Prayerful Leadership.

But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word. – Acts 6:4 ESV

As the early church continued to grow in size, there were inevitable problems that came up. Acts chapter four describes a situation that arose between two different groups within the rapidly expanding church in Jerusalem. As a result of the events surrounding the coming of the Holy Spirit, Jews who had come from all over the known world to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost had come to accept Jesus Christ as their Messiah and Savior. There were native Hebrews who spoke primarily Aramaic and were from the region of Palestine. But there were also Hellenistic Jews who were primarily Greek-speaking and from outside the land of Palestine. One group used the Hebrew Scriptures, while the other used the Greek translation, called the Septuagint. It seems that their main issue was a linguistic one that translated into a cultural conflict and ended up making its way into the early church. Even in those early days Satan was attempting to use division and dissension as a means to create disunity within the body of Christ.

While Hellenistic Jews and Hebraic Jews had their own synagogues in Jerusalem, when they became believers in Christ, they ended up worshiping side by side. This inevitably led to some tension. Luke records that a dispute arose over the distribution of food to the widows within the church. The Hellenistic Jews were claiming that their widows were being neglected. This dispute led the twelve apostles, who made up the leadership of the local church, to appoint men to oversee the distribution of the food to ensure it was done fairly and equitably. Their reasoning for this decision was simple. “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables” (Acts 6:2 ESV). They were not diminishing the importance of the issue or demeaning the role of service, but were simply establishing priorities. In their minds, it was essential that they continue to spread the good news regarding Jesus Christ. That was the mandate given to them by Jesus Himself before He ascended back into heaven. So they chose “ seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3 ESV) to handle the issue of the distribution of food to the widows. This decision left them free to devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.

It is interesting to note that the apostles saw their responsibility as two-fold. Jesus had made His instructions clear: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20 ESV). But Jesus had also taught them how to pray. He had modeled for them in His earthly life the importance of prayer. His ministry had been marked by a careful balance between preaching and prayer. The apostles knew from watching His life, that Jesus lived a life of dependence upon the Father. As impressive as His miracles had been, the disciples didn’t ask Jesus to teach them to heal, they asked Him to teach them how to pray. They had been amazed at the intimacy of His prayer life with the Father. They were taken by His need for time alone with God and the power and guidance He seemed to receive from those moments alone in prayer. They had lived with Jesus for more than three years. They knew how hard He worked, how tired He became at the end of a long day. And they had seen Him spend entire nights in prayer, skipping the evening meal and missing out on much-needed sleep. Yet He met the new day with a renewed sense of commitment and a supernatural energy that they couldn't explain. When Jesus had his encounter with the woman at the well, the disciples had returned with food and offered some to Him. But He said, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about” (John 4:32 ESV). They were confused by His statement, wondering where He had gotten food to eat. But Jesus replied, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34 ESV). That statement of Jesus probably came to the minds of the disciples as they considered their responsibilities within the growing church. They had a job to do. They had been given a task to accomplish by Jesus and in order to do it, they were going to need to rely on prayer just as Jesus had done. Their accomplishments for God would be directly tied to the time they spent alone with Him. It is interesting to note that when the disciples went to Jerusalem after the ascension of Jesus, “they went up to the upper room, where they were staying” (Acts 1:13 ESV). And Luke tells us, “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14 ESV). It was in that context that the Holy Spirit came.

Prayer must be an essential part of the ministry. Activity alone is not enough. Prayer is an act of reliance upon God. It conveys our need for Him. It communicates our dependence upon His power and our need for His direction. God doesn’t need us to do things for Him. He wants to do things for us and through us. He wants to unleash His power in our lives. But sometimes we get too busy to pray. Our self-confidence can turn into self-reliance, which can end up being self-destructive. Prayer reminds us that we need God to accomplish our God-given responsibilities. Jesus needed God. Jesus depended upon the Father. So why don't we? The apostles devoted themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word. They knew that one was not more important than the other. But they also knew that one was impossible without the other.

True Fellowship.

They were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. – Acts 2:42 NET

Who are the “they” Luke is referring to? All you have to do is look at the preceding verse to find out. “So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand people were added” (Acts 2:41 NET). These were new converts to Christianity. Just after the miracle of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the followers of Jesus, Peter had spoken to the crowd that had gathered. He presented them with the reality of their own sin and their need for a Savior. Then he shared the good news regarding Jesus Christ. “Repent, and each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38 NET). And that one sermon resulted in 3,000 people accepting Jesus Christ as their Savior.

And these new believers were characterized by an excitement and fervor for their new-found faith. Luke describes them as having an ongoing devotion to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship with one another. As a result of the teaching they received and the fellowship they enjoyed, they regularly ate together and prayed for one another. It's important to remember that this crowd of new converts would have been made up of all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds. They had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost and, as Luke indicates, “Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5 ESV). The text describes them as “Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians” (Acts 2:9-11 ESV). This was a hodge-podge of people with different ethnic backgrounds who spoke different languages, and who suddenly found themselves sharing a new-found faith in Christ. Many of them would have been visitors to Jerusalem who had only intended to stay in town for the duration of the festival, but who now found themselves compelled to stay longer due to their unexpected encounter with Christ. They needed places to stay and food to eat. And Luke says, “And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:44-46 ESV).

Despite their differences, these people had a sense of community. Their faith in Christ bound them together. They had a shared hunger to learn more about Christ and so they listened intently as the disciples taught them the words of Jesus. They couldn't get enough. Luke uses the Greek word, proskartereō to describe them. It means “steadfastly attentive to.” They gathered together to enjoy fellowship with one another and instruction from Peter and the disciples. And they prayed. Luke doesn't tell us what they prayed for, but we have to assume that the content of their prayers ran the gamut. They most likely prayed for one another and for their lost friends and family members. They probably prayed for more converts, for God's provision of their needs, and for wisdom to know what to do next. Their worlds had been turned upside down and they would have been confused about what all this meant. But regardless of the content of their prayers, the fact is, they prayed – together. It was part of their fellowship together. It was a key element of their spiritual growth. Prayer is not just a private exercise, reserved for those moments when you can get alone with God. Prayer is to be a corporate and community experience. 

When we gather together as believers in Jesus Christ, we are to devote ourselves to prayer. We are to make prayer a part of our fellowship with one another. When we have fellow believers in our home, do we take time to pray? Do we share prayer requests with one another? Or do we simply spend our time talking about family, work, current events and other topics of interest? Our times together should be marked by prayer. Prayer invites God into our midst and reveals that we desire not only His power, but His presence. Prayer conveys our mutual dependence upon God. It is amazing to think how little we pray when we gather together with our believing friends. When we have people in our homes, we eat, drink, laugh, talk, and yet rarely take the time to pray for and with one another. We may pray over the meal, but we don't include God in our conversation. We don't invite Him into our circle of fellowship, acknowledging our need for Him and expressing our desire for Him.

It's interesting to note that the closing statement in chapter two of Acts is “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” Could it be that this was in answer to their prayers? Because they gathered together, devoted themselves to learning more about Christ, shared all they had with one another and made prayer a regular part of their fellowship, God was growing their number. True Christian fellowship should always include prayer. Conversation about God will never replace conversation with God.

Watch and Pray.

I post watchmen on your walls, O Jerusalem; they should keep praying all day and all night. You who pray to the Lord, don’t be silent! – Isaiah 62:6 NET

This verse conjures up an interesting and somewhat contradictory image. In it, you have God appointing watchmen to man the walls of the city of Jerusalem. Their job, as their name suggests, was to watch. They were to stay alert and keep an eye out for possible danger. They were also to act as an early warning system, alerting the inhabitants of the city and calling the army to assemble. But in these verses, God is appointing watchmen to pray. The English Standard Version translates this verse as follows: “On your walls, O Jerusalem, I have set watchmen; all the day and all the night they shall never be silent.” But The Net Bible translates the same verse as “they should keep praying all day and all night.” It would seem that the context is that of prayer. It is an intended juxtaposition that replaced the watchman's primary role of lookout to that of intercessor. He was to pray all day and all night and never be silent. Verse seven elaborates on his newly appointed responsibility. “Don’t allow him to rest until he reestablishes Jerusalem, until he makes Jerusalem the pride of the earth” (Isaiah 62:7 NET). The watchman was to pray incessantly and persistently until God answered by reestablishing Jerusalem. It's interesting to note that a watchman was primarily responsible to look for danger, but in this case his job was to relentlessly remind God of His promise of restoration. He was not to look for pending danger, but promised blessing. God had promised, “You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you” (Isaiah 62:3-4 ESV). The watchmen God had appointed were to eagerly look for that promise to be fulfilled and to not stop praying for its fulfillment until it happened.

