Please note, this is satire:
Years ago, I was teaching a Bible study, and the topic of God’s guidance came up. A young man shared how much he desired the leading of God in every area of his life. “I want God to tell me when to go to the bathroom!” he said. “I want him to tell me what clothes to wear and what food to eat.”
Many of us will laugh when we read this, but it does sound kind of nice in a way, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t it be great if God took away all the uncertainty and ambiguity in our lives? It would be so much easier if he would just tell us exactly what to do, and how, and when, and for how long.
Those of you who are parents, do you do this for your children? Well, sure you do, when they’re too young to make decisions themselves. You tell them when to get up and when to go to bed; you tell them what to eat and specify how they should eat (or more precisely how they should not eat); you tell them to brush their teeth, stop hitting their sister, and that, no, kitties don’t like to go swimming. This is all well and good if the child is 4 or 5, but what about when they’re 23? Should you still be giving this kind of detailed guidance when they’re mature adults? We forget sometimes that Scripture speaks of us growing up:
Then we will no longer be immature like children. . . . Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ.
Many translations read that we will instead “grow up” and be like Christ. And we shouldn’t forget what the writer of Hebrews had to say to his readers:
You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. For someone who lives on milk is still an infant and doesn’t know how to do what is right. Solid food is for those who are mature, who through training have the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.
What is the “will of God”?
We often talk about the will of God without really seeing how Scripture defines it. What does the Bible mean by the “will of God”? The Bible never actually speaks of the will of God the way we usually do. We find no place in Scripture where the will of God refers to who a person is to marry, where they are to live, which job they should take, etc. Not that these are unimportant decisions! The Bible does give us a lot of guidance regarding these areas. But it doesn’t speak of the will of God in the sense of whether I should choose what’s behind door #1 or #2. This idea of the “will of God” simply isn’t in there.
Many times we complain, “If only I knew what God’s will was for me . . .” But we do know! Is it God’s will for you to love him with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength? Is it God’s will for you to grow spiritually? Is it God’s will for you to love others (and not just those who love you, but especially your enemies)? Is it God’s will for you to be a loving husband, wife, parent or child? Is it God’s will for you to be a diligent, hard-working, responsible employee (or a gracious, generous employer)? Is it God’s will for you to use the gifts he’s given you to love your fellow believers in the church? Is it God’s will for you to tell others the good news of Christ? We could go on with this all day, couldn’t we?
The Bible doesn’t speak of God’s will as some secret knowledge we have to somehow acquire or gain access to. In fact, we are held responsible to know God’s will:
So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. . . . Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do [other translations: understand what the will of the Lord is].
No, O people, the LORD has told you what is good,
and this is what he requires of you:
to do what is right,
to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God.
We are told specifically that it is God’s will that we stay away from all sexual sin (1 Thessalonians 4:13), that we be thankful in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18), and that our honorable lives would silence any who might accuse us (1 Peter 2:15). Finding the will of God is really not that difficult. God speaks to us through his Word and Spirit. We just have to listen.
The Bible never teaches us to seek God’s will;
it teaches us to seek God, and do his will.
But how am I supposed to make decisions?
Sometimes we think there’s one—and only one—choice that is the “perfect will of God,” only one perfect match for us in marriage, only one perfect job or ministry for us, one perfect car or house for us to buy. But we don’t find this idea in Scripture either. The Bible has a lot to say about how we make our decisions, but we don’t see in Scripture that Annette must somehow find God’s will as to whether she should marry Sam or Santosh, or that Andre must receive some sign from God before he decides to move to Buenos Aires or Bangalore.
Let’s go back to Scripture. The New Testament was written during the electrifying first decades of the church, when the Holy Spirit seemed to be at work in amazingly direct, supernatural ways. So how did these leaders make decisions? We should see them consistently waiting on direct guidance from God (or at least a strong feeling of “being led”), shouldn’t we? But that’s not what what we find:
Finally, when we could stand it no longer, we decided to stay alone in Athens, and we sent Timothy to visit you.
1 Thessalonians 3:1-2
Meanwhile, I thought I should send Epaphroditus back to you. . . . I am sending him because he has been longing to see you, and he was very distressed that you heard he was ill.
So I thought I should send these brothers ahead of me . . .
2 Corinthians 9:5
And if it seems appropriate for me to go along, they can travel with me.
1 Corinthians 16:4
You may be asking why I changed my plan. Do you think I make my plans carelessly? Do you think I am like people of the world who say “Yes” when they really mean “No”?
2 Corinthians 1:17
This is just a small sample to give us a flavor. It’s not hard to find examples of this kind of decision making throughout Acts and the letters to the churches. And it’s not just something the apostles did; Paul expected the same kind of decision making from the people in the churches as well. To those who had to decide between two believers in conflict, he says:
Isn’t there anyone in all the church who is wise enough to decide these issues?
1 Corinthians 6:5
And, on the issue of who a widow should marry, he instructs:
A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but only if he loves the Lord.
1 Corinthians 7:39
Notice the will of God is that she marry only another believer, but beyond that she is free to marry anyone she wishes! Paul never even hints that she should seek God’s will regarding the individual she should marry (nor does he instruct this to anyone else in this long chapter on marriage). So how can she know which Christian man to marry? Here’s what we need to distinguish:
We aren’t seeking to find the one right choice,
but to make a wise choice.
“But wait a minute,” someone might protest, “didn’t God supernaturally direct Paul’s ministry?” And, of course, this is true. God gave Paul very clear, direct guidance at certain times. The Holy Spirit instructed the elders of the church in Antioch to send out Barnabas and Saul (aka Paul). In Acts 19:21, we’re told that Paul was compelled by the Spirit to go to Macedonia and Achaia before going on to Jerusalem.
But in Acts 16:6-8 we see an intriguing account that reveals how Paul made ministry decisions. He and Silas travel through a couple of areas and then head for the province of Asia—but the Holy Spirit prevents them from going there. Now, at this point wouldn’t we expect them to “seek the will of God” as to which direction they should go? But that’s not what they do. Instead, they reconsider their options and make their next best choice—which God also halts. (“. . . but again the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them to go there.”) So they figure the third time’s the charm and settle for Plan C! And that night Paul has a vision from God leading them on into Greece, which they obey. All of this illustrates biblical principles that we see throughout Scripture:
- God may at times give us very clear, unambiguous direction. When he does, it will be unmistakeable and undeniable. We won’t need to guess. Our only decision will be whether to obey God or not.
- Most of the time God doesn’t give this kind of supernatural direction. When he has chosen not to give us this kind of guidance, we aren’t to keep seeking a sign from him or try to manufacture it on our own.
- If God hasn’t clearly shown us which choice to make, then he is expecting us to use the wisdom he has given us. He wants us to grow up and become like him, knowing right from wrong, and what is wise from what is foolish. Instead of trying to get some sign as to the right choice, we’re to strive to make the wisest choice possible.
- Even when we don’t see God’s supernatural guidance, he’s orchestrating our lives and guiding us behind the scenes. He already knows the decisions we’re going to make, and he’s incorporated all of this into his plans for us. If we’re sincerely trying to live a godly, wise life, we can trust him to steer us away from danger.
But I don’t have this kind of wisdom!
No, we don’t, and it’s good that we realize it. But we have the source to all the wisdom we need. James 1:5 says:
If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you.
And Romans 12:2 gives us an even more clear picture how we can grow in this wisdom, and know more fully the will of God:
Don’t copy the behavior
and customs of this world,
but let God transform you into a new person
by changing the way you think.
Then you will learn to know God’s will for you,
which is good and pleasing and perfect.
If you’ve spent much time in certain Christian circles, you’ve heard people refer to “laying a fleece before the Lord” or something similar. It usually means asking God to give us some clear, concrete indication whether something is his will or not:
“Lord, if this is the right job for me, then please have them call after 4:00 pm.”
“God, should I go out with Betty or Sally? I’m going to turn on the radio and trust that whichever name I hear first is the one you want me to marry.”
Where did we get this practice? We’ll take a look at the passage where we find the idea of ‘putting a fleece before the Lord,’ but first I think it would be helpful for us to see why so many are seeking this kind of confirmation.
“So God said to me, ‘Hey, I want you to put down your book and go talk to that person.'”
How many times have you heard—or said—something like this? Quoting something God “said” to us? It’s become fairly commonplace, hasn’t it? To be honest, sometimes I think this is done to raise someone up (or keep them) on a pedestal high above ordinary “laypeople,” more on the level of a Moses or apostle Paul. But even us ordinary, everyday Christians have fallen into using this way of describing our motivations.
But why do we talk this way? Is this really an accurate description of what took place? When someone makes this kind of bold declaration during a church gathering or a Bible study, I’ll often gently challenge them:
“Did you really hear God speak to you audibly?”
“Well . . . no . . . I didn’t actually hear God speak.”
“But God communicated those very words to you?”
“No . . . I guess I just felt that the person seemed distraught, and that God would want me to stop reading my book and try to help them.”
