We want to know God’s will. God wants us to know his will. So, why is it so difficult to know his will? This sermon on prayer and the knowledge of God’s will is rooted in the Apostle Paul’s great prayer in Colossians 1:9-12. This is a prayer to pray for your church, your family, your friends, and yourself.
The researchers cite the “seemingly constant flow of disconcerting events” that have plagued Americans in recent years: a pandemic, a contentious election, the events of January 6, mass shootings, wildfires, and more. This non-stop drama fills the airwaves and repeats dozens of times a day on news media outlets.
According to McLaughlin, Gotlieb, and Mills, one out of six Americans engages in “severely problematic news consumption.” Within this group, almost three out of four experience mental ill-being “quite a bit” or “very much” and six out of ten report experiencing physical ill-being “quite a bit” or “very much.” This latter statistic represents a ten-time increase over other study participants.
What does this mean? It means that constant consumption of news media is making us sick – quite literally. In homes where CNN, MSNBC, or FOX News plays from morning to night, people are more likely to experience anxiety, lack of focus, difficulty sleeping, and relationship problems.
Participants in the “severely problematic” group were likely to agree with statements like: “I become so absorbed in the news that I forget the world around me”; “My mind is frequently occupied with thoughts about the news”; “I find it difficult to stop reading or watching the news”; and “I often do not pay attention at school or work because I am reading or watching the news.”
People in this group also experienced feelings of fatigue, physical pain, poor concentration, and gastrointestinal issues. Of the 1,100 people surveyed, more than four out of ten were deemed to have moderate or severe levels of problematic news consumption. The good news is that many people are able to stop or significantly reduce their news consumption when they understand that it is having an adverse effect on their physical and mental health.
The researchers describe one result of severely problematic news consumption as “transportation.” The term describes a mental state in which a person is “transported” into a story. Previous literature on the subject treated the relationship between a reader and a fictional narrative. Here, however, it is into a news narrative that people are transported. Their faculties are absorbed in the story and the immediate world around them recedes.
During the last few years, I have seen people break off relationships with family and church because they had been transported into pandemic-related stories, election stories, and war stories. This has happened among both liberal and conservative media consumers.
A critic might contend that something similar occurs among consumers of the Christian gospel. They hear the story repeated over and over. They dwell on the story, are transported into it, and it becomes their story. And Christians view this “transportation” as a good thing. They encourage each other to meditate on the story and repeat it often.
There is a difference, though. Transportation into the media’s news stories, so often used as propaganda, breaks relationships, instills anxiety, and creates a sense of insecurity. Transportation into the gospel has the opposite effect: it heals relationships, instills peace, and provides security.
Whereas preoccupation with news stories tends to isolate people from one another through fear and anger, preoccupation with the story of Christ encourages people to embrace others with love and acceptance. While both tell of gross injustice, the gospel shows how injustice is overcome by sacrificial love.
Of course, one must decide which story best reflects the real world. Is it the story of chaos, corruption, and danger that is told by media outlets in various ways all day long? Or is it the story of the God who has redeemed and will make new our admittedly broken and troubled world?
The Christian gospel does not ignore the evil in our world. If anything, it sheds light on its causes, which run much deeper than politics and economics. But, unlike the so-called news stories, the Christian story offers a reason for hope.
Jesus understood how humans were designed and how they thrive and his teaching reflects this. Understanding what he teaches about the human heart is imperative for anyone who longs for spiritual transformation in Christlikeness. The foundational text for today’s class is Luke 6:43-45.
This sermon looks at how to pray for others and is based on Philippians 1:3-11. This remarkable passage offers great insights into how we can pray effectively for the people in our lives.
How to Pray for Others (Philippians 1:3-11)
“I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.”
Verse 3 again: “I thank my God every time I remember you.” Praying for Paul involved remembering. When he prayed, he thought about people; he brought them before his mind. I have often interceded without doing that; I have remembered requests but not people, and my prayers have been poorer because of it. But when I have brought the person to mind, remembered them in the presence of God – their personality, their strengths, their weaknesses and, above all, their future – it has informed and enriched my prayers for them.
This was Paul’s practice. He frequently speaks of remembering people in his prayers. He remembered the Ephesians when he prayed for them, as well as the Romans, the Philippians, the Thessalonians, and the missionaries Timothy, and Titus. This was Paul’s practice. We should make it ours too. It might change how we pray for people.
He says that he “thanks God” and that he “always prays with joy.” What about you? When you pray for people, is it with thanksgiving and joy or with complaint and worry? Too often my prayers have been motivated by my worries for people rather than by my joy over them. But how can we pray with thanksgiving and joy, when things are up in the air and the outcome is so uncertain?