God was going to punish Israel for her persistent sins and allow them to suffer the humiliation of defeat at the hands of the Babylonians. They would spend 70 years in Babylon, forcibly removed from their land and carried off as captives. But God had promised vindication. He had promised restoration. Some of what He promised was fulfilled when He returned them to the land after the 70 years was completed. But there is a future fulfillment of God's promise that has yet to happen. Isaiah records, “Look, the Lord announces to the entire earth:Say to Daughter Zion,Look, your deliverer comes! Look, his reward is with him and his reward goes before him!” They will be called, ‘The Holy People, the Ones Protected by the Lord.’ You will be called, ‘Sought After, City Not Abandoned’” (Isaiah 62:11-12 NET). The day is coming when God will restore Jerusalem to its former glory and His Son, Jesus Christ, will reign and rule from the throne of David, in fulfillment of the promise He made to David. The watchmen were to wait, watch and pray for that day.

There is a sense in which each of us is a watchman appointed by God to look for and long for the fulfillment of the promises of God. We are to pray for God to bring about all that He has promised in His Word. It is so easy for us to look for disaster and keep an eye out for coming destruction. The world seems to be falling apart as we watch. But we know how the story ends. We know that Christ coming back and our side wins. God is not done with Israel yet. He has great plans in store for them. Jesus Christ will return to earth one day as a conquering King and mighty warrior. He will put an end to sin, death, and Satan once and for all. He will establish His kingdom on earth and bring about peace and justice. It is for that day we should look and persistently pray.

Sometimes we lose sight of all that God has promised to do. We forget that this story has a happy ending. We are victors, not victims. We are winners, not losers. But while we watch for and long for that day to come when Christ returns, we must remember that none of us know the day. Not even Christ Himself. So while we are more than welcome to watch for it, we would be better off praying for it. It is God who must bring it about. It is He who has decided the date and time. So let us give Him no rest until that day comes. May we learn to pray for the final fulfillment of God's plan for Israel and for the whole earth. Watch and pray. Deliverance is coming. Victory is assured. Christ is returning. Righteousness wins out.

No Permission To Stop Praying.

Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you, and I will instruct you in the good and the right way. – 1 Samuel 12:23 ESV

Samuel was near the end of his prophetic ministry. He had faithfully executed his duties as a prophet of God and had actually served as the last judge over the nation of Israel. So when the people came to him clamoring for and demanding that God give them a king just like all the other nations, Samuel was less than happy. He felt rejected by the people. Of course, on the surface, he blasted them for rejecting God as their King. But God saw through his anger and said, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Samuel 8:7 ESV). Over the years, Samuel had had plenty of opportunities to witness the stubbornness and rebellion of the people of Israel first hand. Their arrogant demand for a king was just one more example of their unwillingness to recognize God as their sovereign ruler and Lord.

Chapter 12 starts off with a very defensive-laden monologue by Samuel. “Behold, I have obeyed your voice in all that you have said to me and have made a king over you. And now, behold, the king walks before you, and I am old and gray; and behold, my sons are with you. I have walked before you from my youth until this day” (1 Samuel 12:1-2 ESV). He is still upset. He demands that the people voice their complaints or accusations against him. He wants to know why they have rejected him. Did he steal something? If he did, he would make restitution. Had he defrauded anyone? Was his leadership oppressive? Had he ruled unfaithfully by taking bribes? The people swore before God that Samuel had done none of those things and was undeserving of their treatment of him. You can tell from the passage that Samuel was still upset about their demand for a king. He had taken it personally.

Then he recounted all the ways in which the people of Israel had sinned against God over the years. Time and time again, the people had cried out to God and He had delivered them. All the way back to their captivity in Egypt, God had heard their cries and provided them with victory over their enemies. “But they forgot the Lord their God…” (1 Samuel 12:9 ESV). And now they were doing it again. “And when you saw that Nahash the king of the Ammonites came against you, you said to me, ‘No, but a king shall reign over us,’ when the Lord your God was your king. And now behold the king whom you have chosen, for whom you have asked; behold, the Lord has set a king over you” (1 Samuel 12:12-13 ESV). The people may have been rebellious, but they weren't stupid. They got Samuel's point and confessed their sin and begged Samuel to pray for them. They feared the rejection of God. So Samuel assured them, “Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil. Yet do not turn aside from following the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart. And do not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty. For the Lord will not forsake his people, for his great name's sake, because it has pleased the Lord to make you a people for himself” (1 Samuel 12:20-22 ESV).

Then Samuel said something to them that was probably difficult for him to say. “Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you, and I will instruct you in the good and the right way” (1 Samuel 12:23 ESV). As much as Samuel may have desired to see divine judgment meted out on the people for their rejection of him and their sin against God, he knew he wasn’t free from his responsibility to pray for and instruct them. God had not released him from his duties as a prophet. To fail to pray for them and teach them would have been a sin for Samuel. In spite of their stubbornness and rebellion, Samuel was obligated by God to minister to and pray for them. The rejection of our leadership by others is a difficult thing to stomach. Our pride suffers. Our feelings get hurt. And we find it easy to justify a decision to abandon our God-given responsibility to pray for them. Parents face this situation every day. Our children refuse to listen to us, rejecting our authority over their lives and demanding to make their own decisions. At those times it could be easy to give up and stop lifting them up in prayer. But their rejection of our authority doesn't release us from our God-given responsibility to care for them. Samuel may have been rejected by the people, but he was still obligated by his commitment to God. There will be those in our lives who refuse to listen to us. There will be times when others will reject our input and fail to recognize our legitimate care for their lives. But rather than abandon them in anger and resentment, we must pray for them. Like Samuel, we must learn to say, “far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you, and I will instruct you in the good and the right way.” We must keep on loving by continuing to pray for them. We must keep on trusting God by continuing to teach them, leaving the results up to Him. It's easy to pray for those who listen to and honor us. But prayers for the rebellious and sinful come hard. When we lose our influence over others, rather than give up, we must lift them up to God. We must love them enough to trust them into His care. 

Prayer With A Purpose.

But we pray to God that you may not do wrong—not that we may appear to have met the test, but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed. For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth. For we are glad when we are weak and you are strong. Your restoration is what we pray for. – 2 Corinthians 13:7-9 ESV The apostle Paul was always having to defend his apostleship. There was no shortage of individuals who would question his authority and criticize his claim to be speaking on behalf of Christ. But while Paul was not shy in defending himself, his greater concern was for the spiritual well-being of those who had come to faith in Christ through his preaching and teaching. Since his own salvation experience on the road to Damascus, Paul had dedicated his life to spreading the good news about Jesus Christ to both Jews and Gentiles. He traveled near and far to make known the gospel message and to see lives transformed by the saving power of Jesus Christ. And if he had to suffer in the meantime, he was more than ready. But he was not willing for anyone to question his authority or discount his message, because he had received his commission from Jesus Christ Himself.

In this, his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul finds himself defending his apostleship once again. He writes, “you seek proof that Christ is speaking in me” (2 Corinthians 13:3 ESV). But the greatest proof of Paul's claim to being a spokesman for Jesus Christ was the very power evident in their midst that had made possible their transformation. “He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you” (2 Corinthians 13:3 ESV). Lives were being changed. Hearts had been transformed. The message of new life in Christ had taken root and born fruit. But while Paul was away and absent from their midst, he prayed. He prayed with a purpose. He was asking God to produce fruit in the lives of the believers in Corinth. In other words, he was asking to see the byproduct of practical sanctification in their lives – as a form of proof of their salvation. Their faith in Christ should have been producing fruit. And it was for this that he prayed. “But we pray to God that you may not do wrong…” The presence and power of Christ within them, in the form of the Holy Spirit, should have been producing in them a growing desire to do what was right and to turn away from doing what was wrong. Living in the power of the Holy Spirit should have been producing holiness, obedience, and acts of righteousness. Paul told them that “your restoration is what we pray for.” The Greek word Paul used was katartisis and it means “a strengthening, perfecting of the soul.” It comes from root word that has to do with restoration or repair. It means to “make one what he ought to be.” Paul was praying that the believers in Corinth would be experiencing the transforming, restorative power of Jesus Christ in their lives. That power would be ample proof of Paul's status as a messenger of Jesus.

Paul wanted to see lives changed. He wanted to see the power of God released in the lives of those who had come to faith in Jesus Christ, His Son. He desired to see those who had accepted Jesus as their Savior radically restored to a right relationship with God with lives that reflected their newly restored natures. Salvation is a wonderful thing, but it is just the beginning. Sanctification is an essential byproduct of a new relationship with Christ. Growth in Christ-likeness should accompany the presence of His Spirit within us. Paul prayed for proof of that presence. He wanted to see lives transformed. He wanted to see evidence of the saving power of Jesus Christ. Jesus had died, not just to make it possible for us to one day spend eternity with Him in heaven, but to radically reform our lives here on earth. And it was to that end that Paul prayed.

But do we pray for transformed lives? Do we long to see believers living radically different lives right here, right now? Or do we pray more for physical healing than holiness? Do we pray for freedom from trials more than we pray for a display of Christ's righteousness in the midst of them? Are we so busy asking God to make our lives easier that we fail to recognize that Christ died to make our lives more righteous? Paul prayed for life change, not circumstantial change. He prayed for holiness and righteousness. He wanted to see the power of the presence of God lived out in the everyday lives of the people of God. In his first letter to the believers in Corinth, he had reminded them of just how far they had come since accepting Christ. “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 ESV). God had  transformed them from what they once were to something new and radically different. But His work was not done yet. He was still in the process of changing them from the inside out. And it was to that end that Paul prayed. So should we.