Now, there’s nothing wrong with the idea that God can direct or guide us, or that he can speak audibly to individuals. But there’s a big difference between saying: “I don’t know if it was the Spirit, but I just felt like I needed to pray for Jill,” and saying: “God told me to pray for Jill.” Have you ever considered what a young Christian thinks when they hear these kinds of bold statements? At first they think, “Wow, that’s amazing!” But then they begin to wonder, “How come God never directly speaks to me that way?” And then they either put us on the pedestal, or they decide there’s something deficient about their Christian life. Or they begin to fake it so they too can sound spiritual:
“I just felt led to go to McDonald’s today.”
It’s easy to start feeling the need to clarify every action or decision with something that makes it sound spiritually motivated. Suddenly everything we do is generated by some prompting or leading—supposedly from the Lord. “I feel that God is leading us to buy the Ford and not the Toyota.” The danger is that we’ll either slip into hypocritically playing spiritual games, or we’ll start confusing our own inner impulses as the voice of God.
Harold Bredesen used to tell the story of when he first came to New York as a young man very zealous to experience a Spirit-directed and empowered life. He was on the bus one day when he thought God was telling him to preach to the people on the bus. So he stood up and started preaching. One young woman seemed disturbed and moved away from him. Bredesen felt God was leading him to focus on her, so he moved closer. She moved away again—and he followed. Finally, she exited the bus, with Harold right behind her, preaching away. The story ends with him sitting in the back seat of a police car, wondering if this was really what the Holy Spirit had in mind!
“The bush won’t burn, and I’m all out of matches.”
Those who know me well know that I’m a sucker for a cleverly written book title. There are some books I remember only because of a memorable and useful title. A few years ago, Dan Schaeffer wrote a book that not only has a catchy title, but has some really helpful content as well. He shows how many of us—when we can’t seem to find God speaking to us through a burning bush—try to help God out by lighting one on fire ourselves! I guess the idea is that if we get the bush burning, God will respond to us and speak directly to us as he did with Moses. The problem is it doesn’t work very well, hence the book title: The Bush Won’t Burn, and I’m All Out of Matches.
Why do we have these expectations? Here’s one reason why: We read of all the incredible ways God supernaturally directed his people in the Bible, and we tend to assume he’s going to guide us in similar ways today.
But, wait a minute. How many times did God speak to someone through a burning bush? Exactly once. How many times did people hear a rushing, mighty wind and see what looked like flames of fire on everyone’s head? Once. How many times did a disciple of Jesus walk on water? Once. (Maybe Peter walking on water should only count for 1/2!) You see the pattern, right? Knocking down city walls, chariots of fire, turning water to wine—God doesn’t seem to repeat himself as far as a lot of these things go. He doesn’t change, but his methods do.
Elijah had to learn this when he ran to Mt Sinai expecting to see great and powerful manifestations of God, just as Moses and the people had seen long before. But instead, God greeted Elijah with a still, small voice, asking him, “What are you doing here?” “Yes,” someone might protest, “God may have changed the specific method, but he routinely guided his people in supernatural ways.” But is this true?
If you chart out chronologically the period of time covered in Scripture, and then note the times when God performed great signs and wonders, you’ll see that these events are relatively few and far between. We tend to think there were spectacular, supernatural events occurring practically every day in biblical times, but this just isn’t the case. Actually these events are included in the Scriptures because they’re extraordinary.
Usually, God only moved in these overt and direct ways during times of great, historical significance: the choosing of Abraham, the deliverance of the people from bondage, the choosing of David, the confrontation of his rebellious people through his prophets, the ministry of Jesus, the birth of the church, etc. Many—if not most—of God’s people had heard of these kinds of events, but never witnessed any of this themselves. We even see mention of this in passages such as these:
We no longer see your miraculous signs.
All the prophets are gone,
and no one can tell us when it will end.
Where are all the miracles our ancestors told us about?
Manipulation and desperation
There are real problems with seeking—and relying on—this kind of seemingly supernatural guidance. The process is so subjective we can manipulate it to produce the outcome we want, all the while convinced it’s God confirming our feelings. “Lord, I’m not sure whether or not you want me to apologize to my neighbor for losing my temper and calling him a jerk and an embarrassment to the whole street. I need to know what you want me to do. I don’t feel led to apologize. But if you really want me to, please make the 3rd car that passes here be a Porsche 987 S . . . yellow . . . with the top down . . . and the driver wearing purple sunglasses and a cowboy hat . . . followed by a hailstorm . . . and a solar eclipse . . .” See, look! God doesn’t want me to apologize to my neighbor!
But we can also get a panicky desperation to hear something—anything—directly from God, especially when we’re making an important decision. We start to use our Bible like a Magic 8-Ball. It’s as if we ask our question (“Lord, should we move to Akron or Albuquerque?”), turn the Bible over and shake it, open it up and stick our finger in for some kind of answer: Reply hazy, try again. But as Howard Hendricks says, the Bible isn’t a lucky rabbit’s foot. It doesn’t work if you rub it.
Putting a fleece before the Lord?
The idea of putting a fleece before the Lord comes from the story of Gideon in Judges 6. He asked for a sign from God proving that God would do what he had promised. First, he put out a fleece and asked God to make the fleece wet but the surrounding ground dry. When God did this, he asked for a second sign, this time making the fleece dry and the surrounding ground wet.
Notice a few important details in this story: (1) Gideon wasn’t trying to find God’s will. God had already told Gideon what he wanted Gideon to do. (2) Gideon knew exactly who was giving him these instructions. There was no uncertainty on his part that God was speaking to him. (3) God had already given Gideon a sign (at his request). God had caused fire to flame up from a rock and consume the meat, bread and broth Gideon had placed there (Judges 6:21).
So if Gideon knew this was God, and knew what God’s will was for him, why did he insist on ‘putting out a fleece’? Read his own words:
Then Gideon said to God, “If you are truly going to use me to rescue Israel as you promised, prove it to me in this way. . . . then I will know that you are going to help me rescue Israel as you promised.”
Judges 6:36-37 [emphasis added]
This doesn’t demonstrate Gideon’s faith in God, but his lack of trust. God had already given his promise to Gideon, and even graciously demonstrated his power. That should have settled the issue; all that was left was for Gideon to trust and obey. His putting out a fleece, demanding proof from God, is certainly not an example we want to follow.
“But it works!”
Many of us have stories of doing something like I’ve described above, and it seems as if God responded. Maybe you’ve used one of these methods, and everything turned out well. You got the right job, the right spouse, the ministry that was meant for you. But we need to be very careful how we interpret our experiences. Often all a good outcome proves is the mercy and grace of God.
In his book, Dan Schaeffer tells the story of a young couple who brings home a new puppy. They take the puppy out to play in the backyard, where he promptly chases a squirrel up the tree. The puppy is sitting at the foot of the tree, looking up and barking. The squirrel jumps onto a dead, dry branch that breaks under its weight, and he falls right in front of the startled puppy. For the rest of that dog’s life he would run straight to that tree and look up, barking expectantly, waiting for a squirrel to fall from the tree. He had assumed his actions caused the squirrel to fall, and so he expected the same actions to work again.
It’s easy to imagine the same kind of scenario between parents and their children. Your daughter thinks you gave her what she asked for because she cried, when that wasn’t your reason at all. Just because something seems to work, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Just because our actions are followed by a result doesn’t mean we caused the result.
Sometimes God blesses us in spite of our actions
not because of them.
So what have we learned this week?
- We shouldn’t embellish our interaction with God and make it sound as if he’s audibly speaking directly to us when that’s not the case.
- We don’t want to over-interpret our own inner impulses and confuse these with the divine leading of the Spirit.
- We’ve seen that the biblical basis for ‘putting a fleece before the Lord’ is very weak.
- We need to trust God and not try to push him into giving us more information about our future. And we definitely don’t want to manipulate some “sign” that only confirms our own desires.
- While God can speak directly and dramatically any time he chooses to, we see in Scripture this isn’t his usual way of interacting with his people. It’s not healthy for us to assume God will give us supernatural signs to guide us in our decisions.
So . . . then . . . just how are we supposed to seek the will of God? How can we know for sure how God is guiding us in our lives? We’ll explore this next week.
Some of you may remember the series of TV commercials that show two people discussing investments, and one of them comments, “My broker is EF Hutton, and EF Hutton says . . .” And suddenly there is absolute silence as everyone around them leans forward eagerly listening to what EF Hutton says (because “when EF Hutton talks, people listen”). I’ve seen a similar phenomenon in Bible studies and small group discussions. Someone will ask something like, ‘How can I know for sure what God’s will is for my life?’ and suddenly everything else stops and people are hanging on every word. Why is this? Well, for most of us it begins with a desire to live our lives according to God’s plan for us. We want to be sure we’re making the right choices and avoiding the wrong ones.
Wanting to do God’s will is a good desire, but unfortunately there are many conflicting approaches to seeking the will of God and, consequently, a lot of confusion. I’m sure this confusion adds to our eagerness to hear and learn more whenever the subject comes up in discussion. We’re going to explore this topic for the next few weeks, and we’ll begin with some basic truths. Remember: whenever you get into an area of belief where you feel uncertain, it’s best to fall back on what you do know, and work from there. So what are some foundational principles concerning the will of God?
