What is a Human Being? Part 4

In the first three parts of this series I did my best to provide a basic biblical answer to the question, “What is a human being?” Because we now live in a world where the statement “I am a man trapped in a woman’s body” is seen as coherent and acceptable, it is incumbent upon Christians, churches, and pastors to have a well-thought out biblical understanding of human personhood, identity, and sexuality. Our engagement with LGBTQ+ issues requires it. If we are going to know what it means to live out a Christian worldview–to love God and our neighbours–we need to take seriously what Scripture actually says and then figure out how we apply what we learn there to our relationships and our conversations with those who do not share our perspective.

In other words, what we believe is about a great deal more than what we hold to be true in our heads. It’s about everyday life. It’s about how we interact with our neighbours, co-workers, friends, and classmates. More specifically, we need to wrestle with how to relate to our transgender neighbour, a friend who admits to having same-sex attraction, or a family member who simply doesn’t share our view of matters relating to identity, gender, and sexuality and maybe even thinks the Bible contains hateful, intolerant language. The possible conversations and situations we will face are many. No matter how difficult we find these issues, we can’t avoid them. Not when there are Pride flags hanging in every public school classroom and on the occasional community flagpole. Not when Disney executives are talking about injecting a specific ideology around LGBTQ+ matters into all of their children’s programming. Not when our kids are on TikTok, YouTube, Snapchat, and a multitude of other social media platforms that expose them to all kinds of ideas before parents are prepared or have had the opportunity to talk about them.

So, yes, there’s a lot to think about. But let’s slow down for a moment. Because I want to point out that whatever our theological position might be with respect to LGBTQ+ issues, when it comes to people we know, people we love–the people that we encounter from day to day who are transgender, same-sex attracted, or who would place themselves somewhere else along the sexuality-gender spectrum–they are first and foremost people made in the imago Dei. Every person we meet and know, whatever they believe about their sexuality or gender identity, has been made by God and is loved by God. We’re not simply dealing with what we might consider a set of difficult and complex social, ethical, theological, and political issues. We most certainly are doing this. But that’s not all. Not even close. We are, in fact, dealing with real people, genuine human beings who deserve respect and consideration and kindness. This is true even when we have profoundly deep disagreements that seem intractable.

To put it another way, if we are related to or are friends with someone who identifies as transgender or same-sex attracted, non-binary, or whatever, as Christians we first and foremost need to see the individual person right in front of us. As an individual person created with worth and purpose. Because to look at them as an example of what we disagree with dehumanizes them. It turns them into an object for our scrutiny, not an irreducible personal subject we’re called to love. People are not reducible to an issue. After all, the foundational biblical ethic is to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. Would we want to be treated as an object? Would I want someone to look at me but only see all the problems they have with Christians or pastors or churches? Or would I want them to extend me the courtesy of seeing me as an individual human being?

Unfortunately, we also live at a time when many believe we can’t love someone unless we also affirm without question the gender or sexuality with which they identify. I say unfortunately because love has never meant affirming without question every aspect or characteristic of every person we know or meet. Instead, to love someone means to want for them what God wants for them–and to encourage them to want that for themselves (and to pray towards this end). And we learn what God wants for us in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament. Now, I get it. For me to say this raises all kinds of questions for some. Not everyone believes the Bible to be the inspired word of God. And I can’t make the case for the truthfulness and reliability of the Bible here. But at the very least we ought to speak the truth we do know with the love of Christ–with an attitude of kindness and generosity towards the person with whom we are speaking.

This will most certainly mean learning to be aware of and sensitive towards the specific person in front of you. What is your relationship with this person? Are you willing to ask questions and listen, rather than try and inject your point of view every chance you get? I think it’s important to remember that when it comes to our relationships with people who hold to a different perspective on these matters that quite often winning the person over takes precedence over winning an argument. If you’re deadset on aggressively defending the biblical view on sexuality and gender (and, yes, I am assuming there is one), you might risk alienating the person you’re talking to and this might not be the most fruitful approach. Not if you want to keep the door open to more conversations.

And we also need to be ready to articulate the biblical view of human personhood rather than simply quoting the Bible passages that refer to homosexuality. We ought to be ready to answer questions. And we need to be humble enough to admit we don’t have an immediate answer when that’s the case. As Christians, we also need to remember that loving the person in front of us means telling them the truth. But how we speak the truth is very important. Sometimes we can be defensive. We can feel like our beliefs are threatened. So we need to bear in mind that the posture we adopt when having these conversations matters. The relationship with the person we’re speaking with in many ways determines the kind of conversation we have.

I write these words because the first three posts in this series might come across as impersonal and theoretical. Yet I know these are intensely personal matters. There is nothing more intimate and important about us than our personal identities, our intrinsic humanity. It touches on our friendships, on our families, on conversations with people we work with, and those who sit in the classroom and in the pew next to us. And while I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have all the answers about how to handle these questions in the context of everyday relationships, nothing of what I’ve said matters unless it is lived.