God Has A Purpose.

I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me. – Psalm 57:2 ESV

David is hiding in a cave. He is running from a madman who also happens to be the king of Israel. Saul has an unhealthy dislike for David, fueled by jealousy and fear. As a result, he has placed a bounty on David's head, sending 3,000 mercenaries to hunt him down and bring him back dead or alive.

That's the scenario in which we find David as he writes this Psalm and expresses his desire for God to show him mercy. This had to have been a confusing time for David. He had been anointed by the prophet Nathan and told he would be the next king of Israel. But instead of sitting on a throne in Jerusalem, he was hiding in a cave in the wilderness of Judea, running for his life from the very man he was supposed to be replacing. Yet David knew that God had a plan for his life and while his circumstances were less than ideal and didn't exactly make sense, he was going to trust God. So he cried out, “Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by. I cry out to God Most High…” (1 Samuel 57:1-2 ESV). And why did he cry out to God? Because he knew that, ultimately, God would fulfill His purpose for him. He would be king one day – according to God's plan and in keeping with God's divine schedule. In the meantime, he was going to have to trust God to keep him alive. If God had promised to make him king, then he was going to take God at His word and wait for Him to fulfill His promise according to His schedule.

David was confident in God, which is why he could say, “He will send from heaven and save me; he will put to shame him who tramples on me. God will send out his steadfast love and his faithfulness!” (1 Samuel 57:3 ESV). While waiting on God's fulfillment of His promise, David was content to enjoy God's love and faithfulness. Becoming king was the ultimate outcome of God's word to David, but any delay in that happening was NOT to be viewed as an indication of a lack of love on God's part. The fact that David was having to run for his life, suffer the anxiety of knowing he was a wanted man, and never knowing when God would fulfill His promise, was NOT to be seen as a lack of God's faithfulness. But isn't that where we go when things don't go our way? Don't we naturally assume God has fallen out of love with us when times get tough? Aren't we prone to doubt God's faithfulness when our circumstances take a turn for the worse? Yet David was willing to wait and trust. He was content to rest in the love and faithfulness of God and see any delays as just a part of God's divine plan for fulfilling the purpose for his life.

Twice in this psalm David praises God by saying, “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth!” (Psalm 57:5 ESV). While his situation was anything but ideal, he knew that God was still in control. He was in heaven. He was in charge. He knew what He was doing. And God could be trusted no matter what David might see going around him. Which is why he could say, “My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast!” (Psalm 57:7 ESV). It was the exalted nature of God that gave David confidence and steadfastness in the midst of difficulty. His God was bigger than his problems. His God was more powerful than his enemies. His God was able to fulfill His promise regardless of the dire nature of David's circumstances.

God has a purpose for my life. He has a purpose for your life. We can't judge what God is doing based on what we see happening around us. Difficulty in our lives is not necessarily an indication of God's disfavor or it should never be viewed as a sign of God's unfaithfulness. He knows how the story ends. We don't. He has a purpose that He is fulfilling according to His will and perfect keeping with His agenda. We can trust Him. Our greatest desire should be that He be exalted in and through our lives. We should want to see Him lifted up as He reaches down and fulfills His purpose for us right on schedule and according to plan. And in the meantime, we should put our trust in Him. We can look up, cry out to and wait on Him, because He will fulfill His purpose for us.

Struggling In Prayer.

Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. – Colossians 4:12 ESV We all struggle with prayer at times. It comes with the territory. Prayer can be hard. But the kind of struggle we’re going to talk about in this blog is something a bit different than finding prayer hard to do. The word Paul uses in the Greek is agōnizomai and you can see that it is where we get our English words agony and agonize. In Paul’s day it was a word typically used when referring to someone entered into gymnastic games. It had to do with competition, contending, fighting, or laboring against an opponent of difficulty. It also carried the meaning “to endeavour with strenuous zeal.” So when Paul said Epaphras was “always struggling” in his prayers on behalf of the believers in Colosse, he wasn’t inferring that Epaphras had a hard time praying. He meant that this young man’s prayer life was marked by agonizing effort and energetic zeal. Paul had evidently seen and heard him pray. He had been an eye-witness to the determination and dedication behind the prayers of Epaphras. I have a feeling his prayers were much more than just “Lord, would you bless the people in Colosse.” He didn’t just ask God to be with them and watch over them. Paul says that the overriding theme of his prayers was that they would “stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.”

Epaphras was a Greek who had become a follower of Jesus Christ and had played a significant role in helping to establish the church in Colosse. “Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth, just as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant” (Colossians 1:5-7 ESV). Epaphras had a vested interest in the health of the church in Colosse. He wanted it to thrive. So he prayed for “God to make you strong and perfect, fully confident that you are following the whole will of God” (NLT). His was not just a short, sweet prayer offered on a one-time basis, but an ongoing, persevering petition that was accompanied by an intense desire to see God answer. Epaphras wanted to see them mature in their faith and grow in their knowledge of God’s will for them. It is essentially the same prayer Paul prayed for them at the very beginning of his letter. “So we have not stopped praying for you since we first heard about you. We ask God to give you complete knowledge of his will and to give you spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Colossians 1:9 NLT). And Paul gave the end result that would accompany God’s answer to his prayer: “Then the way you live will always honor and please the Lord, and your lives will produce every kind of good fruit. All the while, you will grow as you learn to know God better and better” (Colossians 1:10 NLT).

Paul and Epaphras both knew what the believers in Colosse needed. They needed more of God. They needed God to mature them by revealing His will to them. They desperately needed to know what God wanted them to know and do. With that knowledge and the Holy Spirit’s help, they would have what they needed to live lives that honored and pleased God.

Do we agonize and labor prayerfully for that to happen among the believers with whom we worship and serve? Do we go to the mat with God, pleading that He will reveal His will to our loved ones and friends, asking that He make them strong and perfect? Are we concerned enough for the spiritual maturity that we pray fervently and repeatedly that they know and follow the whole will of God? For Epaphras, praying for his friends in Colosse was a labor of love. He did it gladly. He did it tirelessly. Because he was not going to be content until he saw God’s answer in the form of lives that pleased and honored Him. We could stand to struggle a bit more in our prayer lives. Not with prayer itself, but in the content and focus of our prayers. We should so desire what God desires, that we are not content until we see His will done in the lives of those we love. God’s desire for each of His children is their growth in Christ-likeness. He wants to see them mature. He wants to see them living within His will. We should want the same thing. And we should not stop praying for it until we see God’s answer appear in transformed lives that bring glory and honor to Him.

At An Acceptable Time.

But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love answer me in your saving faithfulness. – Psalm 69:13 ESV The primary purpose of prayer is not to get something from God. But for many of us, that is what we have made it. That is how we understand it and approach it. We pray primarily to receive something we need or want. And while we are encouraged to ask from and offer petitions to God, there is far more to the act of prayer than simply receiving our requests. Prayer is an act of humble submission to a holy, all-powerful God. It conveys our dependence upon Him and acknowledges our understanding that He is the giver of all good things. Jesus said of the Father, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11 ESV). The psalmist reminds us that “the LORD bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Psalm 84:11 ESV). God loves to give to His children. But there is more to prayer than getting from God. It is an experience in getting to know God. Through prayer we discover the will of God. We experience the nature of God. We begin to understand the attributes of God. We learn the valuable lesson of trusting God. And over time, as we wait for His answer, we grow in our willingness to wait on God.

In this psalm, David makes it clear that his prayer was to God. He wasn't going to turn to anyone or anything else. His request was going to be made to the only one who could do anything to help him. David was up to his neck in trouble, and he had been for some time. His prayers had been constant and urgent. “ I am weary with my crying out; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God” (Psalm 69:3 ESV). David longed to see God intervene and deliver him from all his difficulties. He wanted to be a living example of God's saving power. He cried out, “Deliver me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies,and from the deep waters. Let not the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the pit close its mouth over me” (Psalm 69:13-14 ESV).

But David was willing to wait. His prayer was based on his understanding of God's love and faithfulness. While he would have loved an immediate answer to his prayer and a quick deliverance from his trials, he was willing to wait on God, because he trusted God. He knew that God was there and that He cared. His petition was based on what he knew about God. “Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me” (Psalm 69:16 ESV). We sometimes pray and our focus is more on what we want than on the one to whom we are praying. We can become obsessed with our request and fail to give much thought to God and His love, mercy, grace and power. David went to God because he loved God. David made his request to God because he trusted God. David prayed to God because he was completely dependent upon God. And he knew that God would answer him “at an acceptable time.” The Hebrew literally means, “in a time of favor.” David was willing to wait on God to answer his request when He deemed the timing was right – based on His unfailing love, faithfulness, and mercy.

