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Peace

It was the day before I would receive my cancer diagnosis. I needed to be alone so I went down to the river and sat on the side of a small dock. The gently flowing Chattahoochee instantly brought calm. With my feet immersed in the cool current I took out a book of poetry that I’d neglected for some time: Toward Jerusalem by Amy Carmichael. As I slowly pondered her words I wondered why I’d left this book alone for so long. Some pages were dog eared and on others I had written a date – 5/8/02. Why that date? What was going on then that these poems had such an impact? It was a year after the youngest of my three children had been born and my husband was still struggling to find work. One rejection after another had left him deeply discouraged and I was barely keeping my head above water with three small children.

That was a very difficult period of our lives, of my life, and I remembered how I’d found solace in Amy Carmichael’s words:

But the Lord is always kind,

Be not blind,

Be not blind

To the shining of His face,

To the comforts of His grace.

Hath He ever failed thee yet?

Never, never: wherefore fret?

O fret not thyself, nor let

Thy heart be troubled,

Neither let it be afraid.

This time, for a very different reason, I again found solace as I mulled over her words and allowed them to lift my gaze up to the Lord who already knew all the results of every test and how this cancer would change my life. He got us through what would turn out to be fifteen months of unemployment back in 2001 and 2002. Could I trust him with this? As I kept turning pages and reading these lines of verse, I knew that I could. My spirit swelled with peace as I penciled in a new date – 8/16/21.

The river near my home is unpredictable. Sometimes it floods not because of rain but because the Army Corps of Engineers decides to release more water from the dam upstream. Hours later it will overflow its banks alongside our favorite running trail, making it impassable. Ever since that day when I found out I had cancer, the peace I’ve experienced has continued to overflow the banks of my soul. I’ve been a living and breathing example of Philippians 4:6-7; the peace of God has truly guarded my heart and my mind in Christ Jesus. The gracious work of God in me along with the many prayers being prayed on my behalf have combined to do something remarkable. One of the tests I underwent after my diagnosis checked for a genetic component to my cancer. If it was positive, the course of treatment would drastically change. On the day I went to hear those results, I sat in the parking deck next to the doctor’s office, hastily committing to memory another poem of Amy’s which was marked with that same date almost twenty years ago – 5/8/02 – and the words ‘life prayer’ written in pencil. I was nervous but as I read these words His waves of peace continued to roll over me.

Long is the way, and very steep the slope,

Strengthen me once again, O God of hope.

Far, very far, the summit doth appear;

But thou art near my God, but Thou art near.

And Thou wilt give me with my daily food,

Powers of endurance, courage, fortitude.

Thy way is perfect; only let that way

Be clear before my feet from day to day.

Thou art my Portion, saith my soul to Thee,

O what a Portion is my God to me.

Two months later and my prognosis is good and there’s a plan in place for treatment. Genetics came back negative. I have had no pain and there are times I even forget I have cancer. I know that isn’t the story for everyone who has cancer so I am extremely grateful. But I am even more grateful for this peace I continue to experience. It’s not of this world. It’s from the Lord, the Prince of Peace.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” John 14:27

Reflections on Psalm 89

“I will sing of the steadfast love of the Lord, forever; with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness to all generations.”

This is how Psalm 89 begins. With a declaration of intent. Ethan the Ezrahite will sing. And what will he sing of? The steadfast love and faithfulness of the Lord. These twin attributes are repeated over and over in Psalm 89. In verse 2, “steadfast love is built up forever…in the heavens you will establish your faithfulness.” Our attention is continually drawn to the everlasting permanence of God’s covenantal love for his people.

Verse 3 further underlines these attributes by making mention of God’s covenantal promise to David and then verse 5 begins a crescendo of praise that doesn’t end until verse 18.

