Archive for January, 2018

Devotional Podcast #10: “Sin in the Life of Christians, Part 1”

January 31, 2018

I suspect many thoughtful, sincere Christians feel guilty because of their sins. Not necessarily the ones they commit before their conversion but after. If that describes you, I hope this episode and the next one will help you.

Devotional Text: 1 Corinthians 6:13-18

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Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Wednesday, January 31, and this is Devotional Podcast number 10. We are in double digits! Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I bring you a new devotional on this channel, so stay tuned.

You’re listening to Glen Campbell’s version of the Randy Newman song “Marie,” from Campbell’s 1975 album, Rhinestone Cowboy. What I want you to hear in this song, first, is the sincerity of the singer’s love for his wife—however imperfect it may be. He knows he doesn’t deserve her. He knows he lets her down in a hundred different ways. He’s brutally honest about his faults. And it’s clear that his wife, Marie, must love him to put up with him the way that she does! When we think about our relationship with God, well… to say the least, we’re much more like Glen Campbell than Marie!

Our scripture today comes from 1 Corinthians 6:13-18, which I’ll read now:

The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality.

The apostle Paul is addressing a very serious problem in the church at Corinth. Christians in his church were employing the services of prostitutes. Corinth was a busy port city, and as in all port cities, prostitution thrived. Corinth also had a history of temple prostitution in connection with a temple built to Aphrodite, the goddess of fertility and erotic love. This means that illicit sex was actually a part of pagan worship.

This was the culture that this little church in Corinth was called out of. A culture not unlike ours, when you think about how free and plentiful pornography is over our smartphones, tablets, and computers—not to mention the “old-fashioned” sexual sins of which Paul was aware!

I want to make two points about this: First, Paul is warning these Corinthian Christians in the severest terms: flee sexual immorality! Earlier in the chapter he warns these Christians that unrepentant sexual sin risks excluding us from God’s kingdom—eternally. In his second letter to the Corinthians, in chapter 13, verse 5, Paul writes, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!”

In other words, sinful behavior, including sexually immoral behavior, is a symptom of a larger problem—we may be demonstrating, through our sinful lifestyle, that we do not possess saving faith.

I’ve said this in sermons before, but here’s a good test for us: Do our lives have a “before and after” Christ. Does your life have a “B.C.” and an “A.D.”? In other words, can you look at your life since Christ became part of it and see the difference that he’s made? Or does your life look just the same as it did before? If there’s no “A.D.” in your Christian life, that could be a sign of serious spiritual danger!

And you might say, “Yes, Pastor Brent, but I grew up going to church—going to Sunday school, going to Vacation Bible School, going to youth camps and youth retreats. I’ve always believed in Jesus. I never remember a time when I didn’t believe in Jesus! I can’t point to a ‘moment’ when I was first saved. So I’m not sure when the ‘before and after’ starts.”

I get what you’re saying, and I’m sure that describes the experience of many Christians, especially Methodists and others whose churches offer confirmation classes instead of emphasizing a moment of conversion. I’m Methodist now, but I grew up Baptist. In that tradition, we waited to join the church and get baptized until after we were converted—which is most often expressed by “walking down the aisle” at the end of the sermon, while an “invitation hymn” is playing on the organ—well, I guess fewer churches have organs, but you know what I mean.

Regardless, even if you don’t know the exact “moment” you were saved, you should still be able to look back over time and point to real differences that Christ has made in your life. Sanctification is a process of change over time, so you should be able to see changes. If not, Paul would say, that’s a warning sign that your faith isn’t genuine.

My point in saying all this is that I don’t want to minimize the seriousness of sin—for a single moment! Paul doesn’t want to minimize the serious of sin for a single moment. It’s deadly serious. Apart from God’s grace, apart from a lifetime of repentance and faith, sin will send us to hell. Full stop. There’s no way of reading the Bible and coming to any other reasonable conclusion.

But… Please don’t miss the grace that’s here. When Paul was warning these Corinthian Christians, in the most dire terms, to “flee sexual immorality,” he was speaking to Christians—genuine Christians—who were engaging in sexual immorality. No New Testament scholar disputes that. Look back at 1 Corinthians chapter 1, verse 2:

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified [past tense] in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours…

So… Paul’s readers and listeners—the members of this church—are sanctified in Christ Jesus—indicating something that has happened in the past and is a present reality—these “sanctified” ones include the very ones who are also having sex with prostitutes—perhaps even on a regular basis.

And keep in mind: the Corinthian church struggled with far more than just sexual sin—as is clear from reading 1 Corinthians. They are far from a perfect church! Yet in spite of their sin, they are “sanctified” and “saints.” Paul says so in verse 2!

So Paul is not questioning the genuineness of their faith; he’s not telling them that they need to be born again… again. He’s not telling them that they’re not saved. He’s not telling them that they won’t be forgiven. He’s not telling them that while God forgave them a couple of years ago when they were converted, that was before they went out and did this awful thing—committed this sin.

That doesn’t even make sense when you think about it! When they first repented of their sins and came to Christ, when they were justified and born again, God foreknew all the sins that they would commit in the future—including even sleeping with prostitutes. Yet God forgave them then… and he would forgive them in the future, so long as they kept on repenting, kept on believing, kept on trusting in Christ.

Hear this promise from 1 John 1:9:

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

What sins do you need to confess to God today? Will you do so… and as you do so, you need to also believe that you’re truly forgiven.

I’m going to continue talking about this theme of sin in the life of Christians in the next podcast. Stay tuned!

Devotional Podcast #9: “Christ Our Bridegroom”

January 29, 2018

Today’s podcast makes sense of Jesus’ strange response to his mother in John 2:4, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” 

Devotional Text: John 2:1-11

You can subscribe to my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Monday, January 29, and this is Devotional Podcast number 9. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I bring you a new devotional on this channel, so, if you like them, stay tuned.

You’re listening to the Everly Brothers and their 1958 single, “Devoted to You,” which was written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. I recorded it from their 2015 Record Store Day compilation album 15 Everly Hits.

