You Can Please God

Often in counseling, when asked specifically about how a counselee pleased God in a given week, he or she will say something like, “Well, I read my Bible every day, but I’m sure I just did it to be smart and impress my friends.” Or, “I shared the gospel with my neighbor, but after reflecting on it, I think I just did it out of duty, not out of a delight in God.” As a pastor and biblical counselor I appreciate the emphasis on the heart, and certainly don’t want to encourage outward obedience from a heart not directed towards God’s glory. My concern, however, with these types of responses is that they are often coming from an overemphasis on depravity and a corresponding underemphasis on our union with Christ. 

As believers, we want to hold biblical truths together and not allow one to trump the other. If we overemphasize depravity to the neglect of what Christ has accomplished for us, it results in a false humility that presents Christ as a weak savior. In our carelessness, we can begin to think of Christ only as the one who justified us legally (Rom 3:21-26) but not as the one who has overthrown the ruling power of indwelling sin (Romans 6:1-14).

In Christ, it is possible to please God

It is far better to hold to the totality of Scripture and affirm that, sinful though we are, we can please God in Christ. This is exactly what we’ve been commanded to do. Paul affirms in 2 Corinthians 5:9, “So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please [Christ].” In context, the mention of “home or away” by Paul is a reference to his being in heaven with Christ or remaining on this earth. Paul asserts then that whether he is on earth or dies and enters the presence of the Lord, he exists for the good pleasure of God. Like the Apostle Paul, even as we await our future glorification, we can please Christ. 

We do readily admit, however, that we cannot do this in our strength, but only in the power which God supplies. The author of Hebrews takes up this theme in his benediction: “Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen” (Heb 13:20-21 emphasis mine). It is not hard to spot the active work of “the God of peace” in our works pleasing unto him. It is God who “equip(s) you with everything good” to do his will. It is God “working in us that which is pleasing in his sight.” Further, our doing of God’s will is “through Jesus Christ” to his glory. In Christ, we can live, think, and act in ways that accord with God’s will and therefore please him. So what about the sinful desires of the flesh? 

Beware the Flesh

We don’t want to get out of balance in the other direction and disregard the maze of desires that is a sinful heart. We are warned in Scripture about the deceitfulness of sin (Heb. 3:13) as well as our inability to decipher the intentions of our hearts (Jer. 17:9). Even the Apostle Paul laments in Romans 7 that he does the very sinful acts he doesn’t want to do and doesn’t do the righteous acts he wants to do. We should certainly heed these warnings and be suspicious of our motives. However, the Bible does not assume that we can never please God even if we can usually point to a hidden motive lurking in our hearts.

What Do We Make of Mixed Motives?

How then are we to reconcile the truth that we are empowered to please God and that our motives are often amiss when we do the very things God is calling us to do? Not surprisingly, the answer is found in the work of Christ as our perfect representative and substitute. Our good works are acceptable and pleasing to God not because they are without mixed motive, but because Christ obeyed as our representative with nothing less than perfect motives. The Apostle Peter makes this point: “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). The spiritual sacrifices that Peter mentions are good works offered up to God. Notice that these spiritual sacrifices, or good works, are a delight to God because they come through Christ. It is Christ that makes our God-pleasing efforts acceptable, not the fact they are without any admixture of weakness, frailty, or impure motive. The English Puritan John Owen states it well:

“Believers obey Christ as the one whom our obedience is accepted by God. Believers know all their duties are weak, imperfect, and unable to abide in God’s presence. Therefore they look to Christ as the one who bears the iniquity of their holy things, who adds incense to their prayers, gathers out all the weeds from their duties and makes them acceptable to God.” 

Ultimately, we can please God because Christ takes our imperfect efforts and makes them acceptable to God. Holding these truths in tension we are free to exercise real humility. We will neither denigrate the Savior by being so introspective that we deny his sanctifying work in us, nor will we take credit for our good works or be afraid to admit that our striving after godliness is often mixed with weakness and imperfection. Instead, we make it our aim to please Christ and insofar as we do that, we recognize that it is only due to God’s grace, the work of Christ, and the sanctification of the Spirit (Philippians 2:12-13).

Works Cited

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (2 Corinthians 5:9 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.