“Let the heavens praise your wonders…” v. 5

“Who among the heavenly beings is like the Lord…awesome above all who are around him? Who is mighty as your are, O Lord?” v. 6, 8

“The heavens are yours; the earth also is yours…” v. 11

“You have a mighty arm; strong is your hand, high your right hand.” v. 13

And then again, the notes of steadfast love and faithfulness punctuate the praise: “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.” v. 14

“You are the glory of their strength…for our shield belongs to the Lord…” v. 17, 18

In verses 19-37, the psalmist returns to the Davidic theme, further emphasizing God’s steadfast love and faithfulness to his chosen King. Do you see the continuing theme? Over and over the psalmist is reminding himself and his audience of God’s character and the blessed state of God’s people. In verses 19-37 I count at least nine times when God uses the words I will. God’s intent is for his people.

So if the psalm ended there we’d have a nice and tidy situation. All praise and all promise. But it doesn’t end there. Notice how verse 38 begins. But now… The tone changes dramatically and if you can imagine the psalm set to music, I’m sure it would modulate into a minor key. But the pattern here seems to go against the typical lament. If you’re familiar with the laments in the book of Psalms, they usually start with the lament and then end with assurance, minor key modulating into the triumphant major. But here we seem to have the reverse. For 37 verses Ethan extols the faithfulness and steadfast love of the Lord. But he ends with lament.

We don’t know his exact situation but a thoughtful reading of the end of this psalm and of Israel’s history can give us a clue. He must be experiencing one of the many low points in the history of God’s people. The psalm says that God’s people are scorned. They are defeated by their foes in battle. They have become ashamed. And Ethan must be confused. What is God doing? In verse 49 he asks where this steadfast love and faithfulness have gone. He may be able to recount it with the eyes of faith but he doesn’t see it in front of his face. There is no resolution by the end of the psalm, only unanswered questions.

We are also confused sometimes about what God is up to. Things seem very backward and wrong seems to continually win out. How do we deal with this confusion? We need to take a lesson from Ethan. It’s not like the bad stuff started happening as he was writing. He was already in it! But he starts in the right way. He spends the first 37 verses of this psalm worshiping God and building himself up in the truths that he knows with his head, despite what he sees with his eyes. I think he’s doing exactly what Jude tells his audience to do at the end of his epistle. “But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.” Jude 20-21. Ethan built up his faith by immersing himself in the truth of who God is and what he’s promised. That then gave him an anchor as he plunged into lament. Let’s not leave out that first step. By starting with praise, we can buffet ourselves in the midst of any storm we’re going through. Our problems won’t be solved immediately but by God’s grace we’ll be able to hang on and even grow deeper in faith as we honestly approach the Lord with our questions. Remember that faith isn’t opposed to asking the hard questions.

So when we find ourselves in the midst of a storm, in a confusing situation where God seems absent, let’s begin where the psalmist did, confidently approaching the Lord in prayer with our own declaration of intent:

“I will sing of the steadfast love of the Lord, forever; with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness to all generations.” Psalm 89:1

Reorientation

In the book of Habakkuk we get a peek inside the prophet’s prayer life. And what we see can help us as we face the inevitable questions of life that have to do with wondering and waiting for God to act. In the first four verses we get thrown immediately into lament. O Lord, how long? Why do you make me see injustice among your own people? Why are you idle? Habakkuk has been praying a long time and is disoriented by what’s going on around him. His only focus is on the present moment and how God seems to be silent.

But in verse 5 we get a reply. God doesn’t rebuke the prophet but commands him to do four things: Look, See, Wonder, Be astounded. The rest of the book is a description of this further reorienting of Habakkuk’s perspective and his heart. No wonder the first verse calls it a vision. For that is what God is aiming at in his exchanges with the prophet. He wants to give Habakkuk a bigger and broader vision of who He is and what His ways are. Habakkuk was stuck with his eyes down, frustrated that God wasn’t paying attention to what he was seeing. But all along, God wanted Habakkuk to turn his eyes upward.

By the end of the book Habakkuk’s eyes are wide open to see the glorious vision of God as a conquering victorious Savior. His perspective changed and his problems became somehow smaller. Even though the land will soon be utterly devastated by the coming Babylonians, he will rejoice. He won’t be controlled by what his earthly eyes see. He will take joy in the God of his salvation.

