And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Matthew 6:7–8
Read Matthew 6:5-15
When I was living with a performance-oriented mindset nothing was more contaminated than my prayer life. I figured if I prayed longer, earlier, more earnestly, with more spiritual words, then I’d please God more and get more positive answers! On my knees? Even better. Flat on my face? How spiritual of me!
Reminds me of the old joke: Two boys staying with their grandma kneel beside their beds one night to pray. First the older son prays briefly about how much he’d enjoyed the day. Then the younger son starts, but he prays much louder than his brother, practically screaming as he requests a long list of bikes and toys. When he’s finally finished the older brother asks him, “Why were you praying so loud? God’s not deaf!” and the younger one answers, “Yeah, but grandma is!”
Well, I was praying as if I had to break through God’s deafness or inattention.
I honestly think I got this idea from the parable of the unjust judge in Luke 18:2–5. The Bible says Jesus told this story so His disciples would “pray and not give up” (v. 1). But I wrongly interpreted it to mean that God is like the judge: not really interested in my problems, but if I pester Him enough He’ll hear me. So I spent hours on my knees. I thought I might, as Bill Hybels puts it, “wear Him down and wrench a blessing from His tightly closed fist.”
But a parable is not an allegory, where every single element means something else. Instead it’s more like a joke — a story with a punch line, only in the case of the parables it’s a punchy truth. The truth here is that if even an unjust judge will respond to a politically unimportant person’s repeated request, then how much more does your loving Heavenly Father hear you.
But you are not like the widow, and God is not like the judge. First of all, you are not poor and abandoned like the widow — you are the beloved child of God and a co-heir with Christ! Second, God is not like the judge at all — He’s not crooked or uncaring or indisposed, but righteous and loving and always available.
This is the misconception behind legalistic prayer that Jesus corrects in Matthew 6. You are not heard “because of your many words.”
So how should you pray? The Lord’s Prayer that follows is a great model of prayer that really is saying grace.
First, it’s short. About 50 words. That implies total confidence that God is listening. No babbling to impress God here.
Second, it starts with the words Our Father. Never forget you’re a child praying to a Father who couldn’t love you more than He does right now.
Third, it’s a prayer of surrender. Thy will be done. It’s not all about you.
Fourth, your needs are expressed simply: Give us this day our daily bread. No begging or bargaining. Why do that with a gracious God?
And fifth, it reminds you to give grace like you desire grace: Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.
Nothing will revitalize and relax your prayer life more than really saying grace! And in prayer and meditation, instead of endless requests, you’ll spend more time in contemplation of the really moving wonder of God’s grace! That starts tomorrow!
How would you summarize what Jesus teaches about prayer in Matthew 6?
How can you avoid the trap of performance-oriented prayers?
Try the Lord’s Prayer model today: First pray the very words of that prayer, with meaning. Then use it as a pattern for a prayer in your own words — express adoration, surrender, gratitude for grace, and request strength to be gracious to others.
Grace to Disagree
Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. Romans 14:4
Read Romans 14:1-10
Someone called our church office last week wanting to know our “official position” on a non-essential issue. You’d be surprised how often I’m asked for our “position.” I’m asked by people in the church, people visiting the church (who presumably want to be reassured that they are among fellow enlightened beings), members of the media… in fact I’d say I’m asked about our stand on non-essential issues more than I’m ever asked about our stand on the essentials of the faith!
Well-known pastor and author Chuck Swindoll says he’s deluged with these requests. Why? As one woman wrote him, “How are we to know what to decide on this issue if Chuck doesn’t tell us!?”
I’m glad it’s his policy not to make official pronouncements on such things. Of course many other pastors are only too delighted to oblige! But you will never mature as long as you have to get your opinions on everything from some leader.
In Romans 14, Paul explains how to get along by grace without all the uniformity enforced by legalism:
The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him… One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind… So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. (vs. 3, 5, 22)
His big idea? “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.” In other words, focus on the essentials, not the controversies. Why not be about the “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” instead of the latest litmus test issue?
As C. S. Lewis said, “When all is said (and truly said) about the divisions of Christendom, there remains, by God’s mercy, an enormous common ground.”
Read the gospels and the epistles carefully: What is the one issue that Jesus and Paul are willing to press? In a word, it’s grace. They seem to raise their voices only when the legalists encroach on the gospel. They are silent on so many of the issues that were important to the religious people of the day.
Three keys to gracefully disagreeing:
I know it’s not always easy, but make grace the message people see in your actions toward other people, as well as the cornerstone of your doctrine.
Why do you think it’s sometimes hard for church people to agree to disagree on non-essential issues?
What surprises you about Romans 14?
Ask God to help you discern between essentials and non-essentials. Ask Him to help you extend grace to others, especially on the non-essentials.