John Owen, Communion with God (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991).

Counseling Psalm 88

Psalm 88 records some of the darkest and most depressing words in all of Scripture. Not only does the word “darkness” appear three times in the psalm, it is also the last word in the Hebrew. Also, unlike other cries of lament there is never a point where the author changes his tune and remembers God’s goodness and faithfulness. 

This Psalm is written by a man named Heman whom very little is known about. It seems that Heman’s problem is something external, such as a disease, and that this burden is something he has carried since his “youth” (v.15). Also, we notice that the weight of this burden over the course of time has become a crushing emotional and spiritual weight for Heman to carry. It is as if Heman is dying by being slowly crushed.

This psalm is a helpful place to turn when you, or a counselee, are experienced suffering that has gone on for a long time. What Psalm 88 reveals to us is how to relate to and minister to those living under this unique kind of pressure.  

1) You can be a Christian and still experience long seasons of darkness.

I owe this observation to Tim Keller who preached a very helpful sermon on Psalm 88 (you can listen to here). Keller states that what this psalm teaches us is that, “[…] you can be trusting God for your salvation. You can be praying and doing what you think you should be doing and yet it doesn’t get any better for a long time.” We know that Heman has been suffering since his “youth” (v.15) and we know that Heman is a believer (v.1).

In seasons of endless suffering we tend to entertain a couple of unhelpful thoughts. Either we begin to conclude that our suffering is the result of some undiscovered sin in our life or we begin to consider that our suffering is proof that we have never been saved in the first place. Both of these lines of thinking result from the idea that suffering is always evidence that God is displeased or distant. This is not true. 

One of the blessings of Psalm 88 is that it demonstrates for us that a believer, like Heman, can experience long seasons of suffering. This suffering is not a hidden message from God. Believers do not have to call into question the status of their relationship with God as a result of suffering. Psalm 88 breathes spiritual reassurance to the one who is suffering.

2) In seasons of darkness pray persistently to God (v.1-2; 13).

Heman doesn’t get everything right but he gets the most important thing right. Heman says, “I cry out to you day and night. Let my prayer come before you” (v.1-2) and then again, “in the morning my prayer comes before you” (v.13). Heman should be commended for the fact that he does not cut off communication with God.

Another one of the temptations we face in the midst of extended suffering is that when we initially cry out to God and He does not immediately answer we change our approach. Often we grow bitter towards God or indifferent and our prayers become non-existent. 

God delights in persistent prayers because it reveals a heart that is continually dependent on Him. Persistent prayer also reveals that a believer understands that God has a good plan and that He delights in answering prayers. 

3) Your prayers to God should be honest about how you feel (v.3-5; 8-9).

There is a thought that has crept into modern American Christianity and it is that in order to be spiritually mature one must hold back the tears before God and be strong before God. This is not biblical Christianity. This is a false sense of strength. In fact, this is spiritual immaturity. Biblical Christianity knows what it is to fully disclose to God what it feels like to suffer. We are not talking about venting to God, we are talking about raw and unrestrained disclosure to God what is going on inside of your head and life.

If you track what Heman is saying in 88:3-5 you see Heman recounting to God the downward spiral of his thoughts. He starts off rather innocent as he expresses that his “soul is full of trouble” (v.3) but then we read that Heman felt as though his life was “near” (v.3) to the grave and that he eventually felt as though he was “counted” (v.4) among the dead. Finally, we read Heman express that he feels God no longer even remembered him (v.5).

What we see in Psalm 88 is the practice of lament. These honest cries out to God reveal that part of God’s restoring work in Heman’s life involved Heman disclosing to God the depths of his pain. Psalm 88 teaches us how to speak to God in the midst of our pain in a way that is honest.

4) Your prayers to God should be driven by what you know to be true about God (v.6-12).

Heman’s prayer is theologically driven and this is a wonderful thing. There are a couple pieces of Heman’s theology which shine through the darkness of his prayer and guide us in our prayers to God. 

As Heman cries out to God, he is not ignorant or misinformed as to who is in control of his suffering. Heman says to God, “you have put me in the depths of the pit” (v.6) and “you overwhelm me with all your waves” (v.7). He understands that his suffering is by within God’s control. Heman understands that God is either causing or allowing his suffering. Much like Job, Heman sees God in the chaos of his suffering. 

