I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry.
Psalm 40:1 (NIV)

Hope

There are many words translated “hope” in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, but all the words used in phrases like “put your hope in the Lord” or “our hope is in the Lord” mean more than the wish-washy way the word hope is used in contemporary English. In modern usage, the word “hope” means something like “I wish” or “it would be nice if.” For example, when we say “I hope it doesn’t snow tomorrow” we mean “it sure would be nice if it doesn’t snow tomorrow.”

But that’s not what the Bible means when it uses the word hope. When scripture talks about hope, it’s not talking about some folly or wish. In the Bible, the word “”hope ”means a deep-seated confidence. The words that are translated as “hope” are also translated as confident, trust and rely upon.

So when we talk about having hope in the Lord, it’s not the kind of hope of wishful thinking. No, we’re saying “I have a confident expectation. I am fully persuaded of what I put my hope in. I have full trust in the Lord.”

Perhaps you’ve heard that explanation before. I know I had. I learned something interesting about one of the words translated “hope” in the Old Testament, however, that brought the definitions to life. The word we’re looking at is tikva, and it literally means “cords,” with the implication being “bound with cords.” In other words, we are bound to that which we put our hope in.

Let’s look at Scripture. We’re going to start (and end) in Psalm 40. In my last blog, I wrote about listening for the Lord each morning and some of the things He wants to say to us. Today, we’re turning the tables a bit and looking at what happens when God listens for us.

I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry.
Psalm 40:1 (NIV)

Those fourteen words fill me with such excitement. First, the words translated “waited patiently” is actually the same Hebrew word repeated twice. The word is qawa (pronounced kaw-vaw, accenting the second syllable). It is the root word from which tikva – hope – is derived. It literally means “to bind together (perhaps by twisting)”.

The first half of the verse could also be translated “I bound myself to the Lord – I put my hope in Him.” David then went on to write that two things happened when he trusted God.

The first thing is that the Lord turned to him. When we trust in God, He moves closer toward us. Another translation says He “inclined to me”. You could say He stretched out toward me. Friends, there are many things I don’t understand about Scripture, but I am increasingly coming to understand that when we actively believe and trust God, it activates something in the spiritual realm. It moves God closer to us so to speak.

The second thing that happened is that the Lord heard David’s cry. The Lord is always listening for our cry. He always hears it. God is always listening – and when we put our trust in Him, He turns and responds.

In verse 2 David explains how God responded:

He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.
Psalm 40:2 (NIV)

You know, when we forget to listen to God, we make a mess of things. We fall into the slimy pits that Satan puts in front of us. We fall into the muck and mire and get sucked in by our own self confidence and pride. We make a mess of things.

But when we cry out to the Lord, He lifts us up. He sets our feet on a rock. He doesn’t set me on the edge of the pit where the mud is still a bit slippery. He sets my feet on a rock and He gives us a firm place to stand. As I was thinking about this, the picture of a small child learning to walk came to mind. Their parent helps them to stand and they wobble a bit back and forth. The parent doesn’t let go until the little one has firmly planted his feet and stabilized himself a bit. Then, the parent lets go, but keeps his arms loosely around the child ready to catch the child when he falls. God is like that. He makes sure our feet are firmly planted – the word can also be translated “established” – before he gives us a bit of freedom. But He is always there to catch us when we cry out to Him.

Rocks

“He set my feet on a rock.” A rock is solid. It is immovable. And throughout Scripture, God is described as a rock.

30 God’s way is perfect. All the LORD’s promises prove true. He is a shield for all who look to him for protection.
31 For who is God except the LORD? Who but our God is a solid rock?
Psalm 18:30-31 (NLT)

6 He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold; I will not be shaken.
7 My salvation and glory depend on God, my strong rock. My refuge is in God.
8 Trust in Him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts before Him. God is our refuge.
Psalm 62:5-8 (HCSB)

God is our solid rock. When we put our hope in him, we are secure.

How secure are we? Remember, the word hope comes from a word that means bound by cords. When we put our hope in Jesus, we are bound to him. Imagine the strongest cords you can and then imagine them wrapping around you and the Lord. And every time you choose faith – every time you choose to put your hope in God – those cords are wrapped more securely. It’s like they encircle us again and again each time we choose to trust God, with each layer of cord making us more and more secure.

Now I don’t want to mislead you. It only takes one cord to make us secure – because it’s God who is holding us. He is the one wrapping us in His arms. When we turn to Him, He is the one who turns toward us and hears our cry. He’s the one who picks us up out of the muck and mire. He’s the one who says “I gotcha.” God’s protection doesn’t depend on how strong our faith is. It depends on how good and how mighty God is. (And He is those things to the nth degree.)

But, I find that the more I trust God, the more I sense the cords that hold me secure.

God is the rock to which we’re bound. Hallelujah! When David thought about this, He wrote songs of praise.

The LORD lives! Praise be to my Rock! Exalted be God, the Rock, my Savior!
2 Samuel 22:47 (NIV)

Spider Webs

As I was studying hope, I was surprised to find myself in Job. Many people consider Job to be a pretty depressing book, so I was surprised to learn so much about hope from it’s pages.

Scripture describes Job as a man who was blameless and upright. A man who loved God. He was also a very rich man, described as the greatest man in all the east…Until Satan took everything from him. He lost his house, his children, his animals, his livelihood, and eventually his health. He was left to sit at the gate and beg while dogs licked the sores from his body. Even his wife encouraged him to curse God and die.

After he had lost everything – after he was no longer the richest man – no longer the man that everyone looked up to and even envied – no longer a man who could provide for his family…After he had lost his children and his money and had no ability to care for himself..After his wife told him to give up on God, to curse God and die…After all that, Job made an astounding declaration of faith.

25 I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth.
26 And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God;
27 I myself will see him with my own eyes – I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!
Job 19:25-27 (NIV)

Job was securely bound to God. His hope was secure. He was fully confident in God. He knew that when his body was destroyed, he would still see God. Job knew that nothing was going to separate him from his rock.

Job knew that a hope that was secure was one that was in God. He also knew that a hope that was in anything else was not one you could put your trust in. Not something you could rely on. Listen to what he wrote about those who forget God:

13 This is the destiny of all who forget God; the hope of the [person without God] will perish.
14 His source of confidence is fragile; what he trusts in is a spider’s web.
15 He leans on his web, but it doesn’t stand firm. He grabs it, but it does not hold up.
Job 8:13-15 (HCSB)

The hope of those who forget God will perish, Job wrote. Their hope will fail. If their trust is in anything other than God, their trust – their confidence – is fragile. It is like a spider’s web. When they lean on the web, it doesn’t hold them up. When things in life come at them and they try to grab onto their hope, it falls apart in their hands.

Now remember a time when you’ve walked into a spider web (or perhaps a cob web if the spider web has too much of an eeoow factor). If you’re anything like me, you begin to scream and thrash around, trying desperately to find the web (and the spider that lives in it) and get it off of you. But there’s nothing to grasp. It’s there, but it’s not there. It doesn’t hold up.

Friends, if our faith is in our strength, our youth, our wisdom, our finances, our friends, our spouse – anything other than Jesus Christ, the holy Son of God – our hope will perish. Perhaps I should write “when” our faith is in any of those things, our hope perishes – because I find it easy to slip into trusting those things sometimes. When our faith is in any of those things, we will fail. We will reach for our faith and it will disintegrate in our hands. We will try to lean on it and we’ll fall over. It is like a spider’s web.

But if we trust in Christ – when we trust in Christ – we know that the object of our faith is sure and true and strong. We have a firm foundation. We know that it will never fail us.

Hope and Joy

Now let’s go back to Psalm 40 and look at what happens when we put our hope in God and He turns and hears our cry.