God knows the future completely, and he will accomplish his plan.
Isaiah 46:9-11 tells us:
Remember the things I have done in the past.
For I alone am God!
I am God, and there is none like me.
Only I can tell you the future
before it even happens.
Everything I plan will come to pass . . .
I have said what I would do,
and I will do it.
The amazing thing is that God will accomplish his plan—and we are part of his plan! God not only knows the future, he knows your future. We may not know what’s lying ahead of us, but we can be certain God does. If we truly trust him and genuinely believe he will do what he has said he will do, then this assurance should give us a strong sense of confidence and security in him.
God isn’t hiding from us anything we need to know.
Sometimes we get so intent on “finding the will of God” we begin to almost resent God for not revealing it. But God is not like some mean older brother, holding his will for you behind his back. ‘Ha, ha, ha. I’ve got my will for you right here, but you can’t see it. If only you knew what I want you to do, but I’m not going to show you.’ Again, this comes back to trust. Do we really believe God loves us? Do we really believe God will work in our lives to accomplish his purpose, and that this is for our benefit? Do we really believe God has given us everything we need to live the lives he calls us to live?
By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence.
2 Peter 1:3
God doesn’t expect us to have the future all figured out.
We’ll talk more about this in the next few studies, but we need to accept the fact that we’re just not going to get a comprehensive look at the future. If we knew the future exhaustively, we would be God! While God does reveal things about the future from time to time, he otherwise expects us to trust him with our future. An unhealthy obsession with gaining knowledge of the future is actually much more like pagan religious practices (what was called “divining” or “soothsaying”) than it is biblical faith.
There’s an interesting exchange in the last few verses of the gospel of John. Jesus reveals a bit of how Peter will one day die (by crucifixion). So Peter points to John and asks, “What about him?” Jesus tells Peter, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? As for you, follow me.” Apparently, it became quite a rumor among the community of believers that John wouldn’t die until Christ returned, to the point John had to clarify that Jesus didn’t say this would happen. He merely said, “If . . .” The interesting thing is that Jesus didn’t clarify this for John either; John still didn’t know whether this was just a learning opportunity for Peter or a real clue as to his future. In essence, Jesus’ message to John was the same as it was to Peter: ‘It’s not for you to know this information about your future. You just need to focus on following me.’
Sometimes God gives direct and very clear instruction.
It doesn’t take us long when reading the Bible to see how many times God spoke directly and dramatically to individuals, giving them explicit instructions as to what they were to do. God interacts directly with Abraham; he appears in a vision to Jacob; he speaks to Moses first through a burning bush and then later on a quaking, smoldering Mt Sinai. No matter how comfortable or uncomfortable we may be with such manifestations, our theology needs to include the reality that God does sometimes communicate in unusual and even sensational ways.
Now, this doesn’t mean we should start looking around for a burning bush! (Remember there was only one of those in the Bible.) But it does mean we should be open to the possibility of God providing very direct, personal guidance to one of his children. I remember a time when I had walked away from my faith. I was actually considering a completely different religion, and had only been vaguely thinking of Christianity as a comparison to this other faith. When suddenly—like a cold, brisk breeze slicing through the fog—the words of Elijah to the people of Israel arrested my thoughts (words I hadn’t thought of for years): How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, serve him.
It’s not that I was looking for some kind of message. I tried everything to shake this thought or somehow drown it out. But it haunted me for three days. Every morning when I woke up, this was the first thing that entered my mind. Every time I hung up the phone at work, this challenge pounded in my head. When I was trying to talk with my friends, listen to music or go to sleep, this thought was constantly confronting me: How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, serve him. I wasn’t longing to return to Christianity at all. But finally, very dispassionately and even coldly, I simply gave up. I said, “Okay, God. If you want me, you got me.”
This isn’t the most dramatic story I could tell, and I know some of you probably have more sensational accounts from your own lives. But this leads us to an important question: How do we know direct guidance from God is actually from God? We know God can communicate directly and supernaturally—not because of our personal experiences, but because of what we see in the Word of God. But how can we be sure he is communicating directly to us?
If we have to guess whether an instruction is directly from God or not
—it’s probably not.
Do you think Moses spent much time debating with himself whether it was really God speaking to him through the burning bush? When God spoke to Elijah in a still, small voice, did Elijah have to ask, “Who is this?” If God is going to dramatically, supernaturally give us very clear, very direct instructions, he’s not going to leave us scratching our heads as to whether it’s him or not! The question isn’t going to be ‘Is this God?’ but ‘Am I going to obey God? Am I going to do what he has told me to do?’
In my own story, I didn’t hear an audible voice. But what I experienced was so far beyond my own thoughts and reflection, so unexpected, so obviously someone else . . . so obviously God . . . that I couldn’t deny it was his voice. It wasn’t that I wanted to believe it; I couldn’t deny it. (I did have the choice to respond or not, but I knew clearly who I was submitting to or rejecting.)
I mean, let’s think about this. Remember all of the biblical stories of God dramatically manifesting himself to his people. Now if God is going to directly speak to you in some way and instruct you to do something specific, do you think he’s going to have any problem being absolutely unmistakeable and undeniable about who is giving you these instructions? Is this somehow a problem for him? When God clearly speaks to us, there is no doubt. So if God is supernaturally telling you to sell everything and move your family to Zimbabwe, you won’t have to scratch your head and wonder if it’s really him. What he expects you to do will be undeniable.
If God is giving you direct, supernatural instruction or guidance,
you won’t need to play guessing games.
If God has clearly, unmistakably told us to do something, the proper response is always to obey and obey quickly. As the Dogs of Peace song says, we don’t want to “beat around the burning bush.” But this still leaves us with some important questions:
- Should we expect God to guide us directly, dramatically and undeniably? Is this supposed to be a regular part of the believer’s life? Is this the only way God guides us? Or can I know God’s will for my life without this kind of direct, supernatural instruction?
- What if I look around and I don’t see any burning bushes? What if I’m a committed Christian who’s never experienced anything this sensational? Is there something wrong with my Christian life? If I’m seeking God’s will should I be seeking this kind of direct guidance?
- What does it really mean to “seek God’s will”?
These are some of the questions we’ll be discussing next week.
Our last Taking Root study explored the issue of tithing. We saw that tithing as a mandatory requirement is tied specifically to the Old Covenant Law. Since we aren’t under the Law of Moses, tithing as an obligatory standard doesn’t apply to us any more than dietary laws or laws on the Sabbath. (For more on tithing, see Are Christians supposed to tithe?) So we discussed the obligations that don’t apply to New Covenant believers in Christ, but we didn’t spend any time looking at how we should be giving. This is our focus this week.
Being a steward
To talk about how we give as Christians, we need to begin with the idea of a “steward.” Even if this isn’t a word you commonly use, we’re all familiar with the concept. Let’s say you own a business, and you hire me to run it for you. This doesn’t mean the business is mine to do with whatever I please. You are entrusting it to me so that I’ll run it the same way you would if you were there. It’s not my business, I’m just overseeing it in your place. I’m a steward of what belongs to you.
This is a key concept in the New Testament. Everything we have has been entrusted to us by God. Our gifts and skills come to us from God, and we’re responsible to use them in a way that’s pleasing to him. Our children don’t really belong to us, God entrusts them to us for a period of time. Even our very lives have been entrusted to us by God for a purpose:
You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price.
1 Corinthians 6:19-20
To see a good example of financial stewardship we can look at the parable of the three servants in Matthew 25:14-30.
[A man] called together his servants and entrusted his money to them while he was gone.
Later, we’re told:
After a long time their master returned from his trip and called them to give an account of how they had used his money.
Notice the money was still the man’s, and they were responsible for stewarding the money that he had entrusted to them in a way that would be pleasing to their master. To those who did this well, the master said:
Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!
Sometimes, we get the idea that we give 10% of our income to God—and then the rest is ours to do with as we please. But this isn’t a biblical attitude. Everything we have is entrusted to us by God, and we’re responsible to him for how we use all of it. This doesn’t mean we have to donate every cent to some Christian cause. Taking care of our regular needs, investing for the future, and even recreation and entertainment can all be legitimate uses of money according to Scripture. But we should make sure we’re not using the resources God has entrusted to us to do anything that would be displeasing to him. And we need to always remember that everything we have—and we ourselves—belong to him.
In contrast to the Old Covenant law of tithing, the New Testament never gives us a required amount we must contribute. Instead, we’re told:
You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. “For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.”
2 Corinthians 9:7
How much should you give? This is between you and God. You shouldn’t let anyone else pressure you to give a certain amount or percentage. And we also shouldn’t be applying pressure to anyone so they’ll give—no matter how subtle we try to be. Those of you who were in the adult study this Sunday, heard Clif Armstrong teach on some of these principles. You’ll also recall the story he told about the church leader who called out during a service: “All of you who are going to give $1,000.00, come up front. Now all of you who are going to give $500.00,” etc. We don’t want anyone to give because we pressure them. This is why we make our offering time as low-key as we can, and why we never have things like giant thermometers at the front to show how much the church has given toward a certain project. Just as with other forms of Christian service, financial giving needs to be prompted by the Holy Spirit—not us.