Our scripture today comes from John 2:1-11, which I’ll read now:

On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” So they took it. When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.

I want to focus on verse 4, where Jesus says, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” I’ve read many explanations of Jesus’ brusque response to Mary. We know for sure that it wasn’t rude—it was polite and respectful—like saying “ma’am” today. But there’s no getting around it: it isn’t warm and affectionate. Taking first-century Jewish culture into account, isn’t the way a son would normally address his mother. Why does Jesus speak this way?

I think he’s sending a message: He’s reminding his mother that, now that his public ministry has begun—which will end with his death on a cross—he can no longer perform favors for her simply because he’s her son. In fact, he doesn’t perform this miracle because she asks him too. Most commentators agree that she gets the message, and that when she speaks the words, “Do whatever he tells you,” to the servants, she is speaking not as his mother but as his disciple. She is leaving the problem in Jesus’ hands; he’s solve it in his own way. I’m sure there’s a message for us modern-day disciples, too.

But that’s not what this podcast is about. Instead, I want to focus on the second part of verse 4: “My hour has not yet come.” We know from many other references in John’s gospel that Jesus’ “hour” always refers to his death on the cross. So it’s as if Jesus were saying, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? It’s not my time to die.”

What a strange non-sequitur: to be talking about running out of wine at a wedding in one breath and dying on a cross in the next! Why does this wedding emergency have to do with Jesus’ death?

Well… what do we think about when we go to weddings? If we’re married, we think about our own wedding day. If we’re single, we imagine what our future wedding day may be like. Either way, we’re thinking about our wedding day. And Jesus, I would argue, is no exception: he’s thinking about his wedding day.

And you’re probably thinking, “Hold on, Pastor Brent! What are you talking about? Jesus wasn’t married, and he knew that he never would be married. He couldn’t have been thinking about his wedding day?”

Oh, yes he could! Because Jesus had a wedding day in his future. In the Old Testament, God is often portrayed as a bridegroom or husband to his people Israel, the bride. In fact, the entire Book of Hosea is about how God is like a spurned husband, whose wife, Israel, has cheated on him repeatedly. In Matthew 22, Jesus tells a parable about a king who throws a wedding banquet for his son—that son, of course, is Jesus. Paul refers repeatedly to the church as the bride of Christ. Revelation 19, which we quote in the Lord’s Supper liturgy when we refer to “feasting at Christ’s heavenly banquet,” refers to a wedding banquet for the Messiah.

Finally, the best reference to Christ as the bridegroom comes from Ephesians 5, where Paul is giving instructions to Christian husbands and wives. Then he quotes Genesis 2:24, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” Then Paul explains, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” I talked about this scripture last week: Paul is saying that in the marriage of husband and wife we learn something important about the relationship between Christ and those of us who have placed our faith in him.

My point is, Christ is the bridegroom—or he will be—and this is what his mother Mary, when she asks him to supply wine for the wedding, is asking him to be. It was the bridegroom’s responsibility to provide the wine. This is why the “master of the feast” goes to the bridegroom and compliments him on the wine; he assumes that the bridegroom had something to do with it. The bridegroom, of course, was unaware of the miracle that Jesus had performed, so he probably had no idea what the master of the feast was referring to.

So consider this episode at the wedding at Cana of Galilee an enacted parable—a symbolic action that points to who Christ is and what he will be. He will be our bridegroom.

And how will he be our bridegroom? Well, the answer finally makes sense of Jesus’ strange response to his mother: “My hour has not come”—i.e., “It’s not my time to die.” It’s as if Jesus were saying, “I can’t be the bridegroom yet, because in order to be the bridegroom I have to go to the cross, and that can’t happen yet.” But he gives us a miracle rich with symbolism. What does he say to his disciples during the Last Supper: “[T]his is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” And what was the symbol of Christ’s blood? Wine.

Jesus is able to become our bridegroom by taking upon himself our sins on the cross and dying for them. And remember that when the bridegroom marries his bride, everything that is his now belongs to his bride as well. And what does the bridegroom have? Righteousness. Christ our bridegroom, unlike his bride, was perfectly obedient to his Father in every way, so that his obedience becomes ours. This is the basis on which we are saved. Praise God!

Devotional Podcast #8: “What Are You Afraid Of?”

January 26, 2018

Have you noticed that the things that you fear today aren’t usually things that are happening today? Rather, they are things that might happen next week, next month, next year. Why is that? Yet Jesus says not to worry about anything beyond today. It seems clear to me, then, that our fear is a far bigger problem than the things that we’re afraid of.

Devotional Text: Matthew 6:34

You can subscribe to my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Friday, January 26, and this is Devotional Podcast number 8. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I bring you a new devotional on this channel.

You’re listening to the Beach Boys and their 1963 song “In My Room.” This came from the album Surfer Girl originally. I recorded this from their 1974 compilation album, Endless Summer, which reached number one on the Billboard album charts.

Recently, I was reading a college football blog, and the readers of this blog were arguing in the comments section—as they often do—about my team, the direction of the program, the coaching staff, the institution. And one of the commenters referred by name to another commenter with whom he disagreed—I’ll call him Jason—and said, “Last year, I remember that Jason said thus-and-so, but here’s why he’s been proven wrong.”

Well, that prompted Jason to come out of the woodwork and respond. He wrote, “Thank you for letting me live rent-free in your head for the past year!”

That was a pretty good putdown. Jason was saying, in so many words, “Yes, you may think I’m wrong, but whatever I said a year ago made such an impression on you, that you’ve been thinking about it ever since—stewing over it, letting yourself be bothered by it or angered by it. Therefore, I win the argument.”

But it got me thinking about the people that I allow to “live in my head rent-free.” Who are they and why do I give them such an exalted place of honor?

And usually, the people who “live in my head” are people I’m afraid of for some reason: For me, this is almost always in the professional sphere; my career: I’m often afraid of colleagues, or supervisors, or parishioners who I perceive don’t like me—I’m afraid of how they might judge me, what they might say about me, how they might influence the opinions of others.