Of course, even when we as Christians agree theologically, we might differ on how we apply our theology to specific conversations and situations. There are Christian parents wrestling with how to handle conversations with their kids who want to identify as transgender or pursue a same-sex relationship. Some Christians think that experiencing same-sex desire is itself a sin, whereas other Christians believe that only giving into the desire is sinful. So even when we as Christians are talking with one another about how to handle the various nuances of these matters, hopefully we can show the same grace and humility we want others to exhibit.

For many churches and pastors and believers, these may be new and confusing waters to navigate. For others, they already have had to wade deep into them. Certainly many Christians are looking with alarm at the many congregations and denominations that have already abandoned the traditional biblical perspective, thinking this is the only way to show the love of Jesus. So if we don’t begin with a solid biblical foundation, then we will find ourselves at the mercy of every whim of the cultural tide. Yet though this is true, it is also crucial that we do not abandon the biblical call to see each person we encounter as created in the image of God–and to love them accordingly in the way that God in Christ loves us. Because while the love of Christ we seek to show may not always be understood, it must never be withheld.

Living Now with Eternity in Mind #14: Living the Christian Life is a Battle

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your cares on him, because he cares about you. Be sober-minded, be alert. Your adversary the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour. Resist him, firm in the faith, knowing that the same kind of sufferings are being experienced by your fellow believers throughout the world. The God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, strengthen, and support you after you have suffered a little while. To him be dominion forever. Amen.

Through Silvanus, a faithful brother (as I consider him), I have written to you briefly in order to encourage you and to testify that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it! She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings, as does Mark, my son. Greet one another with a kiss of love. Peace to all of you who are in Christ.

1 Peter 5:6—14

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said, “You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it.” And that’s certainly true of the Christian life. Following Jesus can also be a battle. It is in fact a spiritual battle. Maybe you’ve heard the phrase “spiritual warfare.” In other words, there are spiritual forces that are seeking either to keep people from finding faith in Christ or to keep believers in Christ from being effective. So, Peter concludes his letter by encouraging his readers to stand firm even with everything they’re facing. He reminds them both of what they’re up against and about how they can face it.

Peter tells the believers in Asia Minor: Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him. And already we’re into something that we don’t always think about or consider.

The idea of the devil (diabolos) “refers to the embodiment of evil, a transcendent figure set in opposition to God, God’s purposes, and God’s people.” In the Bible he is called a liar and a murderer. He seeks to undermine God’s purposes in the world—and therefore in our lives.

Of course, the problem here is that when it comes to the devil our imaginations have been shaped not by Scripture but by popular culture. We have this image of a horned human-like creature with a pitchfork. This makes the idea of the devil—or Satan—seem like a silly one. And we as believers look silly as a result.

C.S. Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters, writes: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” Or as he says elsewhere: “You can give the Devil too much or too little attention.

Our Scriptures are not shy or hesitant in reminding us that in living the Christian life, we are dealing with not only with our own sinfulness and with external temptations but also a spiritual enemy—one unseen and often unnoticed and ignored.

Peter’s words here are very similar to some familiar words of the apostle Paul in Ephesians 6: Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood.

Living the Christian life is a battle with a spiritual enemy. It’s a spiritual battle. The first thing is simply to be aware that this is the case. Like Peter says, Be alert and of sober mind.

This doesn’t mean looking for demons around every corner. It means paying attention to your life, your temptations, to what draws you closer to God and what pulls you away from God—it means being aware that you do have an enemy who seeks to weaken and even destroy your trust in Christ.

Our enemy doesn’t only seek to lead us or tempt us to do wrong things—he wants to keep us from doing right and good things that help us grow in our faith.This is why we have to be intentional about our Christian life—about being on the offensive.

Have you ever thought of the Christian life as a spiritual battle? Why or why not?What tends to draw you away from God? What temptations do you normally face?Are you arming yourself by spending time in prayer, reading Scripture, in doing things which encourage you to trust in and to follow Christ?

Now, all throughout our passage from 1 Peter we see Peter using “family” language. He refers to the family of believers throughout the world. He refers to Silas as a faithful brother. He mentions my son Mark, who isn’t a biological son but a son in the faith. You get a real sense that Peter and those he was writing saw the church—the body of believers—as a spiritual family. It’s very relational, close, intimate language. This is not the kind of language you would use of people who only know about one another or are only acquainted with one another. This is significant because Peter’s readers were having such a difficult time and he’s telling them that they are not alone. Believers everywhere, he says, are facing similar circumstances. And you know what? That’s true of us too. Lots of churches are in the same boat we are. Lots of other Christians are in the same boat you are. You’re not alone.

So: Living the Christian life is a battle, but we’re not alone in the fight.

Often our default way of reading Scripture is individualistically. Our default way of seeing our lives as believers is individualistically. We don’t welcome anyone else into our prayer life, into our attempts to read, understand, and apply Scripture to our lives, into our relationship with God. This is all private stuff. Here’s the problem: this way of living the Christian life—to put it simply—makes us easy targets for our enemy.

