone – beyond me?” and “What will happen to me when I die?” As human progress, global commerce, and cultural fads continue to widen their path to every region of the world, believers can provide unique help to people who need a source of hope and strength in burgeoning cities where ethical and religious influences have been greatly diminished or in any region where, for centuries, there has been no substantive alternative to paganism. Through their churches, Christians provide prayer and financial support to send out messengers with a deep sense of mission to relay God’s love to those who are spiritually perishing.
Thus, each church needs members who are energized by the various spiritual gifts that God imparts among his people, from leadership and teaching to servanthood and hospitality. The church is an especially strategic place of service for those who sense God’s call to pray as never before, to see the power of Scripture infused into every facet of life.
Those who are being transformed by Scripture-empowered prayer are on a path to graciousness, wisdom, and humility. They likely will be supportive of the church’s ministries by their attitudes, prayer, and involvement. They tend to give encouragement when new initiatives and expanded vision of the church’s witness are proposed. If tensions arise, they will be among the first to repent, forgive, and reconcile strained relationships.
People of prayer may be quick to notice those who are withering amid society’s continual slide toward impersonalization, isolation, and shiftlessness – and they are likely to believe that God’s people, much like biological families, are capable of giving spiritual, emotional, and physical nurture to lonely souls.
With each challenge or each moment of joy and rejuvenation within the church, with each new relationship and even each song, Bible reading, word of testimony, and sermon in worship, it is a sacred gathering that tugs at us to pray as never before.
No matter how many friends a person may have at church or in the community, a solitary moment unlike any other will consume every memory, every dream, and, indeed, every thought.
It is the moment of death.
It can be life’s most traumatic moment, its loneliest, its most intense persecution at the hands of a shadowy enemy. It can be a time of excruciating pain, made all the more difficult as the body weakens.
It is a time of ultimate dependence and humility. We will need assistance as we are ill and dying. Our bodies will be at the mercy of others when we are transported to a mortuary, then to the funeral service, and finally to the grave. If we die in a tragic accident, others will be required to clean up the mess.
And, in a realm unseen by human eyes, we will be dependent on God.
It will be just you and Jesus in the end, or you alone. Declaring his power over death, Jesus described himself as “the resurrection and the life,” John 11:25 recounts.
Only what has been infused by and transformed by Jesus through the Holy Spirit – our souls, our hearts and minds – can enter into heaven. As noted in Ephesians 1:13-14, we are “marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory.”
Especially when praying as never before, we increasingly experience a communion with God so tender that, when we die, we may find ourselves asking him, “Weren’t we talking with each other a second ago?” As the psalmist wrote, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15).
Visions of heaven
No one, except Jesus, has been to heaven to describe it to us. And he has opted for heaven largely to be a matter that stirs us to a forward-looking faith.
Going to Grandma’s when my daughter, Kaeli, was a five-year-old, her eyes opened wide as the aircraft barreled down the runway and lifted off, turning houses and cars below into seemingly miniature toys.
After cutting through that day’s rain clouds for a few minutes, the aircraft pushed into the bright blue sky. The clouds below looked like a sea of cotton puffs.
“We’re flying about the clouds!” Kaeli exclaimed.
Then she asked, “Daddy, where is God?”
The question jolted me to attention, but all I could muster was a silent uh-oh of panic. My inadequate answer — something about God being bigger than even the sky — left a blank look on Kaeli’s face.
Then she asked, “Where are all the dead people?”
“Yeah, the ones in heaven.”
Uh-oh, I thought again, before mumbling something to the effect that heaven isn’t exactly in the sky.
Kaeli mulled over my woeful answers for a few seconds, then mercifully dropped the subject.
Yet we wonder
At various points in life, however, we are unable to drop the subject. Although countless millions have died over the course of time, we still ask ourselves, “But what will it be like for me?”
For my father, it apparently was a glorious moment. Bedridden and barely able to breathe, afflicted by a disease that had attacked his lungs, he nevertheless raised his hands heavenward and his face was awash in peace in the moments preceding his death.
I have heard a reliable report of an elderly woman who had been in a coma but, for a fleeting time before her death, was able to tell family members about deceased loved ones she was seeing in the distance in heaven.
But I also have heard the cries of agony and seen the contorted face of an elderly preacher in delirium and pain in the hours before his death.
None of us knows what course death will take in our lives. But, just as we have received training at different times to handle various tasks at work and at home, we likewise should receive training for our death – and for every day until that fateful juncture.
Every moment of our faith is that training. And few moments are more instructive and, at the same time, more uplifting than when we’re praying as never before, turning to the supernatural God who has called us to internalize his life-changing instruction in Scripture.
“For I am convinced,” the apostle Paul wrote, as recorded in Romans 8:38-39, “that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
To offer a still-sharper focus, consider how God sets before us a pathway to pray as never before.
Among the steps along this path:
— Embrace the supernatural dimension of faith and its potential, especially in prayer, for enhancing a person’s quality of life and for joining the flow of divine compassion for hurting humanity (see Chapters 1-4).
