An Introduction to Parables and their Interpretation.

 Parables make up about one third of Jesus’ teaching in the Synoptic Gospels. In order to properly understand the Synoptic Gospels, therefore, one must be familiar with the definition, function, and forms of parables.

Because parables vary in their form and usage, it is difficult to construct an accurate but usable definition. Blomberg (1997, 257) gives the very basic definition: “A parable is a brief metaphorical narrative.”  This definition covers the broad usage of parables, but it is so general that further description is needed. A parable consists of a fictional picture or story and a corresponding reality that is better understood through that picture or story. For instance, in Matt 13:31-32 Jesus tells the following parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” The picture or story element is the man who plants a tiny mustard seed that grows into a tree large enough for nesting birds. The reality element, which is better understood through this story, is the kingdom of heaven. Often one has to examine the context of the parable to narrow down what particular meaning the correspondence conveys. In this parable, the smallness of the mustard seed corresponds to the relatively small effect the Kingdom of Heaven seems to have in the present age. However, the kingdom will eventually grow bigger and more influential than anything else in the world (field). Through the picture, Jesus’ hearers gain a deeper understanding of how the Kingdom of Heaven manifests itself.

While parables occur in the broader ancient Hebrew and Greek literature, Jesus seems to have used parables to a greater extent than any of his predecessors. Parables rarely appear in the Old Testament (OT), but Nathan’s rebuke of King David (2 Sam 12:1-10) is the OT parable most similar to Jesus’ parables. Other OT parables are found in: 2 Sam 14:5-20; Isa 5:1-7; Ezek 17:1-10; 19:1-9, 10-14.

Parables prominently feature in the Synoptics, but not in any other New Testament (NT) book (other than two uses of the word “parable” in Heb 9:9; 11:9). Some consider the “Good Shepherd” and “True Vine” passages (John 10:1-18; 15:1-8) as parables, but John seems to employ these as “I am” sayings and not as parables. Regardless, John presents Jesus’ teaching very differently than the Synoptics by not explicitly including parables.

Some parables occur in all three Synoptics, while others appear in only one. The Gospel writers arrange parables in different ways, often grouping them thematically. Sometimes it is difficult to discern if the Gospel writers are reporting the same parable (Matt 25:14-30 & Luke 19:11-27). Perhaps Jesus told variations of a given parable in different places, and the Gospel writers were reflecting those different renditions. Below is a table of parables in the Synoptics, but the reader should understand that such catalogues of parables differ slightly because scholars differ on the exact qualifications of a parable.

