Preaching a Sermon Series on Habakkuk

I recently finished preaching through the book of Habakkuk. This short Old Testament book is so relevant to our world today. The prophet’s lament over the Babylonian invasion is mirrored in our day as the Russian war machine grinds down Ukrainian cities. The Covid pandemic raises age-old questions about human suffering that Habakkuk also raises. Theologically, Habakkuk provides rich reflection on “the just shall live by faith” (Hab 2:4), lament, and prayer. From a biblical-historical standpoint, Habakkuk introduces people to one of the most important events for understanding the Old Testament–the Exile. This series was one of the most profound Old Testament exegetical series that I have done over the last twenty years.

Using Heath Thomas’s commentary on Habakkuk as my go-to reference, I constructed an eight week series. In a couple sermons, I focused on a smaller section of text to have more time for a deeper treatment. For instance, later biblical books and influential theologians quote Habakkuk 2:4, so I spent more time on that passage; even though structurally it belonged to a larger section. Likewise, I broke off Habakkuk 3:1-2 from the psalm/prayer of chapter 3 in order to speak about the larger theme of prayer and lament in Hebrew writing. As you preach through the book, you will find your own areas of focus. Below are links to the sermon audio. I hope they prompt you to look deeper into this rich and relevant prophetic book.

The Holy Spirit Upon the Messiah: The Gospels’ Use of Isaiah

This post examines how the New Testament (NT) Gospel writers explicitly appropriated the Old Testament (OT) book of Isaiah’s pneumatology in their presentation of Jesus as the Messiah. A working assumption of this examination is that explicit quotations are the most prominent and clear markers of OT borrowing. By the time of Jesus, there was a widespread belief that the Messiah would be empowered by the Holy Spirit. The Gospel writers especially used Isaiah’s prophecies about the Spirit to show that Jesus was the expected Spirit-filled Messiah.

Because the Gospels are concerned with presenting Jesus as the Messiah, it is not surprising that the Gospel writers include OT quotes that predict the Spirit upon the Messiah. Less explicitly but just as significant, all four Gospels give an account of the Spirit descending upon Jesus at the commencement of his ministry. In the Spirit’s descent in the synoptics, most see an allusion to the Isaianic servant of 42:1 (with perhaps a shading of 61:1 in Luke).[1] Each Gospel has its own nuance with the common theme being the Holy Spirit rests on Jesus, fulfilling messianic expectations.

Photo credit to from Pixabay (208356 on Pexels)

In Matthew (3:16-17) and Luke (3:21-22), the Spirit’s descent upon Jesus (and the OT allusions) at the beginning of his ministry is given further treatment using explicit OT quotations. In Matthew, that quotation does not appear for some time and yet Matthew connects and builds on his earlier allusion. Matthew, more than any other Gospel, depicts Jesus’ baptism and receiving the Spirit in the midst of conflict with the Pharisees. When Isa 42:1-4 is explicitly quoted later in Matt 12:18-21 the Pharisees are not only opposing Jesus’ ministry they “conspired against him, as how to destroy him” (12:14). Matthew 12:15-21 reads:


Matthew 12:15-21 (NASB)

This quotation reminds the readers that Jesus is the Spirit-endowed servant Messiah. However, this OT concept is not reintroduced to make a pneumatological point but to explain the events at this juncture of Jesus’ ministry. David Turner posits three purposes for quoting Isa 42:1-4: 1) It explains why Jesus withdraws from conflict, not proclaiming his identity but quietly ministering to the weak. 2) As Jewish opposition increases, Matthew is gradually introducing the divine necessity (and receptivity) of the gentiles. 3) This quote sets up Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ accusation (Matt 12:24) that Jesus performs miracles by the power of Beelzebub.[2]  If Turner is correct then the purposes for using Isa 42 are not primarily about pneumatology. Instead, Matthew shows how the Spirit enables Jesus’ messianic ministry to gently proceed towards the divine end despite loud opposition.

In contrast to the religious leaders’ false judgments about Jesus and his works, the use of Isa 42:1-4 highlights the just dealings of the Messiah. In its original context, Isa 42:1-4 emphasized the just decision that the servant will render on Yahweh’s behalf, more than the identity of the servant.[3] If Matthew is maintaining this emphasis then the public, false judgments of the Pharisees are self-condemning and contrast with the Spirit-filled Messiah quietly advancing God’s restorative plan (the subject of chs 40-55 in Isaiah) to the oppressed.[4]  

The surrounding material of Isa 42:1-4 describes God’s plan for restoration from exile; a restoration that will be greater than the exodus from Egypt.[5] This plan will be accomplished through Yahweh’s servant on behalf of Israel and this restoration will take on a world-wide scope to the nations (Isa 42:6; 49:6; 56:6-8; 66:18-23).

With this OT quotation Matthew reinforces the portrait of Jesus and his ministry as empowered by the Spirit and as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s new exodus theme. Such a portrait is based on understanding the servant of Isa 42 as the Messiah who would usher in justice (the other side of salvation) in the new age of restoration. Matthew’s appropriation of Isa 42 demonstrates that his understanding of the Messiah fits in the broad expectations for the Messiah in the second temple period.  

In Luke’s Gospel, the descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus at the beginning of his ministry (Luke 3:22) is soon followed by an OT quotation that emphasizes Jesus’ spiritual empowerment.  After Jesus’ baptism, he is “full of the Holy Spirit” and is lead around “by the Spirit” in the wilderness for forty days (Luke 4:1). Jesus returns to Galilee “in the power of the Spirit” and begins his public ministry. Luke chooses to focus on Jesus in Nazareth and particularly on his scripture reading in the synagogue.  Luke 4:17-21 states:

And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written, “THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED, TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD.” And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke 4:17-21 (NASB)

With this quotation of Isa 61:1-2 (with Isa 58:6 sandwiched in the middle) Jesus announces that the commencing of his ministry fulfills OT prophecy. The previous context confirms that Luke is very interested in depicting Jesus as being led by the Spirit. Now, Luke brings in the scriptural authority to not only support his depiction, but to demonstrate how Jesus fulfills these scriptures from the very beginning of his ministry. Essential to that fulfillment (in Luke’s reckoning) is that Jesus is anointed with the Spirit of God as he proclaims the good news of God. The “good news” of Isa 61:1-2 in its original context probably picked up renewal themes from Isa 40-55 that looked forward to a new exodus and world-wide salvation. Those predictions of renewal are announced in Isa 61 (and now here by Jesus) as coming to pass. This Spirit endowed individual will take up the task to announce comfort to the downtrodden since that task was neglected by those (Israel in Isa 49:1-4) to whom it was originally given.[6]

 With this quotation, Luke presents Jesus as the one who is taking up Yahweh’s task in the power of Yahweh’s Spirit. Having established Jesus as the Spirit-filled prophet of the good news, references to the Spirit greatly subside (only three more in the whole Gospel of Luke: 10:21; 11:13; 12:10) until Jesus promises “power from on high” in 24:49 and then the Spirit bursts on the scene in Acts.  At that point, Jesus (as the risen Messiah and Lord) gives his followers the Spirit to continue the proclamation of the now-realized good news.

 The two aforementioned OT quotes (and their supporting material/allusions) do not exhaust the NT writers’ associations between the Messiah and the Spirit. They do explicitly show a common pneumatological tenet, drawn from the OT, and applied to Jesus. That tenet is the Spirit of Yahweh will be upon the Messiah. The book of Isaiah, with its eschatological expectations of a messianic figure empowered by God’s Spirit, provided the perfect source texts.[7]  Space does not permit a discussion about this tenet itself being a development within the OT. Suffice it to say here that God’s empowering Spirit would necessarily be upon (in an even greater degree) the Messiah just as that Spirit was upon the kings and prophets of Yahweh’s choosing. By the time of Jesus, the OT idea that the Messiah would be filled with the Spirit had solidified further. When the NT writers appropriated OT scripture with this pneumatological/Christological tenet they drew from an existing interpretive stream within second temple Judaism. 

[1] See Matthew  3:13-17, Mark 1:11, and Luke 3:21-22 in CNTUOT (ed. G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 14, 122-128, 279- 281, respectively.  

[2] David Turner, Matthew (BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 316-317.

[3] John Goldingay and David Payne, Isaiah 40-55 (Vol 1; ICC; New York: T & T Clark, 2006), 208-222.

[4] For a strong argument that Matthew maintains Isaiah 42’s emphasis on justice see: Richard Beaton, “Messiah and Justice: A Key to Matthew’s Use of Isaiah 42:1-4?” JSNT 75 (1999): 5-23.

[5] Bruce Waltke, An Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 844-845.

[6] John Watts, Isaiah 34-66 (WBC 25; Rev. ed.; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 872-874.

[7] Wonsuk Ma, Until the Spirit Comes: The Spirit of God in the Book of Isaiah (JSOTSup271; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1999), 203-213. Although I do not agree with Ma’s assumptions on the various layers of composition, his separate treatment of the canonical layer is helpful.

