When God is Silent: Staying Focused During Prayer

Many things can get in the way of praying. But one of the most common obstacles is boredom. Prayer can sometimes seem tedious. Our prayers often sound the same. They begin and end the same way. They seem to be composed of the same requests uttered day after day in the same words. We don’t necessarily need to be troubled by the fact that we get bored when we pray. Prayer is an interchange, not a performance. It doesn’t have to be interesting to be effective. What is more, there are many factors that influence the way we feel, none of which necessarily have any bearing on the actual outcome of our prayers. We may be tired or sick. We may be afraid. The fact that we state our requests unimaginatively means nothing to God, who doesn’t analyze their style but searches the heart (Romans 8:27).

Yet the monotony we feel during prayer is sometimes of our own making. We may be bored because we are only praying one kind of prayer. Or it may be because it is the same prayer over and over again. The vocabulary that the Bible uses to speak of prayer is often more expansive than our practice. There is a variety reflected in Paul’s command in Ephesians 6:18 when he urges believers to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” There are many different situations that prompt us to pray, and we can do so with a variety of types of prayers. One of the things that makes the act of praying interesting, for lack of a better word, is the situation or occasion that prompts it. Just as our lives are filled with great and small traditions, we might also say that there are also great and small prayers. It is unreasonable to expect every prayer to be a transcendent experience.

Sometimes our prayers are urgent. We turn to God in a moment of great need. In those moments, we reach for God the way a drowning swimmer reaches for the outstretched arm of a lifeguard. We have skin in the game. Those are often the times when we feel God’s presence the most. We can say with the conviction of the psalmist, “In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears” (Psalm 18:6).

At other times, the situation that moves us to pray is mundane. We say grace before a meal or at the beginning of some task. We run through the names on our prayer list and generally ask for God’s blessing on their lives. We are not too specific because we are not aware of any remarkable need.

The more ordinary the context, the less emotionally charged the experience. But it isn’t necessarily the point of prayer to have an emotional experience. Most of our lives are made up of ordinary days. Just as an athlete’s regular training outside the game produces the muscle memory that will enable them to perform in the heat of competition, the habit of ordinary prayer trains us to respond prayerfully in the moment of crisis. Ordinary prayer sanctifies the mundane and makes the benign beautiful. There is nothing wrong with these “bread and butter” prayers. The Bible is full of such prayers. It is our inattention that creates the problem. When our prayers become so common that all we are doing is making religious noise, it ceases to be prayer.

Occasional prayers are a little different. As the label suggests, they are prayers suited to a particular occasion. Invocations and benedictions are an example. Occasional prayers are often a feature of the church’s great traditions. We open and close special services with such prayers. Invocations and benedictions are located at the opposite ends of a task or an endeavor. When a church service begins, sometimes the pastor or worship leader will offer an invocation. This is a kind of invitation offered to God, although we shouldn’t think that He needs permission from us to be part of the service.

God sees past our vague requests
to the real needs that lie beneath them.

Nor should we think that He is somewhere outside the building waiting to be let in. In a way, an invocation is a reminder to ourselves that God is already present as much as it is an invitation to God. A benediction is a blessing. It asks God to bless what we have done or to continue to help us. Although benedictions are viewed as prayers, often they are not addressed to God at all but to the congregation. They are promises addressed to God’s people. One does not need to be ordained to pray an invocation or benediction. Nor are they necessarily reserved for church service. When my children were small, my wife Jane and I would pray the priestly blessing from Numbers 6:24–26 over them when they went to bed at night. Many benedictions are scattered throughout the Scriptures, but writing your own can be especially meaningful. Think about how you want God to bless those for whom you pray and put it into the form of a promise. A good way to formulate your benedictions is to use the language of Scripture’s promises.

The Bible employs several terms to speak of prayer. The most basic is “ask.” It is the general word that Paul uses in Philippians 4:6: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” A prayer is simply a request. But Paul’s inclusion of two additional terms expands the definition. Paul speaks of “prayers” and “petitions.” If there is a difference between the two, it is a difference in perspective. The term prayer looks at it from God’s direction. It was the term commonly used to refer to a request addressed to a deity. This language reminds us of the relational dynamic that provides the context for our request. We are coming to God, who is greater than we are. In a sense, it is a word that puts us in our place.

A petition, on the other hand, looks at prayer from our angle. A petition expresses what we want. The Greek word speaks of beseeching or begging someone. It is more than a request; this is an earnest request. So, the first principle to help us stay interested is to have clarity about what we are doing and what we want. What exactly do we want? What are we asking? It is shockingly easy to pray absentmindedly. Our petitions are not petitions at all. They are not specific enough. We ask God to bless us but in a very general sense. So general, in fact, that God could not answer them if he were limited only to the specifics we share.

Fortunately, God is able to see past our vague requests to the real needs that lie beneath them. But it is hard for us to stay attentive without a concrete sense of what we need. It is not selfish to think about yourself and your situation before you pray. It only makes sense that we should have our problems in mind when we pray. They are the concerns that motivate us to go to God in the first place. But it is possible that in the process, we may magnify those concerns so much that they drive God from our minds. Sometimes when we pray, we are only worrying out loud to God. God hears even these prayers, but they don’t bring us much comfort.

Praying is spiritual, but it is also a cognitive act that requires focused attention. Everyone knows the frustration of having a conversation with someone who is distracted. Perhaps it is because their mind wanders, flitting from one topic to another. Or it may be a result of multi-tasking—the one with whom we are trying to converse is doing something else at the same time. Their attention is divided. Prayer is no different. Conversation with God, just like a conversation with any other person, requires that we concentrate on the topic at hand and on the one to whom we wish to speak.

A meaningful prayer experience, then, requires some forethought. First, what is the subject that we have come to God to talk about? Second, what exactly do we want to say? If we had an appointment with our employer that we knew would cover important topics related to our job, we would spend some time thinking in advance about what we planned to say. The same is true when we have a serious talk with a friend or a family member. We choose our words carefully so that we can express ourselves in just the right way. We do this, in part, so that they will not misunderstand us. But only in part. We choose our words carefully because we have something we want to express. This is what makes the conversation important to us.

Although there is no danger that God will misunderstand us, there is a possibility that we may come to him without having much to say. Perhaps the reason we have trouble focusing during prayer is that the conversation isn’t important. Our thoughts are muddled because we haven’t given much thought to what we are trying to say.

Although words are primary, especially where prayer is concerned, we do not communicate with words alone. Gestures and body motions are also a kind of language. The technical word for this is kinesics. A wink, a nod, a slight gesture of the hand all indicate something. Posture, gestures, and various actions are part of the nonverbal vocabulary some use to talk to God. The difference between these holy kinesics and ordinary body language is that God does not need such signals to understand us. They are for our benefit. Things like posture and gestures can sometimes help us focus our attention when we pray. They may enable us to express ourselves more fully, not because God needs more clarity but because we do. They can also serve as reminders both of our purpose in prayer and the promises that shape it.

Maybe the real problem with my praying is that what I have been calling tedium is actually familiarity. I have come looking for a burning bush only to find a quiet room and a comfortable chair. God does not have to announce his presence with a flourish. Our momentary conversation does not have to be dramatic. Perhaps it is enough just to say my piece and then go my way.

When God is Silent: Praying in the Words of Another

The first prayer that I remember praying was one I learned. It was a bedtime prayer. I don’t recall whether I learned it from my mother or someone else. It went like this:

Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

If I should die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take.

To be honest, this prayer disturbed me. Up to that point, it hadn’t occurred to me that I could die in my sleep. The possibility terrified me. The prayer sounded more like an invitation for God to take my life than a prayer for divine protection. But many people have found it helpful to pray using the words of others. Sometimes, these are rote prayers, like the bedtime prayer I learned to recite as a child. Others pray written prayers that are published.

My Christian experience began among people who looked down on written prayers and rituals in general. They believed that the best prayers were spontaneous, framed in one’s own words. Liturgical prayers (prayers that were memorized and repeated) were part of what they viewed as dead traditionalism, and written prayers were even worse.

Yet, it is just as easy for so-called extemporaneous prayer to be undeveloped and unreflective. Often, extemporaneous prayer is not spontaneous at all but a repetition of phrases and themes that we have learned from listening to the prayers of others. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Everyone learns to talk by listening to the conversations of others. The vocabulary of prayer is much the same. Indeed, plenty of evidence in the New Testament suggests that the early church learned to pray primarily by imitation. One prominent example of this is the form of prayer that Jesus taught when his disciples asked him to teach them how to pray. According to Luke 11:1, Jesus introduced his prayer with the words: “When you pray, say …” Matthew’s version begins with a similar command: “This is how you should pray …” (Matthew 6:9). The prayer’s petitions, which are voiced using the first-person plural, also imply that Jesus expected the church to recite it together (Luke 11:3–4; Matthew 6:11–13).

From its earliest days, the church has prayed in both modes—sometimes by praying the words of others verbatim and at others speaking to God using their own words. It does not have to be an either/or choice. We can pray the Lord’s Prayer word for word as Christ delivered it to the church, and we can also use it as a template by adding concerns that are specific to our lives.

One of the first pictures we have of the church is that of a church that prayed together. This is where we find the disciples immediately after Christ’s ascension. They returned to Jerusalem and went upstairs to the room where they were staying: “They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers” (Acts 1:14). Two questions immediately come to mind. First, how could they pray constantly? Second, what did they say?

When some of us pray, our minds wander after only a few minutes! Did the first disciples really engage in a marathon prayer session that lasted seven weeks? Surely they had to take breaks for eating and sleeping. We know that they stopped at least once to conduct business. Acts 1:15–26 says that “in those days,” the disciples took time to choose someone to replace the traitor Judas. As for the content of these prayers, it seems likely that it was a mixture of praying based on tradition, quotes from the Psalms, and specific requests arising out of their circumstances.

Everyone who learns to pray begins by praying words they have heard from another.

James 5:13 declares, “Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.” The specific mode of prayer that James recommends for the cheerful is song. The word that is translated “sing songs of praise” is a Greek term that literally means “to play on a harp.” It is related to the word for a psalm and is a reminder of the value of using the book of Psalms as a resource for our prayers and the vital role that singing plays in our overall prayer life. We are used to thinking of singing as an act of worship. Indeed, for many in the church, singing is worship. But singing is also a form of prayer.

Another revealing feature of the command of James 5:13 is the connection that it makes between music and emotion. We know from experience that music has an affective quality. Most of us do not choose our music based on its technical quality but because of the way it makes us feel. The same is true of the church. Today’s church uses music to create a mood and attract visitors. Worship and music are so identified that if someone says that we are going to worship, most people will assume they mean we are going to sing. Yet, when Acts 2:42 lists the priorities of the first disciples, it does not mention music or even worship. Instead, it says that they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

Nevertheless, the New Testament does show that music had an important place in the early church. Paul and Silas sang through the night while in prison (Acts 16:25). John’s vision of heaven’s worship includes singing with musical instruments (Revelation 5:9; 14:2–3). John does not describe the melody, only its overall effect. He says that it was “like the roar of rushing waters and like a loud peal of thunder” (Revelation 14:2).

When we sing, we express our emotions as well as our thoughts. Furthermore, there is a physical dimension to music-making. Its sonic nature resonates with us on our deepest level in the most literal sense. “Music is a very bodily business, whether or not the human voice is used,” Jeremy Begbie explains. “Our physical, physiological, and neurological makeup shapes the making and hearing of music to a high degree.”[1] Singing enables us to pray with the whole person and not only with words.

The main thing that troubles those who are uncomfortable with memorized prayer is its liturgical nature. It bothers them that the words they pray are not their own words. Until they pray them so often that they become second nature, it feels as if they are speaking to God in someone else’s voice. But is this really such a bad thing? The fact that some forms of prayer are ritualized speech is not necessarily a condemning factor either. Dead rituals can indeed pose a danger, but in such cases, it is the deadness, not the fact that they are rituals, that poses the problem. Rituals are merely repeated actions that become meaningful to us by their repetition.

Some kind of rote praying is a feature of every Christian tradition, just as every church has its own liturgy, whether it is formal or informal. Everybody who learns to pray begins by praying words they have heard from others. In a way, none of us begins by praying in our own voice. We must first learn a vocabulary and a pattern of speech. It shows us what to ask for and how to ask. It enables us to put into words feelings and desires for which we previously had no name. Over time, what once sounded like an unfamiliar voice eventually becomes a way to find our own.


[1] Jeremy S. Begbie, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 47.

When God is Silent: Managing Our Angry Prayers

Sometimes when we pray, we are angry with other people. On other occasions, we pray because we are angry with God. When Jonah prayed, it was both. After delivering what may be the shortest and most successful sermon in preaching history, Jonah prayed an angry prayer in which he took God to task for his mercy and then begged for death.  

You might think that Jonah would be happy. Instead, the prophet was outraged. The Hebrew text literally says, “It was evil to Jonah, a great evil and he was angry” (Jonah 4:1). Jonah wasn’t surprised by what God had done (or, more specifically, by what he hadn’t done). Jonah was furious because God had behaved exactly as he expected. “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home?” he complained in Jonah 4:2–3. “That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”  

Yet, Jonah’s angry prayers are not an anomaly. Indeed, angry prayers are common enough that those who study the prayers of the Bible have an entire category devoted to them. They call them imprecatory prayers, after a Latin word that means to curse or invoke evil. To be fair, Jonah’s prayers were not technically imprecatory. They were more occasions of grumbling out loud to God. But the anger that prompted them is the same spirit that fuels the imprecations of the Psalms, the laments of Jeremiah, and even a few of the “wish prayers” of the apostle Paul (Galatians 1:8; 5:12).  

Prayers for protection have always been prayed by God’s people. Imprecatory prayers go a step further. They ask for protection, but they also ask God to punish, sometimes with language that we would consider immoderate. For example, in Psalm 69:28, David prays that God would blot his enemies out of the Book of Life. Even more disturbing, Psalm 137:8–9 pronounces a curse on Babylon and a blessing on those who destroy it.  

Anyone who has experienced abuse or witnessed an atrocity can identify with the emotion that energizes these prayers. But we don’t have to suffer abuse to understand the angry prayers of the Psalms and prophets. We have all had the same feelings, though on a much smaller scale, every time someone has wronged us. Yet, there is more than an emotion behind the imprecations of the Old Testament. The retributive standard of the Mosaic law—eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot—shapes them. Leviticus 24:20 summarizes the principle in these words: “The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury” (see also Exodus 21:24; Deuteronomy 19:21).

As a legal standard, the purpose of this command was to limit retribution. The basic rule was that the punishment should fit the crime and not go beyond it. Any penalty must consider the degree of damage inflicted on the victim and the retaliation imposed should not have extreme punitive damages. The Mosaic law’s limitation of the penalty to an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth was not exclusive to Israel. It also existed in other cultures, perhaps most famously in the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. Possibly we might view the psalmist’s and Jeremiah’s imprecatory prayers as an application of the Babylonians’ own standard of law against them, but the limits set by God’s law on retribution were more than a cultural adaption of advanced Babylonian jurisprudence. It reflected a larger movement in the direction of grace that Jesus Christ would eventually fulfill by his coming. John gives the broad outline of this trajectory when he observes that “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).  

Christ’s inauguration of this full measure of grace must shape our understanding of Scripture’s angry prayers. The advent of an age of grace did not lower the bar of God’s justice. Jesus did not come to overturn the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17–18). Not only did Jesus warn of a coming day of judgment, but he also made it clear that on that day, he would be its primary agent (Matthew 13:41–43; cf. 2 Peter 2:9; 3:7). But until that day, Christ’s dealings with the offender are marked by grace.  

The spirit that shapes our prayers for those who anger us is not the spirit of Jonah but the spirit of Christ. It is not a cry for justice but a prayer for grace. To hear such a thing will undoubtedly rankle some in this era when justice has become a cultural byword. Yet Jesus could not have been clearer on this matter in his teaching. Our model is not the imprecatory prayers of the Psalms and prophets, but the pattern Christ gave us in the Sermon on the Mount. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’” Jesus declared. “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:43–45). What kind of prayer shall we pray for those we judge to be our persecutors? Paul echoes Christ’s command and clarifies the sort of prayer he had in mind: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Romans 12:15).  

How, then, should we pray our angry prayers? Given what Jesus says, should we even pray them at all? It doesn’t seem realistic to think that we can deny our anger. To deny it would be to pray through a mask of false piety. We cannot hide our feelings from the one that Scripture says “knew what was in each person” (John 2:24). Nor is it reasonable to dismiss the things that have sparked our outrage. They are important. At least, they are important to us, or else we would not be angry about them. Whether or not the outrage we feel is justified is not the point (not yet, anyway). If we are to worship God in spirit and truth, the truest self at this moment is our angry self. Jesus’ command to love our enemy and bless our persecutors does not mean that we cannot pray if we are angry.  

We do not have to deny our anger, but we must take these feelings in hand and discipline ourselves to pray both as Jesus taught us and as he himself prayed. But if we are to pray as Jesus did, then we must also take upon our lips not only his words of forgiveness offered on behalf of those who crucified him but his cry of dereliction. Before Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them,” he prayed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34).  

I am not saying that on the cross, Jesus spoke in anger or disappointment with the Father. Far from it. Yet these words of anguish were more than a mere symbol. Just as they truly described the emotion of the psalmist at the time when they were first written, they express the agony Christ suffered as he “‘bore our sins’ in his body on the cross” (1 Peter 2:24). It is this reality that makes Jesus prayer a model for us in our anger. When we admit our anger and frustration to God, we acknowledge our ambivalence. On the one hand, the fact that we are praying is itself a recognition of God’s sovereignty. We pray because he is our God. We know that he is in control. In the act of praying, we begin with God and not our problem.  

At the same time, we often feel conflicted as well. Like Jonah, we are hunkered down and waiting to see what God will do for us. If we are not angry, we are at least frustrated by our circumstances. We wonder why the sovereign God would allow such things to occur. This note of frustration is frequently heard in the prayers of the Bible.  

Jonah had a problem with God because he had a problem with the people of Nineveh. Jonah was angry about the evil of Nineveh. But mostly, he was angry because God did not seem to share his anger. Jonah learned by experience what he already knew as a matter of intuition. When you pick a fight with God, you usually end up on the losing side. God is bigger than you are and has all the power. He holds all the cards and knows what you are going to say before you say it.  