The answer is: we can’t. No one can, not even the great Apostle Paul. That is not how it works. If you believe that everything is up in the air and uncertain, your prayers will be filled with worry and tinged with complaint. But Paul’s prayers were filled with thanksgiving and joy. Why? Because he did not believe that everything is up in the air. He believed in the one who is up in heaven. He looked at things differently than most of us do, which explains why he could do things most of us cannot do.
He prayed with joy because he believed certain things were true about the people for whom he was praying. And he believed those things because he believed certain things were true about their God. A person’s beliefs really do govern their life. Look again at verse 4: “In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy…” All my prayers for all of you I always pray with joy.
Really? We know that the Philippian church had problems. We know that two of its leading members, both friends of Paul, Euodia and Syntyche, were not getting along and their disagreement had impacted the church. Yet, when Paul prays for them, he does so with joy and with confidence. There were then, as there are now (and always will be), people suffering, dying, arguing, and hurting. We will never pray with joy and confidence if we are waiting until there is no suffering, dying, arguing, and hurting.
So how did Paul do it? He could pray with joy and confidence because, verse 5, he had been convinced by the Philippians’ partnership in the gospel that God was working among them, and he knew what God is like. Things are not up in the air when God is on the scene. Look at verse 6: “…being confident of this” – better “being persuaded” (by years of experience with God) – “that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Paul prayed from a position of strength.
If we are going to do the same, we must know: people so that we can remember them meaningfully as we pray; and God so that we will have no doubt that the work begun in them will be completed. But there is more.
To be a great pray-er, it is not enough to know people; you must also love them. Love is key. Look at what Paul writes in verse 7: “It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart.” Love is the secret sauce, the hidden power, the enduring dynamic in effective prayer. Paul didn’t just have these people and their needs in his prayer journal or even on his mind; he had them in his heart.
It is common to hear Christians talk about inviting Jesus into their heart. That’s good; but they should also invite each other into their hearts. There will always be people on our minds, but our church family should be in our hearts with Jesus.
How did Paul – who knew a lot of people – have room in his heart for all of them? There is something magical about the human heart: like the Grinch’s heart, it is capable of remarkable expansion. We say of someone we admire: “He has such a big heart.” What that means is that he has taken a lot of people into it. And just think how big God’s heart is! He opens his heart to everyone – “For God so loved the world!” – and he still has room to spare.
Because the Philippians were in his heart, they were with Paul wherever he went. When he was in chains in an imperial prison, the Philippians were with him there. When he was out on the streets, they were in his heart. When he stood before some judge, defending the gospel and confirming its truth by his life, the Philippians were with him. But we need to take this a little further.
Jesus told us to pray for our enemies – the people who stand opposed to us, who want us to fail, to not get what we want. How on earth do we do that? We do it by taking the enemy into our heart. Once we have, we can pray for them. We can take our spouse into our heart. Our nosey neighbor. Our missionary. Our kids.
The first step is to bring them before your mind. Let yourself remember them. Feel their needs, their fears, their hurts, their potential. That will unlock your heart. And then choose to love them. That will bring them in.
But they are Democrats. They are Republicans. They’re arrogant. They’re Muslim. They’re gay. They’re Ohio State fans! Take them into your heart and your prayers for them will grow powerful.
In verses 9-11 we have an example of a powerful prayer. Now, it’s not the only example. Paul’s prayer for the Colossian Christians differed from this one, and his prayers for the Ephesians differed from both. Prayers that grow from love will be personal, relevant, and Spirit-inspired.
The thrust of this prayer for Paul’s friends is that their love will abound more and more – will overflow and continue overflowing – in knowledge and depth of insight. Isn’t it interesting that Paul does not pray for their health, safety, freedom, or financial security? He prays rather for abounding, overflowing love. Love is at the center of the Christian life.
The word the NIV translates as “abound” (verse 9) is one of Paul’s favorites. Two thirds of its New Testament uses are by him. He regarded the new life as one of abundance, of more and more—of constant increase. How different that is from the view that Christians are straightjacketed by rules and laws.
Paul writes about grace abounding (Romans 5:15-17), hope abounding (Romans 15:13), generosity (2 Cor. 3:9), thanksgiving (2 Cor. 4:15), good work (2 Cor. 9:8), comfort (2 Cor. 1:4-5), service (1 Cor. 14:12), and wisdom (Eph. 1:8). In a word – the word he uses in 2 Corinthians 8:7 – everything good abounds in the new age, which Christ has already launched and will usher in. It is the age of lavish, profuse, rich abundance.