Short Praises to God for Practicing God’s Presence

Introduction: In an effort to practice God’s presence and pray without ceasing, I have compiled a list of praises/prayers to God from the Psalms. These are purposefully short phrases that can be easily remembered and recited. This list is by no means exhaustive, as I have selected phrases for their clarity and brevity, as well as trying to avoid repeat entries. Since the Psalms are the praise and prayer book of the Bible, I began my survey in the Psalter.

Rationale: In the Western context, praise seems to be the most neglected area of prayer. This neglect especially hinders our prayer life because recognizing and praising God for who He is provides the foundation for prayer. Jesus seemed to point out the importance of beginning prayer with an acknowledgement of God’s character in His model prayer. He begins: “Our Father in heaven hallowed be your name, . . .”  This short phrase both acknowledges God as the one to be revered and yet one who can be approached like a father. The next lines of the model prayer are further built off God’s nature: “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven . . .”  As the Heavenly Father who is to be revered, His kingdom and will take precedence over our own. From this acknowledgement of who God is, thanks, confessions, and requests flow.

    Our problems with prayer stem from skipping over the “hallowing” or praising part of prayer. This neglect is even more problematic when we are trying to develop an inner life of constant connection to God (a.k.a. “Practicing God’s presence,” prayer without ceasing, or constantly inclining our hearts towards God).  For this reason, I am focusing on short scriptural praises that rightly orient us towards who God is–His character. When we see God as both a loving Father and Almighty creator, that understanding provides the proper relational foundation for further conversations with God. It’s not that we shouldn’t ask for stuff, but that our requests should be based on the character of the Giver. Jesus says as much when he was teaching on prayer in Luke 11:10-13: “For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Using a lesser to greater argument, Jesus wants His followers’ prayers to be empowered by a proper understanding of God’s character as heavenly Father. That relationship with the Father provides the foundation for transforming the disciples and the world. For this reason, the short praises listed below focus on the qualities, character, or names of God.

    Although there is considerable scriptural overlap between praise and thanks, I reserve the word “praise” for extolling God for who He is. On the other hand, “thanks” is expressing gratitude for what God has done or given. Certainly, praise and thanks are related; for instance we see God’s gracious character though His free gift of salvation. We praise God for His grace, but we thank Him for our salvation. While thanking God for all that He gives would be a welcome improvement over just asking for stuff, we can still look at prayer through a transactional lens instead of a transformational lens. A transformational lens views prayer as a relationship with God that is meant to transform me and my agenda to be more in line with Christ’s character and agenda (see Ephesians 4:15). Praise shines the spotlight on the character of God so that we can clearly see God for who He is and who we are in relationship to Him.  God is our highest good and the one we are striving towards—even that statement is a statement of praise, which re-orients us towards a transformational mindset to prayer.

    The transformational relationship approach to prayer also beckons us to pursue a life of constant prayer and connection to the one we worship. Prayer does not have to be a distinct religious activity, but a way of relating to God. This constant inclination, awareness, and connection with God is how many view the command “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).  Brother Lawrence eloquently described this type of living as “practicing God’s presence” and other Christian writers like Frank Laubach and Thomas Kelly have continued to urge us on towards a constant connection to God that transforms our lives.[1]  That transforming connection strengthens when we bring to mind the One we are connecting to. The short praises/verses included below are meant to be reminders of God’s character that help us constantly incline our hearts towards Him.[2]

Memorable, but biblical units: In most cases, I have taken the exact wording from the English Standard Version of the Bible, but limit the selections to a verse or phrase to aid in memory. When there are lots of praise phrases all crammed together, I often include a couple of verses so that the reader can choose how much of the verse to hold in mind.

     Each of these phrases and verses have contexts that should also be studied, so I have included at least one Biblical reference for deeper study. We strive for the concepts in our minds to match the Biblical writers’ concepts, but our different historical context means that an attribute of God may conjure different images. This difference does not mean that our praise of God is wrong. Rather, we acknowledge and seek a deepening of our understanding that, at the very least, includes the original intention of Spirit-inspired writer.

    For brevity’s sake, I sometimes include multiple references after one phrase even if the phrase is slightly different in each reference. I have also grouped some similar phrases together under an underlined heading. This topical arrangement makes locating a phrase that fits your need for the day easier as well as enhances memorization. Arranging and grouping the verses really was my own subjective choice. A different arrangement may work better for you, and I hope that this list inspires you to build your own!

Suggested methods: Select one of these phrases and throughout the day, lift it up as a praise to God. In most cases, I have included a whole verse that can be broken down into even smaller units. For example, Psalm 54:4 says, “God is my helper; the Lord is the upholder of my life.” You may only be able to hold in your mind “God is my helper” or “The Lord upholds my life.” Whichever phrase you feel best suits your needs, no matter how short, is your connection line for a time. You may use the same phrase for weeks, or switch them up hour by hour, or build up phrases into one whole verse over the course of the day. Consider these phrases as means of connecting to God—to help us in transformational prayer. Focusing on memorization of the whole verse can be counterproductive. The phrase is meant to focus us upon God, not to focus on specific wording or memory capabilities.

     Another consideration is feel free to modify the pronouns when using this list. Although all the Psalms are directed towards God, some refer to God in the third person (He, The Lord, Him, etc). You may want to change the pronouns so it feels more like a God-directed prayer. For instance, Psalm 4:3 states. “The Lord hears when I call to Him.” You could modify the phrase to say, “You, Lord, hear when I call to you.” If you feel like you need to address God directly to praise Him, then by all means modify the pronouns.

   Finally, you may find these phrases helpful in making meditation an avenue of transformation and not just a relaxation technique. Try breathing in the character quality of God (as if you are trying to take that quality into yourself) and then breathe out a praise or thanks. For example, Psalm 103:8 says, “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”  As I breathe in I could say in my mind, “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” As I breathe out I could say, “I praise you Lord for you are merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”  If I wanted to add an attitude of thanks, I could instead breathe out saying, “I thank you Lord for Your grace, mercy and steadfast love towards me.”

   At the end of the praise list, I do include an epilogue of short prayers for help (just from the Psalms). One naturally wants to cry out for help from this gracious God who abounds in steadfast love and lifts up the oppressed! I place these prayers for help at the end so that any requests for help will spring up from a deep praise and encounter with God.

   I hope this list of scriptural praises and verses helps you to grow in praise, prayer, and practicing of God’s presence. From a place of praise may we be transformed toward the object of our praise!

Short Praises and Prayers from the Psalms:

God is Near, Hears and Cares for His People

The LORD hears when I call to him (Ps. 4:3)

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. (Ps. 23:1; 80:1)

God is my helper; the Lord is the upholder of my life. (Ps. 54:4)

Lord, you hear prayer, (Ps. 65:2; 77:1)

Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, 4 who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, 5 who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Ps. 103:2-5)

O LORD, you have searched me and known me! (Ps. 139:1)

The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad. (Ps. 126:3)

He remembers his covenant forever, the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations, (Ps. 105:8; 111:5)

The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. (Ps. 145:18)

The Lord is Holy and Just

For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you. (Ps. 5:4)

For you bless the righteous, O LORD; you cover him with favor as with a shield. (Ps. 5:12)

God is a righteous judge (Ps. 7:11)

The Lord loves justice (Psalm 37:28)

For the LORD is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face. (Ps. 11:7)

The LORD our God is holy (Ps. 99:9)

The LORD is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works.( Ps. 145:17)

The Lord is my Highest Good and Joy

You, O LORD, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head. (Ps. 3:3)

You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you. (Ps. 16:2)

You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Ps. 16:11)

You, Lord, satisfy my soul (Psalm 63:5; 73:25)

My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Ps. 73:26)

God is my Salvation

Salvation belongs to the LORD; God is my Salvation (Ps. 3:8; 38:22; 68:20)

The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? (Ps. 27:1)

The LORD lives, and blessed be my rock, and exalted be the God of my salvation (Ps. 18:46)

The LORD is my Rock, my Fortress, Refuge, & Shield

The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. (Ps. 18:2; 31:3; 62:6; 94:2)

The LORD is my strength and my shield; (Ps. 28:7)

The Lord is my fortress (Psalm 46:7; 91:2)

The Lord is my refuge (Psalm 25:20; 31:4; 46:1; 71:7; 91:2)

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. (Ps. 90:1)

For it is you who light my lamp; the LORD my God lightens my darkness. 29 For by you I can run against a troop, and by my God I can leap over a wall. 30 This God—his way is perfect; the word of the LORD proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him. 31 For who is God, but the LORD? And who is a rock, except our God?—32 the God who equipped me with strength and made my way blameless. (Ps. 18:28-32)

He is my steadfast love and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer, my shield and he in whom I take refuge, who subdues peoples under me. (Ps. 144:2)