When we are left frustrated in prayer, wondering if God sees what’s going on, maybe we need to step back and ask God to change our perspective. What are we missing? Where are our expectations misplaced? How have we missed seeing God? And if our problems look huge and God seems absent, maybe we need to focus more on enlarging our vision of God so our problems can be put in their proper perspective.

Get Wisdom

For the past few months I’ve been hiding Proverbs 1-4 in my heart. It’s been a slow go, but that’s ok. However long it takes, it’s always beneficial to hide the Word in our hearts. And if it takes longer than expected, that just gives me more time to chew and meditate on the truths contained in it. Memorizing Proverbs is a different kind of challenge compared to the Psalms or the epistles of Paul but I’m enjoying it.

One thing that strikes me in these first four chapters is the unrelenting call to pursue wisdom. It’s everywhere and it seems to be overkill. But I’m learning that anything that’s repeated in the Scripture is there because we are hard headed and stubborn people who are always prone to forgetting and need a constant reminder like a wayward toddler who constantly drifts toward the busy street.

Right now I’m working on the fourth chapter and I want to highlight both the positive and the negative commands as it regards the pursuit of wisdom.

Positive Commands

Hear, be attentive, let your heart hold fast, keep, get, get, love, get, get, prize, embrace, hear, accept, keep hold, guard, be attentive, incline, keep, keep, look forward, let your gaze be straight, ponder.

If I’m not mistaken, that’s 22 positive commands urging us to go after wisdom, to make it a priority to seek the Lord’s instruction. I’ve always chuckled at verse 7 and its ‘Captain Obvious’ tone: “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom…” but I think this calls for some reflection on our part. What are we going hard after in this life? Think of the Nike motto, “Just Do It”. There’s no lack of energy being sunk into lots of other endeavors in this world, but who are those that go after wisdom with the kind of holy tenacity that Solomon commends?

Negative Commands

Do not forsake, do not forget, do not turn away, do not forsake, do not let go, do not enter, do not walk, avoid, do not go, turn away, pass on, let them not escape, put away, put far from you, do not swerve, turn your foot away.

There are 16 negative commands here. Notably, in Proverbs 4:15, there are 4 admonitions when considering the path of the wicked: “Avoid it; do not go on it; turn away from it and pass on.” If you haven’t gotten the picture yet, verse 15 should act as a club over the head. Many of us think we can “handle” looking at certain things or watching certain kinds of entertainment. Proverbs 4:15 is like a bullhorn perched right next to our foolish ears: NO!

The Promise of Wisdom

We could stop here and allow ourselves to despair thinking that these calls to get wisdom are just too extreme. It’s too hard. But go back to chapter 2 and listen to the promise God gives to those who go after wisdom.

“My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk in integrity, guarding the paths of justice and watching over the way of his saints.” Proverbs 2:1-8

Do you see these stunning promises? God is graciously waiting for us to seek his wisdom and his instruction and he will give it. And James agrees! “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” James 1:5

The Worth of Wisdom

These promises are great but if wisdom wasn’t worth seeking, we wouldn’t be motivated to get after it and be confident that the Lord would give it. So in chapter 3, Solomon offers these words:

Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed.” Proverbs 3:13-18

Do you see the repetition of the word blessed at the beginning and at the end of this passage? Wisdom is worth the work because happy is the one who finds it! There is guaranteed reward for those who pursue it.

In hiding these words in my heart, I’m seeing a subtle shift in my affections. It’s not so much a ‘do this, don’t do that’ mentality. It’s a shifting of my heart towards what is wise and good and a turning further away from what is evil and foolish. It’s like I can sense the grooves in my heart that run toward God and his ways getting deeper and the grooves sin has cut into my flesh becoming less worn. I desire to follow more on the path of the wise and as I observe the folly of this world and the folly in my own sinful heart, the value of the way of wisdom becomes clearer before my eyes.

So let’s get after wisdom. Let’s ask the Lord constantly for it. Let’s pursue it with that holy tenacity. It is worth it.

God Hears Us Moms!

My oldest son gave me a gift for Christmas one year that stunned me with its thoughtfulness. It was a scarf that had printed on it literary quotes about mothers. One of my favorites comes from the fifth book in the Anne of Green Gables series, Anne’s House of Dreams.