If we want to resist our enemy, we can’t do this alone. Actually, I might go further and say, we’re not called to do this alone. But we have so privatized our faith at times that we see it almost as a sign of spiritual weakness to need other Christians!

Peter encourages his readers to keep standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings. They weren’t alone. And neither are we. Neither are you.

Have you ever felt alone in your struggles as a Christian? Is there at least one person you can be open with about your struggles?How does knowing other believers face similar struggles encourage you?Is admitting our struggles a sign of weakness or strength? What are some ways we can find strength in community?

Notice Peter doesn’t tell us to fight the enemy, much less defeat the enemy, but to Resist him. We’re told to stand firm and to stand fast. In other words, don’t lose faith, don’t give up. Given the circumstances they were facing, these were words they needed to hear.

We need to look at what Peter tells us about God. He calls him the God of all grace. He tells them to Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. We need to ask God to make this reality—this truth—real to us. More and more real to us.

As this becomes more and more real to us, it will become easier to put ourselves under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. And this tells us something else vitally important. God’s hand is mighty. Remember, it’s God who can restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen. In other words, he has the power to do so. So, trust in him. Call out to him. Lean on him. Fall into his powerful arms of grace. You will find yourself firmly and kindly embraced. Whatever temptation or spiritual battle you face, you have a loving all-powerful God—a heavenly Father—on your side. Which brings us to our most important point.

Remember, this is all about living now with eternity in mind. Peter says to us that the God of all grace has called you to his eternal glory in Christ. Look at what he has in mind for you. Isn’t that awesome? Doesn’t that encourage you? Isn’t this a source of strength and peace even if we find ourselves facing struggles?

I’ll put it this way: Living the Christian life is a battle that has already been won in Christ.

In other words, if you are in Christ, you already have victory. Not because of anything you have done, but because of what Christ has done. This is the grace he’s been talking about. This is what it means to stand firm in the true grace of God. It means to throw yourself wholly and completely on God’s mercy. Or as Peter himself puts it: Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.

What difference does our view of God make as we face spiritual battles? How does knowing our enemy has already been defeated in Christ help us? Do your spiritual struggles lead you to or away from Christ?

1 Peter has been all about living the Christian faith in a situation that was extremely difficult—in a culture and place that believes very differently and often puts believers in a very difficult position. The main themes have been suffering and hope. We will experience trials in this life. Jesus said so. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.

This tells us that the Christian faith is honest about life and what we face. We might not always understand why we face the struggles we do but we do know one thing: Christ understands our suffering, has defeated our enemies, and will one day make our hope a reality.

The gospel tells us that we have a God and Savior who underwent suffering—whose life on this earth was the ultimate spiritual battle—and won a victory so you and I could also know victory. His victory is our victory. When you trust in Jesus—that he won this victory for us—it means that no battle, no amount of suffering, no struggle, and no enemy has any real power over you. Living the Christian life is a battle but when your hope is in Jesus Christ you never have to fear defeat. Ultimately, Peter seeks to point us to Christ. Indeed, at the center of this letter, and at the center of our faith, is the person of Jesus. Let me ask you: are you pursuing Jesus? Are you letting him into your life? Is he the center of your life?

Living Now with Eternity in Mind #4: Living as God’s House

As you come to him, a living stone—rejected by people but chosen and honored by God—you yourselves, as living stones, a spiritual house, are being built to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture:
See, I lay a stone in Zion,
a chosen and honored cornerstone,
and the one who believes in him
will never be put to shame.
So honor will come to you who believe; but for the unbelieving,
The stone that the builders rejected—
this one has become the cornerstone
, and
A stone to stumble over,
and a rock to trip over.

They stumble because they disobey the word; they were destined for this. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

1 Peter 2:4-10

A man was answering questions for a poll. When asked for his church preference, he said, “Red brick.” I have mixed feelings about church buildings. They can be a real blessing and they can be a real problem. Buildings constructed decades and decades ago don’t necessarily meet the needs of a congregation in 2018. At the same time, they hold history, memories, and stories. People can have very strong feelings about church buildings. People can be particular about decisions made with respect to them. Buildings can be opportunities for ministry and they can also be barriers to ministry. And I’ve heard lots of people refer to church buildings as “God’s house.”

But then I think of Paul’s words in Acts 17: The God who made the world and everything in it—He is Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in shrines made by hands. And if we consider our passage this morning, Peter does use building imagery. But when he does he’s not talking about buildings like the one we’re meeting in. In Peter’s day, believers didn’t have church buildings. They met in one another’s homes. Church was more like a series of large home group Bible studies.

Not only that, but in Peter’s day there were plenty of Greco-Roman shrines to various idols. Both the idols and their shrines were made by human hands. So, in Peter’s letter there is cultural critique and contrast also. It’s like Peter is saying, “The people around you worship man-made idols in man-made buildings, but you are being built into the living God’s spiritual house.” Therefore, when Peter uses building imagery he’s actually talking about the people who make up the church. In other words: us. He’s talking about what it means for us to live as God’s house—and why God wants to build such a house.

