Afraid and Powerless

I suspect that you would be hard-pressed to find someone who would tell you that being afraid and powerless is a good thing, and yet that is exactly what I want to suggest to you with this post. I observe as a general principle that the God of the Bible is in the habit of helping those whose predicament is dire and whose personal resources are inadequate to meet the challenges before them.

It’s possible that your Sunday School teacher taught you that “God helps those who help themselves”, but that’s not something you’ll find in the Bible. What you’ll find instead is a God who helps the helpless.

We see this principle in play with the example of King Jehoshaphat, who was on the brink of war with three nations who wanted to push Judah into extinction. When Jehoshaphat learned of this threat, the author of 2Chronicles records that “Jehoshaphat was afraid” (2Chr. 20:3).

Is it not true that the thing most likely to drive us to our knees in prayer is fear?

When the waters of life are calm, when the tasks of life appear manageable, we will likely admit that our motivation to call upon the Lord is diminished. But when the storm clouds gather, when the obstacles before us appear insurmountable, people of faith are irresistibly drawn to God in prayer.

This was the response of the king of Judah: “Jehoshaphat was afraid and (so) he turned his attention to seek the Lord; and proclaimed a fast throughout Judah” (2Chr. 20:4).

There is much we can unpack from Jehoshaphat’s prayer, and for that you can listen to the audio message posted at the bottom of this article. But for me, what stands out is Jehoshaphat’s posture before God. The godly, wealthy, and influential King of Judah confesses to the Lord, “We are powerless before this great multitude who are coming against us; nor do we know what to do” (2Chr. 20:12).

On the surface, this example of a nervous king confessing powerlessness is not all that inspiring. And then we read on and see that the Lord answers Jehoshaphat’s prayer and decisively delivers him and the people of Judah from their enemies.

I am left with no other conclusion but to say that Jehoshaphat’s posture of weakness is the key to his ultimate success.

Jehoshaphat’s predicament couldn’t have been more dire. He couldn’t have been more needy. Overmatched. Afraid. Powerless. Unsure of what to do. But Jehoshaphat has the humility and the wisdom to call out to the One who is never overmatched and always knows what to do.

Admittedly, our adversity is of an altogether different nature. For some, our faith in God’s goodness is rattled by the threat of a deadly disease or a nagging physical ailment. For others, our faith is challenged when a relationship with a loved one is strained or severed. And still others, perhaps many of us, find that our faith wanes as we allow Christian priorities to be squeezed out by worldly temptations and career-building ambition.

As I consider the myriad of enemies to the Christian faith, I conclude, as Jehoshaphat did, that I am powerless against them.

But the good news is that God stands ready to help. As He says through the Psalmist, “Call upon Me in the day of trouble; (and) I will deliver you, and you will honour Me” (Ps. 50:15).

This was Jehoshaphat’s experience, but it can also be your experience. Call upon the Lord, and find your strength in Him.

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“Jehoshaphat: Passion For Power”, based on 2Chronicles 20:1-13, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, June 12, 2011.

Prayer and Pain

It has been said, “What a man is alone on his knees before God, that he is and no more” (Robert McCheyne).

By this standard I submit to you that Hannah was a great woman. Hannah was a great woman, and her pattern for praise and prayer is an inspiration for present day followers of Jesus Christ.

But before Hannah’s praise, before Hannah’s prayer, is Hannah’s PAIN.

We read in 1Samuel 1:2ff, “(Elkanah) had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.” Hannah’s predicament is made worse by the fact that her rival kept provoking her (1:6).

If Hannah ever fought back with harsh words, we’ll never know. If Hannah ever considered leaving her husband, and this polygamous arrangement, we’ll never know. I’m guessing that the temptation was there. Still, another option would have been to do nothing. Hannah could have simply shrugged her shoulders and said, ‘It is what it is.’

What Hannah ultimately chooses to do, however, provides us with an excellent example for responding to pain: Hannah prays.

Hannah was feeling broken. She had stopped eating. She was visibly downcast. She was often found to be weeping. But she prays.

I long for that to be the instinct for the follower of Christ in seasons of pain and suffering. Instead of fighting back, instead of running away, instead of giving up, we pray. I long for our instinct to be that we pour out our soul to the One who has the power to alter our circumstances, and the power to change us.

Hannah’s circumstances do change. She eventually conceives and gives birth to a son, Samuel (1:20). We know from experience, and we know from looking at other biblical texts, that God does not always change our circumstances when we pray. Jesus prayed repeatedly in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Take this cup from Me“, but it was never taken away (Mt. 26:39). Paul prayed three times for the removal of his thorn, but it was never removed (2Cor. 12:8).

