Christianity Without Change Isn’t Christianity

Transformation is at the heart of what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

Throughout our relationship with Jesus we are to grow, mature and develop in the areas of our thoughts, attitudes and behaviors.

For this transformation to take place, we must put ourselves in a position of submission and obedience to the clear directives (whether positive or negative) found in the scriptures and the promptings and prodding of the Holy Spirit.

At the moment a person puts their trust in Christ, all sorts of change takes place. For example, we move from guilt before God to being justified by Him. Also, we become God’s friend after being His enemy. Not only that, but we are adopted into the family of God.

But God’s plan is for us to continue changing beyond the point of salvation as we follow the life and example of Jesus.

Sadly, some have reduced the gospel message as avoiding an unpleasant hell in favor of much preferable heaven. But the gospel is much more than a rescue from a disagreeable afterlife. Yes, the gospel is the power of God to rescue us from hell. But it is all the power of God to renew, restore and reframe our lives.

If we are honest, we will admit our lives need work. We understand that our minds and hearts aren’t pure. And we know our actions are often motivated by self, rather than a love for God or concern for others.

Such change must begin in how we think. That’s because thoughts impact attitudes, and attitudes impact behavior. No wonder Paul wrote these words in Romans 12:

Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God. (Romans 12:2 CSB)

The word Paul used in Romans 12:2 is the word we use for the metamorphosis of a butterfly. The change in the end is something completely different than was there before. This is how total the transformation should be when it comes to our thinking.

If we are satisfied with the status quo of our life, then we likely are not in tune with God’s life-giving plan to continually reshape us more into the example of Jesus.

Let’s not wrestle with the idea of transformation. Let’s embrace it!

Wear Your (Jesus) Colors

January is the time of year that people begin coming to church wearing a variety of shirts, jerseys and jackets representing their favorite football teams.

Packer green.

Seahawks blue.

Chiefs Red.

And, as teams go deeper into the playoffs, the more people seem to come to church in their NFL garb.

Of course, Super Bowl Sunday is when all of this reaches an apex. On “Super” Sunday, the energy is palpable. Maybe even a bit competitive! At this point in the season, its down to the final two teams. Pretty much everyone has picked a side of who they would like to win.

I think all of this is pretty fun. Why not get behind your favorite team and make known to all your gridiron allegiance?

Allegiance. That’s a word that I wonder if we use enough as Christians.

Think about it: through the scriptures and the Spirit, we are called to manifest an abiding loyalty to Jesus. We are called to joyfully praise Him, consistently obey Him and faithfully serve Him. All in all, our loyalty is not to be divided or diminished.

When a person chooses a favorite football team, its near impossible to talk them out of their strong feelings of devotion. Whether their team wins or loses, they don’t bail out and jump on the bandwagon of another team.

In the same way, we ought to show Jesus an even greater degree of undying fidelity. Yet, divided loyalties can prove to be a huge hurdle for some Christians. All I can say is that we are called to go all in for Jesus.

So how do we display our Jesus colors?

By loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength,

By loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.

By doing what Jesus tells us to do.

By acting as light to a world that stumbles in the darkness.

By serving as salt to a world that suffers from sin-induced decay.

When we live like this, we let the world know where are loyalties lie.

Here’s my challenge. Live in such a way that your allegiance to Jesus is unquestionable.

Wear your colors.

The Tragedy of Spiritual Stagnation

Many years ago, we lived in a community that surrounded a fairly large lake. Each spring the lake was filled by a river that brought forth rainwater and melted snow from the nearby mountains. But, one thing unusual about this lake was that it had no outflow. All the water that entered the lake remained in the lake.

When summer came and temperatures began to rise, the lake would stagnate. The result? Algae blooms made swimming unsafe and a drop in oxygen levels proved deadly for the fish. By August, it was typical for the shoreline of the lake to be lined with scores of rotting fish. You can imagine the noxious odor that wafted through the air! All because the lake didn’t have an outflow.

So, why I am a telling you this? Here’s why: I want you to get a mental picture of what happens when a Christian is filled up with all sorts of good things pertaining to the Christian life (such as good doctrine and discipleship training) but fails to put such things into practice.

