Christianity 201

May 4, 2018

Prayer: Keep it Private, Keep it Concise

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:32 pm
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NASB Matthew 6:5 “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. … 17 But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face 18 so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.

A year ago we were first introduced to a devotional blog called Comfort and Challenge. I really like the format and writing here, so in addition to clicking the title below, take a moment to see what God might speak to you through some of the other devotions.

Keep it in the Closet

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 145, Leviticus 16:1-19, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

Other than during a tornado watch, when is the last time any of us prayed in a closet? Most of us would probably answer: “Never.” Yet that is exactly what Christ advised his disciples to do: “whenever 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.”

Most translations use the word “room” but the Greek is closer to “inner room” – or closet. Of course Christ’s point was not the architecture, but the privacy. Even in Christ’s time, public prayer was often more a bid for the admiration of people, rather than communion with God.

We’ve all heard prayers that sound like the person praying was being paid by the word. Christ tells to pray privately, and not heap on words as if desperately trying to tip some divine scale. Ideally prayer is not a monologue, so it needs a lot of silent time to leave room for God.

When Christ says those who pray or give alms in a public manner have already received their reward, he is commenting on motive. People who make a show of piety in order to win admiration have their reward when someone notices, but not beyond.

On the other hand, going too far the other way and making a show of hiding our deeds is still missing the point. People seeking a relationship with God pray or fast only as an expression of their love for God, and attention (or its lack) doesn’t matter. God isn’t a trophy wife, so Christ teaches us to behave in ways that don’t sully the relationship by making it about other people’s opinions.

From the time we are assigned our first 200-word essay, we are taught the number of words we use is important. One of the toughest lessons for any professional writer is to cut, and cut again, until only meaningful words remain. Perhaps this is why writer Anne LaMott’s two favorite prayers are: “Help me, help me, help me” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Comfort: God knows what we need before we speak.

Challenge: Find an isolated place to pray.

Prayer: Compassionate God: help me. Thank you.

Discussion: What do you feel is the role of public prayer?

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May 28, 2014

The Fruit of the Spirit and the Character of God

Today’s piece is from a classic book The Fruit of the Spirit by Stuart Briscoe, published in 1983.


The connection between fruit and root is obvious not only in matters of horticulture, but also in spiritual things.  The aspects of the fruit of the Spirit listed by Paul could just as easily be listed as characteristics of the nature of God.  The love of God is probably his most universally appreciated characteristic.  His joy in creation and his special rejoicing over his children is clearly taught.  That he is Jehovah Shalom, “the God of Peace,” is fundamental to our spiritual well-being, and without his patience there would be no such thing as opportunity for repentance.  Believers bask in the fact that his severity is tempered by his goodness and find their assurance in his unchanging faithfulness.  In fact it is important to remember that Jehovah in his self-revelation to Moses, used many aspects of the fruit of the Spirit to describe himself.

 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”

Christian behavior prompted by the Spirit is similar to divine behavior, and Christian character bears marked similarities to the character of God.  The connection of root and fruit is clear to the eye of faith

The Fruit of the Spirit The Character of God
Love God is Love (I John 4:16)
Joy He will rejoice over you (Zeph. 3:17)
Peace The God of Peace (Heb 13:20)
Patience He is patient with you (2 Pet. 3:9)
Kindness His Kindness to us (Eph. 2:7)
Goodness I will see the goodness of the Lord (Ps. 27:13)
Faithfulness Great is your faithfulness (Lam. 3:23)
Meekness I am gentle and humble (Matt. 11:29)
Self-Control He has shown strength [related Gr. Word] Luke 1:51

Christian behavior prompted by the Spirit is similar to divine behavior, and Christian character bears marked similarities to the character of God.  The connection of root and fruit is clear to the eye of faith…

…It must also be understood that Christians are commanded to reproduce this unusual quality of life.  The command may not be, “Take a good look at this and try harder,” but it is there nevertheless.  To many people the idea of commanding fruit to grow seems ludicrous.  I have even heard preachers deriding such an idea.  They have great fun imitating someone telling a tree to grow and twisting themselves into knots as a means of showing how impossible it is for branches to obey commands through their own efforts.  The Scriptures, however, do not seem to regard the idea as ludicrous, as will be clearly seen from the following quotations:

The Fruit of the Spirit The Command of Scripture
Love Love the Lord; Love your neighbor (Matt 22:37-39)
Joy Rejoice in the Lord (Phil 4:4)
Peace Seek peace and pursue it (I Pet. 3:11)
Patience Be patient with everyone (I Thess. 5:14)
Kindness Clothe yourself with kindness (Col. 3:12)
Goodness Let us do good to all people (Gal. 6:10)
Faithfulness Be faithful, even to the point of death (Rev. 2:10)
Meekness Show true humility toward all men (Titus 3:2)
Self-Control Add to your knowledge self-control (2 Pet. 1:5-6)

— from the introduction, pp 6-8

March 20, 2011


I always hated to study.  My study habits in high school weren’t great, despite some great academic coaching, and how I got through university is anyone’s guess.