Parable TitleMatthewMarkLuke
Parables of the groom, cloth, wineskinsMatt 9:14-17Mark 2:18-22Luke 5:33-39
Blind leading the blind; pupil leading teacher(Matt 15:14) Luke 6:39-40
2 houses built on 2 different types of groundMatt 7:24-27 Luke 6:46-49
A forgiving money lender  Luke 7:40-50
House divided; binding the strong manMatt 12:24-29Mark 3:22-27(Luke 11:15-22) Not binding a strong man, but being stronger.
Parable of the sower/soils receiving seed/word of GodMatt 13:1-23Mark 4:1-20Luke 8:4-15
A lamp is not hiddenMatt 5:15Mark 4:21-23Luke 8:16-18; 11:33
The children and the marketplaceMatt 11:16–19 Luke 7:31–35
Kingdom is like: weeds sown in a fieldMatt 13:24-30, 36-43  
Kingdom is like: seeds’ sudden growth Mark 4:26-29 
A friend at midnight  Luke 11:5-8  
Kingdom is like: mustard seedMatt 13:31-32Mark 4:30-32Luke 13:18-19
Kingdom is like: leavenMatt 13:33-35 Luke 13:20-21
Kingdom is like: hidden treasureMatt 13:44  
Kingdom is like: merchant finding a valuable pearlMatt 13:45-46  
Kingdom is like: a dragnetMatt 13:47-50  
Disciple as head of householdMatt 13:52  
Defiled by what comes out, not what entersMatt 15:10-20Mark 7:14-23 
Kingdom is like: a king forgiving a slave, but that slave not forgivingMatt 18:23-35  
Good Samaritan-loving neighbor  Luke 10:30-37
Folly of building storehouses  Luke 12:13-21
Giving the Fig tree another chance  Luke 13:6-9
Guests taking the more humble seat  Luke 14:7-11
The tower builder and the warring king  Luke 14:28-33
The lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son.Matt 18:12-14; (just lost sheep) Luke 15
The shrewd manager  Luke 16:1-13
The rich man and Lazarus  Luke 16:19-31
A slave just doing what he is supposed to  Luke 17:7-10
The unrighteous judge and the persistent window.  Luke 18:1-8
The praying Pharisee and humble tax-collector.  Luke 18:9-14
Kingdom is like: a landowner hiring workers for vineyardMatt 20:1-16  
Two sons in a vineyardMatt 21:28-32  
Wicked Vine growersMatt 21:33-45Mark 12:1-12Luke 20:9-19
Kingdom is like: a wedding feastMatt 22:1-14 Luke 14:16-24(same parable?)
Fig Tree predicts summerMatt 24:32-33Mark 13:28-29Luke 21:29-31
Servants alert for their master’s returnMatt 24:45f?Mark 13:33-37Luke 12:35-48??
Kingdom is like: 10 virgins waiting for the groom.Matt 25:1-13  
A master goes away and  tasks servants to use his money until he returnsMatt 25:14-30 Luke 19:11-27 (same parable?)

The two most prevalent themes in the parables are the Kingdom of God (the nature of its coming) and citizenship in that kingdom (discipleship). K. Snodgrass (DJG, 599-600) categorizes parables according to what kingdom reality they describe: 1) The kingdom as present. Some parables answer questions concerning how God’s kingdom is present in Jesus’ work and ministry. The parable of the strong man (Matt 12:25-28) means Jesus is plundering Satan’s current domain on earth, and the parable of the leaven (Luke 13:20-21) explains how the kingdom seems to be small at the present time.

2) Kingdom as future. Other parables focus on aspects of the kingdom that are still future. The parables that picture a reckoning or judgment (Matt 22:1-14; 25:14-30) fall into this category, as they encourage faithfulness in preparation for a final day of judgment.

3) Discipleship. Other parables explain what following the heavenly King entails. Being a citizen of Christ’s kingdom requires counting the cost like a warring king (Luke 14:28-32), being like a shrewd manager in the use of earthy wealth for heavenly purposes (Luke l6:1-13), and praying with a humble, tax-collector-like, spirit (Luke 18:9-14).

Guidelines for Interpreting Parables.

 The interpretation of parables has had a tangled history. Within a couple centuries of being written down by the Gospel writers, parables began to be interpreted allegorically by the church fathers. Saint Augustine famously attached allegorical meaning to every detail of the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan represented Christ, the robbers represented the devil, the inn represented the church (which didn’t even exist at the time Jesus spoke the parable), the beaten man represented Adam, and so on. While not all church fathers interpreted the parables allegorically, it was the dominant interpretive method of their day, and it continued to be until after the reformation. In the 1900s the allegorical interpretation was discredited and almost entirely thrown out. It was replaced with an assumption that parables originally contained no allegory and were simple comparisons with only one main point. In contemporary scholarship more balanced literary views have developed that acknowledge that parables may not be allegories, but they can contain allegorical elements. What, then, are some guidelines in interpreting parables?

A. Because parables contain a story/picture part and a reality part, first identify the familiar picture element(s) and the reality or truth being explained. For example in the parable of the forgiving money lender in Luke 7:40-50 the picture/story element is the money lender who forgave one debtor 50 denarii and another debtor 500 denarii. The reality or truth part being explained concerns the relationship between forgiveness and love. While much more needs to be understood about the parable, it is essential to first clarify what part is the story/picture and what is the truth/reality being explained. 