Simply put, the Christian life is meant to be a steady stream of both inflow and outflow. What we learn is supposed to be applied to our lives (which often impacts others as well).

James wrote about the unfortunate disconnect that occurs when we hear the instructions of God, yet decide to apply the brakes at the point of actual practice:

My dear brothers and sisters, understand this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness. Therefore, ridding yourselves of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent, humbly receive the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. Because if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like someone looking at his own face in a mirror. For he looks at himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of person he was. But the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer who works—this person will be blessed in what he does. (James 1:19-25 CSB)

Sadly, some people will spend years learning about things like serving, ministering, sharing, loving, teaching and evangelizing, yet apply very little of what they’ve learned. Such people are like athletes who ravenously invest in learning about the details of their particular sport, but rarely make the move to actually play the game.

I believe that, from the perspective of heaven, this is heartbreaking!

In a nutshell, Christianity was never been meant to be a spectator sport. We aren’t trained and equipped for our own personal satisfaction, but rather to make an impact for the Kingdom of God.

Remember the Hebrews writers lament of chapter 5? “By now you should be teachers…” These people should have had an outflow of their Christian lives, but instead, they just kept taking in for themselves. Which meant they were getting spiritually bloated. Yet, in reality they were going backwards! So much so, they were having to learn about the basics of the faith all over again. And, as a result of this irresponsibility, the ball of ministry was obviously getting dropped.

I think one of the main reasons we hesitate from getting involved in service and ministry is we feel inadequate. We feel like we might mess up. Brothers and sisters in Jesus, on our own we are inadequate! And we very well may mess up! But doing nothing with all our learning is even worse. It’s disobedient and it shows a lack of faith that God, by his power, can use us for his purposes. Remember, according to 1 Corinthians, God actually prefers to use people who are weak:

Brothers and sisters, consider your calling: Not many were wise from a human perspective, not many powerful, not many of noble birth. Instead, God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God has chosen what is insignificant and despised in the world—what is viewed as nothing—to bring to nothing what is viewed as something, so that no one may boast in his presence. (1 Corinthians 1:26-29 CSB)

So here’s my challenge: get involved in living out the Christian life! Assist a neighbor in need. Teach a kid’s class. Serve in the nursery. Use your God-given skills to help your church. Disciple a new believer. Volunteer at a local ministry.

Whatever God prompts you to do, just get your hands dirty! Don’t stop being equipped, but at the same time, become fully determined to put your equipping to use. I guarantee this: to do so will bring about greater spiritual vitality and well-being in your life. Conversely, without a spiritual outflow, we will become weak and a burden to the body of Christ.

Winds Will Blow

This week we had a major windstorm strike our area. The aftermath included felled trees, blocked roadways. dropped power lines, mangled roofs and extended power outages. It’s amazing to think that something that cannot be seen can do so much damage!

Sometimes the Bible uses the imagery of wind as a metaphor for trials and troubles. Jesus did so when He wrapped up the Sermon on the Mount. Here’s what He said:

“Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain fell, the rivers rose, and the winds blew and pounded that house. Yet it didn’t collapse, because its foundation was on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and doesn’t act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, the rivers rose, the winds blew and pounded that house, and it collapsed. It collapsed with a great crash.” (Matthew 7:24-27 CSB)

In this story, the wind is shown to hold the potential to wreak great havoc. But, the focus of story isn’t supposed to be the wind. The point of the story is to get us thinking about the difference between flimsy and firm foundations.

Make no mistake, life is turbulent. There are all sorts of “winds” that blow about at any time, bringing with them all types of possible confusion and upset. When the winds struck our community this week, the main reason their was so much damage was some of the trees had weak roots and some of the roofs weren’t nailed down well. The wind was able to dislodge them and create incredibly hazardous conditions.