We are welcome and encouraged to make our requests known to God. Paul writes, “The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:5-7 ESV). Notice that Paul says the result of our petition will be peace – the peace of God. In other words, the peace we will receive will be a God-based peace, not an answer-based peace. We will not experience peace because we got what we wanted, but because our God has heard our request and loves us deeply and cares about us greatly. The peace will be founded on the character of God. He is sovereign. He hears. He loves us. He is faithful. He is all-powerful. He will always do the right thing. And He will provide His answer at an acceptable time and in the appropriate manner.

Paul said, “The Lord is at hand.” He is near. He is not distant or disengaged from our experiences. He is as near as our next prayer. But rather than simply pray to get from Him, we should pray to get to know Him, to discover His character, to become more convinced of His love and faithfulness. David was so confident of God's deliverance that he was able to say, “I will praise the name of God with a song;I will magnify him with thanksgiving” (Psalm 69:30 ESV). He knew His God. He trusted Him. He was willing to wait on Him. Because He knew His answer would come at just the right time and in just the right way.

Holy Help.

You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many. – 2 Corinthians 1:11 ESV Paul was an apostle of Jesus Christ and he took his responsibility to spread the good news quite seriously. He traveled far and wide taking the message of salvation made available through faith in Jesus to as many of the Gentile lands he could possibly reach. On those journeys he encountered those who embraced his message eagerly, but also those who offered intense opposition. He was regularly rejected, ridiculed, thrown out of the synagogue, falsely accused, chased out of town and even stoned and left for dead. Paul told the believers in Corinth, “For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9 ESV). There were few who could relate to Paul's experiences. The list of those who were putting their life on the line by sharing the gospel in hostile situations was short. Yes, there was persecution going on all over the world at that time, but there were not many who were performing the role of an official missionary for the gospel. Paul's calling was unique. His commission to take the gospel to the Gentiles was given to him personally by Christ himself and to him alone. 

Paul wasn't complaining about his lot in life. He was whining to the believers in Corinth about all that he had to suffer for the sake of Christ. In fact, he was sharing all that he had gained through his trials on behalf of Christ. “But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again” (2 Corinthians 11:9-10 ESV). Through all his difficulties, Paul had learned to trust in God. He had seen God deliver him time and time again, so he knew that God would not fail to deliver him in the future. He was content to trust God's plan for his life. But his contentment with God's will did not stop him from asking for prayers on his behalf. He specifically asked those to whom he was writing for their help – in the form of their prayers. “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.” While they could not travel with Paul or assist him by taking the gospel to foreign lands, they could come to his aid by going to their knees. They could pray for his ministry, his health, and his safety. They could ask God to continue to provide protection. They could pray for those to whom Paul would minister, that they would have receptive ears and soft hearts. There is power in prayer. Through prayer, we come humbly before God and ask Him to do what only He can do. We acknowledge our need for His assistance. We share our heart with Him that His will be done. We show Him that we care about what He cares about. Paul was asking for their prayers. He coveted their prayers on his behalf. He knew that the greatest assistance they could provide to him would be through their prayers for him. “In prayer, human impotence casts itself at the feet of divine omnipotence” (Philip E. Hughes, Paul's Second Epistle to the Corinthians, pp. 23). 

Prayer allows us to do things we could not possibly do in the flesh. We can't be everywhere at once. We can't physically be with every person in our family at the same time. We have limits. We have physical constraints. But through prayer, we are able to span distances, expand our reach, multiply our efforts and provide our assistance to those we can't even see. Paul knew there was power in prayer. He had experienced it. He knew there were countless individuals, in cities all across Macedonia, Asia and Galatia who were praying for him as he traveled. They were praying for his work, his health, and his message. He could sense their love for him and their common concern for his work. Paul did not take their prayers lightly. He coveted them. He asked for them. He knew he needed them.

Through prayer we can accomplish far more than we can through our own efforts. Prayer engages God. Prayer unleashes a power we do not possess. Prayer reminds us that God is the one who must accomplish the impossible, not us. God has no limits. He is not hampered by time constraints. Distance creates no barrier for Him. By reaching out to Him, we are able to touch the lives of those we cannot see and the hearts of those we don't even know. We can pray for the lost around the world. We can lift up the work of missionaries we have never even met. We can offer up our concerns for the work of the gospel in places we will never get to go. Through prayer, we can help in ways that go far beyond our human capabilities and accomplish more than we could ever imagine. They say technology has made the world “smaller.” From the safety of our home we can see what's going on around the world. We can talk to someone on the other side of the planet. We can watch events taking place in distance lands as if we were there. I can Skype with a missionary working in Africa. I can send a text of encouragement to a friend on a different continent. I can receive images instantaneously from someone thousands of miles away. But prayer does far more. It unleashes the power of God. It allows me to not only stay in touch, but to connect in practical, powerful ways. Prayer shrinks the world, expands our reach, spreads the gospel, and exposes our dependence upon the power of God.

Praying Properly.

The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. – 1 Peter 4:7 ESV There is a manner in which we are to pray that will make our prayers proper and appropriate. It has less to do with form, than with our attitude toward prayer. Some of us worry far too much about our words and not enough about our hearts or disposition while we are praying. Peter gives us a valuable lesson on perspective. He reminded his readers that “the end of all things is at hand”. Peter, like the rest of the apostles, lived with a eager anticipation and expectation that the return of Christ was eminent. This attitude produced in him a day-to-day diligence regarding his lifestyle, including his prayer life. It resulted in a desire to live self-controlled. The Greek word he uses is sōphroneō and it means “to put a moderate estimate upon one's self, think of one's self soberly”. It can also mean “to curb one's passions.” The idea is to live with a realistic understanding of who you are and what you are capable of. Don't get too cocky and sure of yourself. Don't get complacent about your sin nature and assume you are above giving in to temptation. Paul used the very same word when he wrote to the Romans and told a man was “not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Romans 12:3 ESV). There is a sense in which we are to come to God in prayer with a sober-minded, realistic view of who we are. We are not to come before Him arrogantly, pridefully or with an attitude of self-righteousness. Pride can have a negative impact on our prayer life.

But Peter also uses the Greek word, nēphō, which means “to be sober, to be calm and collected in spirit”. It carries the idea of watchfulness or wakefulness, to be clear-headed and alert, capable of recognizing what is going on around you at all times. Paul used the same word when he wrote to the believers in Thessalonica. “So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (1 Thessalonians 5:6-8 ESV). Paul was also talking about the “day of the Lord”, the end times. He warned his readers that the day of the Lord would come like a thief in the night, suddenly and  unexpectedly. At that time there will be those who believe all is well. They will have a lazy attitude toward the Lord's return. They will be caught by surprise. But Paul told his readers, “you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness” (1 Thessalonians 5:4-5 ESV). As believers we are to live with an expectation of the Lord's return. It could happen any day. And our awareness of that reality should change the way we live. It should impact the way we pray. Peter said that we should be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of our prayers. We should have a strong awareness of what we are capable of apart from the Spirit's indwelling presence within us. We have the capacity to sin at any time. We have a sin nature that is constantly battling with the Spirit within us. That realization should produce in us a dependence upon God. It should show up in the way we pray. Our prayers should contain requests for wisdom, strength, protection, direction, and the capacity to live in obedience to His will. We also need to stay alert and awake, fully aware of what is going on around us. Our ability to sense the dangers surrounding us will keep our prayers focused on our need for God. We must constantly remind ourselves that this world is not our home. We don't belong here any more. In fact, Jesus told us that the world would hate us. It hated Him and so it hates us. We must never lose sight of that reality. Satan would love to convince us that the world is our friend, that everything we need can be found right here. We can even buy into the lie that the things of this world can bring us satisfaction and contentment and allow our prayer lives to be filled with requests for more of what this world has to offer, rather than for requests of those things that God has promised – like peace, joy, contentment, and a hope for His Son's return.

Prayer is not easy. But it is far more painless and effective when done with a proper perspective. We must remain constantly aware of our sin nature and our predisposition to disobedience. We must never think too highly of ourselves or see ourselves as somehow above the need for prayer. We must also live with a sense of expectation and wide-awake awareness of the Lord's return. We can't afford to get lulled into complacency or contentment with life as it is in this world. When we lose sight of the end that God has in store, we can find ourselves living as if this world is all there is. Then our prayers can become filled with requests for temporal rewards and earthly treasures. But God has far more in store for us. He offers us strength for the journey, not stuff to enjoy along the way. He offers us peace and joy in the midst of trial, not a trouble-free life. We are to live with the end in mind. We are to pray with our focus on what God has promised, not on what the world offers. We are to be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of our prayers.

Like One Unclean.

Behold, you were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved? We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities. – Isaiah 64:5b-7 ESV

Isaiah 64

Isaiah was brutally honest in his assessment of the condition of God's people. It was not a pretty picture. He had just finished saying, “You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways” (Isaiah 64:5a ESV), but then he had to sadly acknowledge that no one in Judah fit that description. God was going to meet them, but it would not be a joyful occasion, because of their sins. God was angry with them, and rightfully so. They just couldn't seem to stop sinning, and Isaiah couldn't think of a reason why God would ever want to save them. Their sins had left them unclean, like a leper banned from access to the temple of God. They were impure, unholy, and unable to come into the presence of God. But Isaiah uses even more graphic language to describe the nature of their sin. All their activities, even their so-called righteous ones, were like soiled menstrual rags – unclean, unacceptable, and repulsive to the sight of God. Like a leaf fallen from a tree, they were lifeless and easily carried away by the winds of sin. 