Grace Frees Me to be Honest
Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2 Corinthians 4:1
Read 1 Corinthians 15:9-11
How can grace help me become as candid and non-defensive about my character defects as the people in the support group we met yesterday?
In Healing Grace, David Seamands retells the fascinating story of a man named Stypulkowski, a fighter in the Polish underground resistance movement in World War II. As the war ended he was captured by Russians along with 15 other freedom fighters and made to stand trial for “war crimes,” accused falsely of helping the Nazis. Prior to trial the men were tortured and interrogated in order to break them so that they would confess to anything.
The most effective interrogation technique was a form of blackmail. The torturers relentlessly accused the men of all sorts of behavior — in their work, their sex lives, their families — and when they found each man’s weakness, they exploited it, threatening to tell the world of his sin if he did not confess to at least some war crimes and go to prison for a while. “Save yourself and your family a lot of shame,” they would advise.
The men’s wills, weakened by a starvation diet and sleep deprivation, all broke… except Stypulkowski. He was the only one to plead not guilty at the trial, and then, largely because of the foreign press covering the trial, was set free. He had been interrogated twice daily for 70 days, but he kept his Christian faith alive through daily prayer. And it was his understanding of God’s grace that seemed to make him immune to the threats. As David Seamands writes:
Oh, it was evident that he was not free from weaknesses — his accusers pointed them out to him time after time — but he was never shattered by them.
He daily presented himself to God and to his accusers in absolute honesty… So whenever they accused him of some personal wrong, he freely admitted it, even welcomed it.
He said, “I never felt it necessary to justify myself with excuses. When they showed me I was a coward, I already knew it. When they shook their fingers at me with accusations of filthy, lewd feelings, I already knew that. I said to them, ‘But gentleman, I am much worse than that.’ For you see, I learned it was unnecessary for me to justify myself. One had already done that for me — Jesus Christ!”
In today’s verses Paul shows this same confidence: “Since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.” He knows he doesn’t have his ministry because of his performance. He has no illusions about his “goodness.” He knows it’s all by grace. “By the grace of God I am what I am…” That’s why he doesn’t lose heart.
And so it is with you.
When you truly realize that everything you have is by God’s grace, you’ll find the courage for total honesty about your shortcomings and needs, and experience healing grace.
But how does grace help me navigate the often prickly personalities and hot controversies I encounter everyday? That’s a great, often-forgotten ripple effect of grace that we’ll look at tomorrow.
Do you tend to be self-defensive or secretive about your shortcomings? Why or why not?
Why is it important for your personal character growth for you to understand that all you have, you have by the grace of God?
Thank God today for all you have by the grace of God — take a few minutes to specifically list in prayer some of the blessings for which you are grateful.
Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. Galatians 6:2
Read Galatians 6:1-5
It’s almost 10:00 p.m. as I write this. I’ve just returned from a meeting of the 12 Step group that meets at our church. I was inspired to visit in part by Philip Yancey’s visit to the recovery group at his church described in What’s So Amazing About Grace?
I love these groups. For one thing, they’re such a great example of carrying each other’s burdens. No one’s judged for being an alcoholic, addict, whatever — in fact the meetings start with introductions that go like this: “Hi, I’m (name), and I’m an alcoholic.” And everyone responds in unison, “Hi, (name)!” It’s the kind of transparency that should be born of grace.
When it was my turn to be introduced, I said, “Hi I’m René and I’m a churchaholic,” and everyone laughed even though I wasn’t really joking. I don’t blame them, though, because it did sound kind of funny coming from a pastor. But as I already described, for years I was addicted to what I call “Churchianity.”
Anyway, at every 12-step meeting a group member shares, and that night a woman about my age told her story. She said I could share it here. You might relate.
Sexually molested repeatedly as a child, she made pacts with God: “If I promise to behave, you will make this stop.” Only it didn’t stop.
“I thought I obviously wasn’t perfect enough, because if you’re good, then life gets good, right? So I tried harder,” she told the group. “Then I gave up because it was too hard, and I went the other way, into sexual promiscuity. Since the pressure of perfection was too much, why bother even trying?”
She was a pregnant teen and “completely lost, when someone invited me to church and told me about Jesus. I said I could never come to Christ because of how bad I was. But this man said I could just come as I was — and I did, and found unconditional love for the first time in my life.” She discovered amazing grace.
I wish I could tell you that her story after that was a long ride into the beautiful sunset, enjoying God’s love every step of the way. But that’s not how it was. A few years later at that same church she found her life’s purpose through being a foster mother. Starting in her twenties, she helped raise nineteen kids that way — tough kids the system had almost given up on. Most turned out okay but, when a few remained troubled, she blamed herself.