This also means we need to be careful not to establish an extra-biblical standard of giving for others. Just because giving 10% has worked really well for me, and I happen to think it would be beneficial for all Christians, this doesn’t give me the authority to establish another law or standard for other believers. I may feel that getting up at 3:30 am and praying for 3 hours every day is a wonderful thing to do (this is a hypothetical example; I don’t actually do this), and maybe it is a perfect model for me personally. But this doesn’t mean I should be urging everyone else to do the exact same thing. Some practices God leaves up to our individual consciences—between us and God; how much New Testament believers should give is one of these practices. Don’t try to take the place of the Holy Spirit toward your brothers and sisters.
Notice that God especially loves it when we give cheerfully. This makes sense doesn’t it? Would you enjoy receiving a gift if you had to pressure someone to give to you? What if they did give, but they gave grudgingly, wishing they didn’t have to? That ruins the gift for both of you, doesn’t it? You’d just as soon give that kind of “gift” right back! We need to give to God out of a deep sense of gratitude for what he’s given us, and out of love toward those who need our help. But we can’t try to regulate this process; gifts must come voluntarily from a willing heart.
While we don’t presume to set a percentage or amount for each other, the New Testament does teach us a general principle that we should give in proportion to what God has given us.
Give in proportion to what you have. Whatever you give is acceptable, if you give it eagerly. And give according to what you have, not what you don’t have.
2 Corinthians 8:11-12
Did you see that we’re supposed to give according to what we have, not what we don’t have? This should challenge those who pressure other Christians to give even when they don’t have food on the table or gas in the car. It also shows this isn’t a matter of giving to God in order to get even more back from him. God isn’t some kind of Ponzi scheme. He doesn’t promise to give us a certain return on our investment. He blesses us, and we give in response and gratitude to his blessing. This doesn’t mean God may not at times direct us to give even though we don’t have enough money for our obligations—but this kind of extraordinary calling must come directly from God, not us.
At this point, some of you may be thinking, ‘Well, is 10% a good proportion of my income?’ And the answer is, ‘maybe.’ You need to prayerfully consider your own situation and see what God puts on your heart. 10% can be a great place to start for many of us. Some will be able to go on and give a higher percentage if God leads them to do that. RG LeTourneau is well-known for reaching the point that he could give 90% of his income and live off the other 10%. Some can’t give 10% right away, so they begin with $20 a week, or $10, or $5. I can’t tell you what dollar amount or percentage is right for you. You need to pray and see how God directs you.
Don’t forget that, whatever proportion we decide on, we need to give willingly and cheerfully. I heard of a man who was making $200 a week. He figured 10% was $20 and, though it hurt, he could commit to that. As time went by, he moved up the ranks in his company and received pay raises, and he continued to faithfully contribute 10% of his income. The man became very successful, now making closer to $2,500.00 each week. 10% of $2,500.00 was a lot of money, and he began to feel uneasy about giving so much each week. He went to one of his pastors to talk to him about the problem. He explained his whole history of giving, and the pastor said the solution was simple. Since giving his committed 10% was difficult for him now, but was something he was able to do when he was only making $200 a week, they could just pray together that God would reduce his income down to the point where he could give again!
Sometimes the more God blesses us, the more challenging proportional giving can be. This is because the more money we have, the more opportunities we have for acquiring possessions and experiences. And the more we get, usually the more we want. What seemed like an incredible luxury to me yesterday, is now an essential that I think I can’t live without. As the passage reads that Clif taught from Sunday:
Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.
Proportional giving provides us with a regular check on the desires of our hearts, to make sure we’re not slipping into greed and hypocrisy (as the Pharisees were in Luke 12).
There is a consistent theme of self-sacrifice running throughout the New Testament. Obviously the perfect example of sacrificing oneself is Jesus. John 3:16 is the classic verse that many of us learned as children:
For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.
And while this is speaking more of the Father giving the Son, in John 10:18, Jesus said:
No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again.
But while many know John 3:16 by heart, not as many are immediately familiar with
1 John 3:16:
We know what real love is because Jesus laid down his life for us. So we also ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.
Scripture calls us to show our love for God and each other by giving our time and energy, and by giving financially. The healthy, biblical Christian life includes both kinds of giving. This doesn’t mean we should make ourselves guilty if we’re not giving away everything we have (either time or money). Notice again the instructions in 2 Corinthians 8:12-14:
And give according to what you have, not what you don’t have. Of course, I don’t mean your giving should make life easy for others and hard for yourselves. I only mean that there should be some equality. Right now you have plenty and can help those who are in need. Later, they will have plenty and can share with you when you need it. In this way, things will be equal.
These are a few biblical principles teaching us how believers should give. But the underlying principle we see everywhere in the New Testament is that we are to be like Christ. Sometimes our giving will cost us something. It will be a sacrifice. It was for Jesus, wasn’t it? Love, generosity and self-sacrifice should characterize our lives. As we freely receive all good things from God, so we should freely give in heartfelt, grateful response.
I can still remember the hair standing up on the back of my neck. I was sitting next to my father, listening to the pastor during a Sunday evening service. He had just finished reading Malachi 3:8-10 from the King James Version:
Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings. Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation. Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.
The look in the pastor’s eye told us that he was deadly serious. Do you want to be guilty of robbing God? Absolutely not! I don’t know what kind of effect he was having on the rest of the congregation, but I was one ten-year-old kid who was going to make sure he faithfully brought his 10% into the storehouse—whatever that was.
Next to the topic of prayer, most of the questions I’ve received since beginning our Taking Root emails have been regarding tithing. Are New Testament believers supposed to—according to Scripture—give 10% of their incomes to their churches? This is a question that requires us to explore some of the historical background and biblical context to really understand what we’re talking about.
What does “tithe” mean?
It’s not uncommon to hear people say that they tithe 5% of their income, or 20%. While having a planned approach to how you give can be a good thing, this isn’t really a “tithe” the way the Bible uses the word. The word translated tithe in Scripture means “tenth.” So if we want to speak of the biblical idea of tithing, we’re talking about giving 10%.
Early examples of tithing
The first time we see tithing in the Bible is in the 14th chapter of Genesis. Abram’s nephew Lot had been living in the city of Sodom. Enemies had wiped out Sodom’s army, plundered their city and taken captives as slaves, including Lot and his family. God enabled Abram to overtake and defeat the enemies of Sodom, and to recover the captives and plunder. The king of Sodom offers all of the loot to Abram, but he refuses. He takes only food for his men to eat, a share for his allies, and he gives a tenth of all the goods to Melchizedek, who is described as the king of Salem and priest of God Most High.
We should first notice that Abram wasn’t giving a tithe of his own goods, but of the recovered plunder belonging to the city of Sodom. Was this tithe a one-time event, or a regular practice for Abram? We have no way of knowing from the text. And it also seems that Abram’s gift is voluntary, not in response to a command from God. So this story only tells us what happened in this one occasion, doesn’t show a command from God concerning tithing, and doesn’t even have to do with Abram’s personal possessions. This shows us an early example of someone voluntarily giving 10% but not much else.
The next example of tithing is found in Genesis 28. Jacob was on his way back to his own people to find a suitable wife. One night, in a dream, he sees a stairway going up to heaven, angels going up and down the stairway, and he sees God. Overwhelmed, the next morning Jacob vows that if God will be with him and protect him on his journey, provide him with food and clothing, and return him safely to his father’s home, then he would give back to God a tenth of everything that God gives him. The way this vow is emphasized in the story, it seems that tithing was not a normal practice at this time. (Notice that Jacob had not been tithing prior to having this dream of God.) And again, the tithing is voluntary, not in response to divine instruction regarding tithing.
Some have stressed that these examples come before the Mosaic Law, and this is true. But there is nothing in these passages instructing God’s people to tithe, or even showing that the people of God regularly tithed at that time. We don’t want to base a command to believers on unclear examples from narrative accounts. That’s not a proper use of Scripture. (Actually, there’s a clearer pattern in Genesis of returning to one’s own people to acquire a wife—but I don’t know of anyone suggesting this as a model we should follow today!) We can choose to emulate Abram and Jacob in their voluntary tithing, but this would be a personal choice, not a biblical command. For clear instructions on tithing we need to look to the Old Covenant Law.
Tithing under the Old Covenant
Many Christians have an idea the people of Israel regularly gave 10% of their income to God. This isn’t entirely accurate. There are actually three different tithes the Israelites were to observe:
Because the tribe of Levi was to be dedicated to serving the Lord and his temple, they were not allotted any land among the other tribes. Instead of actual land, the other Israelites were to bring a tithe of everything the land produced for the Levites (see Numbers 18:20-21). This would have included meat, crops and wine.
