Tag Archives: bible

How to pray in the Spirit – Jude 17-25, Part 3

2 Oct
Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

What is prayer like for you? Do you spend much time praying? And when you pray, what do you actually do? How much do you talk? How much do you listen?

As we continue our series through Jude 17-25, we’re learning how to be ready for Jesus to return, and the next practice Jude teaches is in verse 20: we should pray in the Holy Spirit.

One author I read says this: “The person who has the Spirit of God within him (that is to say, every Christian), the person who is led by the Holy Spirit in his prayers as in all else, will certainly pray in the Spirit. It is he who utters within us the distinctive Christian address to God as ‘Abba’ or ‘Father’ (Rom. 8:15).”[1]

So how do we pray in the Holy Spirit?  Be observant about the Spirit’s work in your life.  Learn to listen to him, which is not always natural or easy, but can take practice.  It means opening up space in our life to listen.  For me I have been convicted about this recently, and I have been using Psalm 46:10 “Be still and know that I am God” as a guide.  I’ll set a timer for 10 minutes, and just be still, and think about God. I ask him how he is doing.  I try to avoid telling him how I’m doing, what I want, and instead listen. 

Listening means learning to be observant.  At our sermon roundtable one person told the story of a medical school professor who brought a cup on urine to class.  He held it up to the class, explained that it was urine, dipped his finger in it, and then sucked on a finger.  The students were disgusted.  But then the prof said that a major hurdle they need to get over is being repulsed by bodily fluids, or they won’t make it in the medical profession.  So he passed the urine sample around class asking students to smell it and taste it.  There were many grimaces and laughter as the urine went around class, wrinkling noses and souring their tongues.  But then when the urine made its way back to the prof, he revealed he had dipped his pointer finger in the urine and sucked on his middle finger.  He said that what he really wanted to teach them was observation.  They would have known what he did if they were paying close attention.  Observation is vital in any situation, and likewise as we listen for God’s Spirit to speak.  So Jude reminds us to pray in the Spirit, and that means we need to spend time observing how God might be at work, or might be speaking to us. 

Also another excellent way to pray in the Spirit is to pray the scripture in your prayers.  That starts with reading and thinking about a section of the Bible, asking the Spirit to help you understand it.  In 1 Corinthians 2:12 Paul says that we have the Spirit of God within us to help us understand what he has given us.  Also, as we read a section of Scripture we can pray that the Spirit can help us apply it to our life.

This takes time, space, and practice. So how will you open up that space for quiet listening to God in your life?

[1] Michael Green, 2 Peter and Jude: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 18, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 213.

Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship? [False ideas Christians believe about…God’s desires for Christians. Part 1]

25 Mar
Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

What are God’s desires for Christians?  He just wants us to pray and read the Bible, right? 

Well, actually there are a lot of ideas about what God wants his people to do.   Unfortunately not all the ideas are based in Scripture. In fact, some of the ideas that Christians use to guide their lives, or to assure themselves that God is honored by their lives, are downright false.  Sometimes we create alternate Christian realities that insulate us from truly knowing and following what God wants for us.  What does God actually want for us?  In this series we’re going to find out that it might be surprising. God’s desire for us is sometimes in direct conflict with what Christians desire for ourselves.  Because that can be very hard to take, we can create false ideas about what God wants us to do, or how he wants us to live.  So let’s do some fact-checking about ideas that Christians believe about what God wants for us. 

Have you heard any of these phrases?

  • Christianity is not a religion it is a relationship.
  • God isn’t interested in making you happy; he’s interested in making you holy.
  • OR it’s opposite: God always wants me to be happy.
  • God’s love for me is determined by my behavior.
  • God is not OK with doubt and anger.
  • God does not expect that much from me.

Each week as I have displayed these lists of phrases, I’ve thought, “Whew…what are you all going to think?  There are some phrases each time that seem like they absolutely should not be on a fact-checking list, as they are phrases that are obviously true.”  Same goes for this week. 

Right off the bat, that first one is one that Christians say so frequently that it can’t possibly need to be on this list, right? 

