King David and Intimacy with God

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Most Christians know that King David was a man after God’s heart (1 Sam 13:14). What did that look like?

Part of the answer lies in Psalm 139. David’s cry in last two verses is remarkable.

Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23–24)

This is a powerful, intimate prayer. Christians would do well to pray this way.

But there’s an approach to this prayer that’s all wrong. Too many treat this prayer as self-improvement, asking God for a home inspection so you can do the patching and remodeling.

As with everything in the Bible, we need to read and pray this prayer in context.

David Knows God

David knows God, and this is evident throughout Psalm 139. What David knows about God gives him comfort, strength, and zeal. Consider what David says about God.

God has already searched and known him (v.1). David is asking God in verse 23 to do something familiar.

God knows his actions, thoughts, and words (vv.2–4). God knows David’s thoughts and his words before they’re spoken. God’s knowledge is overwhelming (v.5).

God is everywhere (v.7). David cannot escape God’s Spirit or his presence. Day or night—the darkness makes no difference to God (vv.11–12). And God is not coolly studying David; he is leading and holding David with his hand (v.10). David enjoys God’s love in addition to his knowledge and presence.

God made him (vv.13–15). God knit and intricately wove David together inside his mother. Think of the detail and care in those words!

God knows all his days (v.16). Before David’s birth, God knew not just the number of his days but the days themselves.

God shares his thoughts with David (vv.17–18). David knows that God’s thoughts are numerous, and precious.

God provides his presence (v.18). After awaking from pondering God’s thoughts, David is cheered and comforted by God’s faithful, ongoing presence.

God can slay the wicked (vv.19–22). David appeals to God’s power, authority, and justice.

The Gospel in Psalm 139

The thought of God searching us can be terrifying. Maybe you imagine a blinding, prison-yard spotlight, sweeping across the grounds, leaving nothing hidden.

But, for God’s children, this isn’t the right image. David has already been searched and known by God. Because God is merciful, God’s hand on David is “wonderful” (v.6). If a sinner calls the hand of a holy God upon him wonderful, there’s only one explanation: this hand belongs to a father, not a jailer.

David knows the evil in his heart that rises against God.

For my iniquities have gone over my head;
like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me. (Psalm 38:4)

But, by faith, David also knows that his sin has been forgiven.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. (Psalm 51:7)

Because David is God’s child, the searching of God is for the purpose of discipline and holiness, not judgment and punishment.

Let’s Pray

So, let’s pray Psalm 139:23–24. But let’s pray it in context.

We’re not praying for self-improvement. Christians have given up on the idea that we can improve ourselves.

We’re not praying for purity so we can get closer to God. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and by the gift of faith, God has already brought us near to him! No work or repentance of our own could accomplish any more.

Let’s pray this psalm because we are beloved children of God, and his faithful love compels us to repent of all that offends him. Let’s pray because we need the knowledge of God and the work of the Holy Spirit; our self-knowledge is inadequate and incomplete and so often inaccurate.

Let’s pray this psalm because we trust God not only to show us our sin, but to “lead [us] in the way everlasting.” God won’t simply point the way down the proper path, but he’ll take our hand and walk with us.

Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23–24)


Photo Credit: Kelly Sikkema (2016), public domain

A Christmas Lament

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Almighty God,

You created a good world, but right now it is hard to see.

In so many places, your world is marred, defaced, and ugly. I see hatred, fear, and sin across the globe, throughout this country, and in the mirror. Without your intervention, I have no hope.

How long, O Lord, will men, women, and children be murdered by their own government? The images and stories coming from Aleppo are nightmarish. These people made in your image, trapped and tortured and terrified—they need you. Please bring relief, please bring peace, please bring daily bread, shelter, and aid to those who need it.

How long, O Lord, will the United States be fractured and divided? We are so quick to be suspicious of a skin color or accent or background different from our own. And our problems run deep. Much of the structure of our country favors the already-privileged and leaves the disadvantaged without hope. Our recent election has made reasonable people fearful, angry, and dispirited.

Within your church, the situation seems no better. We ignore or belittle those in our communities who need love and help. We make little effort to speak with or understand those who are different. Instead of being known by our love, we are often known by hate, ignorance, and apathy. O God, help us love our neighbors! Send the gospel of your son and your common grace for peace within our nation.