“Gilbert put his arm about them. ‘Oh, you mothers!’ he said. ‘You mothers! God knew what He was about when He made you.'”

Another quote comes from Little Women:

“The clocks were striking midnight and the rooms were very still as a figure glided quietly from bed to bed, smoothing a coverlid here, settling a pillow there, and pausing to look long and tenderly at each unconscious face, to kiss each with lips that mutely blessed, and to pray the fervent prayers which only mothers utter.”

As a mother, my prayers have only grown in fervency as my children have gotten older. Now that they’re in their 20s, I don’t have access to them as I once did, but I always have access to throne of grace where I continuously bring them before the Father.

I have recently started taking one day a week and dedicating a certain amount of time on that day to praying not only for my own children but their cousins, the next Beatty generation. I was inspired to do this by my sister-in-law. Today I spent time lifting them up to the Lord and praying that he would give them purpose and confidence. That they wouldn’t have a spirit of fear but a spirit of power, love and a sound mind. (2 Tim. 1:7) That they would not be deceived by sin and have their hearts become hard. (Heb. 3:12-13) That they would focus on the things of eternity and not be drawn away by the fleeting pleasures of this world.

But it can be tempting to get discouraged as I realize that the results of my prayers may not come for a long time. I will have to wait. So how can I prevent becoming discouraged? This is when it’s so helpful to remind myself of the whole testimony of Scripture, particularly as it pertains to mothers. How does God treat mothers and their children? Today I began to make a mental list.

  • In Genesis 16 and 21, God seeks out and provides for and blesses the despised Hagar and her son Ishmael. “So she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are a God of seeing…'” Genesis 16:13
  • In Exodus 2, God honors Moses’ mother’s courage and saves Moses from death by the hand of Pharaoh’s daughter. Moses’ sister then skillfully negotiates to have her mother hired to nurse him!
  • In Ruth, God graciously provides for the now son-less and bitter Naomi by giving her a daughter-in-law and a kinsman redeemer named Boaz.
  • In 1 Samuel, Hannah’s fervent prayers are honored with the birth of Samuel. She then lends him to the Lord and he becomes a significant man of faith in the story of Israel.
  • In 2 Kings 4 we read the story of the childless Shunammite woman who generously provides for Elisha. Elisha prophecies that a son will be born to her. This son then dies of sudden illness and the prophet brings him back to life.
  • In Isaiah 40 mothers can take comfort from this passage: “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”

And what about in the New Testament? We see God responding to mothers and their fervent desires for their children in the same gracious way.

  • In Luke 1, God intervenes in a childless couple’s life and gives Elizabeth and Zechariah a long prayed for son. In Luke 2, we see God bringing Mary to Elizabeth for mutual encouragement.
  • In Luke 2, God brings encouragement to Mary’s heart concerning her special Son three separate times. The shepherds tell her of the angels’ proclamation, the devout Simeon tells of her son’s marvelous purpose, and Anna the prophetess gives a testimony of thanksgiving and praise to all as she witnessed this little baby who would be the redemption of Israel.
  • In Luke 7, Jesus encounters the widow of Nain whose only son has just died. He had compassion on her and gave her back her son alive.
  • In John 19, when Jesus is about to breathe his last, he takes care for his mother and instructs John to bring her into his home.

Looking at the whole testimony of Scripture, we see that God sees mothers. He knows their needs and hears their cries not only for themselves but for their children. Let us not despair or be discouraged as we continually pray for our children. He see us and hears us! And this should not be a surprise to us because the testimony of Scripture also uses mothering imagery to describe God. He is the one who gave birth to his people (Deut. 32:18), who taught them to walk (Hos. 11:3), who will never forget them (Is. 49:15-16), and who seeks to comfort them as a mother comforts her children (Is. 66:13).

So Gilbert was right. God knew what he was doing when he created mothers. For his heart beats with the same rhythm. And as we pray for our children like Marmee in Little Women, know that the tenderness and compassion of our hearts is just a pale reflection of God’s own heart for us.