Actually, last week, I had one of those strange moments when I was writing one line of thinking, while at the same time considering another thought to myself.  I wrote that, “God gives us free will because he does not want us to be robots, but wants us to be in a real relationship with him,” and at the same time as I was writing, the thought hit me, “next week you’re going to be fact-checking this!”

Am I now disagreeing with myself? I’ve probably said this phrase thousands of times: “Christianity is not a religion it is a relationship.”

So what is Christianity?  A religion or a relationship? When we think of religion we think of harsh rules and dead rituals, and in our evangelical tradition, we have reacted quite strongly against that, saying that Christianity is not a religion, instead it is a vibrant relationship with God. 

Let me start this fact-checking by saying, I agree with that!  Take John 15:12-17, for example. There Jesus says to his disciples, “I call you friends.”  He says that he so deeply wants to be in friendship with us that he lays down his life for us.   It’s not just an acquaintance; Jesus says he wants to be in close friendship with us.

He is describing real give and take. 

Think about relationships with me.  How does a relationship start?  And how is relationship maintained?  It takes lots of communication.  Real time spent together.  That’s what God desires to have with us!

As a result, some Christians are very anti-religion because they feel it goes against the concept of relationship.  But does it?  Is religion automatically bad?  In our next post in this series, we’ll look at the concept of religion more closely. For now, let’s take time to dwell on the words on Jesus in John 15:12-17. He wants to have a close friendship with us! In fact, he did lay down his life for us to make that friendship possible. Consider your own relationship with Jesus. Would you call it a friendship? How does it compare to your human friendships? What would it look like for you to pursue closer friendship with Jesus?

This too shall pass? [False ideas Christians believe about…difficulty. Part 4]

14 Mar
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Are the difficult times in life good or bad? You might read that and think, “How could difficult times ever be good?” Well, when we experience suffering, we tend to feel more helpless and needy and thus we pray more. Increased levels of communication with God, as with any relationship in which greater communication almost always results in being closer to the person, leads to a good change: increased intimacy with God. Maybe difficult times, then, are good? 

So many of us have experienced a deep closeness with God during the hard times.  Therefore, we sometimes say that the phrase, “During times of suffering, you’ll be closer to God.” But is it true?

What we have seen in this series fact-checking phrases that Christians commonly believe is that, like the two-liner statements in the biblical Proverbs, many of these phrases are not guaranteed promises, but they are statements that are generally true.  The same can be said about “during suffering, you’ll be closer to God.”

While generally true, we need to see that this statement is sometimes false, given that some people have gone through suffering and lost their faith!  So this statement is not a promise.  Suffering often brings us closer to God, but it also sometimes crushes faith.  We need to be very sensitive to that.  Many people in the midst of suffering are having a crisis of faith.  God gave us free will, and there are many responses to difficult circumstances.

And that brings us to our next statement.  When people are in the midst of suffering, we say, “This too shall pass.”

How many of you say this?  Or have heard it said?  It is a go-to phrase for many. Is it in the Bible?  Nope. So why do people say this?

Because people in the midst of struggle are really having a hard time, and they need hope.  So we tell them “this too shall pass,” trying too give them hope that the pain will eventually finish.  But is that true? 

Generally, yes.  Most difficult times have an end date.  Yet in the midst of the difficulty, it is very, very hard for us to be comforted by a possible good future.  We are in the pain now, and we can think that the rest of our lives will be this way.

So there is a tension in the reality of life. Whether it is a health situation or a financial situation or a difficult relationship, it is generally true that they almost always pass, get resolved. But not always. Look, for example, at 2 Corinthians 4:16-18.  Paul reminds us that our troubles will all pass. Here’s the thing thought: the pain might not be done until we die and are pain-free in heaven.  But it will pass. 

That is a harsh reality…this too might not pass until we die.