How long, O Lord, will you leave me to battle my sin? I feel alone so often when facing temptation, and I do not have the strength to resist. Why do these same patterns of rebellion remain after so many years? You are not weak or uncaring—why won’t you change my heart? Please equip me in the fight against sin; remind me of your love, your work, and your presence with me. Despite my repeated failure, do not turn away.

I mourn, O Lord, because your world is not the way it should be. But I do not mourn as one without hope.

You have already intervened in the most dramatic way possible, so I know you can intervene now. Christmas shows that you love your world and that you are unwilling to leave us to ourselves. Your son felt the ragged edges of this earth. He felt the sword of a wicked government; he felt the suspicion and hate of his countrymen and your people; he felt my sin more acutely than I do.

Do not abandon us. We need your grace as much as ever. We need Christmas.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!


Photo Credit: Ulrike Mai (2015), public domain

A Writer’s Honest Prayer

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Almighty God,

In light of your holiness and generosity, I’m aware of my unworthiness and sin. My pride and self-focus are bulging and monstrous; I confess these sins to you.

I confess that I long for the attention and praise of men. I want people to say that I’m important; I dream of the admiration of others.

My self-worth rises and falls too often with page views, comments, and incoming links. I check my blog stats more frequently than I should, more frequently than I would admit.

As I write, I am tempted to draw attention to myself. Instead of using humor and playful word choices to serve readers, I have chosen phrases so others will think I’m clever.

I have not always used my words to glorify you. Instead, I have written to impress other people and make a name for myself.

In these sins of self-exaltation, I have walked in the opposite direction from Jesus. Your son made himself nothing, while I have tried to make something of myself. Though your love frees me to pour out my life and energy for others, I have too often only paid attention to me.

For the sake of your son, please forgive me.

In light of my sin which only you can forgive, I need change only you can bring. Merciful God, please change me. Turn my bent-inwardness around and renovate my heart.

Use my writing for your glory. Help me write in service of your people.

Give me only the opportunities that would point others to you and bless your church. Keep me from projects and outlets that would bring me spiritual harm.

Please give me ideas. Help me think well about you and your world. Tether me to your life-giving word.

When I sit to write, give me words. I depend on you. Give me helpful, persuasive, wise, gracious, godly, timely words.

Empower my friends to speak to me honestly. Rebuke and correct me by your Spirit and your people. Strengthen my elders to shepherd me.

Help me remember the gospel. Whether my writing is well-received or ignored, remind me of your unfailing love and the bedrock work of Jesus. Thank you that no amount of writing, good or bad, can make you love me any more or less than you do right now. You are full of grace.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.


Photo Credit: Ursula (2015), public domain

How to Share in Your Small Group

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As Christians share with each other in a small group, they obey the one another commands in the Bible. Though such sharing is difficult, God honors it by strengthening Christians to fight their sin.

But what does such sharing look like?

The Importance of Prayer

You cannot talk about your struggles against sin without knowing what they are.

Listen to King David.

Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psalm 139:23–24)

Praying this way is one of the most important steps we can take to grow as Christians. God loves to answer this prayer.

But we need to pray as Christians. We don’t wallow in our sin; we seek it out to defeat it, knowing its power has been crushed by Jesus at the cross. Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s advice is wise: “For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.”

If seeing our sin puts the enemy in our sights, then meditation on the gospel pulls the trigger. Remembering the love of the Father and the work of the Son—this is the way God changes our hearts, giving us proper affections and motivations for obedience.

Categories

When someone wants to pray for your growth as a Christian, categories can be helpful.

  • Works of the flesh and fruit of the Spirit — Use passages like Gal 5:19–21 and Gal 5:22–24 to talk about the sin you hope to kill and the character you want to develop. There are many other such lists in the Bible—read them and learn the biblical vocabulary.
  • Longings in the Psalms — Read the Psalms and note the love the writers expressed for God. I’m humbled to compare my tepid affection with the hearts of these long-ago saints. (Psalm 63 is a great place to start.)
  • Idols — An idol is anything that takes the place of God for us. These can be vices or addictions, but more often idols are blessings to which we ascribe outsized significance. Family, job, money, success, friendship—these can all be idols. The solution is usually not to ditch the idol, but to return it to its proper place and worship God alone. To help you start thinking in these terms, check out this list of idol-revealing prompts by Tim Keller.
  • Spiritual disciplines — The habits we develop to aid Christian growth are called “spiritual disciplines.” In this category you’ll find Bible reading, prayer, fasting, memorizing Scripture, fellowship, weekly worship, etc. While no activity or discipline saves us, a lack of attention to the spiritual disciplines often reveals a heart that is cooling toward God. Take note both of ignoring these practices and adhering to them with a distracted or divided heart.