I’m like Sally Field at the Academy Awards so many years ago. “You like me! You really, really like me!” I just want everybody to like me!

I know this is beyond silly; this is un-Christian. My only concern should be to please my Lord—and worry about how he judges me. But instead I worry about others. There are, I know, a host of very interesting reasons going back to my childhood why I struggle with this insecurity.

My point is, these are the people who I let “live in my head.”

I wish I could say I was afraid of bad and powerful men like Kim Jong-un, but, no… he rarely crosses my mind. The objects of my fear are much smaller and much more local.

But it’s not just people—I let things I worry about live there as well.

I’m not saying everyone is like me—you probably let other kinds of people other kinds of things live in your head. But I’m sure, like me, you do so out of fear.

One of C.S. Lewis’s masterpieces is The Screwtape Letters. It’s an imagined correspondence between a demon named Screwtape, a well-seasoned tempter of humans, and his nephew Wormwood, a so-called “junior tempter.” We only get to read Screwtape’s side of the correspondence. But we infer that Wormwood is seeking advice from his uncle on how to handle Wormwood’s “patient.” You see, in the world of The Screwtape Letters, each demon is assigned a human “patient”—more like a victim—and it’s that demon’s job to lead their victim away from God, and away from salvation through Christ, and toward hell. If their human ends up in hell, well… then that demon will be judged a success.

In one of Screwtape’s letters, he talks about how Wormwood can use his patient’s fear to his advantage. In this case, his patient is worried about being called up for military service. (The novel is set in World War II Britain.) It’s uncertain whether the patient will be drafted, so he feels a mixture of anxiety and suspense. Screwtape writes the following [emphasis mine]:

Your patient will, of course, have picked up the notion that he must submit with patience to the Enemy’s will. [Remember, the “Enemy” in this case is God.] What the Enemy means by this is primarily that he should accept with patience the tribulation which has actually been dealt out to him—the present anxiety and suspense. It is about this that he is to say “thy will be done”, and for the daily task of bearing this that the daily bread will be provided. It is your business to see that the patient never thinks of the present fear as his appointed cross, but only of the things he is afraid of. Let him regard them [that is, the things he is afraid of] as his crosses: let him forget that, since they are incompatible, they cannot all happen to him, and let him try to practise fortitude and patience to them all in advance. For real resignation, at the same moment, to a dozen different and hypothetical fates, is almost impossible, and the Enemy does not greatly assist those who are trying to attain it: resignation to present and actual suffering, even where that suffering consists of fear, is far easier and is usually helped by this direct action.[1]

Do you see Lewis’s point? The devil tries to focus our minds on the things that we’re afraid of—things that are waiting for us out there, in the uncertain future, where any number of fearful, undesirable things may happen to us—or not: because the future is unknowable. What we know for sure, right now, is that we’re afraid. Therefore, what what God wants us to focus on instead at this very moment—is the fear itself. That fear should be the thing occupying our prayers.

In other words, the anxiety that we’re feeling right now, as we think of possible future outcomes, is the problem; not the possible outcomes that are making us anxious.

Or put it this way: The fear is the problem; not the thing that’s making us afraid.

This is clear from Jesus’ teaching. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34). Or as the New Living Translation puts it, “Today’s trouble is enough for today.” This also clear from the rest of scripture. As Paul writes in Philippians 4:6, “[D]o not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

Do you see the practical wisdom here?

What is making you unhappy todayright now… at this moment? It’s probably some “worst case scenario” that you fear will come to pass not today but at some point in the future—tomorrow, next week, next month.

Pray first about the fear that you’re experiencing right now. That fear is part of today’s trouble for which the Lord tells us to pray. You don’t yet know what tomorrow’s trouble is until you get there. But today’s trouble includes the fear that you’re experiencing. Pray about it! Your fear, as Lewis said above, is your “appointed cross” for today—not the thing that you’re afraid of.

Because, believe it or not, God doesn’t want you to be anxious… about anything… ever!

It’s not God’s will for you to worry. You’ll find out whether it’s God’s will for you to face that thing you’re afraid of when the time comes; at which point you can count on God’s giving you the grace you need to face it; but it’s definitely not God’s will for you to be afraid.

So pray that God will take away the fear. And listen to God’s Word—especially what it has to say about anxiety and fear. Start with Matthew 6:25-34.

1. C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (Westwood, NJ: Barbour and Co., 1961), 34-5.

Devotional Podcast #7: “When the Agony of Defeat Isn’t as Agonizing”

January 24, 2018

In this episode, I talk about the upcoming Super Bowl, and what we can learn about God from the Eagles’ inevitable defeat… Just kidding! Like nearly every American outside of New England, I’ll be rooting for the Eagles!

This podcast features the Beatles’ “I’m a Loser,” which I recorded from their December 1964 Capitol album, Beatles ’65. (Yes, I know it originates on the UK album Beatles for Sale.)

Devotional Text: Genesis 50:20

You can subscribe to my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Wednesday, January 24, and this is Devotional Podcast number 7. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I will release a new episode on this podcast channel, in addition to the sermons that I also post here.

You’re listening to the Beatles and their song “I’m a Loser,” which I recorded from their December 1964 album on Capitol Records, Beatles ’65. British people or Americans who came of age after the CD era will know that the song originated on the Beatles’ UK album Beatles for Sale.

Well, Super Bowl season is upon us. The game is set. And once again, for better or worse, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots have made it to the big game. This means that, come February 4, out of a population of 320 million Americans, about 315 million of them will be die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fans! Those of us living in Atlanta will be donning green and silver, that’s for sure!

Almost as inevitable as a Patriots victory is the likelihood that at some point—during the game, on the field, or after the game in interviews—a star player will do or say something to  acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the reason for his or his team’s success, and that Christ deserves all the thanks and praise.