1 I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry.
2 He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.
3 He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD.
4 Blessed is the man who makes the LORD his trust, who does not look to the proud, to those who turn aside to false gods.
Psalm 40:1-4 (NIV)

David, a man that God described as a man after God’s own heart, wrote that when he waited patiently for God, God turned and heard his cry. Then God reached down a lifted him out of the slimy pit he had found himself. He lifted him and put his feet on a rock. God gave David a firm place to stand. But God didn’t just leave him there to stand. He put a new song in David’s mouth – in other words, he filled David with joy and song. And the result is that others will see and put their trust in God.

David confirms that the man or woman who puts their trust in the Lord is blessed.

So friends, I want to encourage you to put your hope in that which is firm, that which is the solid rock. Put your hope in the Lord. Let’s not trust in our own efforts because they’re like the spider web. Jesus is the rock.

Is there an area in your life where you need to put your hope in God? Is there an area in which you’ve fallen into the pit of self-reliance or trusting in anything other than God? Spend a few minutes with God right now and ask Him to forgive you for trusting in that spider web and then place your situation in His hands. Put your hope in Him. He’s the rock to which you want to be bound.

Footnote: Word definitions and discussions are based on Strong’s Talking Greek and Hebrew Dictionary.

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Recently God reminded me of a very important principle in Scripture. He reminded me as I was reading one morning in Isaiah:

God awakens my ear in the morning to listen.
Isaiah 50:4

Every morning when God awakens us, He does so for one purpose – to listen to His voice. His desire is that we begin each day listening for His voice.

The theme is carried over in the New Testament. In the book of Revelation, for example, Jesus urges over and over again, “let everyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit says.”

Yet I find that it’s often so much easier to wake up in the morning and listen, instead of to the Lord, to the radio or the television or the first person we see. Often, we allow them to set the tone for our day.

Imagine, however, if we asked God to help us listen to His voice every morning. What kinds of things would He say to us?

I’m writing to Christians today – people who have asked God to forgive them of their sins and take control of their lives. If you haven’t done that, you can do so at any time. Check out this blog to learn more.

If you are a Christian, here are some of the things God would say to you each morning:

God would say: “You’re forgiven.”

He forgives all my sins and heals all my diseases.
Psalm 103:3 (NLT)

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins.
Colossians 2:13 (NIV)

I am writing to you who are God’s children because your sins have been forgiven through Jesus.
1 John 2:12 (NLT)

What does that simple phrase “You’re forgiven” mean? It means that the separation that existed between you and God has been put back together. Scripture describes us as being at war with God because of our sin, but we have been reconciled – brought back together.

It means that we can live in the freedom of knowing that we are accepted by God without reservation. There’s nothing you or I have done that God isn’t ready to forgive. Scripture says that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

And it means we will one day spend eternity in heaven. Being forgiven brings us freedom in this life and eternity with God in the next life. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Not only would God say “You’re forgiven”, He’d also say: “You are loved.”

But the love of the LORD remains forever with those who fear him. His salvation extends to the children’s children
Psalm 103:17 (NLT)

Long ago the LORD said to Israel: “I have loved you, my people, with an everlasting love. With unfailing love I have drawn you to myself.
Jeremiah 31:3 (NLT)

I have loved you even as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love.
John 15:9 (NLT)

Knowing we are loved gives us courage to live the life that God has prepared for us. I don’t know about you, but it makes me smile every time I think about it. You are special to God. You are loved. Deeply loved.

God would say: “I gotcha! Don’t be afraid. I’ve got your back. Whatever comes your way – I’m with you.”

27My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one can snatch them away from me, 29for my Father has given them to me, and he is more powerful than anyone else. No one can snatch them from the Father’s hand.
John 10:27-29 (NLT)

God is our protection. He has our back! No one can snatch us from His hand. But there’s another element to God having our back. Not only is it His protection, it’s also His provision.

And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:19 (NIV)

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 (NLT)

Friends, for those of us who have trusted Christ as our Savior, when we listen to God’s voice in the morning, we face the day knowing that we are loved, that we are forgiven, that there’s nothing that will come up during the day that God we have to face alone.

God’s reminder that He awakens me to listen was one I needed to hear. It came after a very long time of being very busy. Yes, I kept reading my Bible during that time. Yes, I prayed regularly. But at some point, I wasn’t lingering with God. You know, Phil and I have our best conversations when we’re not rushing from one thing to another. The same is true with God. I am being more purposeful about lingering over my Bible reading and prayers. And every morning, I am reminding myself that I am forgiven, I am loved and God’s got my back. I gotta tell you – it’s  a great way to start each day!

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About six months ago, the church Phil and I had attended for the past eight years closed when the founding pastor retired from ministry. (Sigh.) It’s hard having your family disbanded. We miss meeting together and celebrating the Lord with the friends we shared that privilege with each week.

The process of finding a new church home has given us an opportunity to see what God is doing in our community. But finding a new church is hard work. We feel like wanderers and in all honesty, as much as we love church, the temptation to sleep in on Sunday mornings and enjoy some leisure is pretty strong.

We resist most Sundays because we are committed to the local church. We’re committed to it because we believe it is God’s desire for each believer to be a part of a local fellowship. We grieve deeply at so many Christians who consider attending church optional. Writing about that will be the bulk of this blog, but first, I just want to share some random thoughts from visiting different churches over the past six months.

Random Thoughts About

  • There are many pockets of people who love the Lord. Each provides their unique expression of His love.
  • It’s so easy to be critical of those bodies we visit – after all, we’re evaluating each of them as a potential church home. Of course, none of them are the one we loved and can no longer attend. They don’t sing the songs we’re most familiar with. The people aren’t as loving as the ones from our church (or so it seems – I don’t really believe they are – I just don’t know them and they don’t know me so it doesn’t seem as if they are as loving as my friends). The preaching is a different style. You see, it’s so much easier to see what annoys us than to set our preferences aside and look for the good things God is doing.
    I know we’re not unique in this experience. We meet for Bible study with others searching for a new home and none of us has found a home yet. It seems there is something wrong with each church we visit. Of course there is. There’s something with every church. There were things wrong with our previous church. (“Get over it – quit looking for the perfect church” my brain whispers to my heart.)
  • The Holy Spirit regularly reminds me that we miss a tremendous opportunity if we’re not blessing the churches we visit and we do Christ a terrible disservice when we complain about them.
  • Each church we visited has at least three needs: More passion for the Lord, a stronger sense of purpose or vision, and committed believers who align themselves with that purpose or vision. The first two elements – passion for the Lord and a vision for the Church – were evident in some of the leaders, but rarely seen in the congregation.

I don’t write these things as criticism from the outside looking in. I count myself among those who need more passion for the Lord. God has been speaking to Phil and me about passion lately so I’ll be blogging about that in the future.

I grieve for the lack of vision I see in many churches, and for the lack of committed believers attending those churches.

Where there is no vision, the people perish.
Proverbs 29:18a (KJV)

And where there is no vision (or revelation) of her purpose, the Church perishes. She becomes filled with people who see no purpose and become complacent in their commitment…or simply leave altogether.

The Church in America is in desperate need of revival, and none of the churches we visited is currently experiencing it. Spotty attendance by members of the congregation is a symptom of our lack of passion. We visited a number of churches whose attendance varied as much as 50% from week to week because so many people who were regular participants in the congregation prioritized other things over church. Yes, we may all do that occasionally. But for many it is not the occasional or rare re-prioritization – it seems to be a weekly decision of whether or not to join fellow believers in worship and equipping. And for still others, it has become a decision to not attend regularly simply because…well, the best I can understand is that the Church isn’t doing or being what they want it to do or be.

