How May I Pray for You?

If a friend asks you how she can pray for you, what kind of prayer requests do you typically give? Do you ask for prayer for the circumstances of your day, or for a big event coming up? Are your prayer requests for someone else’s needs rather than your own? Do health and safety make up a majority of your requests? Or is that a really awkward question for you? Maybe you tend to brush it off or deflect it with a reassurance that you’re really doing quite fine, thank you.

Oftentimes in Christian circles, promises to pray for each other are quickly given, and just as quickly forgotten. We sometimes talk as if prayer is our last resort, and we may treat it as if we really don’t expect much to happen from our prayers. Thus, when we ask for prayer requests, we usually aren’t expecting much more depth than when we ask, “How are you?”

But what if sharing and praying with one another was actually at the core of Christian community? What if praying for one another was a primary means of our growth toward maturity in Christ? What would it take for our requests for prayer to not only be about events and others’ needs and health or safety (granted, all of which are very good things to pray for), but to begin including requests for overcoming habits of sin, or perseverance in loving an unlovely person, or courage to obey God in a difficult decision? 

When David Powlison, former director of the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF), was asked, in an interview, what the first steps might be for Christians who are learning to counsel one another, the starting place he mentioned was making prayer requests.

I think that if we could learn how to make prayer requests dealing with matters of consequence, and then learn to pray for each other about the actual struggles of our souls, then we have made a huge start at becoming effective counselors. The Bible’s prayers are rarely about health, travel mercies, finances, finding a job, or the salvation of the unsaved. Of course, these are not illegitimate things to pray for, but these dominate most church prayer requests. In contrast, the driving focus of biblical prayer is that God would show himself, that we would know him, that we would love people. When we are asked “How may I pray for you?,” we could respond in a manner like this: “I have been inattentive and irritable to those nearest and dearest to me. Pray that I would awaken and turn from my preoccupation with my work, recreations, health problems, or money. Ask God to help me pay attention to him and take my family to heart.” This kind of prayer gets at things that matter both immediately and eternally. It gets at the daily version of the issues that serious counseling deals with.

When people start to identify where they really need God’s help, then they are already both seeking and becoming biblical counselors. We step into reality. Most prayer requests ask for God to give external blessings. Biblical prayer, like counseling, deals with God’s changing us. Retooling this is an accessible way for believers in a church to begin to teach each other to talk about the things that really matter, the things that are on God’s heart. We need to study together what the Bible says about prayer—not just about how often to pray, or the techniques and elements of prayer. What is the Lord’s Prayer asking for? What are the Psalms asking for? This is what we ought to be asking for. This is what people really need.

What is your reaction to Dr. Powlison’s example of a prayer request (highlighted above)? If that feels completely overwhelming–you’ve never shared a request like that, nor heard anyone else share such a request–perhaps you could start with a trimmed down version of that: Please pray that I would not be so preoccupied with my work, but would give attention to my family. Then, as you grow in sharing this kind of prayer request, and as you find brothers or sisters who want to pray deeply for you, you can gradually share with more depth.

So how may I pray for you? Feel free to put a prayer request in a Comment below (which is visible to all readers of this blog), or send me an email at designed4discipleship@gmail.com.

 

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Fully Present

Yesterday was the memorial service for David Powlison, a professor, speaker, and author whose teaching has influenced me greatly. I am so grateful that the Powlison family allowed such a personal event to be livestreamed, so that people like myself could take part in celebrating God’s goodness in the life of such a man. The service lasted almost 3 hours, but I was riveted to my laptop screen throughout the entire time–such meaningful and touching testimonies of the impact of one man’s life.

Through the sharing of his siblings, children, grandchildren, and wife, as well as multiple friends and colleagues, one theme (among several) that emerged very clearly was that David Powlison was a person who was fully present. When he was with a person, he was all there. He had eyes to truly see a person, and to see them as a person, not a label or a diagnosis or a project. There was an almost childlike curiosity in him, which delighted in discovering the uniqueness of each individual, coupled with a humble self-forgetfulness that simply saw the God-given value of a person. Compassion was the fruit of his attentiveness and presence. He was a gentle man, who loved well.