Isaiah paints a bleak, yet honest, picture. He knew all too well just how bad things had gotten in Judah. He had been trying to get their attention. He had been warning them of God's pending judgment. But no one had listened. They had even stopped calling out to God. They couldn't even seem to rouse themselves from their sinful stupor long enough to lift a hand in God's direction. From the human perspective, it was as if God had hidden Himself from them. But it was their sin that had created a barrier between them and God. He was still there. He was ready to respond as soon as they were willing to repent. But their constant state of sin had left them in a sorry condition. They were separated from God and unable to do anything to remedy their problem. In fact, God had given them over to their sin. He had allowed them to reap the consequences of their choices. They were experiencing the consequences of their sin.

The apostle Paul describes a similar situation in his letter to the Romans. “Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles” (Romans 1:21-23 NLT). Rather than worship God, they created their own gods. They came up with gods who would approve of their sin and validate their selfish desires. As a result, God let them have exactly what they wanted. “So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired” (Romans 1:24 NLT). That verse should send shudders down the spine of every believer. The very thought of God abandoning us to do what our hearts desire should scare us. Our natural man, left to its own devices, will always choose the wrong path. Our old nature, motivated by pride, lust, greed, and selfishness, will always gravitate toward rebellion against God. Even as redeemed children of God, we must never lose sight of the fact that our capacity to sin remains within us. It is only our dependence upon God and our reliance upon His indwelling Spirit that gives us the ability to live righteously instead of sinfully. Paul reminds us, “So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won't be doing what your sinful nature craves” (Galatians 5:16 NLT).

Sin is a constant threat to the child of God. We have our old sinful nature to deal with. We live in a hostile world that is opposed to us and intent on destroying us. We have an enemy who can't stand us and who is out to steal, kill and destroy. While our sins can never separate us from the love of God or cause us to lose our salvation, they can destroy our joy, rob us of peace, damage our witness, harden our hearts, limit our effectiveness, and harm the reputation of God. There is nothing more sad than a child of God whose life doesn't reflect his position. We have been redeemed by God through the blood of Jesus Christ and are intended to live lives that reflect our new-found status as sons and daughters of God. We have the Spirit of God living within us and the Word of God to guide us. We have been placed within the body of Christ and been given spiritual gifts designed to minister to one another so that we might grow in Christ-likeness. But sin can and will wreak havoc on our spiritual lives if we allow it to. If we give in to our sinful nature, we will reap the consequences. That's why our constant dependence upon God is so important. Paul put it this way: “My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:2 NLT). I can choose to live as one unclean or as one who has been cleansed by the blood of Christ. I can give in to my old sinful nature or I can live in constant reliance upon the will of God with the help of the Spirit of God.

No God Besides You.

When you did awesome things that we did not look for, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him. You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways. – Isaiah 64:3-5a ESV

Isaiah 64

What we know about God greatly influences how we pray to Him. The greater our understanding of God's power, the more likely we are to ask Him to display that power on our behalf. If our knowledge of God includes an awareness of and belief in His grace and mercy, our prayers will contain appeals for Him to extend both to us. But if we don't know God well, it stands to reason that our prayer life will suffer because we will not know what to expect from Him. We can ask Him for things, but we will do so with apprehension, because we aren't familiar with His ways. We can share with Him our burdens, but if we don't know Him well, we'll never even know if He has heard or even cares.

Isaiah prayed to a God he clearly knew. And it was far more than just an academic or historical knowledge. He had a personal awareness and understanding of God. Yes, he knew the stories from Israel's past. He had heard about the appearance of God on Mount Sinai when the people were wandering in the wilderness. He was aware of the thunder, lightning, and earth-shattering signs that accompanied that appearance. He also knew that when God showed up, the people tended to straighten up. He had a way of getting their attention. But Isaiah also knew that there was more to God than just shock and awe. There was more to His appearing among the people of Israel than just to get their attention. He wanted to reveal His power. He wanted to assure them of His presence. He was there among them and He cared greatly for them. Yes, God wanted them to fear Him. But He also wanted them to depend upon Him. The kind of rock-shattering power He displayed before them was available to them, to protect them, provide for them, and to give them an assurance of His ability to do all that He had promised to them.

One of the problems the people of Israel had always had was their seeming inability to see God as personal and loving. They had no trouble fearing God. They just couldn't understand how much He loved them. They tended to keep their distance from God, out of fear that He would kill them. They didn't really trust Him. Which is what led them to seek other gods in place of Him. But Isaiah knew God to be extremely loving, intimate, personal and gracious. Which is why he stated, “You welcome those who gladly do good, who follow godly ways” (Isaiah 64:5a NLT). He understood God to be loving and welcoming to all those who trusted Him enough to obey Him. Isaiah had found God to be approachable and merciful. He feared God, but wasn't afraid of Him. He had an awe and respect for the holiness and majesty of God, but had no trouble approaching Him as his loving Father.

Isaiah found himself ministering among a people who had forgotten just how great God was. Their personal knowledge of God was suspect. Isaiah could speak on His behalf and tell them all that God had to say to them and about them, but they didn't take him seriously. Which is why Isaiah was asking God to make an appearance. He longed for God to show up in might and power, as a form of wake-up call for the people. But what Isaiah really wanted was for the people to know God they way he knew God. He wanted them to understand that the God he knew was simply waiting for them to return to Him with humble, repentant hearts, ready to obey Him, and He would bless them. He would extend mercy and grace to them. He would forgive them. Because there is no God besides Him. They were wasting their time looking for help from any other gods. They were going to be highly disappointed if they continued to reject God's calls to repentance. The Babylonians were not going to show them mercy. The Egyptians were not going to provide them with protection. The gods of all the other nations weren't going to be able to save them. Ignoring God was not going to make Him go away. Rejecting His warnings was not going to keep them from happening. They could either experience the wrath and judgment of God, or they could experience the grace, mercy, love and forgiveness of God. Either way, they were going to learn that there was no other God besides Him.

God will display His power. He prefers to do so in order to bless His children. But if He has to, He will do so to discipline them. The greater our knowledge of God's love for us, the more we will expect Him to reveal His power for our good. We will learn to fear Him less and respect Him more. We will understand His power, but know that it is there to protect and provide for us. We will approach Him expectantly, not hesitantly. We will run to Him, not from Him. Because we will know that there is no God besides Him.

Longing For God's Presence.

Oh, that You would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at Your presence—as fire kindles the brushwood, as fire causes water to boil—to make Your name known to Your adversaries, that the nations may tremble at Your presence! – Isaiah 64:1-2 ESV

Isaiah 64

Isaiah was a prophet of God speaking the words of God to the people of God. He prophesied over a period of time in Judah that spanned the reigns of four different kings. Over that time, he had watched their brothers and sisters in the northern kingdom of Israel fall to the Assyrians because of their sin and rebellion against God. And he saw the nation of Judah committing the very same sins and headed for the same fate if they did not repent and return to God. Early in his ministry as God's prophet, God had given Isaiah a vision and a clear message concerning His people. “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the Lord has spoken: ‘Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master's crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand’” (Isaiah 1:2-3 ESV). God's people had rejected Him. They had consistently disobeyed Him. And Isaiah knew that, because of God's holiness and righteousness, He was going to have to bring judgment against them. God would not allow His people to continue to live in open rebellion to Him. He would be forced to punish them for their sin, motivated by their pride and self-sufficiency.

But Isaiah longed to see God step in. He knew that their only hope was to be found in God. After years of prophesying to the people of Judah, he had no illusions that they might actually hear what he was saying and repent. Unless God did something, their fate was sealed. They would be incapable of saving themselves, so if anything was going to happen, it would have to be God's doing. So he cried out, “Oh, that You would rend the heavens and come down!” He was looking for a visitation from God, a physical manifestation of God's presence much like the people had experienced when He came down to Mount Sinai in the wilderness. That had been an attention-getting, never-to-be-forgotten moment for the people standing at the foot of the mountain. “Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain” (Exodus 19:17-20 ESV). That appearance by God had made an impression on the people, and Isaiah longed to see God do the same thing in his day. He knew that the people of Judah would continue to ignore God unless He showed up in a spectacular fashion, complete with thunder and lightning, smoke, earthquakes, and other attention-getting signs. In essence, God had become invisible to them. He was out of sight, out of mind. They no longer expected to see Him or hear from Him. The message of Isaiah was just like those of the other prophets who had been warning them for years. Their words went in one ear and out the other. So Isaiah wanted to see God show up in power, might and majesty.