Another aspect of Heman’s theology which shines through and guides us is his theology of God’s glory. Heman reasons with God in 88:10-12 as to why God should answer his prayer. His rationale is that if he were to die then he would no longer be able to praise God’s name. Heman, knowing that God desires to be glorified, appeals to God on behalf of this glory. 

Like Heman our prayers should reflect that we understand God is in control over the details of our suffering and that God does all that He does for the sake of His glory.

5) Because darkness disorients, not everything you feel is true (v.7, 15, 16, 18).

While it is true that Heman’s prayer is theologically driven it should also be observed that Heman’s prayer is not always theologically accurate. In verse 7, 15, 16 he speaks of God’s wrath and terror being against him. These words show that Heman has made the assumption that God’s purpose in his suffering is to pour out wrath and to terrorize him. Theologically, we know that Heman is not experiencing God’s wrath. This is not how God treats His children. Wrath is reserved for the wicked.

One of the dangers we face in dealing with long seasons of darkness is that our thoughts begin to misfire and a false narrative can begin to corrode our thinking. When we counsel ourselves or others we have to be aware of this tendency and be willing to confront the lies we tell ourselves.

6) Yes, the dead do actually rise up to praise God because of Jesus’ resurrection (v.10). 

Again, I owe this insight to Tim Keller (sermon found here). He accurately points out that Heman assumes the wrong answer to the question, “do the departed rise up to praise you?” (v.10) Heman thinks the answer to this question is ‘no’ and he is using this line of thinking to reason with God as to why God should protect his life. 

The reality is that the dead actually do rise up to praise God if they are united to Jesus in His death and resurrection. Keller points out that Matthew 27:45-52 beautifully shows us that Jesus has defeated both darkness and death and neither is final for the believer. Regardless of whether or not God causes our darkness to cease in this life we look forward to the hope of life with Christ for eternity. 

In Conclusion

This beautiful Psalm was written 3,000 years ago by a man named Heman who was in a very dark place and didn’t know if he would ever experience joy again. Some of the most beautiful words I’ve read about Psalm 88 came from W.S. Plumer, who made this hope-filled observation, “for nearly three thousand years [Heman] has been singing a very different song before the throne of the Eternal; and his eternity is but just begun.” 

The one you are counseling may feel like your darkness will never end but the day is coming when he/she will also have been singing a very different song for 3,000 years because of what Jesus did on the cross. We cling to and wait for eternity!

Credits

Photo by Tobias Keller on Unsplash

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Psalm 88 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Tim Keller. How to deal with dark times (a sermon on Psalm 88). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ulmaUtbayGY

W.S. Plumer. Geneva Series of Commentaries: Psalms (2016) Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust. 823.

Humility in Suffering

Jacob’s favorite son was dead. Parents aren’t supposed to have favorites, but Jacob did, and now his son was no more. He was killed by a wild animal while searching for his brothers. All that remained was a tattered, blood-stained coat. Jacob would never see his son again, he was sure of it. However, in an odd turn of events, his son’s “death” was actually a cover up by his brothers. They wanted to kill him out of jealous rage, but in the end they decided to sell him into slavery. Years later when all this would come to light, Jacob would be reunited with his son Joseph, saying, “I never expected to see your face; and behold, God has let me see your offspring also” (Genesis 48:11).

In the midst of his grief, Jacob was unaware of so much of God’s activity. He didn’t know his son was alive. He didn’t know his son had children. He didn’t know that he would get to see his grandchildren. Beyond the immediate circumstances, Jacob didn’t know that God was going to use Joseph to bring Israel, a nation in its infancy, into the powerful Egyptian empire. He didn’t know that God would demonstrate his glory to the nations by freeing the Israelites from the oppressive rule of Egypt. He didn’t know that a prostitute living in a distant land would hear about this glorious God and submit herself to the sovereign Lord. Indeed, Rahab would proclaim, “For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt… for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” (Joshua 2:10-11). He didn’t know that this exodus of Israel would point forward to a greater deliverance found in Jesus Christ. He didn’t know. 