I understand the Church not doing or being what you want it to be. I’ve been there. As we look for a new church home, I’m there almost every Sunday. What I don’t understand is allowing that situation to override God’s Word to you:

24And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, 25not staying away from our ?worship? meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near.
Hebrews 10:24-25 (HCSB)

Christianity Today published an article online in August titled “The Promise of Church: Reasons we must go—and keep going.” The author, Jen Pollock, brings correction in the midst of hope:

No, we don’t go to church (and keep going) because it’s easy. We go because it’s necessary…When we declared our allegiance to Jesus Christ, like it or not, we became a part of his family, binding ourselves to the domestic responsibilities to love and to serve our spiritual fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters. The Apostle Paul said church is like marriage, and in my estimation, that means there’s a lot of ordinariness to it (and not too few fights). And yet, as in marriage, there is great promise of transformation in church. When we dare the difficulty of abiding the promise to love unlovable people in the everyday, we are being formed into the image of Christ.
Christianity Today; “The Promise of Church: Reasons we must go—and keep going” by Jen Pollock Michel

No, we don’t go to church and keep going because it’s easy…or because it’s fun…or because we like the worship or the preaching or the people or….we go because it’s where we meet with other believers and are challenged to live out our faith – among one another and out in the world.

As we’ve been visiting churches, God has repeatedly reminded me of a favorite verse of mine:

Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.
Jonah 2:8 (NIV)

Church – that is, the gathering for worship and teaching in the format and style that most appeals to me – church, the way I want church to be – can easily become an idol that causes me to miss the grace God has for me to embrace a church with a different style and personality from what I’m accustomed. As I write this, it sounds like I am an old stick-in-the-mud church member who isn’t open to new patterns of worship and new formats. I don’t think of myself that way. I don’t want to be that person.

No, we don’t go to church because it’s easy or fun. What a blessing when it is! Easy and fun and spiritually challenging and encouraging and worshipful should be the norm. But when it’s not, we shouldn’t quit going. Nor should we immediately begin looking for a new body to align ourselves with.

For it to be acceptable for a Believer not to attend church is a thoroughly modern day perspective. For hundreds and hundreds of years after Christ, one was not considered a Christian – a Christ-follower – unless they were participating in a local fellowship of believers. Christ didn’t intend for His children to be lone rangers. We need one another. And the Church needs us. And the world needs to see us attending church.

Friends, the Body of Christ needs you to demonstrate your faith, in part, by taking the place God has set aside for you in a local church – to be a believer committed to be a part of a specific expression of the family of God. Without you, there’s a missing piece of the puzzle. There’s a body with a missing arm or leg or hand or foot. The Body of Christ needs your time and your talent, your gifts and your finances. It needs your prayers and your encouragement. It needs your faith to be added to the faith of others, and other believers need your unique contribution to fellowship. The Body of Christ needs you.

And you need the Body of Christ. You need the regular encouragement that comes from gathering with other believers. You need the regular teaching from other believers. You need the discipline that being committed to a local body brings. You need the opportunities to serve that are available through your local church. You need practice in submission, which is a natural consequence of committing to a church through good times and bad.

We don’t love church because she is always lovely. We don’t attend church because she meets our immediate needs. We go in the promise Scripture holds out, that the goodness of God’s people gathered and unified is “as precious as the anointing oil that was poured over Aaron’s head…as refreshing as the dew from Mount Hermon that falls on the mountains of Zion. And there the Lord has pronounced his blessing, even life everlasting” (Psalm 133:2-3).
Christianity Today; “The Promise of Church: Reasons we must go—and keep going” by Jen Pollock Michel

Last but not least, the world needs you to join yourself to a local fellowship of believers. If you are a believer who is not regularly attending church, I can guarantee that there is at least one person (probably more) in your sphere of influence who is thinking and perhaps saying “Mary is a Christian and she doesn’t go to church. If she doesn’t go to church, why should I?” And perhaps there is the non-believer who is thinking “Even David quit going to church. He knows it’s just full of hypocrites. I don’t want to have any part of that.” Our actions impact those around us. Do you want your church attendance to encourage those around you to fellowship with other believers or to discourage it?

Friends, let me encourage you to be a part of the blessing described in Psalm 133 and a positive influence on those around you. Make a commitment to a local fellowship today. You, the Church and the world need you to take your place in the Body of Christ.

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15It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. 16The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. 18But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice,
Philippians 1:15-18 (NIV)

When was the last time you rejoiced because someone was doing something just because it would make your life harder? That’s what Paul is doing. He isn’t living in Pollyanna. He sees that people are preaching the Gospel not for the sake of Christ, but for the sake of causing trouble for Paul. Yet Paul says – “Who cares? The important thing is that Christ is preached!”

I sure don’t have that perspective yet.

The phrase “stirring up trouble for me” is the first thing that catches my eye, but there’s a phrase that comes before it that is also a bit shocking to me. Paul says people are preaching “out of selfish ambition.” OK, maybe I can get over that someone is trying to cause trouble for me…but quite honestly, I can easily see my “righteous indignation” rear its ugly head at people preaching out of selfish ambition: “They don’t love the Lord. They only want to draw attention to themselves.”

Paul says “What does it matter? The important thing is that Christ is preached.”

But it does matter (I say) – the pulpit is a sacred place. To stand before people and proclaim the Word of the Lord is a privilege, an honor and a holy and humbling calling.

Yes, friends, it is. And yet some will preach Christ out of selfish ambition instead of out of a love for God and a reverence for Him. And Paul says “I rejoice. Because Christ is preached.”

Paul says “Don’t lose sight of the important thing. The important is that Christ is preached.”

There is so much inside me that wants to argue with that statement. In the end, won’t the person who is preaching out of selfish ambition cause more harm to the Gospel than good? God whispers in my ear “leave the end to me. You take care of your own heart.”

I don’t want to take care of my own heart, I want to condemn that person who is preaching with ulterior motives. And God reminds me that such an attitude reveals that my heart lacks the full expression of His love. Lacks it by a long shot.

It’s always easier to be “righteously angry” than pursue love. I am not saying that there is a time and place for righteous anger – Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple. But look at the whole of His ministry and you will find more love for the lost than I have and you won’t find Him condemning anyone who is preaching the Gospel.

He reserved his righteous anger for those who made it more difficult to get into heaven or who were preaching a different gospel. Paul is talking about those who are preaching the Gospel of Christ simply from wrong motives. Right message, wrong motives.

Lord, help me to have proper discernment, but mostly…help me take care of my own heart. Help me to rejoice when the Gospel is preached. Period. No caveats.

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12I want you brothers and sisters to know that what has happened to me has helped to spread the Good News. 13All the palace guards and everyone else knows that I am in prison because I am a believer in Christ. 14Because I am in prison, most of the believers have become more bold in Christ and are not afraid to speak the word of God.
Philippians 1:12-14 (NCV)

It is often challenging to find God in difficult circumstances. There are some Christians who believe that hardships and suffering are never of the Lord. They believe that the hardship is always sent by satan or the suffering would be overcome if we had enough faith. I reject those teachings, not because of my own experiences, but because of passages like this one.

Paul was in prison because he preached the gospel. That counts as a hardship to me. Paul had a thorn in the flesh. That counts as suffering to me. Jesus’ response to Paul’s prayers were “No, I won’t remove the thorn. My grace is sufficient for you to live with it.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

In the midst of hardship, Paul was able to not only find God, but to find God’s purposes – to see how He was using Paul’s circumstances. Paul saw that God was using his circumstances in two ways – to bring others to Christ, and to encourage believers to be more bold in their walk with the Lord. And in that, Paul finds the joy of the Lord. Not joy in his circumstances, but joy in the Lord in the midst of his circumstances. And the joy of what God is doing overwhelming exceeds the difficulties of his circumstances.