For his friends in Philippi, he prays that love may abound more and more. What a great prayer! People wrongly think they can be happy if their money abounds more and more. It does, but they don’t stay happy. Love is what people need, and “love comes from God” (1 John 4:7). He pours it into the hearts of Jesus’s people by the Holy Spirit.
Paul prays that this “love will abound in knowledge and depth of insight.” The word translated “knowledge” suggests a full understanding and the one translated insight has to do with perception. The idea is that love enables a person to understand what lies beneath the surface and perceive what others miss. People say, “Love is blind.” But Paul says, “Love is sharp-eyed and penetrating.” Real love doesn’t overlook things; it sees beyond them. It is selfishness that is blind – or at least acutely near-sighted. Love sees.
If there was ever a time when Jesus’s people needed to understand what lies beneath the surface and perceive what is not obvious, it is now. Ours is a spin-doctored world of half-truths. How will we ever know what is best? How will we remain unpolluted in this environment of deceit?
The surprising answer is: by love. The love God puts in our hearts is prophylactic. When it abounds, we are protected from the pollution of half-truths, hate, and sin. It is abounding love that enables us (verse 10) to discern what is best and … be pure and blameless…”
Because love enables us to see the way things really are – to perceive things what we would otherwise miss and understand what lies below the surface of the so-called facts paraded before us – we are able to discern what is best. Non-Christians know as well as we do that we live in a spin-doctored world, but their options are more limited: to fall in with the deception or to fall into cynicism. Cynicism is more noble, but it is not love. It sits alone and curses the darkness. Love enters the light and joins with people Cynicism leaves the world as it is; love changes it into what it should be.
Both those words, “pure” and “blameless” are picturesque in the original language. “Pure” comes from a compound Greek word with two roots, one meaning sun and other meaning judged – sun-judged. Paul prays for the Philippians’ love to abound to such an extent that their lives can be examined in the full light of day. The idea here is that they will be genuinely good.
Karen and I were in a market in Istanbul, where she was shopping for a decorative bowl. The light in these little shops is quite poor; it is hard to see flaws in the workmanship. It was the same way, only worse, when Paul was writing. In his day, people would take the item they wanted to purchase out into the bright sunlight. If the item passed inspection, they would say that it was “sun-judged.”
Of course, the proprietor didn’t want people to take his goods into the light if they had flaws and cracks in them. Who would? But what about God? We are his goods (in more than one sense). But he bought us used, and many of us were the worse for wear. But God is patiently repairing our faults and fixing our cracks with his love. He is getting us ready for the day when the Sun of Righteousness rises with healing in its wings. And he will carry on the good work that he is doing “to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).
The word translated “blameless” by the NIV and “harmless” by the scholar Gerald Hawthorne means “cause to stumble” in its verb form. Paul’s prayer is that there will be nothing in his friends’ lives that will cause people to stumble and fall away from Christ. Sadly, I have, seen this happen. People leave the church, and sometimes leave the faith, because they stumbled over the hatred in a Christian, or the pride, or the blind selfishness. If love had abounded more and more, that would not have happened.
But understand: none of this – knowledge, insight, purity, blamelessness – happens overnight. Picture a fountain, dry as a bone, resting on the crest of a round, barren hill. Then one day the spring opens and water flows into the fountain basin. It continues until it overflows the basin and begins running down the hill on all sides in little rivulets of life-giving water.
In time, the hill turns green. Flowers begin to grow. Root systems develop. Fruit trees spring up. Wherever the water flows, good things sprout. That is the way it is in a life that overflows with love. The knowledge, insight, purity, and blamelessness don’t appear full-grown. They develop as love continues to abound more and more.
And the result, verse 11, is the fruit of righteousness. God is a Johnny Appleseed. He goes all around planting people who will one day be filled with fruit. It’s a brilliant idea. The fruit that grows from these believer’s lives will draw people to God. Like Moses, who came to see the burning bush but stayed to hear God’s life-changing words, people will come for the fruit but stay to hear the gospel.
This fruit-filled life “comes through Jesus Christ.” It is not self-generated. Neither our efforts nor our sincere intentions can produce it. It is his loving life in us, delivered to us by his Spirit, that fruits in the beautiful things we see in verses 9-11.
Now, notice that this fruit-filled life leads (v. 11) “to the glory and praise of God.” We usually equate glorifying and praising God with the spoken word, but there is more to it than that. More even than the deeds we do. It the life we live or, more precisely, the people we become. That is what results in the praise and glory of God.
Talk alone does not bring God glory. In fact, talk alone, when not accompanied by a fruit-filled life, brings shame, and causes unbelievers to think and say bad things about our God. It is Jesus and his love that makes all the difference.