Jacob was right to marvel that God was good in ways he could have never anticipated. He was also right to grieve deeply at the apparent loss of his child. That is the point, that in the middle of suffering we are called to simultaneously grieve and exercise humility in the way we view God. A stoic response to suffering denies the honest outpouring of grief and complaint that we find in the Psalms. There is nothing spiritual about pretending like suffering doesn’t shake us to the core. On the other hand, we are not then justified in our anger towards God or free to attack his goodness. We are commanded to suffer in humility. 

The book of Job illustrates the necessity of humility in suffering. Job had the worst day anyone has ever experienced. He lost nearly everything precious to him in a few minutes’ time. All but his wife and his own life perished in a moment (Job 1). Initially, Job responded quite well, even rebuffing his wife’s counsel to “curse God and die” (Job 2:9). However, as the story unfolds Job demanded an audience with God. He summoned God to trial where Job will serve as the prosecutor and God as the defendant. The Lord arrived and quickly took over the court proceedings. God quickly offered his opening defense, a shotgun blast of questions for Job that drove home the point that God is God and Job is not. His defense was loud and clear, even if it wasn’t what Job was expecting: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:3). And, “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it” (Job 40:2). Job had no rebuttal and would eventually forfeit his case. Job received the message: when life doesn’t make sense, trust God’s nature and character. Or, as I heard a sister in Christ put it recently, “God answers our ‘why’ questions with ‘who’ answers.”

Whether it is our personal suffering or we are observing the suffering of someone we love, we should resolve to walk in humility before God and others–acknowledging life doesn’t always make sense, while relentlessly clinging to the character of God. After all, he is up to good that we may not be privy to on this side of eternity. 

Admittedly, this article is preparatory in nature. By that I mean that this may not be the place to send someone in the middle of heart-wrenching grief. Begin by weeping with them. Michael Horton helps us here: “Even comforting truths can be an irritation when our nerves are raw. Understanding who God is, who we are, and God’s ways in creation, providence, and redemption–at least as much as Scripture reveals to us–is to the trials of life what preparing for the LSAT is to the practice of law.” Like a lawyer who prepares for his or her practice by intense study and training, so we study theology, at least in part, to prepare ourselves for the inevitable day when suffering arrives. We are wise to consider the goodness, sovereignty, wisdom, and plan of God before suffering beats down our door and overwhelms us. Only then will we be prepared to walk through suffering with a humble trust in God.

Credits

Photo by Alessio Lin on Unsplash

Michael Horton,  A Place for Weakness: Preparing Yourself for Suffering (Gran Rapids, Zondervan, 2006) P. 19.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Genesis 48:11 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

The Church: Imperfect, but Beautiful

Last week my wife returned to teaching as her summer break came to an end. The day before school started a friend from church called to let us know that she had dropped off a cooler with pre-made breakfast meals for the whole week. The next day there was another meal from another church member waiting for me at my office. These acts of kindness are simply two recent instances in which I’ve seen God’s grace through the thoughtfulness and sacrifice of others. 

I could go on and on about ways I’ve been immeasurably blessed by people in the church. From the day I first walked into a church at the age of 16, I’ve been around the most generous, gracious, and loving people I’ve ever met. None of this is to imply that the church is perfect, but it is to say that she is beautiful (by “church” I mean all those who have united to Christ by faith who then gather into local congregations all over the world).

The Church is Imperfect

The church has its flaws. God’s Word even anticipates and makes provision for the imperfections of the church. Commands like “bear with one another” and “forgive one another” clue us in to the fact that we will both be sinned against and sin against others in the church (Eph. 4:32). Further, Jesus instituted a process by which unrepentant church members should be removed from the congregation (Matt. 18:15-20). The New Testament contains a realism about the church. It doesn’t deny that the church will be filled with imperfect people, even at times wicked people. 

Thus, my intention in writing is not to deny anyone’s pain or suffering at the hands of church people. It is undeniable that some churches, whole denominations, or even eras of church history have been responsible for terrible sins. I’m not writing to defend any abuse or hypocrisy or hurt. Instead, my goal is to balance out the narrative a bit. As it is too easy to point out all the flaws in another person and deny their good qualities, in the same way, it is too easy to criticize the church without praising her virtues.