So, as we consider our passage from 1 Peter, let’s start with a question: what’s a cornerstone? A dictionary definition goes as follows: “An important quality or feature on which a particular thing depends or is based.” Think of a company that states: “Our attention to customer service is the cornerstone of our success.” This—the idea of a cornerstone—is the central image of our passage. Peter says that Jesus has become the cornerstone. Now, the cornerstone of a building controls the design of the building and holds the structure together. It’s an architectural term. In his commentary on 1 Peter, Joel Green says that the cornerstone “is the one prepared and chosen for the exact 900 angle, and so the basis for the construction of the whole building. Choosing the right corner is basic not only to the aesthetics of the building but also to its stability and longevity.”

So, isn’t it interesting that Peter here refers to Jesus as the cornerstone? And, of course, he’s the cornerstone of a spiritual building. Again, speaking of his readers, Peter puts it this way: You yourselves, as living stones, are being built into a spiritual house. Jesus is the cornerstone of this house. Now, what might this mean? To start, I think of at least three things: 1. Jesus determines the design of this spiritual house. 2. Jesus builds us into this spiritual house. 3. Jesus holds this spiritual house together.

And notice how our passage starts: Coming to Him, a living stone—rejected by men but chosen and valuable to God—you yourselves, as living stones, are being built into a spiritual house. So, it’s as we come to him—in worship, service, and in fellowship—that we are built into this spiritual house. Becoming a spiritual house happens through our relationship with Jesus and through our relationships with one another. In other words, living as God’s house means being a Christ-centered community. Who we are as a church—as a spiritual house—is based on Jesus.

The question is: are we? Are we as a community centered around Christ? Let’s ask: What does it mean that Christ is our cornerstone? What should we look like if we’re a spiritual house built around Christ as our cornerstone?  What kind of shape is our spiritual house in? What are the signs of a stable and healthy spiritual house? How are we built into a spiritual house? How does our worship of Christ form us into a spiritual house for Christ?

In 251 A.D. a great plague struck the Greco-Roman world in which more than a third of the population died. Fear was everywhere. Those who could afford it fled to the countryside. Those who could not remained in the cities. When they went to the pagan temples they found them empty, the priests having fled. The streets were filled with those who had become infected, their families left with no option but to push them out the door.

Christian communities however took an entirely different approach. They saw it as their responsibility to love the sick and dying, so they took them into their homes and nursed them. This meant that many people recovered who otherwise would have died. And many believers died because of their willingness to love their neighbours. As one writer says: “The earliest Christians expended themselves in works of mercy that simply dumbfounded the pagans. For them, God loved humanity; in order to love God back, one was to love others. God did not demand ritual sacrifices; he wanted his love expressed on earth in deeds of compassion.” In his book The Early Church, Henry Chadwick comments: “The practical application of charity was probably the most potent single cause of Christian success.”

So why tell this story? What does it have to do with our passage and with becoming a spiritual house? Peter writes: You yourselves, as living stones, are being built into a spiritual house for a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. And later in our passage he calls his readers a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.

All of these images of God’s people point us to the relationship between God’s people and the surrounding world. Thinking back to the people of Israel, when they were called a holy nation and a chosen race, the people of God, it was talking about how they were called to be a light to the surrounding nations. They were called to put on display the character of their God. Joel Green, speaking about the notion of priesthood, says it refers to “the role of the community of believers in the world-at-large.” Priests have the role of representing God to others and others to God. We’re being called to be our community’s priests, representing God to them.

Let’s put it this way: we’re not being built into a spiritual house so we can feel safe and have this space all to ourselves; we’re being built into a spiritual house so other people can see it and be a part of it: and live in it. And they will see it when we live like the church in the 3rd century during the Greco-Roman plague. Living as God’s house means being a Christ-witnessing community. We are a Christ-witnessing community when we love our neighbours. William Temple once said: “The Church is the only society on earth that exists for the benefit of non-members.” Similarly, Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote: “The church is her true self only when she exists for humanity.”Finding ways to love and show kindness to our neighbours, to bless our community—maybe these can be our spiritual sacrifices and the way in which we can declare God’s praises.

How would you describe the way people in the community perceive our church? Do they have a good impression or a negative one? What is God calling us to do as a community to love our neighbours? How can we get outside the walls of our church building to bless our neighbours?What might we have to sacrifice in order to love our neighbours?

In our passage, Jesus is called the living stone—rejected by men but chosen and valuable to God. Peter also says of Jesus that as the stone that the builders rejected—this One has become the cornerstone. Even when we love others with the love of Christ, there will be people who reject us and our message. We don’t reach out with the grace of Jesus for the approval of human beings. We’re not looking for affirmation from our neighbours. It’s like how if I base my personal sense of identity and security on what others might think of me, then my identity and sense of self will be very fragile and unreliable. The reason this is so important is this: if we’re going to reach out as God’s people into our community with love and compassion, we need to do so out of a deepening sense of our identity in Jesus. He is our life. Because we’re accepted by him, we don’t reach out to others to find their acceptance.

