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Why We Struggle to Pray

I didn’t grow up a Southern Baptist, but have been a member of a Southern Baptist church for over 25 years. One thing I have learned about Southern Baptists is they like to count. Are other denominations like this? Probably, but from my experience as a Southern Baptist, serving in various capacities, numbers are taken seriously. Attendance is taken in worship and Sunday School classes. Numbers of decisions are always tallied as a result of Vacation Bible School and short term mission trips. And of course, every dollar is counted in the offering plate. My point is not to criticize this, to make it seem like we shouldn’t pay attention to how many people attend our churches and how much money is given. We should definitely do this. But I think there’s a temptation that can go unnoticed and a certain mindset can develop if we interpret these numbers in a certain way. Does an increase always equal greater success for the Kingdom of God? Does it always mean our methods are God-honoring? Does a decrease in numbers always equal less impact for Christ or a failure to be faithful? I’m sure many people have written on this same theme, but let me tie it to our prayer lives.

Since the industrial revolution, there’s been an increased fixation with productivity and efficiency. The bottom line in any activity or industry has become – “How much did you produce and how long did it take you to produce it?”  The goal has always been to produce more at a faster rate and with less cost and effort. We’ve so absorbed this way of doing things that we’ve uncritically adjusted our lives and our expectations according to the answers to these questions. We unquestioningly live according to this framework.

But prayer doesn’t work that way. And this is the reason I think that a lot of us struggle to pray consistently and confidently, myself included. Here are at least two reasons why.

Prayer Requires Faith in What We Can’t See

Productivity is all about what we can see and what we can measure, but Hebrews 11:1 gives us the definition of faith – “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Our faith and our prayers depend on a God we can’t see. We must admit that we will never be able to measure the effects of our work for the kingdom accurately, because we can’t see everything! As we serve God and lift up our requests to him, we must constantly and ultimately trust him with the results. If I support a missionary to an unreached people group and they serve for a short period of time without measurable results that we can see, will this discourage me in how I pray for them, or will it lead me to discontinue my support? Our your prayers for your pastor and your church guided solely by what you see? Our faith and our prayers should be fixed on God, who we can’t see, and the promises he has made that he will build his church. Numbers alone shouldn’t be the barometer of faithfulness and they shouldn’t be the sole guide of my prayers. Results aren’t always immediate and faith and prayer require a level of endurance and patience that just won’t fit into the productivity paradigm.

What about parenting? We’re tempted to think that if we put in the effort as parents we will get a godly child as a result. Put the coin in the vending machine, and out comes the candy, right? But when we don’t see fruit growing in our children’s lives, do we hit the panic button in prayer? Or is our faith and are our prayers guided by the character of God, who is faithful and good, who has come to seek and to save the lost, a God who loves generational faithfulness? Do we pray confidently, no matter what we see with our eyes, knowing that God is working in thousands of hidden ways we’ll never see? No wonder the psalmist exhorted us to be strong and courageous as we wait on the Lord! (Psalm 31:24)

The truth is that the life of faith involves many things we can’t see and we can’t measure! This requires us to have a prayer life undergirded by a  steely-eyed kind of faith and trust that is formed by who God is and what he has promised in his word.

Prayer is not Efficient

The dictionary says that efficiency has to do with functioning in the best possible way with the least amount of time and effort. But anyone who has dedicated themselves to prayer for any length of time knows that it requires a lot of time and effort and there are no shortcuts or hacks. Prayer is not efficient.

There have been many times when I’ve expended a lot of Spirit-led effort praying for someone or a certain situation. In those times I don’t want to be efficient. I want to linger as God reminds me of his promises and anchors me deeper in faith. It’s in those times that God gives me eyes to see things that can’t be measured and courage to wait as he works not as efficiently as I’d like but as faithfully as he has promised.

God doesn’t work according to the world’s principles of productivity and efficiency. But he does work! And prayer requires that we wait on our God and trust in his faithfulness, not merely in what our eyes can see. Our times in prayer may not produce immediate and measurable results but God does hear us. And prayer may not be the most efficient thing you do today, but we are promised that it is effective.