One of my first acts as senior pastor was to gather a bunch of people to meet with an elderly man in our congregation to pray for him and anoint him with oil.  He was sick and was hoping and praying for healing, and God did not answer that prayer for healing.  James 5 even says that God will heal.  Instead, a few months later that man passed away.  The sickness did not pass on this side of heaven.  Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians that he, himself, had what he called a “thorn in the flesh” and he asked God numerous times to take it away.  We don’t know what the thorn was.  Could be a broken relationship.  Could be a health problem.  Could be an enemy.  But God never takes it away from Paul. 

So again, we have a proverbial phrase.  Pain generally will pass and things will go back to normal.  There are most often seasons in life.  And seasons come and go.  Writing this in the northeastern United States in early March, I am personally ready for the warmer temps of spring!  In parenting, there are seasons.  We recently had an interesting conversation with one of our college-age sons.  He was home for a visit, and somehow we got to talking about these seasons in life.  My wife mentioned that once our kids turned 12-15 years old, we as parents suddenly lost most of our knowledge and became dumb and irrelevant.  But once the kids turned 19-20, we parents amazingly became smart again!  There are seasons, and the statement “this too shall pass” reflects how that is generally true.  Most often, the difficulty comes and goes. 

But not always.  So again, be sensitive to those in pain.  They are in the middle, struggling.  Encourage them and be with them in the pain.  But, do not give false promise that it will guaranteed be taken away.  That is not a promise God gives.  We can and should hope for that, work towards that and pray for it.  But, that is different than saying that God has made it a promise.

As we talked about earlier, in the pain, many can have a crisis of faith.  Sometimes we think “God why are you allowing me to go through this?”  And it seems to us that God is silent.  Nowhere to be found. 

So how should we respond in the midst of pain? Check back in to part 5, and we’ll explore how to have a healthy approach to the difficulty in life.

God won’t give you more than you can handle? [False ideas Christians believe about…difficulty. Part 1]

11 Mar
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If you’ve ever been going through a really difficulty time, you may have heard one of the following statements:

  • God won’t give you more than you can handle.
  • God helps those who help themselves.
  • During times of suffering, you’ll be closer to God.
  • This, too, shall pass.

We hear them regularly, don’t we?  We interact with people going through hard times, and often we struggle to make sense of it.  Where is God in the midst of my pain?  Will I make it through?  What do we say to people who are struggling?  We want to be there for them, we want to encourage them, but we are concerned that we are going to say the wrong thing.  It’s easy to fall back on sayings that we’ve heard before, maybe that were said to us during our pain, and we hope that we will sound wise and helpful.  In those confusing moments, what often comes out of our mouths?  One of these statements! 

But are they true?  Or are they false?  Let’s fact check them. This post starts the third week in a sermon series I’m preaching at Faith Church on false ideas Christians believe. We’ve covered sin and the Bible, and now we’re fact-checking statements about dealing with difficulty.

First up is “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” Are there any Bible verses that might prove or disprove this?  How about 1 Corinthians 10:13?

On the surface, this seems to be a verse that proves the statement definitively.  But a closer look reveals that this verse is not about difficult times, but about temptation. 

But, Paul says here, “There is no temptation so powerful that it has the ability to overpower us to the point where we are incapable of resisting it.  God is faithful.  He will provide a way for us to stand up under it.” 

And yet some of us have faced incredibly difficult temptations that have overwhelmed us. Is the verse wrong? No, the verse is right. God is faithful. When we succumb to temptation, James 1, tells us it is because we choose to indulge the temptation: “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”

So maybe the phrase is wrong? Let’s examine it. It starts with “God won’t give.” Taken by itself, it describes God as doing the giving.  Is that what God does?  Go around giving people trouble?  Hardship?  Pain? 

I know it says, “He won’t give you more than you can handle,” but that presumes that God does give in the first place, and the context of the phrase is difficulty, so does God give us difficulty? 