The Church is Beautiful

In the New Testament, the church is described as the bride of Christ (Rev. 21:9), the family of God (2 Cor. 6:18), the temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16-17), and a people purchased by Christ’s sacrifice (Acts 20:28). What is absent from the Scriptures is the sort of attitude that is prevalent today, that the church is a burden, full of hypocrites, or inconsequential in the life of the Christian. Despite this common narrative, the church has been an undeniable force for good in history as well as the present day.

Nicholas Kristof, a writer for the New York Times and an avowed agnostic, has become an unlikely defender of the evangelical church. He writes, “Today, among urban Americans and Europeans, ‘evangelical Christian’ is sometimes a synonym for ‘rube.’ In liberal circles, evangelicals constitute one of the few groups that it’s safe to mock openly…Yet the liberal caricature of evangelicals is incomplete and unfair. I have little in common, politically or theologically, with evangelicals or, while I’m at it, conservative Roman Catholics. But I’ve been truly awed by those I’ve seen in so many remote places, combating illiteracy and warlords, famine and disease, humbly struggling to do the Lord’s work as they see it, and it is offensive to see good people derided.”

Kristof’s defense of Christians stems from something he has noticed in them, a self-sacrificial service to others as well as a generosity of time and resources. He goes on, “I must say that a disproportionate share of the aid workers I’ve met in the wildest places over the years, long after anyone sensible had evacuated, have been evangelicals, nuns or priests… Likewise, religious Americans donate more of their incomes to charity, and volunteer more hours than the nonreligious, according to polls. In the United States and abroad, the safety net of soup kitchens, food pantries and women’s shelters depends heavily on religious donations and volunteers.”

I appreciate Kristof’s observation and kind words about the church. His opinion matters. However, there is one whose judgment means infinitely more. Let’s not forget God’s verdict of the church. Christ purchased her with his blood, he loves her, and will one day return to gather her up as his bride. Let’s make sure that our words about the church are consistent with God’s. If the church is the bride of Christ, we should tread carefully in attacking her. As Ed Stetzer has said , “You can’t love Jesus and hate his wife.”

Credits

Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

Nicholas Kristof, “A Little Respect for Dr. Foster,” New York Times, March 28, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/29/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-a-little-respect-for-dr-foster.html

Stetzer, Ed, “You can’t love Jesus and hate his wife,” Twitter, 10 Aug 2019, https://twitter.com/edstetzer/status/1160378867955187713

The Temptation of Christ: Better News Than You Think

If you were alive in the 90s you probably remember WWJD bracelets. They exploded onto the scene quickly becoming a nationwide phenomenon. The goal was to be reminded to live like Jesus by asking in every moment, “What Would Jesus Do?” What this fad revealed was man’s tendency to simplify Jesus to nothing more than a helpful example.

WWJD bracelets may have disappeared, but this inclination towards self-focused theology remains. For instance, most sermons on the temptation of Christ focus solely on Jesus’ response to temptation. The emphasis often falls on how we can resist temptation by following Jesus’ pattern. Though Jesus is certainly our example (1 Peter 2:21), a closer look at the temptation of Christ, specifically Luke’s account, demonstrates that this narrative is less about us than we like to admit. It is primarily answering the question, “what kind of Savior has come into the world?” There is great news concerning Christ in Luke 4, but we have to look past ourselves to see it.

Jesus is perfect where we are not

Just before the temptation of Christ, Luke includes a genealogy that begins with Jesus and stretches all the way back to Adam, the first man. The long list of names ends with, “the son of Adam, the son of God.” We often assume that genealogies are not important and skip over them. However, we can’t fully understand the temptation of Jesus without the genealogy of Luke 3. Luke is setting up a deliberate parallel between Adam and Christ by tracing Jesus’ line all the way to Adam and calling Adam the son of God. We are meant to read Luke 4 in light of Genesis 1-3 (there are also many parallels between Christ and Israel).

Adam was tempted in the garden and failed. As a result sin, death, and judgment was thrust upon all creation (Genesis 3). Conversely, Jesus was tempted in the wilderness and resisted every temptation (Luke 4:1-13). In his perfect obedience, Jesus demonstrates that he is indeed the Savior who has come to rescue those under the curse of Adam’s sin. The Apostle Paul made the same point in Romans 5:18-19 writing, “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (ESV).