The Bible makes a point that the person who builds their life on the words of Jesus will be like a well-rooted tree and a house constructed on a solid foundation. Another section of scripture that provides a similar picture is Psalm 1, which challenges the reader to develop roots that run deep to the source of living water:

How happy is the one who does not walk in the advice of the wicked or stand in the pathway with sinners or sit in the company of mockers! Instead, his delight is in the Lord’s instruction, and he meditates on it day and night. He is like a tree planted beside flowing streams, that bears its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers. (Psalm 1:1-3 CSB)

But what’s in store for the person who decides to not be well-rooted in the instructions of the Lord? Well, just as Jesus did in Matthew 7, the writer of Psalm 1 brings up the potential destructiveness of the wind:

The wicked are not like this; instead, they are like chaff that the wind blows away. Therefore the wicked will not stand up in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to ruin. (Psalm 1:4-6 CSB)

We live in times of extreme storminess. There are issues all around us that seem intent on uprooting us from life-giving truth. It could be politics. It might be the pandemic. It may be social upheaval. The question is this: when the winds of life blow, will we be left stand standing or will we fall?

I dare say that too many Christians who ought to be standing firm through life’s storms end up being blown away. How we fare in the midst of the squall depends on whether we build our life on the words of Jesus, and how deep our roots dig into the truth of the scriptures.

If we find ourselves easily tossed about by the winds of life, struggling with stress, anxiety and dismay, maybe its time to reassess the condition of our foundation.

Not of this World

Well, it looks like 2021 gave us a five-day honeymoon.

But now our nation is once again struggling with strife, division and turmoil.

It was of course extremely surprising to see our nation’s capitol under siege.

But I would venture to say it should not be shocking to us.

What boiled over yesterday was just another chapter in the story of a nation on edge. The seeds of distrust and disunity simply continue to leaf and produce their ugly fruit.

Why is this so? I’d say it’s an amalgamation of frustration, mistrust, selfishness and injustice. Which can prove to be pretty potent brew. Hence, protests which turn into riots which often result in violence.

In reality, our nation is acting just like many nations that have gone before us. As Solomon once wisely noted, “There is nothing new under the sun.” What we are seeing are common humans struggling with what’s known as the seven deadly sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. And this struggle has existed ever since humans fell into sin.

What’s sad to me is that it appears that some Christians have found it right in their minds to join in these destructive expressions of angst.

One thing that seems clear to me from the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament is that Christians, by virtue of the indwelling Holy Spirit and the instruction of the Word, are called to live noticeably different than the world. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is a complete treatise on how kingdom living is vastly different than worldly living.

-The world loves to fight, but scripture tells us vengeance belongs to the Lord.

-The world seems fueled by pride and greed, but Jesus consistently called His followers to pursue humility.

-The world wrestles for power, but Jesus told his disciples that their lives were to be marked by humble service to others.

At the end of the day (as well as the beginning and the middle!), Christians are to demonstrate a different way of doing life. It’s the way of love. It’s the way of peace. It’s the way of grace.

In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he offered this counsel to His listeners:

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt should lose its taste, how can it be made salty? It’s no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. “You are the light of the world. A city situated on a hill cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, but rather on a lampstand, and it gives light for all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:13-16 CSB

Here’s a few questions on my mind:

As Jesus’ followers, are we in danger of losing our saltiness?

Is our light dimming?

Are we becoming less distinctive?

If so, I would dare say it’s because our gaze has drifted off of Jesus and onto the turbulent waves of culture and politics.

My prayer is that God’s indwelling spirit will convince us that the only firm foundation worth standing on is Jesus. As the old hymn declares, “All other ground is shifting sand.”

Yes, God works through the means of human governments (Romans 13). But as G.K. Chesterton once said, “All government is an ugly necessity.” As long as sinful humans are involved, politics and government can quickly devolve into chaos.

Ultimately, there is only one perfect King. And, more than a king who only rules nations, Jesus rules hearts. And when Jesus rules hearts, the world quickly moves from bedlam to beauty.

Make this an Isaiah 9:6 Christmas

When it comes to Christmas, some of us may come to the end of the holiday and wonder if we’ve missed something. For all the talk about joy, love, hope and peace, we find ourselves marked by feelings of sadness and emptiness.

This may occur because we’ve been expecting what some might call “commercial Christmas” to deliver. You know, the Christmas that’s pushed by the malls and the advertisements and the TV shows. Think about it: the root word for “commercial” is “commerce.” In the realm of secular Christmas, buying and selling is what its all about.

But, by and large, commercial Christmas and Christian Christmas have very little in common. Commercial Christmas often falls short. The Christian concept of Christmas always comes through.