Since ancient times no one has heard,
    no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
    who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.
Isaiah 64:4

Using a Dictionary to go Deeper

When I first started teaching Bible study, I used Jen Wilkin’s Women Studying the Word to teach basic Bible study skills. One resource she highly recommends and one I kept encouraging women to use was a dictionary. Not a Greek or Hebrew dictionary. Just a plain old English dictionary.

Most of us will never learn Greek or Hebrew, but if you’re using a good word for word translation like ESV or NASB, you can be confident in using an English dictionary to look up the meanings of the words the translators have carefully chosen. And doing this can lead to even deeper study and more penetrating application. Let me give you an example. Consider this verse from Ephesians:

“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.”

Ephesians 4:31

If I put you on the spot and asked you to define malice could you do it? Sometimes we assume we know what words mean when we really don’t. As a result, we may read through the list of sins in this verse too quickly, thinking most of them don’t apply to us. Malice? Me? I don’t think so.

So let’s look it up in the dictionary. Malice is the desire to inflict injury, harm or suffering on another either because of a hostile impulse or out of deap seated meanness.

Now that we have a thorough definition of the word, we can go back and expand on what Paul is getting at. Paul is asking us here to put away any desire in our hearts to inflict harm or suffering on another person. Now, we may have no desire to physically harm someone else, but let’s ask some questions that may cut a little deeper.

If you’ve been going through a string of afflictions, do you secretly wish your “seems-to-have-it-all” neighbor would experience their fair share?

As your peruse through your social media and see young perfectly toned thighs and stomachs, do you scoff and wish that someday they’ll experience the frustration of a menopausal body that stubbornly hangs onto every ounce of fat?

What about those with whom we disagree on politics or the way our culture is developing? Do you harbor unseen hatred towards them, hoping they’ll receive judgment, instead of imitating our Lord who said, “Forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”

Malice seems to come in many shapes and sizes. Using a simple tool like an English dictionary allows us to slow down and ask sharper questions. And that helps us make even better application as we study the Word.

Now I think I’ll go look up the word clamor.

Lay It To Your Heart

“…know therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other.”

Deuteronomy 4:39

My daughter moved from a fully furnished apartment to an unfurnished rental house with her two roommates. Being the poor college students that they are, they needed furniture. I drove over a couple weeks ago to help her put together a cheap storage unit from Target. Before leaving, she texted that I should bring a hammer. No furniture and no tools. Ok. When I got there I realized she had not read the instructions thoroughly and had been using a board to pound the wrong peg into the wrong hole. She ended up causing unnecessary damage to her furniture because she hadn’t been paying close enough attention. She thought she knew what to do, but she didn’t.

We also assume we know what to do in living the Christian life. We don’t think we need reminders. We think if we can make it through the whole Bible once in our lifetime it’ll be enough. Why go back and read it again? We might not understand everything, but we get the main point. But if there’s anything the book of Deuteronomy teaches us it’s that we need reminders! We need to remember who God is, who we are and how he’s told us to live. From putting tassels on their clothing to arranging their calendar around feasts and festivals, God was making a point – we are forgetful people!

But it’s more than just bringing facts about God back to our remembrance. Here in Deuteronomy 4:39, Moses says to know, but in addition he says this – lay it to your heart. Lay it to your heart. That’s a step further than looking at the tassel on your clothing and remembering the commandments. It’s more than making sure you attend the next feast or festival. And for us moderns, I’m assuming it’s more than just writing your favorite verse on a sticky note so you can look at it as you brush your teeth. No. It’s about the heart. Tim Challies says this about the heart – “The heart, then, is the place where God’s influence comes into contact with man’s will to be accepted or rejected, to be obeyed or disobeyed. This makes the heart the very moral center of a human being.

Laying something to your heart then means that you will take the truth you know in your head and present it to your will over and over, allowing that truth to transform your loves and guide your life.

Verse 39 in Deuteronomy 4 tells us to acknowledge that the Lord is God, there is no other, but if we go back in the text we’ll see God expounding on what this means. Take your time in reading the following passage. Focus on the uniqueness of the one true God, the greatness of his works, and his free electing love for his chosen ones.