The people were to set aside another tithe of all their crops—grains, olive oil, wine, and the firstborn males of all their flocks and herds, bring this tithe to a designated place of worship, and “Then feast there in the presence of the Lord your God and celebrate with your household” (Deuteronomy 14:22-27). This tithe was set aside for a big feast! Eating, drinking and celebrating as a form of worship to God. What an idea! But don’t laugh this off as just an excuse for a big party. This was a sacred obligation, and the people still had to set aside this additional tithe for this annual celebration.
Every third year, the people were to collect another tithe for the care of Levites, orphans, widows and foreigners living among them. (See Deuteronomy 14:28-29.)
So, rather than 10%, the combination of different tithes actually equals an annual 23.3%. This was essentially the early tax system for the nation of Israel to support their national priestly tribe and their poor. A couple of other things worth noting: The people didn’t give money; they gave a tithe of their crops and herds. These tithes weren’t voluntary as was the case with Abram and Jacob; they were mandated by Law. So the Old Testament idea of tithing looks very different from the traditional concept most of us have been taught.
Are we supposed to follow the Old Covenant practice of tithing today?
After seeing what the Old Covenant practice of tithing entails, most of us would respond: “How can we?” Are we supposed to all acquire fields and herds so we can set aside a tithe of our produce and bring it once a year to the, um, temple so that the . . . Levites can have food and wine? And should Christians today set aside another 10% of their crops and herds to gather with the people of Israel in a designated place and celebrate together? (If we’re worried the Malachi passage above is warning us not to rob God, then this is what we need to start doing because this is what the passage is talking about.)
Some who are reading this right now are thinking of ways to apply these ideas to the church, but be careful. We can’t change the Law that God gave to the people of Israel. It is very specific about the nature of these tithes, what was to be set aside and how it was to be distributed. We don’t have the right to alter these commands. But are these commands given to us?
To whom was this law given? To the nation of Israel. Are we part of the nation of Israel? No, we’re not. We still study the Old Covenant because it teaches us about God, how he interacted with his people, and how his grand plan developed in the Old Testament period. But the Old Covenant isn’t our covenant. We are part of the New Covenant people of God. Christ accomplished the purpose of the Old Covenant law (Matthew 5:17) and superseded it (Galatians 3:19-25; Hebrews 7-10). We are no longer under the Old Covenant Law of Moses, but the New Covenant Law of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:19-21; Matthew 22:34-40).
In the New Testament, Jesus and the apostles affirm the unchanging moral requirements of God (not worshiping other gods, not murdering, not committing adultery, etc.). But the legal requirements that were peculiar to the nation of Israel are now obsolete (keeping the Sabbath, dietary laws, etc.).
The life of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels is a time of transition, when the Old Covenant is coming to an end and the people are being prepared for the New Covenant. The New Covenant isn’t actually established until Jesus’ death on the cross (Luke 22:20). This is why, though Jesus seems to go out of his way to flaunt the traditions of the Jewish leaders, he never violates the Old Covenant law itself during his earthly ministry. We have to understand that his teaching to the Jewish people is still in an Old Covenant context. If we don’t realize this, we’ll misinterpret many passages.
This explains why Jesus would give instruction on offering one’s sacrifice at the Temple altar (Matthew 5:23-24), why he would tell those whom he had healed of leprosy to go show themselves to the priests (Luke 17:14), and why he would tell the people to listen to the Pharisees because they ‘sit in the seat of Moses’ (Matthew 23:1-4). This also sheds light on Jesus’ comment to the Pharisees that it was good for them to carefully tithe, but that they should be more focused on the weightier matters of justice and loving God. We have to remember he was speaking to people still under the Law of Moses.
But beginning with Acts and throughout the letters to the churches, we don’t find even a hint of tithing as a practice of the New Testament churches. It seems clear that mandatory tithing was an Old Testament requirement for the nation of Israel that is not affirmed as a requirement for the New Testament church. Instead, the principle seems to be, as expressed by Paul in 2 Corinthians 9:7:
You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. “For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.”
So is tithing wrong?
There’s nothing at all wrong with setting aside 10% of your income to give back to God. But it’s simply not biblical for us to teach that Christians must meet this requirement. Our monetary-based system is very different from the agrarian society of the Old Testament. Some believers today are not able to contribute 10%, and many others could be giving much more. Giving is a scriptural mandate, but it’s between the individual believer and God how much they should give. If we try to suggest a standard that all Christians must meet, we’re reestablishing the law for our brothers and sisters, and this is something we are not to do.
What of the common instruction to give to God first, before anything else, whether you’re in debt or not? I know many of you have amazing stories of how you committed to give a certain amount or percentage of your income to God and how he blessed you by meeting your needs. I’ve also heard stories from some of you how you honored your commitment to God, took money that was needed to pay bills and gave it to the church, and suffered serious consequences when the funds you needed didn’t miraculously appear. We need to be careful not to base our practices—or our urging of others to follow these practices—on anecdotes or even our own experiences, but on the clear teaching of the Word.
As a general principle, I would suggest that if you’re past due on money owed to someone else, then this is no longer your money to freely offer to God. It already legitimately belongs to someone else. Is God honored if we steal money from our landlord to give to him? Of course, if God has somehow, clearly directed you to contribute the money anyway, then he will provide the funds needed to pay your debts.
I realize this has been somewhat technical this week. I’ve tried to make it as painless as possible! We’ve discussed the intricacies of the Old Covenant practice of tithing, but we haven’t really looked at how we should give as Christians. There’s a lot more to discuss so, next week, we’ll look at New Testament principles of giving.
[For some of you, this will be a continuation of both our Taking Root study last week and our church adult study on Sunday morning.]
As shocking as it might seem, the idea of prayer as ‘getting God to do something’ is actually a pagan idea, not a biblical one. But when we talk about getting prayer ‘answered,’ this is often what we mean. Whenever we start to focus on how we’re praying—rather than on God to whom we’re praying—we begin to slip into manipulative prayer. If we’re worried about using the right pious phrases or spiritual words, praying for impressive lengths of time, whipping ourselves up into an emotional state so that we can really move God when we pray, etc., and we’re doing all of this so that God will answer our prayer (i.e. do what we ask), then we’ve started attempting to manipulate God. Thankfully God is gentle and patient with us, understanding our need to grow and mature. But this is still an error that we don’t want to fall into.
There are some passages of Scripture that emphasize ‘not giving up’ or ‘persevering’ in our prayer. If we don’t look at these texts carefully, it’s easy to get the wrong idea. Let’s take a look at one that sometimes confuses believers, Luke 18:1-8:
One day Jesus told his disciples a story to show that they should always pray and never give up. “There was a judge in a certain city,” he said, “who neither feared God nor cared about people. A widow of that city came to him repeatedly, saying, ‘Give me justice in this dispute with my enemy.’ The judge ignored her for a while, but finally he said to himself, ‘I don’t fear God or care about people, but this woman is driving me crazy. I’m going to see that she gets justice, because she is wearing me out with her constant requests!'”
I can’t tell you how many people have said to me: “See, the woman had to hound the judge until he did what she asked, and God is teaching us to do the same thing with him!” But is this what Jesus is teaching us in this story?
Those who were with us on Sunday morning will recall a similar story (in Luke 11:5-8). During our discussion, I referred to some of the imagery from Psalm 23. Do we believe that the Lord is really our Shepherd? Of course, we do. Then how often do we get down on all fours and follow him out to some pasture where we munch on grass and then go and stick our face in the water for a cool drink? That’s silly, isn’t it? We don’t do that because we know the Psalm is speaking figuratively about the way God cares for us. We understand there are limitations to the metaphor.
The week before, we studied the story of the “good Samaritan” in Luke 10:30-37. Jesus ends the conversation by telling the expert in religious law to “go and do the same.” Does this mean that the man was supposed to convert and become a Samaritan, hang out on the road to Jericho and search for a man who had been robbed, beaten and left for dead? No, we understand that Jesus was teaching the man to show the same kind of mercy, to love his neighbor as the Samaritan did in the story. We need to see that we don’t just settle for an easy, surface application of a parable; we have to really understand what Jesus is getting across to the people—and to us.
So what’s happening in our story? Right away, we tend to identify with the widow. She’s in need. She’s been a victim of injustice. She desperately needs help. Is she like some of us? Definitely.
But the first character that Jesus mentions isn’t the widow. It’s the judge. What is he like? He didn’t care about anybody else—not the will of God or the needs of the people around him. All he cared about was himself. Is this a picture of God? Not at all! This isn’t anything like God, is it? So if the judge isn’t a picture of God, then the way the woman has to wear down the judge is not a picture of how we are to pray to God. This isn’t a comparison; it’s a contrast.
The reason why we should always pray and never give up is that God isn’t like this judge. After all who is actually able to hound God and pressure him to do something for us? If we had to resort to this level of coercion to convince God to act, then we may as well despair now because if God wants to ignore us, he’ll ignore us! There’s nothing we can do about it. We could never pour on enough pressure to make him do anything!