Maybe we’re just looking for Christmas in the wrong place.

One of the better known Christmas prophecies is Isaiah 9:6, which reads:

For a child will be born for us,
a son will be given to us,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
He will be named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.

The first part of the verse is pretty easy to understand. It speaks about how the Messiah will come as an infant and how He will serve as Lord, Savior and King.

What I find interesting is the different descriptions of Jesus found in the last half of the verse; four portraits of the character qualities of the Messiah. When these attributes are understood and applied, we get to experience Christmas as it was intended. Here are a few thoughts on each of the four descriptions:

Wonderful Counselor

When Jesus speaks, His words are always worth listening to! And beyond that, they are always worth applying to our lives. We live in a world where people are lost, misdirected and confused. We are often guilty of making foolish, self-centered decisions. But the counsel Jesus offers will always lead us to life. The quickest way to clear up spiritual confusion is to listen to and obey Jesus. The clarity will come in like a flood.

Mighty God

Jesus was not only human, He was also divine. And time after time he proved it! He proved it when He transformed water into wine. And when he calmed the waves. And when he healed the sick and gave sight to the blind. Not only is Jesus a wonderful counselor, he provides us the power to obey his wise instruction. What a promise this was! The idea that the mighty God of the universe would want to share his power with us that we might become the kind of person He created us to be.

Eternal Father

The person who puts their trust in Christ is immediately adopted into God’s family. And God’s family is an eternal family. For those who are fortunate enough, we might have our earthly fathers for some 50 or 60 years. Many people lose their fathers at an earlier age. But Jesus serves as an eternal father who will never leave or forsake us. This name of Jesus reminds us that there is life beyond the grave. No wonder “hope” is a word that is often associated with Christmas!

Prince of Peace

Jesus offers those who trust in him a “peace that goes beyond human understanding.” (Philippians 4:6-7) Through Christ, we are able to gain peace with God where there once was separation and hostility. Many people are afraid of God because they think He is mad at them and wants to punish them. Yet, one of the most common commands of scripture is “Fear not!” We are called to be free of worry or fear because can bring peace and tranquility to our hearts – even in the turbulent world in which we live.

Commercial Christmas or Christian Christmas?

Which will it be? Perhaps by continually pursuing commercially-driven Christmases, you’ve failed to come up with the results only a Christ-focused Christmas can offer. This year I urge you to release the urge to find meaning and purpose in commerce. Instead, reach out to pursue the very creator and source of life: Jesus.

Do you know the wise insights that come from the wonderful counselor?

Have you experienced the power of the mighty God?

Do you rest in the hope of eternity supplied by an eternal father?

Does your heart know the type of peace on Jesus can offer?

If so, you know Christmas.

If not, the invitation to fully experience Christmas anxiously awaits your response.

The Agonizing Art of Unlearning

“Repentance means unlearning all the self-conceit and self -will that we have been training ourselves into. It means killing part of yourself, under-going a kind of death.”  ― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Life is all about learning.

But not everything we learn is good, true or helpful.

Through the years we pick up an assortment of biases, prejudices and false beliefs. Along the way we collect troublesome patterns, habits and coping devices.

As time goes by, if we fail to question, wrestle with or adapt to all we have been taught and believe, any negative thoughts/attitudes/behaviors will likely become even more entrenched within our psyche.

Thus the age-old expression, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

Without unlearning and relearning, we become stuck in our ways, unaware of how we (and others) are negatively impacted.

Sometimes we become limited in our perspectives because we choose to gather our information from narrow, restrictive sources. If we choose to obtain our information from what some might describe as an “echo chamber,” we probably won’t develop the necessary skills of critical thinking and deductive reasoning. In some cases, our preferred tribe may actually discourage any comparative thinking or thoughtful reflection, instead asking (or demanding) us to simply accept the pre-approved mandates and statutes without question or dissent.

But, to be a follower of Jesus means we must always put willing to place ourselves in the position of unlearning in order to relearn.

Unlearning is the challenging process through which we break down the origins of our unhelpful thoughts, attitudes, behaviors, feelings, and biases.