Isaiah's hope was that an appearance from God would ignite a change among the people. Perhaps it would light a spiritual fire under them and cause them to reconsider his message and return to God. Not only that, Isaiah believed it would do wonders for God's reputation among the pagan nations that were threatening the security of Judah. The reasoning behind Isaiah request that God make an appearance was in order “to make Your name known to Your adversaries, that the nations may tremble at Your presence!” But the truth is, that was the role the people of God were supposed to have fulfilled. They were the ones who were to have made God's name known to the nations as they lived in obedience to Him. They were to be living illustrations of what it looked like to live in obedience to God, enjoying His presence, power and provision. Any time the people of Israel had lived in submission to God's will and obeyed His commands, He had stepped in a given them victories over their enemies. He had blessed them. And had put the fear of God in their enemies. The reign of Solomon is a perfect illustration of that reality. It was a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity. As long as the people remained faithful to God, His power and presence was with them. The problem in Isaiah's day was not that God was absent, but that the people were disobedient. It was their sin that was preventing God's power from being displayed among them.

We may long for God's presence, but He has not left us. He is never far away. The only thing that puts distance between us and God is our own sin. Longing for Him to show up in power makes no sense if we have no desire to do what He says. Desiring God to do great things is silly if we aren't willing to do what He has called us to do in the first place. The people in Jesus' day longed to see Him perform signs and miracles. They got a kick out of seeing Him do the miraculous. But for the most part, they had no interest in what He was offering them. They refused to repent and return. Longing to see the power of God while refusing to submit to the authority of God is pointless. God's power is best revealed through our dependence upon Him and obedience to Him.

Hoarding God's Mercy.

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” – Jonah 4:1-3 ESV

Jonah had received a second chance from God. He had refused God's command to go to Nineveh the first time and attempted to run away from his responsibility. But Jonah's disobedience had only led to God's displeasure and punishment. Jonah had ended up caught on a ship in a storm, was eventually thrown overboard, and then swallowed by a large fish. It was in that dark and hopeless predicament that Jonah had second thoughts about his decision to disobey God. So when God rescued him, he agreed to go to Nineveh and deliver the words of warning God had given him. “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4 ESV). There was a part of Jonah that enjoyed delivering this message, because he was thinking about God bringing judgment against a pagan people who he disliked very much. But his greatest fear was that the people of Nineveh might actually listen to his words and repent. Because he knew God to be a gracious and forgiving God. The whole reason he had run from God was because he didn't want to see the Ninevites spared by God. He had figured if he refused to warn them, they wouldn't hear and therefore, they could not repent. But God had other plans.

God doesn't always do what we expect Him to do. Jonah should have known that. There had been countless times in the history of Israel where God had shown Himself to be inexplicable and to do the unexpected. The prophet Isaiah had recorded God's own admission of His tendency to do the surprising and unexplainable. “‘My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,’ says the LORD. ‘And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine’” (Isaiah 55:8 NLT). When Jonah delivered God's message of warning, he did so with the hope that God would bring destruction on the people in 40 days time. He was not hoping that no one would repent. In fact, his message didn't even contain a call to repentance. All he said was, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” But God knew something Jonah didn't know. God had a plan for Nineveh that Jonah would find highly disappointing, but not surprising.

The Scriptures are very clear. As soon as Jonah delivered the message of God, something happened. “And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them” (Jonah 3:5 ESV). Even the king of Nineveh got involved, issuing a proclamation: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish” (Jonah 3:7-9 ESV). And when God saw their repentant hearts, He spared them.

This was exactly what Jonah had feared. And this outcome left him angry with God. He didn't try to hide his displeasure, but lashed out at God, reminding Him that this was the very reason he had run away in the first place. “That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” Here was a man who had just enjoyed the grace and mercy of God himself, but who became angry at seeing someone else experience that same blessing. In his mind, the people of Nineveh didn't deserve it. But that's where he misunderstood God's grace and mercy. None of us deserve it. Jonah had done nothing to earn the second chance he had received from God. If anything, his actions had earned him an ignominious death in the belly of a fish at the bottom of the sea. But God had spared him. God had shown mercy upon him. And now that God was doing the same thing for the people of Nineveh, Jonah was upset. So much so, that he preferred death over life. He would rather have God kill him than to live to see the Ninevites spared by God.

How easy it would be to villainize Jonah and make him out to be the bad guy in this story. But the truth it, there is a little bit of Jonah in each of us. As followers of Christ, we have been given the mission of telling the world about the forgiveness and mercy made available through the death of Jesus. But we choose to withhold it. The very gift we have received, unearned and undeserved, we refuse to share with others. Especially those whom we don't want to see forgiven. The very gift we have received, we hoard. The message that was so graciously shared with us, we selfishly keep to ourselves. And when we see someone forgiven by God who we feel doesn't deserve it, we can become angry and upset. But our God is gracious, merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. We have been the undeserving recipients of His affections. So why wouldn't we want others to experience the same thing? God's grace and mercy were not meant to be hoarded. They were intended to be shared. What we have received, we should be willing to give away to others. Jonah should have been the greatest champion for God's grace. But rather than share what he had received, he attempted to hoard it for himself. God's grace, mercy and forgiveness is meant to be dynamic, not static. It is meant to be shared. What we have received, we should long to share with others.

Salvation Belongs to the Lord!

When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord! – Jonah 2:7-9 ESV

Jonah 2:1-9

The Psalmist wrote, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” (Psalm 107:1 ESV). That was the exact sentiment of Jonah as he wrapped up his prayer. When the conditions of Jonah's life had reached an all-time low, he remembered God and called out to Him. But what is it he remembered that caused him to call out? The steadfast love of God. In spite of his own stubbornness and refusal to obey God, Jonah knew that God still loved him and would respond to his cry for help. Again, the psalmist reminds us, “Some wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to a city to dwell in; hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress” (Psalm 107:4-6 ESV). Why did God deliver them? Because of His steadfast love. 

From the literal depths of the sea and from the belly of a large fish, Jonah called out to God and his cry reached the very throne room of heaven. Distance was no problem. His own disobedience proved no barrier. When he called out in repentance, acknowledging his need for God, he was heard. Jonah knew that his God would hear him and respond in love to him. He also knew that those who worshiped idols would lose hope, because their gods were incapable of hearing or helping. Idols can't extend help or express love. Only Yahweh, the God of Israel, possessed the unfailing capacity to love and the power to back up His love with salvation. Not only does God care about the needs of His children, He can do something about it.

Jonah was so confident in God's love and ultimate salvation, that he pledged to offer sacrifices with thanksgiving as soon as he got the opportunity. As all of us are prone to do when we find ourselves in trouble, Jonah had evidently made some promises to God based on God's deliverance. You know how that goes. “Oh God, if you get me out of this one, I will _______________.” You fill in the blank. Jonah told God, “what I have vowed I will pay.” He was confident God was going to deliver him, so he pledged to keep his promise to God. But the greatest statement found in Jonah's prayer is his closing one. “Salvation belongs to the Lord.” It reminds me of the statement of Peter made before the Jewish Council. Referring to Jesus, Peter said, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12 ESV). Salvation is the sole prerogative of God. Only He can save – from disaster, trouble, trials and from sin and death itself. Jesus Christ is the ultimate expression of God's saving power. He sent His Son to die as the payment for the sins of mankind. He sacrificed His own Son so that men might be made right with Him. Jonah's salvation was temporary in nature. He would live only to die again. But the salvation Jesus brought is permanent. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 ESV). Salvation belongs to the Lord. And why would God offer that kind of salvation to sinful men? Because of love. For God so loved the world. Paul reminds us, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 ESV). The offer of salvation is an expression of God's steadfast, unfailing love.

Jonah knew God loved him, so he had confidence to call out to God – in spite of his own rebellion against Him. If we don't understand the love of God, it will be hard for us to trust Him. If we fail to recognize just how much He loves us, we will find it difficult to place out hope in His salvation. We can never earn it. We will never deserve it. His love will always be the motivating factor behind His salvation. It's why He sent a fish to Jonah. It's why He sent Moses to the slaves living in Egypt. It's why He sent prophets to His people living in Canaan. It's why He sent Jesus to earth as a man. Out of love. And in order to offer salvation to men who didn't deserve it. Salvation belongs to the Lord. It was His idea. And it is the greatest expression of His love for men.

Love Lifted Me.

Then I said, “I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.” The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God. – Jonah 2:4-6 ESV

Jonah 2:1-9

There's an old hymn that I remember singing as a child and I can't help but think of it when I read this portion of Jonah's prayer. The first line says,

I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore, Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more, But the Master of the sea heard my despairing cry, From the waters lifted me, now safe am I.

The refrain gives a reminder of the motivation behind God's rescue of the sinking sinner:

Love lifted me! Love lifted me! When nothing else could help, Love lifted me!

Everything in Jonah's life was headed in the wrong direction. And it all started when he began running from God. The instructions Jonah had received from God had been very clear. “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2 ESV). But Jonah had other ideas. He had no interest in obeying God's command, so he decided to get out of town. “But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3-4 ESV).