Our circumstances might not change when we pray, but something else surely will: We will change. Our perspective will change. Our faith and trust in God will strengthen. Our affection for God will increase. We will change when we pray.

Looking at Hannah’s approach, we observe first that Hannah prayed passionately. We are told, “Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord” (1:10). According to the biblical example, emotion is a good thing when praying. Hannah does not make her case to God the way a lawyer reasons a case before a judge. Hannah makes her case with tears streaming down her face. She weeps before the throne of God. Hannah prays passionately.

The second thing we observe is that Hannah prays sincerely. We read, “Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard” (1:13). Eli the priest saw this and thought Hannah was drunk (1:13), and so he confronts her. Hannah must have been quite animated for Eli to draw such a conclusion.

I love Hannah’s explanation: “I was pouring out my soul to the Lord” (1:15). You see, there is a big difference between saying a prayer and praying. We see in Hannah that prayer has less to do with spoken words than it does with the trajectory and orientation of our heart. The example here is that we pour out our soul to God when we pray. The example Hannah gives is to pray sincerely.

The third element which marks Hannah’s approach to prayer is that she prays persistently. We read, “As (Hannah) kept on praying to the Lord, Eli observed her mouth” (1:12). We are given the impression that part of the reason Hannah got Eli’s attention was because she had been there a while!

I have heard followers of Christ express a concern that repeating our prayers demonstrates a lack of faith. We remember Jesus telling us that our Heavenly Father knows what we need before we ask Him, and so we limit our words accordingly (Mt. 6:8). And yet, at the same time, we note that the biblical example also points us to persistence. Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, prays repeatedly about His impending death. The patriarch Jacob is said to have wrestled all night with God saying: “I will not let you go until you bless me” (Gen. 32:26). We are told that Hannah “kept on praying” to the Lord. Her example to us is to pray persistently.

I marvel at this woman of faith who prayed out of a context of profound pain. Inevitably, there will come seasons in your life when pain and suffering will challenge you. Whether it be physical illness, relationship turmoil, or financial pressures–I want to commend to you Hannah’s example:

She did not fight back. She did not run away. She did not give up. Hannah prayed.

Hannah did not ‘say a prayer’, but rather she prayed passionately, sincerely, and persistently to the God she worshiped and adored. May Hannah’s example inspire each of us to do the same.


The Refiner’s Fire

Today I had a profound encounter with the transforming power of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Last July I wrote a post referencing a man who regularly slept on the front porch of our church. I hadn’t seen my friend in many months until today when he visited my office with a heavily bandaged face and right hand.

My friend had been living and working on another island in The Bahamas when he had an accident. When lighting a fire to cook dinner, he inadvertently caused an explosion that launched him off the ground and temporarily took away his eyesight. As he recounted the story to me, the extensive burn marks on his face verified what he was saying.

At first, you could only feel sorry for the man because of what he had endured. But soon it became apparent that this fire had, in a manner, saved my friend’s life.

“I was blind, but now I see!”, he declared when entering my office. At first, I thought he was talking about his physical eyesight, but upon further reflection I think he was talking about his spiritual eyesight.

My friend was overwhelmed with emotion as he described his new perspective to me:

“I’ve been given a second chance!”

“I’m Jonah–I was swallowed, but I’ve been spit back up!”

“I’m Job–‘Though He slay me, I will hope in Him'” (Job 13:15).

My friend shared how he was now reading his Bible every day and as I read some passages to encourage him, he insisted that I write down the references for him to look up later. He also thanked me for all that I had done for him, stood up and, with tears streaming down his face, gave me a hug.

I don’t know that I did all that much for him—some meals, some clean clothes, some encouragement, but sometimes we would go for weeks without any meaningful exchange.

At the end of the day, nothing I did brought about the transformation that I was witnessing. God did this.

One of the metaphors for salvation used in the Bible is that of the refiner’s fire. Many congregations even sing a hymn by that title. Amazingly, in this instance, the Lord chose literal fire to transform and refine a man that He refused to let go.

I am overjoyed that the word of the Lord, spoken through Zechariah, now applies to a man who once slept on our porch.

I will put them into the fire;
I will refine them like silver
and test them like gold.
They will call on my name
and I will answer them;
I will say, ‘They are my people,’
and they will say, ‘The LORD is our God.’”