B. Remember the fictional story/picture part of the parable should be interpreted as a fictional composition. As Robert Stein (1994, 137-8) explains, “The picture itself does not describe an actual historical event. It is a fictional creation that came into being out of the mind of its author. . . . We must not confuse a life-like parable, which is a fictional creation, with a biblical narrative referring to a historical event.” The questions we should ask of a parable, therefore, are not about the details of the story, but what spiritual truth the author is trying to highlight with this story. In the example of the forgiving money lender, we should not be asking how the debtors incurred their debt—the creator of the parable did not include that information because it did not help make his point. Usually the details of the story don’t have their own meaning; they simply fill out and support the main picture. The author didn’t intend every detail of the parable to carry its own allegorical meaning totally unknown to the original audience.

C. Search the context for any explanation or interpretation provided by the author. In the above parable of the forgiving money lender, the parable is embedded in a narrative that contains dialogue. Both the narrative and the dialogue point to the spiritual reality that the parable explains. After telling the parable, Jesus compares the Pharisee’s lack of hospitality to the sinful woman’s lavish and loving treatment of Jesus. Jesus then proclaims, “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little” (Luke 7:47). This material after the parable (the context) repeats and applies the spiritual truth that a person’s reception of Jesus (love) flows from the forgiveness received. It is in the context that the spiritual truth/reality part of the parable becomes clear. Some parables’ contexts are not quite so helpful, but context usually gives important clues to the author’s intention.  

In addition to the above guidelines, the Lexham Bible Dictionary provides the following six basic principles for understanding Jesus’ parables.

1.   Understand the social, historical, and cultural context of the parable. For example, in the parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1–8), it helps to know that in the first-century widows often experienced significant hardship and oppression.

2.   Determine the number of points the parable is intended to teach. This may be linked to the number of main characters in the parable (Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables, 174).

3.   Consider to whom the parable is directed. Is the audience being addressed the disciples, the Jewish leaders, or the crowds? The identity of the audience will help indicate the message that the parable was intended to communicate.

4.   Realize that repetition in parables is for the purpose of stressing a major point.

5.   Identify stock symbolism being employed. For example, God is commonly pictured throughout the Bible (and in parables) as a father, king, judge, shepherd, etc.

6.   Note the conclusion of the parable. The last person, deed, or saying often conveys the significance of the parable.

 By applying the above guidelines, one should be able to identify the author’s main point(s), which are closely attached to the spiritual reality the parable pictures.

The Parable of the Sower as a Challenge to the Purpose and Interpretation of Parables.

The parable of the sower (Matt 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-20; Luke 8:4-15) challenges many of the concepts presented above. For one, it suggests that parables were meant to obscure understanding and not increase it. Secondly, Jesus assigns meaning to several of the elements of the parable (like an allegory). It is helpful, therefore, to examine more closely this parable about parables.

With some variation in details, the parable of the soils appears in all three Synoptic Gospels. The main points and context of the parable are mostly consistent in each of the Gospel’s retelling, but for expediency we will examine only Matthew’s version (13:1-23). Jesus tells the parable to a large crowd (13:2). Verses 3-9 describe Jesus’ words to the crowd: “Then he told them many things in parables, saying, ‘A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop– a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. He who has ears, let him hear.’” Using the guidelines above, we first attempt to identify the story part and the reality part of the parable. Up to this point we seem to have the story part, the sowing of seed on various types of soil to various results, but the reality part is unclear. There is no introduction like “the Kingdom of Heaven is like.” Similar to Jesus’ original audience, we are not certain what spiritual reality this story is supposed to help us understand. From Jesus’ religious background, a few clues can be found; seed for sowing was associated with God’s word (Isa 55:10-11; John 4:36-38; 1 Cor 3:6-8) and bearing fruit was a metaphor for godly prosperity (Psa 92:12-14; Isa 5:2; Ezek 17:5-10; John 15:1-8; Rom 7:4). Even with these connections, the main point of the parable remains unclear. We look to the context hoping to find explanation.