Paul wanted the Philippians to understand that – to grab hold that truth. He didn’t want the Philippians to be praying prayers of discouragement and defeat (“Oh Lord, we pray for our brother Paul and ask you to encourage him as he labors in the prison. Lord, he’s been there so long…”). No, he wants them to pray bold prayers of victory and thanksgiving. (“Lord we praise you and thank you that you are using Paul’s circumstances to bring jailers to the love of Jesus. Thank you for the boldness of the believers who see Paul’s witness. Lord, may their impact spread beyond the prison to all of Rome.”)

Imagine the impact the two different kinds of prayers have on the pray-ers? One leaves them defeated. The other leaves them trusting and walking in the anticipation of see God’s hand at work in their lives.

I fell into a trap awhile back in which I realized that I was praying the discouraged and defeated prayers of the Philippians. Here’s the notes I made in my prayer Journal:

Every day I pray for wisdom to balance my many competing priorities.

This morning, I realized that I make that prayer in an attitude of anxiety.

Anxiety does not equal faith.

The Lord honors faith.

The Lord is worthy of my faith

I’m changing the words I use and the attitude with which I pray them.

God will provide.

God will enable.

God will guide.

God will rescue.

But if He doesn’t, He is still God. (And what appears to me as not rescuing is simply rescuing a different way from what I am expecting. After all, that’s what the gospel is all about. The Jews expected a conquering Messiah. Jesus came as a suffering servant who died for my sins.)

So today, I take a deep breath, put a smile on my face (a real one, not a plastic one) and I thank God for his direction throughout my day.

Because He has solutions to all of it.

All of it.

Friends, how we pray makes a world of differences in how we live our lives. Paul wanted the Philippians to pray for him with boldness. He wanted them to see the victory that perhaps they weren’t seeing. He didn’t want them to see poor Paul stuck in prison. He wanted them to see God moving in the lives of Paul and those around him and producing miraculous results in the salvation of the jailers and the boldness of other Christians.

Lord, help me see You at work, not my earthly circumstances. Especially when things don’t seem to be going right. And prick my spirit when I forget to be thankful for all those circumstances.

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Zoey Grace, moments after her birth.

Zoey Grace, moments after her birth.

At 6:24 on 4/26 – 6:24 in the morning on April 26 – a lullaby rang through the halls of St. David’s Medical center.

That lullaby was an announcement to the world of the birth of Zoey Grace Martinez.

This was Zoey’s birth day – the day of her birth.

There was rejoicing in the hospital when we heard the lullaby because we knew what it meant. Zoey had breathed her first breath of life outside her mother’s womb.

There is Rejoicing in Heaven

I was reminded that Scripture says that there is rejoicing in heaven when one sinner turns to the Lord (Luke 15:7). Rejoicing over my birth! Rejoicing over your birth! Wow!

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

What a miracle that first breath is. In the womb, a baby’s lungs are filled with amniotic fluid. Near the end of pregnancy, the baby actually breathes the amniotic fluid in and out as they take practice breaths. Were they to do that outside the womb, they would drown. But inside the womb, somehow it prepares them for breathing air soon.

Then, suddenly, the baby enters the world and instantly they can breathe air. What an amazing and miraculous thing! “We are fearfully and wonderfully made,” Scripture says (Psalm 139:14). The New Living Translation puts it this way:

13You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and
knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!
Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.
15You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion,
as I was woven together in the dark of the womb.
16You saw me before I was born.
Every day of my life was recorded in your book.
Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed.
Psalm 139:13-16 (NLT)

As you read the passage, do you feel the loving care of the Creator as you were created? The angels rejoice when we are born again…but it was the Lord who carefully knits us together before we were born.

Profoundly Impacted

I was blessed to be in the hospital room while Zoey’s mom was in labor and in the halls of the hospital, right outside the nursery window waiting as Zoey was born. And I was profoundly impacted. God revealed His love for me in a way that was fresh revelation for me. And I was blown away by it. I want to share that revelation with you. I hope you are changed by it as I’ve been

He Loved Us First

About eighteen hours prior to her birth, the long labor process began. I was one of about a dozen people at the hospital, watching, encouraging, praying and rejoicing.

I watched as Zoey’s mom would have painful contractions and Zoey’s dad would come over and rub her back to help her through the pain. The contractions would come more frequently and then less frequently. She eventually got pain medication and then the day just went on and on…and on and on.

I couldn’t help but see the relationship between our physical birth and our spiritual birth. Just as there are labor pains that bring physical birth there are spiritual labor pains that bring spiritual birth.

When I think back to my own coming to the Lord, I remember the ebb and flow of the process. There would be a spark of interest, then there would be a kicking against the truth. And there would be a drawing near to God and then a pushing away…A drawing near and a pushing away. All the while Phil was there trying to coax me along, helping me over the trouble spots. It took quite a while for me to be born again. For a long time, I just wasn’t ready to be born. But the Lord kept calling me. I’m so thankful that God is persistent.

Zoey wasn’t ready to be born for a long time either. Her poor mama was in labor for eighteen hours. During that time, what really impressed me was how very much her parents loved her. What they were willing to go through just to bring her into this world is a testament to the love they have for her – even before she was born.

Scripture says that “While we were still sinners Christ loved us.” “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8, NIV) That’s how God showed His love for us. He loved me first, and He loved me fully and with His life. He loved you first – fully and with His life.

Again, the spiritual implications have just blown me away. Seeing what these earthly parents were willing to go through…seeing their love in action – love that is so imperfect compared to the love of God, love that is so shallow compared to the love of God – seeing that gave me a glimpse of how very much God loves His children.

Extravagant Love – How Can I Ever Be Afraid of the Future?

He not only forms each of us in our mother’s womb, miraculously creates us so that we can breathe air the instant we leave the womb – He not only created us for our first birth, He then bought us back after we had sold ourselves into slavery. He paid the price so that we could be born a second time – free from the condemnation and ultimate consequence of our sins. Christ’s suffering on the cross was another sort of birth pains, another sort of labor pains. He hung on the cross while God heaped the sins of the world upon Him…so that I could be set free from those sins…so that I could live not just 70 or 80 or 90 years here on earth, but for eternity.

That’s love in action.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only son that whoever believes in Him, whoever hopes and trusts in Him, should not perish but would have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) 

“But God demonstrated His love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

Well, there’s one other thing that I experienced that day that is so over the top it has led me to ask – it has held me in the place of asking – with the Apostle Paul, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31) In other words – “Since God loves us so incredibly, how can I ever be afraid of the future?

“This One’s Ours”

I’ve never been a baby person. Phil and I are childless by choice. Shortly after Zoey was born I sent pictures to Phil and he said “Sandy, All babies look alike.” And I said, “I know…but this one’s different.” The truth is that I was experiencing so much love for Zoey and I couldn’t figure out why. I just knew that “this one’s different.” Not different in terms of her outward beauty – she’s a baby. Yes, she’s an adorable baby, but objectively, she’s just a baby like any other baby. But there was nothing objective about Zoey. Somehow she was different. It took a while for me to verbalize it, but when Phil said “All babies look alike” I knew what it was. This baby – baby Zoey – is different and the way she’s different is that she is ours.

“This one is ours.” That’s the phrase that kept going through my mind. “This one is ours.” It is impossible to put into words the full implication of that phrase, but it embodies a fierce love and protectiveness and so much more. “This one is ours.”

Now Zoey is not mine in any sense of the word. I’m the great aunt that lives a couple thousand miles away. (Or put more specifically, a thousand dollars away, because that’s about what it costs to visit her (oh – and her mom and dad and other family members.) By the time she’s 16, I’ll be lucky if I see her a dozen times. And given my lousy track record for sending packages, she’ll be lucky to get a dozen packages from me.