Things Revealed

Deuteronomy 29:29 says:

“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”

This verse is set in the context of a review of the covenant blessings and curses. God is reminding the people of the Law and the consequences of their obedience and disobedience. This verse may seem out of place at first, but perhaps it’s put there for a specific reason.

God had given to the people of Israel, and has given to us, specific revelation in the form of words, laws, precepts and statutes. He has made all of it clear so we may understand how to obey him and enjoy fellowship with him. God desires what is best for his people and so he didn’t leave us without the direction we needed for ourselves and for our children.

So why this mention of ‘the secret things’? What are those secret things? That’s the trouble. We want to know the secret things. We’ve always wanted to know the secret things, ever since the Deceiver told Eve that God was holding out on her and His command wasn’t enough. Still now, with us, it’s like there’s two books – one called “The Things Revealed”, which is the Word of God, and another called “The Secret Things”, which is all the stuff we wish God would tell us. What do we wish God would tell us? Some want to know exactly how the universe was created down to subatomic detail. Some want to have access to future knowledge about themselves or other people. Others want their theological questions answered. Still others want to know the reasons behind their suffering. They won’t believe until they have these mysteries solved.

I don’t know what the book called “The Secret Things” looked like in the time of Israel. But what we see is that over time they stopped reading the revelation God had given them. They stopped paying attention to the warnings he had given them. They stopped passing it on to their children. And we all know the rest of the story.

A lot of us spend our time trying to read that book called “The Secret Things” while all the time the book called “The Things Revealed” is sitting right in front of us. God has given it to us and it belongs to us and to our children so we won’t just read it but also obey it.

It’s human nature to be discontent, to not be satisfied with what God has given us. It’s been that way since the first temptation in the garden to distrust God and want more. And now we’re still yearning for that secret knowledge. But God has given us all we need in His Word. He has given us a testimony written in both ink and blood for all to read. And we must base our faith and assurance on that. Not looking for the hidden secrets of the universe or for the resolution of all our theological conundrums. He has given us what we need and that should be enough.

The most important thing for us now is to lay hold of it, read it, believe it, and obey it. Then pass it on to our children so they may do the same. It’s nothing fancy and there’s nothing mysterious about it. But it is enough.

Things Change But Our Hearts Remain the Same

As I ponder my daily Bible reading I try to see connections. Today it was Amos 7-9 and Matthew 15. Amos prophesied during the beginning of the divided kingdom. His message was hard and few had ears to hear. He warns them of idolatry and materialism, of injustice and pride. Yet he also pleads with God from a compassionate heart. God shows him the coming destruction and he cries out:

“O Lord God, please forgive! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!” Amos 7:2

In Matthew 15 the religious leaders accuse Jesus because he and his disciples don’t follow the tradition of the elders. But Jesus responds with his own accusation. Why do they break the commandments of God in order to hold to their human traditions? He goes on to tell his disciples that what matters is not what goes into their mouths, but what comes out of their hearts. This is followed by two scenes of Jesus showing compassion to those who are poor and despised: the Canaanite woman who begs for the crumbs of God’s mercy to fall into her lap and the healing and feeding of thousands who come to Jesus with their many infirmities.

Those in the days of Amos thought they were following the commands of God but they were utterly blind to their own sin. They didn’t see that they were just like the pagan nations around them. They trampled the poor. They worshiped at every altar. They were prosperous and fat but Amos calls them “cows of Bashan” (Amos 4:1). God brought warning after warning but they did not return to him. They were full of injustice and refused to seek him.

Those in the days of Jesus thought they were following the commands of God. They were very careful to wash their hands, but they neglected to honor their mothers and fathers. They enjoyed the best seats at every gathering but trampled on those who were poor and needy. Jesus comes to warn them but they too continued in their blindness and hardness of heart until one day they cried out, “Crucify him!”

Are we no different today? Even though we live on this side of the Cross, our hearts are the same. We still live in the same flesh that is tempted by pride and idolatry. We still live in a world that is dominated by the lust of the eyes and Satan is still roaming the earth seeking those whom he may devour.