The good news of Luke 4 is that Christ perfectly obeyed the will of the Father, thus, demonstrating himself to be the true Savior who alone can be our substitute. If you are in Christ, then you have received more than a clean slate. Your justification is more than God simply wiping away your past failures. You are credited with the perfection of Jesus himself. He became sin for you so that you might be found righteous before God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Jesus sympathizes in our weakness

Many have scoffed at the temptation of Christ, wondering if Jesus really experienced temptation since he is God in the flesh and unable to sin. Hebrews 4:15 is instructive, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” So, how do we reconcile Jesus’ inability to sin with his very real temptation to sin? Bruce Ware points out in his excellent book The Man Christ Jesus that the reason Jesus could not sin is entirely separate from the reason Jesus did not sin. Jesus could not sin because he is God and therefore unable to sin. Jesus did not sin because he fully resisted every temptation through reliance on the Holy Spirit, the Word of God, and prayer. This is a necessary distinction if indeed Jesus was tempted in every way as we are. Luke also demonstrates this truth in highlighting Jesus’ reliance on the Spirit and his three-fold citation of the Scriptures (Luke 4:1, 4, 8, 12).

This is also good news. Unlike Christ, we can’t be described as without sin. We do, however, have the same resources at our disposal when it comes to resisting temptation today. Bruce Ware writes, “The resources God gives–particularly his Word, prayer, and the power of the Spirit–are there for us as they were for Jesus.” We have been given everything we need in Christ to resist every temptation. Though we will fight imperfectly, it is encouraging to know that we are not helpless victims of sin.

In closing, the point of Luke 4 is to magnify Christ. Only when we see him as the sinless Savior and sympathetic high priest are we in a position to follow his example and resist temptation.

Credits

Bruce Ware, The Man Christ Jesus: Theological Reflections on the Humanity of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013) 73ff.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Luke 4:1-13 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Photo by Jared Verdi on Unsplash

Guarding Your Heart from Anxious Worry

What makes your heart anxious? What do you tend to fret about? Sometimes we worry about major issues like a loved one with cancer. Other times, our worries are smaller than a life-threatening illness. Worry can be replaying a conversation over and over again in your head to make sure you didn’t embarrass yourself. It can be the sinking feeling in your stomach as you consider an upcoming meeting. It might look like obsessing over what the boss is going to think when you are late to yet another appointment.

Opportunities abound for our hearts and minds to be consumed with anxious worry. However, God’s agenda for us is to experience the peace associated with prayer, not the turmoil that accompanies worry. In Philippians 4, Paul makes the connection between fervent prayer and a peaceful heart. He wrote, “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 4:6-7).

The Philippian Christians were confronted with many opportunities to worry. They faced threats and persecutions from their “opponents” (Philippians 1:29-30), and they were concerned about the welfare of Paul and Epaphroditus (Philippians 1:12; 2:26). Paul was imprisoned in Rome and Epaphroditus had fallen deathly ill. Instead of being pleased with their over-concern for his safety, Paul gives them the sweeping prohibition, “be anxious for nothing…”

The same verb translated “be anxious” in Philippians 4 is used positively earlier in the letter where Timothy is said to “show genuine concern” for the church in Philippi (Philippians 2:20). Apparently, the Philippian church had moved from genuine concern to a posture of worry or stress. Paul’s command for them is to cease what they have been continually doing. For Paul, there are areas in which we should express real concern for ourselves and others. However, there is no proper object of obsessive worry. Instead, we ought to bring all things before God in prayer.

How does prayer lead to a peaceful heart?

Hannah was worried. She wanted a child (1 Samuel 1:7-8). She was so overcome by her emotional state, she had stopped eating. Those around her only compounded her suffering. Her husband had taken another wife, presumably because Hannah couldn’t bear him children. On top of this was the relentless bullying and mockery coming from her husband’s other wife.