Ask now about the former days, long before your time, from the day God created human beings on the earth; ask from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of?  Has any other people heard the voice of God speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived?  Has any god ever tried to take for himself one nation out of another nation, by testings, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, or by great and awesome deeds, like all the things the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?

You were shown these things so that you might know that the Lord is God; besides him there is no other.  From heaven he made you hear his voice to discipline you. On earth he showed you his great fire, and you heard his words from out of the fire.  Because he loved your ancestors and chose their descendants after them, he brought you out of Egypt by his Presence and his great strength,  to drive out before you nations greater and stronger than you and to bring you into their land to give it to you for your inheritance, as it is today.

Deuteronomy 4:32-38

We are constantly forgetting who God is and who we are. Like my daughter, we don’t read the instructions (his Word) thoroughly enough and then we wonder why things go wrong. We can’t just go through this life assuming we’ll remember who we are and what God has said. We can say we know, but over and over again in Deuteronomy, and other places in the Old Testament, we see that God knows us a lot better than we know ourselves. He knows we will forget. And he knows that what we know in our heads doesn’t always transfer to the heart, to the very center of our will. That’s why he tells us to lay it to our hearts. It isn’t enough to say you know who God is. According to James, even the demons know who God is. No, the truth of who God is must travel down to your heart so it might transform the very core of who you are.

God’s Delayed Yes

I imagine Zechariah and Elizabeth had plans. Most young married couples do. Part of their plans revolved around Zechariah’s service as a priest, but I’m sure, like most married couples, their plans also included having children, maybe lots of them. Luke tells us, in chapter 1 of his gospel, that they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly before him. This doesn’t mean they were perfect, but that they were faithful. Given this information about them, it’s a surprise to read the next thing about them.

They had no children.

Elizabeth was barren.

And they were advanced in years.

Imagine what those early years and then the middle years of their marriage had been like. Month after month, and then year after year, their desire for a family was denied. Did they hear the whispers of neighbors? Were they assaulted with questions from their relatives? As faithful Israelites, they knew the stories of God’s faithfulness. They knew how he had intervened for Sarah and Abraham, for Isaac and Rebekah, and for Hannah. Did they go through seasons of doubt? We don’t know. Perhaps Psalm 113 was a common refrain in their home:

The Lord is exalted over all the nations,
    his glory above the heavens.
 Who is like the Lord our God,
    the One who sits enthroned on high,
 who stoops down to look
    on the heavens and the earth?

 He raises the poor from the dust
    and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
 he seats them with princes,
    with the princes of his people.
 He settles the childless woman in her home
    as a happy mother of children.

Praise the Lord.

Those last words must have been harder and harder to hear and pray as the years went by. In those times, a woman’s inability to have a child resulted in a kind of social stigma. Did they stop praying? And when? As both their bodies started to show the telltale signs of age and infertility, especially Elizabeth, the request for a child must have faded to the background. Possible? Yes. Probable? Not without a miracle.

There’s no way for us to know what they went through during those long years of waiting and hoping, but perhaps they were just like us. Maybe their hearts asked the same questions. “Do you hear us God?” “Have we sinned in some way that is preventing this blessing from coming to us?” Surely they reached a point where they knew it wasn’t going to happen. Children were not going to be in their future.

Then one day, Zechariah was chosen by lot to enter the temple and burn incense. We’re told that Zechariah was of the division of Abijah. There were 24 divisions and each contained a large number of priests. This would be the only time in Zechariah’s life where he would get this specific opportunity to serve.

We know what happens next. The angel Gabriel, the same Gabriel who appeared to Daniel hundreds of years before, appears to Zechariah and says this:

“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John…” Luke 1:13

Your prayer has been heard? Your prayer has been heard! Think about that for a moment. When do you think was the last time Zechariah had prayed that prayer, a prayer for a child? Years? Decades? We don’t know. But God did. God heard all the prayers they had both prayed. He heard them all and remembered. And at just the right time, he intervened and said, “Yes!” in the most spectacular and miraculous way. It was so spectacular and miraculous that Zechariah didn’t believe it and was made mute until John’s birth.

