Posts Tagged ‘The Lord’s Prayer’

Devotional Podcast #14: “How Great Thou Art”

February 15, 2018

In this episode, I ruminate on answered prayer and something that a Pentecostal Christian told me one time.

Devotional Text: Luke 11:1-13

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Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Thursday, February 15, and this is Devotional Podcast number 14.

You’re listening to Elvis Presley, of course, and his recording of “How Great Thou Art.” He originally recorded this song in 1966 for his Grammy-winning gospel of the same name. But in 2015, the song was remixed with a new orchestral arrangement, performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London. So this version is taken from the 2015 album, on vinyl, If I Can Dream. And it sounds amazing, as I hope you can hear.

I want to talk today, briefly, about Pentecostal Christians. Elvis himself grew up Pentecostal, in the Assemblies of God Church. Pentecostalism, if you don’t know, is that branch of Protestant Christianity that places a strong emphasis on the more conspicuous spiritual gifts—like speaking in tongues, prophecy, and physical healing. In principle, I have no problem with the idea that the Holy Spirit may give these gifts and do powerful things through people; I’m not what’s called a cessationist—in other words, I don’t believe that the Holy Spirit stopped giving these gifts to Christians after the age of the apostles. I see no biblical warrant for believing that. Are there excesses in Pentecostalism? Are there abuses? Are there charlatans who take advantage of their credulous flocks? Of course! Pentecostals, no less than the rest of us, need to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God,”[1] that’s for sure.

And I strongly disagree, theologically, with the widespread Pentecostal belief that receiving the Holy Spirit, or being baptized by the Spirit, is something that happens, only to some Christians, at some point after a person is born again. I also don’t believe that the evidence of having received the Holy Spirit is this one particular gift of speaking in tongues. No, I believe we all receive the Spirit at the moment of conversion.

But I don’t mean to be overly critical. in my own life I tend to love people who love Jesus—and seek to build their lives on the foundation of God’s Word. And that describes most Pentecostal Christians that I’ve known—so they have my love and respect!

Plus, there are things that we non-Pentecostals can learn from Pentecostals—like the fact that when Pentecostals go to church, they mean business! They expect the Holy Spirit to do something… powerful!

For example, I drive by a couple of Pentecostal churches between my church and my house. I know nothing about them beyond their church signs—but I like their church signs! One of the churches is called “Perfecting the Saints Church International.” I like that! They go to that church on Sunday morning expecting the Holy Spirit to perfect them. When we show up at church on Sunday morning, what do we expect the Holy Spirit to do? I pass another church on the way home called—get this!—“One-Way Inner Action Church.” I-N-N-E-R Action Church. When they go to that church, they expect that the Holy Spirit is going to do something active, inside their hearts!

I like that! I also like the way many Pentecostals pray. In my experience, they pray with this same expectation that God is going to respond to them in a powerful way—even if it means working a miracle.

I knew a Pentecostal back in high school. Her name was Christine. We were talking one day, and she said something to me back then that has stuck with me to this day. I was Baptist back then, but it’s not hard to imagine that she said back then could have applied equally to us Methodists—and most other modern Christians in the West!

She said, “I have a lot of admiration and respect for you Baptists.” And I said, “Really? Why?” And she said, “Well, you just really believe in Jesus… you have a lot of faith… in spite of the fact that you never see any miracles… you never expect anything supernatural to happen.”

You never expect anything supernatural to happen. Is that true? Was that true for me then? Is it true for me now?

Maybe so! Let me give you an example. Last September, our church finance committee was making year-end projections for our budget, and we were looking at what we feared might be a substantial shortfall. So I challenged the church leadership to pray. And I prayed. Within a week of that meeting, we received a substantial offering check, a portion of which we could use for our operating budget. Basically, this money eliminated the budget problem in one fell swoop. We would no longer be sweating it out the last few months of the year—the way our church usually does at the end of each year. No begging or pleading on my part. No big campaign to raise the money. I was relieved!

But… I promise you, if I could have written down my first thought, upon receiving that check, it would have sounded something like this: “What a relief! We’re going to be just fine. We don’t need that miracle after all!”