The image we get when we use this phrase is of a person walking carefree down the sidewalk, and enjoying a nice sunny spring day, and all of a sudden God pops up and says, “Oh hey, I am giving you this box to carry.”  Could be a box of bad health, or a box of job loss, or a box of broken dishwasher.  You name your pain.  The person holds the box, and it is heavy.  They don’t want to be carrying it.  But God gave it to them.  And then God shows up again and gives them another box.  More pain. More difficulty.  And now they are struggling.   With one box, it was bad, but manageable.  Now with two boxes, whew…it is really taking its toll.  And then God shows up again.  A third box.  The hits just keep on coming.  Now the pain in tripled and overwhelming.  They won’t make it much further.  God shows up again and gives them a fourth box.  They fall down unable to handle it, the boxes of pain crashing over them, doing them in

Is God a giver of pain like that?  No!  We read Jesus saying that God is a giver of good gifts in Matthew 7:9-11, and James says the same thing in James 1:13-17.

So where does all the trouble and difficulty come from?  Many places.  Our own bad choices can result in pain, other people making bad choices affect us, and the broken and fallen world we live in.  There is also a biblical concept that God punishes, or disciplines or corrects those he loves.  Is that how God gives out difficulty to us?  That he is punishing us?  Is all our pain actually punishment?

The phrase came up in our Deuteronomy study in chapter 8.  It is in more than one of the Psalms, and Proverbs 3:12 and which is quoted in Hebrews 12:6.  It’s also mentioned in Revelation. 

These passages describe God’s correction as very different from the many difficulties we face in life.  God is not looking around just randomly punishing people, saying “I love them so much.”  Instead, punishment occurs after a disobedience, and for the most part, that punishment is God lovingly allowing us to face the consequences of our bad choice.  But know this, in our pain, he is right there with us. 

So as we fact-check the first part of that statement, I say it is totally false.  We need to see God as the giver of good gifts, as the parent who loves us, and thus allows us to go through the consequences of our bad choices, but who never leaves us.  Therefore God is not deciding who can handle difficulty and then doling out bad circumstances based on that. Check back in for part 2 where we fact-check the second half of the phrase: “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

Practical suggestions for reading the Bible [False ideas Christians believe about…the Bible. Part 5]

9 Mar

Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

Did you know that a billionaire guy in England has built an amazing state of the art chocolate factory?  His chocolate is known for its astoundingly creamy taste, and he attributes this to his unique manufacturing process.  No other chocolate factory has anything like it.  It is a chocolate river that ends up in a waterfall, so I guess you would call it a chocolate fall.  The churning of the chocolate as it crashes to the bottom of the chocolate fall creates its unparalleled creamy taste.  As you can imagine his process is top-secret, and no one is allowed in there so they don’t steal his method.  But in a genius marketing move, he decided to send out a handful of golden tickets hidden in random chocolate bars, distributed around the world.  The people who discovered the golden tickets were going to be treated to a special all-access behind the scenes tour of the chocolate factory. 

Let me pause the story right there and ask: Am I telling truth? 

Nope.  Not one bit of it.  It is a completely false story.  And yet, my guess is that a whole bunch of you know exactly what I’m talking about.  What story is this?

Did you guess Charlie and Chocolate Factory, which features the factory owner, Willy Wonka?  It was first a book, and more recently has been turned into movies.  Here’s the thing.  While that story is based in reality, we all know it is fiction.  Yet none of us is concerned about that.  We’re used to that.  In fact, we know that Roald Dahl, who is the author of that story, had a reason, or an intent, trying to communicate something to us.  He was using literature to teach a lesson. 

If you have read the book or seen the movie, what would you say is the lesson?  “Don’t be selfish,” maybe? 

What this reminds us of is that we need to understand genre!  We need to see that even fiction literature can be used to teach a lesson. Jesus did this in his parables.  He created stories about realistic things, but to teach a lesson.

In other words, we do not need to read the Bible with hyper-literalistic precision in order to keep the Bible pure, and to keep our faith in God.  Instead, ask: “What was the author’s intent?  What can I learn about God’s heart from this?  What should I do with that information in my life now?” 

I believe that the Bible is truth.  We can read the Bible and learn what God and the human author were trying to teach us. It is one very important way God lovingly communicates to us about the way of his Kingdom.

Therefore, I conclude this series with some other important points to keep in mind.

First, every time you are about to study Scripture, whether publicly or in private, remember what the Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 2, that we have the promise of the Spirit’s guidance.  Pray for God’s Spirit to help you understand what you are reading.