For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the LORD bestows favor and honor.  (Ps. 84:11)

The Lord Abounds in Grace, Mercy, and Steadfast Love

(Psalm 89; 103; also 36:5; 40:11; 59:17)

Remember your mercy, O LORD, and your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. (Ps. 25:6)

The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. (Ps. 103:8; 145:8) 

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever! (Ps. 106:1; 107:1; 117:2; 118:1; 136)

For your steadfast love is great above the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the clouds. (Ps. 108:4)

For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations. (Ps. 100:5)

Gracious is the LORD, and righteous; our God is merciful. (Ps. 116:5)

The LORD is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made. (Ps. 145:9)

The Lord is Eternal and Above All

O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Ps. 8:9 )

The LORD is king forever and ever; He is everlasting (Ps. 10:16; 29:10; 93:2)

The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof (Ps. 24:1)

The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory! (Ps. 24:10)

The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations. (Ps. 33:10-11)

God reigns over the nations; (Ps. 47:8)

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth! (Ps. 57:5)

You who are enthroned upon the cherubim. (Ps. 80:1; 99:1)

LORD God of hosts! (Ps. 80:19)

You alone, whose name is the LORD, are the Most High over all the earth. (Ps. 83:18; 86:10)

The Lord is high above all other gods. (Ps. 86:8; 95:3; 97:9)

For I know that the LORD is great, and that our Lord is above all gods. Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps. (Ps. 135:5-6)

But you, O LORD, are enthroned forever; you are remembered throughout all generations. (Ps. 102:12)

But you are the same, and your years have no end. (Ps. 102:27)

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth! (Ps. 108:5)

The LORD is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens! (Ps. 113:4)

The Lord is Powerful

The Lord is awesome in power (Ps. 66:3)

He gives power and strength to his people (Ps. 68:35)

You are the God who works wonders (Ps. 77:14; 86:10; 92:5)

Lord, you are maker of all things (Ps. 95:5; 96:5)

O LORD my God, you are very great! You are clothed with splendor and majesty, 2 covering yourself with light as with a garment, stretching out the heavens like a tent. (Ps. 104:1-2)

Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure. (Ps. 147:5)

The Lord is Worthy of Praise

From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the LORD is to be praised! (Ps. 113:3)

This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. (Ps. 118:24)

I give you thanks, O LORD, with my whole heart; before the gods I sing your praise; (Ps. 138:1)

Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable. (Ps. 145:3)

Psalms 148-150 all call to various parts of creation to praise God loudly and with instruments. These are calls to praise more than praises themselves. Even though I don’t pull from these Psalms, you can shape them into Go-directed praises with a little bit of modification.   .

The Lord Helps the Needy and Oppressed.

The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. (Ps. 9:9)

The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. (Ps. 34:18)

He is the Father of the fatherless and protector of widows (Ps. 68:5)

The LORD works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed. (Ps. 103:6)

For he stands at the right hand of the needy one, to save him from those who condemn his soul to death. (Ps. 109:31)

He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, (Ps. 113:7)

The LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. (Ps. 146:8)

He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. (Ps. 147:3)

Epilogue: Short Prayers for Help to our Praiseworthy God:

Help me, O LORD my God! Save me according to your steadfast love! (Ps. 109:26)

Save us, we pray, O LORD! O LORD, we pray, give us success! (Ps. 118:25)

Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes! (Ps. 119:12)

I call to you; save me, that I may observe your testimonies. 147 I rise before dawn and cry for help; I hope in your words. (Ps. 119:146-147)

I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? 2 My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. (Ps. 121:1-2)

Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maidservant to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he has mercy upon us. (Ps. 123:2)

I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; (Ps. 130:5)

Deliver me from my enemies, O LORD! I have fled to you for refuge. 10 Teach me to do your will, for you are my God! Let your good Spirit lead me on level ground!  (Ps. 143:9-10)

The LORD upholds all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down. 15 The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. 16 You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing. (Ps. 145:14-16)

End Notes

[1] Brother Lawrence and Frank Laubach, Practicing His Presence (Library of Spiritual Classics, vol. 1. Sargent, GA: Seed Sowers, 1973)

[2] As I was thinking about making a list of praises to aid myself in practicing God’s presence, I read  A Testament of Devotion by Thomas Kelly (New York: HarperCollins, 1992). In this work he suggests “seizing upon a fragment of a Psalm” as an aid to constant connection. God seemed to be confirming to me that I needed to stop thinking about making a list, and actually make this list.

John’s Journey: The Road to Eternal Life

Many Christians have heard of “The Roman Road to Salvation.” In this short post, I am going to also recommend something I call: “John’s Journey to Eternal Life.”

The Roman Road is not a literal road, but a series of verses from the New Testament book of Romans. These verses simply summarize the steps of faith one must take to “be saved.” Being saved can mean a whole lot of things in the Bible (and in various religious circles), but on the basic level it means to be in a right relationship with God. Different versions of the Roman Road exist; some contain several verses and others just a basic few. Here is the most basic form of the Roman Road:

  • All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (Romans 3:23)
  • For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)
  • But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
  • If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. (Romans 10:9-10)

The Roman Road is a simple way to share some fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith while also guiding people in how to become a Christian. The difficulty with the Roman Road is that people who are totally unfamiliar with Jesus usually want to read about His life and work, especially if they just believed and confessed that Jesus died for their sins and was raised from the dead. At that point, we usually suggest reading one of the Gospels that contain narratives about Jesus’ life and teachings. For this reason, I prefer to use a “Roman Road” from one of the Gospels so that the series of verses (the road) then are reinforced and read in context. Such a series of verses can be found in John’s Gospel.

John’s Journey: The Road to Eternal Life

When seekers or new Christians ask for a good book of the Bible “to start with,” I often suggest the Gospel of John. The Gospel of John is a narrative of Jesus’ life, death, and teachings. Most people prefer stories to propositions, and John’s Gospel paints a picture of Jesus’ identity and mission through interactions and dialogue. Because John’s Gospel is a preferred place for unchurched people to begin their exploration of Jesus and the Christian faith, I suggest a selection of verses from the Gospel of John that functions like the Roman Road. I call it “John’s Journey to Eternal Life.” After sharing John’s Journey to Eternal life, one can suggest reading the whole Gospel of John as a next step. Whether the verses simply peak someone’s interest or compel someone to saving faith, they can read more about Jesus for themselves. Without further adieu, here is my version of John’s Journey to Eternal Life:

  • The journey to eternal life begins with God’s initiative and gracious gift: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
  • Apart from God, we are perishing as we choose evil over good: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” (John 3:19)
  • What should we do in response to God’s gift and our sin? Believe in that gift: “Then they said to Jesus, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ (John 6:28-29)
  • What does it mean to believe? We believe in who Jesus claimed to be, that He died for our sins, and He rose from the dead. Here are two scriptures:
  1. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11)
  2. Then (the resurrected) Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.”  Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:27-29)

Additional scriptures (like John 1:14 or 8:24) can be added for emphasis, but keeping things concise works best. After all, we hope that this will be just the beginning of someone’s journey to eternal life.

While I prefer to use John’s Gospel to introduce people to Christ, getting people to look into the scriptures themselves is the most important thing. Whether you prefer the “Roman Road” or “John’s Journey: Road to Eternal Life,” the path toward eternity with God is too great a gift not to share!

Visions of Doom and Hope: A Contextual Bible Study in the Book of Ezekiel

Click here for a free pdf copy of my contextual Bible study guide to the Book of Ezekiel.

Why study Ezekiel? Despite its neglect in contemporary Christianity, Ezekiel addresses many relevant issues for Christian living and thought. Overwhelmingly, Ezekiel speaks to both the justice and grace of God; it shows how a holy God must judge even as He plans to restore. In addition, the book of Ezekiel introduces important concepts that help us understand the scriptures as a whole. Concepts like: the importance of the exile in understanding the biblical story line, idolatry, what is the nature of biblical prophecy and how do we understand it, false prophecy, end times prophecy, God’s glory presence, the role of leaders in the faith community, the Holy Spirit, God’s plan for renewal, and the sacrificial system.

Ezekiel presents challenges due to its length (48 chapters!), its sometimes bizarre and scandalous prophecies, and the disagreement about when and how those prophecies are fulfilled. Nevertheless, we deepen our faith and our understanding when we tackle the difficult passages and pay attention to the “whole counsel of scripture.” Too many Christians have a shallow understanding and faith because they have only encountered the “easy” and palatable scriptures-often taken out of context. 

 Method: This study encourages a contextual reading of Ezekiel. A contextual reading means the specific chapters and verses are read in light of the whole section in which they appear. The study guide constantly reviews previous material and relates each chapter to the larger context and section. Participants are expected to not only read the assigned chapters for that week beforehand, but re-read the whole section when possible. Even though I have tried to balance brevity and depth, averaging more than two chapters a week requires selectivity in what is covered. Even at this rapid, but responsible pace, the sad truth is that any study over 10 weeks requiring preparation probably will see half the initial participants drop out by the end. Such a tendency cannot prevent us from diving into the longer books of scripture. Otherwise, we will never mine the riches of many Old Testament books, and we will settle for a few out of context proof texts.