But God is not hard and uncaring. He’s not unmoved by our pain and trouble. We see this most clearly in Jesus’ love for the people. So we can have confidence that God is not like some pagan deity (that’s who this judge is really like) who we have to beg, bribe or cajole to get him to help us. God isn’t like the judge, he’s like Jesus! God loves us and already knows what we need before we pray about it.
“Then . . . if God already knows what I need, why do I have to keep praying and not give up? Why do I have to pray at all?” Because prayer is not about getting God to respond. It’s about getting me to participate in what he’s doing.
Let’s broaden the question. Scripture makes it clear that God wants us to evangelize, to share the Good News with those around us. Why us? Couldn’t God do a much better job of communicating the Gospel than we can? Doesn’t he have a much better idea of who needs to hear and when they’re ready to listen? Why doesn’t he just bypass us and reach the people directly? You can’t disagree that the job would be accomplished much more quickly and in a much better manner, can you?
When someone is suffering emotional pain, why doesn’t God have us step aside and let the Holy Spirit do all the comforting directly? Why does he insist on also ministering through us? It’s not that he can accomplish more or produce better quality ministry through us. But, for some reason, he wants us to participate in everything he’s doing.
Those of you who are parents, have you ever had your young child “help” you with a project? Let’s say you’re painting the house, and your three-year-old wants to help. Do you finish much faster and more efficiently because of their help? Then why is it such a delight when they’re helping you? Because you’re more concerned with your child than you are some paint job (that will have to be repainted eventually anyway). This is your child working alongside you, sharing in what you’re doing, focused on the same things you are. You’re doing it together.
So you show them where to paint, and you praise their efforts—and then come along behind them and fix where they’ve splattered paint everywhere and somehow make it right. “Look what we did together!” You do this because you love them and want them to be with you. And I’m sure God does the same thing for us all the time.
“But God responds to our prayers.” Yes he does, and I’m so glad of that. But be careful of thinking this is a clear ’cause and effect’ kind of thing. Let’s say your six-year-old son has decided to put together a model airplane, and he gets a model that’s way beyond his ability to put together on his own. You offer him help, but he pushes you away. “I’ll do it myself!” So you say, “Alright, buddy, you can tackle this all on your own.” And—when you can see he’s getting frustrated—you remind everyone: “Bobby wants to put the model together himself without any help.” Until, finally, Bobby comes to you and, in a small voice, tells you that maybe he can’t do it all by himself, and would you help him?
Do you respond? Of course. Are you wanting to help him? You’ve wanted to help him all along. But it was more important that he come to the place where he recognize his need for help and where he’s willing to ask you for help. This illustration is somewhat flawed, because our children can ask for things that we didn’t anticipate. But we can never surprise God.
When we pray, we’re not telling God anything he doesn’t already know. And when he responds, it’s not because we’ve somehow thought of the perfect solution for him to put into motion. “Oh Lord, this is what I think you should do in this situation. Amen.” Sometimes he may delay doing what he desires to do until we get with his program. But when he responds, it’s always according to his will, it’s always what he intended to do all along.
So when we pray for someone’s healing, what we are saying, in essence, is: “Lord, we want to be a part of what you’re doing in this situation—because we know that’s what you want. We don’t know exactly what you intend to do in this circumstance, but we know that you love this person and that you desire to work in their life in a powerful way according to your perfect wisdom and timing. We confidently, but humbly, make our requests. But we’re not asking you to conform to our idea of what should happen here; we’re asking you to help us pray according to what you intend to do. And we know that what you do will be the best outcome for everyone involved. Thank you for choosing to involve us in your work, and even to work through us.”
So always pray and never give up. God is not like the uncaring judge, and we don’t have to hound him to get him to listen. In fact, this is just what Jesus said when he himself commented on this story:
Then the Lord said: “Learn a lesson from the unjust judge. Even he rendered a just decision in the end. So don’t you think God will surely give justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will grant them justice quickly!”
God wants us to be with him, not only in relationship with him, but sharing in his mission. He not only makes us part of his family, he makes us part of the family business. And prayer is a key way we participate in God’s mission. This is why Jesus taught his disciples to pray: “May your kingdom come.” Our prayers shouldn’t be mostly about our own petty desires and preferences. They should be about furthering the kingdom of God, in our own lives and the lives of those around us. When we pray according to God’s will, reflecting back to him his concerns, his mission, his heart, then we’re beginning to learn what communing with God through prayer is really all about.
[This is all I have planned for our series on prayer. If you have more prayer-related questions, email me or let me know in the blog comments. If I don’t receive any prayer questions for us to tackle, then we’ll move on to another topic next week. (Feel free to submit any questions or topics that you’d like to study.)]
Persevering prayer: Always pray and never give up [see above]
Staying in balance seems difficult for people at times, and that’s true for Christians too. It’s much easier for us to fall into one extreme or another. What are the extremes we should avoid when we pray?
Some teach that God will give us precisely what we ask for in prayer, but we must be absolutely, 100% certain God will do what we’ve asked him to do. If we waver in our rock-solid certainty, then we’re somehow denying God through our doubt and it won’t work. (Of course, this prompts the question in what sense we’re asking God for anything if we’re guaranteed to receive anything we confidently “request.”)
Some even take this further and teach how we need to be specific in our prayers. Don’t just ask for a bike, we’re told. Specify a red, 10-speed bike, if that’s what you want. I guess it’s like placing your order. You want to make sure you get it your way. Others go further and don’t really ask God for anything, they “claim it in the name of Jesus.” Never mind, that the Bible never tells us to claim anything in this way. (FYI: The Bible doesn’t tell us to “bind” or “rebuke” the enemy when we pray either.) This kind of prayer goes from making requests of God to presumptuously declaring what God is going to do for us. This is a dangerous extreme.
But there are problems on the other end of the pendulum swing too. Many of us are leery of Christians who are too loud and demanding in their prayers. So we tend to bend over backwards the other way. “May your will be done” can come to essentially mean: “We’re not really expecting anything at all to happen here. We’re not really sure why we’re praying about this, but here we go anyway.”
What should we expect from God when we pray? Obviously, we need to go to the Bible for our answer. But we need to examine the Scriptures carefully and thoughtfully. There’s an old reminder that ‘Scripture interprets Scripture.’ It’s way too easy to rip one verse out of context and ignore all the other passages that teach about prayer. We need to get a well-rounded, thoroughly biblical concept of prayer.
For instance, we could look only at a passage such as Matthew 21:21-22:
Then Jesus told them, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and don’t doubt, you can do things like this and much more. You can even say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. You can pray for anything, and if you have faith, you will receive it.”
At first glance, this actually seems to confirm one of our extremes, doesn’t it? Isn’t this giving us an absolute promise that we can pray for anything we want to and—if we really believe—that we’ll get it? Assuming this promise is for us (some scholars feel Jesus is speaking specifically to those who would be his Apostles, with the corresponding power to do signs and wonders), is Jesus giving us carte blanche to throw mountains into the sea at will? Is he giving us a blank check to ask for anything we happen to desire?
Would you give your children such a promise? Would this be responsible parenting? Maybe the Bible has more to say than just this. And maybe we need to take all of what God says about prayer into consideration.
Imagine this scenario. You take your kids to the store and tell them they can buy anything they want up to $20. Your youngest keeps bringing items up and asking, “Can I buy this?” “Can I buy this?” Finally, you insist, “You can have anything you want!” Whereupon—before your very eyes—your innocent 8-year old child morphs into a shrewd lawyer. “Anything I want?” So now you have to add a clarifying legal clause: “anything up to $20, just as I told you before.” Let’s be honest, sometimes we’re like that child, aren’t we?
So what other things has God told us that show us what to expect when we pray? Let’s look at some more passages.
Pray with right motives
James explains why we sometimes don’t get what we pray for:
. . . you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure.
Sometimes we pray for something, but we’re praying from entirely wrong motives. Why should we expect God to give us what we ask for when we ask from a wrong heart? This only makes sense, doesn’t it? We may even be praying for something God would be delighted to give us, but he’s more concerned about our long-term well-being than he is our immediate gratification. So we have to pray with right motives.
Pray in Jesus’ name
There are many passages that give promises to us when we pray ‘in Jesus’ name.’ Here’s one classic example:
You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it, so that the Son can bring glory to the Father. Yes, ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it!
This is a wonderful promise. But what exactly does it mean to ask for something in Jesus’ name? Does it just mean tacking on “in the name of Jesus” at the end? “Lord, please provide me with a brand new Porsche—in the name of Jesus.” Is this some kind of magical incantation like ‘abracadabra’ or ‘Simon says?’ Or does it have a deeper meaning?
When I was a kid, I loved swashbuckling movies. Remember the scenes when they would pound on the door and say, “Open this in the name of the King!”? What did that mean? It meant they were acting in the king’s stead. The king had given them the right to do something in his place. They represented the king.
In this passage, Jesus is speaking to his apostles, and we need to keep this in mind. This may color the way we interpret and apply the promise. They were directly commissioned to be his representatives— Apostles of Jesus Christ. If anyone was able to act ‘in Jesus’ name’ it was surely these Apostles. But even if we apply this to us today, what does it mean? It means that if we are acting in Jesus’ stead, doing what he would do, asking for what he would ask for—then we can ask for anything and God will do it!