Wouldn’t it be wise for us now to ask the Lord to open our eyes to our own secret sins? Shouldn’t we also be on the lookout for the ways in which we hold to the traditions of men instead of the commandments of God? And if pride and idolatry and injustice were the major stumbling blocks for those in the days of Amos and in the days of Jesus, shouldn’t we humble ourselves and seek to be sensitive to the ways we may be following in the same sinful paths? It isn’t for nothing that the author of Hebrews warns:

“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Hebrews 4:12-13

Finally, who will be the Amos in our day, the one who will cry out to the Lord on behalf of his people for mercy? Who will be the ones who follow in the example of Jesus and show compassion to those who are poor and despised? Who will be the ones today who have the discernment to understand the times and instead of hurling accusations on social media, pursue a practice of regular fasting and intercession?

In other words, who will do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with their God? (Micah 6:8)

The Flip Side of Psalm 131

There’s a Bible study technique I like to employ sometimes where you state the opposite of what the Word is saying. It can be highly effective. For instance, in Psalm 103:8, David says, “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” That’s a pretty straightforward and comforting description of God’s character. But what if you took the last phrase and flipped it? It would say, “The Lord is slow to love and abounding in steadfast anger.” Jarring, isn’t it? But step back and ask yourself if that doesn’t represent some of our own secret suspicions about God. Yes, we would declare on Sunday that he is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. We sing it with our whole hearts. But what about Monday? What about when we have to repent for that sin … again? Do we still believe that God abounds in steadfast love? Or do we silently harbor a belief that God is peering over the rail, ready to zap us when we fail?

Dane Ortlund’s timely book, Gentle and Lowly, has worked wonders for many in unearthing these deadly suspicions we sometimes harbor about God. But this technique is still helpful, not only in unearthing wrong assumptions about God, but in revealing our own prideful assumptions about ourselves. Let’s use the same technique with Psalm 131. Here it is in the ESV:

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.

But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.

O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.

Now take each verse and state the opposite. And pay attention to what is revealed in your own heart.

O Lord, my heart aspires; my eyes long for lofty things; I am obsessed with getting to the bottom of every mystery.

In the original, the psalmist expresses an intellectual humility. He doesn’t feel the need to poke his finger into every controversy. He knows he will never be able to understand every mystery. But when we state the opposite, we see an insatiable and prideful curiosity to know everything. He must know everything. He must have a hot take. That makes me reconsider that downward tug to refresh my social media feed.

Next:

But I have roused and agitated my soul, like a toddler throwing a tantrum with his mother; like a toddler throwing a tantrum is my soul within me.

In the original, there is an image of deep contentedness of soul. A weaned child can rest against his mother’s bosom without striving for immediate sustenance. But when we state the opposite, we see a soul that’s never satisfied, rising up against his mother who knows best.

Finally we get to the last verse, and here I will stop the experiment, because hopefully we have seen the futility of our own pride and attempts at self-sufficiency. Left to ourselves, we will only strive and grasp at the wind, but Psalm 131 offers us what Eugene Peterson called, “the plain way of quiet humility.” Let’s turn away from ourselves and instead hope in God.

O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.

Praying for the Lost

Have you prayed for people to know the Lord for a long time? For decades? How do we persevere? How do we keep coming to the Lord? Sometimes I feel as if the Father is tired of me bringing the same requests. Maybe I need to word it a different way? Maybe there’s an angle I’ve missed?

And how does the Father feel about those people? If I’ve prayed for decades for someone to come to salvation, and I have seen little to no fruit from those prayers, does that mean that God doesn’t care about them? If God waits to save for decades, what is His current heart attitude toward them? Is He indifferent to them? Is he indifferent to me as I pray? It’s so easy for our minds to fill in those blanks with negative assumptions.

These are thoughts that I never say out loud but seem to be always simmering in my heart of hearts. Usually I push them away and keep praying, but I think we need to take these thoughts in hand and examine them. Are they true? When I do that I realize I need to remind myself of at least two things.