In this case, the context does not disappoint; it contains Jesus’ full explanation and interpretation of the parable. Jesus later explains the meaning of the parable privately to the disciples: “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” (Matt 13:18-23)  Seldom are the parables given such a clear and thorough explanation. The story of the sower helps the listeners understand the spiritual reality of the word of God producing varied results among those who hear it.

Jesus’ detailed interpretation raises questions about interpreting parables. The guidelines above state that details of parable should not be given individual allegorical interpretations, but Jesus seems to do just that in his interpretation. Each place the seed lands is given an allegorical meaning that corresponds to different people’s reception of “the message about the kingdom.” This parable shows that although most parables are not simply allegories, they can have allegorical elements. While allegorical interpretation of parables is to be avoided, one must still acknowledge that parables may contain allegorical elements. The meaning of these elements should come from the author or from common metaphors of the author’s culture—not from the interpreter’s imagination or context (as was often the case in the medieval church).

In between Jesus’ telling and explanation of the parable, the Gospel writers introduce another element to this parable. While this parable helps listeners understand the spiritual reality of the word of God producing varied results among those who hear it, the parable also says something about how parables themselves produce varied results among hearers. After Jesus tells the parable, the disciples ask why Jesus teaches in parables, implying that this parable is unclear.  Jesus’ reply suggests that parables are meant to obscure understanding instead of increase it—a concept that seems counterintuitive. After all, most parables use familiar elements to paint a picture comparison of an unfamiliar spiritual truth. In response to the disciples question about the purpose of parables, Jesus answers, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables: ‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.’ In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.” (Matt 13:11-16). Jesus explains that the disciples are blessed by having a fuller knowledge of the Kingdom of Heaven than others. This knowledge relates to what they already have—a close relationship with Jesus. By virtue of this relationship, the disciples will receive Jesus’ full interpretation of the parable; they truly see and hear. Truly hearing corresponds to the good soil of the parable, which is why the disciples are blessed; they will produce much fruit.

On the other hand, many will not receive this parable or any message about the Kingdom of Heaven. These people are not only like the soils that aren’t productive, they are like those spoken of by the prophet Isaiah: “ever hearing but never understanding . . . this people’s heart has become calloused.” By quoting Isaiah 6:9-10, Jesus explains that the rejection of his message fulfills prophecy. Matthew often shows how Jesus’ ministry fulfills prophecy, but the other Synoptic writers include a quotation from Isaiah 6 as well. Many in his Jewish audience, especially the religious leaders, are following the pattern of their forefathers in Isaiah’s day. They hear the prophetic message of God, but with hard hearts they refuse to receive it. Those who reject Jesus’ message will continue rejecting and misunderstanding the word of God.

Parables provide a good illustration of Isaiah’s words and the situation among Jesus’ hearers. Because parables contain a picture/story part that explains a spiritual reality, they can obscure understanding for those who refuse to receive the spiritual reality. Many of the Jewish religious leaders physically heard the parables/message of the kingdom, but they did not receive it and failed to understand it. Especially with the parable of the sower, the story part of the parable part was clear enough, but the only ones who received a full explanation of the spiritual reality part were those who sought more understanding from Jesus (“whoever has will be given more”).

Parables, therefore, clarify spiritual realities for those who have good receptive hearts towards Christ (good soil), but they obscure spiritual realities for those who have rejected Jesus and his message. The parable of the sower is a parable about parables and Jesus’ overall kingdom message. This parable not only explains why Jesus’ message was rejected by some of his own people, it also encourages Jesus’ followers to continue to seek Jesus and receive his word with the soil of a good heart. Jesus’ word will bear a great crop through those who receive him and his kingdom message. “He who has ears, let him hear.”