Next, before you seek to apply Scripture to your own life, try to understand how the original audience would have understood it.  This is what we saw many times in the Deuteronomy study.  That means identifying the genre you are reading. It will also mean having an awareness of the historical and cultural situation of the original audience.

Learning genre and what a passage meant to the original audience might require you to get help.  There are plentiful resources you could turn to, but one that I have found very accessible and helpful is The Bible Project. They have created artistically gorgeous and biblically rich videos that will help you learn genre and historical context of each book of the Bible. 

Next, seek the principle in the passage that could relate to all time periods and cultures. Then with that principle in hand, test the principle by asking “does this fit with the teaching of the many books of the Bible?” 

For example, if you are reading Psalm 1, you could conclude that the principle is “don’t make friends with sinners.”  But when you cross-check that with the rest of the Bible, you realize that Jesus made friends with sinners, so maybe there is another way to look at Psalm 1. 

Once you have the principle in hand, then you can apply it to your life. As James says, “do not just be hearers of the Word, do what it says.” Back to Psalm 1, we could amend the principle to “be on guard against falling into temptation by regularly immersing yourself in the teaching of God’s word.” We can then apply that to our lives by creating a plan for consistent study of the Bible, and even doing so with others to add encouragement and accountability, working together to understand and apply God’s Kingdom ways to our lives.

Examining the literal approach to reading the Bible [False ideas Christians believe about…the Bible. Part 4]

7 Mar

Did you ever hear the phrase that we need to read the Bible literally? In part 3 of this series we saw that a literal reading of some parts of the Bible leads to very bizarre results. Maybe the concept of reading the Bible literally should mean something else?

Take Jesus.  Jesus was a master of creating stories to teach principles.  We call them parables.  Some literalists will say that Jesus was telling true stories.  But that viewpoint is absolutely unnecessary, and in some cases odd, when you look at the details of the stories Jesus told.  Some of the details are purposefully exaggerated or fictional or even impossible.

For example, Jesus tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus, and how the rich man went to hell and Lazarus when to heaven with Abraham, and get this, they could see each other.  Can you see from heaven into hell?  The literalists say, “Yes, because that is the precise detail that Jesus mentioned.”  But nowhere else in biblical descriptions of heaven and hell is there anything like this.  So it is much more likely that Jesus was teaching an important principle through a story.

And that is okay.  We tell stories like this all time.  Fairy tales and fables.  No one believes Star Wars is real, but that doesn’t matter.  Even though every Star Wars film begins with “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” those movies are not about real historical events. What’s more, the author doesn’t want us to believe it is real.  Instead, the author creates a fictional story through which we can still learn about good and evil.  This happens frequently in literature and film, and we have no problem with that.

The Bible, too, has many such fictional stories. 

“But, Joel,” you might say, “that is a slippery slope. What about the story of creation in Genesis 1-3, or the stories of Job and Jonah.  Are you saying these parables?  Don’t they have to be history?”  Some say that unless we believe in the historical viability of every single story in the Bible, then we are going down a slippery slope that will lead to throwing the whole Bible in the trash.  That’s why some people feel way more comfortable saying that it is best to just read the whole Bible literally.  It can be hard work doing the research and investigation to determine if a particular part of the Bible is fiction or non-fiction.  I submit to you, however, that doing the work is worth it.  Not just a little bit worth it either. It is preeminently important because if God, inspiring human authors, meant for a particular part or book of Scripture to be fiction, then we should want to know that.  We do not need to be afraid of that.

Take Jonah.  I know that in our church there are actually disagreements about the genre of Jonah.  Some think Jonah is history.  Some think it is parable.  There is good biblical evidence for each. 

Here’s what I tell people in the end:  This is not a question of God’s power.   Can God make a big fish swallow a guy, keep that guy alive for 3 days inside the fish, and then spit him out?  If we believe in the resurrection of Jesus, then we have to believe in the power of God to do everything described in Jonah.  No question there.  God could easily have done it.