A Personal Example

How does one share in a small group setting? The basic elements are knowing your sin and asking others to pray and help you fight against it. Lest that sound vague, here is a personal example.

Please pray for me in my fight against gluttony. I eat when I’m not hungry, eat foods that aren’t good for me, and eat too much. Sometimes I eat because I’m bored. Other times I eat for comfort. Ultimately, I want to find my comfort in Christ, not in food. Pray that I would love God more than food and that I would care for the body God has given me.

Sharing doesn’t have to be lengthy and you need not have everything figured out. Don’t worry about sounding spiritual. You only need to know some of your sin and want to put it to death.

Remember, this is good for you. In addition to being a matter of obedience (James 5:16), your friends can help you. God is ready to give you tangible help as your friends pray.

How to Listen

There’s one last piece to this puzzle. How do you handle someone sharing personal prayer requests in your small group? We’ll tackle that next week.


Photo Credit: anonymous (2016), public domain

You Should Share in Your Small Group

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Many Christian small group meetings include sharing and prayer, and most of the responses are predictable. Health, jobs, and family members—these concerns dominate our lists.

There’s nothing wrong with this. We should pray for the physical needs of our friends. These top-level requests consume our thinking throughout the day, and God wants us to “cast our anxieties on him” (1 Peter 5:7).

But a small group prayer list that contains only such requests is incomplete. To build close friendships, you must share the concerns closest to your heart. And that means opening up.

Why We Don’t Share

Sharing from the heart is just plain hard. It’s unnatural, and I suspect we avoid sharing for two main reasons.

Sometimes we are not in touch with our battles against sin. Peter tells us that our lusts “wage war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11). When we don’t fight, the conflict is one-sided, and our enemies are relentless.

Other times, we know our sin but don’t want to talk about it. For assorted reasons, we’re unwilling to let our friends see our areas of greatest need.

As we walk the path toward greater honesty, we need to acknowledge the steep climb. Let’s be patient with each other—we all have room to grow.

Why We Should Share

Most small group ministries are built on the “one another” commands in the Bible. (Here’s a great list.) God’s demands border on impossible without an intimate, commited community.

Consider how refreshing it would be to belong to a small group devoted to obeying God in these ways.

  • Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. (James 5:16)
  • Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. (Rom 12:10)
  • Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Gal 6:2)
  • Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. (1 Thess 5:11)
  • Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. (Eph 4:25)
  • Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. (1 Pet 4:9)

Each of these commands requires vulnerability. How can I bear my friend’s burdens if he doesn’t tell me what they are? How can we confess our sins to each other if we keep our hearts locked up tight? How will I know how to encourage my friend if I don’t know any of his deep struggles?

We should share because God commands it. But God doesn’t issue commands on a whim. Sharing our struggles is good for us.

The Blessing of Sharing

As you open up to your friends, you might be surprised at the help you receive.

Because prayer is effective, God actually gives me strength in my fight against particular sins as my group prays for me. My friends can ask me questions and provide tangible support. They can preach the gospel to me on a regular basis.

As you share, you encourage others in your group to follow suit. And as others open up, you build a deeper sense of community within the group. Everyone is in a common fight. Your struggles aren’t exactly the same, but everyone has a battle and no one is strong enough to fight on their own.

Jesus Makes It Possible

Sharing like this is scary and counterintuitive. It might feel just the opposite of safe. But the gospel of Jesus changes everything.

Your sin is not a surprise to God. He knows it better than you. And, if you’re a Christian, his commitment to you is so deep and steadfast that no sin of yours can drive him away.

The sin you want to stuff down and hide is the same sin Jesus bore on the cross. He was made sin so that we might be made righteous (2 Cor 5:21).

We can share our sin because it no longer defines us. Our struggles against the flesh are real, but because of Jesus’s work we have real hope, real help, and real possibility of change. We don’t need to fear abandonment or exile—Jesus suffered that in our place and God is just.

What Does This Look Like?

If you’ve never been part of a small group that talked or prayed on this level, you might wonder how this looks in practice. How exactly do you share or confess your sins to your friends?