Hannah had much to worry about. However, she models Philippians 4:6-7 by running to the Lord in prayer. She speaks to the Lord out of her “great anxiety and vexation” (1 Samuel 1:16). She is convinced that God hears, God cares, and God acts. You can read here for a more detailed explanation of Hannah’s theological commitments that led her to pray. This article deals more with the peace Hannah experiences following her prayer.

After pouring out her soul to the Lord, Hannah experiences a peaceful heart. The Scriptures record that following her prayer she “went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad” (1 Samuel‬ ‭1:18‬). Hannah’s swift change is perplexing to us because nothing about her circumstances had changed (yet). When Hannah said “amen” she was still childless, still sharing her husband, still going to be mocked. Yet she had peace.

After bearing her heart to the God who knows all things, who cares for his people, and is powerful enough to act, she can rest. When we begin to believe God’s grace toward us, we can begin trusting him with the outcome of our circumstances or suffering. Peace is not the result of God giving us what we want in prayer, it is a gift he gives his people when they rely on his good plan. One commentator put it succinctly, “The condition for experiencing God’s peace is not that God grants all of our requests but that we have made known all our requests to God with thanksgiving. God’s peace is not the result of the power of our prayers or the effectiveness of our prayers… When we trust God in prayer, God gives to us his peace to guard our hearts and minds against anxious thoughts.”

In Closing

Bobby McFerrin released the hit “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” in the fall of 1988. Often wrongly credited to Bob Marley, who died in 1981, the song is catchy, fun, but overly simplistic in terms of its message. If only it were that easy. Just stop worrying, just be happy. Philippians 4 and Hannah’s example instruct us that peace is a gift from God that he gives his people when they run to the creator of the universe and pour out their hearts before him. This is not a simplistic, one-time occurrence, but a habit we form by continually taking everything to the Lord in prayer. Prayer is not some kind of a magic bullet, but it is one of the means God uses to move us from a posture of worry to one of peace.

G. Walter Hansen, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Letter to the Philippians (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2009) 293.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Philippians 4:6-7 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Sickness and Suffering: How to Pray

Prayer request time in any church can devolve into a long list of distant relatives (or relatives of relatives) with relatively (pun intended) minor ailments. Though it can make us laugh when we are asked to pray for Aunt Loraine’s cousin’s friend’s colonoscopy, we are often faced with far more serious, and close to home, requests.

My wife recently spent the better part of a week in the hospital with a severe infection. As I sought to pray for her, it got me thinking about how exactly I should pray for those who are sick. The following is not the only four things we can pray for a sick person but can serve as a guide to get us moving in the right direction.

How should we pray for those with some kind of physical illness or weakness?

Appeal to the Lord for healing

Most Bible scholars agree that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12 was some kind of physical ailment. Paul prayed to God multiple times, asking him to take away this thorn in the flesh. Likewise, the Apostle John prays for the health of the recipients of his 3rd letter, “Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul” (3 John 2).

As part of our prayer for those who are sick, we ought to ask God to grant them healing.

Ask the Lord for sustaining grace so that the sick might suffer well

God, for his own purposes and will, chose not to take away Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Three times Paul asked for it to be removed. Jesus’ answer finally came, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” Paul concluded thenTherefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weakness, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor. 12:9). Jesus promised sufficient grace for Paul to endure his physical suffering for the glory of God.

God is faithful and will always grant his children one of the two things: 1) healing or 2) sufficient grace to walk through physical sickness to the glory of God.

Admit that God’s will is superior to ours

On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus pleaded with the Father to spare him from the impending suffering of the cross, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me–nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). It was the will of the Father for Christ to suffer and it brought about immeasurable good. Similarly, If God chooses not to heal, we must trust God’s good and sovereign will. God is so good, wise, and loving that even when we don’t understand, we trust that his plan is the better than ours. Tim Keller says it this way, “God will either give us what we ask or give us what we would have asked if we knew everything he knows.”

Anticipate the suffering-free glories of heaven

As we pray for others we can anticipate a day where we won’t hear words like “cancer” or “death.” Sickness and suffering are both temporary aspects of our broken world. Revelation 21:3-4 remind us, “… ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore…” We long for that day. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

Credits

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (2 Corinthians 12:7ff and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Tim Keller. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (Penguin: New York, 2014) 228.