As his ministry partner Steve Estes prayed at the end of the memorial service, all of the delightful qualities that we remember with gratitude in David Powlison’s life are beautiful because they point to the same qualities in the life of Jesus. His presence, his humility, and his compassion reflect the presence, humility and compassion of Jesus; thus when we see those qualities in David Powlison, we see Christ in him. Even more than David, Jesus was fully present to each person who crossed his path. Even more than David, Jesus had eyes to truly see the person in front of him, and the humility to delight in that individual’s value and uniqueness. Even more than David, Jesus’ seeing of a person resulted in compassionate action. Jesus was the embodiment of gentleness–more than any other man, he truly loved well.

It is a rare thing to encounter a person who is so fully present and compassionate as David Powlison, which is why those traits in his life were so strikingly beautiful. How can you or I grow to reflect that presence and compassion of Jesus as he did? One way is by cultivating a pace of life that is unhurried, which inevitably means intentionally limiting our commitments and involvements so that our lives are not over-filled and preoccupied, but have space for God and for people. The more we look deeply at the person of Jesus and contemplate the patterns of his life and ministry, the more we will begin to reflect those same patterns in our own living and relating. Limiting our passive intake of entertainment or media can help to stimulate a healthy curiosity and imagination, which opens our eyes to the fascinating stories and lives of each person God brings across our path.

My deep desire is that whenever the time comes for my departure, I also would be remembered as one who was fully present and deeply compassionate, and that remembrance would reflect–albeit dimly and imperfectly–the presence and compassion of Jesus, so that others would be drawn to his beauty and love.

 

Death of a Mentor

When you think back over your life thus far, who are the people who have influenced you the most? Give it some serious thought, and you might be surprised to realize that some of the biggest influencers in your life have been (or are currently) people other than your parents or close friends.

For me, there were a handful of school teachers who influenced me in significant ways during my growing-up years. I had a couple of basketball coaches who invested in me as a person, not just as a player on the team. My youth pastor at church poured into my life deeply. Later on there were coworkers and ministry partners who believed in me and helped to draw out the skills and gifting God has given me.

All of those influencers were people who had direct relationship with me, but when I think about it, I realize that some of the biggest influencers in my life are people with whom I’ve had no direct relationship. I’m unashamedly a book nerd, and I have undoubtedly been influenced greatly by many of my favorite authors.

David Powlison is one of those authors whose writing continues to influence my life tremendously. I have had the privilege of not only reading what he has written, but also hearing him speak at several conferences, and even taking an online class that he taught. And so I felt great sadness in hearing that he had passed away on June 7th, after suffering for some time with pancreatic cancer. Though I don’t know him personally, I will miss him greatly.

What stands out to me about the life of David Powlison is his humility, his thoughtfulness, and the depth of his wisdom. With an undergraduate degree from Harvard, and multiple graduate degrees, including a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, David was obviously an intelligent man, yet in all his teaching and writing he was always down-to-earth and humble. His knowledge was not something that puffed him up but was stewarded well to minister to people. Through his academic work, as well as his long-time leadership of the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF), David has been a key player in the development of the Biblical counseling movement. Yet in that also, he simply served faithfully, without calling attention to himself or trying to make a name for himself. He was a model for me of a man who was not striving for acclaim but was content to pour himself into the people whom God put before him, whether that was an audience of thousands at a conference, or an audience of one across the dining room table. He was humble.

David Powlison was a thoughtful person. By that I don’t mean only that he was kind or considerate (though he was certainly that), but that he thought carefully about his words and his life. He was not the most dynamic speaker, but when he spoke, it was obvious that his words were carefully chosen and not at all haphazard. He was deliberate, knowing that his words and decisions impacted many, yet was not stymied by his caution but was full of joy and wit. I hope to mimic something of his thoughtfulness in the ways that I teach and write and speak.