The study guide deals mostly with unpacking the text and its themes. When I actually led this study, I ended each session with how to apply the text to our lives. I have not included the application section to encourage each group to apply the text to their own situations. Because we are dealing with chapters at a time, there are usually several applications, and I would choose the one I felt most relevant to my group or to contemporary events. Whether your group leader decides to wax eloquent on an application or not, the discussion questions draw participants into application as well.

I hope you find this study guide helpful for your own personal or group study. You have my permission to copy and distribute this study for non-profit purposes.

Become a monk? Yes!

As I have been concluding this series of posts from my out of print book, When God Gives a Time Out,  I have focused on “time out prevention.” Before we are put in time out, we self regulate by intentionally stopping and listening for God. Last month we talked about the preventative power of journaling.  Today’s post discusses the masters of giving themselves time out – monks!

Have you ever wanted to get a nice bald patch on the top of your head and wear a long camel hair robe?  No, me either, but I do want to be a monk.  There were (and are) some monks that totally missed the boat.  There were some monks trying to escape from family, some monks who liked the power that the medieval church gave them, and some monks who were monks out of superstition.  There were (and are), however, some monks that were on to something spiritually.  No, I don’t mean the haircut, although I have seen some aging men reluctantly sporting the “tonsure” and I am on my way.  What the monks were on to was their effort to include God in every aspect of their life.  Every activity, no matter how mundane, was done in the presence of the Father.  Monks sought to tune into the voice of God at any and all times.  Listen to what William of St. Thierry, a monk of the 1100s, wrote in his work The Golden Epistle,

“For that is your (a monk’s) profession, to seek the very face of God which Jacob saw, he who said: ‘I have seen the Lord face to face and yet my life was not forfeit.’ To ‘seek the face of God’ is to seek knowledge of him face to face, as Jacob saw him. . . . This piety is the continual remembrance of God, an unceasing effort of the mind to know him, an unwearied concern of the affections to love him, so that, I will not say every day, but every hour finds the servant of God occupied in the labor of ascesis and the effort to make progress, or in the sweetness of experience and the joy of fruition.  This is the piety concerning which the Apostle exhorts his beloved disciple in the words: ‘Train yourself to grow up in piety; for training of the body avails but little, while piety is all-availing, since it promises well both for this life and for the next’.  The habit (the robe) you wear promises not only the outward form of piety but its substance, in all things and before all things, and that is what your vocation demands.”

William of St. Thierry, The Golden Epistle, trans. by Theodore Berkeley (Kalamazoo, MI.: Cistercian Publications, 1980) p. 18-19.

That is the kind of monk I want to be!  William clearly stated that all the monk stuff, including the snazzy robe, is secondary to the monk’s primary vocation of knowing God.  The goal is “an unceasing effort of the mind to know him, an unwearied concern of the affections to love him.”  In short, the goal is relationship. To hone their relationship with God, and their ability to hear His voice, many monks went into an extended period of time out.  Their goal was the same one that has been written about in this book – remove the distractions, all the tasks, and focus on God’s voice.  In William’s order, monks had what he called “cells” in which they spent their alone time with God.  Of these time outs with God, William further wrote,

“If anyone does not posses this (the desire to know God as written about above) in his heart, display it in his life, practice it in his cell, he is to be called not a solitary but a man who is alone, and his cell is not a cell for him but a prison in which he is immured.  For truly to be alone is not to have God with one  . . . the cell should never involve immurement imposed by necessity but rather be the dwelling-place of peace, and inner chamber with closed door, a place not of concealment but of retreat.” 

William of St. Thierry, The Golden Epistle, trans. by Theodore Berkeley(Kalamazoo, MI.: Cistercian Publications, 1980) p. 19

Twenty first century Christians need a “cell”, not a literal place as much as any place to go and connect with God.  Like the monk’s cell, time outs are not for us to be alone and hide ourselves from a stressful and hostile world.  Time outs are “not for concealment but retreat,” retreat meaning openly resting in the company of the Father, Friend, and Savior.  The location is not important, but the monks saw the value of having a place where there were no distractions.  Each monk had a place where there was nothing to do except connect with God in a transparent, honest, and meaningful way. 

The goal of the time out, or the cell, is to take time to hear God’s voice and train ourselves.  We train because at first we may only be able to hear God while solitary.  The goal, however, is to eventually be able to listen to God when in a crowd or engaged in activity.  This growth does not mean that one graduates from having to take time outs.  No matter how mature a Christian is he/she still needs time to focus on God alone.  To use the theme of this book, it is like a child who needs a time out because there are too many distractions and they can’t hear the parent’s voice.  When the child is almost an adult, they have hopefully matured to a point that when their parent speaks to them in the store they can immediately focus on the parent’s voice. (However, when this child later gets married they may have to battle selective hearing when it comes to their spouse.)  The parent-child relationship still needs some one-on-one time to continue growing – but doing things together actually helps the relationship rather than takes away from it.  The goal of a monk is to live in God’s presence and hear Him at all times, not just while alone or in time out. 

When the principle behind taking a time out (listening to God) begins to infiltrate all of life, then we are starting to “practice His presence” as Brother Lawrence describes it.  Brother Lawrence was a 17th century monk who sought to knowingly enjoy God’s presence in every aspect of his life.  His life of devotion to hearing the Father’s voice is described this way,

“That when he (Brother Lawrence) had thus in prayer filled his mind with great sentiments of that infinite Being, he went to his work appointed in the kitchen (for he was cook to the society); there having first considered severally the things his office required, and when and how each thing was to be done, he spent all the intervals of his time, as well before as after his work, in prayer.

That, when he began his business, he said to GOD, with a filial trust in Him, ‘O my GOD, since Thou art with me, and I must now, in obedience to Thy commands, apply my mind to these outward things, I beseech Thee to grant me the grace to continue in Thy Presence; and to this end do Thou prosper me with Thy assistance, receive all my works, and possess all my affections.’

As he proceeded in his work, he continued his familiar conversation with his Maker, imploring His grace, and offering to Him all his actions.

When he had finished, he examined himself how he had discharged his duty; if he found well, he returned thanks to GOD; if otherwise, he asked pardon; and without being discouraged, he set his mind right again, and continued his exercise of the presence of GOD, as if he had never deviated from it. ‘Thus,’ said he, ‘by rising after my falls, and by frequently renewed acts of faith and love, I am come to a state, wherein it would be as difficult for me not to think of GOD, as it was at first to accustom myself to it.’

As Bro. Lawrence had found such an advantage in walking in the presence of GOD, it was natural for him to recommend it earnestly to others; but his example was a stronger inducement than any arguments he could propose. His very countenance was edifying; such a sweet and calm devotion appearing in it, as could not but affect the beholders. And it was observed, that in the greatest hurry of business in the kitchen, he still preserved his recollection and heavenly-mindedness. He was never hasty nor loitering, but did each thing in its season, with an even uninterrupted composure and tranquility of spirit. ‘The time of business,’ said he, ‘does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clutter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess GOD in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Sacrament.’”

Brother Lawrence The Practice of the Presence of God, Reprint of the 1895 edition. Martino Publishing 2016.

When I read about Brother Lawrence, I get that inner “YES!” “Yes”, because I am happy that someone achieves such constant contact with God.  “Yes”, because I deeply desire to be in the Father’s presence in this way. 

Do you want to be a monk yet?  I do.  I want my primary profession to be knowing God and hearing His voice, like what William of St. Thierry wrote about.  I want to be so deeply aware of God’s presence that I can hear his voice even when I am doing dishes, like Brother Lawrence. 

While monks would go off into their cells to hone their ability to hear God, they also had their faith community to spur them on once they were out of their cell.  Younger monks had elders and all monks had one another to hold them to the task of knowing God.  When a monk got too caught up in doing works for God, he hopefully had someone like Brother Lawrence step in to refocus him.  The monks had a community to keep them focused and balanced.  

Here in the 21st century, we non-monks also have a community to keep us focused.  We have our church.  Even if our church seems to be a distraction, there is nothing stopping us from carving out a group of like-minded believers that will hold us to our goal of being a monk.  In a small group of believers we can help one another overcome things that distract us from God, and we can be co-laborers in striving to practice God’s presence.   Monks are experts in the art of giving themselves a time out.  Find others who desire to live in God’s presence and spur one another on to becoming monks. Robes and haircut optional.

Questions to Ponder

Are the goals of a monk, as talked about in this chapter, consistent with your goals?

Do you have a “cell” or place that facilitates your connection with God?

What are your feelings about the connection with God that Brother Lawrence had?  Is this possible for you?  Why or why not?