We all pray lots of prayers, but some of them have been offered over and over again, for many years. After a while, if we don’t see the answer we’re looking for, we may think the answer is “No.” We may even stop praying.

We equate delay with NO.

But remember that God isn’t bound by time like we are. Our perspective on our prayers is limited because we’re finite. We’re not able to see the whole expanse of time from beginning to end. We don’t have the capability to determine how all things, including all our prayers, work together for God’s wise and always good purposes.

But even when we’ve stopped praying for something, or someone, because it seems from our limited perspective that it’s just not going to happen, God remembers.

God hasn’t forgotten.

The name Zechariah means, “the Lord has remembered”. For Zechariah and Elizabeth their sorrow exploded into joy. But this joy wasn’t meant just for them! The barrenness Elizabeth experienced was a theme God had been using among his people. Just like Sarah, and Rebekah and Hannah, it wasn’t a symbol of the absence of God, but a sign that God was about to do something big. I like how the Zondervan NIV Study Bible explains it: “God’s reversal for one family signifies that he is present to save and deliver his entire people.” The miraculous birth of John proved that the Lord had remembered Zechariah and Elizabeth’s many prayers and had indeed remembered his people!

In our own prayer lives, let’s be encouraged in the delays. God hears our prayers. He remembers each one and is wisely and lovingly working in response to them. The delays don’t always mean no.

Much More

One study tip that yields great results is to look for repeated words and phrases. Many times the authors of Scripture, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, repeat things for emphasis. But you won’t notice these repeated words or phrases unless you slow down in your Bible reading and read the passage over and over. Then when you find these repeated words and phrases you can stop and meditate, maybe even ask questions about why these words and phrases would be repeated. Let me share how this recently worked with me.

In the mornings before I get out of bed I usually review passages I’ve memorized and recently it was time to review Romans 5. One benefit of memorizing Scripture is it aids in using these study tips I just mentioned. And if you have a chapter of Scripture or maybe a whole Psalm in what I call ‘the back pocket of your mind’, it allows you to at any time and in any place slow down and pay greater attention to what’s in the text.

Much More

The phrase “much more” occurs four times in Romans 5. The first two appear in verses 9 and 10:

“Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.”

Paul’s style in his epistles is to use logical arguments. Here in verses 9 and 10 he is using an argument to give his readers assurance of their justification, solid confidence that the God they have placed their faith in for salvation will be completely for them until the end. Both of these verses are making a similar argument: since X, much more Y. John Piper says this is “heart-assuring logic” and adds: “If logic was ever set on fire, surely it is in these two verses.” The heart-assuring logic of Romans 5:9-10 is this: If God has done the hardest thing, you can be sure he will do everything else that’s necessary. God did the hardest thing by sending his Son to die while we were his enemies. If he did that, bringing us justification and reconciliation, surely, when he comes to judge the world in wrath at the end of the age, he will save us from that wrath into eternal life with Christ.

The second time these words are repeated is in verses 15-17:

“But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. for the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.”

Again in this passage, Paul is using similar logic: If X, much more Y. This time he’s comparing the consequences of Adam’s transgression with the results of Christ’s sacrificial death. It’s a given that because of Adam’s sin, people died and death reigned. But do you see here an increase in emphasis to the logical argument? Forgive the use of the words, but I can only think of the word ‘super-size’ to describe it. Here he is saying that there isn’t a one-to-one correspondence between the results of Adam’s sin and the results of Christ’s sacrificial death. It’s not one to one, it’s one to a million! Maybe we could call it the super-sized logic of gospel assurance! Yes, death reigned through the one man Adam, but much more will those who receive the abundance of grace reign in life through Jesus Christ.

The first passage was about giving assurance, but the second passage super sizes our assurance, causing us to wonder at our merciful and gracious God and how great our salvation really is.

Forgetting Love

“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory, he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith – that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3:14-19

I’ve been praying Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3 for myself lately. I pray it for others on a regular basis but for some reason I’ve never gotten into a habit of praying it for myself. I’m not sure why. But lately I’ve felt a great need to know the love of God, to really know it, not just know about it. And that’s what Paul is getting at I think.