Still, I couldn’t get the phrase out of my mind… “This one is ours.”

And God continued to impress upon me His great, great love for us. That He looks down…or over…Scripture says He’s with us all the time, so it’s not really a looking down. But God looks at us and says “this one is mine.” “This one is mine.” “I created that one,” He says, “and I went to great lengths to buy her back.” “She’s mine.”

And I’m blown away.

How much does that God  love me, and how much would a God like that protect me, lead me and care for me? A God who has already done what he’s done, gone through what He’s gone through for my birth – how far would He go to help me? And knowing that He feels toward me much the same way I feel toward Zoey, only to a significantly greater degree than I feel toward Zoey – He says “This one’s mine” – knowing that, how can I ever be afraid? How can I ever not trust Him?

Leaving Me is Not in His DNA – He Can’t Do It

Zoey, about one day old

Zoey, about one day old

Scripture says He will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). I don’t think He can, even if he wanted to. He doesn’t want to, but I don’t think he could leave us or forsake us even if He wanted to. Is there anything God can’t do? That’s a question theologians can argue, but I don’t think He can leave us or forsake us. Because He looks down and says “This one’s mine.”

Long ago the LORD said to Israel: “I have loved you, my people, with an everlasting love. With unfailing love I have drawn you to myself. (Jeremiah 31:3, NLT)

“This one’s mine.”

If God is For Us…

A few days after returning home, I came to Romans 8 in my Bible reading. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Let me translate it in light of my recent experience and all of Scripture – “if God who loves us so passionately – if the God who looks at me and says ‘This one’s mine’ – if that God is for me – and we know He is – what does it matter if anyone else is against me?”

Friends, every time I feel overwhelmed or scared for the future, I return to that moment when I realized that God says “This one’s mine” and I am filled with peace and joy.

If you’ve trusted Jesus as your Savior, you’re His, too. He rejoices over you. Rejoice in Him. And rest in His peace knowing He will never leave you and He will move heaven and earth for you.

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Dear brothers and sisters, I close my letter with these last words: Be joyful.
2 Corinthians 13:11a (NLT)

As I put the finishing touches on my last blog, I went to back to Scripture and looked up verses with the words “be joyful” in them. I found a lot of reasons for which we can be joyful. I didn’t think they belonged in the previous blog – that one seemed to be more restful than instructive. So let me follow it up with this list of reasons to be joyful.

Let me first say that there are many reasons people don’t allow themselves to experience joy. Guilt and fear are two of the most prominent.

  • Guilt that you are experiencing joy and others aren’t, guilt that you’re taking the time to experience joy when you should be doing any of a number of things, or guilt over anything the enemy can convince you to feel guilty about.
  • Fear that the joy will be taken away from you, fear that you have made a mistake (and therefore shouldn’t be relaxing in the joy), fear of living in general, or fear of anything the enemy can convince you to be afraid of.

My goal is to remind us that God wants us to be joyful and to identify some specific things that He’s told us to be joyful about. I want to open the door for the Holy Spirit to remove the guilt or fear that keeps you from experiencing joy, as well as open some new doors to rooms in which perhaps you’ve never experienced joy before.

Be Joyful for Holidays and Take Joy in Them

Be joyful at your Feast–you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, and the Levites, the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns.
Deuteronomy 16:14 (NIV)

It may seem that I’m stretching this a bit, and perhaps I am, but in the Old Testament God established and commanded a series of feasts throughout the year. They had different purposes, but many were simply celebrations of God’s goodness and provision. Most Christians do not celebrate the Old Testament feasts. (I do not but think it would be a fascinating year if I were to incorporate all the feasts – and I’m guessing I would greatly benefit from it. If this interests you, the best approach may be to find a Messianic congregation to become a part of. Don’t be shy – go for it!)

I think we can extend the spirit of the feasts to recognize that God has given us times of rest and rejoicing and that we should be joyful in those. As I read about the Old Testament feasts, they seem like holy vacations that the Israelites were commanded to take each year! Vacations! Holidays! And they were commanded to take them! And they were to rejoice in them.

Incorporating the Lord in your next vacation is another blog waiting to be written, but suffice it to say in this blog that you can enjoy your vacations! Take them responsibly (that is, don’t spend the money for your next mortgage payment on them), then enjoy them.

Be Joyful in Your Success

Seven days you shall celebrate a feast to the LORD your God in the place which the LORD chooses, because the LORD your God will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you will be altogether joyful.
Deuteronomy 16:115 (NIV)

You will enjoy the fruit of your labor. How joyful and prosperous you will be!
Psalm 128:2 (NLT)

We’re not to be prideful when we’ve completed a job well and when we are successful, but we are to take joy in it. “God will bless…all the work of your hands so that you will be altogether joyful.” God blesses us for many reasons, but this verse tells us that one of those reasons is to increase our enjoyment of life – to increase our joy. So don’t feel guilty about your success. Enjoy it!

Experience the Joy of God’s Protection and His Refuge

But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them sing joyful praises forever. Spread your protection over them, that all who love your name may be filled with joy.
Psalm 5:11 (NLT)

We can have joy because we know – we know – that God is our defender. When it seems like the world is against us, we can be joyful in God – in the One who knows us best and defends. In the one who says “that one is mine.”

We can look for the adventure because God will work it out. He will come riding in on a white horse and save us. What joy that will be! That’s the shouting kind of joy.

In the meantime, He gives us a place of refuge and we can rejoice in that. That’s the quiet, inner peace kind of joy.

Be Joyful in God’s Salvation

And my soul shall be joyful in the LORD;
It shall rejoice in His salvation.
Psalm 35:9 (NKJV)

So the ransomed of the LORD will return And come with joyful shouting to Zion, And everlasting joy will be on their heads. They will obtain gladness and joy, And sorrow and sighing will flee away.
Isaiah 51:11 (NASB)

God has saved you. Rejoice in His love and in your salvation. Don’t just celebrate, meditate on it so that you experience the joy of freedom that is possible through the salvation He has given you. We have been ransomed! We were slaves to sin. Christ paid the ransom to set us free. That’s how much He loves us. Rejoice! Be joyful!

Be Joyful in Knowing that God will Rescue You

25:10  [The Lord says:] “I will take away your happy singing and laughter. The joyful voices of bridegrooms and brides will no longer be heard. Your millstones will fall silent, and the lights in your homes will go out.”

33:10“This is what the LORD says: You have said, ‘This is a desolate land where people and animals have all disappeared.’ Yet in the empty streets of Jerusalem and Judah’s other towns, there will be heard once more 11the sounds of joy and laughter. The joyful voices of bridegrooms and brides will be heard again, along with the joyous songs of people bringing thanksgiving offerings to the LORD. They will sing, ‘Give thanks to the LORD of Heaven’s Armies, for the LORD is good. His faithful love endures forever!’ For I will restore the prosperity of this land to what it was in the past, says the LORD.
Jeremiah 25:10 , 33:10-11 (NLT)

No matter what you’ve done or where you have been exiled – God will rescue you because you are His. No matter how dark your situation seems today, God will turn it around. Sorrow may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning – and there’s always a morning after every night.

Be Joyful Knowing that You Are Loved

The LORD your God is with you; the mighty One will save you. He will rejoice over you. You will rest in his love; he will sing and be joyful about you.
Zephaniah 3:17 (NCV)

For the LORD your God is living among you. He is a mighty savior. He will take delight in you with gladness. With his love, he will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.
Zephaniah 3:17 (NLT)

Not only can we take joy in God’s salvation – or rather, the salvation He has given us – we can be joyful knowing the joy He takes in us. We sing in worship to the Lord. We sing for joy when life is good. God sings for joy about us! Wow! The Creator of the Universe rejoices over me. I am blown away by that.