“Again I figured if I were a better Christian, I’d see better results. I had never worked that out, so I translated every message I heard at church and every verse I read in the Bible as ‘Be Better!’ I thought if I was only better, then everything would be blessed.”
Over the next twenty years she slowly forgot God’s grace and became performance-oriented again. Eventually this pressure contributed to a nervous breakdown, and a wise counselor suggested she try the 12 Step group. “I thought, ‘What do I have in common with a bunch of drunks?!’ I’m a good church person!” She came reluctantly, agreeing to a six-week commitment. That was over two years ago and she and her husband attend every week now. She says, “In the group I never feel I have to pretend to be someone else, someone better. I’m more at home with the alcoholics and addicts than the ‘good’ church people now!” Funny, that sounds a little like Jesus to me.
She not only rediscovered grace, she discovered how important it is to experience what you could call group grace — grace in community. I think it’s possible for everyone in a church to express the same kind of honesty and care that the people in her group do. It is risky, though, and that’s why people usually shy away from recovery group-style honesty. But some things are so awesome they’re worth the risk!
At the conclusion of her story she shared with the group some truths from the book of Lamentations that have helped her daily bathe in God’s grace:
The LORD’S loving-kindnesses indeed never cease,
For His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness. Lamentations 3:22–23
Can you relate to the woman’s story? In what way?
What was the flaw in her “religious” thinking — what did she believe about why good and bad things happen?
Why do you think 12 step groups have a level of honesty that “normal” church small groups can sometimes lack?
Ask God to help you plug into a small group community — maybe a recovery group or a small group or a friendship circle — where you can find, and help build, an unconditionally loving “group grace” culture.
Read Luke 4:14-21
One fascinating part of the “Amazing Grace” story is how the song’s writer, John Newton, ended up campaigning against the very slave trade he’d once helped lead.
Newton’s chance to fight slavery came in 1788 when, after years of debate, British Prime Minister William Pitt finally formed a committee to investigate the slave trade. The star witness — and the only man in England who was willing to paint the harrowing details of that practice as an “insider” — was Newton.
In his pamphlet Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade Newton summarized his testimony:
Silence would, in me, be criminal. I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders…
I should think it rather unsuitable to my present character as a minister of the Gospel to consider the African slave trade merely in a political light… The righteous Lord loveth righteousness, and he has engaged to plead the cause of the oppressed. I ought not to be afraid of offending many, by declaring the truth, if indeed there can be many who plead for a commerce so iniquitous, so cruel, so oppressive, so destructive, as the African Slave Trade!
Newton did not just revel in his own position as a man forgiven by God’s grace. He also did something about the “ungrace” toward others he saw in his society. He celebrated his spiritual freedom and also worked for both spiritual and physical freedom for the oppressed, seeing this as part of his calling.
It’s intriguing to me that the primary social causes Newton encouraged in his young followers were: making the slave trade illegal; passing laws against cruelty to animals; and reforming manners, including vulgar language. You could say that each of these causes was about bringing grace to situations where “ungrace” prevailed.
Jesus announced the start of His earthly ministry by reading a prophecy about Himself from the book of Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Luke 4:18–19
Notice that the message of grace — the good news of God’s favor — is intertwined with helping the poor. In its original context in Isaiah this verse is part of a section that clearly teaches that we’re to help the poor, the oppressed, the hungry. It’s part of bringing God’s grace to a world that needs it!
When you’re set free by grace, you’re not given this gift just so you’ll feel better. You’re called to “live as children of light” (Ephesians 5:8) in a world of darkness.
But remember, you don’t do this to prove anything to God. He already loves you unconditionally.
As I heard someone say, “I do this not from mere motivation; I do it from inspiration!” The more you understand the grace of God, the more you’ll long to extend that grace in every way. As you saw earlier in this Grace Immersion, the horizontal result of grace follows the vertical reception of grace.
How can you help bring grace to part of your world or neighborhood that is “ungraced”?
Why is this often hard?
Ask God to help you live as a child of light! This means both seeking personal holiness and freeing oppressed and poor people around you.
But just as you excel in everything — in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us — see that you also excel in this grace of giving. 2 Corinthians 8:7
Read 2 Corinthians 8:1-13
Famine has come to Jerusalem. Christians are starving.
Meanwhile, Paul is traveling and decides to encourage the churches he’s visiting (in what is now Turkey and Greece) to take up an offering for the suffering people back in Jerusalem, partly because he sees this as a great chance to show that they are all one in Christ! Remember, the Greek and Roman Christians had been viewed with suspicion by many of the Jewish Christians, so he’s thinking this act of charity could go a long way toward mending bridges. The Christians in the wealthy city of Corinth get excited and pledge their support!