Dr. Powlison was a man of great wisdom. He had the ability to communicate complex concepts in simple and memorable ways. His “3 Trees” diagram to explain the counseling process, along with the corresponding 8 questions, is something I come back to again and again. His simple “house” picture that illustrates the multidimensional nature of sanctification is tremendously helpful. His insights on anger have been transformative for me. At one CCEF national conference, I found myself taking notes on his introductory remarks–it wasn’t even a regular message, but there was so much to glean even from the little bit he shared to set the direction for the conference. More than anything else, I grieve the loss of such profound, yet earthy, wisdom.

In Luke 6:40, Jesus told his disciples that everyone, when fully trained, will be like their teacher. I hope that my life will show forth something of the humility, the thoughtfulness, and the wisdom of David Powlison because of the influence his teaching and writing has had on me.

Groaning & Glory

As children of God, we are destined for glory. Glory is not merely the address where we will end up, but what God will clothe us in when we arrive.

But glory is not our current experience or condition. What we experience day by day is groaning, not glory. Since the fall of man into sin, our lives have been characterized by groaning: from the groaning of God’s people as slaves in Egypt (Exodus 2:23-24), to the groaning of lament in the psalms (Psalm 22:1), to our own inward groaning as we wait for God’s adoption of us to be finally and fully realized (Romans 8:23). “[I]n this tent [of our earthly existence] we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling…” (2 Corinthians 5:2)

Is there a connection between our current groaning and our future glory? If we see our groaning as merely an undesirable circumstance that will one day be replaced by glory, the best we can do is to doggedly endure the difficulties and the groaning.  But if we can see our groaning as an integral precursor to the glory we will put on one day, it gives greater meaning to the groaning beyond simply building our endurance.

In any great story involving a journey fraught with danger (think Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings), the glory that comes at the end of that journey is directly related to the level of hardship and danger they encountered. Contrast that with a stroll in the park in which the only groaning comes from a stubbed toe, and glory would not seem like a fitting conclusion. The greater the groaning, the greater the glory will be.

This is not to say that we are competing to suffer more, in order to attain a greater level of glory. Certainly not! Rather, the point is to see our suffering and our groaning in light of the glory that we will receive, in order that our groaning would be imbued with greater significance and meaning as we endure through it. Glory is granted by God, not earned by our efforts, therefore we do not seek out suffering in order to gain more points with God, but neither do we run from the suffering when it comes, knowing that God is using that groaning to prepare us for glory.

If life is easy and problem-free, there is likely very little longing for our heavenly dwelling, and for the glory that God will clothe us with in His presence. But when life is hard, and groaning is our daily condition, we can find comfort in knowing that “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison…” (2 Corinthians 4:17). Our groaning is not meaningless–it is setting us up for glory. That is our destiny.

 

Trusting in the Dark

Balancing on the top of a 30-foot high telephone pole and then jumping off is not my usual idea of fun. I’m not exactly an extreme-sports kind of guy. But I have done that “Leap of Faith” before, as a part of a team-building ropes course during a youth conference.

That exercise many years ago required a significant amount of trust, and because of that, not everyone in my group at that time wanted to try it. But the trust involved in such a leap is certainly not a blind trust. Before a person is allowed to start climbing the pole, he or she must gear up with a harness and helmet, receive instruction on the belaying procedure, then clip in to the safety rope. When a group is participating together, everyone–except the first climber–gets to watch those who go before them and gain confidence that it will indeed be safe (and fun!). So they do need to trust, but they are trusting in what is clearly seen, right in front of them.

As a Christian, trust is foundational to my relationship with God, and much of what I’m called to trust in is like that ropes course–I do have to trust, but there is much clear evidence to give credibility and confidence in my trusting. But sometimes, God puts me–and you–in situations where we have to trust without that clear evidence. We have to trust in the dark. And that is much harder.

Trusting in the dark means there is nothing we can see (such as a safety harness and belay rope) to give us confidence that what we’re trusting will actually happen. It means there is no promise of success–no assurance that everything will work out. Trusting in the dark brings us face to face with our finiteness. We are not in control of our health, our life, our destiny. Even the act of trusting is not some magic key that ensures God will bring about what we desire. We may trust, and God may choose to bring a result that is different than our desire. But still we must trust.