Then is there nothing we can – or need – do to cooperate with Jesus and is love? There is much we can do, just as there is much the apple farmer can do to help his orchard succeed. He sprays the trees, trims, and composts them. He can raise bees to help pollinate them. He can plant cover crops to add nitrogen to the soil.
What can we do to help the fruit of righteousness grow in our lives? We can make sure we are connected to the source of love by connecting to God through faith in Jesus Christ. Our efforts cannot sustain this kind of life. We must be connected to God’s love. If you haven’t connected, today can be the day. At the close of this meeting, come up to the front of the room and find a prayer helper. He or she will be glad to assist you.
Next, we can (and must) choose to act lovingly. A wise man said, “Do not waste your time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this, we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.” (You will take him into your heart.) “If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less.” Let people into your heart and choose to love them.
Next, if you have a decision to make and find yourself unsure about what the right thing to do is, don’t just go over the pros and cons or consult with friends. Check to see if your love is in the right place. Remember that it is love that overflows in the knowledge and depth of insight that discernment requires. If your love for God or others has waned, ask God to show you any obstructions to love and with his help remove them.
One last thing: try bringing remembrance into your prayers this week. Hold the people for whom you pray before your mind. Wait on God’s Spirit to shape your prayers for them. And see what a difference that can make.
 Hawthorne, Gerald, Word Biblical Commentary: Philippians (Revised)
Occasionally, I read or hear someone say something like, “Christians believe some really strange things.” They usually mean that Christians believe in miracles like a six-day creation, a man who was swallowed by a great fish (and spit out days later), and the resurrection from the dead. I understand their incredulity.
Though I have been a Christian for a long time, there are things that still seem strange to me; they’re just not the same things. I don’t balk at the miraculous simply because it is miraculous. The rejection of miracles is not a logical conclusion but an a priori assumption based on a worldview which millions of people, including some of history’s greatest philosophers and scientists, do not share.
The things that seem strange to me and difficult to take seriously are not the miracles but the commands that Christians are expected to follow. I can believe in the resurrection of the dead but believing Jesus in a way that leads me to easily obey him when he says things like, “Do not store up for yourself treasures on earth,” “Turn the other cheek,” and “Do not worry” is tough.
Such things are not truth claims to which one gives intellectual assent; they are instructions to which one gives obedience. It is easier to believe the Bible about Jesus walking on water than it is to believe the Bible about “giving to him who asks.” No one has ever asked me to walk on water but, every once in a while, someone asks me to give them money.
Another thing I find difficult is the command to rejoice, which is issued by prophets, apostles, and Jesus himself. It just doesn’t make sense to rejoice when bad things happen, and normal people cannot consistently do things that don’t make sense.
The Apostle Paul tells his friends in the Church at Philippi to rejoice no less than four times. After mentioning the very real possibility that he will be executed, he tells the Philippians, “You should be glad and rejoice with me.” Who says things like that?
He says a second time, “Rejoice in the Lord,” and this time adds that it is a safeguard for them. A page or so later, he instructs his friends to rejoice always and then repeats himself one final time. He urges this even though – or perhaps because – he is aware that their church is going through a troubling internal conflict.
Because I long ago committed myself to submit to Jesus and his apostles, I have tried to be obedient to the command to rejoice. I cannot say that I have been very successful. This failure, I think, lies with me rather than with the command itself, for I notice that Jesus and his apostle were able to rejoice despite extraordinarily difficult circumstances.
While imprisoned and facing a possible death sentence, the Apostle Paul rejoiced. He continued rejoicing after his absence from the scene made it possible for preachers with false motives to gain a foothold. He even told his friends that he rejoices in what he suffered for them.
Who says things like that? Only someone who knows something the rest of us don’t. When I have tried to rejoice amidst challenges and hardships, I have done so in obedience to dominical and apostolic teaching, not because rejoicing made sense to me. But the Apostle Paul knew that it makes sense to rejoice—and he knew why.
Like Jesus, Peter, and James, Paul could rejoice in times of pain and hardship because he was certain about how things were going to turn out. He knew “the end of all things,” as St. Peter put it, and knew that it was good. He could therefore not only endure hardship, he could rejoice in the midst of it.
The biblical word for this confident future expectation is hope. Hope is not a Pollyanna positivity; it is a certainty about the future based on a life-transforming connection with the God St. Paul calls – not incidentally – “the God of hope.” This connection, established by faith in Christ and sustained by God’s own Spirit, makes rejoicing not only possible but sensible.
What does it mean to follow Jesus? What is required? This class begins where following Jesus began: on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Seeing what discipleship meant for those first followers of Jesus will help us understand what it means for us today.