The Jonah story ends in silence. God asks, “Should I not pity Nineveh?” But Jonah gives no answer. We, too, are silent but often for a different reason. Sometimes ours is a silence born of fear. At other times it is the silence of artifice. Instead of expressing our real thoughts and feelings in prayer, we tell God what we think he wants to hear, as if God could not see through our charade, as if he did not already know what was in our hearts. It would be far better for us to take our stand with the patriarchs, the psalmists, and the prophets and state our feelings in plain words. It might be better, even, if we were to join Jonah as he sulks on the outskirts of Nineveh and risk engaging God in impolite conversation. Jonah, admittedly, is only barely obedient. But at least he is honest.

When God is Silent-The Art of Praying for Others

When I was a pastor, one of my responsibilities was to pray for the congregation. I usually began every morning in my “praying chair” with the church directory open on my lap. I would look at the pictures and pray for each person by name. It was easy, as long as I was praying in generalities. It was harder when I tried to pray in specifics. Besides asking God to give them a good day, keep them safe, and bless them (whatever that meant), I often found myself at a loss for words.

My problem wasn’t the church’s size. The congregation was small, only fifty or sixty regular attenders. I knew everyone by name. I knew where they worked and some of the details of their lives. I was usually aware when something happened worth praying about: an illness, a job change, a death in the family. It wasn’t rocket science. It seemed to me that being familiar with the congregation should make praying for them easier, but it wasn’t.

Most of the time, when we pray for others, we are either trying to change them or their situation, but we face two significant obstacles. One is the people for whom we are praying. The other is God. It sometimes seems as if neither party is willing to cooperate with our effort. Do a search on books about intercessory prayer on the Internet, and the overall impression you get is that our concerns in this area are primarily concerns of focus and method. Many of the titles describe those for whom we should pray. They are about praying for our spouses and children, our nation, and our churches. We are praying for health, prosperity, and revival. These book titles indicate that we wrestle with the same insecurities and disappointments here as we do with the rest of our prayers. We don’t think we are very good at it. We are worried about our technique and are looking for some way to ensure we will get the response we desire from God.

The first explicit example of intercessory prayer recorded in Scripture is by Abraham. This doesn’t mean that he was the first to pray. Or even that he was the first to pray for someone else. Abraham prayed for Sodom after God told him that he intended to destroy the city. One of the most surprising features of this prayer is that it sounds like bargaining. It was not Abraham who initiated the conversation but God. However, Abraham did have a personal stake in the outcome. His nephew Lot was a resident of Sodom. The way that Abraham keeps driving down the number of righteous people needed to spare the city of Sodom does indeed make it feel as if he is haggling with a merchant in the marketplace. Upon closer inspection, however, there was no bargaining going on at all in Abraham’s intercession. A bargain involves an exchange with some quid pro quo given and received. Abraham offers nothing in exchange for the terms he suggests to God other than an article of faith. He only asks that “the Judge of all the earth do right” (Genesis 18:25).

Of all those who pray in the Old Testament, Moses stands as the premier example of intercessory prayer. One of his most notable prayers occurred when Israel turned from God and worshiped the golden calf (Exodus 32–34). Moses’s prayer seems to stand between God and the destruction of the nation. On the surface, we could be tempted to see God’s anger as a momentary flash of rage that subsides after Moses talks God off the ledge.

A closer analysis reveals much more. If God had truly wanted to destroy the nation, he could have done so while Moses was still on the mountain. Instead, the Lord said, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt” (Exodus 32:7). More than informing Moses of the problem, this declaration is cleverly framed in a way that seems to place their fate in Moses’s hands. In addition to calling them “your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt,” the Lord demands, “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation” (v. 10). In the exchange that follows, Moses prays four times and offers three arguments based on what God has already revealed about his purpose and character.

Intercession is not bargaining or talking God
into or out of something.

Intercessory prayer is not bargaining or talking God into or out of something. When we pray for others, we respond to God’s invitation to enter into his purposes. Instead of carefully crafted arguments intended to persuade a reluctant God, we confess God’s promises. His grace, mercy, and justice shape our petitions. The more we know about God, the more confidently and intelligently we can pray.

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul is both an example and an advocate for intercessory prayer. He saw intercession as a way of participating with God in what he is doing in the lives of others. Praying for others is a way of participating with God in what he is doing in the lives of others. When we engage in intercessory prayer, we are not trying to direct God’s attention toward someone he is not aware of or in whom he is not interested. When we pray for someone else, we enter into a relationship that already exists between that person and God as their creator.

The apostle Paul’s language of spiritual collaboration places intercessory prayer within a relational rather than a transactional framework. He saw the Corinthians as his helpers through their prayers. Those who prayed for Paul enabled him to preach. Their prayers went on ahead and opened doors (2 Cor. 1:11). The same is true for us. The record of Paul’s prayers in his letters and his requests that the churches pray for him in return provide evidence of a praying network that was the foundation of the apostle’s ministry. Paul not only solicited prayers for himself but invited them to pray along with him for others. When we pray for a friend going through a hard time, we share the load with them. Our prayers can ease their burden.

How, then, should we practice the art of intercessory prayer? To some extent, the answer is that intercessory prayer is the same as any other kind of praying. We bring our concerns to God and ask him to take care of them. The apostle Paul’s prayers recorded in the New Testament provide a simple model that we can use for ourselves. Many of his prayers include four key elements. First, they are addressed to God. But rather than merely saying, “Dear God,” Paul’s openings often describe God by one of his attributes as recorded in Scripture.

The second element of Paul’s prayers is a request. Sometimes these are stated explicitly as petitions and at other times in words that sound more like a wish. The point here is not so much whether he used the optative mood or the indicative when he made his requests so much as it is that he saw those for whom we pray within the framework of God’s care. He was not merely asking for things. He made his requests with a Godward focus. The apostle recognized that a petition is not a demand.

A third feature of Paul’s prayers is that they usually mention those for whom he prays. He has specific people in mind. Paul’s prayers for others are personal and suited to their needs. They are not vague. The third feature of Paul’s prayers is that they usually mention those for whom he prays. He has specific people in mind. Paul’s prayers for others are personal and suited to their needs. They are not vague.

A fourth element of the apostle’s prayers is that Paul often articulates an outcome that he expects to see as a result of God’s answer. These purpose clauses set the apostle’s requests within the larger framework of God’s plan. It is easy to be so caught up in the specific requests we are making that we lose sight of why we are praying at all. Christian prayer is not magic. We are participating in God’s plan for the church, for our lives, and the world at large. There is a bigger picture to keep in view, along with the particular requests that we make. God’s purposes and his promises are a motivator and a guide in all our praying.

There is one other noteworthy feature of Paul’s intercessory prayers. Those that are recorded in the New Testament are generally brief. Often, they are no more than a paragraph or two. Many are only a few sentences. Our prayers do not have to be works of art. They do not have to be long. We can pray while working, playing, or as we lie on our bed at night. Say what you have to say as best you can and leave the matter with God.

When God is Silent-Asking and Getting What You Want . . . or Not

In one of his parables, Jesus compares prayer to someone who asks a neighbor to loan him three loaves of bread when an unexpected visitor shows up at midnight (Luke 11:5–8). In the scenario that Jesus describes, the neighbor is unwilling at first. “Don’t bother me,” the neighbor says. “The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.” What is Jesus’s counsel in such a situation? Keep asking. Be shameless in your persistence: “I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need” (Luke 11:8).

Jesus made the same point in another parable “to show [his disciples] that they should always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1). This story concerned a widow who kept going to a judge with the plea, “Grant me justice against my adversary” (Luke 18:3). Because the judge “neither feared God nor cared what people thought,” the woman came to him repeatedly without getting the answer she desired. The power dynamics described in this witty story aptly describe how we often feel when it comes to prayer: helpless, powerless, and frequently ignored.

Prayer is an act of communion with God. But for most of us, it’s also about getting something from God. Most prayers include an “ask” of some kind. We aren’t praying just to hear ourselves talk. Jesus’s primary point, of course, is that God is not like the neighbor or the judge. But it is an important starting point to acknowledge that we often feel that he is. We do not struggle with prayer because it is hard. Our problem is that we are not sure it is worthwhile. We suspect that God is not interested in our case or fear that he will not decide matters in our favor. Delay and denial are the major reasons for this uncertainty. We pray, but the answer does not seem to come. Or we pray, and the response we receive is not the one we had wanted.

Why does God often seem so slow when Scripture assures us that he is not slow? One reason is that our relationship to time is very different from God’s. In 2 Peter 3:8, we are told to remember that “with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” What seems to us like a delay is not a delay to God. God’s plans unfold according to his schedule. The fact that time does not limit God does not mean that he has no sense of timing.

While a “no” is probably not the answer we want, it is still an answer.

Jesus began his public ministry with the words, “The time has come” (Mark 1:15). Romans 5:6 tells us that Christ died for sinners “at just the right time.” We are frustrated with the timing of God’s answers to our prayers because we forget that we are also part of a larger drama that is unfolding. As far as our daily experience is concerned, we continue to live on a timeline that unfolds as past, present, and future. We are subject to the limitations of the temporal realm in this present life. Yet, we are also living in the reality of Christ’s finished work. Our lives have been folded into Christ and his kingdom. As a result, “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

One implication of this is that our prayers’ answers are accomplished facts even before they have been granted. Another is that we can be certain that whatever form God’s answer may take, it will reflect his loving purpose for our lives. This heavenly perspective casts Jesus’s promise in Matthew 18:19 in a new light: “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” Although the context of Jesus’s promise in this particular verse is narrow—it primarily has to do with the exercise of church discipline—it parallels Jesus’ statements in Matthew 21:22, Mark 11:24 and John 14:13–14.

What Jesus describes in these passages is not a positive attitude but a sphere of authority. Those who ask in faith can be certain of an answer because they operate out of the heavenly realm where God’s will is always done (Matthew 6:10; Luke 11:2; see also Matthew 26:42). The trouble with the view that sees Jesus’ promises as a blank check which guarantees that we can get whatever we want from God is that it shifts the focus of prayer away from the Heavenly Father so that our only concern is the particular request we happen to be making. This approach to prayer reduces God to little more than a delivery system for the thing we hope to obtain. He might as well be a vending machine. Second, such an approach confuses an affirmative with an answer. It fails to allow for the possibility that God could also answer our prayer by denying our request. While a “no” is probably not the answer we want, it is still an answer.

The Bible offers many examples of notable saints whose prayers were refused by God. Moses pleaded with God to allow him to enter the land of promise (Deuteronomy 3:23–27). David asked God to heal his first son by Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:16–20). Paul repeatedly prayed for God to remove the “thorn in my flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7–9). Most notably, Jesus prayed to be spared the suffering of the cross in language that suggests he was fully aware that such a thing was not possible.

Likewise, there are many in Scripture who waited many years, some for their entire lives, without seeing God grant their desires. Of them, the author of Hebrews writes, “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39–40). Although he is not speaking explicitly of prayer, the principle is just as true. The fact that God does not grant our request as soon as we would like may not mean that he will not give it to us at all. His refusal to grant a request altogether isn’t always a sign that God is displeased with us. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we lack the faith to receive it. Sometimes God’s decision not to grant our request has nothing to do with us at all, at least as far as cause and effect are concerned.

Is there ever a time when we don’t get what we ask because it is our own fault? The answer is yes. James 4:2–3 explains, “You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” Prayer is not magic. It does not work like an incantation. We do not get what we want in prayer simply because we voice our desire aloud to God.

There is a kind of assurance in what James says here. It means that we cannot manipulate God by our prayers. We never have to worry that God will give us something that we should not have. At the same time, the scenario that James describes should sober us because it shows how evil motives can subvert a spiritual activity like prayer. The specific motives mentioned by James are greed and envy. But other motives can insert themselves into our praying. For example, Jesus warns of the danger of praying “to be seen by others” (Matthew 6:5). Some prayers are not prayers at all. They are theater. The prayers Jesus condemns in this verse were public displays of piety intended to elicit praise from others. He warns that such prayers go unanswered: “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.”

The first principle in prayer is simply to ask. Tell God what you want, as simply as you can (James 5:13-16). Getting something from God is not the only thing. But it is the first thing. Need and desire provide the initial impetus for us to pray. There is no reason to be ashamed of this.

The second principle in prayer is to pray honestly. One of the greatest temptations in prayer is to tell God what we think he wants to hear instead of what is really on our heart. There is no point in putting on airs. He already knows what we think.

The third principle of prayer is to persist. This advice comes directly from Jesus. Pray and do not give up. We persist in prayer, not because we think it will put pressure on God to grant our request but as an expression of faith. We continue because we believe that God’s interest in us and in our needs is persistent. Persistence is evidence of our dependency, not a sign of our doubt.

God is not like the reluctant neighbor or the unjust judge in Jesus’s parables. It is God’s nature to give “good gifts” to his children. God hears us whenever we cry out to him. When God hears, his response is immediate. Although he may not always grant us the particular object of our desire or grant the answer according to our preferred timetable, we can be sure that he will always act in our interest.

Picture of Jesus praying in Gethsemane with the caption "Sometimes the best answer to our prayer is "No." With a picture of the book When God is Silent by John Koessler and a caption "Pre-Order now for a 30% discount at lexhampress.com

When God is Silent-Awkward Conversation

Some conversations are just hard: telling someone about the loss of a loved one; talking to the kids about the facts of life; informing an employee that their contract will not be renewed; making small talk with a person whom you have virtually nothing in common. But few conversations are quite as challenging as trying to talk with someone who seems to have nothing to say.

I say this to make a point about God, or to be more precise, to make a point about our experience with God. God does not seem to be much of a conversationalist. He is mostly silent when we talk to him. We know from Scripture that God has a voice. According to the book of Genesis, the first words ever spoken were God’s words: “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). Yet, the Bible also shows that God is no chatterbox. God indeed spoke to Moses “face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:11). He spoke to Abraham the same way, but ordinary conversation has never been God’s primary communication mode, at least not the kind of conversations we are used to having.

God has chosen to speak through others most of the time: prophets, preachers, and occasionally angels. Even then, God has never shown himself to be what you could describe as voluble. His words have been, for the most part, relatively few and sometimes far between. Long gaps of years, decades, centuries, and even millennia separate the occasions where God speaks to his people.

We assume that it would be a comfort to hear God speak directly to us. Yet Scripture suggests that we are more likely to be unnerved by the experience. When Israel heard God’s voice, they were so put off by the experience that they begged him to stop. God came to Elijah in a gentle whisper, but on Sinai, it was with a shout and in a blaze of fire. “Go near and listen to all that the Lord our God says. Then tell us whatever the Lord our God tells you,” they begged Moses. “We will listen and obey” (Deuteronomy 5:27). It seems more likely that if God spoke directly to us, we would react as they did. Or we would put our hands over our ears in stunned silence as Job did (Job 40:3–5).

We assume it would be a comfort to hear God speak directly to us.

Taken as a whole, the Bible describes many occasions where God revealed himself to specific individuals, but very few had a face-to-face conversation with him (Exodus 33:11; Numbers 12:8). As the writer of Hebrews observes, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe” (Hebrews 1:1–2).

Whatever prayer may be, it is not an ordinary conversation. Believers in every generation have understood prayer as one of the means by which God communicates to his people. Yet it is a conversation where we do the majority of the talking. In prayer, we approach God but do not see either face or form and do not hear his voice. Therefore it is a conversation that lacks all the normal cues we rely upon for meaning. When we talk to God, we cannot rely upon inflection, body language, or facial expression to gauge his response the way we can when conversing with others.

Prayer differs from ordinary conversation in another respect. Those who pray often talk to themselves as well as to God. The self-talk of prayer is not a pep talk or even positive thinking. When we talk to ourselves in prayer, we remind ourselves of the truth we already know. We remember God’s disposition toward us and base our expectations upon it. This kind of prayer talk amounts to a confession of faith made in the presence of God.

If prayer is not a conversation in the ordinary sense, then what is it? Prayer is a conversation that moves primarily in one direction. It moves from the believer who prays to the God who hears. God’s silence does not mean that he is unresponsive. The first assumption of faith is that we have God’s attention. 1 John 5:14-15 assures us: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.”

The key to understanding John’s bold and frequently misunderstood promise is to note that to “hear,” in this sense, means something more than to take notice of something. To hear as John uses the term is to grasp the full implications of something. God knows both our desire and our true need. He also knows how our request fits into his plan.

It might help if we thought of prayer as communion instead of conversation. The essence of communion is shared experience. The mistake we make is to interpret God’s silence as absence or disinterest. In true conversation, listening is interaction as much as speech. Listening may even be more of an exchange than words because, to really listen, we must enter into someone’s experience.

Sometimes when we pray, we feel like we need to do something to attract God’s attention. We are like a person on the ground waving their hands at a plane passing high overhead, hoping that someone up there will see us. God does not have to come down from on high to take note of us. We do not need to arrest his attention. Although we often talk about “coming” into God’s presence, the truth is that we are already there.

We are not trying to capture God’s attention but responding to an overture that he has already made. Not only was God the first to speak, he spoke to us long before we ever uttered a word to him. He has revealed himself in creation and by his written word. We do not need to feel God’s presence to know that he is present when we pray. Psalm 139 assures us that wherever we are, God is already there. “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” the psalmist says. “If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there” (Psalm 139:7–8).

The awkwardness of prayer should not put us off. It does not originate with God but with us. We have felt uncomfortable with other conversations we have had and have pushed through the discomfort to say what needed to be said. How much more should this be true when it comes to God? “You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways,” the psalmist declares. “Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely” (Psalm 139:3–4). We do not need to feel that God is near to be in his presence. We do not need to be comfortable to pray. We do not need to speak nicely to be heard. Before we have even uttered a word, God knows our minds and hearts completely.

Do We Really Need Another Book on Prayer?

As I was writing my most recent book, When God is Silent, I had to ask myself a question. Do we really need another book on prayer? C. S. Lewis once observed that he had never come across a book on prayer that was of any use to him. He said that he had seen many books of prayers, but when it came to books about prayer, the writers usually made the wrong assumptions about the reader.

I have often felt something similar. Books about prayer don’t seem to fit my situation. They either assume that I don’t want to pray or that I don’t know how. Neither is really the case. My problem lies elsewhere. I don’t like the way God treats me when I pray. Our conversations seem awkward. Over time I’ve discovered that most people are like me. We pray, sometimes frequently, but there is something about the experience that leaves us feeling uncomfortable. We aren’t sure why.