Years ago, when I was going through a season of doubt in my life—long since past, I’m happy to report—this behavior used to annoy me: I thought, “Sure, It’s easy for this guy to thank Jesus… His team won! Would he be thanking Jesus if his team didn’t win?”

Now that I know better, I hope I can speak for Christian athletes everywhere when I say that, yes, by all means, win or lose, we always, always, always have reasons to thank Jesus!

If you look in your Bibles at Genesis chapters 37 through 50, you’ll read about a man named Joseph. Joseph was the favorite son of his father Jacob. Remember: Joseph was the one for whom his father made him the “coat of many colors”—and his older brothers were insanely jealous of their little brother. At first they wanted to kill him, but cooler heads prevailed. So they sold him into slavery in Egypt instead. But that’s just the beginning of Joseph’s troubles! Over the course of decades, Joseph suffers a lot. Until finally, he rises through the ranks and becomes, next to the Pharaoh himself, the most powerful man in Egypt. Thanks to his wise leadership during a famine, he helps save millions of people from starvation.

And finally, Joseph has a reunion with his brothers—the same ones who caused all his suffering in the first place! And, despite the brothers’ fears that Joseph would kill them, he forgives them instead. And he tells them something remarkable. In Genesis 50:20, he says, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.”

In other words, what Joseph’s brothers did to him was genuinely evil. The suffering he suffered was genuinely painful. The stuff that happened to him was genuinely bad. But that wasn’t the end of his story. God transformed that evil, that suffering, that pain—into something incredibly good. He used it ultimately to save the lives of millions.

We see this same dynamic at work in the apostle Paul’s life in 2 Corinthians 12. Paul describes what he calls a “thorn in his flesh.” We don’t know for sure what this “thorn” was—it could have been a physical affliction; or it could be related to the persecution he suffered. Whatever it was, it was a trial in Paul’s life that caused him pain, and it was evil. In fact, Paul says it came from the devil himself.

But once again, that wasn’t the end of the story… God transformed that evil thing from the devil into something very good for Paul. It was necessary, Paul said, to experience this thorn in order to keep him humble, to keep him depending on the Lord rather than trusting in himself.

The same principle applies: Satan intended to harm Paul, but God intended it all for good.”

What’s the worst thing that the devil or anyone else or anything else can throw at you? Whatever it is, if you only trust in Jesus Christ, he will transform it by his grace into something for your good.

Do you believe it?

I’ve talked in the last episode and in recent sermons about our need to “fall in love” with Jesus Christ again, or to “stay in love” with him. How can we do that if we don’t believe that he has a plan for the pain and suffering we’re experiencing—that no matter what—even when we’re experiencing something bad—God is somehow using it for our good?

And that’s why the hypothetical football star I mentioned earlier has the ability to thank Jesus—win or lose. Because God is doing something good for us in both victory and defeat.

So, see: we can pity New England Patriots players, coaches, and fans: They don’t often get to experience the genuine good that God can bring out of defeat!

But seriously, if you struggle to believe that God has the power to transform evil into something good, remember the cross: God used the greatest evil the world has ever seen—which was the death of his Son Jesus—to accomplish the greatest good the world has ever seen—which is the salvation of everyone who believes in Jesus.

Surely, surely, surely God can take every lesser form of evil, pain, and suffering and do the same!

Sermon 01-14-18: “Prayer Is Supposed to Be Easy”

January 24, 2018

As I argue in this sermon, we make prayer more complicated than it needs to be. The message of Jesus’ words in today’s scripture is that prayer isn’t that complicated. 

Sermon Text: Matthew 6:6-13

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Recently, I was listening to a sermon by a favorite pastor of mine whose church is very large and whose sermons are more intellectually demanding than my own. Unlike me, this preacher seems happily indifferent to using humor, or trying to be “relevant,” or entertaining his audience in any way in his sermons—he just dives right into scripture week after week. So, rightly or wrongly, I perceive that his church must be more advanced in the ways of prayer and in Bible study than the typical Methodist churches of which I’ve been part.

I was surprised, then, when he said that his church had recently conducted a survey on prayer in his congregation. Over half the congregation, he said, admitted that they did not pray regularly—his theologically rich sermons on the subject notwithstanding.

The pastor said that when he read the results of the survey, he was tempted to resign on the spot. Had he been wasting his breath all these years about the power and importance of prayer? Why wasn’t the message getting through?

I’m sympathetic with this pastor. But at the same time, I know from painful personal experience that prayer often seems hard to me. And I’ll bet you’ve experienced prayer as something that’s often difficult.

Actual alert message sent to smartphones throughout Hawaii

Not always, of course. In fact, prayer is the easiest thing in the world sometimes… When is it easy? When we are in a crisis. Prayer becomes very easy in those situations. I’m reminded of a hilarious Richard Pryor comedy routine from 1978 about his experience having a heart attack. He describes how that pain in his chest brought him to his knees, and he describes literally speaking to the heart attack, “Don’t kill me, don’t kill me, don’t kill me!” But his next words were directed to God: “God, please don’t let this thing kill me!” And then his heart attack spoke back to him, “Were you talking to God behind my back?” And the pain, he said, just got worse!

I’ve never had a heart attack, but “heart attack” prayers come very easily, I’m sure.

You know another time when prayer comes easily? When you believe that the island you live on is about to be attacked by ballistic missiles! Did you see that terrible false alarm on people’s smartphones in Hawaii yesterday? “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.” No, it was not a drill, but it was a false alarm!

Don’t you know that literally tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, of people in Hawaii were praying yesterday who hadn’t prayed in days, or weeks, or months before yesterday? Why? Because prayer is very easy when you fear you might die in a ballistic missile attack! People say, “Why did this false alarm happen?” I’m sure there are all sorts of interesting technological reasons. But I believe that another, overarching reason that this disaster happened was in order for people to turn to God in prayer! In other words, I’m sure that God used this crisis to get people’s attention. If it takes the fear of death to get people to turn to God, God will use it! It’s very merciful of God to use a disaster to bring people to him, while they still have to time to repent of their sins and turn to God. Because there is a far greater disaster coming upon our world—Judgment Day—and at that point, people won’t be able to repent and turn to God. It will be too late! Read the rest of this entry »

Devotional Podcast #6: “Open Arms”

January 22, 2018

What does the band Journey have to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ? Only this: the greatest love songs find their ultimate fulfillment in the gospel, which is, among many other things, the greatest love story ever told.