Re-hearing through Journaling

The first several posts from my out of print book, “When God Gives a Time Out”  established that we often have the compulsion to do things. Sometimes this compulsion arises from our need to be esteemed or our need for achievement.  God may give us a time out to remove the distracting activity and grow our relationship with Him. The last three posts have moved on to “time out prevention” as we intentionally stop and listen for God. Last month we talked about “prayer snatchers” and the Sabbath principle. Today’s post will cover the preventative power of journaling.  

The following is a common occurrence in many households: A parent sits their child down to ensure that their corrective instructions are heard clearly.  They walk away confident that the child has understood what was said.  Ten minutes later the child is doing the same thing that was just talked about.  The parent asks with frustration, “Why are you doing that again?  Didn’t I just explain why that is bad?”  The response is, “I’m sorry, I forgot.”  What is amazing is that the child did actually forget.  Yes, the heart to heart conversation occurred only ten minutes ago, but it doesn’t take the child long to get caught up in doing stuff again.  The child becomes so focused on activity that the instructions are quickly forgotten.  Before we chuckle at the flightiness of youth we should look in the mirror. 

Every few months I look back through my journal and I usually find some word from God that I have since forgotten. I heard the message clearly and was impressed enough to write it down.  As life started to kick into high gear, however, all the activity crowded the message from my active memory. The journal entry may have been prompted by a great time out, but I either need another time out or I need to re-hear the message.  Instead of being stuck in time out, I prefer to re-hear the message.  Journaling allows us to re-hear what God has said. 

When I look through my journal and discover a forgotten encounter with God, I have two reactions.  My first reaction is one of repentance for forgetting and not continuing in what God has said.  My second reaction is thankfulness that I don’t need another time out to hear the same message.  As I read my journal, I can re-hear and reapply God’s words.  If I hadn’t written anything down, the message would have remained forgotten. 

The process of writing something down, in itself, helps us remember.  Along with the mental image or impression from God, we have the visual and tactile impression from writing it down.  In addition, we read that same encounter again in a month or in a year and if we still remember it, the message is reinforced. Journaling can be thought of as time out prevention.  God gives us a message and through the process of journaling, the message is received and applied.  God doesn’t need to give us a time out because we have heard (or re-heard) what He has said to us.

The primary reason that I wrote When God Gives a Time Out was to re-hear the messages that God had impressed upon me in my time outs.  As I collected thoughts, memories, journal entries, and notes from my Bible, I started to see a pattern to God’s hand in my life. The larger, deeper, and more eternal picture usually becomes clearer when we are able to look back over life and see what God has done.  Journaling, or writing, is the camera that captures the pictures of time spent with the Father.  As these pictures are put together, an epic of personal salvation history and sanctification appear.  Are there scenes missing from your life’s epic story because you forgot them?   

God often told the prophets to write down His words so that the people could re-hear His message after some time had passed.  In Jeremiah 36: 2- 3, the Lord told Jeremiah the prophet,

“Take a scroll and write on it all the words which I have spoken to you concerning Israel and concerning Judah, and concerning all the nations, from the day I first spoke to you, from the days of Josiah, even to this day. Perhaps the house of Judah will hear all the calamity which I plan to bring on them, in order that every man will turn from his evil way; then I will forgive their iniquity and their sin.”

God had spoken to the Israelites for some time and they didn’t listen.  God instructed Jeremiah to write the message down so the Israelites could re-hear “all the calamity which I plan to bring on them” and repent.  In fact, when the king burned the scroll that Jeremiah had produced, God told Jeremiah to write the scroll again so that the message would be preserved and re-heard. 

Ultimately, Israel did not heed the message and they were sent into the 70-year time out known as the exile. The writings of Jeremiah would be a valuable teaching tool to the Israelites during and after the exile.  Because the message was written down, the Israelites knew that God had indeed spoken as what was foretold came to pass.  During the exile, Jeremiah’s writings encouraged the Jewish people since God had also delivered a message that one day Israel would be restored. The people read and re-heard the message and it gave them hope.  When their time out was over, the Jewish people preserved Jeremiah’s writings so that generation after generation could re-hear the message that they had failed to hear.

 The Bible is a collection of messages from God that we all need to hear and re-hear.  God directed faithful men to preserve his words because He knew that every generation would need to re-hear some of the same teachings.  In this sense, journaling does have biblical precedent. Of course, our journal writing is not on par with scripture, but it does serve to preserve the more particular, individual dealing between God and each one of us.  God will not say or do something that contradicts His message in scripture.  He does, however, deal with each of us particularly.  When we start to doubt His individual dealings with us, when we forget God’s words to us in particular, we have a choice.  We can re-hear His words in our journals or we can wait for a time out to hear the message we did not hear the first (or twentieth) time.  Of course, if we haven’t journaled and have forgotten God’s word to us then we don’t have the opportunity to re-read (rehear) the message.  We miss the blessing of being reminded that God is active and vocal in our lives here and now.  Journaling preserves the epic history of God’s personal dealings with each of us.  This history can be brought to bear on our current faith struggles.  We all need to be reminded and rehear all that God has said and done in our lives. Journaling preserves these personal, intimate dealings and reminds us that God is alive and active in our lives. 

Questions to Ponder

How could you fit journaling into your life?

Can you remember a time when you forgot something that God impressed upon you, and needed to relearn it at a later time?

Invasion of the Prayer Snatchers

For the month of January 2021 my church is focusing on prayer. Through intentional prayer we give ourselves a “time out” to hear God’s voice and draw closer to Him. Hearing God’s voice can be difficult. Thoughts and distractions often invade our minds and snatch away our prayers. In this post, I share a chapter from my out of print book, When God Gives a Time Out, that deals with this issue.

(Click here: “An Introduction to Time Outs” if you want to start with chapter 1 of When God Gives a Time Out.)

There is a wonderful spot in New Salem, Massachusetts called Bear’s Den. Two small waterfalls cascade around a large boulder, and built into the boulder is a natural granite chair. When I lived in New Salem I would sit in that granite chair and listen for God.  That place was full of natural beauty but I especially liked the sound of the rushing water.  When I first arrived at the waterfalls, I always was surprised at how loud the water sounded. By the time I was ready to leave I had become so accustomed to the sound of the water that I no longer heard it. At first, I heard the sound of the water whether I tried or not.  Later, I had to focus my hearing to be able to hear the sound of the water. 

This “disappearing water sound” reminds me of how easily the voice of God gets tuned out in my life.  For those of you who are not the outdoorsy type just think about how loud your dishwasher sounds when you first turn it on. After a while, you go about the house and don’t even realize when it stops running. 

 We stop hearing the falling water or the dishwasher partly because that is how the human brain works. Our brains (specifically, a part of our brains known as the reticular activating system) screen out background noise so we can focus on the task at hand. Screening out falling water and dishwashers can be handy, but screening out the ever-present God is always a tragedy.  Because God can, and usually does, speak past our physical ears, our brains’ reticular activating system is not really the problem.  The real culprit is our short attention span and our spiritual attention deficit disorder.  We have trouble staying focused on one thing for very long, even things we need or enjoy, like the falling water or the voice of our Heavenly Father.  Our attention shifts so easily. 

Marketing firms have made a science out of catching people’s attention.  Research indicates that Americans are getting shorter attention spans and marketers know this.  Commercials are becoming more image-driven as so many companies strive to make an impression before the remote control goes “click.”  Americans and their children are being conditioned to take in an image or information quickly and move on.  Not only are we consumers, we are now super efficient consumers who take in as much as possible in a short time.  No wonder we have an attention deficit problem. 

This pattern affects our relationship with God.  In fact, you probably have felt the effects of our attention deficit culture during your prayer time. Does the following sound familiar: One day, you are actually disciplined enough to have an hour of “time out.”  You take a few minutes to open your Bible and ask God to speak to you through His word. You read a chapter of scripture and see a couple of interesting verses after which you ask God to help your children, your spouse and your church (Most people stop their time out here). Feeling you want to really hear from God you leave your prayer line open and sit quietly, waiting for whatever God may say.  About ten minutes later you realize that you haven’t been open to God, you’ve been thinking about whatever task you need to begin after your prayer time concludes. A little disappointed with yourself, you press on with the remaining thirty minutes and let God know that you are listening again. 

Twenty minutes later the following thought fills your mind: “I wonder what happened to the credit card bill that I misplaced the other day.  Can I get another one issued?  Did I check under the pile of papers on the counter?”  Once more you realize that you are not praying, listening, or connecting to God in any way.   Frustrated that you were not praying or listening to God, you leave your quiet time early so you can at least get something done.  