I am currently co-teaching a class titled, “Following Christ Today.” Some may consider the “Today” in the title unnecessary for surely following Christ was not much different yesterday than it is today. They would be right in thinking that the essentials of following Christ remain the same. Nevertheless, each generation must learn how to live out those essentials in its own context.
There are some Christians who would approve the “Today” in the title but object to the words, “following Christ.” They find it unhelpful and misleading. People, they say, do not follow Christ today; they believe in him. The idea of following Jesus as a disciple belonged to the first century, not the twenty-first, to Middle Eastern culture, not ours.
Such a view is devastating to biblical Christianity. It effectively reduces belief in Jesus to an intellectual assent to certain doctrines about him. Such an approach would have confounded the apostles for whom faith in Jesus meant following him and following Jesus demonstrated faith in him. To divide the two was to “put asunder what God has joined together.”
The philosopher Dallas Willard was right: “We don’t believe something by merely saying we believe it, or even when we believe that we believe it. We believe something when we act as if it were true.” Acting as if it were true that Jesus is “the Christ, the son of the living God” means following him by obeying his teaching.
The fallacy that a person can believe in Jesus Christ and not follow him is based both on a misunderstanding of the nature of belief, as mentioned above, and a misunderstanding of the nature of Christ. Lurking behind this fallacy, half-hidden and unrecognized, is the idea that Jesus knows how to get people into heaven when they die but does not really understand how life on earth works now.
People simply won’t do what Jesus says – things like, “Love your enemy” and “Do not worry” – unless they believe he knows what he is talking about. They may be able to love Jesus while thinking that he is naïve; they will not be able to trust him.
As Willard, in his classic book The Divine Conspiracy, put it: “Saying ‘Jesus is Lord’ can mean little in practice for anyone who has to hesitate before saying, ‘Jesus is smart.’” But Jesus is smart. When he says, “Do not worry,” it is because he knows things that we don’t know. He sees the world in a way we don’t see it, a way that is more consistent with reality than our own.
Coming to see the world differently, seeing it as Jesus saw it, is what discipleship to Jesus is all about. This does not happen quickly. It is hard won but immensely rewarding. To the degree that it has happened, a person is able to do what Jesus instructs: forgive offenders, love enemies, stop worrying, bless those who curse, and much more.
In his 2011 bestseller, The Social Animal, David Brooks tells how chess grandmasters and ordinary players compared when shown a series of chessboards with pieces already in play. Both were shown a series of five boards and were given 5 to 10 seconds to look at each board. They were then asked to state the positions of each piece on every board.
The ordinary players remembered the locations of four or five pieces per board. Each grandmaster remembered the position of every piece on every board. Brooks explains that this was not because they were smarter or had better memories, but because they had come to see the boards in a different way.
“When average players saw the boards,” Brooks writes, “they saw a group of individual pieces. When the masters saw the boards, they saw formations. Instead of seeing a bunch of letters on a page, they saw words, paragraphs, and stories ….”
Something similar happens to Jesus’s disciples. Through study, prayer, and practice, they come to see the world in a different way, the Jesus way. This revolutionizes their lives, opens new possibilities, and instills them with confidence. Jesus understood all this would happen when he said, “Come, follow me!”
Kevin Looper and I have begun a class on real discipleship in the 21st century – what it looks like and what it takes. This introductory class reveals what we must believe about Jesus to actually follow him. (The video quality of this class will not be as good as following classes. We had hoped to meet in a setting that was more conducive to discussion, but the number of class members required us to return to the auditorium–not so intimate, but the audio/video quality will improve in the next session.)
This sermon, based on Abraham’s experience as detailed in Hebrews 11:8-13, helps us understand why we need to wait on God in our prayers, and how we can wait well. The key is to wait for God, not for things and to wait with God, not alone. Come and join us in the waiting room. God is already there.
I was rushing around on Monday, trying to get things done in the most efficient way possible. I needed a haircut but first I had to stop at the bank so that I could pay for it. But before going to the barbershop, I needed to go to First Baptist Church to see the pastor for a minute and drop off something for him. I go to the barbershop five minutes early and Steve was ready for me. All was well in Shayne Land. On the way home I stopped to fill the propane tank for our grill. The order of my stops was calculated for time efficiency and fuel economy.
The place where I stopped for propane was on the way home; that way, I wouldn’t waste any time. However, the office staff person told me that there would be no one available to fill the tank for about an hour. So, I drove to Walmart to exchange the tank. It would cost more, but I was in a hurry.
