August 24, 2009

God vs. the Devil

Sometimes we give the devil too much credit. When something bad happens, we automatically assume that he must have done it, and that somehow he must have slipped under God’s radar to do so. We act as though Satan were not on God’s leash. We speak as though Satan can attack, harm, or discourage us without God’s permission. But it’s just not true. All of Satan’s activity … even the most horrific … is under God’s control, and is worked, by God, for the good of His people and the glory of Christ!

That’s what the book of Job is all about. The man Job suffered like none of us have ever suffered … all at the hands of Satan. And Satan was malicious in all that he did, to be sure. But when you read the book carefully, you find that, even more important and decisive that Satan’s evil intents and actions, was a good and loving God who had merciful plans for His servant Job. God allowed Job suffer. And God was merciful in doing it. Let me give you some reasons why I say this (all italics are mine, meant to help you see God’s role in Job’s suffering)…

·God, not Satan, was the one who began the conversation with Satan that led to the suffering of Job. “The LORD said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job?’” (Job 1.8, 2.3).

·Satan believed that the suffering of Job would, ultimately, be under God’s control. “Put forth Your hand now and touch all that he has; he will surely curse You to your face” (Job 1.11). “Put forth Your hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh; he will curse You to your face” (Job 2.5).

·Job’s servants believed that Job’ suffering was under God’s control. “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants” (Job 1.16).

·Job’s friends, although wrong about the purpose of Job’s affliction, believed it was under God’s control. This is why they proceed to clumsily defend God’s actions in chapters 4-37. Consider, for example, Job 5.18: “For He [God] inflicts pain, and gives relief; He wounds and His hands also heal.”

·Job’s wife, though she didn’t like it, believed Job’s affliction was under God’s control. This is why she told him to “curse God (not the devil) and die” (Job 2.9).

·Job believed his affliction was God’s doing. “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD.” (Job 1.21). “Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” (Job 2.10). And Job got it right (see Job 1.22 and 2.10).

·God Himself demonstrates that Job’s suffering, though carried out by Satanic means, was ultimately under His own control. He was the one who gave permission for the affliction (Job 1.12 and Job 2.6). And He even speaks about Himself as, in some way, bringing about Job’s calamity (Job 2.3).

It’s clear that God was sovereign over Job’s calamity – and even used Satan as His rod of instruction. And even though Satan’s motivations were bad –God’s were good. Job learned how to rely on God like never before … and so have countless others from his story. I hope you and I will be among them.

August 17, 2009

This and That

A few links that some of you may find helpful and/or interesting:

Here's a book, by journalist Warren Cole Smith, that I saw a blurb about last week and hope to read. It's a hard but hopeful insider's look at the church culture that has become so much a part of 'evangelicalism' in America ... and which, often, disappoints us and makes the world say 'Hmmmm'. (HT: Challies)

Iain Murray's books are always instant classics for me. This one is no different. If you enjoy Christian biography, this book will introduce you to some men you probably already know a bit about (Spurgeon, Whitefield, and Newton). But you will also find some hidden gems ... some stories of men and women you will have never heard of.


Anthony Mathenia
has been working his way through the book of James on Wednesdays at Christ Community Church. Listen to him here.

Since I am preaching myself nearly every Sunday, most Sunday evenings (and sometimes through the week) I try to listen to others ... so I can feel like I have been preached to, as well. Lately I have begun listening to a brother named Kenneth Stewart, pastor of Dowanvale Free Church in Glasgow, Scotland. His series on the tabernacle has proven both personally illuminating (I've never taken a great deal of time to understand all the symbolism that God has sunk into the long and detailed architectural plans in Exodus 25-31) ... and soul-edifying. Stewart sees Jesus everywhere. Listen to the series here.

August 10, 2009

"All Things you Ask in Prayer"?

I said in the sermon on Sunday morning that

“faith is not belief that God will do whatever we ask.”

That needs some explaining … especially in light of a few other passages of scripture. I am well aware that Jesus, in Matthew 21.22 seems to teach the very opposite of what I am saying, when He says: “All things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.” Does that sound contradictory to my statement above (that Jesus doesn’t have to do whatever we ask with faith)? It does to me … at least at first. So I need to explain. And, since the sermon I prepared for Sunday was probably already too long J … I want to answer the question here in case anyone (either you, or someone you know) has questions about Matthew 21.22 (or Mark 11.24[i] or John 14.13-14 which say similar things). So here goes…

Does Matthew 21.22 (“All things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive”) mean that Jesus will indeed give us anything we want, so long as we ask for it … and really believe He’ll do it?
It’s not quite that simple, is it? Why? Because we have all asked Jesus for things (seemingly in faith), and not received what we asked for – the salvation of a loved one now deceased; the healing of someone’s cancer; the girl’s hand in marriage, etc. Does that mean that we simply did not have enough faith? That could, sometimes, be the problem. In other words, our failure to see answers to prayer is sometimes because we pray, but don’t really believe (or don’t pray to begin with).