My Limited Perspective

First of all, I need to remind myself of my limited perspective. I don’t know a lot of what’s going on in the hearts of those for whom I’m praying. In fact, I know very very little. And like Elisha’s servant in 2 Kings 6, there is a lot I don’t see in the spiritual realm. My perspective is centered on here and now, whereas God isn’t limited by time or space. I want to see the end result, the salvation of my loved one, but God sees everything that needs to happen in order to bring that about. I need to remember John Piper’s exhortation: “God is always doing 10,000 things in your life [and in your loved one’s], and you may be aware of three of them.”

The Heart of God

But more than this, I need to anchor my prayers in the truths of the Scripture and in the character of God. I need to put on the corrective lens of Scripture so that I don’t get derailed into thinking that God is a distant curmudgeon in heaven with his arms crossed and I am in constant search for that one prayer that will light a fire under him so he will act. In Luke 15, Jesus pulls back the curtain a little on what God is doing and how he feels toward those who are lost. He tells three parables, and all three have to do with lost things.

A lost sheep.

A lost coin.

A lost son (or sons).

Remember the context. The Pharisees were upset that Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. They couldn’t believe Jesus would degrade himself by associating with these kinds of people, people who, they thought, had sinned their way out of favor with God and the religious community. They had no compassion for these lost people. But in telling these parables, and notice the repetition, Jesus opens up to us the Father’s heart.

God is like the shepherd who has 100 sheep but notices if 1 gets lost, and then goes after that one. He leaves the 99 in the open country, unprotected, and goes after the one who is lost. He not only finds his lost sheep, but brings it back on his shoulders rejoicing! He doesn’t whip out the rod and beat this sheep all the way home.

God is like a woman who has 10 silver coins, and losing one, becomes like a white tornado, sweeping and searching until she finds it. And when she has found it she calls her friends and neighbors together so they can all rejoice. She doesn’t easily give up.

Now, if the Pharisees hadn’t gotten the point already, Jesus caps off this trifecta of parables with one that not only expresses God’s heart toward the lost sinner, but is aimed squarely at them. Read the parable again if you’ve forgotten it, and even if you’re familiar, read it again. In the following passage, focus on the father’s reaction and on his heart toward this lost and undeserving son:

“And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.”

The father had been looking. He saw him and immediately felt compassion. He ran. He ran! Stop and imagine it – robes gathered up and legs pumping. He embraced him and kissed him. The son repents and asks to be called a mere servant. (He had come up with a plan to come back and beg his father to give him some honest work so he would have something to eat.) But how does the father respond? He calls to his servants and commands them to treat his wayward son like royalty. He throws a party!

But this father hasn’t forgotten his elder son. Notice the father’s heart toward his technically obedient and yet ungrateful and bitter son:

“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him…”

The father’s heart toward this son is the same. He goes to him. He seeks him out and entreats him. After listening to his son’s complaint, he reminds him of the wealth and privilege he’s had all along. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

In looking at these three parables again, I now see that the focus isn’t so much on what is lost, but on the One who is seeking. Jesus’ point in telling the parables wasn’t to highlight the plight of that lost sheep, the state of the one lost coin, or even the degradation of the lost son. No, Jesus tells these three parables to highlight the heart of the One who seeks what is lost. He is not indifferent. He is not crossing his arms in heaven waiting for us to say just the right prayer so he will act. He is seeking right now. His heart is yearning right now. And because of that, I can go again and again with confidence to his throne of grace knowing that he hears and he will act.

Let’s keep praying, reminding ourselves of our limited perspective and the compassionate heart of God toward those who are lost.

Reflections on Psalm 122

We live in an age of expressive individualism, well documented by Carl Trueman in his excellent book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. Expressive individualism wears many faces, but can be defined by the slogan, “You do you!” The highest goal of any person is to interrogate themselves and then seek the highest level of self-actualization. Everything is turned inward. Using the late sociologist Philip Rieff’s categories, he says, “In the world of psychological man, however, the commitment is first and foremost to the self and is inwardly directed. Thus, the order is reversed. Outward institutions become in effect the servants of the individual and her sense of inner well-being.”