The Power and Compassion of Jesus

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Throughout the Scriptures, human beings are often depicted as struggling to see what I would call, “The bigger picture”. What is frequently the case is that our vision for the future becomes stunted by our preoccupation with the present. Furthermore, our vision for the future tends to be limited by our existing set of experiences.

This is precisely what we see in Martha as she goes out to greet Jesus following the death of her brother, Lazarus. Martha says to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21).

It is not that Martha is altogether devoid of faith. Martha articulates, in this account, her conviction that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (11:27). In addition, Martha evidently held the conviction that Jesus could heal the sick.

However, Martha’s perspective is limited in at least two ways. First of all, she says to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died”. Martha’s perspective is that Jesus is too late. Martha’s view is that Jesus needed to arrive by a particular time if Lazarus was to be healed.

Secondly, Martha’s perspective was limited in terms of space. She says, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died”. Martha’s view was that the healing of Lazarus could only happen if Jesus was physically present. Perhaps she had not heard the account of when Jesus healed a centurion’s servant without even being in the presence of the ailing person (Luke 7:1-10).

I do not mean to unduly criticize Martha here because I reckon that I might very well have said the same thing. By pointing out Martha’s limited perspective, I only mean to highlight the limitations of our perspective as it relates to God’s working in our lives and in this world. Thankfully, Martha eventually puts her trust in Jesus. After initially lamenting that He did not arrive at their house in time, she eventually confesses to Jesus, “Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give you” (John 11:22).

Friends, here is a demonstration of why faith is so vital. On this side of heaven, our view of God, and our view of the way things are, will inevitably be limited. For this reason, our posture before God must be the posture of humility, understanding that there is much that we cannot see. Along with a posture of humility, we will be well-served by the posture of faith, trusting that God is capable of doing what needs to be done. This becomes Martha’s posture.

And what a merciful response Jesus gives to her, “Your brother shall rise again” (John 11:23). Jesus responds to Martha’s faith with a blessed promise—Lazarus will live again.

Even still, Martha’s perspective remains limited—she can’t seem to overcome her conviction that the time of opportunity to heal Lazarus has passed, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day”, she says to Jesus (John 11:24). We see a measure of optimism in Martha’s response, but her optimism is tempered by her view of reality.

That’s our challenge, isn’t it? In attempting to be pragmatic, in attempting to be guided by reasonable expectations, we run the danger of settling for less than what is possible if Jesus were to apply His power. We possess a modicum of faith in Jesus, but often our view of what Jesus can accomplish is often quite small. We imagine that things like congregational growth and spiritual progress are limited by statistical probability and the natural ordering of things.

And then we, like Martha, have our limited notions shattered by Jesus, who says, “I am the Resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die” (John 11:25, 26).

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Abundant Life Explained

Jesus says, “I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly” (10:10).

Jesus promises abundant life for those who come to Him. That sounds immensely attractive, doesn’t it? But, what exactly is abundant life?

The answer to this question is often debated. I was asked this very question by Wendall Jones on the JCN program, The Platform. At the time, I answered Wendall Jones by saying, “Christ-likeness”.

I’m not sure that I like the precision of my own answer. Becoming like Christ is the outcome of abundant life. But I don’t think I should have equated the two. It would have been more accurate for me to say that the one leads to the other.

What then is abundant life?

Some take this promise to mean that if we are obedient to Christ, He will shower us with material blessings. Some equate abundant life with having an abundance of wealth, and freedom from hardship. In theological circles, we call this “The Prosperity Gospel”. The Prosperity Gospel promises health, wealth, and prosperity in this life and the next. But is that an accurate rendering of John 10, verse 10?

I think the problem of interpretation can largely be attributed to people detaching John 10:10 from the rest of the chapter. Isolate Jesus’ declaration, and here is what you have: “I have come that they may have life, and have it in abundance.

Detached from the rest of the chapter, I can begin to see how a “prosperity gospel” might emerge. However, within the context of the rest of the chapter, abundant life looks very differently. So the context is what? The context is Jesus using the metaphor of shepherding sheep to describe His relationship with us.

Jesus explicitly says, “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11). Abundant life must be understood in relation to the metaphor of our being sheep and Jesus being the Good Shepherd.

If this is true, where else do you think we might look, in order to better understand the meaning of abundant life? If abundant life is promised within the context of the shepherd/sheep relationship, then could it be the case that the best picture of abundant life is provided within the 23rd Psalm?