So we have to actually pray and make our requests, we need to pray with right motives, and not only with right motives but with the motives of Christ himself. This may seem like somewhat narrow criteria, but why would God answer prayers that were asked with selfish, un-Christlike motives? And did you notice what Jesus’ motivation is in this verse? “That the Son can bring glory to the Father.”
Pray in strong relationship with Christ
In another place, Jesus says:
If you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted!
We should have expected something like this if we are to pray in Jesus’ stead. To be motived by the same things that motivate Christ, to act in his place and to ask for what he would ask for, we must be in vibrant relationship with him. Everything that we are as the true branches flows from the true Vine. And notice how, in the following words, Jesus connects granting our requests with us bearing fruit:
If you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.
Apparently what we are asking for—because we are remaining in Christ, praying in his stead, praying with his motives—has to do with us bearing spiritual fruit. And, once again, we see the ultimate emphasis on bringing glory to the Father.
Pray according to God’s will
And we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. And since we know he hears us when we make our requests, we also know that he will give us what we ask for.
1 John 5:14-15
When does God hear our prayers? When we ask for “anything that pleases him.” Older translations read here: “according to his will.” But how can we know what’s according to God’s will? Ah, there’s the rub, isn’t it?
Can we know whether it’s God’s will for Sally to be healed? Can we be certain that God intends for Tom to get the job he applied for? We have to acknowledge that God doesn’t promise us—in this life—to always receive healing, prosperity, success, etc. [If this is a surprise to you, let me know and we can explore this at greater length in a future post.]
So, how can we know what God’s will is? Well, is it God’s will for us to grow spiritually? Is it God’s will for us to become more like Christ? Is it God’s will for us to learn how to love unlovable people? Is it God’s will for us to help those who are hurting? Isn’t this how Jesus prayed for us according to God’s will:
. . . keep them safe from the evil one. . . . Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word . . . I pray that they will be one . . .
Does this mean we never pray for anything if we aren’t certain it’s God’s will? No. But we need to remember that, though every prayer is answered, sometimes the answer is ‘yes’ and sometimes it’s ‘no.’ Paul prayed for healing three times, and each time God told him ‘no’ (2 Corinthians 12:8-9). If we don’t know exactly what God’s will is in a situation we don’t presume to declare what will happen. That’s God’s prerogative, not ours.
But we also don’t pray passively, not expecting anything to happen. We can have confidence that God will accomplish his will, that he will act in power, that he will act out of his love and grace and wisdom and perfect timing. We expect him to directly act in the situation; we just don’t presume to tell him how he should do that. We make our requests as best we can with the wisdom he’s given us, and then we do what Moses told the people to do: “Don’t be afraid. Just stand still and watch the Lord rescue you today [Exodus 14:13].”
Why does God sometimes say ‘no?’ Because he’s a wise, loving Father. Sometimes he has to say no because the timing isn’t right yet, like a 10-year old asking for a driver’s license or a child asking for a candy bar when—unbeknownst to them—there’s cake and ice cream waiting at home. Sometimes we’re wrong, like an irresponsible child asking for a puppy or a wasteful teenager asking for a huge sum of money. Sometimes we’re asking for something that can harm us—even if we don’t realize it—like a child asking for a pet alligator or a stick of dynamite.
Some people may be frustrated with these answers and biblical qualifications. ‘Why does God want us to pray at all if we’re only supposed to pray for what he wants anyway?’ But this reveals a faulty understanding of God and prayer. Why are we praying? To convince God to do what we want him to do? That’s not a biblical understanding of prayer, it’s a pagan one. We’re not trying to coerce or cajole God into answering our prayers. Prayer doesn’t bring God’s will down to match ours; it raises up our spiritual eyes until our will conforms to his. As CS Lewis said, “Prayer doesn’t change God; prayer changes me.” If I’m in a boat and I reach out with the boathook and pull, am I pulling the land to me? Or am I pulling myself closer to the shore? This is what prayer does for us.
God wants us to be involved in what he’s doing. He’s made us part of his mission. And our prayers are partly how we share in that. The more we pray, the closer we grow to God. The closer we grow to him, the more we’ll share his concerns, his motives, his desires, the more we’ll pray according to his will—and the more we’ll have absolute, rock-solid assurance that the will of God for which we pray will be accomplished. And that, through this, God will be glorified.
But what about passages that say we shouldn’t give up, but keep on praying? Does this mean we’re supposed to somehow wear God down with our prayers? We’ll look at this next week.
Prayer: Expecting an answer [see above]
How many times have we heard the familiar quote: “Pray without ceasing”? How do you feel when you hear this? A little guilty? After all, you know you don’t pray nearly as much as you probably should. Maybe confused? Even frustrated? I mean, how are we supposed to pray without ceasing anyway? Does this mean we’re somehow supposed to pray 24 hours a day?
I get questions about this every now and then. Some of you have asked about it recently. Actually, when we look at this verse in a clear translation of Scripture, our discussion might seem anticlimactic. We find this instruction in 1 Thessalonians 5:17. Here’s how the verse reads in the New Living Translation:
Never stop praying.
Oh. This gives it a slightly different twist, doesn’t it? This is an example of why I urge people—when they choose a standard reading Bible—to choose one that doesn’t just “literally” translate the individual words, but one that conveys the actual meaning of the phrases and paragraphs (which is how we communicate, but that’s a topic for another post).
“Pray without ceasing” conveys an expectation that the activity is going to be without any breaks, every second of every minute of every day . . . . Some have concluded from this that the Bible routinely asks us to do things that are simply impossible. So they just shrug their shoulders and give up. “Who can do that?” Even if we were to plug some other activity into the phrase—say: “read your Bible without ceasing”—it still suggests the same expectation, this time reading your Bible around the clock. Is this really what the Bible means in 1 Thessalonians 5:17?
What if the apostle Paul had been visiting our church. Now he’s leaving us with some final, encouraging instructions, and he tells us: “Never stop reading your Bible.” How would you understand that? You wouldn’t confuse it with: “Read your Bible 24 hours a day,” would you? The meaning is clear. Don’t stop your practice of reading the Bible. The same would be true if a coach was retiring and he told his team: “Never stop practicing.” He wouldn’t be telling them not to eat or sleep or do their homework, but only practice. Just, ‘don’t stop practicing,’ right? It really makes perfect sense when the meaning is clearly translated.
So, we’re not to stop our practice of praying. Got it. But this isn’t just a warning about what not to do; it’s an encouragement of what we should be doing regularly. It’s like a doctor talking to a recovering patient, telling them to “keep eating healthy foods,” or “keep drinking plenty of fluids,” or “keep getting enough sleep.” Prayer is essential for a healthy Christian life. It should be a regular, ongoing part of our lives.
The Jews at that time, and even some of the Gentiles, were accustomed to praying at certain times of the day. ‘There, I’ve recited my prayer at the set time—I’m all done spending time with God until the next scheduled prayer.’ To them, “never stop praying” may have challenged their perception of spending time with God in prayer.
Many of us today think of prayer like a “SitRep.” SitRep is military jargon for a ‘situation report,’ which is pretty much what it sounds like: a report giving the pertinent details of your situation. Sometimes we approach prayer this way. We tune in at the appropriate time, rattle off all the essential details (using the proper code words), and then sign off until we make our next report tomorrow.
But, as we discussed a couple of weeks ago, prayer is part of the communication process in a relationship with God. If you don’t believe this approach is inadequate for real relationships, you guys try getting by with occasional “SitReps” to your wife for awhile! I’m telling you right now, that is not going to fly! God doesn’t want us to file a daily report or check something off our spiritual checklist. Amen doesn’t mean “over and out.”
We need to regain the idea of communion with God. Have you ever been on a long trip with someone you’re very close to? If you see something interesting, and you want to point it out to them, do you have to reintroduce yourself every time? Formally establish a new conversation? “O Kelley, my wonderful wife, it is so nice to be traveling with you on this trip. I want to thank you for being here with me now. You were here at the beginning of this trip, and you’ll be here at the end of the trip. But now, I’d like to take just a few moments and lift up to you the glorious splendor of the sunse—oops, sorry, it’s gone.” Do you feel the need to pray that way every time you talk with God?
Now, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t regularly invest time in purposeful, intentional, deep prayer. We need to have our “quality time” with God. And I don’t encourage a casual, flippant attitude toward God, as if we could punch him in the arm and say: “Hey buddy, look at that.” But we should feel such an ongoing connection with him that we can spontaneously say, “Wow, Lord, what a gorgeous sunset!” Don’t feel as if each prayer needs to have an opening, three points and a closing. I think “Lord, that is so cool!” may sometimes be the most spiritual thing we can pray.