END NOTES

* Barry, John, ed. Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2016.

*Blomberg, Craig. Interpreting the Parables. Downers Grover: InterVarsity, 1990.

*______. Jesus and the Gospels. Nashville: B&H, 1997.    

*DJG: Green, Joel and Scot McKnight, eds. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers

 Grove: InterVarsity, 1992.

*EDT: Elwell, Walter, ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids:

Baker, 2001.

* NDBT: Alexander, T. Desmond, et. al.  New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Downers

 Grove: InterVarsity, 2000.

*Stein, Robert. A Basic Guide for Interpreting the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994.

The Holy Spirit Brings Restoration in the End-Times Renewal

Discussions of the End-Times often center on Jesus’ return. But what role does the Spirit play in the End-Times? Beginning in the Hebrew Scriptures and continuing through the Second Temple period, the Spirit is depicted as the means by which God accomplishes his historical and eschatological plan.[1] That eschatological plan includes an expansion of the Spirit’s work upon the earth as well as the Spirit’s inner work that transforms the hearts of the covenant people.[2] The Spirit’s renewing work would prepare God’s people to experience His presence.

In his sermon at Pentecost, Peter cites the pouring out of the Spirit as evidence that the “last days” have begun (Acts 2). The New Testament writers believed that they were in the “last days” (end times) and these previous promises were being fulfilled. The Spirit would indwell and empower the church to expand God’s kingdom to the ends of the earth until Jesus’ return. This post will point out some first-century expectations concerning the Spirit in the End-Times.

Pouring out the Spirit: Eschatological Expansion

The Old Testament (OT) often portrays the Spirit of God as working in leaders and prophets to establish, deliver, judge, guide, and restore the people of God.[3] Not surprisingly then, the Spirit is also depicted as active among God’s people in the eschatological restoration.[4] The eschatological work of the Spirit increases in scope and intensity. This increase is described as a “pouring out” of the Spirit in many OT passages (Isa 32:15; 44:3; Ezek 36:25–27; 37:14; 39:28–29; Zech 12:9–10) and exemplified by Joel 2:28–31:

It will come about after this that I will pour out my Spirit on all mankind and your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on the male and female servants I will pour out my Spirit in those days. I will display wonders in the sky and on the earth, blood, fire and columns of smoke. The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the great and awesome day of Yahweh comes.

Joel 2:28–31

By twice using the verb שפך (pour out) and the threefold repetition of spiritual gifts in the following lines, Joel expresses a fullness of amount as well as fullness in scope.[5] The Spirit will not only be upon leaders and prophets, but upon all of God’s people. The day of the Lord, with its theophanic imagery, brings a renewal of the covenant presence (Joel 2:27, “Thus you will know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am Yahweh your God”) and an expansion of Yahweh’s Spirit among his people. The promise of Yahweh’s restored covenant presence “in the midst of Israel” is closely connected to the Spirit in many prophetic texts (Isa 4:4–6; 59:19–21; Ezek 36:24–28; Hag 2:5–9). These Hebrew texts create an eschatological expectation for an outpouring of Yahweh’s Spirit in conjunction with a renewal of Yahweh’s covenant presence. The pouring out of the Spirit will broaden both the scope and intensity of Yahweh’s blessings.

Many scholars note an eschatological trajectory to the canon that depicts Yahweh’s presence/glory expanding to the ends of the earth. The Spirit would usher in the promised presence of God among his people as “all the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord” (Num 14:21) in the eschatological age (Isa 6:3; Hab 2:14).[6]