Sermon Text: Ephesians 5:31-32

You can subscribe to my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Monday, January 22, and this is Devotional Podcast #6. I post new episodes in this series every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I also post my Sunday sermons here.

You’re listening to “Open Arms” by the band Journey. This is one of the greatest love songs ever written. This comes from their 1982 album, Escape. It was written by Steve Perry and Jonathan Cain.

One recurring theme of my recent preaching—well, because it’s also a recent theme of my life—is that most of us Christians have an urgent need to fall in love with Jesus all over again. In our Methodist tradition, we are supposed to follow something called Wesley’s “General Rules,” which are: One, do no harm. Two, do good. Three, attend to the ordinances of God. When Wesley originally wrote the rules, he gave specific examples of each rule—which would have been helpful to Methodists living in the 18th century. Without specific examples of “harm” that we are to avoid doing today, I find the rules to be anodyne. I mean, of course we’re supposed to “do good” and “do no harm”! Who could possibly disagree?

But it begs the question: what does “doing harm” and “doing good” look like today? Doesn’t everyone always feel justified in whatever they’re doing or not doing? Are they right or wrong to feel that way, and how do they know? In Wesley’s day, he gave the rules some teeth: “No, my fellow Englishmen and women, you may not own slaves or be employed in industries that benefit from or facilitate the slave trade in any way and still call yourselves Methodist.” That sort of thing… Of course, there were plenty of Christians who would disagree with him back then, unfortunately.

If the rules were updated for our day, what would they say? Can Christians buy lottery tickets and still “do no harm”? Is it harmful for a Christian to watch Game of Thrones? What about owning gas-guzzling SUVs instead of more environmentally friendly vehicles? Can Christians vote for candidates who support legal abortion and still “do no harm”? I have no interest in answering these questions in this podcast, but if Wesley were alive today, he probably would!

But I want to focus on rule number three, “attend to the ordinances of God.” This rule seems pretty straightforward and unchanging from Wesley’s day to ours: These “ordinances” would include the prayer, Bible study, the Lord’s Supper, worship, baptism, tithing, fasting, Christian service, among others. By all means, we Christians should do these things today!

A prominent United Methodist devotional writer, the late Bishop Reuben Job, wrote a book about Wesley’s General Rules several years ago called Three Simple Rules. And he changed this last rule from “Attend to the ordinances of God” to “Stay in love with God.” I guess he thought “attend to the ordinances of God” sounded too stuffy and formal. From Job’s perspective, the way to “stay in love with God” was to attend to these ordinances.

Anyway, in the past I have complained loudly about the way that Job changed the name of this rule. I mean, for heaven’s sake, can we modern-day Methodists receive something from our past, from our heritage, that we don’t try to mess with—that we can just accept without qualification? Also, it seemed touchy-feely—overly sentimental. Stay in love with God… Yuck!

But now that I’m a little older, guess what? I love it! That’s the most useful part of the book that he wrote—those five words: “Stay in love with God.”

Reuben Job was onto something. We desperately need to stay in love with God!

Because make no mistake: the gospel of Jesus Christ is a love story. Not like in the Old Testament, for example, where the book of Hosea depicts God as a spurned lover, a husband whose wife has cheated on him over and over. No, the gospel is a romantic “falling in love”-type love story. Just look at Paul’s words in the Book of Ephesians, chapter 5, verses 31 and 32. Paul is talking here about the relationship between husbands and wives. Then Paul tells husbands that they need to love their wives the way Christ loves the church and briefly describes what that looks like. And then, in verse 31, he quotes Genesis 2:24, written in the context of the first marriage in history, between Adam and Eve:

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

So… we’re talking about husbands and wives still, right—men and women… Right? Not so fast. Because then Paul says,

This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.

In other words, the relationship between husband and wife is an analogy for the relationship between Christ and all of us who have accepted him as Savior and Lord. Or vice versa. That’s an amazing way to characterize Christ’s love for us!

But think about it… Let’s look again at the quote from Genesis chapter 2. Out of love, a man leaves his father and mother to be joined to his wife and the two become one. Similarly, out of love, God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, leaves his Father in heaven in order to be joined to humanity, so that the two—Christ and his church—become one.

We all remember, or have experienced, or currently experiencing what it’s like to be in love. Remember the butterflies in our stomach? Remember how eager we were to be with the one we loved? Remember how we’d do anything for them?

Is it possible that Jesus Christ loves you and me like that? With that kind of intimacy… that kind of intensity… that kind of emotion? Think of every good love song you’ve ever heard—like the one I’m playing, for instance. That song finds its ultimate fulfillment in Christ’s love for us Christians! You think, “How can that be true?” but the Bible says it is!

Before he was hanged by the British for being a spy during the American Revolutionary War, patriot Nathan Hale famously said, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” Guess what? That feeling is even more intense when you’re in love! You would gladly lay down your life for the woman or man you’re in love with—without a second thought!

That’s how Christ loves us. Which explains his willingness to go to the cross for us! He was happy to do it—because he loved us the way Paul describes in Ephesians 5.

Devotional Podcast #5: “The Lord Is Your Portion”

January 19, 2018

Many times in the Bible, the writer says that the Lord is his “portion.” What does that mean and how is it relevant for us?

Devotional Text: Psalm 16:1-11

You can subscribe to my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Friday, January 19, and this is podcast number five in my new series of devotional podcasts. I post new episodes in this series every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I also post my Sunday sermons here, as I did yesterday when I posted my January 7 sermon. Look for my January 14 sermon soon!