 Oh yes, another devotional time ruined by an invasion of the prayer snatchers.  Although the prayer snatchers have invaded Christian minds for centuries,[i] the American way of life leaves us particularly vulnerable to an invasion of these life-draining aliens.  We want to listen to God and when we actually carve out some time to connect with Him, thoughts, alien to God and the purpose at hand, invade our heads and take our prayer time captive. Our devotional “time out” may have started well as God spoke to us through our Bible reading, but before God could elaborate and clarify what this word meant for our lives we are thinking about finding that lost credit card bill! With a short attention span, these prayer snatchers invade our mind and distract us from hearing God’s voice. 

 How do we turn the invasion back?  Prevention through a good defense is probably the best answer.  Actively trying to cultivate a regular Sabbath time as written about in the previous post acclimatizes our minds to being open for an extended period of time.  It is harder for the prayer snatcher to invade when our minds are in the habit of focusing on God.  This habit doesn’t develop if we give up on a time out because we were invaded the first several times we tried. No, habits take a while to develop and eventually the invasions become more infrequent (However, these prayer snatchers are a tricky sort so we are always susceptible to a surprise attack).

Meditation is a helpful discipline to train our minds to have a longer attention span.  I don’t mean emptying your mind in an eastern religious sense, but readying your mind to receive what God may say to you.  Meditation is intentionally focusing your mind to train your attention span. Meditating on a scripture, promise, or attribute of God to get your mind accustomed to extended focus may be helpful. Meditation may starts out feeling very unnatural-like an extended forced thinking.  With practice you may develop a general ability to open your mind to God for an extended period of time. As with all habits, building up an acute and extended focus through practicing meditation takes time.  This focus is also a means to an end.  I know many non-believers who can focus their minds on the word “Ohm” for hours.  They may have more attention span and more ability to focus than most people, but they do not have more of the God of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Meditation in a Christian sense builds our minds’ defenses against the thought invasions and towards extended focus on God. 

Another preventive measure is using your short attention span and thirst for novelty to help instead of hinder.  Go to a new or inspiring place for a time out.  For instance, after going three straight weeks to my waterfall I went to a scenic lookout. The overlook impressed me with the power and transcendence of God.  Another time, I may go into my room and be impressed with the closeness and intimacy of God.  I also like to read a chapter of a Christian book or listen to a podcast during my time out so that I can get a fresh perspective as God speaks through a fellow believer.  By trying new places or things in our quiet times we are attempting to walk up to the river anew so we can hear the water as we did at first. Of course I don’t mean new in a heretical sense, I mean new as in looking at the same diamond from a different angle. The market research gurus tell us that attention spans are slightly longer for new things.  We can focus on God longer, and prevent the invasion of the prayer snatchers, if we shake away from the same old routine.  This change up may entail not journaling for a while because it has become ritual.  We may need to fast to break free from our routine or pray with someone as part of our time out. “The Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” and that is why sometimes we need to trick our flesh. When we break free from our routine, it is harder for the prayer snatchers to invade and easier to keep our focus on God. 

 What is one to do in the middle of an invasion? Is there any way to turn back these pernicious thoughts once the invasion starts? A method that works for me (recommended by Richard Foster)[ii] is lifting up the invading thoughts to God. Here’s how it works:  You are praying or listening for God and you start thinking about that credit card bill.  As soon as you realize that you are being invaded, turn the invasion over to God.  Pray about what you are thinking or feeling.  Your prayer may sound something like this: “God, I keep thinking about this bill.  I know my finances are in your hand.  Help me to find this bill and turn over the problem to you. Take this thought from my mind and hold it for now.  Bring it back when I can deal with it effectively.  As for now speak because your servant is listening.”  

You have engaged the invading thought. You have lifted it up to God, and now you are ready for whatever comes next. This method is effective for several reasons. Because you have actually engaged the thought, it doesn’t just keep banging on the door in the background of your mind. However, aliens in your house are very distracting if they stay; so you ask for God’s help in dealing with the problem. Not only does lifting the thought up to God keep your focus on God, but it actually asks God to bring His power to bear on the problem.  Lastly, this method leaves us open to more possibilities. Perhaps God is the one bringing this thought into your head.  He often speaks to me in this manner. If you give an invading thought to God to hold and He keeps returning it to you, perhaps He is speaking to you.  If you continue to be invaded by credit card thoughts, then meditate on that thought.  Ask God what about the bill is really getting you worried.  Is the bill itself the issue or finances as a whole?  Perhaps God brought the invading thought as a goad to speak to you about the larger issue.  Perhaps He wants to guide you in that area.  By lifting up the invading prayer snatcher to God, you can discern if the thought is a distraction or if it comes in peace (or from the Prince of Peace to be exact). 

 What frustrates us all is when we actually show discipline in our life and carve out a Sabbath time, or monkishly practice God’s presence, or journal, and that time out gets invaded and wasted on thoughts alien to our God connection.  We are not helpless, however.  We can build up our defenses to prevent the invasion of our time outs, and we can call in God’s heavy artillery.  Whatever method we decide to employ is a means to an end–hearing God’s still small voice.  Instead of invasion, we will enjoy a time when God’s voice is just as clear and soothing as when we first walked up to that cascade of living water.        

Questions to Ponder

How often do the prayer snatchers invade your quite time? 

Can you identify certain situations that invite invasion?

How do you think you could best train your mind to prevent invasion and stay open to God?

Invasion of the Prayer Snatchers-Endnotes

[i] William of St. Thierry, The Golden Epistle, trans. by Theodore Berkeley(Kalamazoo, MI.: Cistercian Publications, 1980) p. 34.

[ii] Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988) p30.

The Sabbath Principle

The first several posts from my out of print book, “When God Gives a Time Out”  established that we often have the compulsion to do things. Sometimes this compulsion arises from our need to be esteemed or our need for achievement.  God may give us a time out to remove the distracting activity and grow our relationship with Him. Today’s post moves on to how we can give ourselves a time out to hear the voice of God.  Intentionally stopping and listening for God is what the Bible connects to the Sabbath. 

Click here: “An Introduction to Time Outs” if you want to start with chapter 1 of When God Gives a Time Out.

After God finished creating this universe, He took a break. God doesn’t get tired, so why did He take a rest?  I believe He took a rest because for a time, there was no need to do anything else.  After creation, it was time for God to relate to and enjoy what He had made.  I also believe that God was providing a powerful example.  If God, who needs no break, took a break – then people, who tire easily, should take a break.  Whatever the reason God rested, scripture tells us that God wants us to take a time out.  Look through all the Sabbath scriptures in the Bible and it becomes clear that God wants us to have time outs, or Sabbaths to ensure that we have time to connect with God.  In the biblical world, one could become caught up with work because it was a struggle just to survive.  The compulsion constantly to do things arose from a need for security rather than a need for esteem or a chemical rush.  If one was constantly working, then one felt more secure from starvation or invasion.  Although this reason may seem nobler than our modern day reasons for being addicted to busyness, God knew that it was equally distracting.  Whenever people are driven to constantly do things the end result is always difficulty in hearing the voice of God.  God wanted Israel to have at least one day out of seven to work on knowing Him.  The book of Exodus explains it this way:

“The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘But as for you, speak to the sons of Israel’, saying, ‘You shall surely observe My Sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you. Therefore you are to observe the Sabbath, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall surely be put to death. So the sons of Israel shall observe the Sabbath, to celebrate the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the sons of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased from labor, and was refreshed.”

Exodus 31:12-17 (Italics mine)

This time out in the week was for Israel to know that God sanctifies them.  This is the overarching principle that we spoke of earlier.  We are dependant on God to sanctify us and grow us into what we were meant to be.  We cannot sanctify ourselves.  Taking a time out is a step of faith as we acknowledge that we can rest because whatever we are working for (righteousness, security, material things, happiness) is dependant on God – not us.  

 In the above scripture, the Sabbath harkens back to creation.  The Sabbath was considered a sign and a covenant as God’s people remembered that God is the creator of all that they saw and knew.  As Israel mimicked weekly what God did in the beginning, they were acknowledging that God is the creator.  In this way the Sabbath was a “sign” that pointed them to God.  The Sabbath was a covenant in that God set apart (sanctified) Israel as His own people and Israel in turn set a day apart to celebrate and connect with the God that had established this special relationship. 

For Christians, the principle of rest remains.  God rested so we need to rest unto the Lord.  God sets us apart to be in relationship with Him so we set time apart towards this relationship. Those of us who live in individualistic cultures must remember that God not only sets us apart to be in relationship with Himself, but relationship with His people. We carve out a day of rest in a covenant community that facilitates our connection with God.  It is not that the remaining part of our week is not God’s; we still work in His name, play in His name, doing everything unto Him.  However, we need to give our bodies at least one day to restfully remember God’s creative work and His re-creative work in saving us from death, buying us with His blood, and establishing us as His people.  God’s work allows us to enjoy God all day, everyday, directly through His Son and by the Holy Spirit.

The Sabbath principle is a gift. For the Israelites it was a commandment that required at least one day of rest to remember God, go to temple, etc.  The command was an effective external control to give the Israelites merciful rest and a time when they could do nothing other than worship God. 