Problem: They then sort of… forget. So in today’s verses Paul has the awkward duty of reminding them that they need to give that money since he already told the Jerusalem Christians that it was on its way!
It’s fascinating to see: How does Paul motivate them to do this?
He doesn’t nag, or beg, or scold, or guilt-trip them into anything. He motivates them to give through grace.
He talks about how much grace God lavished upon them. He talks about the gracious giving and the resulting joy that he has seen in others. And then he makes very clear that they are to give because it is an act of grace, in response to grace.
It’s intriguing to me that Paul says the Macedonian churches had followed through on their pledges already, although they were in extreme poverty themselves, while the rich Corinthians had lagged behind in their giving even though they were wealthy.
I read some statistics showing that, in the United States, those below the poverty line give about 5% of their income, those in the middle class give about 7% of their income, while those who are in the highest income brackets give less than 2% away. Of course there are extremely generous wealthy people (I am privileged to know many who are a great example to me), but if these stats are to be believed, generally the very poor apparently give a higher percentage than the very rich.
Maybe that’s because the very poor have a more immediate personal understanding of the need for grace — and the blessing of grace — while the wealthier are often better able to maintain an air of self-sufficiency.
That’s why Paul encourages these wealthy Corinthians to excel in the grace of giving, just as the poor Macedonians had been doing.
In other words, the grace of giving is something we’re to practice, something we’re to grow in, to expand on. It’s one habit we are told to indulge!
How can you do this? I think it’s a good idea to have regular “grace projects” through which you stretch your own generosity muscles.
This way you “grow in grace” practically, not just theologically!
Sometimes the grace of giving means working to set the oppressed free from a giant evil in society, as we’ll see tomorrow.
How could you “excel” in the grace of giving?
Ask God to help you overcome any latent stinginess and excel on the grace of giving, just as He has been gracious to you!
So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him. Colossians 2:6
Read Colossians 2:6-12
This is a great time in our Grace Immersion for a reminder: You don’t learn about grace and then move on to other, deeper doctrines in order to really mature as a believer. You mature only by remaining focused on the infinite riches of God’s grace to you, even as you study other facets of the faith.
This was brought home to me the other day when I proved once again that I am not exactly an automotive expert. In the latest of several car-related fiascos, I successfully (but unintentionally) disabled yet another vehicle.
Our executive pastor Mark Spurlock was headed out for the day when he realized his car’s gas tank was on absolute empty. He’d coasted into the church parking lot that morning and had of course forgotten all about it until it was time to go. Being the ever-helpful senior pastor and friend, I said, “Hey, I remember seeing a gas container down in the bus garage!”
We found the container and poured its contents into Mark’s tank. Brilliant! We had shown ourselves to be resourceful problem-solvers. I waved good-bye from the parking lot as he drove out to the street in his car. Which then sputtered. And backfired. And coughed. And died.
“Hmmm. Maybe there’s a fuel pump problem,” I growled, trying to sound like a real car guy. We just couldn’t figure it out though and ended up calling the man who drives and maintains our church bus. He came over, took one look at the container from which we’d poured gas into Mark’s car, and doubled over with laughter. Turned out the two genius pastors had poured diesel gas into a normalengine. Apparently you’re supposed to continue running your car on the same kind of fuel you started with. Who knew?
Paul says in today’s verse “…just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him.”This one verse could save so many running-on-empty Christians a lot of grief. You start your Christian life on grace fuel. But if you’re like most, you often try to continue on works fuel. And then you get perplexed: How come I’m running out of gas when I’ve been pouring so much into the tank?
The problem isn’t that you’re not showing initiative or not trying hard. In fact you’re pressing on the pedal as hard as you can. The problem is that it just doesn’t work. You’re using the wrong fuel.
We start our faith life singing “Amazing Grace,” but then we often continue by singing “Working on a Chain Gang,” which could have been the soundtrack for the Colossian church.
It was under siege by false teachers who taught that Jesus had a role to play, but there were also many extras to add to the spiritual to-do list. It’s “Christ Plus” thinking: Jesus is okay, but I need some extra spiritual secrets and practices. Paul says, no, just stick with a simple focus on Christ and His grace.
Sadly, most Christians think the doctrine of grace applies only to salvation. It’s for spiritual newbies to get started. The reality is, grace is for every moment of your Christian life. You need grace to face trials, grace to know how to treat others, an appreciation of the riches of grace to deal with discouragement, a grace focus to change your sinful behavior…. So start on grace, and keep livingthat way!
As you’ll see this week, the ripple effects of this kind of life will touch everything and everyone around you.
What distractions or substitutes are there for simple faith today?
What do you think it means to continue in Christ just as you received Christ?
Ask God to help you begin today to live in Jesus just as you received Jesus.