After giving this question thought over many years, it seems to me that many of the problems we have with prayer have nothing to do with motivation or method. They are the sort of problems that we might describe as relational. How do you carry on a conversation with someone who never seems to talk back to you? Why do we feel like God is sometimes unresponsive to our wishes? In my latest book, entitled “When God is Silent,” I address questions like these and many more.

In the end, the secret to prayer is not a matter of method or even motive. The key to prayer is God Himself. I have written this book to do more than answer questions like these. It is my hope. Indeed, it is my prayer that as you read, you will also gain a sense of God, of His goodness, and the rich welcome that is waiting for you every time you approach Him in the name of Jesus Christ.

Other Words: Four More Cries from the Cross

The last word my mother ever spoke to me was “No.” She spoke it repeatedly as she lay in a hospital bed. Her cry was a spontaneous act of resistance, an expression of outrage against the impending dissolution of death. The last thing my father said to me was, “I love you.” He, too, was in a hospital bed, and his words were also a reflex of sorts. Despite his discomfort, it was an automatic response of parental affection. I don’t think either of them realized that these would be their last words to me. Frankly, I am not certain they even knew what they said. They were too busy trying not to die to think about it.

Jesus’ last words before his death were different. They were not spoken as a reflex. Rather than being spontaneous, many of the things he said fulfilled prophecy. What was not prophetic was deliberate. He knew he was dying. He also knew what he was saying.

Not everything Jesus said on the cross was addressed to the Father. Jesus also spoke to one of the two men who was crucified along with him. The Gospel of Mark uses a word that means “robber” or “rebel” to describe them (Mark 15:27). It is the same word that John employs to refer to Barrabas (John 18:40). We know only two things about these men. One is that they were guilty of the crimes for which they suffered and that initially, they had both heaped insults on Christ (Matt. 27:44).

A Change of Heart

Although both were rebels, Luke reveals that one of them experienced a sudden change of heart while on the cross. The other thief continued to bait Jesus, saying, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the repentant thief rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:40–41). After this, he turned his attention to the dying Savior and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).

With this request, this anonymous criminal voices what may be our most basic fear. It is the terror of being overlooked. To say “remember me” is also to say “do not forget me.” This is what  Joseph said to Pharaoh’s cupbearer while still in prison (Gen. 40:14). It was the prayer of the prisoner Samson when the Philistines stood him between the pillars of their temple (Judges 16:28). Hannah prayed this as she wept before the Lord in Shiloh and begged for a son (1 Sam. 1:11). Nehemiah, Job, and the Psalmist all prayed these words (Neh. 5:19; 13:14, 22, 31; Job 14:13; Ps. 25:7; 106:4).

But few have had as little warrant to make such a request as this thief did. He epitomizes the last-minute change of heart. Luke doesn’t say what brought about the change. It is not hard to speculate that it was motivated by Christ’s prayer of forgiveness. Jesus, however, does not ask him for an explanation. Or for anything, for that matter. Instead of telling the thief that the faith he has expressed is too little too late, the Savior assures him: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:42).

It is never too late to turn to Christ for mercy.

The thief on the cross has served as a beacon of hope ever since. He is the prototype for all deathbed conversions. Jesus’ assurance that such a person would be with him in paradise is a reminder that as long as there is breath, there is hope. As long as we are able, it is never too late to turn to Christ for mercy.

A Word to His Mother

Jesus also addressed his mother, Mary, and the apostle John from the cross. John tells us that he was standing “nearby” Mary. John’s description of the incident may suggest that Jesus was searching for them among the onlookers. To watch Jesus suffer from the foot of the cross must have been painful enough for Mary. For their eyes to meet in that moment had to pierce her mother’s heart like the sword Simeon had predicted in the temple court (Luke 2:35). To Mary, Jesus says, “Woman, here is your son,” and to John, “Here is your mother.” From that time, John says, he took her into his home (John 19:26–27).

Given the circumstances, Jesus’ words to the two of them are almost too mundane to be believed. They are, in a way, purely human words–the words of a dying son who must put his house in order. That Jesus gave this responsibility to John is something of a puzzle. Jesus had brothers and sisters (Mark 6:3). Why didn’t he place her in their hands? For that matter, why did he even feel that it was necessary to say anything at all? He could have let matters take care of themselves. None of this is explained to us by John,  who merely records the charge but does not tell us what made it necessary or whether it had other significance.

Yet Jesus’ words at least imply a fundamental shift in his relationship with Mary. After the cross, Jesus will no longer relate to Mary as a son. That role will be entrusted to John. I doubt that this came as a surprise to Mary. Jesus had already hinted that such a change was coming (John 2:4). On one occasion, after being told that his mother and brothers were outside asking for him, Jesus looked at those seated before him and replied: “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:34–35).

In the Magnificat, Mary observed: “From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name” (Luke 1:49). But the title she chose for herself is less exalted. In her own eyes, she was merely a servant (v. 48). Her relationship with Jesus must change once he completes his earthly task.

Jesus was not diminishing Mary when he commended her to John’s care. His words reflect love, not only for his mother but for John as well. Into who else’s care would we expect Jesus to entrust his mother, if not to “the disciple whom he loved” (John 19:26)? At the most painful moment of Jesus’ experience, his concerns are turned to the needs of others.

Two Observations

Between the cry of dereliction and Jesus’ final prayer committing his spirit into the hands of the Father, Jesus makes two observations. They are both statements of fact that pertain to his suffering. Their only ambiguity is their audience. Are they addressed to the Father or those watching him suffer? Is Jesus talking to himself?

There is a certain irony in the simple statement that the apostle records in John 19:28, “I am thirsty.” It is tempting to look at thirst as the least significant of the physical sufferings Jesus experienced. Yet you could hardly choose a statement more suited to underscore the reality of his humanity. Food and water are essential for human life, yet we can survive without food longer than water. This cry is a reminder that it is the man Jesus who hangs on the cross. He is the God who became flesh (John 1:14).

On the Cross, the one who is the source of the water of life suffers from thirst.

Jesus’ complaint is especially poignant, appearing as it does in John’s Gospel. Stanley Hauerwas reminds us this is the Gospel in which the Samaritan woman is promised that Jesus will provide her with “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14).[1] It is John who tells us that on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus stood and in a loud voice declared, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” (John 7:37-38). Yet, on the cross, the one who is the source of the water of life suffers from thirst.

John did not put these words in Jesus’ mouth. They are things that Jesus actually said. But as the most poetic of the Gospel writers, John is the one who noticed this theme in Jesus’ teaching and highlighted it. As a witness to the suffering of Christ, he could not help but see the irony of Jesus’ thirst. Yet John also saw beyond the irony. He pointed out that Jesus said this, “knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled.” Jesus spoke these words to set in motion the actions that would fulfill the prophecy of Psalm 69:21, “They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst.”

A Shout of Victory

Jesus’ other statement before his final prayer of surrender is just as brief: “It is finished” (John 19:30). This is the “loud cry” that Mark mentions but does not articulate in his Gospel (Mark 15:37). This statement seems to be combined with Jesus’ final prayer. Perhaps it is part of that prayer. Although John does not include the prayer in his account, it is implied in the statement at the end of verse 30, which says that after Jesus said this, “he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”

Jesus’ suffering ends with a loud cry, but not a cry of despair. “‘It is finished’ is not a death gurgle,” Stanley Hauerwas observes. “‘It is finished’ is not ‘I am done for.'” “It is finished” is Christ’s shout of victory.[2] We know this, Hauerwas explains, because just before he breathed his last, Jesus committed his spirit into the hands of the Father.

These are indeed the words of a dying man. But they are not the words of someone who is passing into darkness and the unknown. Jesus’ last word is not even a sigh of relief. It is a cry of triumph from one who knows he has successfully finished his task (John 19:28). The hardest work is done. What remains is resurrection and restoration.

Although Jesus’ last words before his death were not his final words, they cannot help their air of finality. They signify the completion of an experience shared by all who must die but one that is also singular and unrepeatable. Like the rest of us, Jesus passed through the valley of shadow. But unlike us, Jesus did not go there unwillingly. “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again,” Jesus said. “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father” (John 10:17–18).

Jesus’ seven last words were those of a victor, not a victim. They are the words of one who knows he is death’s master. Death has not disappeared. Anyone who has watched a loved one die knows all too well why the apostle calls death the “last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Cor. 15:26). But when Jesus said, “it is finished,” he declared victory and sounded the death knell for death itself.


[1] Stanely Hauerwas, Cross-Shattered Christ, (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2004), 73.

[2] Ibid., 83.

Three Prayers from the Cross

Some have called Jesus’ seven statements from the cross his “last words.” The label is striking but somewhat misleading. They are not individual “words” but a collection of sentences or phrases. Neither are they technically the last words of Jesus but merely the last things he said before his death and resurrection. It turns out that Jesus still had much to say. After the resurrection, he showed himself to be alive to the disciples and spoke to them over the course of forty days and beyond (Acts 1:3).

Still, there is something unique about these sayings. For one, there is a starkness to them. The dying, as a rule, are not talkative. If they are not unconscious, they are too uncomfortable to be chatty. Dying is hard work, and those engaged in the task are usually too preoccupied to be loquacious. Jesus’ words are as terse as one would expect from someone entering the final throes of death.

The First Prayer

Among these seven sayings are three prayers, of which the first is, in some ways, the most astonishing. In this prayer, Jesus asks the Father to forgive those who crucify him (Luke 23:34). This is poignant but especially so coming between Jesus’ warning to the daughters of Jerusalem of a terrible judgment yet to come and Scripture’s observations about the scorn of the watching crowd. Luke’s description paints a picture of callous disregard blended with pride. Jesus hangs naked between two criminals as the religious leaders sneer. “He saved others,” they taunt, “let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One” (Luke 23:35).

The soldiers do their work with the brutal indifference of soldiers. They pound nails in Jesus’ hands and feet and haul him up. They parcel out Jesus’ clothes. Instead of water, they offer him wine vinegar. The soldiers point to the sign Pilate has ordered to be placed above his head and say, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” Yet instead of asking for justice, Jesus pleads with God for mercy on their behalf. More than mercy. Jesus asked God to absolve them “for they do not know what they are doing.”

But they do know what they are doing. At least, they think they know. The crowd, which has been swept up in these events, watches it all unfold. Some with ghoulish interest and others with sorrow. The soldiers are only following orders. The rulers, likewise, are just doing their job. They believe they are acting responsibly by ridding the nation of a dangerous person. Yet it seems that Jesus is right after all. They are all of them ignorant. None of them has any idea what is really going on.

Jesus’ request that God forgive is not a dismissal of the cruelty of their actions toward him. This is not the kind of false forgiveness we sometimes offer, saying, “Oh, it was nothing at all. Think nothing of it.” Rather, Jesus’ petition acknowledges that he knows what is happening. Jesus is not a victim. He is acting as a high priest, praying for the sins of the people. But Jesus is doing more than praying. He is also offering the sacrifice that gives him the warrant to ask for forgiveness on their behalf. It is the sacrifice of Jesus himself (Heb. 7:27).

The Second Prayer

Jesus affirms this in the second prayer he utters from the cross. If Jesus’ first prayer from the cross is astonishing, his second is disturbing. Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matthew 27:45–46 reveals that Jesus spoke these words in darkness at three in the afternoon. This sharp cry is separated from the petition for forgiveness by at least three hours of suffering.

Some find these words of Jesus’ troubling, interpreting them as a moment of doubt or maybe even despair. But they are something else. They are a quote from Psalm 22, which is also a prayer. Acting as both priest and sacrifice, Jesus utters a liturgical prayer: “He reached up for a word of the eternal God and sent it back up again.”[1] Jesus’ words do not reflect a loss of confidence in God, but they suggest that there is more going on in this moment than merely a symbolic act. Something is happening between Jesus and the Father that is deeply distressing to the Savior. If we take Jesus at his words, it is a separation. Somehow, the unity between Father and Son that existed since eternity past was broken at that moment. Philip Jamiesen explains, “The cry of dereliction reveals that the Son has lost His direct access to the Father even as He calls out to Him as God.”[2]

It is easier to explain what happened than to precisely describe what Christ experienced. 2 Corinthians 5:21 explains, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Those who stood by the cross watching did not recognize it but were seeing themselves at that moment. Jesus was sundered from the Father because he had taken upon himself the “sin of the world” (John 1:29).

Acting as both priest and sacrifice, Jesus utters a liturgical prayer.

The Third Prayer

The third prayer Jesus uttered proves that this cry of anguish was not a cry of despair. It is Jesus’ last statement from the cross. Luke 23:46 says, “Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last.” On the heels of his cry of anguish, Jesus makes this remarkable confession of trust and commits his spirit into the hands of the Father, whose presence he can no longer feel. This is the prayer of someone who knows that he is dying. Yet, it is also more. This is the prayer of someone who trusts the hands into which he has fallen. In Jesus’ experience, it is a leap into darkness but not a blind leap. Jesus knows where he is going and how this story will end.

The Methodist preacher William Sangster pointed out that, without the cross, Christians would have nothing to say to those who suffer. Jesus speaks to us, not only as one who was himself wounded. He speaks by his wounds. “To all those whose minds reel in sorrow; to all those who feel resentful because life has done to them its worst; to all those tempted to believe there is no God in heaven, or at least, no God of love, he comes and he shows them his hands,” Sangster declared. “More eloquently than any words, those pierced hands say, ‘I have suffered.'”[3]

The Gospel

Yet the mere fact that Christ suffered is not enough. What does it matter that Jesus’ suffering outstripped ours, if all it means is that he suffered too? If all the gospel has to say is that Christ feels our pain and understands our experience, it is no gospel at all.

Jesus’ three prayers from the cross help us to place the suffering of Christ in a larger context. Jesus shared our humanity, “so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:14). Sympathy was certainly one motive for this but only in part. The ultimate reason was so that Jesus could die on our behalf. “For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way,” Hebrews 2:17 goes on to explain, “in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.”

This is the power of the cross and the reason for Christ’s suffering. He came not only to die but to rise again on our behalf. It is the key that unlocks the mystery of Jesus’ words from the cross. Solomon observed that love is as strong as death (Song of Solomon 8:6). But in Jesus Christ, we see a love that was even stronger.


[1] Helmut Thielicke, Christ and the Meaning of Life, trans. John Doberstein, (Cambridge: James Clarke, 1962), 44.

[2] Philip D. Jamieson, The Face of Forgiveness: A Pastoral Theology of Shame and Redemption, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2016), 99.

[3] William Sangster, “He Dies. He Must Die.” In Classic Sermons on the Cross of Christ, compiled by Warren W. Wiersbe, (Grand Rapids: Hendrickson, 1990), 32.

Pass Me Not

Several years ago, at the Bible college where I taught, news reached the campus that a revival had broken out among the students of another school. It was much like the recent event at Asbury University, though on a smaller scale. The stories we heard were similar. Students knelt and wept at the front of the chapel as they asked God to forgive their sins. There was singing and confessing.

Some of the students on our campus were unsettled by these reports. But not for the reasons you might think. They were bothered that God had chosen a Liberal Arts school for this singular blessing instead of ours. They were indeed a Christian college. But we were a Bible college, training students for Christian ministry instead of business or the arts. Many felt this was a distinction demanded more of us in terms of the spiritual climate on campus. Perhaps they believed we should also have expected more from God because of it.

In other words, it seemed to me, that our students’ initial reaction to the news was one of disappointment rather than rejoicing. Indeed, I might go so far as to say that it produced a kind of petulance and self-recrimination. “What is wrong with us,” they seemed to say, “that the Spirit would pass us by and choose to fall on them?” It was as though God had overlooked Jerusalem and chosen Samaria instead to be his habitation.

This was not the first time I had observed this kind of spiritual jealousy. I had seen it many times in churches. I had wrestled with it myself. Watching others obtain a blessing you have sought for many years is hard. It feels much the same as being passed over for a promotion. It is like learning that your best friend was invited to a highly anticipated party when you were not.

There is biblical precedent for such a thing. Jesus performs miracles in Capernaum and ignores Nazareth (Luke 4:23–28). He invites Peter, James, and John up the mountain to watch the transfiguration and leaves the other nine apostles in the valley (Mark 9:2). He heals the invalid at the pool of Bethesda but leaves the rest to sit in their affliction (John 5:1–15). There is also plenty of precedent for spiritual jealousy. On several occasions, Jesus’ own disciples speculated and even argued with one another about who was the greatest among them (Matt. 18:1; Luke 9:34, 46).

In his Gospel, Mark tells how blind Bartimaeus sat by the side of the road begging as Jesus, his disciples, and a large crowd were leaving the city of Jericho (Mark 10:46–52). When the blind man heard that it was Jesus, he began to shout. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The crowd attempted to silence him, but he only got louder. Finally, Jesus stopped and called for him. “Cheer up!” the people in the crowd said. “Get on your feet! He’s calling you.”

Bartimaeus cast aside his cloak and jumped to his feet. When he stood before Jesus, the Savior asked a question whose answer seems self-evident: “What do you want me to do for you?” I don’t know which bothers me more. The fact that a blind man had to tell Jesus that he wanted to see or the thought that if Bartimaeus hadn’t made such a fuss, Jesus might have passed him by. With this act, Bartimaeus becomes the patron saint of all those who make demands of Jesus. He also becomes the prototype of all who fear that Jesus will grant a blessing to others while withholding it from them. There are, no doubt, reasons for Jesus’ question. Perhaps his blindness was not obvious. Maybe Jesus wanted him to take the initiative and ask as an indication of his faith. I suppose Jesus could have been hinting to Bartimaeus that he could do more for him than heal.

Still, there is brusqueness to the question that I sometimes see in Jesus of the Gospels and find unnerving. It is the sort one occasionally experiences from the clerk at the counter who asks how they can help us. They know why I have come. They also know why they are there. Must I really spell out in detail what to me seems self-evident? Of course, such a comparison is unfair to Jesus for many reasons. I can’t see the expression on his face or hear the timbre of his voice when he poses this question to Bartimaeus. He may have exuded an aura of welcome and appeal.

Whatever Jesus’ motive was for requiring Bartimaeus to make the first move, it is the blind man’s anxiety we feel when we hear that Jesus is working somewhere else. It does not always come to us as good news, especially if we feel that we have been overlooked. For Bartimaeus, of course, it was a moment of opportunity. This was his usual spot. Jesus just happened to be passing through. It is different for some of us. The blessing we have been looking for is one that we have been pursuing for some time. To our own minds, at least, we can make a case for why it should come to us rather than someone else.