Choosing to trust God–even in the dark–builds courage and endurance in our lives. I love what David Powlison writes in his little book, God’s Grace in your Suffering, and I appreciate it even more when I see these very truths being lived out in his life as he suffers–in the dark–through the final stages of pancreatic cancer.

When God says, “Fear not,” his aim is not that you would just calm down and experience a relative absence of fear. He does not say, “Don’t be afraid. Everything will turn out okay. So you can relax.” Instead he says, “Don’t be afraid. I am with you. So be strong and courageous.” Do you hear the difference? The deep waters have not gone away. Troubles still pressure you. The opposite of fear is courage, not unruffled serenity. Fearlessness is courageous in the face of fearsome things. It carries on constructively in the midst of stress that doesn’t feel good at all. Courage means more than freedom from anxious feelings. Endurance is a purposeful “abiding under” what is hard and painful, and considering others even when you don’t feel good.

There are countless ways to simply lessen anxiety: vigorous exercise, getting all the facts, Prozac, cognitive behavioral therapy, finding the best possible doctor, yoga, a vacation in Bermuda, a glass of wine, getting some distance from the problem, finding support from fellow sufferers, throwing yourself into work. Some of these are fine in their place. But none of them will make you fearless in the face of trouble. None of them creates that resilient fruit of the Spirit called “endurance,” which comes up repeatedly when the New Testament talks about God’s purposes in suffering. None of the strategies for personal peace gives you the disposition and power to love another person considerately in the small choices of daily life. None of them gives you high joy in knowing that your entire life is a holy experiment as God’s hands shape you into the image of his Son. None of them changes the way you suffer by embedding it in deeper meaning. None gives you a reason to persevere in fruitfulness through all your days, even if the scope of your obedience is constricted to your interactions with nurses at your bedside.                      [pp. 82-83]

God does not promise to take away every occurrence of terminal cancer–rather, he calls us to trust him in the darkness of not knowing how or when life in this body will end. God gives no assurance that adopting a special girl into my family will go well–rather, he calls me to trust him in the dark when it becomes clear that her needs are beyond our capacity to help or even love. But it is in that dark crucible of struggle and weakness that a deeper trust is forged, and along with it, courage and endurance.

 

Mismatched

If you saw a man in a cowboy hat riding a horse across an open field in Montana, you would think nothing of it. But if you saw a man in a cowboy hat riding a horse down the interstate freeway in Southern California, you would stop and stare. It doesn’t match.

If a Lamborghini rolled up to the Ritz-Carlton and an actress in an expensive dress stepped out, you might wish you had that kind of money, but you wouldn’t be surprised. But if a Lamborghini rolled up to the Ritz-Carlton and an unkempt homeless man stepped out, you might call the police and report a theft. It doesn’t match.

2 Corinthians 4:7-10 shows us some similar examples of realities that stand out because they do not match.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.

Verse 7 speaks of the immense treasure of the glory of God that we see in Christ, but it says that treasure is housed in plain, unimpressive clay jars. It doesn’t match. A treasure of inestimable worth should be housed in an ornate treasure chest, so when that treasure is located in a piece of dusty, cracked pottery, it begs the question of how the owner of that pottery got ahold of such a precious treasure. The mismatch gets our attention, and what it’s meant to point to is the all-surpassing power that belongs to God and not to us (verse 7).

I believe verses 8 – 10 give us further examples of the same principle: mismatched realities direct our attention to the unrivaled power of God.

If a Christian is sorely afflicted, and his spirit is crushed by the weight of the suffering he is bearing, someone watching this brother may be saddened by his plight, but would not be surprised at such an outcome. Or if a Christian lives a joyful life but has no affliction to weigh him down, it would make sense to someone watching. But, when a Christian is sorely afflicted, perhaps by disease or chronic pain, and yet his spirit is not crushed by it, those watching this brother would have to scratch their heads in amazement and wonder how he can be so joyful in the midst of such adversity. And if those watching are also Christians, they hopefully would recognize that the source of his joy is not from himself but from the surpassing power of God. The mismatched reality points to a power beyond his own.