As absurd as it may sound to us to attempt to run from God, the reality is that we do it all the time. Like Jonah, there are times when we hear God tell us to do something that sounds less-than-appealing to us. For Jonah, it was taking a message to the pagan people of Ninevah and running the risk that they might actually listen and repent. Jonah couldn't accept the thought of the pagans living in that wicked city being forgiven by God. So he ran. Just like we do. We run from His will. We run from His Spirit's promptings. Some of us avoid His Word so that we don't have to hear from Him. Others read His Word, but if it ever convicts them, they promptly ignore it. They run. But you can't run from God. Jonah discovered that universal truth. But he also discovered that God is a persistent God who expects His word to be obeyed. He had a job for Jonah to do and He wasn't going to let a little boat cruise get in the way. So God caused a storm and Jonah knew exactly who was behind it. He ended up being made a living sacrifice by the pagan sailors on the ship in an effort to appease whatever god was behind the wind and waves.

The next thing he knew, Jonah was sinking – sinking in his sin of rebellion against the will of God and sinking in the cold, wind-whipped waters of the sea. But Jonah was going to learn one more valuable lesson. God is also a loving, merciful, kind and patient God. He was going to reach down and lift Jonah out of the depths of his own sin and rebellion and deliver him safe and sound so that he could complete his assignment. Just when all hope was lost for Jonah, God stepped in and rescued him. Not because he deserved it. It was the love of God that lifted Jonah out of the sea. It was the love of God that sovereignly ordained a large fish to swallow Jonah and regurgitate him up on the shore. Jonah was lifted by the love of God. Which is why he could say, “yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God.”

It is senseless to run from God. You won't get far. And God will always get what He wants. Attempting to run from God will only result in hurt and heartache. God will not allow His children to live in continuous rebellion to His will. He will get their attention one way or the other. God will bring them to the point where they discover their running from Him has not put any distance from His presence, but has simply left them devoid of any joy, hope or peace. But even when all appears lost, God lovingly reaches down and lifts up those whose lives have been marked by disobedience. He rescues the rebellious. He recommissions the resistant. He restores the prodigal to his rightful place as His child.

In his poem, The Hound of Heaven, Francis Thompson writes of an individual attempting to run from God. But God, in His loving persistence, cries out:

Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee, Save Me, save only Me? All which I took from thee I did but take, Not for thy harms, But just that thou might'st seek it in My arms. All which thy child's mistake Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home: Rise, clasp My hand, and come!

When we find ourselves sinking, even as a result of our own rebellion, there are only one set of hands that are capable of reaching down and rescuing us. The powerful hands of our loving God. It is His hands alone that can lift us out of the waves and restore us to a right relationship with Him. So that we can say, “Love lifted me!”

Out of the Depths.

Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying, “I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me.” – Jonah 2:1-3 ESV

Jonah 2:1-9

If nothing else, this prayer of Jonah proves that you can pray from just about anywhere at any time. You don't have to have a “prayer closet” or a special place in which you pray. Prayer is available to us 24 hours a day and 365 days of the year. We can call out to God whenever and wherever we want and the best part is, He hears us. Jonah prayed from the belly of a fish. Not exactly a worshipful environment, but it was those less-than-perfect conditions that led Jonah to pray. His circumstances provided an ideal opportunity to talk to God. Finding himself in the digestive track of a large sea creature didn't dampen Jonah's prayer life, it enhanced it. And if you doubt that Jonah's story holds any credibility, you have Jesus to contend with, because He seems to have considered Jonah's three days in the fish's stomach as true. He used it when referring to His upcoming death. “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40 ESV).

It was in the midst of his distress that Jonah called out to God. Prior to that point in time, Jonah had been busy running from God. He had decided to disobey God's will and follow his own. And he was going to learn that you can't outrun God. You can't hide from God. Not only that, you can't find yourself in a predicament that puts you out of touch with God. David seemed to have learned that same lesson. “I can never escape from your Spirit! I can never get away from your presence! If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I go down to the grave, you are there. If I ride the wings of the morning, if I dwell by the farthest oceans, even there your hand will guide me, and your strength will support me” (Psalm 139:7-10 ESV). God is always nearby. He sees. He hears. He answers. It's interesting to note that Jonah says, “I called out.” This prayer was prayed while he was still in the belly of the fish. It was while he was right in the middle of his worst-case scenario. And yet, Jonah says, “he answered me” and “you heard my voice”. This isn't a post-salvation prayer, but a smack-dab-right-in-the-middle-of-it prayer. But Jonah knew that God heard him and was going to answer him. He was confident that God was there and that He cared.

What a wonderful reminder for those of us who might find ourselves swallowed up by our circumstances, with the floods surrounding us, the waves and billows passing over us. We can call out to God and not only will He hear us, He will answer us. Jonah had to wait three days for his deliverance, but it came. He probably showed the wear and tear of his ordeal. He would never forget the experience. And he would never fail to remember God graciously rescuing him from the consequences of his own stubborn rebellion. Trials and troubles tend to make prayer warriors out of all of us. When we find ourselves in serious trouble, we suddenly get serious about prayer. It's amazing how the person who claims, “I don't know how to pray” can discover the secret to prayer when the need arises. And that seems to be the key – need. Jonah needed God. He was at a loss to do anything about his condition. He was helpless and hopeless and in desperate need of rescue, so he turned to God. Prayer is always powered by dependency, not pride. Prideful people don't need God. The powerless are those that pray most powerfully. Desperation has a way of eliminating all pretense and pride. When we come to a place where we truly need God we seem to have no problem talking to Him. And that should be a lesson for us. Need is a primary factor for praying effectively. An awareness of our dependency on God will greatly improve our communication with God.

This reminds of the great old hymn, I Need Thee Every Hour. One of the less-known verses says, “I need Thee every hour, in joy or pain; Come quickly and abide, or life is in vain.” Need is a missing ingredient in many of our prayer lives. And there is a huge difference between needs and wants. We tend to bring God all our wants and desires, but fail to recognize our need. We need HIM, not what He can give us. We need His deliverance, His presence, His power, His peace, His guidance, His joy, His forgiveness, His grace, His mercy, His love. We need Him every hour of every day. The chorus of that old hymn should be the daily prayer of every believer. “I need Thee, O I need Thee; Every hour I need Thee; O bless me now, my Savior, I come to Thee.”

Where Is Their God?

Spare your people, O Lord, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples,Where is their God?” – Joel 2:17 ESV

This was a prayer prescribed by God Himself. It was to be prayed by the priests and ministers of the people in response to the coming “Day of the Lord”. God was bringing judgment against His people. “Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming; it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!” (Joel 2:1-2 ESV). Joel was used by God to prophesy to the nation of Judah and warn them of the coming judgment of God for their unfaithfulness and empty religious formalism. They had been going through the motions religiously for years. But what had been missing was true repentance. Their sacrifices had been meaningless. They were empty exercises, religious activities that had no heart behind them. The prophet Isaiah had delivered this stern message from God to the very same people: “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats” (Isaiah 1:11 ESV). What God was looking for was repentance and actions that properly illustrated their changed hearts. “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:16-17 ESV).

God gave the very same message through Joel. “‘Yet even now,‘ declares the Lord,return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.’ Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster” (Joel 2:12-13 ESV). God was willing to forgive. He was anxious to see His people return to Him in brokenness and humility. He even had Joel suggest that they father all the people and hold a solemn assembly and fast. He even gave the religious leaders the very prayer they should pray. Because God knew that one of the consequences of the coming judgment would that the pagan nations would conclude that He had abandoned His people. Their failure to repent and return to God would not only result in their punishment, but it would harm the reputation of God among the nations. God stood ready, willing and able to forgive and restore them. But it was conditioned on their response. Disobedience would bring destruction. Repentance would bring restoration. 

One of the results of refusing to repent would be that the people of God would a “reproach”. The Hebrew word for “reproach” is cherpah and it means “disgrace, contempt, scorn”. By rejecting God's plea that they confess their sins and accept His mercy and forgiveness, they would bring judgment on themselves. It would allow the nations around them to mock and ridicule them. But worse yet, it would cause the godless to dishonor the name and reputation of God Himself. They would sarcastically ask, “Where is their God?” By stubbornly refusing to accept God's offer of forgiveness and restoration, they would be disgraced, but God would be dishonored among the nations. How often does that sad scenario take place even today? We refuse to come to God in repentance, confessing our sins and humbly accepting His offer of forgiveness and restoration. So we continue to live in defeat, despair and disillusionment, lacking joy, missing out on the promise of abundant life and failing to experience the full extent of His power and presence. Many who know us to be believers probably ask that very same question, “Where is their God?” They look at our lives and wonder what difference our salvation has made. We don't seem to live any differently than they do. We don't have any more joy than they do. We don't seem to have any supernatural advantage over them, in spite of our so-called status as children of God.