Some of the students at the school where I taught were part of a group that had prayed for a revival on campus for months. Some of them for years. For some reason, they always scheduled these meetings to last all night and held them on Fridays when most students were going out on dates. I suppose it was their way of shouting, like Bartimaeus. The more inconvenient they made the circumstances, the louder the shout. Then to have God drop the blessing in such an arbitrary way on a group of students who they felt were not nearly so devoted seemed almost like an insult.

I couldn’t help noticing something of this petulant spirit when comments about the prolonged chapel at Asbury began to surface on social media. Not everyone, mind you. But enough to make me take note. I am not surprised to find such things greeted with a certain amount of ambivalence. We Christians are caught between two equally necessary but competing obligations when it comes to such phenomena. On the one hand, we are warned not to “quench” the Holy Spirit (1 Thess. 5:19). Apparently, if we are not welcoming, we can act as wet blankets to his fire. On the other, we are warned that we must “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1).

As a result, some people see it as their primary responsibility to sit at a distance and make negative judgments based on the photos and videos they see on the Internet. These gatekeepers issue reports and warnings as a public service to the church. Others, who are grieved by this critical spirit, consider it their responsibility to counter those remarks. They act as cheerleaders posting updates and affirmations. The rest of us scroll through being triggered by one or the other, depending upon our personality and spiritual history.

It doesn’t help matters that we are theologically split when it comes to such questions. Our doctrinal differences have their roots in American church history, with the divide coming between the first and second Great Awakenings. The theologian of the First Great Awakening was Jonathan Edwards, the 18th-century pastor whose marks of a work of the Spirit of God have been showing up in posts on social media lately. The theologian of the Second Great Awakening was Charles Finney, the 19th-century revivalist whose methods and assumptions still shape most of today’s popular worship practices. The main difference between them is essentially a question of control. To what degree can our efforts guarantee revival?

Edwards’ answer was that we cannot. Revival, according to him, comes as a surprise. Finney had a different view. “Revival is not a miracle, or dependent on a miracle in any sense,” Finney asserted. “It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of constituted means.” When Finney calls revival “philosophical,” he is using the language of what was then called “natural philosophy,” or what we refer to as science today. In other words, Finney believed that spiritual laws govern revival. If the right means are used and proper conditions put in place, then revival must follow.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that there is much more that separates the two views of these men and that the differences between their theological perspectives are largely incompatible. This is another reason for the harsh tone taken by some of those who differ over contemporary claims of revival.

If you are Bartimaeus, all that matters is
that Jesus stopped and called you.

But ultimately, these differences really come down to a basic question. Did Bartimaeus cry out because Jesus chose to come his way? Or did Jesus call for Bartimaeus only because Bartimaeus raised his voice loud enough to get noticed? I suppose, if you are Bartimaeus at that moment, you don’t really care. All that matters is that Jesus stopped and called for you. Such questions are probably best pondered at leisure rather than at need.

In the end, however, I think Finney was wrong. The Spirit of God is ours as a gift, but he is not ours to control. There is something whimsical about how God interacts with and acts upon us. He is unpredictable in his ways, especially where the Spirit of God is concerned. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit,” Jesus explained to Nicodemus (John 3:5).

I have had more than one person ask me what I thought about the revival at Asbury. My answer has been that I am not close enough to the events to have a good opinion. Besides, I am not sure that my opinion matters. What I do know is that if, it is legitimate, the same Spirit at work there is the one who dwells in me. The same presence that fills the auditorium is also present in every place I am. And the same Jesus who called for Bartimaeus also calls to me in Scriptures and says, “Come to me . . . whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (cf. John 6:37).

People of Prayer-Today in the Word Interview

I am a little late with this. I should have posted it January 1. I am this month’s devotional writer for Today in the Word and the topic is People of Prayer. You can watch my interview about it below with my friend and colleague Jamie Janosz, who is Today in the Word’s managing editor. If you would like to read the devotions, you can find them here. The devotions are short, so if you want to catch up, it should be pretty easy. I also write the monthly “Practical Theology column for Today in the Word and you can find it by clicking on the tab at the top of my web page. Speaking of prayer, I am thrilled to be writing a monthly column on the subject for Mature Living during 2023.

All of this might give the impression that I am an expert on the subject of praying. Well, I suppose that as a preacher, former pastor and Bible college professor, I am a professional. That is to say, I know how to pray out loud in a group. But I’ve never felt like an expert. My personal prayers have always seemed like a bit of a train wreck to me. Or rather, as I often like to refer to them, “awkward conversations with God.” That’s why my January column on the subject in Mature Living was entitled “Prayer for Amateurs.” On the one hand, when it comes to prayer, we are all experts in the sense that most of us have cried out to God in one form or another. Yet most of us feel that we aren’t very good at it. Go ahead and pray anyway. The secret to praying is not in the way we frame our requests but our confidence in the fact that God hears (1 John 5:14).

I am excited about the upcoming release of my latest book, entitled When God is Silent: Let the Bible Teach You to Pray. It should be coming out in August from Lexham Press but you can preorder your copy now at Amazon. I’ll be talking more about in in the coming days in my posts.

A Season of Ghosts: Christmas, Nostalgia, & “The Weight of Glory”

In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the first spirit to visit Ebenezer Scrooge is the ghost of Christmas past. Scrooge notes the spirit’s small stature and asks, “Long Past?” “No. Your past,” the ghost replies.

Dickens is on to something here because this spirit often visits us at this time of year. The season of Advent, by its nature, implies a forward trajectory. It celebrates humanity’s long wait for the arrival of the promised seed of Abraham. In reality, we seem to spend most of it looking back. Ostensibly, we are looking back to the first Advent by recalling the details of the Christmas story. But more often, as Scrooge’s ghost observes, it is our own past that is the real focus of attention.

If you doubt this, look at the ornaments on your Christmas tree. If yours is like most people’s, it is a little like an archeologist’s dig. Your family history hangs in layers before your eyes, with ornaments that commemorate special events or have particular meaning for you. There are the ones with pictures of your children in elementary school and the threadbare elves who no longer have their arms but used to hang on your mother’s tree. Our ornaments trace the fads and passing tastes that have gripped us down through the years. Places we have visited, hobbies we attempted, tastes we acquired and then abandoned. For many of us, Christmas isn’t just a celebration of the past. It is, at least as far as the tree is concerned, a celebration of our past.

But there is more to it than this. When Scrooge asked what business brought the spirit to his bedside, the ghost answered that it was his welfare. “Scrooge expressed himself much obliged, but could not help thinking that a night of unbroken rest would have been more conducive to that end,” Dickens writes. “The Spirit must have heard him thinking for it said immediately: ‘Your reclamation, then. Take heed!”[1]

Here, too, I think that Dickens is on to something. But the trajectory of our own stories moves in the opposite direction. The aim of the spirits in Dickens’ tale is to save Scrooge from his past. Our goal is to reproduce it. There is nothing inherently wrong with this other than its futility. The world that nostalgia longs to generate is one that is self-constructed. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as reconstructed.

In his essay “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis characterizes nostalgia as “the inconsolable secret” in each one of us.[2] He describes it as a longing “for something that has never actually appeared in our experience.”[3] If he is correct, then the nostalgia of Christmas is not the desire to reproduce the Christmases of the past so much as it is a longing to experience Christmas as it should have been.

Not only does this explain why the actual holiday so often disappoints us, despite our furious preparation and our genuine anticipation. But it also clarifies why we return to it each year with an optimism that a more objective observer would probably call naive. The conviction that drove old Marley, though “dead as a door-nail,” to haunt Scrooge was the hope that his appeal would procure his former partner a better future. But we expect the ghost of Christmases past to heal the present.

Whatever dysfunction has dogged our heels in the past, somehow, each time we reenact the passion play that is Christmas, we expect things to go differently. We think that people who have been at odds all year long and often for decades will endure one another’s presence with grace and even pleasure. That sibling who never calls and never visits will show up on our doorstep smiling, and with arms full of packages. The seat at the table that has long been empty will no longer prick our hearts. The drunk will miraculously arrive sober. The prodigal will come home and not in rags. We will be a “normal” family, if only for a brief time.

It matters very little that the Christmas Spirits’ many brothers were unable to fulfill this expectation for us. Our hope in Christmas’s power to recast the past and somehow heal our present seems to be born each year anew. There is a kind of sad beauty in this fact. But there is a danger also. It is that we will fall into a kind of idolatry. Lewis captures its essence in his critique of nostalgia­–or rather his critique of the longing the word so often represents. “The books or music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing,” he writes. “These things–the beauty, the memory of our own past–are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers.”

And yet we are not wrong to expect Christmas to reclaim our past and redeem the present. We are only mistaken about the timing. This annual cycle of longing leading to expectations that are never quite met is very much in the spirit of Advent. It is a kind of living plainsong that forcibly reminds us that we are still waiting for Emmanuel, who having come once to redeem, “will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (Heb. 9:28).

When that day comes, salvation will reach back and reclaim our history in its entirety. All our longings, all our disappointments, all our successes, and yes, even all our failures will be drawn into the redemption that Christ accomplished at His first coming. I do not know what form they will take as they are drawn into the new creation. Perhaps they will be absorbed and replaced as all things are made new. Or maybe, like ornaments hung on the Christmas tree, they will bear joyful witness to God’s faithfulness to us in the past. On that day, as the prophet Isaiah predicts, the Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces and remove His people’s disgrace from all the earth. We will have the celebration we have longed for all our lives and say, “Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation” (Isa. 25:9).

After his wife, Joy Davidman, died of cancer, C. S. Lewis kept a journal of observations about the grief he felt. It concludes with her final moments. Lewis writes, “She said not to me but to the chaplain, ‘I am at peace with God.’ She smiled, but not at me.” 

“She smiled, but not at me. “
C. S. Lewis

I remember being disturbed the first time I read these words. They seemed to speak of despair rather than hope. But the description is so like a sentence Lewis wrote in “The Weight of Glory,” that I have come to believe I was entirely mistaken about this. The sentence comes in a section of the essay where Lewis discusses the nature of glory. Lewis seems to be saying that the essence of this glory is a kind of recognition. The glory we hope for as Christians is to be known and recognized by God. More than this, according to Lewis, it is to be appreciated. This, Lewis explains, is what we long for–“to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son.”

It is this recognition or sense of belonging that we hunger for when we are caught up in longing, and it is the feeling that we are trying to create by the attempted reconstitution of our past through nostalgia. It is the sense of finally coming home. It is what compels us every year to go to such measures to create circumstances that will produce the feeling and whose subsequent failure so breaks our hearts that we aim for it again and again. “For a few minutes we have had the illusion of belonging to that world. Now we wake to find that it is no such thing,” Lewis explains. “Beauty has smiled, but not to welcome us; her face was turned in our direction, but not to see us. We have not been accepted, welcomed, or taken into the dance.”

“She smiled,” Lewis observed at his wife’s passing, “but not at me.”

It seems right to speak of death in the same breath as Advent because Advent is the season of ghosts. It is that rolling time of year when the spirit of Christmases past rises up to remind us that the world is still broken and that the home for which we long has not yet arrived. It has not come. But it is on its way.


[1] Charles Dickens, The Christmas Books, Vol. 1, (New York: Penguin, 1971), 69.

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, (New York: HarperOne, 1976), 29.

[3] Ibid., 30.

Eternity Shut in a Span

December is the season when tinsel-haloed angels draped in bedsheets announce the birth of Christ to bathrobe-clad shepherds on the church stage. There is a kind of charm in the way we tell the nativity story that might fool people into thinking that it is merely a rustic folktale. But the Bible’s account of the birth of Christ is not a children’s story. It is a record of history and an act of divine revelation.

Luke begins his recounting of the Nativity story by anchoring the story to a particular place at a moment of time. Luke starts his telling, “in the days of Herod, king of Judea” (Luke 1:5). Its true beginning, however, is much earlier than this. Earlier than the reign of Herod. Earlier than the prophets who predicted Jesus’ coming. Even earlier than the promise made in the Garden that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). Indeed, one might even say that this is a story without a beginning since, in the beginning, Jesus Christ, who is the Word, already was (John 1:1).

God, who has no beginning, entered time and space in the person of Jesus Christ. The God, who already was, took to Himself a human nature that He did not previously possess. The theological word for this is incarnation. It is a word that basically means “to become flesh.”

The Gospels describe the incarnation of Christ as a historical fact. But the Scriptures also point out that it was a revelatory event. The author of the letter to the Hebrews says that God has “spoken to us by his Son” and that Jesus is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Heb. 1:1, 3). This assertion does more than claim that Jesus is God in human form. It distinguishes Jesus from the Father, just as John does when he says that the Word was “with God” and also “was God” (John 1:1).

Poet Richard Crashaw captured the mystery of our Lord’s birth with these words:

Welcome, all Wonders in one sight!

Eternity shut in a span.

Summer to winter, day in night,

Heaven in earth, and God in man.

But the Son of God was not born simply to make a poetic statement about God. His humanity does more than translate the divine into human terms. Jesus was born to die and rise again. Without the cross and the resurrection, Jesus’ translation of the divine nature into human experience would be little more than a babble to us. Without the deliverance which the Savior’s death and resurrection secured, the portrait of God that the incarnation provides would be meaningless. We would suppress its truth, just as we push down the things that God has revealed about Himself “from what has been made” (Rom. 1:20).

Jesus is also much more than a moral example. Without the cross’s power to cover sin and “put to death” whatever belongs to the sinful nature, the incarnation is like a virtuoso’s musical score, beautiful to hear but impossible to perform (Col 3:5). Viewing Christ as little more than a moral example reduces Him to a mere recapitulation of the law instead of its fulfillment. We may, like John, be able to look and touch (1 John 1:1), but we would never be able to follow. Jesus took on a human nature not only to correct our false perceptions about what God is like but to rescue us from the sin which was the cause of this distortion in the first place.

Jesus is more than a moral example.

When Christmas comes around, there is an unfortunate tendency to co-opt the nativity story for other purposes by placing it within frameworks that diminish its bearing on the Bible’s theology of atonement. It has been portrayed as a morality play about the plight of refugees, divine lobbying for the Pro-Life platform, an argument for showing hospitality, a statement about the role of women in the church, and much more. Perhaps the account of Christ’s birth has implications for all these concerns, but they are not its primary point. The main point of the nativity is that God became human.

The doctrine of the incarnation does not teach that the God merely took up residence in the man Jesus, who was subsequently elevated to a divine status. Neither does it assert that God only appeared to be a human. Instead, this teaching of the Church asserts that the incarnate Christ was both truly God and truly man. His divine nature did not alter his human nature and his humanity did not diminish his divinity.

The incarnation is fundamental to the Christian faith because it is the foundation of Christ’s atoning work. Jesus was made in human likeness so that he could suffer and die on the cross for our sins (Phil. 2:7–8). The fact that Jesus was made like us ensures that he is able to be a merciful high priest, one who understands and sympathizes with our struggle against temptation (Heb. 2:17–18). Christ’s true humanity also meant that he could suffer in our place by taking on himself the penalty for our sin. Though he was tempted like us in every point, Jesus was without sin (Heb. 4:15). This enabled him to go beyond sympathy and provide a genuine remedy for our transgressions through the shedding of his blood.

Jesus was, as the old confession says, “very God of very God.” Jesus shared our humanity, “so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:14). To accomplish this Jesus had to be made like us. As Hebrews 2:17 says, “For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.”

Jesus does not merely sympathize with our suffering and provide an example of what holiness looks like. He took our sin upon Himself. Jesus’ humanity meant that He could be pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities. His punishment brought us peace. By His wounds, we are healed. Jesus’ life was an offering for sin. His death was the price paid to the law in compensation for our sins. Because we have been united with Christ in His death, we can also share the hope of His resurrection (Isa. 53:11–12).

When we separate Christmas from the cross, all that remains is a charming story about a babe in a manger. It may be a tale fit for children, but it has no value for broken sinners. The Nativity of Christ is more than a sweet story. It was a cosmic revolution that shook creation to its very foundation. It brought about a change in the Person of Christ so that He became what He previously was not, without ceasing to be what He was before. Still God, but now in the flesh. There was never a time when the Word was not, but there was a time when the Word had not yet become flesh. Unto us has been born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Let all the tinseled angels shout this news to bathrobed shepherds everywhere. This is no tale but a fact of history. Our God has come. Clothed in human nature. And we will never be the same.

Holy Days, Holidays, & Christmas

Christmas was important to me even before I called myself a Christian, though admittedly, this was mainly for non-religious reasons. I’ve long suspected that I have always loved Christmas more than any other holiday, not because of its spirituality but because it purchased my affections. It’s true that I loved the music and the pageantry. The glow of the lights and the smell of evergreen seemed to transport me to another world. But it was the presents that clinched the deal. When it came to gifts, Christmas was the motherload. Far better than birthdays or any other holiday.

When I became a follower of Jesus, I expected the change to transform Christmas the same way it transformed the rest of my life. I assumed the season, which seemed magical to me already, would become transcendent. It did not. If anything, the change somehow managed to dim the glow.

Perhaps this was because of the church culture to which I had become attached. The church tradition I joined was what is commonly described as a “low” church. Apart from Christmas and Easter, we didn’t follow the church calendar. Even the attention paid to those two days seemed grudging at times. We were proud of this bare-faced approach that disassociated us from Roman Catholicism, with its robes, smoke, and long lists of feasts that never seemed to involve actual food.

Of course, we had our own list of special days and celebrations. So I suppose you could say they were feasts of a sort. There were potlucks and suppers, the annual Valentine’s day banquet, and a church meal after every funeral. There were also a vast variety of informal meals, usually related to specific events or the passing of the seasons. But, in retrospect, it occurs to me that most of these occasions were more social than religious.

Christmas, on the other hand, was overtly religious. By it, we aimed to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. We did this with a measure of reserve. There were a few decorations, but they were not elaborate. A handful of evergreen sprigs and the occasional wreath decked out with red and green ribbons were usually enough. Some churches, which would normally have eschewed putting up a Christmas tree in the sanctuary because of its pagan roots, even constructed a large tree-shaped scaffold for the choir and covered it with pine branches.

We hunger for the presence of God
but tend to confuse transendence with ambiance.

Christmas Eve was the only time we allowed candles in the sanctuary. Instead of lighting them for the dead like Catholics, we held them in our hands. We dimmed the lights and sang Silent Night as the wax dripped on the upholstery of the pew in front of us. I liked the flickering shadows but hated the song, not because of its content but for its familiarity. It bored me. As a rule, my tastes in Christmas music tended toward the medieval. I would rather sing Prudentius or some repurposed Gregorian chant.