Likewise, if a sister in Christ is deeply perplexed about an unresolved issue in her life, and as a result she slips into despair or depression, someone watching may be grieved at such a result but not shocked. Or if that sister is cheerful and happy but has nothing stressful going on in her life, there would be nothing to take note of because that cheerfulness would be expected. But, if that sister is deeply perplexed and stressed, yet lives in a calm, unruffled manner, someone watching would not be able to explain it, apart from pointing to the peace of Christ that surpasses all understanding. The mismatched reality points to the power of God.

So what about you or I? Do the realities of our lives make sense by human calculations? Or are they unexplainable and thus point to a power that doesn’t come from ourselves?

This is not something we can conjure up and cause to happen. This is not a Christianized version of the American ideal–pull yourself up by your bootstraps and keep going. The only thing we can do is learn to live in conscious dependence on our God, rather than striving to make things happen in our own strength.

So when adversity or affliction comes (and it will!), are you turning to God in prayer, crying out to Him in lament, searching His Word for comfort? Those are ways to live in dependence on Him–to open your heart to His surpassing power that can keep you from being crushed.

And when perplexity and stress come your way (and they will!), are you rehearsing the truth of the Gospel, petitioning your Heavenly Father for help, holding tight to the hope of eternity? Those also are ways to live in dependence on Him–to invite His surpassing power to guard your heart from despair.

God has given us an incalculable treasure: Christ in us, the hope of glory! And when the surpassing power of Christ is highlighted through our weakness, that mismatched reality points others to Him.

Consider Adversity

The wisdom of the biblical book of Proverbs revolves around the principle that God has designed a natural order in His creation, and the wise person lives in harmony with that God-ordained order. Going “against the grain” of that design is contrary to wisdom and generally results in an unhappy life, whereas sticking with that pattern is meant to result in a life of peace and joy. That is the wisdom of Proverbs.

In the New Testament, this same principle is spelled out in Galatians 6:7-8. “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.” For we who have been in Christian circles for any length of time, we have likely been taught that sowing and reaping is a significant principle of Godly living. Thus we need to exercise wisdom in what we sow in our lives.

These things are true. There is a natural order that God has designed into all of His creation. There is a clear connection between what we sow and what we reap in our lives. And there is much wisdom in living according to God’s design.

But the temptation is to take this wisdom principle of sowing and reaping and turn it into a formula for a successful Christian life, a formula that we can carry out with our own resources, rather than in humble dependence on God. Thus God, in His infinite wisdom, sometimes disrupts the equation by allowing what we reap to not always match what we have sowed.

In another of the Old Testament wisdom books, Ecclesiastes, the sage writes this: “Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked? In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.” (Ecclesiastes 7:13-14) Twice he says we need to consider–we need to think carefully and pay attention. 

What are we to consider? That God makes not only the day of prosperity but also the day of adversity. My Talbot professor described prosperity and adversity in terms of sowing and reaping. Prosperity is when we have sowed well and then reaped well. Adversity, in contrast, is when we have sowed well but have reaped poorly.

Certainly there is adversity that comes from sowing poorly, but if we are honest, we know that sometimes we encounter adversity even when we have sowed well. We may sow kindness in a relationship and receive indifference or even hostility in return. We may sow integrity in our workplace, and rather than reaping affirmation or advancement we might end up jobless. We may sow diligence and industriousness, yet never get ahead. Sowing well does not always guarantee that we will reap well.

Wisdom comes in recognizing the hand of God in both prosperity and adversity. God’s hand of grace and blessing is seen in times of prosperity–we dare not assume that the prosperity has come merely through our wise choices and careful sowing. And God’s hand of mercy and sustenance is seen in times of adversity–He is allowing us to experience the limitations of our finiteness, in order that we would grow in daily dependence on Him. “God has made the one as well as the other.

If you are walking through adversity in your life now, do not despair, but look carefully for the hand of God in whatever you are experiencing. He is at work–He is always at work–forming His character in you (and I) as we learn to trust Him even in those dark places where the reaping does not seem to match what we have sowed.