Be Joyful Because You Have Hope

Be joyful because you have hope. Be patient when trouble comes, and pray at all times.
Romans 12:12 (NCV)

There is no such thing as hopeless for the one who Trusts in Christ. We always have hope. Always. And that’s reason enough to rejoice. As I said earlier, we can experience life as an adventure, watching with anticipation to see how God is going to come through in the current challenge…and the next one and the next one.

Friends joy need not be an elusive thing for the believer. When our hearts, minds and spirits are focused on these things, we can have joy – abundant joy. It’s part of the “abundant life” package God has given us.

Enjoy it!

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Dear brothers and sisters, I close my letter with these last words: Be joyful. Grow to maturity. Encourage each other. Live in harmony and peace. Then the God of love and peace will be with you.
2 Corinthians 13:11 (NLT)

The closing of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians was part of my reading this morning, and I was arrested by these words. They are words I needed to hear.

“Be joyful” he wrote. He didn’t write “try to be joyful.” He wrote “be joyful.” This has been a year of hard work for me. We have been so busy in our office that nearly our whole life has been about work. Every other area of my life has suffered except for my personal relationship with God and with Phil. OK, maybe they have suffered, too. They are still solid, but I recognize that I am missing those special times that keep them solid. Phil and I haven’t had a nice dinner together in quite a while.

Don’t get me wrong. We’re thankful for the work. Last year was an exceedingly slow year for us, so God is using this busy time to pay our bills and fill up our depleted reserves. He is providing and we are thankful. But am I joyful? Well, in all honesty, I am probably more tired.

I feel like my life has become too “business” and “busy-ness” and joyful has been put aside a bit. Lord, help me to be joyful.

As I write that, the question that immediately pops into my head is…how do I do that? Is it another thing I have to work at? And the answer comes…well – yes and no. Our joy comes from the Lord, but we must position ourselves to receive it. Metaphorically speaking, we must put our hands out to receive the gift of joy that He wants to give us. OK, how do I do that?

  1. Rest in Him – Enjoy the gift of the Sabbath He’s commanded. OK, I’ve been falling down on that a bit. On those Sundays when I minister at nursing homes, I’m not setting aside another day to practice a Sabbath. God uses the Sabbath to refresh us and open our spirits to Him.
  2. Ask for it – During a recent Bible study one of the topics of conversation was an encouragement for us to ask God for what we want. So often we just wish for something. We are to ask. We are to ask in faith and persistence. Lord, help me return to your joy!
  3. Look for it – We find what we look for – that was the subject of my last blog. Sometimes I forget to look for joy. If I want to find it, I need to look for God’s joy – the way my dog jumps and spins around in the air, the way plants grow from little seeds to sprouts to vegetables or flowers or trees, the intricate pattern of a spider’s web, the smile on my husband’s face, the feel of the warmth of the sun or cool of the morning. Those are all kisses of joy from the Father. Am I looking for those things and pausing to appreciate those things, to allow them to restore my joy?
  4. Rest in Him – Yes, I’m repeating this one. It’s hard to find joy when you’re overtired. I believe that the creativity God has given each of us is a little corner of His joy. Resting in Him restores our creativity.

There’s a whole lot more in Paul’s closing remarks, but it feels to me like pursuing the next thought would cause me to lose this one. And for me, this first thought is enough for today. Perhaps it is for you as well. Do you need to experience more joy? I do. Will you join me in pursuing it? Don’t let life keep you from finding it.

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I was watching a video clip of the Christian comedian Jeanne Robertson [http://www.jeannerobertson.com/] the other day and she said something that has stuck with me. What she said was “You find what you’re looking for.”

You find what you’re looking for.

If you’re looking for a fight…you’ll find one, right? You know why? Because your attitude will bring on confrontation.

If you’re looking for someone to make a mistake, they will. You know why? Because that person is human! And because you’re watching for the mistakes, you won’t see the hundred things they do right…but you will see the one thing they do wrong.

What a sad state! It’s made even sadder by the consequences it brings. In your life it leads to becoming disappointed in those around us and leads to a life of discouragement, bitterness and depression. All because you were looking for someone to make a mistake. In the lives of others, it also brings discouragement and frustration. Even if they are emotionally strong enough to realize they aren’t inferior because someone keeps finding fault with them, their life is less enjoyable because they still have to be around those who criticize. If they are not so emotionally strong, you may just convince them that they are a failure. I’ll repeat myself…what a sad state.

I don’t want to live that way, although I confess to sometimes being that person.

I agree with Jeanne Robertson – we find what we’re looking for. So why not look for the good? Why not look for the good in our circumstances and in people? Zig Ziglar called this being a “good finder” – find the good in people and circumstances and respond to that. Scripture puts it a different way –

Brothers and sisters, think about the things that are good and worthy of praise. Think about the things that are true and honorable and right and pure and beautiful and respected.
Philippians 4:8 (NCV)

If we think about these things, we won’t be looking for a fight. We won’t be looking for someone to make a mistake. We’ll be looking for things to praise. We’ll be looking for things that are good and honorable and right and pure and beautiful and respectable. We’ll see the good in people and circumstances.

Scripture says that all of us are created in the image of God. So if I say “well, that person is no good” what am I saying? I’m calling God a liar. Because the truth is that God has put goodness in each of us.

Now He’s also given each of us a free will – that is, a choice – of whether to pursue that goodness or to pursue things of the world. But as believers – those who have chosen to pursue God with our whole hearts – our job is to encourage others to make the same choice – to choose to pursue God.

What commission has Jesus given us? To go and tell everyone about Him – to encourage others to follow Him. To help them find the goodness He has for them. (Scripture tells us that every good and perfect gift comes from Him.)

We can’t others find the goodness of God unless we’ve found it – the goodness He has given us and the goodness He has placed all around us. And we don’t find that when we’re looking for a fight or looking for mistakes.

In 2 Corinthians 5, we read that the devil has blinded the minds of those who do not believe. They cannot see the light of the Good News – the Good News about the glory of Christ.

They can’t find God because of the darkness that surrounds them. But God has made His light shine in the hearts of those who follow Him – that light is the knowledge of the glory of God. It is knowing Jesus and the joy and protection and love and help and comfort that He gives. Knowing Jesus changes us…but only if we allow it. He puts that light in our heart – but if we want, we can still choose to look for the darkness – look for a fight or for someone to make a mistake. But God says “Let the light shine out of the darkness.”

Jesus described us as “the light of the world.”

14“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”   
Matthew 5:14-16 (NIV)

We’re not being that light when we’re telling others what they’ve done wrong. We’re being the light when we’re showing them the joy that is in us.

Now if you’re like me, there are days when you wake up and it’s hard to find that joy and it’s hard not to be critical of everyone around us. It’s at those times that we need to take a deep breath and ask God to work through us – because we just can’t do it ourselves. We can’t be the person who shows Jesus to the world because all we want to do is complain. I’ve been there. Sometimes it seems like I’m there every morning.

The Apostle Paul understood that. Continuing in 2 Corinthians 5, he wrote this:

“We have this treasure from God – that is, knowing Him, knowing His goodness, having seen His glory – we have this treasure, but we are like clay jars that hold the treasure.” In other words, we’re not up to the task of holding this valuable treasure.

It’s like putting a precious diamond on string around your neck. There’s something wrong with that picture! A precious diamond belongs in a beautiful gold setting. Or it’s like serving the most expensive and tasty meal on paper plates! No, they deserve to be served on fine china!

But God has entrusted the Good News – which really should be called the Best News – the news that Jesus is alive and that He loves us and offers His forgiveness in exchange for our love – He is serving that rich, delicious nugget on a paper plate – and we’re the plates!