The low church tradition in which I still worship appears to have overcome its reticence about candles and greenery. Advent candles, midnight services on Christmas eve, and strung lights are so common these days that we hardly notice the difference anymore. The church I currently attend piles so many Christmas trees into the place of worship that it feels like we are at a campground instead of in the sanctuary. I have even visited a church that broadcasts Chuck Berry singing “Run, run, Rudolph!” through loudspeakers outside its front door. On the stage in the auditorium where the congregation meets, a smoke machine generates a thin shekinah of mechanical fog.

As for me, my tastes in worship, like my tastes in Christmas music, tend toward the minor key. I have always felt a little envious of my high church friends who, when they lift their eyes in worship, see arches and stained glass instead of ductwork. I have wondered what it would be like to preach a sermon wearing vestments. It would be refreshing to attend a church that feels like a church instead of feeling like I am visiting a shopping mall, an office complex, or a repurposed grocery store. But God, I suspect, does not really care. Even the tabernacle, raised by divine command and meticulously constructed according to the pattern revealed to Moses on the holy Mountain, turned out to be only “a copy and shadow of what is in heaven” (Heb. 8:5).

We hunger for a sense of the presence of God. But tend to confuse transcendence with ambiance. In its worship practices, the church seems to struggle to find the happy medium between Puritan austerity and baroque gaudiness. This struggle is further complicated by differences in culture, style, and taste. Not every church celebrates Christmas the same. Indeed, as far as Scripture is concerned, we do not need to observe Christmas as a holy day at all. There is certainly no evidence in the New Testament that the first Christians did. In his book Ancient Christian Worship, Andrew McGowan contrasts “the colorful calendars of feasts, fasts, and saints that churches of the fourth and fifth centuries celebrated” with “the relative silence” of the New Testament on such matters.[1] The apostle Paul criticized the Galatians for “observing special days and months and seasons and years” (Gal. 4:10). In Colossians 2:16, he warned the Colossians not to let anyone judge them “with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.” Christmas, it would seem, is not the queen of days. We are free to observe it or not observe it as we wish.

God’s presence is more likely to show itself
on the periphery of our daily experience
than in the church sanctuary.

Meanwhile, when God’s presence does show itself, it is more likely to be on the periphery of our daily experience than in the church sanctuary. God seems to inhabit the corners and shadows, preferring the unnamed days of ordinary time to the high holy days from which we expect so much. He does not come with fanfare. But as the carol says, silently, and in the places where all our hopes and fears meet. “No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.”

This is the message of Christmas. It is the old, old promise whispered in the Garden, shouted by the prophets, and trumpeted to shepherds on a hillside near Bethlehem. It is the good news that God has drawn near by taking on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. He came with a real body to the real world. He came to die, rise, and will one day return. Only then will we know what it is like to experience God’s presence in its fullness.


[1] Andrew B. McGowan, Ancient Christian Worship, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014), 259.

Cold Easter

It’s getting to look a lot like Easter. Which, frankly, isn’t saying that much. Between Christmas and Easter, it’s plain to see which holiday is the favored child of the church calendar. The advent of Christmas is announced months in advance with music, decorations, movies, sales, and anticipatory feasting. We light candles, open doors on the advent calendar, and generally work ourselves into a state of hysterical glee and exhaustion.

The warm glow of anticipation that announces the approach of Christmas changes our outlook on just about everything. We wave benevolently at our fellow humans as they cut us off in the parking lot and drop the odd coin into the Salvation Army bucket. It makes little difference that the irritation we would ordinarily feel is still lurking just below the surface. It’s Christmas, and at least we’re trying. The cloud of glory that attends our celebration of Christ’s nativity casts new light on everything. Even the landscape looks different, causing us to bless the diamond frosted snow, which will look like grey slush to us in a few weeks, and cause us to curse.

Between Crhistmas and Easter, it’s plain to see which holiday

is the favored child of the church calendar.

Easter, on the other hand, creeps in. Its solemn approach is heralded only by mild fasting and a handful of pastel decorations. We don’t throw extravagant parties. There are no presents. A clove-studded ham and a few chocolate eggs are about as grand as we get. Let’s face it. We just don’t seem as excited.

If Christmas is warm, Easter is cold. As it approaches, we don’t seem to know whether to be happy or sad. The Sunday service is a celebration, but the season is somber, more reminiscent of a funeral than a feast. It’s understandable, perhaps, when we look at the symbols that represent it. They are a cross and a tomb. Our ambivalence is a reflection of the guilt we feel over Jesus’ suffering. Yet when Jesus prepared His disciples for these events, although He commanded them to remember, He didn’t tell them to mourn.

Just as there would be no cause for celebrating Christmas without Easter, there would be no reason to rejoice at Easter without the cross. The cross was not a tragedy. It is not an event to be grieved. Nor should we feel guilty about it. The apostle Paul saw the cross as something to boast about (Gal. 6:14). Theologian Thomas F. Torrance speaks of Christ’s suffering on the cross as a moment of triumph.[1] The cross is an emblem of victory. On the cross, Jesus was not only victorious over our sin, liberating us from its power, but He triumphed over all the spiritual powers of evil (Col. 2:15).

One of the last things Jesus said on the cross was, “It is finished” (John 19:30). This was not a cry of despair. “‘It is finished’ is not a death gurgle,” Stanley Hauerwas observes. “‘It is finished’ is not ‘I am done for.'” “It is finished” is Christ’s shout of victory. We know this, Hauerwas explains, because according to Luke 23:46, just before He breathed His last, Jesus also said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” The declaration “It is finished” was not the last gasp of someone who is passing into darkness and the unknown. It was a sigh of relief. These were the words of one who knew, as John 19:28 puts it, “that everything had now been finished.” The hardest work was done. What remained was resurrection and restoration. What was true of Jesus His entire life was also true on the cross. He knew where He had come from, and He knew where He was going.

At the same time, to some extent, the ambivalence we feel toward Easter is understandable. When we look upon the symbols of the cross and the tomb, we are reminded of ourselves. We know why Jesus suffered. The pain He felt was His own pain, but He was not its cause. Jesus suffered at the hands of others, put to death “by the hands of lawless men” (as Acts 2:23 literally puts it). Yet the cause of Jesus’ suffering was due to more than generic human brutality. When Peter says, “you put him to death by nailing him to the cross,” we know we are included in this accusation. So is Peter, for that matter.


The cross is an emblem of victory.


But that’s not the whole story. There was another hand at work as well. Acts 2:23 also says that Jesus was handed over “by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge.” What seems like a human tragedy turns out to be something else. In the hands of God, what would otherwise be an injustice turns out to be the ultimate expression of divine justice. The apostle Paul would later capture the essence of this moment by saying, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). It didn’t shock the Father to see His Son on the cross, nor did it grieve Him. As Isaiah 53:10 observes, “it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer.”

A prisoner doesn’t grieve over the turning of the key that will release them from the cell. A patient doesn’t feel sad when the doctor announces that there is a cure. Neither should a Christ mourn the suffering of Christ. After His resurrection, Jesus lovingly chided the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, who described His suffering with downcast faces. “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” Jesus said. “Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Luke 24:25–26).

The Methodist preacher William Sangster pointed out that without the cross Christians would have nothing to say to those who suffer. Jesus speaks to them, not only as one who was Himself wounded. He speaks to them by His wounds. “To all those whose minds reel in sorrow; to all those who feel resentful because life has done to them its worst; to all those tempted to believe there is no God in heaven, or at least, no God of love, He comes and He shows them His hands,” Sangster declared. “More eloquently than any words, those pierced hands say, ‘I have suffered.'”

Yet the mere fact that Christ suffered is not enough. What does it matter that Jesus’ suffering outstripped ours if all it means is that He suffered too? If all the gospel has to say is that Christ feels our pain and understands our experience, it is no gospel at all. Hebrews 2:14 gives us the larger context of Christ’s suffering when it says that Jesus shared our humanity, “so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”

Sympathy was certainly one motive for this but only in part: “For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way,” Hebrews 2:17 goes on to explain, “in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.” That is the power of the cross and the reason for Christ’s suffering. Christ’s atonement is why Paul saw the cross as a reason for boasting. Without the atonement, the resurrection of Jesus would only be a demonstration of power. It is the cross that makes the resurrection a cause for celebration.

All the gloomy aspects of the Easter story–the tears, the whip, the nails, and the blood–were not intended to lead us into grief. They were meant to provoke a shout of victory. Because our sin became His, Jesus’ suffering has become ours. There is no need for us to fear the reminder of sin that we see in His suffering. We should rejoice when the cross brings to mind the fact that Jesus died for our sins. It is because Christ spoke on our behalf on Good Friday when He said, “It is finished,” that on Easter Sunday we can declare, “Hallelujah. He is risen.”  He is risen indeed!


[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ, Robert T. Walker, ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2009), 1.

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The Trouble with Meme Activism: Sometimes to Speak is Not to Speak

In the past couple of years, I have noticed that periods of social unrest are often accompanied by a corresponding outbreak of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I am referring, of course, to the accompanying blizzard of memes on Facebook and Twitter that display a quote famously (and probably incorrectly) attributed to Bonhoeffer: “Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

In most cases where it appears, the quote stands as a comprehensive indictment of anyone who has not yet expressed public outrage over some event that has captured the attention of the current news cycle. The meme is a cultural syllogism: A terrible thing has occurred. You have not said that it was terrible on Facebook or Twitter. You are a terrible person. The reasoning seems to be that if you have not publicly condemned it on social media, you are complicit in its terribleness.

I suppose we should not be surprised by such reasoning. In the age of social media, it is not enough to possess moral convictions. There are no longer any unpublished thoughts. We are now expected to leave a public record, especially of those things about which we disapprove. Public statements, especially in social media, are now considered to be a form of social action.

But in most cases where quotes like this appear, they are usually something less than meaningful action. They are merely a form of virtue signaling intended to place social pressure on those who do not hold the “right view” of whatever incident prompted the post. Of course, social pressure like this is nothing new. Nor is it necessarily bad. Public expressions of disapproval have always established the boundaries of right and wrong. The lessons begin in infancy and continue throughout our entire lifetime. In social systems, both large and small, the rules of acceptable behavior are taught by suffering the frowns and slights of others. Shame works hand in hand with acceptance to bind people together. And to get them to do the right thing.

The real problem with meme morality is its tendency toward reductionism. What is intended as a manifesto proves only to be a cliché. It is a statement of the obvious. We think we are thundering like God on Sinai when in reality we are only expressing a mundane truism. War is bad. Racism is evil. Be nice to others. Treating such assertions as a form of social activism reduces moral behavior to mere sentimentalism. It is the kind of speech that James 2:16 condemns–the digital equivalent to “be ye warmed and filled.” It makes a demand without offering any corresponding action that will address the problem.

Sentimentalized language is trite. It states the obvious but so broadly that it offers no real help to the reader or the listener. Sentimentalized speech is characterized by what Wendell Berry calls “the sickly beauty of generalized emotionalism.”[1] This sort of vagueness is a common feature, not only of social media but of bad preaching. Such preaching paints with a broad brush. Its target is so large that it aims at nothing at all. It may make us feel, but it will not help us to act.

There are, of course, contexts where the mere assertion of an idea is an act of bravery. To speak the truth aloud lies at the heart of the Christian act of preaching. Speaking can be a form of activism, but for that to be the case, it must be speech that goes against the grain. There must be a potential cost to the speaker, as well as a genuine interest in the welfare of those who disagree. Without these, it is cheerleading at best and the voice of the mob at worst.

We should not be surprised to find that many confuse sentimentalism with activism. Croatian sociologist Stjepan Mestrovic has observed that emotions are the primary object of manipulation in postmodern culture. “Today, everyone knows that emotions carry no burden, no responsibility to act, and above all, that emotions are accessible to everyone,” Mestrovic writes.[2] One result of this is something Jeremy Begbie has called “conspicuous compassion,” an emotional expression that becomes an end in itself and produces “very little in the way of positive, practical action.”[3]

Emotion can be a wellspring of action, but it is not always necessary. It is possible to act apart from feeling or even contrary to feeling, a condition that is sometimes called duty. Like Jesus, we are at times called upon to do that which we would prefer not to do (cf. Luke 22:42). Or we may refuse to do what we would like to do (Col. 3:5). Sentimentalism believes that feeling by itself is action. More than this, for the sentimentalist, emotion is an end in itself. The aim is to feel, and feeling is enough. “Sentimentalists typically resist any challenge to their way of life,” Begbie observes. “They are much more often moved by strangers than by those close to them, since the former require no personal sacrifice.”[4]

True activism not only seeks to change the situation but also aims to change thinking.

Meme activism often fails on another critical level. It tends to be coercive. The aim of such statements is not to engage, debate, or persuade but to silence. True activism is persuasive rather than coercive. It not only seeks to change the situation but also aims to change thinking. To do this, the language that accompanies activism must seek to elicit rather than impose the desired response. Speaking that is coercive throws off the persuasive responsibility of speech and employs language as an instrument of brute force. Theologian Joseph Pieper rightly calls this form of communication propaganda and notes that its use is not limited to the official power structure of a dictatorship. In his essay “Abuse of Language–Abuse of Power,” Pieper explains, “It can be found wherever a powerful organization, an ideological clique, a special interest, or a pressure group uses the word as their ‘weapon’.”[5]

An essential component of propagandistic speech is the element of implied threat. But Pieper notes that the threat can take many forms. In this category of threat, he includes “all the forms and levels of defamation, or public ridicule, or reducing someone to a nonperson–all of which are accomplished by means of the word, even the word not spoken.”[6] It is not its strength of statement, the fact that it may disagree with the viewpoint of others, or even its emotional tone that renders such speech abusive. It is the desire to squash all opposing viewpoints merely by force of statement alone and to demean those who disagree. “The common element in all of this is the degeneration of language into an instrument of rape,” Pieper explains. “It does contain violence, albeit in latent form.”[7]

Today’s public discourse is not only inclined toward coercion; it is addicted to flattery. By flattery, I mean more than the practice of empty praise. That is indeed a form of flattery. But more broadly, flattery is the habit of telling others what they want to hear in return for gain. It is speech, as Joseph Pieper, explains, whose main objective is one of “courting favor to win success.”[8] Pieper wrote his essay a decade before the birth of the internet and nearly two decades before the founding of Facebook. Yet he anticipates the era of social media, observing that this craving for approval may reduce theology to mere entertainment whose primary purpose is to gain a following. Flattery in this broad sense is the language of choice for all whose primary objective is to gain a large audience. It is especially the lingua franca of social media, where being heard is often a function of likes and shares.

The pandering that is a mark of flattery may seem far removed from the bullying of coercive speech, yet they are actually two sides of the same coin. Both are the stock and trade false prophets and false teachers. The apostle Paul criticized the Corinthians for being smitten by false apostles who sought to use them to build their platform. He observed, “. . . you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or puts on airs or slaps you in the face” (2 Cor. 11:20). The pandering of these false teachers catered to the audience’s expectation not only in the content of their teaching, which avoided those aspects the Corinthians found offensive but in their manner and mode of delivery. In this case, the audience wanted to be treated in a demanding and arrogant way. A manner which they mistook for authority.

Whether or not Bonhoeffer said the quote attributed to him makes little difference. It is often true. To speak is to act. But it is equally true that our speaking may also be acting in the theatrical sense. We are not trying to change anything. We are trying to build a platform. We are curating an image. We are seeking an audience. We are collecting likes and shares the way we hope to collect crowns in heaven.


[1] Wendell Berry, Standing By Words, (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1983), 33.

[2] Jeremy S. Begbie, “Beauty, Sentimentalityand the Arts,” in The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2007), 53.

[3] Ibid., 54.

[4] Ibid., 52–53.

[5] Josef Pieper, Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1992), 32.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. 28.

The Holy One of God

When I was a pastor, I noticed that my visits with people occasionally made them nervous. Maybe it was my personality. Perhaps I didn’t make enough small talk. But I think the cause lay elsewhere. I think they were sometimes uncomfortable because they saw me as a symbol of something else. Or, perhaps I should say, I was a symbol of someone else. One woman told me that she spent the whole day cleaning before I arrived. Then she said, “When the pastor visits, it’s almost like having God come to your house.” My wife, Jane, who had come with me, answered her with a laugh. “The difference is that God already knows what your closets look like.”

Scripture says that we have an intuitive sense of God’s invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature (Rom. 1:20). The word we often use to generally describe this nature is holiness. Its effect is not always pleasant, even for the deeply spiritual. Moses once said that he trembled in God’s presence (Heb. 12:21; cf. Ex. 3:6; Dt. 9:19; Acts 7:32). Holiness is the attribute that most sharply distinguishes God from man. In Leviticus 19:2, the Lord urges, “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” But it is an invitation that implies distance. The fact that we need to be told to be holy suggests that we are not holy. Or at least, it suggests that we are not holy in the same sense that God is holy. Where the holiness of God is concerned, it is both a chasm and a bridge.

Philosophers and theologians have written volumes that trace the idea of the holy through history and culture. But for the average person, the notion is vague. Most people would have difficulty if they were asked to give a concrete definition of what is meant by holy. If someone pressed them for an example, they would probably point to someone they consider to be “religious.” Religious practices like church attendance and prayer shape the popular vision of holiness. The holy are people who do religious things.

Because we associate holiness with God, we assume it must be good. But we also feel ambivalent about the idea. Holiness makes us self-conscious. Like someone who comes to a formal dinner in a sweatshirt or shorts, holiness makes us feel out of place. When we say that someone is “holier than thou,” we mean it as a criticism. To call someone a holy roller is not a compliment.

This idea of separation lies at the heart of the Old Testament idea of holiness, represented by the Hebrew word qodesh. But that doesn’t mean the Bible’s idea of holiness is fundamentally negative or even necessarily unpleasant. Where God is concerned, holiness points to God’s uniqueness. He is without peers. This uniqueness is a fundamental attribute of God. God stands apart from all of creation because He is its maker. This is the way the apostle Paul described God to the philosophers on Mars Hill: “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:24–25).