When I got to Walmart, I dropped off the cylinder first to save time, and then headed for a check-out line. There were only three cashiers working, and the lines were long. I had already stood in the shortest of the lines for about ten minutes when an employee stopped and said, “Don’t shoot the messenger, but we need to close this line. You’ll need to move to another line.”
So, I went to the rear of the next shortest line and waited again. And waited. I finally got to the cashier who took my money. She called for a clerk to make the exchange but cautioned that it might take a few minutes. “A few minutes” was an understatement. I got a sunburn waiting for the clerk to come.
Waiting is not something I do easily. But if a person is going to learn to pray well, they must learn to wait well. This is a theme one finds repeated throughout Scripture. Even the greatest of God’s people needs to wait. Hosea wrote, “But you must return to your God; maintain love and justice, and wait for your God always” (Hosea 12:6).
This is the prophet Jeremiah (Lamentations 3:20-25): “…his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” (If you cannot say, “The Lord is my portion,” you won’t say, “I will wait for him.”) “The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.”
To God Isaiah says: “Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him” (Isaiah 64:4).
Christians are, almost by definition, those who have “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). Jesus left his first followers with instructions to “wait for the Gift my Father promised…” (Acts 1:4). The church didn’t begin by doing but by waiting.
Waiting is the rule, not the exception. St. Paul tells us that all “creation waits in eager anticipation for the children of God to be revealed…” (Romans 8:19) – and we wait with it. Waiting is a skill every Jesus-follower must master. This is especially true when we pray. Prayer is more like slow roasting than it is like microwaving. Rush it, take the prayer out early, and it won’t be done. The psalmist said to God, “In the morning, O Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation” (Psalm 5:3).
It is clear in Scripture that those who pray must learn to wait on God, but we are not good at it, and we do not like it. God’s Old Testament people were the same way: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it.” Instead of waiting on God, which requires faith, they rushed into action and missed the good things God had planned for them. “Yet,” the prophet says, “the Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him!”
I’ll mention two more things before we read today’s text from Hebrews 11. Even Jesus, the Son of God and Lord of men, has to wait. In fact, he is waiting right now. After writing about Jesus’s great sacrifice, the author of Hebrews says: “Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool…” (Hebrews 10:13). Even Jesus waits.
God himself waits. In that passage from Isaiah, we read that all who wait for God are blessed. But just before that we read, “The Lord longs to be gracious to you.” I word “longs” (I understand) is the same one translated “wait” later in the verse. Even God waits.
There is no getting around it. Everyone waits. One man who did it well was Abraham, the man of faith. That is no coincidence, for faith is essential to waiting. Without faith, we cannot please God (as the author of Hebrews put it), but neither can we wait for him. When faith fails, we run ahead and try to force things to come out right on our own. We see this correlation between faith and waiting in the story of Abraham. He can help us understand the role of faith in waiting and the role of waiting in the lives of God`’s people.
Let me read what the author of Hebrews says about him in Hebrews 11, starting with verse 8.
By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith Abraham, even though he was past age—and Sarah herself was barren—was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore. All these people were still living by faith when they died.
You heard the refrain “By faith.” The power to wait on God comes from God and reaches us through faith. Faith itself is not the power but rather the transmission line that conducts the power. The electricity in your house is not produced by the electrical wires that run to and within your house, but by the power plant. But when the wires are broken, you miss out on the power. When faith short-circuits, you miss out on the power, including the power to “be still and wait patiently for the Lord” (Ps. 37:7).
“Abraham, the man of faith” (as the Apostle Paul called him) was able to wait because he believed God; he trusted him. He was not so much waiting for things – land or descendants – as he was waiting for the Lord. Persons inspire faith; events and things do not. “Abraham believed God,” as the Scriptures repeatedly and emphatically state, and so he was able to wait.
Notice what we learn about Abraham’s faith in verses 8-10, which give us the when, what, where, how, and why of faith. We find the When in verse 8: “By faith Abraham, when called . . .” Faith is not something we manufacture within ourselves from our own resources whenever we find ourselves in need of it. Faith is voice-activated. It is triggered by God’s word. Nowadays, if you have the right software downloaded, you can speak to your TV and it will play your favorite program. Faith is like that TV. When people have the right download (God’s Spirit), God’s word activates faith. When God called Abraham, his voice made a faith response possible.
Abraham was capable of exercising faith when God spoke to him. That was the when. Next, we find the what of faith. The text says (verse 8): “he obeyed and went.” The what of faith has two components, one of which is the same for every believer and one of which can vary from believer to believer. Whoever you are, at whatever point in history you’ve lived, in whatever strata of society you’ve occupied, the what of faith is obedience. When Abraham received the call that makes faith possible, he obeyed.