Sometimes we have to unlearn the ways of our former life; the life we lived before Christ took up residence in our lives. Before becoming a Christian, it’s not uncommon for people to have off-course ideas about love, mixed-up thoughts about power, and erroneous attitudes about sin.

Several times in scripture, Paul wrote to believers about “putting off” the ways of the old life and embracing new perspectives and practices that better reflect the teaching of the Bible and an active, abiding relationship with Jesus. In a nutshell, we are called to unlearn the bad and relearn the good.

Imagine what it was like to be one of those people who heard Jesus preach his well-known “Sermon on the Mount.” In fairly short order, Jesus expressed a list new ideas that challenged the status quo! Jesus’ sermon wasn’t designed to be appreciated or enjoyed. He wasn’t looking for applause. No, Jesus’ sermon cut right to the bone when it came to ungodly perspectives and sinful practices. Jesus’ message demanded unlearning in order that the values for living in His kingdom might take root in hearts and minds.

I find one of the most difficult areas to unlearn is in the area of religious training. Unbiblical instruction can run rampant within our churches and from our pulpits. But because such training comes from a place of (supposed) spiritual authority, we may feel compelled to digest the wayward doctrine. After awhile, we may even take what we have learned and move it into the category of orthodox and beyond challenge.

How hard it is to come to a place to realize what we have been taught may not have any biblical standing!

On one occasion, Jesus taught some lessons to a religious Pharisee named Nicodemus that unraveled a lot of what he had been taught before. Here’s how the conversation played out according to John 3:

There was a man from the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to him at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could perform these signs you do unless God were with him.” Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” “How can anyone be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked him. “Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly I tell you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.  Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not be amazed that I told you that you must be born again. The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” “How can these things be?” asked Nicodemus. “Are you a teacher of Israel and don’t know these things?” Jesus replied. “Truly I tell you, we speak what we know and we testify to what we have seen, but you do not accept our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? (John 1:1-12 CSB)

Nicodemus entered the conversation thinking he was at least a religious peer to Jesus. (My hunch is he thought he was a little higher up the ecclesiastical ladder.) Nicodemus was confident in his education, experience and religious pedigree. But within a matter of sentences, Nicodemus realized he was being schooled by the wisdom and insight of Jesus. The result? Nicodemus had to be willing to set down some of his presuppositions in order to take in the teaching of Jesus. Thankfully, Nicodemus chose to unlearn in order to become a disciple of Jesus.

Unlearning isn’t deconstruction for the sake of deconstruction. It is thoughtfully reflecting on the teachings found in our Bibles and gladly adapting our lives to become more conformed to the precepts of scripture. Unlearning is enrolling ourselves in the school of spiritual transformation. It is a humble approach to how we live our lives. It’s the concession that, at times, our thinking may be foolish or ignorant. It’s a modest willingness to admit we sometimes believe things that aren’t true.

A Melancholy Christmas

Due to the COVID crisis, this Christmas will be unlike any Christmas I have ever experienced. With each passing day I hear about another Christmas party or Christmas program that has been officially taken off the books. To me, If there is a word that best reflects the 2020 holiday season, it’s the word canceled.

At a time of year when we usually are running from event to event, in reality we are finding more and more empty spaces appear on our calendars. How disconcerting it is to feel separated from others at a time of year when social interaction is at its peak!

As I talk with people, I hear a lot of disappointment about what might become known as “the lost Christmas of 2020.” And why are people feeling so dispirited? I’d say its the challenge of having to cope with a Christmas where opportunities for laughter, mirth, joy and human connection keep being thrown on the scrap pile. For every gathering or event that is canceled, we absorb one more loss. When it comes to enjoying our traditional, beloved Christmas activities, instead of being a season of delight, Christmas 2020 is turning out to be a bit of drag.

Yet, if I think about it for a moment, Christmas 2020 has a lot in common with everything that was going on at the time of Jesus’ birth.

Prior to the arrival of Christ, there was among a desperate longing for the arrival of a Savior. Israel had been promised a Messiah, but many were wondering why it was taking so long for the Messiah to appear. (Perhaps some secretly worried if the Savior would ever show up.) One of the reasons for such forlorn emotions was because it had been about 400 years since God had given Israel any sort of special revelation. For those who were waiting, their wait took place in dark silence.