Put simply: Living as God’s House Means Being a Rejected Yet Honoured Community. As Peter says, rejected by men but chosen and valuable to God. If people rejected Jesus, people will reject us—even when we’re acting out of a Christ-like love.

And I say all of this because as a church I don’t want us to be insecure, to be half-apologetic about who we are, to have this inferiority complex where we don’t think we have anything to offer. Because we are being built into a spiritual house for a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. And this is no small thing. This is a beautiful, wonderful, joyous thing!

Think of Peter’s words again: But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Isn’t that incredible? And isn’t it—and shouldn’t we think it is—a privilege to have this role in our community? To live as the people of God showing the love of God?What do you think we have to offer as a church to our community? What makes us valuable as a church family?Why do we reach out to love our neighbours? What’s our motivation?Are we willing to experience rejection in order to live as God’s house in our neighbourhood?

Prayers for Humble Listening and Wise Speaking

Below are two prayers from this morning’s Lectio 365 devotional. One concerns our need to listen humbly and the other to speak wisely. Both go together. Both speak to the need for relational accountability among Christians. Both highlight how difficult the conversations we have with one another can sometimes be and, therefore, how much grace we need in the midst of them. And of course both make clear that the words we exchange with one another ought to be enveloped in prayer—which, if nothing else, is a recognition that our inter-personal interactions require the presence and power of God.

Given how, sadly, Christians sometimes address each other, perhaps we need to take the intent and spirit of these prayers more seriously. How we go about our relationships with one another in the church pertains directly to our spiritual maturity, which cannot be separated from our emotional and relational maturity. Like the apostle Paul says, Christians should be speaking the truth in love, so that we will grow in every way into him who is the head—Christ (Ephesians 4:15). May such spiritual growth, which includes the words we speak and the manner in which we speak them, be increasingly our hearts desire.

Here are the two prayers:

Lord, surround me with people who love me and who are unafraid to tell me the truth. Develop in me the humility to listen and the wisdom to recognise when I need to change my ways.

Lord, when those I love face difficulties, I commit to bringing them to You in prayer before offering my own advice. Fill me with Your wisdom that I might speak Your life-giving words to them.

Prayer #4:Praying for One Another

This is why, since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I never stop giving thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, would give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened so that you may know what is the hope of his calling, what is the wealth of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the mighty working of his strength . . . I pray that he may grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power in your inner being through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God’s love, and to know Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us—to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Ephesians 1:15—19, 3:16—21

I heard someone say once that most prayers are about steering wheels and stomachs! In other words, we pray for people who are sick or traveling. And I think this more or less rings true. And of course there’s nothing wrong with praying for these concerns.

But I think this is also why prayers in the Bible can sometimes sound strange to us. This is definitely true with respect to how people pray. Last week we saw Abraham enter into a bold yet humble conversation with God in a way that most of us probably do not. And prayers in the Bible can also sound strange to us because of what people pray for. And we see that with the apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. It’s characteristic of Paul to include prayers in his letters, usually at the beginning, but often throughout too. By looking at his prayers, Scripture also teaches us how to pray. Specifically, we’re being taught how to pray for fellow believers.

Have you ever thought about what God wants for the people you’re praying for? Is his first concern their physical health? Maybe the Lord has allowed illness to enter their lives to get their attention. The first thing we see here is this: Praying for one another requires the fuel of biblical truth. Now, what do I mean by this?

In Ephesians, Paul bursts into prayer immediately after having spoken of the reality of salvation, the blessings we have through Christ, and God’s purpose for those whom he calls. Here are some of those words: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavens in Christ . . . In him we have received an inheritance . . . In him you also were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and when you believed.

If you read the beginning of Ephesians, it almost feels like Paul’s words are tumbling out. He’s like he can’t keep it in. He’s overjoyed and overwhelmed by God and his blessings. And so his prayer for the Ephesians literally spills out of these words. He says: This is why, since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I never stop giving thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. In other words, he’s saying: “I’m so incredibly glad that you have experienced the gift of salvation, that you have come to know Christ and have become a part of the family of God. I’m blown away and filled with gratitude with what God has done in your lives.”

Paul’s prayers are fueled by biblical truth, by the reality of what God has accomplished for us through Jesus and by the Spirit. And this is what motivates Paul to pray in the first place. It also shapes what he prays. For instance, he prays: I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, would give you the Spiritof wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him.

Do we pray like this? Do we ask God boldly and humbly to open the eyes of the hearts of our fellow Christians, so that they would be further and further filled with faith, hope, and love? Isn’t this what God wants for them? Indeed, for us?

Here’s the thing: if want more motivation for our prayers and a deeper understanding of how we should pray, we need Scripture. We need the Bible. It is the fuel for our prayers—including our prayers for others.

And this is true whether we’re praying for Christians or for people who are not Christians. Either way, we’re called to ask God to be at work in people’s lives. This can mean continuing to grow in faith or it can mean coming to faith in Christ for the first time. Praying for others requires the fuel of biblical truth.

When you pray for others, what do you pray for most? What specific biblical truth about God fuels your prayers? Do you fuel your prayers with Scripture? What difference does it make?