So I have a natural aversion to the term “Bible study,” as it suggests someone staying up late in the dorm under a study lamp, cramming in order to pass some test; when instead, we should she shared times in God’s word as more of a feast, or a banquet.   I don’t want to communicate the idea that something that is designed to be joy-filled is actually ardous labor.

So the verse I learned as a kid,

Study to show thyself approved onto God…

Is fortunately translated differently in newer translations:

(NIV) II Tim 2: 15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.

(The Message) II Tim 2:15Concentrate on doing your best for God, work you won’t be ashamed of, laying out the truth plain and simple.

(NASB) II Tim 2:15Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.

(NLT) II Tim 2:15 Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive his approval. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the word of truth.

Do your best… concentrate… be diligent… work hard.  No late nights with the study lamp burning! It’s not about cramming to pass a test, it’s about living a life!

Now having said all that, this does not diminish the responsibility of the Christ follower to, for lack of a better word, study the Bible.

I recently dialogued with a young woman who, after a year of Bible college was unfamiliar with a Bible concordance.  This is a basic reference tool that, while not necessary for admission to heaven, is one that should form part of your personal library at some point.  Of course, it’s functionality is also available online through sites such as Bible Gateway.

This morning a visiting pastor shared with me this quotation, “Evangelicals are people who know more than they do;” which he attributed to Canadian church leader Brian Stiller.  We don’t want to just fill up with head-knowledge, we need to find ways to put feet to our faith.  But the quotation also implies that historically, we have been people who knew their Bibles.   The term “Methodist” actually refers to a group of people who had a methodical way of studying the scriptures.   The Bereans are held up in Acts as an example of a group who studied the sacred texts with great diligence.

Wanna dig a little deeper?

One way to start is to carefully examine related books:

  • Compare the ‘fatherly’ advice in Proverbs with the New Testament proverbs in the book of James…
  • Study the book of Acts in such a way that you break out into Paul’s epistles to the different churches mentioned in the last two-thirds of Acts…
  • Compare the end-time prophecies of Daniel and Revelation with the things Jesus said about the end times in Matthew…
  • Study the passages in the gospels which are present with all four writers, and then take a contrasting look at the ones that are unique to particular books, especially the gospel of John…
  • Using a concordance, and several different translations, do a word study on a particular theme or idea in scripture…
  • Read books that deal with the “hard sayings” or “difficult passages” of scripture and try to figure out, based on all your other readings, where you stand on these sometimes-labeled “issues”…
  • Here’s a fun one:  You have a blog consisting entirely of scripture passages copied and pasted from an online site.  (Not very challenging so far, right?)  Now, your job each day before you post something is to come up with the post tags, those little one-word things that would bring readers to your page.  How you would tag the various sections is indicative of what you’re seeing in each individual section…
  • The above is very close to something called inductive Bible study.  For this you you make a hard copy (photocopy) of a Bible passage and using a technique practiced by Kay Arthur and others you underline, circle and highlight key words and phrases.  It slows you down and forces you to really consider what the passage is saying…
  • Buy a commentary on a particular book of the Bible and get into depth with the Bible scholar(s) who wrote it.  If you don’t know Greek or Hebrew, get help picking out one that doesn’t go deep into what’s called ‘textual criticism’ and just get one that’s devotional or more user-friendly.  I can’t really list series here because some involve different writers who dig deeper in varying degrees.  So have someone qualified — ideally in a Christian bookstore, not online — help you make that choice.
  • Do a study on the theology of the hymns.  Many contain multiple allusions to scripture, and some hymnbooks have a key verse on the page to help you get started.  Some of the modern choruses also contain a similar depth.

Hope these ideas propel you to greater love for God’s word.

December 16, 2010

A Different Kind of Prayer

Prayer is something I really struggle with.

We pray together as a family each night, and I am in touch with God many times throughout the day, though I would hardly characterize it as “without ceasing.”   And I am more than willing to pray with people at my job on a moment’s notice; “praying on a dime,” I call it.

But I’ve been reading a lot lately about prayer and feel that this is one area of my Christian life that while it exists in measurable quantity, it is seriously lacking.