Check back next week. I’ll try to explain.


Photo Credit: Sydney Missionary Bible College (2005), Creative Commons License

Praying for Five

At the end of December, many people focus on goals and resolutions for the next twelve months. For a moment, let’s move beyond personal ambitions.

What are your hopes for your church in the new year?

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Instead of fixating on a single number (attendance, offering, VBS involvement), think of the health of your church. What areas of weakness or sickness could be prayed for and addressed in 2016?

My Church

I don’t intend this post to be prescriptive, so let me tell you one of the ways I’m praying for my church in 2016. (Other small, Reformed churches may find this diagnosis familiar.)

Washington Presbyterian Church is a small church in southwest Pennsylvania that has seen exciting growth over the last three years. Our Sunday morning congregation and church membership have both swelled a bit as committed Christians have joined us. Some of these believers are new to the area, some are just new to our body. These are awesome folks and God has blessed our church through them.

Though our numbers are up, we haven’t seen much growth in the realm of conversion—unbelievers confessing Jesus as Lord for the first time. So, while my church has lots of room for growth, I plan to pray repeatedly about this weakness through the next year.

Lord, Give Us Five!

I’m praying that—as a result of my church’s witness to and proclamation in our community—God would bring at least five people out of darkness into light. That he would transfer them from the kingdom of the devil into the kingdom of the son that he loves. That he would give spiritual sight to at least five people who are blind. That, where there is hopelessness, at least five people would find hope and eternal life. That at least five would know forgiveness where they currently know only guilt. That they would know God as a loving, merciful father and not as a scolding judge. That at least five people would speak the name of Jesus with reverence, joy, and gladness.

Why five? Attaching a number to this request makes my prayer more specific and tangible. The number itself is arbitrary—some may think this number is far too big or far too small. For my church, five conversions would be more than we’ve seen in a while. If it happens, it will be clear both that we needed God and that God moved. This didn’t just come about as a result of our normal ministries, interactions, or personalities.

How will I react to success or failure? I plan to pray regularly, earnestly, and publicly about this. If God grants this request, I plan to be quick to glorify him. If 2016 ends with fewer than five conversions, it won’t be a failure. Though God wouldn’t have granted this request, it won’t alter the substance of my prayers. Conversions, the spread of the gospel, the proclamation of Jesus as Lord—this is always a central mission of the church.

What do you dream for your church in the next year? How will you pray and act to bring it about?


Photo Credit: John Phelan, Creative Commons License

Natural Desires and Spiritual Desires

I’ve done a lot of thinking recently about prayer, particularly in the context of small group Bible studies. I hope to have more to say about this in the near future, but for now I wanted to share a quote I found helpful.

Found in the midst of John Piper’s helpful book When I Don’t Desire God, this quote draws the distinction between natural desires and spiritual ones. I’m challenged by this to consider both how my prayers reflect my desires and whether my desires are the same as those of an unbeliever.

Most people, before their prayers are soaked in Scripture, simply bring their natural desires to God. In other words, they pray the way an unbeliever would pray who is convinced that God might give him what he wants: health, a better job, safe journeys, a prosperous portfolio, successful children, plenty of food, a happy marriage, a car that works, a comfortable retirement, etc. None of these is evil. They’re just natural. You don’t have to be born again to want any of these. Desiring them—even from God—is no evidence of saving faith. So if these are all you pray for, there is a deep problem. Your desires have not yet been changed to put the glory of Christ at the center.

But when you saturate your mind with the Christ-exalting Word of God and turn it into prayer, your desires and your prayers become spiritual. That is, they are shaped by the Holy Spirit into God-centered, Christ-exalting prayers. The glory of Christ, and the name of God, and the spiritual well-being of people, and the delight you have in knowing Jesus—these become your dominant concerns and your constant requests. You still pray for health and marriage and job and journeys, but now what you want to happen is that, in all these, Christ will be exalted. This changes the pattern and passion of your prayers. Your prayer for a journey is not merely that it be safe, but that all along the way your joy would be in God and that he would shine through you. Your prayer for your job is not merely that it be stable and peaceful and prosperous, but that it truly serves the needs of society and that in all your labor and all your relationships your joy in Christ and your love for people would make a name for Jesus. — John Piper, When I Don’t Desire God, pp.165–166