In the new covenant the Sabbath principle is still a gift.  We no longer need external controls to bring us to God.  The Holy Spirit living within us drives us to live everyday for God. The Holy Spirit sanctifies our work, play and everything we do.  While everyday is God’s, we still need rest from doing tasks in order to focus on God. We need time to refocus so that our work or play will draw us closer to God instead of distract us from hearing Him.  The Sabbath principle may require rest even from the work of the ministry. Even ministry can distract and hinder us from hearing God if our focus is on the tasks of ministry.

As God’s children, we crawl into the lap of our Father and spend time with Him.  Not just once a week for a day, but everyday we spend a little rest time with the Father. It is important to not think of the Sabbath principle as only a one-day-a-week practice.  The principle extends to our daily lives as we strive to carve out a mini time out every day:  A time when we can be still and know that He is God (Psalm 46:10), a time when we can be silent and listen for His voice. 

Is there a day, or a good chunk of a day, that you can spend resting in the presence of God?  Perhaps Sunday is a good day for you because observing Sabbath in community naturally carries into the whole day.  For me, Sunday is often a busy day spent doing church work. I previously set aside Mondays as my Sabbath but I am currently taking Fridays. The goal is to have a sizeable time during the week when I can stop performing tasks and focus on the Father’s voice.  I have this same goal on a daily basis.  For me, first thing in the morning is my best time to take a time out and connect with God.  I know others who take a time out at night, or at lunch.  The particular time doesn’t matter, what matters is that I am intentional about building into my day a time to be still and know God.  I have found that if I don’t plan on this time, and specifically build it into my day, I don’t follow through.  Even when I actually set aside time in my calendar, I sometimes neglect this time out. The important concept to remember is that taking a Sabbath is a means to an end.  If a time out is missed, we are not ruined.  We still have the end goal – relationship with God.  We also still have the next minute, hour and day to connect with God.  We build time outs in our schedule to hear God’s voice, but hopefully they are just what we fall back on to make sure we have some connection time.  The truth is we can take mini time outs any time, anywhere.  We use our planned time outs to hone our ability to hear the Father’s voice all day.  It requires only a minute to kick back from the computer screen and check in with God.  When we are stuck in traffic we can tell the Father we are ready to listen.  When the kids are actually occupying themselves we can go to the next room and listen for His voice.  What begins with our planned Sabbaths, with God’s grace, can become a whole life tuned to hearing the Father’s voice.  This is the kind of life that the monks of old strived for and a life that even us Joe Shmoes can taste.

Questions to Ponder

Do you currently follow the Sabbath principle? Do you observe the Sabbath both in community and individually?

What day or parts of days would be easiest for you to set aside?   Could your spouse or friend hold you accountable and help you keep a Sabbath time?

When is the best time for you to take a “mini time out” each day? 

The Biblical Principle for Breaking Bad Compulsions- a Look into Romans 7-8.

The last few posts from my out of print book, “When God Gives a Time Out”  established that we often have the compulsion to do things. Sometimes this compulsion arises from our need to be esteemed or our need for achievement.  God may give us a time out to remove the distracting activity and grow our relationship with Him. Today’s post moves on to how we begin to break our compulsions (whether it is a habit to do or other sinful pattern) through our trust in God.

Let’s assume you trust God to break your habit to do. You don’t know, however, how that trust should play out in your everyday life.  What is your part in this?  Subsequent posts will suggest how you can give yourself a time out to hear the voice of God.  Incorporating some of these suggestions into your life is a way of breaking the habit to do as you become more intentional about stopping and listening to God.  However, there is an overarching principle to breaking any sin habit or compulsion. All of our attempts at intentionally giving ourselves a time out must flow from this principle.  This principle is articulated in the book of Romans, chapters 7 and 8.  Because these scriptures are the key to understanding how we are to participate in God’s work of freeing us from sin habits, I have devoted this post to going through this passage of scripture.

(Click here: “An Introduction to Time Outs” if you want to start with chapter 1 of When God Gives a Time Out.)

Romans 7 and 8 are the Apostle Paul’s answer for breaking any sin habit, which includes our habit to do.  Let us take a deeper look into these chapters to learn God’s plan for breaking sin patterns in our life. We pick up Paul’s argument at Romans 7:4:  

“4Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God. 5For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death. 6But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.”

Romans 7:4-6 (NASB)

The “therefore” in Paul’s argument refers back to the fact that believers have died to the law and are no longer bound to the Old Testament law but bound to Christ. Being joined to Christ is the key to breaking free from our sin habit.  The law, however, is an inadequate way of breaking a sin habit.  Remember, this sin habit can be our addiction to do, or a sin habit concerning lustful thoughts, or any other pattern of sin in our life.  Paul is putting forth a principle that can be applied to any situation where we try to overcome sin.  It is clear that the “law” isn’t effective in overcoming sin. Although Paul is referring to the Old Testament law specifically, this principle applies to any law we try to live by.  This even includes laws like; “I need to be more loving.” or “Don’t lust” or “Be more patient.” The law can be thought of as any command or precept that instructs us what to do or not do. Paul argues in verse 5 that the law actually arouses the sinful passions that we are trying to overcome.  I am sure his readers thought, “Hey Paul, God gave the Old Testament law, are you saying the law is bad?” Anticipating the question, Paul continues,

7What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ 8But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead. 9I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; 10and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; 11for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.”

Romans 7:7-12 (NASB)

Why is the law an inadequate way of breaking a sin habit?  It is inadequate because it merely informs us what is unlawful.  As Paul stated it, if he hadn’t heard the law, “You shall not covet” he wouldn’t have known that coveting was wrong.  Coveting is wrong because it goes against God’s nature and God informs us through the commandments that He doesn’t like coveting.  So the law, or commandment, is good because it is from God.  Other commandments such as love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor, are also good.  Hopefully, as you have read the last few blog posts you also realized that your compulsive doing can interfere with your relationship with God and you need to make changes in order to follow the command, “Let us press on to know the LORD.” (Hosea 6:3)  

The problem with any command (O.T. law or otherwise) or biblical application is that they only inform us what we should do or not do. Before we knew how we were to act – we really didn’t think about it. We may or may not have followed the command, but it was an ignorant kind of sin and not a knowing rebellion against what we know God wants. And that is the rub, isn’t it? Now that we do know, we still break the command. Now our action is no longer a sin alone, it is a sin coupled with open rebellion. That tendency prompted Paul to explain that the commandment, which was supposed to result in life, supposed to result in him being more in touch with God’s will, resulted in his death. So does God give us the law (or any command) to be cruel and kill us?  Paul continues,

13Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me? May it never be! Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful. 14For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. 15For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. 16But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. 17So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. 19For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. 20But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.”

Romans 7:13-20 (NASB)

The apostle is now really addressing the heart of the problem when we try to break a sin habit through the system of the law.  We hear and accept the command, whatever it is, and then we try to follow it. We want to follow the command, but the harder we try the more we seem to fail.  We want to stop coveting, we want to stop esteem seeking, or we want to _____ (you fill in the blank) but we just can’t.  The fact that we want to follow the command means that we agree that the command is good.  We have a sin habit that we want to kick, the knowledge that the behavior is a sin, the desire to act differently, but we just can’t overcome it.  We seem to have this sin in us that doesn’t subject itself to our mind’s commands.  No matter how hard we try to follow a command or Biblical precept, this sin inside us doesn’t listen.  Paul further explains:

“21I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. 22For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, 23but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.”

Romans 7:21-25 (NASB)

Paul likens the inner conflict of overcoming sin to a war. There is a battle between our mind, or inner person, and this “law of sin” in our body. Our inner person wants to serve the law of God. We want to break our compulsive doing that interferes with knowing God, or we want to stop being so judgmental, or we want to pray more, or etc. etc. etc.  But whatever we want to do isn’t achieved because our flesh serves the law of sin, which seeks the easiest path, the most self-centered path, the most rebellious path.  In this war our house is divided and we lose almost every time. 

Theologians often debate whether the apostle Paul is referring to his pre-Christian problems in dealing with sin or a problem that he is currently having as a Christian. I believe that he is mostly talking about his pre-Christian problem since he boldly proclaims that Christ has set him free from this cycle of death. However, I think that the pre- vs. post Christian issue doesn’t really matter in understanding Paul’s main point, which is whenever you try to use a system of law to break a sin habit, you will fail.  Christians who are no longer under the law can still act as if they are under the law when trying to break a sin habit. Instead of joining ourselves to Christ, who set us free from the law (7:4) and sin – we just try harder.  We try and use our will to follow God and beat down our will to sin.  What we do with our sin habits can be likened to a steel cage match. If you have ever watched “professional” wrestling (the kind with Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin, or the Undertaker) you have probably seen a steel cage match. A big steel cage is put over the ring so that no one can escape. This is a fight to the end. There is no running away from the ring.  Whoever is lying unconscious and bloody in the middle of the ring is the loser.  Whoever is left standing and in control is the winner.  Unfortunately when we go into the steel cage with a sin habit, our obedience to the command is usually left paralyzed but that old sin habit is still standing and in control.  Then we really understand what Paul meant back in verse 10 when he said that trying to follow the command is a good idea, but it kills us every time. 