— Secure your faith by asking Jesus Christ to be your Lord and Savior in order to be forgiven and cleansed of sin and to gain the Holy Spirit’s empowering for living a spiritually vibrant life (Chapters 5-6).
— Don’t be afraid of those who are skeptical about the joys of new birth and of praying as never before. These and other supernatural realities noted in Scripture are part of our divinely designed human existence (Chapters 7-9).
— Ask for – and fully receive – God’s forgiveness each time you become aware of sin in your life, from the inner churnings of such sins as bitterness and greed and the turmoil of addiction to self-righteous attitudes and actions that have been hurtful and damaging to others (Chapters 10-11).
— Grow in the wisdom God imparts to each believer. Don’t be afraid of the Holy Spirit’s presence as you begin praying as never before (Chapters 12-13).
— Select one or more places of divine encounter, somewhere you can sit or recline comfortably, but also know that it remains okay to pray anywhere at any time of the day or night (Chapter 14).
— Deepen your grasp of the essence of prayer by looking anew to Jesus’ teaching of the Lord’s Prayer (Chapters 15-17).
— Understand that meditation is an inherent part of praying as never before, such as a quiet focus on the name of Jesus; a few phrases drawn from the Lord’s Prayer or other passages in the Bible; or a readiness to, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Chapter 18).
— Memorize/internalize Scripture because, as Jesus noted, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Galatians 5:22-23, “the fruit of the Spirit,” can be an excellent starting point. Look for patterns and shortcuts for memorizing each passage; copy the verses you’re internalizing to carry with you to review in spare moments (Chapters 19-23).
— Don’t fret times of prayer when your thoughts may wander or you fall asleep. And, certainly, don’t be alarmed by precious, extraordinary moments with God (Chapter 24).
— Utilize Scripture whenever worries or depression arise (Chapter 25).
— Anticipate how God, through Scripture internalization, will enrich your inner self and your relationships by imparting the courage of repentance for self-absorbed attitudes and unethical/unkind actions toward others (Chapters 26-27).
— Gain a new measure of preparedness for life’s hardships (Chapter 28).
— Study your Bible as never before. Make optimal use of the Scriptures by searching for other passages to add to your life over the coming months and years. The Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and the Ten Commandments (Chapters 29-31), for example, can help carry a believer to new realms of praying as never before by providing both an overarching awareness of the Christian life and a winsome focus on key facets of the faith, including the joy to be found in God’s commands.
In an overarching sense, our awareness and awe of God the Father, Jesus his Son, and the Holy Spirit are deepened by exploring the Word of God. Along with Scripture memorization/internalization, Bible study increasingly leads us into new encounters with God’s intimate love and new insights for sharing the blessings of this love with others.
It is helpful to keep a notebook of what you discover and learn from the pages of Scripture. As you study, consider using such resources as a “study Bible,” a “reference Bible,” and/or a “Bible dictionary” for when you encounter unfamiliar names, places, and terminology. Meanwhile, a “concordance” (which is included in many study Bibles or is available as a separate book) can guide you toward parallel passages on an array of themes throughout the Bible.
Focus on Scriptures to memorize and internalize that can address the yearnings in your heart. Among them:
For God’s transformation: Psalm 1:1-6; Psalm 139:23-24; Romans1:16-17; Romans 12:1-2; 1 Corinthians 2:11-12; 1 Corinthians 15:45-49; Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 1:17-19; Ephesians 3:16-19; Hebrews 4:12-16.
For worshiping God: Psalm 19:1-4,7-11; Psalm 8; Psalm 23; Psalm 63:1-4, 6-8; Psalm 100; Romans 1:20; Romans 11:33-36; 2 Corinthians 3:7-11; Philippians 3:7-11.
For the peace of God: Psalm 139:7-10; Proverbs 3:5-6; Romans 5:1-5; Philippians 4:4-9.
For life’s struggles: Romans 8:38-39; 2 Corinthians 1:3-5, 8-10; 2 Corinthians 4:7-11; Philippians 3:7-11; James 1:1-4; 1 Peter 1:3-9.
For more love: Matthew 22:36-40; 1 Corinthians 13:4-7; Galatians 6:7-10; Philippians 1:9-11; 1 John 4:15-18.
For forgiveness: Psalm 51, various portions; Acts 3:19; 2 Corinthians 7:10; 1 John 1:9. It should be noted in regard to Psalm 51 that it is not just a plea by King David for God’s forgiveness. It is one of the Bible’s most sobering yet uplifting prayers in how it addresses the primary hindrance to a godly life – sin – and the only hope for a redeemed life – God’s intervention.
For God’s blessings: 1 Chronicles 4:10 (the prayer of Jabez); Jeremiah 29:11-13; Jeremiah 33:3; Matthew 6:9-13 (the Lord’s Prayer); Matthew 6:33; Romans 2:4; 2 Corinthians 9:6-8.
For contentment: Proverbs 30:8-9; Romans 8:14-17, 28; 1 Timothy 6:6-12; 1 Peter 5:5-7.