Let’s take some time to examine this familiar Psalm, and I’m confident that we will find here many of the necessary ingredients of abundant living. If you asked me to provide a general answer—if you asked me to summarize abundant life based on this Psalm, I would say this: Abundant life is the abiding contentment that comes from our relationship with the Lord.

The whole Psalm is a picture of this, but the first verse says this explicitly: “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want” (23:1). In relationship to the Good Shepherd, we’re not in need. We have enough. We are satisfied. We are content.

As we read on in Psalm 23, what we find are the ingredients of this contentment and a more thorough description of an abundant life.

Looking at verse 2, the first ingredient of abundant life is to have a restful soul. “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters, He restoreth my soul” (23:2,3).

It is my understanding that sheep do not lie down easily. Sheep tend to be too nervous and too anxious to lie down. In order for sheep to lie down they need to be free from fear, aggravation, and hunger (Boice, John, 749). This is what the Good Shepherd provides. In the company of their guardian, the sheep feel safe and at ease to lie down. The first ingredient of abundant life is to have a restful soul.

The second ingredient of abundant life is to have sufficient guidance. “He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (23:3). It is a well known fact that sheep like to wander. Unfortunately, sheep tend to get into trouble when they wander. They make themselves vulnerable to predators, and sometimes they unwittingly wander away from where food and water can be found. Sheep need to be led. Sheep need a shepherd who will keep them in close proximity to water, and lead them to safe grazing areas.

It’s not hard to read ourselves into the metaphor, is it? We are, as the hymn says, “prone to wander”, and when we wander, we tend to get into difficulties. Accordingly, the second ingredient of abundant life is to have sufficient guidance.

The third ingredient of abundant life (my favourite) is to have steadfast companionship. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” (23:4).

Abundant life does not mean an absence of trouble. Psalm 23 is filled with trouble—there is the valley of the shadow of death, and there are enemies. Life is not easy. Harm may befall us and those we love. This is the harsh reality that many of us know all too well. But the promise of Scripture is that the Good Shepherd will never, ever, ever, leave His sheep. In the midst of life’s most difficult trials, the Good Shepherd stays with His sheep—“Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.

I want that for each of you. When trials come your way, I want you to know the comfort and strength that comes from having a relationship with the Good Shepherd. It is an profound experience to have God at your side amid adversity. This is the 3rd ingredient of abundant life: steadfast companionship.

The fourth ingredient of abundant life is closely related to the 3rd. The 4th ingredient is to have ample provision. The Greek word for “abundance” actually has a mathematical meaning, and generally denotes a surplus. And you might know that the English word “abundance” comes from two Latin words “ab” and “undare”, which means “to rise in waves” and “to overflow” (Boice, John, 748).

Sound familiar? “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over” (23:5).

Here the image transitions to that of a dinner host. And what is provided by the Lord is described in terms of a 1st class host. Nothing can deter the host from providing for His guest. No event or circumstance will compel Him to reschedule. Accordingly, the table is prepared even in the presence of enemies.

The reference to oil is also noteworthy. In ancient times oil was commonly applied to one’s head/face for its soothing qualities and its capacity to make a person feel refreshed. And the cup which is offered does not come from a stingy host. This is a cup which is overflowing. So you see, the Good Shepherd accompanies His sheep in trouble, not simply as a Comforter, but as a Provider.

The Psalm pictures the Good Shepherd as giving more than bare necessity. The Good Shepherd is marked by lavish generosity. In His presence, our “cup runneth over”. Those who engage the Good Shepherd in a relationship experience ample provision.

The fifth, and final, ingredient described in Psalm 23 is the promise of a heavenly home. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever” (23:6).

The abundant life Jesus offers affects the here and now. We can have a restful soul today. We can receive guidance from the Lord today. We can experience His steadfast companionship in life’s most challenging seasons. We can experience the generous provision of the Lord in this life.

But it is also important to bear in mind that the abundance offered by the Lord to His people is forever. Moreover, the abundance we experience in heaven will be vastly superior to the abundance we experience on earth.

I want to leave you with a description of our heavenly home from the Book of Revelation, chapter 7, verses 16 and 17. This promise applies to the sheep who answer the call of the Good Shepherd.

Never again will they hunger;
Never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat upon them,
Nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd;
He will lead them to springs of living water.
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Friends, you likely realize that multiple voices are calling for you. The world beckons you, with all of her temptations and responsibilities. I want to remind you that the Good Shepherd is also calling for you…and if you follow, you will experience what can best be described as abundant life.