Do you remember the OT story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18)? Elijah challenges the prophets to see if their god is more powerful than Yahweh, to see which God will shower their altar with fire. The prophets of Baal spend all day crying out to Baal. They even cut themselves, hoping he will respond. He never does. Elijah mocks them. Then after they’ve had their turn, Elijah makes sure his altar is soaked with water. He utters a short, simple prayer; and fire falls on the altar, thoroughly drying out even the water that spilled over into the trench. The prophets of Baal seemed to be trusting in the fervency of their prayers. It was about what they could do to manipulate their god to act. On the other hand, Elijah spoke a simple, trusting prayer in the God of Israel: Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, today let it be known that you are God in Israel.  Elijah’s faith was in a powerful God. Then God showed up in a powerful way.

So the next thing we then see is this: Praying for one another means trusting in the power of God. This means trusting that God can do what he says he will do. It means trusting that he can answer our prayers. It means trusting that he can be at work in our lives. He can rain fire on the altar of our hearts.

I think we struggle with this as Christians. But I wonder if that’s because we focus too much on ourselves and not enough on the character of God? Fueling our prayers with biblical truth can really help us to trust in the power of God.

Paul mentions the power of God a couple of times. First, he talks about the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the mighty working of his strength. He goes on to say that God exercised this power in Christ by raising him from the dead.

So he wants the Ephesians to understand—to take deeply into their hearts and minds—that the power at work in them is the same divine power that raised Jesus from the dead. It’s this same power that gives us strength to live the Christian life: I pray that he may grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power in your inner being through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And do you see what he’s praying for here? That the Ephesians would be strengthened spiritually in their walk with Christ, that their faith in him would grow and become more resilient.

Look at how Paul concludes his prayer with a benediction: Now to him who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us—to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Did you catch that? Now to him who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us. This is an expression of deep trust in the power of God. Paul’s saying we can trust God’s power to answer our prayers according to his purpose. I also believe this: the more we pray like Paul, the stronger our own faith can become.

Based on Paul’s prayer, what does God want for us and our lives? Is this what you usually pray about for others? How would you describe the power of God that’s at work in our lives?What does believing in the resurrection have to do with trusting in the power of God for our lives now? Do you pray for others with this kind of trust in God’s power?

I think as a father, the most important thing I want my kids to know and experience from me is my love for them. I say, “I love you,” all the time. Maybe it even annoys them after a while! Sometimes, rather than saying “I love you” back they say “I know, Dad.” But did you know that this is what God wants us to know and experience of him also? God wants us to comprehend the length and width, height and depth of [his] love for us.

This is what Paul prays for the Ephesians. And we should pray the very same thing for others too. Put simply: Praying for one another means wanting them to know and experience the love of God in Christ. Listen again to what Paul prays:  I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God’s love, and to know Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Isn’t that just amazing? Whatever else Paul is saying here, it’s all rooted in the love of God for us, a love that he wants us to be profoundly aware of. And indeed if Paul makes this his prayer for the Ephesians, we can also make this a part of our prayers for others.

In his book, Prayer for Beginners, Peter Kreeft writes: “Trusting God’s grace means trusting God’s love for us rather than our love for God. Therefore our prayers should consist mainly of rousing our awareness of God’s love for us rather than trying to rouse God’s awareness of our love for him.” Because there is nothing that can and will transform us more than knowing and experiencing—comprehending deeply—God’s love for us in Christ.

To quote John White, from Daring to Draw Near, “In knowing the love that passes knowledge we are changed . . . All Christians are meant to grasp it, not to understand an abstract concept but to perceive that they themselves are loved by a love that has no measure.” We should be praying that all of us would become more aware of, and changed by, this very love, the love that we see ultimately in the person and work of Jesus.

Do you need to know and experience God’s love more deeply? Are you comfortable asking him to help you with this?How does knowing someone loves you enable you to trust them? Why might praying that others may know God’s love for them change how we see them?

George Whitfield, 18th century evangelist and founder of Methodism, wrote: “If we inquire, why there is so little love to be found amongst Christians, why the very characteristic, by which everyone should know that we are disciples of the holy Jesus, is almost banished out of the Christian world, we shall find it, in a great measure, owing to a neglect or superficial performance of that excellent part of prayer, Intercession, or imploring the divine grace and mercy in behalf of others.” Our love for one another goes hand in hand with praying for one another. With praying specifically that we would grow in our knowledge of God’s love for us, in our trust in God, in our walk with Jesus.

Maybe you’ve shared with someone a difficulty you’re having and they’ve said, “I’ll pray for you.” Or maybe you’ve said that to someone when they’ve shared with you. And if you’re like me, there are times when you completely forget and never actually follow through. So, if possible, what I try to say instead is this: “Can I pray for you right now?” And if the person says yes, which is what they usually say, I do it right there and then.