But the lesson from the book of Joel is that of repentance. It is a reminder that the deliverance of God is never far away. It begins with a heart of repentance. It is as close as our next confession. He has never left us or forsaken us. The answer to the question, “Where is their God?” is: Right here. He stands ready to step in and offer His forgiveness to any who are ready to confess their sins. He is always ready to restore those who are willing to repent. The amazing thing is that each and every time we return to God in repentance and humility, not only do we receive His mercy and forgiveness, but the world gets a first-hand look at what it means to have a relationship with the living God. We become living, breathing witnesses to the love and grace of God. Our lives become illustrations of His power and presence on earth. God gets glory. Jesus said, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16 ESV). Peter echoed those same words when he wrote, “Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world” (1 Peter 2:12 NLT). Where is our God? As close as our next confession.

Remember. Renew. Restore.

But you, O Lord, reign forever; your throne endures to all generations. Why do you forget us forever, why do you forsake us for so many days? Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old—unless you have utterly rejected us, and you remain exceedingly angry with us. – Lamentations 5:19-22 ESV Jeremiah was living in what was the ruins of Jerusalem. He is surrounded by a rag-tag remnant of individuals who were left behind by the Babylonians after they took tens of thousands of their fellow Israelites into captivity. In the earlier part of Jeremiah's prayer, recorded in chapter 5, he gave God a vivid description of their circumstances. They were living in disgrace. In keeping with the book's name, Jeremiah laments, “Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers, our homes to foreigners. We have become orphans, fatherless; our mothers are like widows” (Jeremiah 5:2-3 ESV). They were having to pay for clean water to drink and wood to burn. They had resorted to alliances with Egypt and Assyria just to be able to have bread to eat. Crime was on an upswing. It wasn't safe to go into the wilderness. Jeremiah reported, “Women are raped in Zion, young women in the towns of Judah” (Lamentations 5:11 ESV). Everyone was forced to work in order to exist. There was no longer any joy or any reason to celebrate or dance. And Jeremiah knew that their circumstances were the result of their own sin and rebellion against God. While the remnant that remained had escaped captivity, they were trapped in an endless cycle of poverty and despair. They were living in the land of Judah, but without any of the blessings or benefits they had known before.

And in the midst of all the pain and suffering, Jeremiah called out to the only one who could do anything about it. He turned to God, acknowledging His power and sovereignty. “But you, O Lord, reign forever; your throne endures to all generations.” Everything else was unstable and insecure, but not God. The temple may have been destroyed, but the one for whom it had been built was alive and well. The city of Jerusalem may have fallen and the king of Judah taken captive and humiliated, but God remained King of the universe. God remained the one stable factor in Jeremiah's topsy-turvy world. But Jeremiah couldn't help but feel that God had somehow forgotten them. He knew that God had promised to restore the people to the land, in spite of all that they had done. But each day Jeremiah woke up to the same sad circumstances. Poverty, injustice, pain, suffering, and hopelessness. He wondered when God was going to keep His word. When would God step in and do what He had promised to do? Jeremiah pleaded with God to restore them and to renew things back to the way they used to be. He longed for the good old days. But he knew that any hope of restoration was up to God. He would have to do it. As a people, they were completely incapable of saving themselves. Those in captivity were helpless to do anything about their situation. Those left behind in Judah were powerless to change their circumstances. They needed God.

It is amazing how quickly we can become God-focused when we find ourselves in a jam from which we can't escape. Nothing improves our prayer lives like troubles and trials. The feelings of helplessness and hopelessness are great motivators when it comes to our spiritual lives. We seem to operate on the maxim: when all else fails, try God. But Jeremiah wasn't turning to God as a last resort. He was appealing to his one and only hope. Without God, all was lost. There were no other viable options. God alone was capable of doing anything about their predicament. But sadly, many Christians always have another trick up their sleeve or another option to turn to other than God. Whether through pride or a lack of faith, far too many of us make God our desperation destiny. When all is lost, we turn to Him. And amazingly, He is always there. He is the one consistent, unchanging and constantly reliable reality we can count on. Jeremiah ended his prayer and his book with the words, “Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old—unless you have utterly rejected us, and you remain exceedingly angry with us.” I don't think Jeremiah believed that was the case. He knew his God all too well to think that He would abandon them forever. He had heard God promise to restore them. He had obeyed when God told him to purchase land in Judah as an investment for the future. He knew in his heart of hearts that God was going to remember, renew and restore. But that did not stop him from wondering when it would all happen. It did not prevent him from asking God to move the timeline up.

And we know that God kept His word. He did eventually restore the people to the land. He brought them back out of captivity and allowed them to rebuild the temple, restore the walls of Jerusalem and repopulate the land. He did exactly what He had promised to do. Catastrophe and captivity were no match for God. The hopelessness and helplessness of men were poor indicators of God's capabilities. To Him, the circumstances were nothing more than an opportunity, not an obstacle. At no point was God worried, concerned, or sitting up in heaven wringing His hands, wondering what He was going to do. He was and is the Lord God, who reigns forever. He is the King of the universe, the all-powerful God for whom nothing is too difficult. He will remember. He will renew. He will restore. We can rely on Him.

God Has Seen. He Will Redeem.

You have taken up my cause, O Lord; you have redeemed my life. You have seen the wrong done to me, O Lord; judge my cause. You have seen all their vengeance, all their plots against me. – Lamentations 3:56-58 ESV

Jeremiah had been through a lot. He had been a prophet for God, delivering a message of repentance and warning of future judgment if that message was ignored. Not only was his message unaccepted, his own people persecuted, rejected and even physically attacked him for his efforts. And eventually, Jeremiah had to stand by and watch as the city of Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. He had to witness the destruction of the temple of God. He had a front row seat to the deportation of the people as they were shipped out as captives of the Babylonian king and his conquering army. And while Jeremiah was allowed to remain in the land of Judah along with a remnant of the people, he fared no better than before. He was still despised. He was blamed for all that had happened. He had no friends, only enemies. There were even times when he felt alienated and abandoned by God. “He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has made my chains heavy;  though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer; he has blocked my ways with blocks of stones; he has made my paths crooked” (Lamentations 3:7-9 ESV). Jeremiah found himself in a dark place emotionally and spiritually. He confessed, “my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord’” (Lamentations 3:17-18 ESV). But as we saw in yesterday's post, Jeremiah had one thing he continued to hang on to during his dark days of despair. “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:21-23 ESV).

The love and faithfulness of God. That is what kept Jeremiah going. And for Jeremiah, it was not some nebulous, bible-verse-on-a-plaque concept. It was real and he had experienced it in his own life. God had been loving and faithful to him in the past, so he knew that it was possible for God to be that way even under his current circumstances. God had taken up Jeremiah's cause before. He had redeemed Jeremiah's life on more than one occasion over the years. So why couldn't He and why wouldn't He do so now? Jeremiah knew that God was fully aware of what was going on. He had seen it all. He wasn't not blind or oblivious to Jeremiah's difficulties. Jeremiah's God was compassionate and fully cognizant of his circumstances. After all, God had been the one to orchestrate all that had happened. There was nothing Jeremiah said in chapter three that God was not aware of already or for which He had a failed to prepare a plan of action. The question wasn't whether God would redeem, but simply when and how. Jeremiah had no way of knowing just what God would do. He had no idea when God would do it. But he had hope based on past experience that God WOULD do something. Jeremiah believed, “The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord” (Lamentations 3:25-26 ESV). 

The temptation we face when going through a difficult time like Jeremiah is to lash out, if not at God, at others. We especially want to verbally attach those who are harming us. We want to take revenge and enact vengeance on those who persecuting us. But Jeremiah says it is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It's hard to keep our mouths shut when those around us are casting dispersions on our character or attacking us with their words. Yet Jeremiah said, “You have heard their taunts, O Lord, all their plots against me. The lips and thoughts of my assailants are against me all the day long. Behold their sitting and their rising; I am the object of their taunts” (Lamentations 3:61-63 ESV). I am sure there was a part of Jeremiah that wanted to lash out and light up his opponents. He wanted to give them a piece of his mind. He would have loved to have been able to defend himself and expose the lies of his enemies. But instead, he was willing to trust God. He sees. He will redeem. In the last three verses of his prayer, Jeremiah states, “You will repay them…”, “you will give them…, “your curse will be on them…”, “you will pursue them….” In other words, God had this handled. He would do what needed to be done. He would redeem. And Jeremiah was content to let God do it His way and according to His timeline. In the meantime, he would quietly wait for the salvation of the Lord.

We sometimes have a hard time believing that God sees what is going on. We either believe He is indifferent and doesn't care or is too busy and preoccupied with more significant issues. And because we don't think God sees, we doubt that He will redeem. That's when we are tempted to take matters into our own hands. We seem our own vengeance. We attempt to act as our own savior. Rather than quietly wait on God's salvation, we step in and, sadly, we screw things up. Waiting on God can be difficult. Remaining quiet can be practically impossible. But when we have a long history of having seen God work in our lives, it is far easier to trust Him. His past acts of redemption make future waiting on Him less difficult. That is why Jeremiah said, “You have taken up my cause, O Lord; you have redeemed my life.” God had proven Himself faithful in the past. He would prove himself faithful in the future. He has seen. He will redeem.