I love to study and learn. I love to teach others about God. But does this acquiring of knowledge about God lead me to loving him and experiencing his love in return? Or have I forgotten about love in the midst of all my study? Some of us may shy away from talking about experience, as if experience is an enemy of sound doctrine. But I really think they’re friends. Doctrine without experience is dry and dead. Experience without doctrine is disorder and confusion. Good doctrine must inform our experience, and all our experience should be guided by sound doctrine. But if all my study of Scripture and doctrine doesn’t result in any experience of loving God and being loved by him, I’ve truly missed out.

For isn’t this the whole point of the story, the capital ‘S’ story of redemption? The story of redemption told in the Bible is a love story, a rescue mission in which God redeems his people and brings them back to himself. Why? Because he loves them! And he desires our love in return. I fail when I make Bible reading and Bible study a mere exercise in accumulating knowledge about God instead of knowledge of God. And that knowledge of God should ultimately lead me to a greater love for God. Paul proclaims deep truth in Ephesians 1 about God’s unconditional election of his chosen people and to study that takes much time and effort. But if at the end of your study, you’re only left with a great argument for predestination, you’ve missed the point! There are five more chapters in the book! And right in the middle is this powerful prayer. Notice what Paul doesn’t pray for. He doesn’t pray for the Ephesians to be able to defend the doctrine of unconditional election with their friends. No! He asks for God to give them the strength to comprehend what that doctrine points to – the astounding and incomprehensible love of God in Christ!

No amount of study is going to give us this kind of strength. The reason Paul prays this way, and the reason we need to as well is because our comprehension of the love of God is weak. Our understanding is stunted. It seems the love of God is so profound that we need the supernatural help of the Spirit to give us the strength to grasp its meaning.

So in your zeal to know God’s word, don’t forget love. Don’t forget the point of the Story and where we’re headed. We’re headed to a wedding feast. A wedding feast where we’re the beloved Bride and the Lamb of God is our groom.

I think I’ll be praying Paul’s prayer more often now.

Even the Darkness

If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you. Psalm 139:11-12

There are times when I’ve wished for complete darkness. When I’ve been forced downstairs to the couch in search of sleep, I realize how bright the night is in my house. The glowing numerals of the oven clock and the piercing blue light emanating from the Internet router silently intrude. And what about the neighbor’s flood light that seems to be on 24/7, shining right into my back windows? Upstairs I’ve solved the problem with blackout curtains. At least in my bedroom I can eliminate almost all sources of light.

As a child I was afraid of the dark, afraid that something sinister lurked under my bed just waiting to grab the stray toe hanging off the edge. But as an adult there’s a different kind of darkness, not literal, but just as scary. It’s one no one seeks and can descend upon us at any time. An uninvited blackout that clouds our hearts and brings despair.

Sometimes this kind of darkness is our own doing. And sometimes it comes as a result of unexpected trials or sickness. When I was deep into chemotherapy, each day seemed like the same long slog. When I looked in the mirror I just saw utter exhaustion. All I could do was tell myself that maybe tomorrow I’d feel better. One night I dragged myself to my chair in the bedroom hoping to live stream a concert featuring an old college friend. I thought it would bring light and hope, but I didn’t even have the energy to try to log on.

It was in those moments where I saw no light and tricked myself into believing the next day would be better and brighter. Was it? Sometimes. But just as often it wasn’t. One day I received an unexpected message from an acquaintance who had battled cancer. He said it can very lonely. Indeed. This kind of darkness was very lonely.

It doesn’t matter how you find your way into darkness. You may be suffering with chronic pain. You may have succumbed to the same sin over and over and now realize you’ve backed yourself into a dark corner with no conceivable way out. You may just be under a heavy cloud of despair, unsure where it’s come from. Whatever it is, wherever it’s come from, you can take courage that God sees your situation from a different perspective. He sees through the darkness and he sees you. The lack of light in your situation doesn’t hinder God’s eyesight. It has no bearing whatsoever. Nothing is hidden from him. He can see right to the bottom of your circumstances and into the depths of your heart.