For relationships with others: Colossians 3:12-14; 1 Peter 3:8-12; Micah 6:8; Matthew 7:1-7; Matthew 12:34-37;
2 Corinthians 5:16-6:2; Ephesians 4:29-32; Philippians 2:3-4,14-16.
— Be ready to experience a new or deepened love for people as a result of praying as never before (Chapters 32-37). Stretching forth to God through meditation and Scripture internalization leads to far more than a series of divine encounters – it also becomes an exciting, heartwarming adventure toward God’s heart of compassion. It stirs us to intercessory prayer in behalf of others’ needs; to acts of kindness and sacrifice; and to gracious words of witness and instruction to those who yearn for a soul-satisfying faith that only Christ can provide. (Concerning the practice of fasting, its omission in this book is not meant to lessen its importance to those who sense God’s call to abstain from food or certain activities for part of a day or longer. While plenty of books have explored the topic, fasting – and every other spiritual discipline – can be enhanced by the steady infusion of Scripture into one’s soul.)
— Anticipate a divine overhaul of your outlook toward the church in praying as never before (Chapters 38-41). You likely will awaken to a great reverence for – and a readiness to be involved in – what God has revealed in Scripture about his purposes for creating the church as the ongoing body of Christ on earth.
— Lessen your apprehensions about death. We are closer to heaven when praying as never before (Chapter 42).
— And most certainly: Count on God to bring ongoing renewal, transformation, and joy to your life when you pray as never before by tapping the riches of Scripture (Chapter 44).
It is never too late, or too early, to cast a new vision for your life.
You may feel that you are perpetually at the breaking point, with a seemingly overwhelming list of responsibilities awaiting your attention each day and another ever-accumulating list of unmet responsibilities from the past few days, the past few months, and the past few years. It seems futile to think about slowing down to ask God, “Is this the way it’s supposed to be in my life?”
You may be battling a terminal illness, with only days or months left in your time on earth, or you may be in the throes of financial hardship. You may be a teenager or young adult whose waking moments can focus no further than the immediacy of “What’s next?” today, tomorrow, or maybe a week or two into the future.
But it is never too late or too early to be touched by the Holy Spirit, even for a few fleeting moments, and to begin to envision what God may want to do in your life.
Nor is it too late, or too early, to do something heroic.
The measure of heroism is not just whether our names appear in the headlines or we receive a certificate for a meritorious deed such as saving someone’s life or thwarting the commission of a crime.
Sometimes, heroism is neither publicized nor applauded. Sometimes, only God knows of our truly heroic actions.
It is visionary and heroic, for example, to take a step toward God to begin breaking the chains of self-centeredness so that, someday, we may make even one person’s life a bit better rather than a bit worse.
It is a cause for rejoicing if a person opens his or her heart to even ten words from God’s revelation – the ten words that describe the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control” found in Galatians 5:22-23.
These are not mere words, but, like any portion of Scripture, they are words of unusual potency. They can become a personal petition, a focal point in opening our lives to God’s transforming power: “Lord, I acknowledge that these are the traits your Spirit nurtures within the hearts of those who follow you. I know that you intend for me to become a person of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Lord, I receive anything and everything you want to do in my life.”
Over time, these and other words from Scripture become more than a periodic prayer, but an ongoing attitude of the heart, an ongoing readiness for God to make the inward changes that yield more of the fruit of the Spirit in our lives – changes that seem dramatic at times and almost imperceptible at other times. In tender moments with God, just the words themselves, whether whispered or silently repeated in meditation, can help us return to the Holy Spirit for the spiritual renewal we need day by day.
When a crisis bursts into our lives or when one of our relationships unexpectedly ruptures, the words of Scripture can help us stay connected to the ultimate source of wisdom, graciousness, perseverance, and reconciliation.
In times of personal failure, perhaps when we have said something unkind or yielded to self-absorbed anger, the simple words of the fruit of the Spirit can stir our conscience to ask for forgiveness both from God and from the person we have sinned against.
At other times when all seems well, meditation on Scripture can bring God’s precious refreshing to every dimension of life. We begin to find deep enjoyment even in momentary exchanges with God. And we begin to look for opportunities each day to touch someone’s life with words spoken in a gracious tone of voice and deeds that stand in contrast to the callousness that results when human societies marginalize themselves from God.
When we are praying as never before, our minds may wander from time to time, but the Holy Spirit nevertheless transcends our human imperfections. The more we experience our souls being enhanced, the more we are drawn to internalize God’s revelation, from the Lord’s Prayer and the Beatitudes to the Twenty-third Psalm and countless other passages from Scripture that guide us toward godly living.
Praying as never before, we enter a spiritual climate of life-giving sunshine and precipitation that produce in us an ever-increasing harvest of peace with God, joy, and graciousness toward others.
In these heaven-like moments, we begin to grasp how valuable a personal relationship with the supernatural God of the universe is, both in this life and the life to come. He is worthy of our once-and-for-all trust, worthy of introducing to the unbelievers in our lives, and certainly worthy of meeting with each day in order to pray as never before.