The original language here is as economic as possible. It is just four words in Greek. English Expressing it in requires a few more: “By faith, having been called, Abraham obeyed.” You could substitute your name or mine (or any believers) for Abraham’s: “By faith, having been called, Jim obeyed.” “By faith, having been called, Jenny obeyed” or “Rob obeyed” or “Megan obeyed.”
The first component in the what of faith is a given that is always the same for every believer: obedience – “the obedience of faith,” St. Paul called it. The second is a variable, which can differ for different believers (or for the same believer at different times in his or her life). Abraham obeyed (the given) and went (the variable). Shayne obeyed (the given) and preached (the variable). Jim obeyed and forgave. Jenny obeyed and shared her faith. Rob obeyed and gave his money. Megan obeyed and went to visit her neighbor. Obedience remains a given for of all of us, but your “and blank” may be different from mine.
Now here is where we get into trouble. We overlook the first element of faith – the given, obedience – but insist on the second, the variable. Here’s what that looks like. The Lord speaks to me about giving a sizeable percentage of my income to the church for its fundraising drive. I hear him, obey, and give the money. All is right in Shayne world. But then I start thinking that other people should be doing what I did. If they don’t, they cannot be good Christians – and maybe they’re not Christians at all! I assume that Jim’s and Jenny’s and Rob’s and Megan’s “andblank” must be the same as mine.
This leads to an ugly legalism and to the judgmental spirit that Jesus strictly forbids. When it comes to the things Scripture clearly teaches, we should all be in unity. But in things the Scripture is not clear about, it is wise to leave room for diversity. And in the personal guidance we receive – the “and blanks” – we must expect diversity.
Next, there is the where of faith, which might better be called the wherever of faith. The end of verse 8 tells us that Abraham “did not know where he was going.” That is not surprising, for in faith there is always an element of not knowing. The unknown gives faith room to breathe and grow. The unknown may be about the where (as it was for Abraham) or it may be (and is frequently) about the how or even about the when or why, but there will be an unknown. Without it, faith has no opportunity to function. Yet we do everything in our power to eliminate the unknown. If we could, we’d wrap faith up so tight in a straight jacket of certainty that it couldn’t breathe.
Next, we have the how of faith: “By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.” The when and where and what inevitably lead to the how. If we hear God when he speaks, follow where he leads, and obey what we know, the how will eventually become clear. The danger for us is that we will demand to know the how before we say “yes” to the what. We may call that prudence or common sense, but it is a faith-buster. It makes faith impossible.
For Abraham, the how meant living like a refugee in the land promised him. Verse 9 says, “By faith he made his home [that translates a single verb that means he sojourned] in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents . . .” Had Abraham insisted on knowing the how before he said yes to the what he might never have left the city of Ur. But God always gives grace for us to live the how, even to thrive in doing so, when we say yes to the what.
Now we’ve come to the why, which we discover in verse 10: “For, he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” Abraham could live in tents like a refugee while waiting and praying for the land promised him, and the descendants to occupy it, because he was looking forward to the city with foundations. He could succeed in the insecurity of the present because he was certain of the security of the future. He remained confident, as only people of faith can, that God “rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).
Abraham was taken by God into God’s big story. He was promised the Land and promised descendants who would dwell in the land, and a particular descendant who would bring blessing to all the people of the earth. That is a big story and big stories take time to unfold. Never forget that you too have been taken into a big story.
Now all of this raises a question: why did God make the promise so long before acting to fulfill it? Why make Abraham wait for the fulfillment of the promise and the answer to his prayers? Waiting is uncomfortable. Waiting is tedious. Pretty much everyone everywhere hates to wait. So, why not make the promise a few days – a few hours – before delivering on it?
For that matter, why make us wait at all? Why not answer us the moment we pray? If God operated that way, just think of strong our faith would be!
But would it? Does the child whose parent gives her everything she wants when she wants it become more trusting or more demanding? Does she develop the mindset that will help her become a compassionate, faithful, and strong person? The reality is just the opposite. Faith grows in the waiting. People are shaped in the waiting. It is a major component in character development. While we wait, the coming savior not only gets nearer to us, but we get nearer to him. There is a kind of spiritual magnetism at work. We get closer to him. He gets closer to us (James 4:8) and that changes us. The strength of that attraction continues to grow until the day when “Christ our life appears,” and we appear with him (Colossians 3:4).
God has us wait because it is in the waiting that we come to know him. Our relationship with him deepens as we wait. It was during the 25 years that Abraham waited that he grew so close to God that Scripture calls him “the friend of God.” How did they become friends? They waited … together. Abraham didn’t just wait for God; he waited with God.