But let’s say we’re sure we did believe; we were trusting Jesus when we asked that our sister’s cancer would be healed … and she died of cancer. Does that mean that Jesus lied to us in Matthew 21.22? No. ‘But doesn’t Jesus say’ you might ask, ‘“All things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.” And isn’t my sister’s healing included in “all things”’? Well, we must remember that, in other places in the Scriptures, Jesus also gives other stipulations that would seem to govern and/or define the “all things.” For instance, “all things” is defined, in 1 John 5.14-15 to such things as are “according to His will.” In other words, it may well be possible that we trust Jesus completely to heal our sister … but, for wise reasons (that aren’t always clear to us), such a healing would not be “according to His will.”

Another qualifier to Matthew 21.22’s “all things” can be found in James 4.3: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.” So what if I believe with all my heart that God is going to heal my sister of cancer … but the reason I want her to be healed is not to glorify God, but because of some personal desire – maybe I like my happy, simple life and don’t want to have to worry with grief, and funerals, and wills, and so on. Now, all of the sudden, my prayer request (even if I really believe God is going to answer it) has fallen outside the pale of the “all things” that God is willing to grant. And aren’t our prayer requests so often tinged with personal wishes and wants, and not always with an eye toward the good of others and the glory of God in the world? Sometimes God, in His kindness, still grants such requests. And thank God He does … because so many of our requests are tinted (even if only slightly) with wrong motives. But, according to James 4.3, He doesn’t have to answer in such a case.

This does not mean, by the way, that God leaves our sister in pain simply to get us back for praying selfishly! Even if He does not answer our selfish prayer … He still promises to work all things for her good if she’s a believer.

1 Peter 3.7 presents another qualification regarding the all things … namely that a husband mistreating his wife may “hinder” his prayers. Again, this would govern the “all things” of Matthew 21.22.

I think that is enough to get a flavor. Jesus does indeed mean what He says in Matthew 21.22 (and Mark 11.24 and John 14.13-14). He intends to, loves to, and is not sneaky about answering our prayers! But it’s not a blank check. So if you feel you have earnestly prayed in faith, and God has not answered … don’t think that Jesus has misled you with promises like Matthew 21.22. Just realize that God doesn’t always answer when we think He will; that there are certain things that can hinder our prayers (James 4.3 and 1 Peter 3.7); and, especially, that God sometimes has better plans in store for us than we can ask or imagine. So sometimes He does not give us “all things” we have asked (even when we ask in faith) because something else – indeed, something better – is more in accord with His will (1 John 5.14).

[i] John Piper tackles this same question – probably a lot more helpfully than I do – in a sermon on Mark 11.24. It is partially from him that I get the idea of other passages of scripture governing Matthew 21.22, Mark 11.24, and John 14.13.

New Sermon Series

August 3, 2009

Prayer List

In his very helpful little booklet, Words to Winners of Souls, Horatius Bonar put down a list of the specific sins that ministers, in particular, are tempted to (and often do) commit. In the midst of that beneficial list, Bonar smites himself for having not had a prayer list, detailing the names and spiritual conditions of each member of his flock. And he lists this as a peculiar sin for men in the ministry – not to have a plan for knowing the status of the sheep, and being able to regularly pray for them, by name, and with a well-informed heart as to the state of their souls. And Bonar was writing long before the days of Microsoft Excel! ‘So what excuse do I have’ I said to myself, ‘if I do not have a running (and regularly updated) list of each person who makes up the PRBC family, and at least one or two specific prayer needs jotted down beside each name?’

That was four years ago. And, by God’s grace, I have had, ever since, a handy-dandy spreadsheet saved in my computer to help me pray more specifically for each person in our congregation. Here’s what is on it:

A. In the left hand column is a list of names.

B. In the next column, I enter any good spiritual signs or reasons to thank God for what He is doing in that person’s life (‘good conversation about Luke 8 two weeks ago’ or ‘shared the gospel with her co-worker last week’, and so on).

C. In the third column I type in specific, personal, spiritual prayer requests (‘struggling with discouragement’ or ‘asking questions about baptism’, etc.).

D. And, in the last column I keep a tab on other kinds of prayer requests for the person in question (‘back surgery on the 16th’ … ‘job search’ … mother’s salvation’, etc.).

Each week, I consider it part of my pastoral duty to pray specifically for every person on that list (i.e. every member, regular attendee, child, and frequent visitor to our church).

Why am I telling you all of this? Not to brag on my prayer life. I am actually not that good at it. Rather, I share with you my routine (learned from Bonar) because I think it might be beneficial to you … on a couple of fronts.

First, I do have a list. So, if you're a PRBCer, and have something specific you’d like me to be praying about each week, ask me to – and remind me to put it on ‘the list.’ If not a PRBCer, I'll still pray for you!

But second, I mention my list to you because I believe you might just want to create a list of your own. What if you created a list (with all four of the afore-mentioned columns) … and filled it in with the names of your co-workers, or class-mates, or softball team members? What if each Sunday School teacher had a list like this, comprised of his or her students’ names? Ministry team leaders could do the same. And the ideas could go on and on. You may not have a list as long as the whole congregation (or the time the church affords me to devote to it). But what if you started with a list of just 10-15 people? What might God do through your prayers?

So … have you had this nagging sense that you ought to be a little more disciplined in your prayer life? I am neither an expert nor a good example. But a preacher from a couple of centuries ago has taught me at least this one valuable, practical hint. Try it out … and see what God does.