The Beauty of Holiness

But, there is more to God’s holiness than separateness. The Lord’s holiness includes beauty as well as superiority. In Psalm 27:4, David declares: “One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.” David expresses a desire to dwell in God’s house. This was more than a wish to return to Jerusalem and worship there. It expressed a longing for restored fellowship with God. We can hear in David’s request an antiphonal response to God’s often expressed desire in Scripture to dwell among His people (Ex. 25:8; 29:45; Zech. 2:10). This desire is both most fully expressed and most fully realized in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

In the Gospels, Jesus is called the Holy One of God on two occasions. The first time was by a demon (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34). The second was by Peter when many of the disciples were grumbling about the difficulty of Jesus’ teaching. It is a reflection of the seriousness of our problem with holiness that the demons recognized who Jesus was before His own disciples did. The demons and Peter were both right. Jesus is the Holy One of God. For this reason, Jesus is as daunting as He is beautiful.

But how did Jesus display the beauty of holiness? Isaiah’s description of Him predicted that He would have “no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isa. 53:2). Yet John would later write that he had seen Christ’s glory, “the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Jesus’ View of Holiness

Like many people today, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day thought of holiness primarily as a matter of what you do. This external approach focused on the law’s commandments, which they had divided into 365 negative commands and 613 positive commandments. In their desire to enforce these commandments, they added their own rules, intending to build a wall of protection around the law’s standard. But the result was that they placed more emphasis on observing the rules laid down by their tradition than the law itself. They believed that by staying outside the fence of their traditions, the law would be preserved as well. Jesus not only challenged this approach, but He did so in a radically different way from the scribes and rabbis. Instead of appealing to tradition, Jesus challenged their teaching based on His own authority (Matt. 15:2; Mark 7:5).

But it would be wrong to conclude from this that Jesus’ approach to holiness was reductionist. Jesus did not simplify the idea of holiness. Even when He said that all the law and the prophets hang on two commandments, Jesus was not applying His own version of Ockham’s razor to the 978 commandments of the law (Matt. 22:40). He was not lowering the bar or trying to make holiness more manageable. If anything, the opposite was the case. Unless it comes to us as a gift, holiness, as Jesus defines it is an impossibility. Viewed from Christ’s perspective, the religious leaders were the reductionists. For them, holiness was chiefly a matter of doing the right things. If they could identify the right practices and perform them, they believed they could achieve a state of holiness. For Jesus, holiness was a matter of being. To practice holiness, we must first be made holy.

There is no question that Jesus practiced holiness. But He is not portrayed in the Gospels primarily as a teacher of methods. Jesus did not replace the old system of methods with new methods of His own. Jesus came so that He might become our holiness. As 2 Corinthians 5:21 explains, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Jesus was made like us so that we could be made like Him. He is more than a model of holiness for us. Jesus is our holiness. We, in turn, are holy because of Him.

Holiness, then, is the beginning point, the habitual practice, and the end result of the Christian’s experience. Holiness is the beginning because Jesus Christ has become “our righteousness, holiness and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). There is no ground for boasting or claiming holiness as a personal accomplishment. Holiness is also a practice. Indeed, it is a practice not only in the sense of repeated behavior but of development. We are learning to be holy. But holiness is also our destiny because our destiny is to be like Jesus. 1 John 3:2 observes that we are now the children of God, “and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

There is no fundamental contradiction in saying that holiness is a work of grace and that it also requires effort (Heb. 12:14). Each is the necessary complement of the other. But there is a critical order between the two. The gift always comes first. That is because before holiness is a practice, it is a person. It is always true that before we can take Christ as a model, we must receive Him as a gift.

The Savior With 10,000 Faces

A few years ago, it was popular for some Christians to wear wristbands with the initials WWJD on them. The letters stood for the question, “What would Jesus do?” The question is probably a good one. But it seems to assume that what Jesus would do is always evident to us. This isn’t always the case. In fact, the question the disciples asked more often than not was a very different one. Instead of wanting to know what Jesus would do, they asked, “Why did Jesus do that?” The disciples were often puzzled by Jesus. They were as confused by His actions as they were by His teaching.

Mark 4:35–41 describes how the disciples were caught in a sudden storm on the lake. Jesus was asleep in the stern of their boat. At first, they were too busy trying to survive to even think of Him. Like the terrified sailors of Psalm 107, as the waves “mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths; in their peril, their courage melted away. They reeled and staggered like drunkards; they were at their wits’ end” (Psalm 107:26–27). When they realized they could not manage on their own, they turned to Jesus in a panic to awaken Him from a deep sleep with this question: “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” (Mark 4:38). Jesus got up and stilled the wind and waves with a word. Then He turned to the disciples and asked them a question: “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (Mark 4:40). This is the kind of question that one does not answer. It is not a question so much as it is a statement. It is the sort your mother asks when she is irritated with you.

If we look at the circumstances through the disciples’ eyes, it’s hard not to be startled by Jesus’ reaction. Perhaps even disturbed. The answer is evident to us. Why were the disciples so afraid? Because the boat was sinking! They thought they were going to die. The storm was real, not a figment of their imagination. The disciples had seen storms like this before and knew the damage they could do. According to Mark, the boat was filling up with water, and Luke says they were “in great danger” (Luke 8:23). Jesus’ reaction to the situation seems harsh. It doesn’t fit our image of Him. We expect Him to offer something more comforting. “Don’t worry, fellows, I wasn’t really asleep,” we might expect Jesus to say. “I am always watching over you, even when it seems like I am not.” But, in a way, the disciples’ reaction after Jesus calmed the storm is even more surprising. After the wind died down and it was completely calm, “They were terrified and asked each other, ‘Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!'” (Mark 4:41). What was it about Jesus that so disturbed them?

We often ask the same question as we read through the Gospels. Who is this Jesus? Our sense of Him seems to change with the situation. There are times when He seems gentle and others when He is gruff. He refuses to act as judge or arbiter for the man whose brother has withheld his portion of the inheritance yet calls down woes on others (Luke 12:14; Matt. 11:21; 23:15). We believe He has come to reveal Himself in plain language using simple stories. Yet, He silences His followers, and those who hear Him seem to think that He is talking in riddles (Matt. 10:13–17). He appears to be a savior with a thousand faces. He often seems the same to us.

Every age seems to have its preferred image of Jesus. When I first began to follow Jesus in the early 1970s, many of us thought of Jesus as a long-haired, sandal-wearing non-conformist. Popular culture reinforced this image with rock/folk musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell that portrayed Jesus as one of us. We thought of Jesus as the proto hippie, but without all the drugs and sex (we kept the rock and roll and eventually folded it into our worship).

By the ’80s and ’90s, things had changed. Those of us in the Jesus movement got older. Like our secular counterparts, the hippies, we became the establishment instead of fighting against it. We married, had children, and went to work. We left the coffee house and joined the church. And as our lives changed, so did our view of Jesus. This was an era of big churches and million-dollar budgets. By then, we had begun to see Jesus as an entrepreneurial leader. People wrote books about marketing the church. At the same time, the political resistance of the 60s had given way to political engagement. We didn’t come to view Jesus as a modern politician, but we did become convinced that there were political implications for those who followed Him. Even though Jesus had said that His kingdom was not of this world, we were sure that Christianity should have a political bent. Jesus was, after all, a king. If nothing else, we believed that Jesus spoke truth to power.

These days, the focus is not on dynamic leaders of entrepreneurial churches but cultural sensitivity. We prefer a hyper–sensitive Jesus who is often offended but doesn’t offend. Read the comments on your favorite social media page and you quickly notice that the Jesus portrayed there always seems to be in favor of the causes that we champion and annoyed by the things that annoy us. He is more mirror than Master. Where the culture is concerned, we tend to think of Jesus as more of an archetype than a savior.

The Scriptures do not portray Jesus as a symbol or even an archetype but as a living person. Yet there is some variation in the portrait they offer. We might think of the Gospels as a hall of portraits, with each episode intended to highlight some facet of the person and work of Jesus Christ. We are not interested in knowing Christ merely as a concept or an ideal. We want to know Him as a person. Furthermore, we want to know the true Jesus, not one whose image has been managed by anyone’s personal or theological agenda. Because of its unique character and through the action of the Holy Spirit, Scripture is all we really need to know Jesus Christ on a personal level. But it is not all we have. Like the first disciples, we can also know Him by experience. Perhaps the best way to try and explain how this works is through the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who observed:

“. . . Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

Hopkins seems to be saying that every person can be an image of Christ to us. They serve as a kind of medium through which we see Christ. Their lives are the “stage” upon which He plays, and His beauty is displayed for us when someone reaches out to us when we feel unwelcome or unwanted. Or when they come to our defense when no one else will. A moment of undeserved but genuine forgiveness from someone becomes a tangible emblem of the grace we have received through Christ. In this way, we see Jesus as lovely in limbs and eyes that are not His. At other times it is our privilege to play the part of Christ. We persist in showing love to someone who has scorned us because of our faith. We do good to those who have done evil to us.

But if the first generation of disciples struggled to see the glory of Christ in the perfect yet very human Jesus with whom they traveled, ate, and lived, all subsequent generations of Christians have struggled to see Him in the very human and imperfect church. Indeed, like the disciples in the storm, it is hard not to ask Christ a question of our own: Is this the best we can expect? So many things the church does seem to obscure their reflection of Christ. We were hoping for a better environment more suited to experiencing Jesus. We were looking for better people. The answer is that this is not the best we can expect. There is better yet to come. Far better. But for now, this is good enough.

Eugene Peterson reminds us that it is no use looking for Christ in purer surroundings or among better people. “It is understandable that there are many who resent having to deal with the church, when they are only interested in Christ,” he admits. “The church is so full of ambiguity, so marred with cruelty and cowardice, so tarnished with hypocrisies and sophistries, that they are disgusted with it.”  Nor will be able to find the perfect environment in which to experience His presence. We do not have to wait for Jesus to show up. No matter how complex the situation or how imperfect the people are, Jesus is always the landscape of our Christian experience: “Christ is known (by faith) to be preexistent with the Father. He is believed to be glorious in the heavens,” Peterson explains. “But he is received in the everyday environs of the church in the company of persons who gather for worship and witness.”

Jesus is a person, not an icon. He has face, form, and beauty of limb that is all His own, but we do not yet know Him by these. The time will come when “we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). On that day, we will know Him by more than the reflection we have seen through the words and actions of others. On that day, we will see Him face to face. We will know Him fully even as we are fully known (1 Cor. 12:13). There is, indeed, a fulness that is yet to come. But we do not have to wait until then to know Him. Those who have yet to see Christ in the fullness of His person know Him even now. As 2 Corinthians 4:6 says, “ For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.”

Journey of the Magi

For me, Christmas is pretty much over on December 26th. By then, I am ready to see the tree taken down and the decorations put back in their boxes. But for others, the celebration continues into January with the observation of the feast of the epiphany. It’s also sometimes called the feast of the theophany or the feast of the three kings. It celebrates the visit of the Magi to the infant Christ. This year, those who observe it will do so on January 6th.

The Magi are a mystery in the Christmas narrative. They appear suddenly and soon disappear, like the star that drew them first to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem. They trouble Herod with a question: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matt. 2:2). Matthew does not tell us their names or say how many made the journey. When he describes their point of origin, it is only in general terms. His most detailed description is the term Magi itself, which designated a wise man, astrologer, or magician. What is evident is that the Magi were foreigners. They were the kind of people the apostle Paul would later describe as “excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).

The Magi were indeed foreigners to the promise, but they were not ignorant of it. The answer given by the priests and teachers of the law to their question indicates that the Magi were not looking for an ordinary royal birth. Based on the information the Magi supplied, the religious leaders concluded that they were looking for the Messiah (Matt. 2:5). The Magi stopped at Jerusalem first because they knew it was Israel’s seat of power spiritually as well as politically.

The Magi came seeking information only to discover that they already knew more about what God was doing than Israel’s king or its priests. The religious leaders, for their part, seem to have been caught unaware by the news. When the Magi showed up on their doorstep asking for information, the chief priests and teachers of the law were able to pinpoint the location of His birth from Scripture. But instead of taking the lead in locating the Messiah, they have nothing more to say. At least for the time being.

Herod, on the other hand, was disturbed. He saw the new king as a personal threat (Matt. 2:9). Herod was an insecure ruler famous for his jealousy and cruelty. Although he urged the Magi to search carefully for the child, promising to follow later and pay him homage, it was merely a ploy (Matt. 2:9). Herod’s real intent was murder. But God thwarted Herod’s plan by warning the Magi in a dream. He also sent an angel to Joseph to tell him to flee to Egypt (Matt. 2:12–14). Jesus, Mary, and Joseph escaped, but the sons of Bethlehem did not. When Herod realized that the Magi had outwitted him, he ordered all the male children in Bethlehem and its vicinity aged two and under to be killed (Matt. 2:16).

Matthew says that the Bethlehem massacre fulfilled the words of the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matt. 2:18; cf. Jer. 31:15). This quote is proof that God was not taken by surprise. He did not need a contingency plan when Herod and the religious leaders refused to cooperate with His agenda. Indeed, Jeremiah’s prophecy indicates that they were playing into God’s hands even in their resistance.

Does this part of the story have a happy ending or not? It is hard for us to tell. Herod’s bloody rage introduces a somber note into the Christmas narrative, reminding us that not all is starlight and wonder. There is also blood. Bethlehem’s massacre is evidence of the two kingdoms at work in the narrative, just as they are in the world. One is a realm of light and life. The other is a kingdom of darkness and death. However, the death of the sons of Bethlehem was more than the aftershock of Herod’s jealous anger. It foreshadowed a greater casualty that was yet to come. This child, the object of Herod’s rage, escapes. But only for the moment. Before Jesus has worked any miracle or spoken a word, the cross is already looming on His horizon. A stanza in a popular Christmas carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” alludes to this:

Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume

breathes a life of gathering gloom;

sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,

sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

The battle that swirled around Jesus in infancy will follow Him into adulthood. The religious leaders who were silent when Herod attempted to kill Jesus by slaying the children of Bethlehem will eventually speak up and demand that Pontius Pilate finish the job. An angel will come to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, but not to deliver Him from death. This man will be handed over to His enemies “by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge,” and with the help of wicked men, those enemies will put Him to death by nailing Him to a cross (Acts 2:23).

The good news, which is also the gospel, is that this is not how the story ends. Peter tells the rest of the tale in his sermon on the day of Pentecost: “But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:24). It is often said that Jesus was born to die, but this is not exactly right. Jesus was born to die for us and then to live again.

It’s true that Herod’s brutality introduces a discordant note into the Christmas story. Still, it also provides us with a needed reality check that serves as a good reminder now that the holiday is over. We exhaust ourselves in our attempt to create the perfect atmosphere during Christmas. We tell ourselves that we are only doing this to make the holiday pleasant. But is it possible that we are instead trying to convince ourselves that we can have a different kind of life? We want the fairy tale life we have seen in holiday movies or the ideal life we think we should have had. Why can’t our family be nicer and our friends friendlier? Is it too much to ask that we might have the kind of life we have always dreamed of for at least one day a year? We find our attempts to get into the season’s spirit spoiled by the ruts and hollows that mar the landscape of our lives. Those ruts and hollows will follow us into the new year. An empty chair at the table will remind us how death or illness has become an uninvited guest in our home. Simple boredom will creep in. The pandemic will continue to trouble us, at least for a while.

The journey of redemption includes evil as well as good. This is not only true of the stories we read in the Bible; it is true in our daily life. God is not responsible for the evil, but the story of the Magi reminds us that He is not a hostage to it either. The Bible reveals that redemption is a drama unfolding along two storylines. The first begins with Adam and descends into disobedience and decay. The second storyline issues from God’s promise in the garden that the woman’s offspring would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). These two intersect at the place where the Magi’s quest finally comes to rest. After leaving Herod, the Magi were overjoyed to discover that the star had reappeared. They followed it until they came to the house where the child was. When they saw Jesus, they bowed down and worshipped. The journey of the Magi ends where ours begins.

REMYTHOLOGIZING CHRISTMAS: Why it’s Better to Wonder as We Wander

It’s that time of year when we tell the story of Christ’s Nativity. Then someone writes an article, publishes a book, or posts an exposé on social media telling us that everything we thought we knew about the old, old story is wrong. Yesterday, I saw one in my newsfeed shouting that Jesus’ family wasn’t poor after all. Joseph was a skilled tradesman who could afford to rent the stable because the inn was full. According to the retelling, it turns out that the stable wasn’t as rude and bare as the songs say. It was clean and private. I think it had wifi too.

Continue reading “REMYTHOLOGIZING CHRISTMAS: Why it’s Better to Wonder as We Wander”

What Mary Knew

When I was a boy I thought I heard angels sing. I was in my bedroom at the time and the sound seemed to come from a distance. I was perplexed by what I heard. When I opened the bedroom window the music grew louder. I thought I could see a heavenly glow beyond the rooftop of the house next door. The fact that Christmas was approaching was the clincher for me. It had to be a heavenly choir of angels jubilating over the birth of the Christ child. There could be no other explanation.

Actually, it turns out that there was a more mundane explanation for the phenomenon. Someone was selling Christmas trees over on the next block. They had strung the lot with colored lights. The music I heard was only a phonograph connected to a loudspeaker. So much for my heavenly visitation. But I have often thought back on that brief moment of transcendence when I was certain I heard the angels sing on high.

When Gabriel appeared to Mary, there was no burst of song but a herald’s announcement. “Greetings, you who are highly favored!” the angel said. “The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28). Artists have pictured this as a transcendent moment for Mary but Luke paints it differently. Mary is not moved to bliss by the angel’s words but to perplexity. She was troubled by what she heard. Perhaps she heard in them an echo of the angel’s greeting to Gideon as he threshed grain in a cistern and brooded about Israel’s defeat. In the Bible, this sort of promise always seems to be the precursor to an especially difficult assignment.

Or perhaps it was the ascription of God’s special favor that surprised Mary. It is true that Mary was from a royal line. But beyond that, there does not seem to have been much else about her life that made it singularly blessed. She was just a young girl betrothed to the local carpenter. Neither of them was rich. They do not seem to have had any grandiose plans for themselves. Until now there was no reason to believe that their life together would be any different from any other couple in their village.

The details the angel provides reveal the singular favor that will be bestowed upon Mary. “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus,” the angel commanded. “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” (Luke 1:30-33).