Praying for one another requires the fuel of biblical truth. Or to put it another way: prayer is a key way of applying my knowledge of Scripture in a very practical way. Praying for one another means trusting in the power of God. This means trusting that God wants to and is able to change the people we are praying for. Praying for one another means wanting them to know and experience the love of God in Christ. This is true for us believers, because all of us need to more fully receive the love of God for us. And it’s true for people who have yet to experience faith in Jesus, because they need to know, even if for the first time, just how much God loves them. The truth is: we all need the eyes of our hearts opened more and more to the reality of the love of God the Father and to the good news of Jesus the Son. We’re all in need of further and deeper transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is what it means to become and to grow as a Christian. And this takes prayer. This is why we pray for one another.

Do We Resist the Holy Spirit?

As I began thinking about and working on my upcoming message for Sunday, I came across this question:

How many of us pause to consider the ways in which we inadvertently quench the Spirit’s work in our lives individually and in our churches corporately?

Sam Storms

How might an individual Christian do this? Maybe these are some questions to ask:

  1. Am I genuinely seeking God and taking time to be in his presence?
  2. Am I willing to be honest about where I need to repent, and to change direction in order to walk more closely with God?
  3. Do I want my way or God’s way and can I see the difference?

And what about churches? How might a church find itself resisting the work of the Spirit?

  1. Do our traditions or customary ways of doing ministry, organizing our programs, and encouraging engagement in church life get in the way of how God wants to lead us?
  2. Do we distinguish between what we do as church members and what we depend on God to do? Are some aspects of church life spiritual while others are practical? Do we truly rely on God for all aspects of church life?
  3. Is our focus on perpetuating the institution rather than on building relationships?

Maybe you can think of other questions.

The underlying point here is that we need the presence and power of God–which is made available to us in the person of the Holy Spirit–if we are going to be individual followers of Jesus and a life-giving community of faith.

The church needs the Spirit. Is this a need we recognize clearly enough?

May the Lord in his love and grace open our eyes to what we need to see more clearly. May we be willing to see.

Veni Sancte Spiritus.

Things COVID Has Shown Christians Can Take for Granted

Our church buildings. We complain about them and cling to them, sometimes in equal measure. But at least they’re a place to meet together.

Church potlucks. C’mon, you know you miss them! Where else can you find finger sandwiches, gelatin-based desserts, and casseroles at the same meal?

Congregational singing. A recent development, but very noticeable. I miss hearing a group of not altogether in tune with another people belting out hymns.

The human face. More specifically, smiles. When was the last time you saw the lower half of most peoples’ faces?

Human touch. Especially hugs. Waving or the patented COVID elbow bump simply aren’t the same.

Church business meetings. How many Baptists and others have experienced quorum and voting and making motions withdrawal?

The internet. WiFi, digital technology, and Zoom (we all should have invested in Zoom!) have turned obscure pastors into YouTube sensations!

Embodied presence. Just being around more loved ones, of course: family, friends, neighbours, and fellow believers. Not having to be suspicious or anxious about human contact. Not that it takes COVID to be this way, but the pandemic has definitely made it worse.

What about you? What do you think our churches have taken for granted? What have you taken for granted? Add a comment and let me know!

Singing in Church: A Brief Follow-Up

Since posting my thoughts about the restriction on group and congregational singing in our province due to COVID I have received some interesting and helpful feedback. So I thought I’d take a moment to provide some brief clarification.

First, I agree completely that we are called to respect our governing authorities. When I consider our provincial authorities–those who have been tasked with providing leadership during the pandemic–they have had a most difficult and unenviable job. I believe they are doing their utmost based on their understanding of the situation and what is required to see us through it. Moreover, I think that our chief medical officer ought to be rewarded with ample vacation time as soon as possible.

Second, I think that church communities ought to abide by the COVID guidelines set out by our health authorities. This means voluntarily restricting ourselves and doing our utmost to respect the government, love our neighbours, and be faithful followers of Jesus. Of course, the difficulty arrives when some see these priorities as coming into conflict with one another. For example, in our province we are not yet being required to ask for proof of vaccination in order to attend Sunday worship. I hope this does not happen. I think it would be unnecessarily divisive and profoundly unhelpful.

All I intended to say in the original post is that I don’t see the government as having authority to place a restriction on whether a congregation can sing as a group. I am aware not everyone will agree, including other Christians. Saying this is not suggesting a course of action but rather a posture to adopt. Saying this is not to question the motives of specific government authorities but rather to invite conversation on a more fundamental principle.

My question, however, is this: with respect to restrictions the government can place on a community of faith, what is the limiting principle? Is it possible for a government to try and put unreasonable and illegitimate restrictions in place on churches, even in a time of COVID? How would we recognize that if it happens? I think being responsible citizens includes asking these and other similar questions. We don’t ask such questions in order to impugn the motives of our governing authorities but to keep them accountable. I also think the pandemic of the last two years has brought such questions to the fore in our culture in a way they haven’t been for a long, long time. I think, therefore, that while we ought to give our provincial governing authorities the benefit of the doubt, we should still be aware that these questions are there and are worth asking, as people of faith and as citizens of a democratic society.