For example, I’ve never been big on prayer meetings.    I’ve been reading lately about the way God intends for us to bring our needs to him corporately; and in fact I’ve been challenged on this subject three different ways in the last 48 hours.   It’s been a long time since I’ve prayed with people outside the family in any significant way, or for any significant length of time.

In the middle of all this I’ve been thinking about something else…

God wants me to pour out my heart to him, but sometimes I feel like I can’t find the words.   Yet there are other places in my life where I am never at a loss for words — at my computer.

So I’ve been thinking about writing e-mails to God.   This is something anybody reading this right now can do, because you’re all online to read this which means 99% of you probably have e-mail.  And you probably write many — perhaps dozens — of e-mails and/or Facebook status updates and/or Tweets every single day.

So why not pour out your heart to God in an e-mail?

(You could address it to yourself if you feel the need to actually hit the “send” button, or save it as a draft when you’re done, or simply read it over a few times and then delete it.   Just don’t type “God” in the “To” field or your auto-complete might just send it to your good friend Godfrey Smith, or your sister’s daughter who you have tagged as “Godchild.”)

Writing an e-mail is the most natural form of communication known to many of us, and usually the words flow without hesitation.  It’s also a great way of organizing your thoughts.

And don’t think for a minute that God isn’t “hearing” that kind of prayer. Or that He can’t. Or that it counts less because you didn’t verbalize it audibly.

Willing to join me in a prayer experiment?

October 7, 2010

De-Compartmentalizing Life

Filed under: Uncategorized — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:26 pm
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When I was quite young, I remember hearing someone say that Christians in North America tend to compartmentalize life into the sacred and the secular, whereas Christians in Europe tend to view the two as more integrated.  I have no idea if that statement is even remotely true, but I thought of it as I came across this short piece by Chris at the blog, This Pilgrim’s Progress, which looks at this from a Catholic perspective…

The Sacred and the Profane

We all live segregated lives.

Work. Home. Play. Other.

The lines of our lives are blurry and, at times, spill into each other but, for the most part, we are startlingly effective at keeping them separate.

Our effectiveness at keeping our lives separated, however, does not just apply to our external relationships and obligations. It finds its way into the way we live out our spirituality as well.

Last week, I was asked to lead a devotional at a conference I was attending in Fort Worth. The devotional leader the previous day had offered a meditation on the verse, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

I sat thinking about those words for along time. In them is a call to pull ourselves, temporarily, out of the busy-ness of life to seek the voice and presence of God. But, I thought, don’t we also need to heed the call to bring God into the busy-ness of our lives? After all, I am not a cloistered monk. I have a job, and a family and all kinds of responsibilities and distractions, but I am called, nonetheless, to “pray without ceasing.” It seems to me that the best way to accomplish the task of praying without ceasing might require me to call God into my daily realities, rather than me constantly trying to escape them.

One of my biggest temptations is to segregate my spiritual life from my “normal” life. It reminds me a book a read in college that dealt with the formation of religions and the distinction of reality as sacred (having religious significance) and profane (having no religious significance). I am sure that I am not alone in my temptation to do just this: to think of my actions and my life with the same segregated mindset that would set apart spiritual activities (the sacred) from normal activities (the profane).

I wrote about this phenomenon a few weeks ago when discussing sexuality and the theology behind Natural Family Planning, noting that divorcing the procreative function of sex from the bonding function of sex is just one more attempt to pretend like the physical and spiritual realities of the human person can somehow be separated.

For me, personally, I’ve often tried to carve up my life, spending time doing spiritual things (prayer, study of the scriptures, writing) and thinking of the rest of my life as distinctly non-spiritual.

The end result of living and thinking this way is a type of dualism and, dare I say, hypocrisy. It acknowledges the importance of the spiritual but doesn’t grant the spirit the prominence of letting it permeate every part of our lives.

In recent study, I’ve discovered how often the Catholic Church has addressed this issue directly. In the document produced by the Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the church offered this teaching:

“Christ Jesus gives them [the laity] a sharing of his priestly function of offering spiritual worship for the glory of God and the salvation of all…For all their works, prayers and apostolic endeavors, their ordinary married and family life, their daily occupations, their physical and mental relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and even the hardships of life, if patiently borne-all these become ‘spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 34).

The fact that the Second Vatican Council would explicitly address the need to infuse Jesus into every part of our lives, even our, “physical and mental relaxation” tells me that I am not alone in the temptation to segregate my life. But, beyond that, it gives me hope that I can go further than just taking a “Be still and know” moment in which I enter the sacred realm, but rather, that I can bring the sacred into the everyday and the profane, offering every moment and action to God.