These expectations inform the background to many of the pneumatological promises in the New Testament. Peter quotes the above passage from Joel in his Acts 2 sermon, and claims that this promise is being fulfilled. In the remaining chapters of Acts, the Spirit is poured out into new people groups and expanding throughout the Roman empire. John’s Gospel shows a similar fulfillment in a slightly different way. John the Baptist introduces the promise that Jesus would baptize in the Spirit (John 1:33), and that promise is fulfilled literarily when Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on his disciples (John 20:21). This impartation of the Holy Spirit is given in the context of Jesus sending his disciples into the world on a mission of redemption and revelation in continuity with Jesus’ own mission.[7] In addition, the disciples serve a representative function for the later, broader messianic community and the blessings/responsibilities (including the indwelling Spirit) of the first disciples are assumed for later disciples.[8] Jesus gives the Spirit to his disciples when the eschatological “hour” (John 4:21–23; 5:25–28; 13:1; 17:1) arrives, thus expanding God’s glory. The expansion of God’s glory through his disciples and beyond is spoken of in John 17:20–22, which states, “Not for these alone do I ask, but also for those who believe in me through their word; so that they may all be one, even as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as we are one.” The sharing of glory that denotes the unified presence of God radiates to future disciples, who will witnesses to the world.

The Spirit’s work of renewing God’s people and expanding God’s glory presence is a crucial part of End-Times fulfillment. While modern Christians often think of the “End-Times” strictly in terms of Jesus’ final return, the New Testament seems to include the entire church age in the “last days”. In these last days, the Spirit’s role is to prepare God’s people, and the whole world, for the Lord’s full and final intervention.


End Notes

[1] Willem VanGemeren and Andrew Abernethy, “The Spirit and the Future: A Canonical Approach,” in Presence, Power and Promise: The Role of the Spirit of God in the Old Testament (ed. David Firth and Paul Wegner; Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011), 333.

[2] Robin Routledge, “The Spirit and the Future in the Old Testament: Restoration and Renewal,” in Presence, Power and Promise: The Role of the Spirit of God in the Old Testament (ed. David Firth and Paul Wegner; Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011), 348–349.

[3] Wilf Hildebrandt, An Old Testament Theology of the Spirit of God (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1995), 67–150.

[4] Peter R. Ackroyd, Exile and Restoration: A Study of Hebrew Thought of the Sixth Century B.C. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1968), 177, contends that the prophets Zechariah and Haggai (shortsightedly) considered the post-exilic time as this restoration. The work of the eschatological Spirit was therefore crucial in their depiction of the restoration of the temple in Zech 4:6 and Hag 2:4–5. While I disagree with Ackroyd’s assessment of the prophet’s intentions, the larger point of the Spirit’s work in the promised restoration is still relevant. The Spirit of God transcends the temple and is therefore involved in its restoration.

[5] G. A. Mikre-Selassie points out that Joel often uses repetition to emphasize fullness in “Repetition and Synonyms in the Translation of Joel—With Special Reference to the Amharic Language,” BT 36 (1985): 230–237. See also Douglas Stuart, Hosea–Jonah (WBC 31; Waco: Word, 1987), 260.

[6] G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission (NSBT 17; Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2004), 25, argues that the temple was designed to foreshadow the eschatological reality of God’s presence spreading throughout the cosmos. See also James Hamilton, God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 343. For a biblical tracking of the “all the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord” theme, see ibid., 268–269. 

[7] Andreas Köstenberger, A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 539–546.

[8] Ibid., 886–894.

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:

But Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. Many followed Him, and He healed them all, and warned them not to tell who He was. This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet: “BEHOLD, MY SERVANT WHOM I HAVE CHOSEN; MY BELOVED IN WHOM MY SOUL is WELL-PLEASED; I WILL PUT MY SPIRIT UPON HIM, AND HE SHALL PROCLAIM JUSTICE TO THE GENTILES. HE WILL NOT QUARREL, NOR CRY OUT; NOR WILL ANYONE HEAR HIS VOICE IN THE STREETS. A BATTERED REED HE WILL NOT BREAK OFF, AND A SMOLDERING WICK HE WILL NOT PUT OUT, UNTIL HE LEADS JUSTICE TO VICTORY AND IN HIS NAME THE GENTILES WILL HOPE.”  

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.