But did God do it?  This gets to the question of whether the story of Jonah is history or parable? While there is evidence for both sides of the argument, we have to admit that we may never definitely know.

Either way, parable or history, we can still learn the same things about God and his heart!  That takes us back to the question:  What is the author trying to say?  What does God want us to know through the story of Jonah? God can communicate what he wants using either fiction or non-fiction. So let us do the work of looking at the evidence, weighing the options, but ultimately seeking for God’s heart in the process. That is an important method for reading the Bible. Next in part 5 of this series, we’ll look at more important methods for reading the Bible.

How genre is vital to the Bible [False ideas Christians believe about…the Bible. Part 3]

6 Mar

We read the instruction manual for our car differently than we will read Shakespeare’s sonnets, right?  We read the Declaration of Independence different than we read Huckleberry Finn.  As we should.  The authors of each of those documents are utilizing different literary genres to accomplish a purpose. 

Genre is a fancy word that just means “category.”  It is often used to describe different kinds of literature or movies or music.  The Bible, too, includes poetry, lists, history, law codes, letters, parable, prophecies, and more.  Therefore, one of the first things we should do when we start reading something in the Bible is ask, what genre am I reading? 

That goes back to what we already said when we discussed inspiration: the author of each books in the Bible is actually two authors, a combination of God and humans.  God inspired humans to write, so both are the author.  Thus we ask what did God and the human author try to communicate to us?  One of the first steps to determining the message of the text is to answer another question: what literature category or genre did they use to try to communicate?

We are so used to asking and answering this question that we do it without thinking.  You do it all the time. 

When you pull out your car’s owner’s manual, you are in information mode.  You brain automatically assesses that this an instruction manual, and therefore you aren’t going to treat it like poetry. 

Think about it.  Imagine trying to read your car owner’s manual using the principles that we would use for reading poetry!  It would go like this: “The spare tire is located in a hidden compartment in the trunk?  Hmmmm…That must have a double-meaning and Honda is trying to tell me something…but I’m so bad at figuring out this stuff…why don’t they just speak plainly???”  Uh…no…all that manual is trying to say is that there is actually a spare tire hidden in a compartment in the trunk. 

Likewise when I am reading the Psalms in the Bible, I am reading a collection of poetry.  If I want to understand what God and the human author are trying to communicate, I will need to read each psalm like I read poetry because God and the human author used the principles of poetic writing to create the psalms. 

And that brings us to the idea of taking the Bible literally.  Remember our second phrase that we are fact-checking?  “If everything in the Bible is not literally true, the whole thing falls apart.”

What people mean when they say that the Bible is 100% literally true is that it is actually inspired by God.  This is where we would differ with other religions who say that their holy books are also from God.  We believe that only the Bible is divinely inspired.  Therefore the Bible is trustworthy as teaching God’s truth. 

That is not to say that other holy books or movies or songs only and always teach lies.  If a book or song includes the teaching, “Love everyone,” we Christians can affirm that as truth, because it is consistent with the teaching in the Bible.  If another book or movie or song taught something like, “it is okay to hate people who are jerks” then we would disagree with that, because it is not consistent with the teaching in the Bible.  In other words, we believe the Bible is a foundation for truth.

But where this statement gets messy and needs to be fact-checked is when people don’t pay attention to genre.  Let’s look at a very specific example from the Bible to show you what I mean. Take a look at this picture.

How do you feel about this picture?  That the person is attractive?  Beautiful?  Or that it is really weird? 

What you are looking at is a literal artistic rendering of the woman described in the Bible in the book called the Song of Solomon.  This is what you get if the writer is describing this woman literally.  Her neck is a tower.  Her hair is a flock of goats.  Her temples are slices of pomegranate. 

Literalists will say that all Scripture needs to be read on that kind of level.  “Literal,” to them, means that these poets in the Song of Solomon are describing each other exactly as they saw it, with precision, almost scientific precision.

Did the author of Song of Solomon know an actual person like this?  A freaks of nature?  Or should a literal reading the Bible mean something else? Check back in to part 4, as we’ll tackle that question.