One of my favorite Christmas songs is the mournful O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Through both its melody and lyrics, this carol attempts to convey the feelings among the people prior to the time of Jesus’ advent. Emotions of longing. Sentiments of sadness.

Perhaps for some, hope was waning.

A simple reading of the lyrics of this song reveals a struggle between the weariness of waiting and the anticipation of better days:

O come, o come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the son of god appear
Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, o Israel.

O come, thou rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny
From depths of hell thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave
Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, o Israel.

O come, thou day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, o Israel.

O come, thou key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, o Israel.

O come, o come, thou lord of might,
Who to thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,
In ancient times did’st give the law,
In cloud, and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, o Israel.

For us, we hope that Christmas 2021 will be better than this year’s pitiful version. But for the people who lived in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah, the hope was that God would make everything better! Through the Savior, God would finally restore the shalom that was so desperately needed.

Perhaps we also need to be reminded that when it comes to the Biblical Christmas story, things weren’t void of pain and struggle. Remember, Jesus was born in poverty and obscurity. And his family had to flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath.

As we go through a Christmas season that may be emotionally painful, perhaps we can connect some of those emotions to what was going on in the world at the time of Jesus’ birth. Maybe God can use our loss to remind us of our state of lostness before we trusted Christ. Remember, the joy and hope we love to celebrate at Christmastime cost God an incredible price: the death of His son.

Maybe a melancholy Christmas isn’t so bad.

Moving Toward Prayer that is Deeper and More Focused

“I have concluded that the more we seek the Lord, with a passion for His worthiness, the more we are gripped with our neediness. Adoration cultivates desperation.” – Daniel Henderson

In the middle section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offered a template for prayer. Known to most as the Lord’s Prayer, this sample petition is found in Matthew 6:9-14:

Therefore, you should pray like this: Our Father in heaven, your name be honored as holy. Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. “For if you forgive others their offenses, your heavenly Father will forgive you as well. But if you don’t forgive others, your Father will not forgive your offenses.

Jesus’ point wasn’t to say this was the only way to pray (although The Lord’s Prayer is an awesome way to communicate with God). There is nothing wrong with saying these God-inspired words back to Him. In fact, praying scripture is one of the best ways to pray to God, because scripture-infused prayer helps us stay grounded in truth.

But, I believe Jesus primary goal in teaching about prayer was to provide His hearers with a general outline for nurturing a well-rounded prayer life. In the flow of Jesus’ prayer He covers six main topics: worship, submission, needs, confession, holiness and forgiveness.

Recently, in preparing materials for some discipleship training, I came up with a handout for guided prayer. Essentially, the goal is to provide some handles for the person who says, “I’m not sure what to pray about,” or “I don’t know how to pray.” Though not nearly as not as majestic or concise as the prayer Jesus offered in Matthew 6, it is an attempt to move prayer to a space that is more varied and more focused.

WORSHIP: Begin with a time of offering God praise for who He is and what He does. Reading a worshipful Psalm before you pray is a great way to engage your heart in worship toward God. (Hebrews 13:15)

THANKFULNESS: Reflect upon the ways you see God providing for you. Not just providing for your material needs, but your spiritual, emotional and physical needs as well. Be sure to include some words of thanks to God for taking care of you! (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

QUIETNESS: Ask God to tell you what is on His heart for you, then spend some time in silence so you can hear His response. Follow this up with obedience. (Psalm 46:10, Exodus 14:14)

INTERCESSION: Think of some people you know who could use some prayer today? Maybe someone is ill, or they are facing a difficult challenge, or they have a big decision to make. (1 Timothy 2:1)

CONFESSION: Is there anything that you’ve thought or done that is something the Bible calls sin? The command of scripture is to confess our sins to Jesus, and He will be faithful to forgive and cleanse us of all our offenses and wrongdoing. This is an important way we keep our relationship with God flowing. (1 John 4:9)

FORGIVENESS: People sin against us and we sin against them. How do we get our relationships back in line? Through forgiveness, which is sometimes one of the hardest things for us to accomplish. Is there someone you need to forgive today? Purposely making the topic of forgiveness a part of your prayer life may move your heart in that direction. (Ephesians 4:32)