Do you see the problem?

All I can say in my defense is, this money didn’t feel like any kind of miracle at the time—it felt like normal, every day event. Nothing too far outside of the ordinary. Surprising, yes, but not supernatural. So at first, I failed to see that this was God intervening in a powerful way to answer my prayers—and the prayers of others.

It’s as if God’s handiwork was hidden from me. I couldn’t see his fingerprints on this particular gift—even though they were all over them.

But isn’t that usually the way God’s providence works? When God does something, it rarely looks like a miracle. It rarely looks supernatural. It rarely looks like anything out of the ordinary.

Isn’t it instructive, therefore, that the portion of the Lord’s Prayer that has to do with asking God to give us things is this humble petition: “Give us this day our daily bread.” Because from our human perspective, our daily bread—at least for those of us living in wealthy industrialized countries—is one thing we don’t believe we need God to provide. “We’ve got that taken care of, Lord. We’ve got a freezer full of it. Our pantry is well-stocked.” we think. So we don’t need God’s help with daily bread. Physical healing? Yes, by all means! Financial aid for college? You bet! A promotion for work? Yes, please. But daily bread…?

And yet Jesus tells us that our daily bread—insignificant, humble bread—is itself a gift from God. It’s our problem that we have the luxury of taking it for granted. It still comes from God. And if even bread comes from God, well, tell me what doesn’t?

So… getting back to my Pentecostal friend’s observation—“You believe in Jesus without expecting him to do anything supernatural.” She may be right. And if so, I repent.

But let’s not underestimate God’s activity in our lives: if we only expect God to act supernaturally, or miraculously, then we may fail to appreciate that God is always doing stuff for us—always giving us exactly what we need, always working in every part of our lives and our world—even when he’s not doing anything supernatural!

If we can live our lives with that perspective, then we will live lives of gratitude to God for his faithfulness to us. Amen?

1. 1 John 4:1

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.

I want to “feel God’s pleasure”

August 28, 2015


One thing I took away from Tim Keller’s recent book on prayer, when I read it earlier this year, was to use the Lord’s Prayer as an outline to guide my own praying. Martin Luther, for one, did this. The point is not to recite the Lord’s Prayer by rote, rather, to ensure that my own prayers include these component parts, and in this particular order.

This doesn’t come naturally to me. My natural way of praying is to begin with confession of sin—as if I have to clear the air before I’m “worthy” for God to hear the rest of my prayers. But notice Jesus doesn’t teach us to pray this way. Confession doesn’t occur until nearly the end of the prayer—even after we’ve petitioned God to give us or others what we or they need. So we’re not asking God to do good things for us on the condition of promised future good behavior. Surely this communicates something important about grace! We who are God’s children by faith in his Son are already accepted by God; nothing—not even the sins for which we need to repent—changes that.

Be that as it may, here’s how following the outline of the Lord’s Prayer works out for me: My prayer begins with acknowledging God as Father. I consider the way that I, imperfect parent that I am, love my own kids. If God’s love is like that, but even more so since God loves us perfectly, then God must really love me. I reflect on that for a moment, which leads naturally to the next part of the prayer, praise and adoration.

To assist me with this, I think about things that have happened over the past day or two for which I can or should be grateful. I praise God for those things. Perhaps this is childish—perhaps we should praise God for being God himself, rather than for the things he does for us, but that’s too abstract for a 30-year prayer novice like me. Maybe when I ascend the heights of prayer I’ll be able to pull that off.

Next comes the petition, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” What does this mean for my daily prayers?

First, I remind myself daily that Christ will return. I might say, “Father, if Jesus returns today, let me be ready. Let me be found doing the good work of your kingdom.” I next pray that I will be faithful in doing the tasks that God has appointed for me to do.

Finally, I ask God to help me accept that whatever happens to me today happens because God wants it to happen. Yes, this is my unfashionable, renewed belief in God’s sovereignty rearing its (beautiful) head. Indeed, as I’ve blogged about a lot recently, everything does happen for a reason, according to God’s providential timing and will. So I pray that I don’t resist it but accept it as a gift from God.