This inward focus is the spirit of our age. It is the air most people breathe. But we are called, as citizens of the Kingdom of God, to not be conformed to this spirit. We are called outward. Just as our Trinitarian God moves outward towards us in love, sending His Son, and pouring out His Spirit on us, we are to imitate Him.

Psalm 122 speaks directly against the spirit of the age, this spirit of expressive individualism. It directs us outward and upward, beckoning us to love others and not ourselves primarily.

I’m going to quote from The Message translation of Psalm 122. I read the authorized biography of Eugene Peterson called A Burning in My Bones by Winn Collier, and just recorded a podcast episode talking to a friend about Peterson’s book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. I was so struck by the deeply thoughtful manner of this man’s prayer life that I’ve decided to take the month of August to pray through the book of Psalms, using The Message translation. Maybe I’ll write about how that goes when I’m done. I have not been a fan of The Message translation in the past, but learned through reading his biography that Mr. Peterson was a straight A student in Greek and Hebrew and memorized large sections of the Psalter in Hebrew.

For now, let’s look at how Psalm 122 pushes back against the expressive individualism of our day. It reads this way:

When they said, ‘Let’s go to the house of God,’ my heart leaped for joy. And now we’re here, oh Jerusalem, inside Jerusalem’s walls!

Jerusalem, well-built city, built as a place for worship!

The city to which the tribes ascend, all God’s tribes go up to worship,

To give thanks to the name of God – this is what it means to be Israel.

Thrones for righteous judgment are set there, famous David-thrones.

Pray for Jerusalem’s peace! Prosperity to all you Jerusalem-lovers!

Friendly insiders, get along! Hostile outsiders, keep your distance!

For the sake of my family and friends, I say it again: live in peace! For the sake of the house of our God, God, I’ll do my very best for you.

This is one of the Psalms of Ascent, which traditionally is thought to have been used as pilgrims made their way to Jerusalem to worship. The tribes of Israel were all commanded to go to Jerusalem, to the temple, to celebrate their feast days. They were not supposed to set up their own altars or their own temples for worship. They were to make corporate pilgrimage. So imagine this pilgrim, weary from days or weeks of travel, eagerly anticipating the moment when he sees the walls of the city. Notice his affections. His heart leaps for joy. His affections and his prayers are all directed outward and upward toward the place where God has promised to dwell, the place where he calls his worshipers to go. There are more than 10 references to Jerusalem in this psalm, if you count words like ‘city’ and ‘house of God’ and ‘there’. Pretty much every verse is referring to Jerusalem. The psalmist identifies himself with the nation of Israel and longs to protect the peace of Jerusalem. He calls his fellow Israelites to pray the same way.

While we aren’t required to keep these feasts anymore and we can gather with various bodies of believers in any number of churches, notice the stark contrast between the psalmist here and how we treat the concept of ‘church’ today. When many of us go to church today, and some still haven’t gone back since Covid, we are focused on ourselves. What can the sermon or music give me? We need a boost on Sunday so we go to receive our weekly pep talk. Or we go to experience inspirational music. We may go to church for our children, seeking activities and inspiration for them. Most of our reasons for going to church are inward and self-focused. We don’t identify with the Bride of Christ so much as with ourselves and our felt needs. We want the Church to reflect us, not the other way around. Our prayer life is mostly taken up with ourselves and our safety, our health and our wealth, not the Church. I capitalize the word Church here because it’s appropriate. I’m not speaking of a building with an address. I’m speaking of the blood bought Bride of Christ. The Body of Christ. Do we love her? Are we zealous for her peace? Do we pray for her health? Are our hearts stirred every weekend in anticipation of meeting with the people of God, to bear their burdens, and to be fed along with them from the Word of God?

I remember a specific time in my life when I realized I didn’t really love the Church as I ought. I was spending some time alone in prayer in the sanctuary of my church and God convicted me of my selfishness, of the narrowness of my affections. I wasn’t really praying for my pastor. I wasn’t very concerned about the health of my church. Since then, I have sought to be more aware of how this culture’s incessant focus on the self seeks to distract me from the kind of outward, sacrificial love Christ has called us to. The kind of love He, together with the Father and the Spirit, continually pour out on us.