He also understands the loneliness and despair darkness can bring. How can I say that? Consider this: the God of Psalm 139, for whom nothing is dark, sent his only Son to the Cross to experience the ultimate darkness. In pouring out his wrath on Christ, the Father turned his face away. This kind of darkness is described in Psalm 88 and I wouldn’t be surprised if Jesus had these words in mind as he experienced the loneliness of the crucifixion: “You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness.” Psalm 88:18 The One whom John called “the true light” experienced the darkness of separation from his Father for our sakes, for our salvation.

We’re afraid of the darkness because of what we can’t see, because of how it makes us feel lost and lonely. But God is never blind and never lost. There is nothing blocking his vision. He knows exactly where we are and the path we’re taking. And Jesus experienced a greater darkness so we would forever live in his light. So remember and take heart that even in our greatest darkness, God sees us and God cares. It cannot hinder him and will never separate us from his love.

Trust him, even in the darkness.

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A Picture of Not Abiding

“Abide in me, and I in you…” John 15:4

The concept of abiding has always seemed hazy to me. I, like many others, like things to be laid out in steps. That way I’ll know if I’m progressing, if I’m moving toward the goal. But abiding is about a relationship and relationships aren’t like building Ikea furniture. Step by step directions and checklists won’t suffice because relationships are organic things. But still, how does one exactly do this thing called abiding? Is there a way to see if we’re swinging wide of the mark?

Sometimes when we don’t understand a word, we can gain insight by looking at its opposite. To abide means to remain in a place, so the opposite would be to depart that place. Jesus specifically commands his disciples to abide in him, so to not abide would mean to depart from Jesus. If we then think more deeply about the metaphor of the vine and the branch, we realize that to abide in Christ is to remain attached to our life source. To not abide in Christ would mean we’re seeking nourishment elsewhere. And when he elaborates in verse 7 by saying this: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will done for you,” we understand that a major part of our nourishment comes from immersing ourselves in the Word. So if we neglect the Word of God, there’s a good chance we’re not abiding. That’s a good start but I wanted more understanding.

The other day I was hiking on a local trail, meditating on this some more. I began to wonder whether there were any examples in the Bible of a person who didn’t abide. My mind went to Luke 15 and the parable of the prodigal son.

Most of us know this story and could retell it without much help. It’s a beautifully redemptive story of a young son who rejects his father and squanders his inheritance on immoral pursuits. Only when he’s left destitute, feeding pigs, does he come to his senses and return home. To his surprise and astonishment, his father has been looking out over the horizon for him this whole time and receives him back with lavish amounts of grace.

We rightly love that story, but what about the older son? Here is where I think we get a picture of what it might look like to not abide. See if you agree with me.

First, read these words again from Luke 15:

“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, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”

Remember that this is the climax of three separate parables in Luke 15. And why did Jesus tell these parables? We’re told the reason in Luke 15:2. The Pharisees were grumbling at the fact that Jesus was associating with tax collectors and sinners, the lowest of the low. Jesus responds by telling them three stories with the same redemptive theme – the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. It’s only at the end of the last parable, the last of these stories about something or someone being saved, that Jesus adds another character, and draws a comparison between this older son and the Pharisees. So what do we see and how might it paint a picture of not abiding?

The father has just made a fool of himself rejoicing over his lost son and proceeds to throw him an extravagant banquet. But where is the older son? Doesn’t he know the good news? No. He is in the fields. He’s in the wrong place. Shouldn’t he have been with his father, concerned over his younger brother, waiting and hoping for his return? His heart is in the wrong place too. He doesn’t share his father’s affections. Only someone who has hardened their heart would react in anger to the news of the return of their lost brother who was considered as good as dead.

We see more evidence of this hardness when the father comes out to his older son to entreat him to come to the banquet. Notice the merciful beseeching of the father! But it’s to no avail. His response to his father’s entreaties reveals a self-righteous heart and a grave misunderstanding of what a relationship with the father is all about. He thinks his works are deserving of merit, that his relationship with the father is a quid pro quo – he’s done a good job all this time, so why didn’t he earn a banquet? But his father shows him his error. His relationship to his father was always secure and everything the father has already belonged to him. It had always been about grace!

