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Sunday, March 22, 2020

Can I pray to God now, even if I've not been doing it?

On my way back from my recent trip to Uganda, I made a new friend on the interminable flight from there to Brussels. She was a wonderful young lady with many exciting and interesting life adventures. She was also a self-described agnostic Jew who was scared to death of flying and struggled with panic throughout the trip. I shared with her how my wife had a similar issue for many years but God helped her to overcome it. I asked her if she had ever prayed and she said something like, "Yes, but it kinda seems unfair." I was pretty sure she meant that praying in a crisis would be an insult, or at least pointless, when she didn't pray any other time. So I mentioned that even if my older daughter only talks to me when she wants something or has a problem, I'm still glad to hear from her and I'm still happy to help her out. Because I love my daughter and am eager to hear from her at any time, regardless of whether she ever talks to me otherwise.

I woke up in the middle of the night last night and among many other things, that young lady came to mind and I prayed for her. Then I opened my Kindle to read something from God's Word, as I usually do in such situations, and amazingly this was the verse I read (Isaiah 26:16), followed by some comments by the great Charles Spurgeon:

LORD, in trouble have they visited thee, they poured out a prayer when thy chastening was upon them.

That is true of hypocrites; but it is also sweetly true of some whom God is bringing to himself. Child after child has died, loss after loss has broken down the business; now they turn to God. Oh, it is a blessed loss that makes us find our God! What we gain is infinitely more than what we have lost. What a mercy that God is willing to hear us in the time of trouble, that all our putting-off and rejection of him do not make him put us off! I remember one who wished to hire a conveyance to go to a certain town, and he went to the place where he could hire it, and asked the price; he thought that it was too much, so he went round the town to other people, and found that he could not get it any cheaper; but when he came back to the place visited first, the man said to him, “Oh, no, no! I will not let my horses to you. You have been round to everybody else, and now you come back to me because you cannot get what you want elsewhere; I will have nothing to do with you.” That is man’s way of dealing with his fellow man; but it is not the Lord’s method of dealing with us. When you and I have gone round to everybody else, the Lord still welcomes us when we come back to him. Yes, just as harbours of refuge are meant for ships in distress that would not have put in there except for the storm and danger, such is the mercy of the Lord God in Jesus Christ. If you are forced to accept it, you are still welcome to it. If you are driven to it by stress of weather, you may come in, for the harbour was made for just such as you are.

Wow, can you believe that amazing "coincidence" of God's providence? It could be helpful for my friend on the plane, of course, but I believe it was given to me for all of you to read and consider also. I think we all struggle to some degree with the fact that we pray a lot more in times of crisis and wonder if God will hear us if we haven't prayed as much as we should have before. But we need to realize that He allows difficulties (like a scary situation) in our lives precisely because He loves us and wants us to talk to Him more. "Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Rom. 10:13), and the "whoever" includes even those who are calling for the first time, or for the first time in a long time.

Consider Hebrews 12:5-11:

Have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
    nor be weary when reproved by him.

For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
    and chastises every son whom he receives.”
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

You might say, if you're thinking along with me, "Isn't that passage written to those who already believe in Christ?" Yes, but like Spurgeon wisely says at the beginning of the quote above, it is also "sweetly true of some God is bringing to himself." Many people have found that when they cry out to God in a time of crisis, even for the first time or the first time in a long time, He sends a person or message to them that will lead them into further knowledge and understanding of His truth. That's because He has already chosen to love them before the foundation of the world and planned to adopt them into His family through the redeeming work of Christ.

Ephesians 1:3-14 tells us about all that:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
So don't let the fact that you haven't prayed enough keep you from doing so in the middle of a problem. If you do find yourself talking to God, it's probably because He loves you and is bringing you into a relationship with Him. You were created for that purpose and will only find your ultimate satisfaction and reason for living when you embrace it. As Augustine said (and experienced personally), "Our hearts are restless until they rest in Him." And as Blaise Pascal wrote, "What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself."

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Thank God for the coronavirus?

After not sleeping for over two days because of a trip home from Uganda that started at midnight there (I can't sleep in airports or airplanes more than a few minutes for some reason), I woke up in the middle of the night in the midst of a fever dream (but not a literal fever, thank God) and realized that on the return trip I had let my doctor down in two ways. I had forgotten to take my malaria medicine and my Airborne.