You’re listening to a song by one of the original British invasion bands, The Zombies. This comes from their 1968 album, Odessey and Oracle—one of the greatest albums ever made, I promise. You need to hear it!

One of my absolute favorite memories of my three kids is related to this song, “A Rose for Emily.” It happened when they were young—between the ages of 5 and 10. They were riding in the backseat of my car. And this song came on the car stereo. And all three of them, all at once, without any prompting from me, began singing every word. I didn’t even know that they knew the song—you know? I mean, I knew they’d heard it, but I didn’t know they were paying attention to it—enough to memorize all the words and know it so well. And here they were, singing every note.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that those voices from the back seat were probably the sweetest sound I’ve ever heard! Just a moment of pure joy—for them, for me!

Joy has been on my mind this week. It snowed this week in Atlanta, and my kids have enjoyed three days off school. Three “snow days”… Is there anything better than a snow day? When I was a kid, snow days rivaled only Christmas for the happiest times of my life.

Today’s scripture, from Psalm 16, is about deep happiness and joy. Listen to verses 2, 5 and 6, and 11: “I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you… The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance… You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

The Bible speaks often about the Lord being our “portion,” including David in today’s scripture. What does that mean? The earliest reference is in Numbers 18:20. God is talking to Aaron: “You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them. I am your portion and your inheritance among the people of Israel.” Aaron and the rest of his tribe, the Levites, weren’t entitled to inherit land—so for them, their “inheritance,” their wealth, their “portion”—what they received in place of material prosperity—was nothing less than the Lord himself. The Lord was supposed to enough for them. The Lord was supposed to satisfy them.

Later, David and the other psalmists, along with Jeremiah in Lamentations, applied this principle to all of us believers, regardless of whatever else we have or don’t have. If the Lord is our portion, we will always have enough, we will always be satisfied, we will always be wealthy in the only way that counts! If the Lord is our portion, we can experience the “fullness of joy” in God’s presence.

Fullness of joy.

I can’t read today’s scripture—along with many other psalms and many other passages of scripture, including Jesus’ own words—without concluding that being a Christian is supposed to make us happy. Deeply, genuinely happy. With a happiness that is mostly invulnerable to external circumstances—joy, in other words. In the sermon I posted on this channel yesterday and on my blog, I talked about the rewards that Jesus promises us when we pray in the right way, for instance. Those rewards are not simply in the sweet by-and-by. They are for right now, too.

And you say, “Then why are Christians so often unhappy?” And if you knew me well enough, you might ask, “Brent, why are you so often unhappy? Why have you been so unhappy?”

Let me tell you: Because I have a lifetime of experience trying to find my “portion” in things other than God—and it’s as if God has spent these past 47 years showing me, through painful personal experience, that, “No, Brent, your portion is not found in career success or ambition. Look somewhere else. No, Brent, your portion is not found in relationships. Look somewhere else. No, Brent, your portion is not found in money. Look somewhere else. No, Brent, your portion is not found in recognition and praise from others. Look somewhere else.”

Honestly. It’s as if through the process of elimination, God has made me miserable enough with each of these things I’ve desired to teach me that if I want to be happy, my portion cannot be anything other than the Lord!

And I promise the message is getting through! I preach differently now! My sermons have taken a different tone. It’s because I’m learning that the Lord is my portion. He’s everything I need!

Do you remember that popular singer-songwriter Paul Williams? You would know him if you saw him. When I was a kid, he was all over TV—he guest-starred on shows like The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. He was a frequent guest on Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin. He was on game shows all the time. And he was all over the radio, at least indirectly—he wrote three hits, including “We’ve Only Just Begun,” for the Carpenters. He wrote hit songs for Three Dog Night, Barbra Streisand, and even Kermit the Frog—he wrote “Rainbow Connection.”

And you might be wondering, “What happened to him? Didn’t he die, like, in the ’80s or something.” One filmmaker, Stephen Kessler, who, like me, grew up seeing Paul Williams everywhere on TV was surprised to discover that, in fact, Paul Williams didn’t die. So this filmmaker made a documentary about Williams a few years ago called, appropriately enough, Still Alive. I watched it recently. It’s not very good…

Why? Because Williams, who by the late-’80s nearly killed himself with drugs and alcohol and reckless living, checked himself into rehab in the early ’90s. And he’s been clean and sober ever since. He’s become a stable family man. And he’s done it all outside of the public spotlight.

But the question Kessler kept asking, in one way or another, was, “How can you be happy with so little after having so much? How can you be happy playing concerts for dozens or hundreds, when you used to play for thousands—or millions on TV?” And Kessler seemed disappointed that there was no juicy story here. See, the story he wanted to tell was, “Isn’t it tragic how Williams lost everything?” But from Williams’s prospective, the tragedy was the family that he ruined and the people that he hurt—back then, in the throes of his addiction and self-destructiveness, at the height of his fame! He was miserable back then… when he had it all. Now he’s happy. The story isn’t “look what I lost.” The story is “look what I’ve gained!”

At one point, Williams said, “I’ve sorry I’ve ruined your movie by how O.K. I am with my life now.” In other words, Williams wasn’t supposed to happy without the fame, the money, the women, the adoration of millions.

I have no idea whether Williams is a Christian. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was. He’s seen wearing a cross in the movie. He’s worked the twelve steps. The question of his faith, if it was discussed at all, was left on the cutting room floor.

But it doesn’t matter: his story resonates with me because it’s ultimately a story of trying to find one’s “portion” in people, possessions, and things that can never truly satisfy. On a much, much smaller scale, I’ve chased after some of those things, too. And I know they bring heartache and misery. Thank God he’s shown me that!

Thank God there’s a better way! Find your “portion” in the Lord!

Sermon 01-07-18: “Rewarding Prayer”

January 18, 2018

This is the first of a new six-part sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer. In this sermon, I talk about Jesus’ promise of a reward for praying the way that he teaches. I suspect many of us haven’t experienced prayer as “rewarding”—at least as much as God wants us to! I want that to change! I also talk about the privilege that we have in calling God “our Father.”