Singing in Church

So today was the second consecutive Sunday our church agreed to abide by the restriction on group or congregational singing because of COVID. It’s a new guideline put in place by our provincial government on account of the rise of COVID cases in our province due to the Omicron variant.

After the service, one of my 12 year old sons asked me, “Are we allowed to talk to each other in church?” When I told him we could, he asked a follow up question, “Then how come we can’t sing?” He couldn’t see the logic.

I confess I’m finding it hard to see the logic too.

And while it’s always possible to make adjustments to a worship service, the last two weeks of no group singing have simply felt bizarre.

Having me “lead” worship by singing the first verse of “Great is Thy Faithfulness” solo certainly isn’t the most inspiring experience! Given we don’t know how long this restriction on singing will be in place, we will have use some liturgical creativity!

But then there’s the matter of the restriction itself. And the most troubling aspect of this particular restriction is the wording. It says singing as a congregation is “not permitted.” Did you read that? Not permitted. The government has taken it upon itself to tell churches that when they gather they cannot sing together as a congregation.

They are not asking us to refrain from singing.

They are not strongly recommending that we refrain from singing.

No, they are saying we are not permitted to sing.

Not permitted? Really?

It’s this particular wording to which I take great exception.

Let me be blunt: the government has absolutely no jurisdiction or authority over whether or not a congregation sings as a congregation.

I get that our province is still in a “state of emergency.” I get what’s going on when it comes to COVID. I get that there’s a lot of fear. I get that government and health authorities have an enormous responsibility.

But they can’t order us not to sing.

A church can consent to abide by this guideline. A church can voluntarily opt not to sing as a congregation. But the government altogether lacks the legitimate authority to say group singing is “not permitted.”

Please notice carefully what I am saying and what I am not saying. I’m not saying churches should ignore this restriction. I’m not saying we shouldn’t abide by it voluntarily. My point is the issue of authority, and when it comes to this specific question, the government has none.

In fact, if for some currently unfathomable reason the government were to enshrine this restriction into law, it would be an altogether illegitimate law.

Chances are the language of “not permitted” is there to stress what they believe is the adequate seriousness with which they want us to take the situation. Fair enough. But it’s also careless, unthoughtful language. It stretches the boundaries of how the state can encroach upon religious communities. If it doesn’t violate the Canadian Charter of Rights of Freedoms, it definitely flirts with the edges of doing so. While listing freedom of religion and conscience as one of the fundamental freedoms, our Charter doesn’t elucidate this any further. Presumably because to spell out what this freedom can look like in practice is by definition to reduce it to what the state “permits.” But of course no government can give us any fundamental rights; they can only acknowledge them and protect them. Such freedoms pre-exist the state.

Now here’s the thing, most Canadians—certainly most Atlantic Canadians—are congenial, go along to get along people. This is true of most church goers. We want to do what’s right. We, of course, want to abide by the law. We want to have a positive and good relationship with governing authorities. And many are no doubt much more naturally trusting of government than I tend to be.

Add to this the concern churches have over being fined for not following guidelines. Things can become complicated. Even a larger church isn’t necessarily in the financial position to deal with such penalties. So when a lot of churches are significantly smaller, the potential burden of a substantial fine provides incentive. Out of fear, to be sure, but incentive all the same. Think what you will about this government tactic, but it seems effective in at least the pragmatic sense.

Of course, I’m still a local pastor. My congregation is a small one. The people in my church are like any church people anywhere. They want to get through this. They want to make wise decisions. And in all of this, they want to live out their trust in God in faithful, everyday ways. My calling in part is to help them do this. Even if this means figuring out what it means to gather for worship when our government asks us not to sing as a congregation.

That said, I will say this. Singing is one of the primary means—one of the fundamental spiritual practices—by which the body of Christ expresses its hope, its longing, its faith, and its trust in the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Indeed, Scripture commands us to sing. A quick perusal of the Psalms makes this clear enough. Lifting our voices and giving our faith a melody is not an option. Because it’s not about mere music. No, there is something that happens in music—when people of faith, hope, and love open their lips in praise, thanksgiving, and even lament. God inhabits the praises of his people. Indeed, we’re not called to make a pleasant noise but a joyful one (good thing, given my attempt to hit the high notes in a couple of hymns this morning!). And we all know how uplifting and encouraging sacred music can be, even if we’re not the best singers or most able musicians. Music penetrates our souls in ways spoken words cannot always manage.

Consider these words of the apostle Paul:

Let the word of Christ dwell richly among you, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.

Colossians 3:16

Implied by Paul’s words is this mysterious power of music to stir our hearts while reminding us of the truths of our faith.

So let’s be honest. We need worship songs and hymns. They may not be the lifeblood of congregational worship, but often they serve as the veins.

There’s a reason God says, “Sing.”

So, yes, we can in this time of COVID voluntarily refrain from singing as congregations for what is hopefully a short season. We can pivot in order to include the blessed power of music in other ways. We can respect what our health authorities are asking of us. But no government should be under the illusion that they can order us one way or the other. Nor should any church or pastor or Christian believe they can.