Yet instead of reassurance, the angel’s promise only served to trouble Mary further. “How will this be,” Mary replied, “since I am a virgin?” She was of childbearing age. She was already engaged. How did she think it would happen? Mary’s question makes sense only if we understand the angel to be saying that this conception will be unusual. No man will father this child. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you,and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” the angel promised. “So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”

Still, among all the remarkable words exchanged in this encounter, the most astonishing were those of Mary herself.“I am the Lord’s servant,” she replied after she had heard all these things. “May it be to me as you have said.” Did Mary know what she was agreeing to do? She knew at least this much: she would become pregnant before she was married and the only explanation she could give for this was that God was the baby’s father. She could not have concocted a more unlikely explanation if she had tried. If Mary was anxious about Joseph’s reaction, she gave no indication of it. After all, why should she be anxious? She knew what kind of man Joseph was. Scripture reveals that he was a man of faith, quick to do what he knew to be God’s will.

One dimension of the favor spoken of by the angel when he appeared to Mary was her distinctive role in the drama of redemption. Long before she was born, the judgment declared to Satan in the Garden of Eden foreshadowed Mary’s entrance into the story: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15). Mary is the virgin spoken of in Isaiah 7:14 (cf. Matt. 1:23). Her place in the Nativity story is so crucial that it has led some to claim that there would be no Jesus without Mary. Although well-meaning, such rhetoric is, at best, unfortunate. Mary was not necessary to Jesus’ existence. Long before Mary was born or the world created, Jesus already was. According to John 1:1, He was “with God” and He “was God.”

Mary’s distinctive role lay in the fact that she was the vessel through whom our Lord took to Himself a human nature.

Mary’s distinctive role lay in the fact that she was the vessel through whom our Lord took to Himself a human nature. As the second-century church leader Ignatius of Antioch put it in his letter to the church of Smyrna, Jesus is “truly of the family of David with respect to his human descent” and also “Son of God with respect to the divine will and power” (Smyr. 1:1).7 Or, as he wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, there is a sense in which it can be said that Jesus is both “from Mary” and “from God” (Eph. 7:2).8

Yet as important as Mary is to the Christmas story, her presence on the biblical stage is strangely brief. After the nativity account, she reappears only a few times. On one occasion, when Jesus was twelve years old, she chastened Jesus for disappearing during a family visit to Jerusalem. After a three-day search, Mary and Joseph found Him in the temple courts listening to the teachers and asking them questions. Luke 2:48 describes the reaction: “When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.’” Eighteen years later, we find Mary at the wedding in Cana, urging Jesus to do something when the host runs out of wine ( John 2:3). Then again, after Jesus begins his public ministry, she shows up outside the house, where a crowd has gathered to hear Him teach. Mary is seemingly rebuffed both times (John 2:4; Mark 3:34–35; cf. Matt. 12:46–50).

The next time we see her, Mary is standing at the foot of the cross near the beloved disciple John. According to John 19:26–27: “When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, ‘Woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.”

After this, Mary more or less disappears from view. She has a brief cameo at the beginning of the book of Acts, which merely says that she was present on the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:4). She does not seem to be mentioned in the New Testament epistles at all unless she was “the chosen lady” to whom John addressed his second epistle (2 John 1:1).

What, then, are we to think of Mary? As far as Nativity is concerned, she has a starring role. But when it comes to the overall drama that plays out in the four Gospels, she seems more like a bit player and foil. Yet, despite the brevity of her appearances in these accounts, we are left with a definite impression. First, we see that Mary was, first and foremost, a mother. When Mary shows up, she behaves toward Jesus like any mother would toward her son. Mary was a woman of deep faith. Her song of praise in Luke 1:46–55, known as the Magnificat, is biblically literate, theologically sophisticated, and poetically rich. What is more, this faith was combined with great courage. She had to understand the social implications of conceiving a child without a human father. Despite this, she raises no objections about the cost to her reputation, how it will affect her impending marriage to Joseph, or about the implications it will have on their life together. Mary asks only how it will happen (Luke 1:34).

These days Christmas music seems to like to portray Mary as fragile and uncertain. In one song she asks God to “hold her together” and wants to know if He wonders whether “a wiser one” should have taken her place. Another song runs through a list of theological affirmations about the incarnation and asks, “Mary, did you know?” The answer to the first question is no, and the answer to the second is yes. Mary was probably young, but I do not think she was fragile. Her actions reveal that she was brave, persistent, and obedient. Certainly, there is much that Mary could not have known about what it would mean to give birth to God’s son. The one thing Mary did know was that she was the Lord’s servant.

Christmas Traveler-free ebook by John Koessler

For some years now, one of the ways I have observed the Christmas season is by writing. I began with poems, the occasional story, then turned to essays. Over the last few years, I have been publishing these on my blog. This year I decided to collect the material into a small book and send it to my friends as a Christmas greeting. The idea occurred to me as I listened to Christmas music composed by Jazz musician Alfred Burt who, observing a tradition begun by his father, sent an original Christmas carol each year to family and friends. As someone who reads my blog, perhaps you will enjoy it too. You can download it from the link on my homepage below.

The Prickly Side of Grace

We have many expectations when it comes to church but one thing that we do not expect is to be sinned against by the church’s members. When it happens, as it sometimes does, we are always surprised. In hindsight, I suppose we shouldn’t be. What else would we expect from a congregation of sinners?

The church understands itself to be forgiven and in the process of being transformed. But it is still a company of sinners. Martin Luther’s description of the Christian as being “simultaneously justified and a sinner” is an admission that although Christians have been forgiven and declared righteous through the death and resurrection of Christ, we still struggle with the sinful nature. Being a sinner is a prerequisite for admittance to the church (Matt. 9:13; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:32). What is more, when Jesus spoke about relationships in the church, He seemed to describe sin between believers as a probability when He commanded: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you” (Matt. 18:15).

The practice Jesus describes in this verse doesn’t fit the image many of us have of Christ. The contemporary church favors an uncritical and accepting Jesus. This popular Jesus doesn’t point fingers but stands with arms wide, ready to welcome everyone as they are without expecting either remorse or change. Rather than urging us to point out our brother’s fault, we would expect Him to say that we should let it slide.

Christ’s command to point out a brother’s fault is a hard pill to swallow in an age that regards amiability to be the chief of all Christian virtues. Likewise, the apostle Paul’s directive in 1 Corinthians 5:13 to “expel the wicked” seems incomprehensible to those who are persuaded that the church’s primary mission is to be a place where people feel comfortable and accepted. We are further confused when we read that with one breath, Jesus counseled His followers to confront those who sin, and then with the other, told them to forgive the same person repeatedly (Matt. 18:22). We tend to see these two responses as mutually exclusive.

According to Jesus accountability and mercy are not opposed to one another. These two obligations do not contradict each other, nor does one cancel the other out. Confrontation is its own kind of mercy because its ultimate aim is not to punish Christians for their sin but to loose them from its grip.

Although the vocabulary of confrontation that Jesus uses is drawn from the courtroom, He speaks of reproof more than prosecution. The aim is not revenge or even necessarily justice but restoration of the offender. Yet, the conditional language that Jesus uses to make His point implies both the possibility of failure and the probability of resistance. “If they listen to you, you have won them over,” Jesus says in v. 16. We must win over the offender before there can be any hope of reconciliation, and they might just reject our reproof.

The likelihood that our attempts will initially meet with resistance suggests that the scenario Jesus outlines is not a simple three-step procedure. We do not approach the person once and then immediately move on to stages two and three until we eject them from the church. Many private appeals may take place before one decides to move to stage two. Furthermore, every step provides an opportunity to reevaluate. Is the issue serious enough to take things further? Or should we merely absorb the offense and “bear with” the person?

The truth is that many of the things that bother us about others never even rise to the level of stage one. They may be the result of a moment’s thoughtlessness or perhaps the person’s immaturity. Most of the time, they are not even sins in the technical sense but merely irritations that we must tolerate with grace and patience.

What raises a matter to the level that it compels us to heed Jesus’ command to “treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17)? It isn’t necessarily the level of outrage we feel or even the fact that we have been wronged by someone. The gravity of the sin is one obvious factor. When the apostle Paul urged the Corinthian church to expel someone from their fellowship, it was because the sin he was committing was “a kind that even pagans do not tolerate” (1 Cor. 5:1). Perhaps the greatest challenge we face in following his example is that our standards have sunk so low that we have begun to wonder whether any sin warrants such a response from the church. The gap between what pagans tolerate and what the church accepts has closed. Church discipline itself has come to be seen as, if not a sin, then at least a form of spiritual abuse.

The confrontation that Jesus prescribes for the church isn’t only for the benefit of the person who has sinned against us. Church discipline has a reflexive effect as well. Jesus warns those who intend to confront others to scrutinize themselves first and remove the plank from their own eye before they try to remove the speck from their brother’s eye (Matt. 7:3–5). We usually think that our reluctance to confront those who have sinned against us springs from a fear of how others will react. But theologian Stanley Hauerwas notes that we are just as liable to be afraid of how it might affect us. “Such confrontation is indeed hard because it makes us as vulnerable as the one we confront,” Hauerwas observes. “The process of confrontation means that we may well discover that we have been mistaken about being wronged.”

Even if the erring sister or brother repents, we may find that we are unwilling to reconcile with them. “I seldom know what I really want, but I know what or whom I deeply dislike and even hate,” Hauerwas explains. “It may be painful to be wronged, but at least such wrongs give me a history of resentments that, in fact, constitute who I am. How would I know who I am if I did not have my enemies?”

What is it that separates the church’s execution of this kind of discipline from bullying and spite? Self-interest and revenge often clothe themselves in the garments of righteousness. How can we tell whether our aim is to win over an erring brother or sister or to exact revenge? The presence of grief is one indicator that we are not acting out of our own selfish interests. If we take pleasure in confrontation, we can be certain that we are motivated by the wrong kind of spirit. Church discipline should always be exercised with a measure of reluctance (1 Cor. 5:2; 7:7–11). Careful forethought is another characteristic. No church should be in a hurry to expel someone from their fellowship.

Jesus’ command is a stark reminder that grace has a prickly side. To comply we need to submit ourselves to the same light of truth that we must shine on others. That light will change our view so that we can no longer approach the offender from the moral high ground but must come to them as a companion and peer. And even if things go badly and we find that we must treat the offender like an outsider, we do so in the hope that we will once more be able to call them friend.

Bright Lights in an Age of Complaint

Some centuries have cooler names than others. Historian Will Durant labeled the Reformation period “the age of faith” and called the 18th century “the age of reason.” Lately, I have been wondering what historians will want to call this century, and I think a good candidate might be “the age of complaint.” 

The thought came to me the other day when I read Philippians 2:14, saying that we are to do all things “without grumbling or arguing.” I am not sure that I could find a directive in Scripture that is more out of step with the spirit of the current era. As proof, I submit the ubiquitous and generally disingenuous phrase, “I don’t know who needs to hear this but. . .” It is one that often shows up in Christian posts on social media. I don’t know who needs to hear this, but most of the time, the person who uses this phrase knows exactly who they think needs to hear what they are about to say. 

On the surface, Paul’s admonition that Christians should distance themselves from grumbling seems a bit trivial, coming on the heels of his stirring description of Christ’s descent into humility in verses 5–11 of the same chapter. It is as if, after urging us to make the effort climb to a great height because of the vista it affords, the apostle uses the occasion to draw our attention to some relatively insignificant blemish on the horizon, say a gas station or fast-food restaurant. What he points out is ugly, but is it really so serious as all that?

Given the magnitude of Christ’s example, we might have expected Paul to set our sights higher by urging us to a greater level of sacrifice. He might have asked us to meditate on the possibility of martyrdom or spoken of some great act of surrender or sacrifice. Give up your kidney. Sell yourself into slavery to preach the gospel to the heathen. Something like that. Instead, the admonition Paul leaves us with is the rough equivalent of a warning nearly every parent has had to give when taking the family on a long trip in the car: “Stop arguing with your brother. Don’t make me come back there.”

Not only are grumbling and arguing commonplace occurrences in everyday life. They are now a source of popular amusement, thanks to social media. As long as they do not direct it at us, we find the expressed contempt of friends and strangers immensely entertaining, second only to the articulation of our own dismay at the stupidity and wrong-headedness of others.

Censoriousness is no longer a character flaw. It is treated as a virtue, especially on social media, where our observations compete with one another for the audience’s attention. We do not feel that we have done our job until we have driven a stake through the heart of our opponent’s argument. The sharper the comment, the greater its sticking power. It is even better if we can express the sentiment with the cynic’s half-smile.

There is, however, an unsettling subtext to the apostle’s command in Philippians 2:14 that deconstructs our utopian fantasy of what we should expect from church life. When Paul tells us that we must do everything without grumbling or arguing, he implies that others in the church will provide many opportunities to do those very things. Tertullian, the second-century church father from Carthage, wrote that observers of the early Christians marveled at what they saw. “It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us,” Tertullian wrote. “‘See how they love one another,’ they say, for they themselves are animated by mutual hatred; how they are ready even to die for one another, they say, for they themselves will sooner put to death.”

See how they irritate one another.

Paul’s directive to stop grumbling provides a necessary counterpoint that helps us understand the true nature of the love Tertullian’s quote describes. Those early pagans made their observations from the outside. They saw the behavior of Christians after grace and the gospel had done their work. Beyond their vision was the underworking of the flesh that created the occasion for those remarkable acts of love. If they had looked at the same deeds from that perspective, they might just as truthfully have declared, “See how they irritate one another.”

Another clue that the experience of mutual irritation is the field in which the Spirit sows the seeds of Christian love is found in those New Testament commands, which tell believers that they are to “bear with” each other (Eph. 4:2; Col. 3:13; cf. Rom. 15:1). The elegance of this phrase does not do justice to the experience it describes, and it would perhaps be more honest to translate the command “put up with” one another. Such language signals that Christian fellowship is as liable to be an act of endurance as it is a love feast. Indeed, the frequency with which Paul speaks about the church’s relational difficulties in his letters gives one the impression that Christian fellowship is primarily the practice of enduring the company of those who would otherwise be unlikely companions. In his poem The Death of the Hired Hand, Robert Frost defines a home as “the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in,” In the same poem, he also proposes an alternate definition when he says that home is,  “Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.” It strikes me that we could say the same about the church.

Throughout its history, the church has struggled with two related problems where community standards are concerned. On the one hand, it has often veered in the direction of perfectionism. Perfectionism, in turn, inevitably leads to hyperbole. When I say that the church has veered in the direction of perfectionism, I do not mean that it reaches a state of perfection on this side of eternity or even necessarily makes a serious attempt to do so. Rather, it is a habit of one-sided expectation. We make demands of others that we do not require for ourselves. When the church slips into perfectionism, it falls into a state of mutual disappointment.

We used to call this Pharisaism–the hypocritical practice of expecting more from others than ourselves. According to Jesus, the chief problem with this moral affliction is not merely its failure to meet the standard it sets but its lack of self-awareness (Matt. 23:25). Pharisaism turns us into blind guides who make demands of others but cannot see how we fail to apply the same standards in our own lives.

This lack of self-awareness, in turn, affects the church’s view of its practice of holiness in much the same way that over-realized eschatology does one’s view of the kingdom. That is to say, the church tends to claim too much for itself too soon. The result is a false perception of our own experience supported by exaggerated claims about our performance. “We have a fatal tendency to exaggerate the faults of others and minimize the gravity of our own,” John Stott observed. “We seem to find it impossible, when comparing ourselves with others, to be strictly objective and impartial. On the contrary, we have a rosy view of ourselves and a jaundiced view of others.”

It is easy to see how such a view would lead to grumbling and criticism. The inevitable result is a toxic mixture of self-satisfaction mixed with disappointment. We are pleased with ourselves while being irritated with others, and we fail to understand why they can’t be more like us. The irony, of course, is that they are like us. Or rather, we are like them, and we can’t see it. But is Paul’s message in Philippians 2:14 essentially that Christians are irritating and that we need to just suck it up and put up with the unpleasantness that comes with such an unfortunate condition? Far from it.

The church is not a community that has already arrived at perfection but one in the process of becoming. The apostle’s command implies not only the power of the Spirit to control our innate tendency to grumble and criticize, but it rests on a promise of transformation through the gospel. We are to do everything without grumbling or arguing so that we “may become blameless and pure, ‘children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.’” (Phil. 2:14–15). Self-help gurus tell us not to sweat the small things. But it turns out that that it is precisely in the small things where grace is most needed. It is in our small speech and everyday actions, where the reality of our salvation shows up most vividly.

Church Hunting: What People Want from Church

I know a couple of people who are in the process of looking for a new church. One is a family member who recently retired and has more time on her hands. The other is a friend who is moving to a different state. In both cases, I was reminded how much the search process feels like dating. It is exciting, uncomfortable, and most visits feel like a mismatch.

The internet has altered the experience of church hunting. Back in the day, looking for a church was a lot like going on a blind date. You showed up without really knowing what kind of church you were going to find. You might make a few assumptions based on denominational pedigree or the appearance of the building. But you had to visit to get any real first impressions.

Speed Dating the Church

Today most churches have an internet profile, and similar to internet dating, the initial point of appeal is almost always physical. When you visit the church’s web page, you are greeted by smiling faces meant to reassure you that the congregation is full of friendly, happy people that you will like. If you are not impressed, you can always swipe left and move on to another site. No need to go to the trouble of making an actual visit.

But as we all know, first impressions can be deceiving. Sometimes the pictures you see on the church’s web page aren’t even from the church but are stock photos inserted by some anonymous web developer. If you dig a little deeper, you can usually find photos of the church’s staff, a statement of what the church believes, a calendar of events, and an archive of recent sermons by the pastor. It’s not enough information to tell you whether this is the church of your dreams but sufficient for letting you know which ones you should probably ignore.  In this regard, I suppose this stage of church hunting is a lot like speed dating.

When I was a pastor, it felt like the people who visited our church were looking for the congregational equivalent of a supermodel. We were a good little church but never quite good enough for them. The congregation was too small, and we didn’t have enough programs. It irritated me at the time. But when I became a civilian and started looking for a church myself, I saw things differently. In fact, according to a poll done by the Pew Research Center, what most people look for in a church is pretty basic.

Good Preaching & Friendly Leaders

At the top of their list is a good sermon. Pastors tend to consider those who come to church mainly to listen to the sermon as selfish. But it makes sense that the sermon would be important to those who attend church. Listening to preaching is one of the main things we do there. Is it too much to ask that the sermon be both helpful and listenable? One of the marks of the first Christians was that they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42). We don’t accuse them of being selfish or consumeristic for doing so.