As I got up and did that (better late than never!), an interesting thought came to me, as they often do in the early hours, which is reproduced in my first point below. But that thought expanded into several others (as they often do), so here we go...

In Uganda I had the tremendous privilege of teaching almost 40 pastors and their wives (some of the finest, I believe, from all over the country) in two three-day conferences about "the theology of marriage" (see this series on YouTube for some of what I taught). I mentioned to them one of my favorite counseling assignments, which is based on Romans 8:28: "Make a list of all the ways you think that God could possibly bring good out of this trial." Here are a few such items, which are not even close to being exhaustive but serve as appropriate examples. (And I'll comment on my title at the end.)

The coronavirus reminds us that there is such a thing as absolute truth

A man I talked to on one of the planes said he believed that "all paths lead to God" or some similar expression of subjective relativism in religion, and I wish I would have thought to use the following illustration in my discussion with him...

Imagine if someone on the airplane had a serious cough and hacked right in people's faces without even putting an arm or hand up to block their germs. Even not wearing a mask would be enough for such a person to be criticized by his fellow travelers, and they probably would think badly of him for even getting on the plane with them! Imagine if he said, "Who are you to say I'm wrong? I sincerely believe I don't have the virus" or even, "I might have it but I need to live out my truth. Don't say your opinions are better than mine."

Everyone would recognize that as nonsense, of course, because things like the coronavirus give the lie to relativism. I remember a similar dynamic after the 9-11 World Trade Center attack, when even the most "tolerant" people had to admit there was such a thing as good and evil in the world. If there is right and wrong and true and not true in disease and terrorism prevention, why would we think there are no absolute truths that reward a search for them in the spiritual realm?

This absolute truth exists even without our absolute understanding, by the way. We will never know all the truth about coronavirus or terrorism, but that truth exists, and we can know enough about it to achieve the needed goals of stopping a pandemic or preventing another 9-11. In the spiritual realm we will never know everything about God and His ways, but we can learn enough to have a saving relationship with Him and to live a life that is pleasing to Him and good for us, because He has promised to give us that knowledge by the Holy Spirit (John 16:13, 2 Timothy 3:15-17, 2 Peter 1:3).

The coronavirus gives us an opportunity to trust God in the face of fear

The conferences in Uganda were planned long before the coronavirus happened, of course, and I and others wondered if we should cancel the trip. (My dear mother was definitely of the opinion that I shouldn't go.) But I remembered the biggest lesson that I learned from my only other trip to a third-world country (the Philippines when I was in my twenties): "Fear is never a reason to not do something good." There can be other legitimate reasons, of course, but fear alone should never keep us from it. So I went on the trip to minister God's Word to a wonderful group of Ugandan people who were so hungry to learn and had made their own plans to give up four days of their lives and travel up to seven hours to be there.

Ironically, I was probably safer in Uganda than I would been if I stayed in America. I certainly had less chance of contracting the virus, because as of now Uganda still has no reported cases. (Some think the high temperatures keep it from thriving, and the government of the country has taken strong steps early on to keep it out.) I did, however, have to face the fear of not being able to return to America or at least being quarantined for a while upon my return. Allan and Lucy Topham, my beloved companions and sponsors on the trip, had to leave halfway through to avoid those eventualities because of some health needs. So I had to decide whether to continue by myself for the last day of the first conference and the entirety of the second.

I decided to stay, largely because my wife was okay with it and even for it, and I am so glad I did! Many of the attenders said the conferences were life-changing and begged me to come back, and God's providence was evident in so many details of the trip. For example, we arrived in Uganda one day before the country was closed to Americans, and I left one day before all flights through Europe were cancelled and all group meetings were banned (and three days later all plane travel from the country was grounded)! Another example was that the coordinator for the second conference decided at the last minute to add translation to the teaching, which meant it would take twice as long to get through the material, but because the other speaker had left we now had only half of it to cover, so it worked out perfectly. And I could go on with many other examples, but suffice to say that God showed himself trustworthy again, as He always does.

The coronavirus makes us go deep in our theology

Whenever crises and tragedies like this occur on a large scale, it causes people to think about deep theological issues, which is one of the reasons God allows them to happen. I say "allows" because all Bible-believing Christians can agree on that terminology, regardless of our particular theological understanding of the sovereignty of God and theodicy (or "the problem of evil"). I had an interesting discussion recently about whether it is accurate and/or wise to say "I'm thankful for the coronavirus" or "Thank God for the coronavirus" in light of the fact that it is so terrible and so many people are suffering because of it, and therefore we don't want to "blame God" for it or be insensitive to human suffering.