It is in relation to this part of the Lord’s Prayer, however, that I recently realized something about myself that needs to change: 

Mostly, I don’t believe that anything I can do will please God. Mostly, I believe that all I can do—at best—is to prevent God from being displeased with me. Mostly, I don’t experience God’s pleasure in me so much as the absence of God’s wrath toward me.

Believe me, I see how harmful these beliefs and feelings are. But I had never verbalized them until recently.

One of my favorite movies is Chariots of Fire. In one scene, the Scottish missionary Eric Liddell tries to help his sister understand why running is important to him. She believes that his running career distracts from his “true” purpose. He tells her, “I believe God made me for a purpose. For China. But he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

When I run, I feel his pleasure.

Is it possible that I could feel God’s pleasure—in me—despite my past, despite my sin, despite my failures?

In other words, whether I “feel” it or not, is it possible that I can and do please God?

I had to consult scripture. Here are a few verses that convince me that it is possible: 2 Corinthians 5:9, Ephesians 5:10, Colossians 1:10, and 1 Thessalonians 4:1. There are probably a hundred others besides. After all, Jesus and Paul both talk about “treasures in heaven” based on our actions on earth. Why wouldn’t it bring God pleasure to reward us with these?

So how will I apply this to my life today?

Here’s one way: Being a pastor is more satisfying than any job I’ve ever had. But believe it or not, every moment of my job isn’t satisfying. I don’t always want to do everything I have to do. Being a pastor, as good as it is, still feels like a job much of the time.

But here’s some motivation for me: What if, when I’m doing something I don’t want to do but need to do, I tell myself the following: “Doing this thing brings God pleasure. God enjoys when I obey him. He likes to see me do the good work of his kingdom”?

Shame on me, but I’ve never thought of it like that before. Is it just me?

If the one who sins against us is “possessed,” then can we find compassion?

February 17, 2015

brunerLast Sunday, I preached a sermon on the last petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” Nearly all modern translations rightly understand that, contrary to the traditional language of the King James, Jesus is referring not to evil in general, but to “the evil one,” the devil. The ESV follows the KJV but indicates in a footnote the alternate interpretation.

The expression in Greek (tō ponērō) appears in two other places in the Sermon on the Mount. In the first (Matthew 5:37), everyone agrees that it refers to the devil. In the second, just two verses later (Matthew 5:39: “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”), all translations assume tō ponērō refers to an “evil person.”

In his commentary on Matthew, Frederick Dale Bruner disagrees that Jesus is only talking about evil people, offering the following insight:

I hear in the words “the evil one” [in Matthew 5:39] both (1) the human evil one and (2) the spiritual Evil One, in that order; both the possessed and the possessor, the enemy person and the enemy power. The significance of the double meaning is this: the evil ones whom we encounter in daily life are “possessed” by the Evil One; so, while we are rightly agitated by their wrong, have a heart—they are not entirely “themselves.” There is an Evil One behind every evil. In interpersonal relations we rightly “get even with” the devil by not trying to get even with evil people—that is the greatest paradox of our Command.

After citing Church Father Chrysostom, who also endorses his interpretation, Bruner writes:

While the Evil One works in the evil one, “possesses,” as we say, nevertheless the possession does not absolve the possessed of responsibility. But the possession does reconfigure one’s perception of the other person (and of oneself!). For our profoundest war, as the apostle reminds us, is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers and so ultimately against the cosmic Evil One himself.[†]

So when someone sins against you, can it rightly be said that that person is under the influence of the Evil One (“possessed” seems a bit strong)? If so, then we have to also accept that when we sin against someone, we are under Satan’s influence. Paul himself hints at this when he describes the plight of unredeemed human nature in Romans 7: “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”

Again, as Bruner says, this doesn’t absolve us of responsibility for our sins, but reminding ourselves of Satan’s influence over us helps us summon the pity or compassion that we need to forgive others (and ourselves).

Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 250.