PERSONAL REQUESTS: What are your needs? In what ways do you need God to provide for you today? Think about asking God for things such as wisdom, courage, discernment, strength, endurance, compassion, or boldness. Maybe you need God to meet a financial or physical need. God wants to provide for your needs! (Philippians 4:6)

LOVE: Love is of supreme value to God. In response to this high value, who can you show God’s love to today? It may be a friend, family member or a neighbor. Perhaps it is a fellow believer. It could a stranger you’ve never met before. Ask God to put you “on duty” to practically love the people who cross your path. (John 13:34-35)

KINGDOM BUILDING: Ask God for readiness to share the good news of Jesus with someone today. It may just be planting a seed, or it may be fully explaining God’s plan for spiritual rescue, restoration and regeneration. People need God’s people to tell them about God’s gracious gift of life through Christ! (Mark 16:15)

The Power of Encouragement

“Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” – Proverbs 16:24 (English Standard Version)

I recently caught part of a podcast that featured a conversation between some seasoned comedians.

For the most part, the discussion centered on the long, painful, arduous journey to success in the field of comedy.

Everyone has to start somewhere, and in the world of trying to make people laugh, getting off the ground is particularly difficult, if not near impossible.

Each of the podcast’s humorists told stories of times when they completely bombed a show. Now, with their mess-ups so far in the past, these comics can safely laugh about such monumental failures. But back then, while crashing and burning on stage and in real time, each of them described feelings of despair. They wondered if their inability to get anyone to laugh (and in some cases, pushing people to annoyance or even anger) signaled the demise of their career.

This is an experience of which most of us will never know. Most people won’t dare put themselves in such a precarious position, fraught with such wide margins for failure and embarrassment.

One thing I did find interesting from the conversation was this: in every single instance of utter comedic implosion, a fellow comedian would quickly connect with the despondent comic, seeking to share words of encouragement and hope.

Comedians know how hard the road to success can be. They’ve all had an off-night when the jokes didn’t connect and the crowd left unsatisfied. Sometimes they’ve bombed so badly, they can only think of quitting…or worse. So when a fellow comic sees one of his own stumbling and struggling, he know exactly how it feels. Out of such empathy comes the desire to keep a sinking comedian from drowning.

The bottom line takeaway I got was this: none of these comedians ever wanted to see another comedian give up and call it a career. So, they made sure to swiftly connect with a shell-shocked partner after a dreadful performance.

I wonder: how many comedic careers have been saved because a fellow comedian stepped in to bolster the flagging emotions of a tail-spinning colleague?

In light of all this, I couldn’t help think of an expression I’ve heard many times through the years: “Christians are the only army known to shoot their wounded.” The connotation is that, rather than encouraging a brother or sister who is floundering, our unhelpful attitudes of pride or indifference cause us to attack, abuse or ignore our faltering comrade.

Rather than bless, we burden.

Rather than help, we hurt.

Rather than lift, we let fall.

Yet, the New Testament letters of the Bible are filled with expressions known as the “the one another’s,” pithy little directives that instruct us on how to look out for each other in times of difficulty or distress.

Here’s a sampling of some of the exhortations that spiritually-minded people are to employ:

Don’t bite, devour, and consume one another (Galatians 5:15)
Be kind, tender-hearted, and forgiving to one another (Ephesians 4:32)
Seek good for one another, and don’t repay evil for evil (1 Thessalonians 5:15)
Be devoted to one another in love (Romans 12:10)
Encourage and build up one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
Stimulate one another to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24)

Without encouragement, hardship can feel meaningless, and the will to press forward can wane.

Without encouragement, life can soon feel hollow and burdensome.

Without encouragement, we can be overwhelmed by the challenges that lie in front of us.

Thus, the Bible strongly encourages us to encourage one another. We are to remind each other of the truth that God loves us, that God equips us, that we are treasured, that our struggles are worth it.

Proverbs 16:24 says, “Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones (ESV).” Ah, to have healing words mend our spirits and soothe our souls!

Who is it in your sphere of influence that could use a word of encouragement today? You may not realize it, but your words may redirect their life back into a positive direction.