Sermon Text: Matthew 6:5-9

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Many of you have seen the funny meme that has circulated this past week, in the wake of the `Bulldogs’ overtime victory over Oklahoma. It looks like this: [show meme on screen] “If you made any promises in overtime, service starts at 9:30 or 11:15 this Sunday morning.”  And so we could change ours to 9:00 or 11:00, but same difference. The point is, many Georgia fans were praying during that game last Monday—and chances are that some of them made promises to God: “I will go to church, Lord, if only you’ll let the Bulldogs win.”

This is funny. I like it. But by the end of the sermon, I hope you’ll see why, according to Jesus, this is terrible theology.

But this meme is about prayer, and today at HUMC we’re beginning a six-part sermon series on prayer—specifically, the Lord’s Prayer. We sort of began last week by looking at a parable about prayer—the Parable of the Persistent Widow in Luke 18. As we saw last week, Jesus told that parable to encourage us disciples to pray always and not to lose heart.

A natural follow-up question to last week’s sermon is, “O.K., I get it, Pastor Brent. I need to pray a lot more than I do now. Tell me something I don’t know! But how do I do it?”

And to answer that question, Jesus gives us the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew chapter 6. We’re going to look at just the very beginning of the prayer today—“Our Father”—and the four verses leading up to it. The four verses leading up to the Lord’s Prayer tell us how not to pray.

The first way not to pray, Jesus says, is to do it for the sake of any audience other than God: “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Read the rest of this entry »

Devotional Podcast #4: “Thank God for Unanswered Prayer”

January 17, 2018

As someone who’s interested in Christian apologetics, I used to think that unanswered prayer posed a bigger “challenge” to Christianity than I do today. I explain why in this podcast. The gist is this: I know my own heart to some extent. I often don’t know what’s good for me. And I often want things that ultimately cause me harm. Our Father, by contrast, only wants to give us “good things,” as Jesus says. So we can trust him.

Devotional Text: Matthew 7:7-11

You can subscribe to my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Wednesday, January 17, and this is the fourth podcast of my new series of devotional podcasts. I’m posting new podcasts in this series every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I’ll also post my Sunday sermons whenever I get around to it. So stay tuned.

You’re listening to the song “Beautiful One,” by the band Daniel Amos, sometimes known as DA, from their 1986 album Fearful Symmetry. It’s hard not to hear echoes of the Beatles’ song “Across the Universe.”

Years ago—eleven, to be exact—I attended a debate in Atlanta between Christopher Hitchens, a well-known British political commentator, author, and journalist, and Timothy Jackson, one of my professors at the Candler School of Theology. At the time, the late Mr. Hitchens was staging debates with religious people as part of a publicity tour for his new book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Hitchens was a quick wit and a famously fierce debater, and, although you wouldn’t know it from the boisterous reactions of Hitchens partisans in the audience—it was his book tour, after all—my guy, Dr. Jackson, won the debate… handily. In fact, the debate sparked my interest in Christian apologetics—the art of defending the Christian faith—that remains to this day. It’s hard to remember this now, but I started my blog in 2009 in part to address skeptical questions about the Christian faith.

One such question is the challenge posed by unanswered prayer. How do we square the fact of unanswered prayer with Jesus’ own words on the subject—for example, Matthew 7:7: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” Or John 14:13: “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”

There are many good answers to this question, but I like this analogy from science: Chaos theory teaches us that a butterfly flapping its wings in China could be “magnified through a ripple effect so as to determine the path of a hurricane in the South Pacific.”[1] So even a seemingly small event like a butterfly flapping its wings can change the course of history in ways that we can’t predict. Now think about our prayer petitions: the things we ask God to do for us will likely be far more significant than a butterfly flapping its wings; and only God can foresee whether the consequences of granting our petition will ultimately be good for us, for everyone else, and for the rest of Creation.

My point is, if God doesn’t grant our petition, we can trust that he knows best; we certainly don’t. As pastor Tim Keller puts it, “God gives us what we would have asked for, if we knew everything that God knows.”

I like that answer… I do! But it’s still a little academic.

How about this answer: Often God doesn’t give us—his children—what we ask for because God wants us to be happy—I mean, deeply happy; with a lasting kind of happiness, an invulnerable kind of joy. And we simply don’t know what we need in order to achieve that kind of happiness. But God does.

In that same passage from Matthew chapter 7 that I referred to a moment ago, Jesus says, “[W]hich one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”[2]

Notice Jesus says that our Father will give us “good things.” I hate to say it, but I’m not convinced I want good things much of the time!

Don’t get me wrong: I want things! For example, I desperately want recognition… I want people to praise me… I want people to appreciate me… I want people to show me how much they love me.

And you might say, “What do you want? A medal?” Yes! That’s a good start!

And if I don’t get a medal, I’d be willing to settle for lots of money! I’m not hard to please!

My point is, the things I want… even if I got them, they would never be enough. I would never be satisfied. God knows that!

So thank God for unanswered prayer! I mean that literally… Thank God! Our Father only wants to give his children good things. See, I’m the one asking for stones, and my Father gives me bread instead. I’m the one asking for a serpent, and my Father gives me a fish instead. Or, from Luke’s gospel, I’m the one asking for a scorpion, and my Father gives me an egg instead. Thank God!

God wants us to be happy… Our problem is our willingness to settle for something far less than happiness. Listen to the way C.S. Lewis puts it in The Problem of Pain:

George Macdonald, in a passage I cannot now find, represents God as saying to men, ‘You must be strong with my strength and blessed with my blessedness, for I have no other to give you.’ That is the conclusion of the whole matter. God gives what He has, not what He has not: He gives the happiness that there is, not the happiness that is not. To be God—to be like God and to share His goodness in creaturely response—to be miserable—these are the only three alternatives. If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows—the only food that any possible universe ever can grow—then we must starve eternally.[3]

“O God, I’m weary from hunger. I don’t want to starve any longer. Give me your bread of life. Give me your Son Jesus! Give me Jesus, and I’ll be satisfied. Amen.”