Sermon 01-18-15: “Basic Training, Part 2: Adoration”

January 27, 2015

Basic Training Series

What does it mean that the very first thing that Jesus teaches us to ask for in the Lord’s Prayer is that God’s name be hallowed? “Hallow” isn’t a word we use anymore, but as I say in this sermon, we all do it—whether we hallow God or something other than God. Jesus is telling us, among other things, that our priority in life is to praise, worship, and adore our heavenly Father. If this message is as challenging to you as it is to me, you’ll want to watch or read this sermon!

Sermon Text: Matthew 6:5-15

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

A few years after Lisa and I got married, we saved money and bought a house in Tucker, Georgia. We were about a quarter-mile from the railroad tracks that ran through town. On our first night in our new house—in the middle of the night, around 2:00 in the morning—we were awakened abruptly by the sound of the train blaring its horn as it crossed a major road near our house. We could feel and hear the windows shake as it went through town. The next night it woke us up again, and the night after that, and the night after that.

A couple of years later, a new neighbor moved in next door. I greeted him the morning after he moved in as he was on his way to work. “Oh, my gosh,” he said. “How do you sleep at night?” I’m like, “What are you talking about?” He said, “That train! It came through at two in the morning. It felt like an earthquake! And that whistle blaring!” And I remembered, “Oh, yeah! The train! I forgot all about that train! I haven’t noticed it in years. Somewhere along the way I stopped hearing it, stopped feeling it. I got used to it.” By the time my next-door neighbor moved in, I’d probably only wake up if it didn’t go through town in the middle of the night, blaring its horn!

I’d gotten used to it. It became ordinary and commonplace. I stopped hearing it and feeling it.

What a fitting metaphor for the Lord’s Prayer! We live in a world in which people are desperately interested in spirituality and here, in this prayer, our Lord Jesus tells us how we can have the most profound spiritual experience of all. Yet I’m afraid that Jesus’ earth-shaking words have become so ordinary and commonplace. We’ve grown so used to these words, it’s as if we’ve stopped hearing them—and feeling them! Read the rest of this entry »

To call God “Father” is to become God’s apprentice children

January 13, 2015


In Sunday’s sermon, the first in my new series on the Lord’s Prayer, I talked at length about what it means to call God “Our Father.” One point in my sermon outline that, in the interest of time, didn’t make it to my final sermon manuscript was the reason we say our Father and not my Father: Jesus directs us away from ourselves and our own needs and interests and toward others. To say “Our Father” means that Jesus isn’t giving us access to a private kind of spirituality. It means that God wants to be Father to others who don’t yet know him as their Father. In other words, to say “Our Father” rather than “My Father” reminds us of our mission.

In his book on the Lord’s Prayer, N.T. Wright makes the same point but in a different way. In Jesus’ culture, a father apprenticed his son in a trade, just as Joseph undoubtedly apprenticed Jesus in carpentry.

[The son] learns his trade by watching what the father is doing. When he runs into a problem, he checks back to see how his father tackles it. That’s what Jesus is doing in Gethsemane, when everything suddenly goes dark on him. Father, is this the way? Is this really the right path? Do I really have to drink this cup? The letter to the Hebrews says, with considerable daring, that the Son ‘learned obedience by what he suffered’ (Hebrews 5.7-9; compare 2.10-18). What we see in Gethsemane is the apprentice son, checking back one more time to see how the Father is doing it.[1]

Consequently, in inviting us to share in his relationship with his Father, Jesus is inviting us to share in his mission.

We, too, need to learn what it means to call God ‘Father’, and we mustn’t be surprised when we find ourselves startled by what it means. The one thing you can be sure of with God is that you can’t predict what he’s going to do next. That’s why calling God ‘Father’ is the great act of faith, of holy boldness, of risk. Saying ‘our father’ isn’t just the boldness, the sheer cheek, of walking into the presence of the living and almighty God and saying ‘Hi, Dad.’ It is the boldness, the sheer total risk, of saying quietly ‘Please may I, too, be considered an apprentice son.’ It means signing on for the Kingdom of God.[2]

1. N.T. Wright, The Lord and His Prayer (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 18.

2. Ibid., 19-20.