Quit saying you’re praying

quit-prayingI’ll pray for you. It’s the “proper” response in American church culture whenever someone shares something with you about their struggle. It really sounds nice. And I believe it’s almost always offered with the purest intentions. But it tends to have as little sincerity as “bless you!” does whenever someone sneezes.

Because of this, when I was raising support before we moved to launch LifeCity, I literally asked no one to pray for me. I felt like it was ridiculous to ask people who claimed the name of Jesus to pray for one of their own who was trying to start a church. Sure, it sounds spiritual to “ask” for prayer. But even if you don’t like me, you’re not going to pray for me unless I ask you to?! Pardon me, but your prayer life needs help if that’s the case.

Now it’s our obligatory, knee-jerk response on social media whenever a terrorist attack, natural disaster, social injustice, or some other form of tragedy affects some other part of the world to flood social media with hashtags, quotes of solidarity, and temporary profile pics expressing our love  – and again, prayers – for those suffering such terrible losses…

Then, of course, one week later, we’re back to our completely unaffected lives. The hashtags fall from the lists of “what’s trending” and the temporary pics revert to our normal selves, and like our often completely meaningless expressions of prayer – nothing has actually changed.

No one without food was fed. No one homeless found shelter. No one grieving a loss was comforted. Nothing. NOTHING! was changed by our shout-outs saying that we’re praying for any city, country, or people group affected by such things.

Look – I don’t mean to be such a kill-joy, and I certainly dislike coming across as a jerk – especially regarding praying! But we need to really, really quit blaming prayer for our inaction. Hear me out…

In Matthew 5, Jesus tells us, “23 Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.”

Offerings were presented in the Temple as part of the prayer rituals of ancient Israel. Jesus literally tells His followers to stop their prayer offering to go make things right with someone they’ve offended. In other words – it is more important to God that we actually do good instead of simply praying for good. 

Please note – in the very same passage, Jesus tells His followers to then go and present their offering after they’ve reconciled with the offended brother; but the priority is not on merely doing “religious” exercises, but improving people’s lives.

It is far more difficult to look someone in the eye and apologize, or offer forgiveness to them than it is to “pray” for them and hope that God just glosses over a situation you would rather avoid altogether. Prayer does not work that way.

Prayer moves the hand of God only to the extent that I’m willing to obey Him. Where obedience is lacking, so is the power of prayer. I’m not saying that prayer doesn’t work. I’m saying that prayer without faith doesn’t work. And faith in God is always accompanied by a corresponding action. James talks about that in James 2:14-17. Paul even talks about this in Ephesians 2:10.

So don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying “Don’t Pray!” I’m saying that we need to quit hiding behind prayer as an act of disobedience for doing actual good. Feed a hungry family. Donate some time to volunteering in your city. Restock a coat closet at a school for students in need. Spend some time with someone who’s hurting. Go and actually do something! Go and be the answer to someone else’s prayer. Have a strong bias toward action. And then pray for them, and that others would join you in trying to meet real needs in this broken, hurting world.

Otherwise, don’t ask God to do something He’s already commanded and enabled you to do. Seriously.

Sincerest blessings,
Pastor John

P.S. – The next time someone tells you they’re struggling with something you genuinely can’t do anything about, try this. Instead of saying “I’ll pray for you,” just do it. Just pray for them right then and there. Say, “Can I pray for you right now?” Put your hand on their shoulder (if appropriate) and pray for God to intervene right then and there. And afterward, make sure they’ve got your number in case there is something you can do to help.

Bread and Wine

breadwine“Do not enter the path of the wicked, and do not proceed in the way of evil men… For they eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence.” Proverbs 4:14, 17

Bread and wine… interesting choice of words for Solomon, the writer of Proverbs 4. In preparing for a message on this passage recently, this detail did not pass by me unnoticed. Interestingly, we see bread and wine pop up in Scripture often.

Bread is brought up often as a reference to food in general in the Bible, and is symbolic of receiving satisfaction. Likewise, wine appears frequently in Scripture and is typically symbolic of joy.

Some examples of bread symbolizing satisfaction include…

  • Gen. 3:19, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.”
  • Gen. 18:5, “and I will bring a piece of bread, that you may refresh yourselves…”
  • Lev. 26:5, “And you shall eat your bread til you are full…”
  • Psalm 104:15, “…And bread which sustains man’s heart.”
  • Matt. 6:11, “Give us this day, our daily bread…”

Of course, Jesus also refers to Himself as the Bread of Life in John 6:35 – the ultimate source of our satisfaction.

Some examples of wine symbolizing joy include…

  • Job 1:13, “One day when Job’s sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine…”
  • Psalm 4:7, “You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound.”
  • Psalm 104;15, “…Wine, which makes the heart of man glad…”
  • Pro. 3:10, “then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine.”
  • Ecc. 2:3, “I tried cheering myself with wine,…”
  • Isa. 24:7, “The new wine dries up and the vine withers; all the merrymakers groan.”