He has chosen the simple to confound the wise. We’re the simple. He has chosen the poor to teach the rich. We’re the poor. He has chosen us – with all our faults and weaknesses. He has placed the treasure of knowing Him in clay jars.

Why would He do that? Paul gives us the reason – to show “that the great power is from God, not from us.”

On our own, we can’t be the person who always thinks on good things, things that are worthy of praise, things that are true and honorable and pure and beautiful. Because in our own strength, sometimes we’re the people who just want to complain.

But the beauty of knowing God is that we don’t live life on our own. At those times, we turn to God, who has put His Holy Spirit in us, and we say “Lord, live your life through me. Lord, help me show your light to others. Lord, Your word says that I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength. Give me strength now, Lord.”

It’s only with the help of the Holy Spirit that Paul was able to write the verses that follow:

8We have troubles all around us, but we are not defeated. We do not know what to do, but we do not give up the hope of living. 9We are persecuted, but God does not leave us. We are hurt sometimes, but we are not destroyed. 10We carry the death of Jesus in our own bodies so that the life of Jesus can also be seen in our bodies. 11We are alive, but for Jesus we are always in danger of death so that the life of Jesus can be seen in our bodies that die.
>2 Corinthians 5:8-11

In this life we will have troubles. With the Holy Spirit in us, we are not defeated. In this life there are times when we don’t know what to do – there are times when everything seems hopeless – but in God, we don’t give up because we have Christ in us, the hope of glory.

Paul continued in verse 16:

16So we do not give up. Our physical body is becoming older and weaker, but our spirit inside us is made new every day. 17We have small troubles for a while now, but they are helping us gain an eternal glory that is much greater than the troubles.
2 Corinthians 5:16-17

Our spirit inside us is made new every day. No matter what’s happening with our bodies on the outside, our spirits are renewed every day. God’s mercies are new every morning. So every morning, we return to Him and say “God, help me today. Help me to find Your goodness and help me shine the love of Jesus to those around me.”

I started this article with the quote from Jeanne Robertson – we find what we look for. Jeremiah 29, verses 13 and 14 say that “‘When you look for me, you will find me when you look for me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord.”

God promises that you will find what you’re looking for when you’re looking for Him. What a great and compassionate and merciful God we serve. He promises that we will find Him when we look for Him with our whole heart.

The Apostle Paul ends our passage in 2 Corinthians 5 with this encouragement:

We set our eyes not on what we see but on what we cannot see. What we see will last only a short time, but what we cannot see will last forever.

What we see, friends, is all the hardship around us. What we see are troubles. What we see are people making mistakes that affect us. God tells us to lift our eyes – look for the good – look for Him – every moment of every day. When you do, your world will change. Yes, all the difficulties will still be there, but what fills your mind will be those things that are good and beautiful and worthy of praise. Your heart will be filled with joy because your mind is set on what we cannot see just yet – our eternity with a compassionate and merciful God. Friends, think on these things – that which is true and honorable and right and pure. Set your mind on Jesus.

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Confess your sin to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.
James 5:16 (NLT)

Does your prayer life prove that you believe that verse? Wow! That’s a great question! I’ve written the rest of this article and come back to focus on the introduction. I am challenged by the question the Holy Spirit communicated to my typing fingers. Because I surely didn’t ask the question! Does my prayer life reveal that I believe that verse or does it reveal a lack of faith (or obedience) to God’s Truth?

I desperately want it to be the former, but I know that I am not where I want to be. Despite my disciplined approach to prayer, I know that my prayer life doesn’t always get my focused, impassioned attention. Lord, help me be the woman You want me to be!

No condemnation here, folks, just challenge by the Holy Spirit to improve our prayer life. It’s time to up our game! I want my life to be characterized by effective prayer. For that to be the case, I need to be disciplined to develop a prayer life that is focused and passionate.

I find that a disciplined approach to prayer helps me regularly pray for the things that are most important to me. There are many ways to accomplish this and one is not necessarily better than another. What’s best is what works for you! I find, though, that many people approach prayer in a helter-skelter method, and while all prayer is good I want to be sure that I regularly pray for those things God has given me the responsibility to pray for.

Lists are My Friend

I add discipline into my prayer life by using lists. I begin most days at a computer – either the one on my office desk or on my laptop. I start by reading Scripture and praying. I use a spreadsheet to track my reading and prayers. The spreadsheet has one screen that mirrors our Treasure Seeking in God’s Word schedule of reading through the Bible in 2014. It includes another page that lists the things I want to pray for on a regular basis. There are too many of them to pray for each day, so I’ve broken them down into four groups:

Immediate Family – This first grouping represents things I want to pray for every day. It includes my husband, my mom, myself and various specific areas of my life – my business, Apprehending Grace Ministries, my husband’s job at a local hospital and the nursing homes we minister in. Next to each one is a phrase reminding me what I want to pray. For example, next to the hospital I’ve written “blessing those he touches.” This reminds me that I want to pray that Phil is a blessing – that God uses him in his position. The reminder keeps me from succumbing to the temptation to pray only for earth-bound things like better work schedules and policies. Next to Apprehending Grace I’ve written “Direction, blessing readers.” Again, the phrase is meant to focus and lift my prayers. I don’t want to pray “Lord, help me find time to write a blog today.” I want to pray “Lord, let my readers be blessed by what I’ve written. May the words on the screen help them to draw near to You.” Further, the word “direction” always keeps before me that I want Apprehending Grace Ministries to be more than just this blog. It’s easy to get bogged down in every day life and forget that God has more for all of us. I want to pray into the “more.”

Extended Family – This list includes my siblings, their spouses, my nieces and nephews and their spouses, and my great nieces and nephews. It also includes the employees of our business. There are nineteen people on this list. At this stage of my life, that’s too many for me to pray for each day, so I pray for two or three of them each day. That means I am individually and specifically praying for each person about once a week. As I pray for them, I write their name on the top of my To Do list for that day. That helps me to see their name repeatedly throughout the day and lift them up in prayer.

Weekly Bible Study Members – Phil and I lead a church service at two different nursing homes each month. At one of them, we also lead a weekly Bible study. It’s been going on for about two years and is such a rewarding experience. I’ve listed all those who periodically attend our study because I want to pray for them regularly. I want our studies to have impact. I want to see God change their lives. And I want to remember to praise Him when we see that change taking place. This list varies in size but there are currently fifteen names on it. I pray for one or two of them each day, so each person is getting specific, individual prayer about once a week.

Church Family & Friends – This list includes my pastors and their spouses along with other church and ministry leaders. It also includes friends who don’t appear any of the other lists. Currently there are about fifteen names on this list and I pray for one or two of them each day.

Other Current Needs – When I’ve promised to pray for someone or something for an extended period of time, I add it to this list.

Other lists you might have:

Leaders and Authorities – Your local, state and federal government leaders. For a period of time, we were involved in a local prayer group that prayed specifically for our community. During that time I had a list that included local officials by name and/or position as well as organizations like fire department, police department, library, local businesses, the mall, etc. (During that time, the crime rate fell tremendously in our community .)

Missionaries – If you are a strong supporter of missionaries, you might have a separate list for individual missionaries and missionary organizations.

Culture – Are you called to stand in the gap for our culture? If so, you would have a list that included various aspects of the entertainment industry, business culture, parenting in America, the Church and it’s influence, etc.

Salvations – There have been times in my life when I had a specific list of people I was praying for to come to know Christ. It’s a great list to have, and a “must have” for those with a heart for souls.

The Nations – Some are called to pray for every nation or for specific continents. Creating a list for them ensures you don’t forget any.

You can use any logical grouping to make separate lists so that each person, topic, organization or situation that God lays on your heart is prayed for on a regular basis. The key is to keep the lists small enough so that you work through them on a regular basis, given the amount of time you have to spend in prayer each day.