Next to preaching, people looking for a church want to know if it is friendly. Many churches know this and station people at the entrance whose main job is to grin at newcomers and extend “the right hand of fellowship” as soon as they cross its threshold (Gal. 2:9). But visitors are not dummies, especially if they have been to more than one church. They know that it takes more than a handshake and a smile to be friends. Visitors appreciate the greeting, but they do not necessarily trust it. The greeter’s warm welcome doesn’t carry any more weight than the flight attendant’s smile as you board the plane. At least the flight attendant’s greeting serves a practical function. They are sizing you up to see what kind of passenger you will be. Plus, they eventually serve snacks. The typical church greeter doesn’t offer more than a smile. They barely focus their gaze on you before moving on to the next person in line.

But even if the church’s greeters seem genuinely friendly, that doesn’t mean friendships will be easy to find. A church whose members seem close to one another is often a congregation where opportunities to connect will be scarce. The more close-knit the community, the less interested it is in including newcomers. People who have friends are not usually looking to make new ones, and they may even have trouble finding time for the friends they already have.

Perhaps this is why the respondents in the Pew survey said that feeling welcomed by leaders was what was important to them. They weren’t looking for a friendly congregation so much as for friendly pastors. To be honest, I’m not sure what this looks like in today’s church, especially in large congregations. Many pastors no longer visit their parishioners. The pastor may meet with you at a restaurant for lunch or even invite you over for dinner, but usually not more than once or twice. As soon as you have graduated from newcomer status to regular attendee, you will likely find yourself on your own again.

Proverbs 18:24 says, “One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”  The Hebrew literally says that a man of friends is to be broken. The proverb may suggest that the person with too many friends isn’t much better off than someone who has no friends. Those who appear to be friends with everyone often prove to be a friend to no one in particular.

Church size has a surprising effect on this dynamic. The larger the congregation, the easier it is to move in and out. Because so many people in the sizeable congregation are anonymous, it often has a larger pool of those who would like to be connected. The challenge is in locating them and finding a meaningful point of access. Visitors to small churches can often tell that they are close-knit, but they do not often find these congregations friendly. They are like a small town. You have to be born there or marry someone who was born there in order to belong.

Style of Worship

The third priority of church hunters has to do with worship style. This is another sensitive issue for pastors, especially worship pastors who like to remind the congregation that worship is “not about us.” What they usually mean when they say such a thing is that we shouldn’t complain if we don’t like the music. The irony (I am tempted to say hypocrisy) of this is that churches where one hears this sentiment expressed during the service usually rely on their worship style to attract new attendees. The philosophy of these churches seems to be that the style needs to appeal to those who don’t attend the church; it just doesn’t matter whether or not it appeals to members.

The trouble with a preference for a particular worship style is that it is so personal. It’s unlikely that a church can craft a worship style that has universal appeal. People who say that a certain style distracts them from worship are not exaggerating. C. S. Lewis believed that the best style was the one that you didn’t notice. He was talking about liturgy instead of music, but the principle is the same. Lewis compared the experience to dancing. “As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not dancing but only learning to dance,” he explains. “A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice.”

As long as our attention is distracted by the style of worship, we are not worshipping. According to Lewis, an even worse scenario is one where innovations in worship cause us to fix our attention on the one who leads worship. Try as one may to exclude it, the question, ‘What on earth is he up to now?’ will intrude,” Lewis observes. If he is correct in this, today’s performance style, which focuses so much attention on the worship team or a worship leader, is more likely to be a distraction than an aid.

Location, Location, Location

There are a handful of other factors that people usually consider: like children’s programming, whether one has family members in the congregation, and opportunities to volunteer. But the only feature in the Pew survey that rose to the level of the three mentioned above was the church’s location. This is a surprise, given our mobility. Before the advent of the automobile, one’s choice of a church was constrained by a combination of personal conviction and local geography. For most attendees, church was unavoidably local. This also meant that you usually worshipped with the same people among whom you lived.

Those days are unlikely to return. Nor should we necessarily assume that closer proximity meant a better experience. If there was an advantage, perhaps it was that the limits of one’s geography also produced a kind of reflexive stability. You stayed in the church because you had no choice. In this regard, those churches were more like households than spiritual shopping malls. Worshippers did not see themselves as customers but as members of the same large family. This is the primary metaphor the Bible uses when it speaks of the church. The church is called the household of God (Eph. 2:19; 1 Tim. 3:15). Those who are part of it refer to one another as brothers and sisters (1 Cor. 16:20; 1 Tim. 5:2).

The Bible’s family metaphor is a needed correction in an age when churches are more likely to feel like a Starbucks than a royal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9). The reminder that the church is a family will help with the letdown that inevitably comes after hunting for the perfect church, only to discover that it has the same rough edges you saw in the one you used to attend. You can choose your friends and even your spouse. But your family is given to you.

Heaven Can Wait

Have you ever wondered how fast God is? It sounds like the kind of question a child might ask. But for many of us, the honest answer would probably be, “Not as fast as we would like Him to be.” Although 2 Peter 3:9 says that God is not slow, waiting is so much a feature of the redemption story that Revelation 6:11 tells us that even the souls in Heaven must wait.  

Nobody likes to wait. Because of this, our prayers can sound more like demands than requests. We are like the man in the crowd in Luke 12 who called out to Jesus and demanded, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me” (Luke 12:13). Instead of sympathizing with the man or listening to his case, Jesus cut him off with this unsympathetic rebuke: “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:14-15)).

There is something unsettling about Jesus’ answer. It doesn’t fit the picture we have of Him. Although we don’t know the specifics about this man’s situation, we can make a few educated guesses. It is obvious that the man believed he had been wronged. It also seems reasonable to assume that his brother was the first-born, who had a right to 2/3 of the estate. Perhaps his brother had decided to keep the entire estate for himself. What is more, it seems likely that, given the circumstances and the nature of the request, this older brother was in the crowd when his younger sibling made this demand of Jesus. Jesus, however, shows no interest in protecting the younger brother’s legal rights in this matter. There are two parts to Jesus’ surprising response. One is an assessment of this man’s false view of Jesus. The other is an implied evaluation of the man’s motive in making the request.

When the Answer Means More than God

Both responses provide an important reality check for us. The first remark is a reminder that Jesus is not at our beck and call. He is not some kind of heavenly civil servant whose primary function is to make sure we get what we want or even that we get our fair share. Jesus’ unsympathetic answer is a blunt reminder that God does not necessarily share our interests. Jesus’ second remark is uncomfortable evidence that we cannot always trust our motives, even when the law is on our side. Viewed from the perspective of the man who made the request, this was a question of justice and equity. Jesus, on the other hand, perceived that it was a symptom of his greed.

Jesus’ blunt refusal to consider this man’s demand uncovers a dark truth about our impatience toward God. It suggests that sometimes our prayers are marked by what might be described as a kind of atheism. Not a denial of God’s existence but dismissal of the personal dimension of prayer. We are no more interested in God than we might be in the clerk at the counter who hands us our merchandise. The important thing for us is the answer. Not the one who grants our request.

In his book Beginning to Pray, Anthony Bloom reminds us that the intensity of our praying is not necessarily evidence of devotion. He asks us to think of the warmth and depth of our prayer when it concerns someone we love or something that matters to our lives. “Does it mean that God matters to you?” Bloom asks. “No, it does not. It simply means that the subject matter of your prayer matters to you.”

I am not saying that our requests are trivial or even necessarily selfish. I suspect that for this man in the crowd, receiving his inheritance was not trivial at all. It was a very big thing. Perhaps he was depending on it. But sometimes the things we are waiting for from God grow so large in our estimation that they stand between us and God. They may even become more important to us than God Himself.

Unequal Treatment

Sometimes God’s responses to our prayers seem uneven. He does not treat everyone the same. It may seem to us that God bestows answers too quickly on those who have ignored Him. They are excited about getting an answer to their prayer. It is as if they have discovered a world that they did not know existed, and in a way, they have. We are excited with them, at first. But after a while, there is something about their praise reports that may irk us. We have been praying for many of the same things and are still waiting. Why do their answers seem to come so quickly? Surely, it cannot be that they have more faith than us?

God is not a vending machine.

It is possible, of course, that they do have more faith. In Christ’s day, it seemed that those who knew the most about Scripture also had the greatest trouble believing Jesus. Faith does not always correlate with knowledge of Scripture or with spiritual age. Some who know relatively little in comparison with us may outstrip us in faith. While those who have walked with Christ a long time are sometimes still weak in faith. But this is not the only, perhaps not even the primary, reason for the difference. God’s dealings with us are personal in the realm of prayer, just as they are in everything else. God is not a vending machine that thoughtlessly dispenses the blessings we want when we punch the button of prayer. Neither is He a kind of heavenly bureaucrat who doles out the same portions to those standing in the prayer line. God’s answers are suited to His purposes for us as much as they are to our needs.

A Symptom of our Fear

In an essay on the efficacy of prayer, C. S. Lewis describes a startling observation about prayer he once heard from an experienced Christian: “I have seen many striking answers to prayer and more than one that I thought miraculous,” this person said. “But they usually come at the beginning: before conversion, or soon after it. As the Christian life proceeds, they tend to be rarer. The refusals, too, are not only more frequent; they become more unmistakable, more emphatic.”

The impatience we feel while waiting for God to answer our prayers is really a symptom of fear. We worry that God may reject our request. What is more, this fear is not without a warrant. Jesus’ blunt rejection of the man in the crowd is one of many refusals recorded in Scripture. But even without these, our own experience is testimony enough to prove that God does not always give us what we want when we want it.

God will grant some requests merely because we ask, as long as our request is accompanied by faith. Scripture says that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ in faith will be saved (Acts 10:21; Rom. 10:13; cf. Joel 2:32). Anyone who lacks wisdom is encouraged to ask for it (James 1:5–7). But the majority of our prayers fall into a category that we might describe as discretionary. The outcome is uncertain. God may grant them, or He might choose not to do so. Even if He does give us what we want, we do not control the timing. Another person may receive the answer in a moment, while we must wait for months and even years.

Waiting as an Act of Faith

Waiting for God is a fundamental discipline of faith. The closer we are to the end of the age, the more it will be required of us. “Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming,” James 5:7–8 urges. “See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.” The farming analogy in this passage does more than point to waiting as an inevitable fact of life. It is a reminder that a fundamental conviction about the goodness of God must accompany our waiting (2 Pet. 1:3). We are not merely waiting to see what will happen with our request. We are waiting for God to act on our behalf. He who hears our prayer is the one “who causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). Our waiting is energized further by the certainty that we will not have to wait long, at least by God’s standard of time. “The Lord’s coming is near,” James assures. 2 Peter 3:9 makes a similar promise when it says, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead, he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

An old hymn describes God as “unresting, unhasting, and silent as light.” But the Bible says that God is in a hurry. According to Scripture, God watches over His people the way a cook waits for a pot to boil, or the watchman on the wall eagerly looks for the coming of dawn (Isa. 60:22; Jer. 1:12–13). Despite what the hymn writer says, speed is a characteristic of all God’s saving acts. That’s because the speed of God is the speed of redemption.

Is God Hard of Hearing?

Despite the countless number of books on prayer that have been written, C. S. Lewis observed that he had never come across one that was of any use to him. Ironically, he made this observation in a book he wrote about prayer. Lewis said that he had seen many books of prayers, but when it came to those written about prayer, the writers usually made the wrong assumptions about the reader. Or, at least, they made the wrong assumption about the kind of reader Lewis was. “The author assumes that you will want to be chatting in the kitchen when you ought to be in your cell,” he observes. “Our temptation is to be in our studies when we ought to be chatting in the kitchen.” 

I have often felt something similar. Books about prayer never seem to fit my situation. They either assume that I don’t want to pray or that I don’t know how. Neither is really the case. My problem lies elsewhere. I have been praying for as long as I have been a Christian. Longer, even. I’ve never felt that my problem with prayer was a matter of mechanics. Prayer never seemed like rocket science to me. You just talk to God. When I became a pastor, I became a praying professional. That is to say, prayer was a part of my job. I prayed publically as the church worshipped. I opened board meetings with prayer. I led the church’s weekly prayer meeting. I prayed for the congregation in my study. And I prayed with those who came to me for counsel. Over time I discovered that most people are like me. We pray, sometimes frequently, but there is something about the experience that leaves us feeling uncomfortable and vaguely dissatisfied. We aren’t sure why.

Our Problem is Relational

It seems to me that the primary problem most of us have with prayer has nothing to do with motivation or method. Our problem is relational. We don’t like the way God treats us. We feel like we are doing all the talking. It’s hard to carry on a conversation with someone who never talks back to you. After a while, a person begins to feel like the other party in the conversation is disinterested. Even when we do get an answer to our requests, they rarely seem to take the form that we anticipate. God’s disposition is unreadable and His paths seem oblique.

The main reason for this is because prayer is a conversation that moves primarily in one direction. It moves from the believer who prays to the God who hears. God’s silence does not mean that He is unresponsive. Good listeners are often silent when they are paying attention. It is true that in ordinary conversation, silence can also mean other things. When we try to talk to others, people may respond with the silence of disinterest, rejection, or even complete absence. But where prayer is concerned, the fundamental assumption of faith is that we have God’s attention. If we ask whether God is hard of hearing, Scripture’s emphatic answer is no: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him” (1 John 5:14–15).

The one guarantee we have in prayer is that God always hears us. But there is more to this hearing than awareness of our requests. The key to understanding John’s bold and frequently misunderstood promise is to note that to “hear,” in this sense, means something more than to take notice of something. To hear as John uses the term is to grasp the full implications of what we say. God knows both our desire and our true need. He also knows how our request fits into His plan.

John’s condition that our requests must be “according to His will” is not God’s liability clause designed to protect His reputation if we find the answers to our prayer disappointing. This is a condition that implies that we have a responsibility to consider the nature of our requests before we make them. Do we have a warrant to ask such a thing of God? Is it something for which He has told us to pray? How does the request fit with a larger understanding of God’s general will and plan for our lives? What is our motive in asking? God’s hearing of our prayers includes an assessment of everything that lies behind them.

We Misinterpret God’s Silence

We misinterpret God’s silence if it leads us to think that we are the initiators in prayer and that God stands by impassively as we wait to see what He will do for us. The Scriptures paint a very different picture. They show that God moved in our direction first. “The first word is God’s word,” Eugene Peterson explains. “Prayer is a human word and is never the first word, never the primary word, never the initiating and shaping word simply because we are never first, never primary.”

woman in black jacket and black pants sitting on white staircase

For this reason, Peterson describes prayer as “answering speech.”   Consequently, our prayers are a conversational answer to what God has already said. Prayer is a response to an invitation, extended to us through Jesus Christ, to express our needs and desires directly to God. The fact that God does not answer in kind when we speak to Him in prayer does not mean that God has nothing to say. As the hymn writer declares, “What more can He say than to you He hath said, You, who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?”

Scripture is an essential companion to prayer, not only because it teaches us how to pray but because it shows us where the conversation began. The Bible tells us what God has already said. By reading it carefully, we develop a way of thinking about prayer. We begin to understand the one to whom we are speaking.

It is easy to accuse God of being unresponsive to our prayers because we cannot hear His voice. But the truth is, we are the ones who are disengaged. God has spoken first, but we do not take His words into account. We are deeply interested in getting what we want when we pray but not nearly as concerned about God’s wishes. I am not saying that we have never read the Bible or that we have no interest in God. Only that we tend to be single-minded. We do not bother to consider God’s point of view. We are waiting for Him to respond to us when, all the while, He has been waiting for us. We are hoping that God will say something new without bothering to orient our prayers to what He has already said.

Would we pray differently if we believed that God’s silence meant that He was truly listening? It might help if we thought of prayer as communion instead of conversation. The essence of communion is shared experience. We usually interpret God’s silence as absence or disinterest. But in true conversation, listening is interaction as much as speech. Indeed, genuine listening may be even more of an exchange than words because, to really listen, we must enter into someone’s experience.  We have all had conversations where the other party did not really hear what we were saying. Their silence was merely a pause before speaking. We ourselves have been guilty of this. Such conversations are not conversations at all but merely an exchange of sounds.

Silence & Presence

Silent listening is essential to genuine conversation. It is also a common attribute of the experience of communion. Every happy couple knows that the joy of conversation is not the chatter but the pleasure of exchanged presence. The Christian idea of communion is rooted in the biblical concept of koinonia, a Greek word that means fellowship or sharing. Sometimes koinonia speaks of our experience with God, and at other times, of our experience with other believers. There is a connection between these two. In 1 Corinthians 1:9, the apostle Paul reminded the Corinthians that God had called them “into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Such language denotes a special kind of relationship.  It is a fellowship or union with Jesus Christ. The church celebrates this relationship when it observes the Lord’s Supper, a rite that we often call “communion.” But the spiritual communion Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 1:9 is something more. Fellowship with Christ is an abiding union with our savior. Those who have been called by God and have trusted in Christ are themselves “in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).

This union is what Jesus prayed for when He asked that all those who believe “may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” (John 17: 21).  He went on to ask, “May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one.” We often view Jesus’ words as a prayer for church unity, and unity is partly in view. But Jesus was asking for much more. Our mistake has been to see Jesus’ words as a statement of aspiration. Interpreted this way, Jesus’ words are more of a wish than a prayer.

If desire were all that Jesus meant, He might as well have said, “Father, I hope that they will be one.” Indeed, this is exactly how we usually hear this text preached in church. The emphasis is not on what God has done in response to Jesus’ prayer, but on what we are supposed to do if it is ever going to be a reality. Instead of a prayer addressed to the Father, we have changed it into a sermon preached to the church. But the “may be” of verse 21 is not a maybe. It is a “let it be” that echoes the Father’s declarations at creation. Just as God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light, Jesus prayed, “Let them be one in us and in one another.”

What does this have to do with our prayers? It means that communion is a state before it is an experience. Communion is still a fact even when we do not sense its reality. God hears us when we pray, even when the silence leaves us feeling like we are talking to an empty sky. God is present when we pray, even when we do not sense His presence. Sometimes when we pray, we act as if we need to attract God’s attention. We feel like a person on the ground waving their hands at a plane passing high overhead, hoping that someone up there will see them. But God does not have to come down from on high to take note of us. Nor do we need to arrest His attention. Although we often talk about “coming” into God’s presence, the truth is that we are already there. Whenever we pray, and even when we are not praying, we are always in the Father and the Son. God cannot be any closer than He already is. Even if we were in heaven (Rom. 10:6-8).