That’s a prayer that God will answer every time!

1. Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 100.

2. Matthew 7:9-10 ESV

3. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 47.

Devotional Podcast #3: “Good News! Prayer Is Not ‘Listening'”

January 15, 2018

It’s become a truism among many Christians that “listening for God” in prayer is at least as important as “talking to God” in prayer. But what if that’s not true? What if prayer doesn’t involve “listening” at all? If that’s the case, then prayer suddenly seems much easier, doesn’t it?

Of course listening to God speak to us is incredibly important, but the way we do that is not through prayer but through reading God’s Word.

Devotional Text: Matthew 6:9-13

You can subscribe to my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Monday, January 15, and this is the third of my new series of devotional podcasts. My plan is to release new podcasts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday—in addition to my sermons, which I’ll also post here. Speaking of which, I realize I’m already a week behind! It’s been a busy week! 

You’re listening to Elvis Presley, and his version of the Andraé Crouch song, “I’ve Got Confidence,” from his 1972 gospel album, He Touched Me.

I chose this song because I want us to have greater confidence when we pray. In fact, the theme of these first three podcasts is that prayer shouldn’t be nearly as difficult as we make it seem. As I’ve preached in my last two Sunday sermons, Jesus gives us the Lord’s Prayer—the model prayer which is meant to guide our own praying—in part to show us how easy prayer is meant to be! Listen to today’s scripture, Matthew 6:9-13:

Pray then like this:

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.

For one thing, the Lord’s Prayer is short. That should reassure us that our prayers—even good prayers that follow the Lord’s prayer as a model—don’t need to be long prayers. What does Jesus say in Matthew 6:7-8? “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Among other things, Jesus is giving us permission to pray short prayers, as necessary.

Notice something else: Prayer, according to Jesus’ model prayer, is verbal communication that moves in one direction—from our hearts to God. It is one-way communication from us to God.

I emphasize this because it’s become almost a truism among many Christians to say that prayer is two-way communication; that prayer involves both our speaking and our listening. Haven’t you heard this before? I’m sure I’ve heard many times over the years from Christian teachers and preachers that our “listening” for God to speak to us is at least as important as our “talking” to God. Of course, these same teachers will tell us that we shouldn’t expect God to speak to us in an audible voice. God’s “voice” will seem more like an intuition—a thought, a warm feeling.

Haven’t you heard something like this? Where does this idea come from?

Yesterday morning, I asked on Facebook where in the Bible we get the idea that prayer involves “listening”? A seminary classmate of mine, who is now an Episcopal priest, quoted 1 Samuel 3:9: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

And that sounds great, until you look at that verse in context. In context, Samuel is so convinced that he’s heard an audible voice that three times he walks over to his mentor, Eli, the priest, and asks, “Here I am. You called me. What do you need?” And three times Eli tells him, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I didn’t call you.” Only then does it become clear that this voice—which sounds like an audible voice to Samuel—is the voice of God. And at that point, Samuel says to God, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

What do I conclude from this? As much as I would like for God to speak so directly to me—as much as I would like to hear God in an unmistakably audible voice, the way Samuel did—I don’t expect that to happen, and besides, this is light years removed from the subtle kinds of intuitions, thoughts, impressions, and feelings through which the modern-day mystics tell us we should expect to hear God.

Besides, we don’t need to hear God speak to us in this direct sort of way. Why? Because God has already spoken… in God’s infallible Word… in holy scripture. In fact, we have about 750,00 words that God has given us. If we want to listen for God to speak to us, we need to start there… by reading the Bible. Haven’t we all had the experience of facing some challenge in our life. And then we read something in the Bible that is exactly what we need to hear to help us with whatever we’re dealing with! That’s the main way God speaks to us!

Of course, some Christians would say that the only way God speaks to us today is through scripture; I’m not even willing to go that far. If God is sovereign, which he is, then that means he’s sovereign over our thoughts and feelings, and he may use them, providentially, to guide us. He may guide us through dreams and visions. He may guide us through the advice or prophetic word of other people. He may guide us through circumstances. I’m thinking, for instance, of Acts 16:6-7, in which Luke tells us that the Paul and Silas were prohibited by the Holy Spirit from preaching the gospel in two different regions. How exactly did the Spirit prohibit them? We’re not told, but it was likely through external circumstances. We usually call this providence. But this revelation or illumination or providential guidance on God’s part—call it whatever you want to—is not prayer, even though it may be God’s response to our prayer.

Regardless, whatever we believe God is telling us in these various ways does not rise to the same level of authority as God’s Word, nor should this message be considered nearly as trustworthy. So scripture is still by far the main way through which we “listen” for God to speak to us. And listening to God speak in this way is not prayer.

Why does it matter so much that prayer does not involve listening for God to speak? Why am I getting worked up about it? Because I am a frustrated pray-er, in part because I believed that for years, decades even, that prayer was partly or even mostly about “listening.” So for years when I prayed, I thought I was supposed to wait until I heard something from God, or felt an intuition, or got an impression, or experienced some warm sense of God’s presence inside me—and unless or until I did, I hadn’t prayed properly. I would get discouraged with prayer! “It isn’t working,” I’d tell myself. “I’m not doing it right!” It just made me want to give up—or at least not do it as often as I should. I would think, “I’m not spiritual enough to pray properly.”

Don’t be like me! Jesus is telling the truth! Prayer is not hard!

Besides, maybe all this “listening” for God to speak to us is just a way of reassuring ourselves that we’ve really been heard. As if we’re waiting for a sign from God that he’s listening. Why? Because we don’t really believe Jesus when he tells us what prayer consists of. Because we don’t believe how simple it really is. Because it’s not enough to simply talk to our Father and trust that he’s listening and he’ll respond. No, we need to hear back from him—to make sure he’s really listening; to make sure that he really cares; to make sure that he’s really there.

So maybe all this listening is disguising our own lack of faith? Hmm.

If so, I repent.