Another reason God also has us wait: it is during the waiting that his Spirit adjusts our prayers until they align with his will. (If you didn’t hear the sermon from June 19th, go on the website and listen to it. It is titled, Just Ask.) This alignment is not just a matter of praying for the right things but –more importantly – becoming the kind of person who can – and regularly does – pray for the right things.
Another reason we wait: God gets greater glory from receiving our trust than from answering our prayers. I’ve often heard people say things like: “Just think how much glory God would receive if my friend/family member was miraculously healed.” Yes, but he will receive even greater glory if you and your friend/family member continue to trust him – and even increase your trust – while you wait.
But how do we do that? It happens with us in much the general way it happened with Abraham. First, we hear God’s word to us. Remember that faith is voice (God’s voice) activated.) If, like Abraham, we obey his word to us, faith will grow. But we must expect to wait for things that we want badly, things that we are desperate to have, even things that God intends to give. Waiting is not the exception to the rule. In our broken world, it is the rule. Expect to wait.
Understand too that waiting does not mean wasting time. Abraham worked while he waited. He was a man of action and a man of faith. When we divide faith from work, we do injury to both. Faith is the root; work is the fruit. Faith is potential energy; work is kinetic energy. Faith is the flame and works the light that proceeds from the flame.
Prayer is to faith what the light is to the flame. If you are having trouble praying – you are tired of waiting, beginning to doubt, ready to give up – it may be that you are waiting for God but not waiting with him. That’s what happens when we wait for things but not for God. It’s what happens when we wait for God but not with God. Come into the waiting room; God is already there.
Christian theology has always been a hotbed of controversy. This is not surprising, for the one thing theologians do agree on is that God is incomprehensible. No one has the last word on God. No one has the last word except God.
Most theological controversies revolve around the nature of God, but one revolves around the nature of humans. Americans are used to hearing that people are “basically good,” but theologians are used to saying that they are “totally depraved.”
If someone were to ask me if I believed in total depravity, I would want to ask them what they meant before I answered. If they meant that there is no goodness in human beings, I would say that I do not believe in it. History, and the evening news, for that matter, record breathtaking acts of love and sacrifice, which only a fool would deny were good.
The great English apologist and man of letters C. S. Lewis rejected the idea of total depravity thus understood. He wrote: “I disbelieve that doctrine, partly on the logical ground that if our depravity were total we should not know ourselves to be depraved, and partly because experience shows us much goodness in human nature.”
Lewis’s reasoning was, as usual, spot on. But I, who have quoted Lewis more often than any other source, save the Bible itself, am forced to admit that the premise on which he founds his argument is faulty. He is assuming that total depravity means absolute depravity, which is not what most theologians mean by the term.
By “total depravity” few serious theologians mean that there is no good in humans. The “total” in “total depravity” does not mean that everything human is as bad as it can be but that nothing human is as good as it was meant to be.
Could human beings be worse? Yes, unimaginably, and horrifyingly so – the stuff of nightmares, the stuff of hell. Could they be better? Yes, equally unimaginably so – the stuff of dreams, the people of heaven.
Theologians believe that our reason is not reliable, our will has been compromised, and our feelings distorted. The highly integrated organism we know as the human being has experienced – and continues to experience – a system-wide degradation. Our bodies, minds, and spirits have been diminished to such an extent that we require outside help – God – to set us right again.
This is not to say that human beings, created in God’s image, are void of any goodness. It is to say that God’s image has been marred and humans are less good than they were designed to be. They do not always recognize the good and, when they do, they sometimes do not desire it. Even when they desire it, they frequently find they cannot carry it out.
But this diminishment of the human being is not only about recognizing and doing good; it is also about being well, about functioning (as it were) according to spec. Theologians not only say that we cannot save ourselves but that we cannot be ourselves, at least, not without God’s intervention.
The theological irony is evident. It took the Son of God to live a fully human life and to open the way for others to do the same. The rest of us have lived far below our potential.
Sin has distanced us from the Creator and that distance has diminished our capacity to think, feel, and love, in much the same way that distance from a radio station diminishes the quality of the music coming from our radio. As the distance increases, the music fades, becomes distorted, and devolves into mere static. Distance from God causes a similar breakdown in humans. Hence, “Christ died…to bring us to God.”
Humans are capable of profound love and sacrificial goodness even in our current diminished state. What, one wonders, would they be like if they were operating according to spec? It is open for anyone to find out, for that is the future of a redeemed humanity. The biblical witness is that those with faith in Christ are already being “renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” and eventually will be transformed in body as well.