I need to have regular heart-to-heart conversations with my wife. But every time we talk it doesn’t have to be a super-serious, soul-baring, get-it-all-out-there kind of moment. We also need to laugh together. Spontaneously giggle together over silly things that happen during the day. We need to share the sad times, and the daily frustrations. We should have such a strong connection that we can talk about little, trivial things without feeling that we have to turn it into capital C “Communication.” Actually a big part of real communication is the little things. The more we share the little moments, the more the quality time happens naturally. And the more we spend regular time with God in prayer—the big moments and the little moments—without pressuring ourselves to make every time a “Prayer Session,” the more we’ll begin to really feel as if we’re spending time with someone we know. God will become more real to us, and we’ll come to truly experience our relationship with him.
When should I pray?
Most of us have read books about how real men and women of God get up at 4:00 in the morning and spend three hours in prayer—on their knees—before they do anything else. In some circles, there is some kind of standard that all serious Christians should have their prayer time early in the morning.
Now, there are passages that speak of praying in the morning (Psalm 5:3, 59:16), some speak of praying at night (Psalm 141:2, 22:2, 42:8), some speak of praying both morning and night (Psalm 92:2), some speak of praying morning, noon and night (Psalm 5:14), and some speak of praying all night long (Psalm 77:2)! Are we back to “praying without ceasing”? No, this just shows there’s no wrong time to pray—and no single right time, either.
Actually, if we want to find a biblical principle to follow, it would probably be to give God our best time instead of the leftovers. Some people bounce out of bed in the morning, ready to leap into the day with both feet. If you’re like this, then the morning would be a wonderful time for you to spend with God. But if you’re barely able to drag yourself out of bed, and need a couple of hours before you can communicate in whole sentences, then the morning is probably not the best time for you to try to do much praying. Of course, that doesn’t mean we don’t say anything at all to God until it’s our official “prayer time.” I have friends who aren’t morning people, but they still acknowledge God first thing in the morning. “Today is yours, Lord. Please help me to live it for you.” Short and sweet, and not too painful. Like saying ‘Good morning’ to your spouse when all you want is a cup of coffee.
Be creative with your prayer time. If you like kneeling at your bedside, more power to you. But don’t think this is the only way to pray. There are no scriptural rules about closing your eyes or bowing your head. The Bible actually shows a rich diversity of ways to pray. I love going for a walk and praying. I have some of my best times with God when I’m out walking. Some people use their driving time for prayer. (It’s probably a good idea to not close your eyes while praying if you try this!) Others talk with God while they’re drawing or painting or doing woodwork. Some need to remove all distractions to have a good conversation; others talk better while they’re doing something with their hands. [Maybe some of you could share in the comments your favorite ways to spend time with God in prayer.] God will meet with you any time, any place, so just seek to give him your best.
Next week, we’ll talk more about how we should pray. Should we expect to always receive exactly what we ask God for? Should we just leave it all in God’s hands . . . and not really expect anything to happen? Check back next week as we look for a biblical balance. This week, I want to leave you with some words from a song by Chuck Girard:
Talk to me
Talk to me
I’m waiting in the morning
I wait throughout the day
How sweet it is for me to hear all the things you have to say
How lovely is the music of your heart
Talk to me, my love
Pray without ceasing? [see above]
There’s a proverb that tells us, “Walk with the wise and become wise” (Proverbs 13:20). That makes sense. If we want to learn how to bat better, we’re not going to seek help from someone who doesn’t know anything about baseball, are we? If I want to improve my Spanish, I’m going to get assistance from someone who’s fluent in Spanish. And if I want to grow in my ability to pray, I need to find experienced pray-ers who can teach me and help me sharpen my skills.
One of the ways we learn from those who are more experienced is simply by observing them. Teachers can learn a lot just by carefully listening to good teachers. Writers can sharpen their writing skills by reading the works of notable authors. Scrutinizing performances by the greats can not only be educational for musicians, but it can inspire them to reach for greater musical challenges. Actually, much of what we learn to do, we learn by observing others, and this is true of prayer as well.
Thankfully, we have a real advantage when learning to pray. Not only are there mature believers around us who we can learn from, but we have prayers recorded in the Bible from the great leaders of the past. Who better to teach us about prayer than people like David, Daniel and even Jesus himself?
One of the most helpful tools I’ve found for praying is the acronym ACTS. I’m sure some of you are already familiar with this prayer aid. It’s especially useful—and even comforting—for people who aren’t quite sure how to begin praying and who could use some direction. What’s more, it’s biblical. So, let me introduce you to (or remind you of) this handy little tool and, at the same time, show you some of the wonderful examples of prayer that we have in Scripture.
ACTS gives us helpful memory pegs, sort of an ingredient list for healthy prayer. Here are the elements we should include in our prayers: A – adoration, C – confession, T – thanksgiving, and S – supplication (an old-fashioned word for making requests). We don’t have to pray these “ingredients” in order, but these are all essential components of prayer. Here are some biblical examples of ACTS in action:
My heart is confident in you, O God;
no wonder I can sing your praises with all my heart!
Wake up, lyre and harp!
I will wake the dawn with my song.
I will thank you, LORD, among all the people.
I will sing your praises among the nations.
For your unfailing love is higher than the heavens.
Your faithfulness reaches to the clouds.
Be exalted, O God, above the highest heavens.
May your glory shine over all the earth.
You are worthy, O Lord our God,
to receive glory and honor and power.
For you created all things,
and they exist because you created what you pleased.
Have mercy on me, O God,
because of your unfailing love.
Because of your great compassion,
blot out the stain of my sins.
Wash me clean from guilt.
Purify me from my sin.
For I recognize my rebellion;
it haunts me day and night.
Against you, and you alone, have I sinned;
I have done what is evil in your sight.
But we have sinned and done wrong.
We have rebelled against you
and scorned your commands and regulations.
We have refused to listen to your servants the prophets,
who spoke on your authority to our kings and princes and ancestors
and to all the people of the land.
Lord, you are in the right;
but, as you see, our faces are covered with shame.
I come to your altar, O LORD,
singing a song of thanksgiving
and telling of all your wonders.
You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing.
You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy,
that I might sing praises to you and not be silent.
O LORD my God, I will give you thanks forever!
O Father, Lord of heaven and earth,
thank you for hiding these things
from those who think themselves wise and clever,
and for revealing them to the childlike.
There are two kinds of requests we make in prayer. We make requests for ourselves:
Save me, O God,
for the floodwaters are up to my neck.
Deeper and deeper I sink into the mire;
I can’t find a foothold. . . .
Answer my prayers, O LORD,
for your unfailing love is wonderful.
Take care of me,
for your mercy is so plentiful.
Psalm 69:1-2, 16
Give us today the food we need . . .
And don’t let us yield to temptation,
but rescue us from the evil one.
And we also make requests on behalf of others. This is what is known as intercessory prayer:
I am praying not only for these disciples
but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message.
I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one
—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you.
And may they be in us
so that the world will believe that you sent me.
Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!
I pray that God, the source of hope,
will fill you completely with joy and peace
because you trust in him.
Then you will overflow with confident hope
through the power of the Holy Spirit.
I pray that your love will overflow more and more,
and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding.
A few brief tips
Please don’t feel as if your prayers have to sound elegant, or that you have to use all the right catchphrases. I find that the most effective, meaningful prayers are usually the most simple. When we’re trying to use all the super-spiritual expressions, we’re often more focused on being impressive than simply communicating. Remember, Jesus warned against praying like the hypocrites who want to get all the attention (Matthew 6:5). God just wants to hear our heart. What means more to you from that special someone: a canned, recited sentiment they may not even completely understand; or simple words that reveal the true feelings in their heart?
And don’t feel as if you have to pray super long prayers, either. Jesus said, “When you pray, don’t babble on and on as people of other religions do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again” (Matthew 6:7).
We have incredible examples of prayer in Scripture—which is wonderful—but we also have mature, experienced believers right in our midst. If you want to become skillful in your prayers, then spend time praying with people who know what they’re doing. Those of us in the Rincón area have a perfect opportunity in the new Knowing God through Prayer meeting, Tuesday mornings at 10:00. Praying alongside mature Christians such as Nick, Diane and Charlie is sure to help you grow in your prayer life! And, if you don’t already receive it, I would encourage you to sign up for Nick’s weekly Prayer Corner. Every week, he sends out reflections and insights that will strengthen you in your devotional life. Of course, as I mentioned last week, there’s no one more qualified to help us with our prayer life than God himself. We can always ask him to help us!
And here’s one last tip for the week. Years ago, someone suggested this to me and it has added greater depth to my prayer life. Do you ever sing to God in your personal prayer time? We sing to God in worship with the rest of the church. Why not in our own personal devotions? You may protest that you don’t have a good singing voice—but God gave you the voice you have, and it blesses him when we give everything back to him in praise and worship. And, besides, the Holy Spirit is the one who inspired that line about “making a joyful noise!” Look up all the places in Scripture where we’re instructed and encouraged to sing to God. Surely this can’t be just in the church gathering. If you haven’t done this before, it can feel awkward at first. But, if you give it a chance, it will add a new dimension of intimacy to your time with God. I encourage you to try it!
Why not spend some time now with God in Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication?
Next week, we’ll explore what it means to “pray without ceasing.”
Prayer: Learning from the pros [see above]