There’s Plenty of Room for the Spirit

Some people take exception to such an organized approach to prayer. They say I should just be led by the Spirit. I would say that am led by the Spirit – in at least three ways.

First, as I pray for each person, I am led by the Spirit to pray for that person’s needs. I am sometimes surprised at what I’ve prayed for someone, but assume that there is something going on in their life (that God knows about but I don’t) and the Spirit was leading me to pray into that situation.

Secondly, I am not bound by my list. When someone or something comes to mind I pause to pray for them. Additionally, I am not bound by the order of the names in the list. While I track who I have prayed for to ensure each person gets covered, each morning I scan each list to see who or what catches my eye. If they haven’t been prayed for in the current rotation, I pray for them. (And if they have been prayed for but I feel an urging to do so, I pray for them again.)

Thirdly, I add and remove lists as I am led to do so. I’ve changed the organization of my list as my life and ministry have changed. I change the names and topics on each list periodically. (See “Taking Someone/Something Off the List” below.)

The truth is that without my lists, the things and people that I tend to think about the most would receive the most prayer. Conversely, the people and things I think about the least would receive the least amount of prayer – and in many cases, they’re they very things and people who need the most prayer. Yet I believe my prayer can change their lives – even if I rarely see them or talk with them. So I discipline myself by organizing my prayer life using lists.

Having the lists helps me be consistent with praying for all people and things that are important to me. Additionally, the things on the lists are things that God has given me some degree of responsibility for and authority in the spiritual realm for. If He has laid something or someone on your heart, He has given you the responsibility to pray for them and in giving you that responsibility He has given you a degree of authority in the spiritual realm. Don’t neglect your responsibility or the authority God has given you.

Other Methods

I use a computer spreadsheet because it fits my lifestyle. In the past I’ve used notebooks, index cards or old business cards. Use whatever works for you. I liked business cards because they were small and allowed me to put only 1 name on each card. That helped me focus on each name. You could use small pieces of color coded construction paper. (I am actually like that idea – maybe it’s time for a switch for me.)

I have a shorter version of my spreadsheet lists on my iPhone so that on those days when my routine is scrambled, I at least pray for the people and things on my daily list.

The important thing is to match your method to your lifestyle. When your lifestyle changes, don’t hesitate to change your method of adding discipline to your prayer life. I walk our dog about about once a day and have been wondering if I should transition my prayer time into the time I spend walking the dog or if I should just keep that as a time of enjoying the walk. So far, I find that I’m too distracted during our walks to pray effectively, but if that changes, my method for tracking my prayers will change.

Keeping it Passionate

For prayer to be effective, it must have that element of passion or earnestness. I’ll admit that having a list brings the temptation to simply look at the list, think a few sentence prayers and consider it done. That kind of prayer doesn’t honor God or the person I’m praying for. And it doesn’t demonstrate that I believe God’s Word. There are a number of things I do to keep my prayers focused and passionate.

Tracking – Since I use a spreadsheet, I color code each cell after I have prayed for the person. Somehow, the action of changing the color of the cell provides a check in my spirit asking “have you really prayed for that person?” So not only does tracking help me remember each person or situation, it helps me pray earnestly for them.

Combining Scripture reading with prayer – Often I try to incorporate whatever I’ve read that morning with my prayer that day. For example, yesterday I read about how God told Joshua to divide up the land among the Israelites – and He told him to do this before they had actually conquered the land! I don’t know that I had ever noticed that before. God was treating the land they would eventually conquer as if it was already theirs! As believers, that’s how we’re to live – apprehending the promises in God’s Word and living as if we already have the fulfillment of them. So for each person on my list yesterday, I prayed that they would live in awareness of all that God has done for them and given them and that they would grab hold of life – the life He has for them – with joy and confidence. Now my list yesterday included an infant, a young adult, a couple of middle-paged adults and two rather confused elderly people. Yet the prayer is appropriate for all of them. I am praying into the infant’s future and for the adults’ present. Even the confused elderly people can experience joy and confidence in the Lord.

Writing or typing out your prayers – This takes a bit longer, but it ensures that you are truly focusing on each person or item on your list. It’s not necessary to write complete sentences; sometimes simply writing phrases helps you focus.

Refocusing as you move from one list to the next – Think of moving from one list to another as shifting gears in a car with a manual transmission. Shifting requires a specific action as you move to the next gear and it’s important to do it when the time is right.

As you move from list to list, don’t rush or delay it. Linger in prayer if you feel so led, or be comfortable moving on when you’ve prayed sufficiently. Don’t be time bound – sometimes my prayers are thirty seconds and sometimes several minutes. Move to the next list when the time is right.

Let your specific action be praising God – if you get into the practice of praising God as you move from list to list, you will build up your faith as you pray and bless God. And your prayer time will be more enjoyable. This is an important step. Sometimes praying for a specific person drains our faith. Perhaps their situation seems so hopeless or we’ve been praying for them for so long that we are tempted to doubt that God will ever change them. Our praise will allows us to focus on the next list with faith instead of defeat.0

Carrying the day’s list with you –Rewriting the name or items from your list onto another sheet of paper that you carry in your pocket or put on your refrigerator or monitor helps you remember the requests throughout the day.

Taking Someone Off the List

OK, taking someone off the list can be a bit traumatic. For example, when my dad died, I had to physically delete his name from my prayer list. Ouch! I couldn’t do it immediately. So I kept him on my daily list and used it as an opportunity to thank God for my dad and praise Him for saving my dad and one day allowing us to see one another again. What started out as painful became very healing until I was OK with removing dad’s name from my prayer list. Still, it was hard to hit the delete key, but God had made it possible – I could do it without breaking into little pieces.

There are times when you feel led to remove a name or situation from your list that hasn’t yet been resolved. I’m all for perseverance in prayer, but there have also been times when I sense from God that it is OK to drop an issue from my regular prayer life. There are a number of reasons this may be the case. Perhaps it is an issue you can’t pray for effectively because your emotions are too impacted. I’m not suggesting you drop something from your prayer list simply because it’s hard to pray for it – got may be using it to train you. For example, you may have great conflict with a family member and become angry every time you see their name on your prayer list. It’s generally not a good thing to be praying through your list when you’re angry, so their presence on your list is disruptive. It might be so tempting to drop them. It’s more likely that God wants to teach you about forgiveness. Don’t drop a name easily. But when you can remove yourself from the emotion and hear clearly from God that their name should be dropped, do so without guilt.

Remember, when you are following the Lord’s leading, there is no guilt. Don’t allow satan to throw that on you. Actually, he’ll try. You have to be diligent not to catch it.

Sometimes dropping an item from your list is an act of faith. You’ve become so confident through your praying that God has worked the situation out that you simply do not feel the need to pray with laser guided prayer. So you move the item to a list where it will be prayed for less frequently or you drop it from the list all together, knowing you’ll still remember it in prayer occasionally. What a freeing thing this is! God has done it! Remember to celebrate as you remove the thing from your list.

Regardless of the reason, when you feel the Lord leading you away from praying for a specific person or situation, don’t feel guilty about dropping them from your list. Take a bit of time to ensure that it’s God and not simply your own boredom or frustration. If it’s God, trust that He’s put that person or situation on someone else’s list and walk in freedom and faith.

I Want to Impact Lives through My Prayers – I Want My Prayers to be Effective

Wanting doesn’t make it so. Praying makes it so. Praying specifically for people and things makes it so. Praying with passion makes it so. Praying consistent with Scripture makes it so.

None of that comes naturally to me. The apostle Paul wrote that he disciplined his body “like an athlete, training it to do what it should.” (1 Corinthians 9:27, NLT) My prayer lists are my way of disciplining my mind and spirit to pray for the people and things God has given me responsibility to pray for.

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