By finishing the story like this, Jesus reveals the true heart of the Pharisees and I believe gives us a picture of someone who had failed to abide. If the Pharisees had been abiding in God and had truly understood his Word, then they would have had the same affection for sinners as Jesus. But they were like the older son, unable to rejoice in the free offer of salvation to the most undeserving.

If the Pharisees had been abiding, they would have realized that their source of life and righteousness came from God, not their works. But like the older son, they thought their works made them deserving of the blessings and salvation of God, when all along, it was only ever about grace.

If the older brother is a good example of not abiding, we see that someone can look like they’re doing the right things, when all along there is no relationship. For the branch to continue in the vine and bear fruit, it must get its nourishment from the vine. It’s silly to think that a branch can produce fruit apart from drawing life from its source. But we do this all the time when we seek to find life in other things but Christ.

I think I have a much better understanding now of what it means to abide. Do you?

Glance Then Gaze

“So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image.” 2 Corinthians 3:18

“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” 2 Corinthians 4:16

My body has been through the proverbial wringer for almost a year now. It started in earnest back in November when I had a lumpectomy to remove what we thought were only two tumors. It turned out there were five plus cancer in the lymph nodes. What I and my doctors thought would be pretty straightforward got a lot more complex. Since then I’ve been through four months of chemotherapy and then two weeks ago a double mastectomy. In about five weeks I’ll start a course of radiation. Sometime next year I’ll have reconstructive surgery.

I never thought I was a vain person until I got breast cancer. And while I am doing very well and it looks like I will soon be cancer free, the body I’d always lived in as a woman has changed significantly. I’ve been a long distance runner for almost fifteen years and that exercise has kept me fit and able to eat pretty much anything I’ve wanted. But in 2022 there’s been very little exercise, no meeting up with friends before dawn to do an easy 6 miles, no ability to strength train, no marathon training plans. Chemotherapy made my hair fall out and not just on my head. As I looked in the mirror each day I was confronted with a face without eyebrows and eyelashes. It also threw me into early menopause and as a result the pounds started creeping up as I was weighed weekly before infusions.

As my body changed I finally realized how much I was examining and judging what I saw in the mirror, how often I weighed myself, and how I used those things to measure my own worth. Even during my battle with cancer, I couldn’t stop being hard on the person staring back at me. I had been blind to it for so long because it was easy to stay at a weight that was acceptable in my eyes. To look at me, you probably wouldn’t notice, but that doesn’t mean this sin of vanity didn’t grip as tight, asking me to serve the image I gazed at in the mirror or the number I saw on the scale.

God has helped me grow ever so slowly in contentment as I’ve waged this battle against vanity and the pride that goes along with it, but the thought of the double mastectomy tempted me to fear. It seems silly, but I wasn’t really fearing the surgery or the pain or even the cancer! I was more anxious and fearful about what my body would look like when it was over. How would I react when I looked down?

Before I was wheeled into the operating room, one of the pastors at our church and a dear friend came to pray with me and my husband. As he prayed I was struck by two words that he used: glance and gaze. He was praying for me to have an eternal perspective. But God used those words like a scalpel to my soul. Those two words – glance and gaze – have become a new tool in this fight against vanity and taking pride in how I look.

Glance at your body, but gaze into the face of Christ. Glance at your incisions as they heal but gaze at the scars in his hands and his side which brought an even greater and deeper healing. If we gaze intently at our bodies but only glance at Christ, we will be distracted by our many flaws and be left with disappointment. But if we gaze at Christ while only glancing at our bodies, we will be transfixed by his perfect love and never be put to shame.

As women we are so tempted to gaze intently at our bodies as they age, and some strive against time to make themselves look younger. But it’s a fruitless task, a losing battle. But gazing at the Lord and looking intently at his glory is no fruitless task. When we look wonderingly at his perfections we do change, just not in a way that can be seen in the mirror or measured on a scale. The mirror and scale only reflect and measure the shell that is our physical body, the part of us that will soon return to dust. But the very real part of us, the part that is eternal, is on the inside. The Bible calls it the inner man. And as we spend more time fixing our eyes on Christ, and on the things that are eternal, this inner man is renewed and gets stronger even as the outer shell that is our body wastes away.