The fascinating thing about bread and wine, is that we see them together frequently in Scripture, but never more clearly than at “The Last Supper” an event that we reenact in part today in commemoration of Jesus words during that meal. We typically refer to this memorial as “communion,” or “the Lord’s supper.” It was at this event that Jesus told the apostles, “Take eat [this bread], this is my body which is broken for you… This cup [of wine] is the new covenant in my blood which is shed for you…” When we take communion, not only are we “remembering the Lord’s death until He comes,” we’re also declaring “Jesus you are the Bread of Life, and the only thing that can ultimately satisfy my longing soul. You are the only One who can fill my life with joy unspeakable – full of glory!”

But in Proverbs 4, it says that those who find themselves on the path of the wicked “Eat the bread of wickedness,” and “drink the wine of violence.”

When we get our lives on the path of the wicked, we get everything backwards. Those in this passage get their satisfaction from rebellion and wickedness; they get their joy from harming others.

Whenever we get off the way of wisdom and down the path of the wicked, we’ll call wrong what God says is right – and call right what God says is wrong.

The net result? We rebel. And harm others. And get our satisfaction and joy from doing such. May God help us to not twist His Word, to love others and show mercy, to be humble and gracious – even as Jesus has been towards us. Remember this the next time you take of the bread and wine at communion.

Blessings, Pastor John

What we missed in our sex lives

sex livesI recently began a teaching series on sex at LifeCity Church by quoting an otherwise very unlikely verse – Deuteronomy 6:4 “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one!”

What in the world does that have to do with sex?! Glad you asked.

In Genesis 2:24-25, “…a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.”

One word. A Hebrew word – echad. It means “to be united in every way possible.” It’s the word the Bible uses in the Old Testament to describe the “oneness” of God. A word that supports Jesus’ teaching of the Trinity in the New Testament: that God is a united, “one” God. There is a Hebrew word for absolute one – yachid. Interestingly, yachid is never used to describe God, only echad. This makes perfect sense when Jesus came along and said things like, “I and my Father are one.” (John 10:30) and, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” (John 14:9).

Again, what does any of that have to do with sex…

The same word describing the perfect, absolute union of the persons of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is the same word that God uses to describe the nature of sexual union between a husband and wife… echad – to be united in every way possible.

In other words, sex isn’t “just sex.” It’s far more than mere physical pleasure between two consenting adults. It’s oneness in every way possible. It’s physical, emotional, relational, and even spiritual.

I have this interesting decorative piece in my office (pictured above) from mine and Tiffany’s wedding day. It’s a mixture of sands and shells in a glass jar. We made this in place of the more traditional “unity candle”. On our wedding day, my wife poured one color of sand into this jar over the seashells, while I simultaneously added sand of a different color. Though I didn’t understand hardly any Greek or Hebrew at the time, I realize now that this was a perfect illustration of echad.

The sand is completely united. You could never separate the two again, and attempting to do so would be extremely messy, time-consuming, and more than likely useless. Though you can still see ribbons of both sands lacing their way through the glass, they might as well be shaken together – it wouldn’t be any more or less difficult to separate the sand either way.

I wondered this past week what would have happened if we attempted this demonstration of our lives coming together “in every way possible”, but without the benefit of the glass jar…

For one, we would have a huge mess. Secondly, it would be almost impossible to keep the mixed sands long-term. We would lose much of the sand in the process. We could vacuum it all up, and then try to put it in a jar. Of course that would doubtlessly leave bits of other stuff added to the sand – lint, dirt, and who-knows-what-else.

I’m glad we didn’t do it that way! And though the sand has been kept in the same delicate glass jar, we’ve seen to it’s safety our entire marriage. That sand has withstood 4 children, 9 moves, and nearly 11 years of marriage and ministry.

The worst thing imaginable for echad is that it would be separated. Because it is so definitively intimate, tearing echad apart, like the sand, is messy, and even painful. It was never meant to be undone.

God hates divorce… He hates what it does to families and to the two lives that were joined together, only to be torn apart. As we read the Bible it’s equally clear that God despises the frivolous means by which our culture treats sexuality – how we so simply create and tear echad apart. Hopping from one partner to the next the moment that person aggravates us, or a more attractive offer comes along.

According to Genesis 1:28, God blessed the marriage relationship. Like the glass jar, marriage is a safe place where echad can be freely expressed, enjoyed, and appreciated in all of it’s intimate implications. Outside of that jar, you lose it’s beauty and end up with a mess.

God doesn’t tell us to wait until marriage to express our sexuality because He’s trying to limit our pleasure, but because He’s trying to prevent our pain. It’s better to be a whole individual (yachid) than be echad and have it severed. You always lose part of yourself when echad is torn. Like the sand, it’s unavoidable.

A few realizations to consider based on this…

  • Sexual purity is not something to be mocked, but admired.
  • Sex is a gift from God. His view on it isn’t less than the world’s, but much greater.
  • If you’re single and sleeping around, you’re hurting people other than just yourself.
  • If you’re single but living with your “other half”, make echad safe in marriage.
  • If you’re married, you’ve got to protect echad. Like the jar, it’s delicate and precious.
  • If you have regrets, humbly bring them to the cross of Jesus and find healing.

Jesus did the most brutal thing imaginable when He died on that cross. He didn’t just get tortured and killed – He sacrificed echad with the Father (Matthew 27:46) to offer salvation to humanity. When you understand the true significance of that, you’ll never see Jesus’ death – or your sexuality – as something to be treated trivially again.

Blessings,
Pastor John