It can't be wrong to use terminology like that, because in the Scriptures God says things like, "I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things" (Isa. 45:7). Jesus himself said, in a context about people rejecting Him, "In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, 'I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.'" So we shouldn't be too critical of those who thank God for even bad things that happen--in fact, I watched a video and read a post online with titles without the question mark and was blessed by them. 

But I didn't want to write it without the question mark because I question (no pun intended) whether that is the best and wisest terminology to use while the crisis and tragedy is happening. (Perhaps it would be better afterward, as we're looking back and see God's providence after the fact and the pain is not so fresh). Most people who hear it won't understand the fine lines between God causing evil directly and allowing it as a part of His plan (see R.C. Sproul's great book Chosen By God for a discussion of that distinction). But I definitely think we can and should say things like, "We are thankful in the midst of the coronavirus" and "I'm thankful for the good things God is able to bring out of this."

Whatever way you prefer to say it, I hope that the basic idea summarized in Romans 8:28-29 will be an anchor to you in the storms that are raging (and any that will be in the future): "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son." God is making you more like Christ now (especially through exposing and removing idols in your life) so that you can be with Him one day forever, when trials like the coronavirus will not even be worth remembering except for the spiritual good that came out of them.

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Wednesday, March 4, 2020

More prayers and words for my family (and anyone else who dares to read them)

Last August I wrote a post called "Prayers and words for my family (and anyone else who dares to read them)" that's accumulated a surprisingly large number of views. Since it apparently struck some kind of a chord, here's another similar post based on what I read this morning in my time with the Lord...

Jill and I prayed last night together for all of our children, as we sometimes do (but not nearly enough), and with that still fresh in my mind I woke up to the Bible reading and prayer that I usually do in the mornings (though still not often enough).

I read through the book of Isaiah by itself a few months ago and since then I've been reading through it again with comments by Charles Spurgeon interspersed. And I couldn't help thinking of my children when I read this verse and Spurgeon's comments (in italics):

Isaiah 26:11 - "LORD, when thy hand is lifted up, they will not see: but they shall see, and be ashamed for their envy at the people; yea, the fire of thine enemies shall devour them."

There are some people who will not see; and, as the old proverb hath it, there are none so blind as those that will not see; but they will one day be made to see, if not to their salvation, then to their everlasting shame and confusion. They shall he made to see that, after all, there is a God, and that he is strong to punish the ungodly, and to overthrow his adversaries. I pray that no one of you may refuse to see by the light of the gospel until he is forced to see by the blaze of the judgment-day; yet, alas! there will be such.

Does it surprise you that I pray for my children's salvation (especially if you know them and know that they are wonderful people)? I pray for their souls precisely because they have so many great things about them, and especially because I love them so much, for I know the dangers of false profession and apostasy all too well. For me to assume that neither of those horrors could assail my own children would be highly presumptuous on my part. (I'm starting to talk a bit like Spurgeon, aren't I? Well, worse things could happen.:)

And because my children are so great and so loved, I well know the Adversary will spare no attack on their souls. Shockingly numerous and creative false gods can be generated by the idol-factories in their hearts and encouraged by Satan's world system. So I pray along with Isaiah and Spurgeon that God would grant them repentance, even as He does so in my own unfaithful heart:

Isaiah 26:13 - "O LORD our God, other lords beside thee have had dominion over us: but by thee only will we make mention of thy name."

O Lord, how sadly, how long, how grievously, did those other lords domineer over us; but from this time forth we will know no name but thine; and, when we mention it, it shall be by thy grace, and by thy power alone, that we even put our trust in thy wondrous name!

Above all, I pray that God would be glorified in my children's lives and that they would live for His glory. I also pray that they would live for the good of others, because as I was reminded in a recent conversation with my son Nathan, we are communal people created for community, and the community that God created for us is the community He calls "the Church." (It is also called His new "nation" and the "kingdom" that Christ came to establish on earth, far superior to all usurpers.) So I'll end with Isaiah 26:15 and Spurgeon's comment on that verse:

"Thou hast increased the nation, O LORD, thou hast increased the nation: thou art glorified."

God is always glorified in the increase of his people, therefore, we should, above all other reasons, pray for the increase of the Church because God will be thereby glorified.