Whenever we try to use our will power to follow a command or biblical precept, we are living as if we are “under the law.”   Although the law is good, it does not justify us before God because we don’t keep the law even when we become like a slave and use everything in our flesh to follow the law.  The law is good but we fall short in trying to make it a reality in our life.  This is the shortcoming of the law. The writer of Hebrews agrees, saying, “For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second.”  The fault wasn’t in the law, or first covenant, but in the following of the law.  This inability to follow the law made us guiltier, since rebellion against the commandment of God was added to the sin.  This cycle of condemnation is at work whenever we put ourselves under a law whether we are Christians or not.  Paul’s point is that Christians don’t have to subject themselves to this “body of death.”  Christ has set us free from the law.

 In Chapter 8, Paul moves from what not to do in dealing with a sin habit to what one needs to do.  He writes,

1Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, 4so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. 6For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, 7because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, 8and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”

Romans 8:1-8

We first must realize that Jesus is the one who justified us.  The law could not justify us “weak as it was through the flesh.”  As was said, the law simply revealed that we were sinners and rebellious.  But what the law couldn’t do, Jesus did.  Jesus, as an “offering for sin” satisfied the debt that we owed as sinners against God.  We are now without sin in God’s eyes and there is no condemnation for us.  We are no longer bound to the law because the law has been met, or fulfilled, already by Jesus on our behalf.  Our gut reaction, our primary assumption must be that Jesus made us right.  No matter how much we follow or don’t follow a biblical precept or command is a secondary consideration.  Christ has set us free.  End of story.  You may be thinking, “Yea, I know this already.” But do you?  If Christ alone has freed us then when we are presented with a biblical command, why is our first reaction to assess our actions?  If we are not keeping the command, we make a plan to be better.  If we are following the command, we are proud.  Our gut reaction isn’t “Oh thank you Jesus – I am right already because of you.”  We must be truly Christ centered.  We are bound to Him now, not to a command, not to a religion, not to a moral code, not to a set of religious acts. Our justification is centered on Christ. Our deep, gut conviction must be that we have already been made right by Christ alone. If this truth is not the lifeblood of our soul then our living righteously is already compromised. 

The same Christ who justified us eternally in the sight of God will enable us to live our life righteously in this life (sanctification). The key is the same. Our sanctification, like our justification, is centered on Christ. Sanctification is the process in which we become more set apart to God and more like Christ.  Sanctification includes breaking sin habits or anything that hinders us from being Christ-like (i.e. compulsive doing or esteem seeking).  If we try to sanctify ourselves by trying harder to follow a command, we are walking according to the flesh. The mind set on anything other than Christ leads to failure and an inability to achieve the very thing we desire (verse 7).  No matter how hard we try, or our motivation for trying, if we are following a command by using our flesh we cannot please God (v.8). We cannot please God because not only do we fail at following the command, we try to complete in our flesh what God initiated through His Spirit. As Paul wrote in Galatians, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” Our deliverance and our victory over any sin habit are found in Christ. Our mind must be set on the Spirit – it must be God centered. When we focus on the command, on trying harder, on judging our performance, we lose touch with our solution. We lose touch with Christ.  We go back to walking in the flesh. Paul continues,

9However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. 10If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. 11But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.”

Romans 8:9-11

If Jesus has truly justified us then God in the person of the Holy Spirit dwells in us.  This is the same Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead.  That power that gave life to Jesus will give life to us. We are no longer subject to this “body of death,” as Paul stated earlier. Instead, the righteousness of Christ is like a wellspring that feeds into our inner person and gives us life. We must stay attached to this life source by setting our minds on Christ and the fact that He makes us right eternally. We also stay attached by setting our minds on the Spirit and His power to live righteously through us now. Our living is more like riding, riding on the Holy Spirit who will cause us to live differently from the inside out. Once we set our minds on the flesh, we are done for. That is what Paul goes on to say in this last section:

12So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. 15For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, ‘Abba! Father!’ 16The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.”

Romans 8:12-17

Trying harder didn’t save us, so we are no longer under any obligation to that method. We are only under obligation to God and it is through our focus on Him that we can follow those commands. We are riding on the coattails of His Spirit, as God lives through us. Naturally, the Spirit lives righteously and as long as we are clinging to Him we live wherever He is.  This is not a spirit of slavery or fear that we are not measuring up to some law. This is the Holy Spirit who reassures us that we are God’s beloved children and that we already have all that we need to become like Him. We no longer have only our spirit versus our flesh. We now also have the Holy Spirit of God and all His power, guidance, and gifts. We don’t have an external set of laws to strive for, we now have an internal advocate who seeks to sanctify us from the inside out. He is our answer when we are stuck in a sin habit. When we want to stop being compulsive about doing things because we want to hear God’s voice, our relationship with Jesus, and the presence of the Holy Spirit, is the answer. Our mind must be set on Christ and our dependence must be on Christ for justification and sanctification. 

This section of Romans must be our guide when addressing any sinful behavior in our life. It is clear that the guiding principle is to depend on and focus on Christ alone to set us free. While our natural inclination may be to try harder, our hope lies not in struggling to obtain what we don’t have, but resting in what we have already.  On Christmas we are reminded that we have Immanuel – “God with us”.  Nothing can separate us from God and His love.  We are irrevocably adopted as His children. This relationship holds the keys to our abundant life both here and in heaven. Doers have a difficult time swallowing this pill. We want a method, a checklist, an action plan. These techniques are not God’s solution. God gives us a time out so that we hear HIS voice.  God gives us a time out so that we will build a relationship with Him – not build a plan or method. If we look to some method or action plan to save us from our deeply ingrained sinfulness then we are trying to use the sin of self-sufficiency to defeat our sinful compulsions. 

In subsequent posts I will share some ideas that may help you focus on God. As the above scripture shows, it is our focus on God that will free us from any sin habit, including compulsive doing. Reading this post, the ideas for giving yourself a time out – none of these are the answer. They are all means to an end, suggestions to help you focus on God. After all, God gives you a time out in order to hear HIS voice, not mine. 

If you choose to follow some of the ideas I present in subsequent posts, know that they must flow from your conviction that focusing on Christ is the answer. The second part of the overall principle found in Romans 7 & 8 is that we are dependant on Christ alone to free us.  This conviction must descend from our heads to our hearts. There is no easy way to do this.  This principle must soak into your soul. Ironically, as you mistakenly depend on your will to sanctify yourself and then fail, this principle will sink deeper into your soul. Whole, deep, dependent living is a process. For now you may need to simply acknowledge this fact. Confess to God that you agree that you are helpless to sanctify yourself. Ask Him to let this truth take root in your heart. As you live your life in God’s presence, being dependant (and slipping up and being not so dependant) this truth will take root. Focus and dependence on God is a life long process grounded in Christ’s loving sacrifice on the cross.

When it comes to life on this earth, we are trying to put ourselves in the presence of God enough that His grace transforms us[i].  It is like getting a suntan.  If we want a tan we need to be in the sun.  We don’t really do the tanning, the sun does. Our part is getting out of the house. Our “doing” keeps us in the house. All of our sin habits keep us in the shadows of a darkened house.

The next few posts contain suggestions to help us get out of the house.  Suggestions like Sabbath observance, journaling, and prayer are not the solution to our habit to do – God is. Of course, we can take these suggestions and practice them compulsively.  If, however, our goal is to be in close relationship to God, then these are means that may help achieve that end. But we must keep in mind the overarching principle that the solution is a focus, and dependence, on Christ. All these suggestions can be considered ways of giving yourself a time out so that you can set your mind on God.  Like a Father with a child, God wants us to be able to mature to the point that we self regulate. Maturity means that God may give us time outs (Amen to that) when we are young. But His hope is that one day He no longer needs to give us time outs because when we start to become spiritually deaf to Him, we give ourselves a kind of time out so that we can refocus on His voice. 

Questions to Ponder

What “Law” have you been trying to follow?

Why is the law an inadequate way of breaking a sin habit

Can you think of a recent example in your life when you would echo Paul’s words, “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate.”?

What is your normal strategy to following a biblical precept?  Can you relate to the “steel cage wrestling match”?

When confronted with a biblical command is your deep, gut conviction that you have already been made right by Christ alone?

Where is your default focus when confronted with your own spiritual shortcomings?  Were you disappointed when the answer to breaking bad compulsions turned out to be, “Focus and dependence on God in a life long process grounded in Christ’s loving sacrifice on the cross” and not  a checklist or method

End Notes

[i] Donald Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines For The Christian Life (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1991) p. 19