The Essence of Prayer

Jesus’ disciple Peter is known for both his raw honesty and his impetuous action. Both of those characteristics are on display in the account of Peter’s brief stroll across the waves to get to Jesus (in Matthew 14:22-33). The disciples are making a middle of the night voyage across the Sea of Galilee, while Jesus is alone praying to His Father after an intense time of ministry and a painful experience of loss. In the wee hours of the morning, before it is light, Jesus comes to the disciples as they are straining at the oars to make headway against the wind.

Multiple factors contribute to the freaked-out response of the disciples when Jesus materializes out of the darkness, walking on the water. One, they had no idea He was coming–there was no text message with an ETA to let them know He was on the way. Two, it was still pitch dark, before the sun had risen. Three, they must have been exhausted by that point, and imaginations can do weird things when people are overly tired. And fourth, humans walking on top of water was certainly not an everyday occurrence that these disciples would have experienced.

So when they see a shadowy figure coming toward them over the waves, the disciples cry out with terror, thinking it is a ghost. Jesus speaks to them to calm their fears, though it’s interesting that He doesn’t say “It’s Jesus” but simply “It is I,” trusting that the disciples will in fact know His voice and be comforted. This is where Peter’s true colors come out–he spontaneously throws out this crazy test to verify that this shadowy figure is in fact Jesus: “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” (Where did he come up with that?!!) And Jesus, perhaps with a wry smile that Peter couldn’t see in the darkness, says “Come.”

For all his bluster and blunders, Peter does one thing really well–He obeys. He doesn’t sit there and calculate the risks and possibilities, He simply obeys and steps out of the boat. And for a few seconds, he too is walking on top of the waves! But then with a splash of cold water across the face, reality sinks in, and obedient, impetuous Peter is going down. In that moment of sinking realization, Peter utters what I think is the essence of prayer: “Lord, save me!”

Lord, save me. Three simple words. But this is the essence of prayer. Prayer calls out to the Lord. It is an act of humility and dependence on God–it is a recognition that we cannot save ourselves, that in fact we need Someone outside of ourselves to do what we cannot bring about. Prayer pleads “Save!” We are asking for deliverance, for rescue, for salvation, in one way or another. And prayer expresses what is needed for me. It is not merely theoretical or theological, but personal.

Certainly there is a place for rehearsing the truth of the Gospel in our prayers, but when Peter finds himself starting to sink in the waves and I find myself sinking in despair, “Lord, save me!” is just as appropriate a prayer (and in a simpler way is actually rehearsing the Gospel as well). Certainly there is a time to express fully our adoration of God, to confess our sin, to give Him thanks, and to bring our supplications to Him (as the A.C.T.S. acronym reminds us), but when the winds of fear are blowing and the waves of sorrow are crashing, “Lord, save me!” should be constantly on our lips and in our hearts.

Jesus responded immediately to Peter’s simple prayer–He reached out His hand and took hold of Peter. And Jesus will respond to our cries as well when we utter this simple prayer “Lord, save me!”


Grownup Blankies

I think my mom still has my tattered old blankie (or what remains of it) from when I was a little boy–that silky softness that I snuggled with every night as a child, which somehow brought a measure of comfort and peace to my timid heart in the midst of the bad dreams and wild imaginations and lonely longings of childhood. Looking at those ragged strips of cloth now as an adult, it’s hard to believe that I once found such comfort in it, yet I know I did because blankies only reach that treasured status by being loved for a long time (like the Velveteen Rabbit in one of my favorite picture books).

I don’t sleep with that blankie anymore, but maybe it would be better if I did. My grownup heart still looks for comfort–not so much because of bad dreams or imaginary lions walking through the front door, but because of the ache of unfulfilled longings and the weariness of life that is often overwhelming. If only those burdens and sorrows could be relieved by simply stroking a soft blankie on my cheek!

Unfortunately, growing up doesn’t only bring different (and often heavier) fears and struggles, but growing up also brings the pursuit of less innocent comforts than blankies. Our hearts are idol factories, and we run after a whole assembly-line of solutions that promise comfort but cannot truly deliver it.

God’s word to the prophet Jeremiah (2:13) is just as relevant now as it was for the people to whom it was spoken:

My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
    the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
    broken cisterns that cannot hold water.

Our God is the “Father of compassion and the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). Christians have been given the Spirit of God, who is the Helper and Comforter (John 14:16). Yet rather than turning to God for comfort in our places of pain and need, we try to arrange for our own comfort (or in Jeremiah’s words, we dig our own broken cisterns): we demand intimacy from marriage or family, we hungrily look for likes on our social media posts, we shop for the latest fashion or device, we pursue greater influence and purpose through our work, and we even seek to prove our godliness by serving in ministry or mission.

None of these “comforts” are inherently sinful, yet when they are sought in place of God, that is where sin enters in. So this is not a rant against marital intimacy or social media or shopping, but it is a call to not turn to those things for comfort rather than turning to God. In this season of Lent, may we who belong to Christ look to Him alone for the comfort we desperately long for, and may we repent of the grownup blankies with which we have been snuggling.

[Jessica Snell writes a similar call–to repent from “that comforting sin you turn to time and again”–in Biola’s Lent Project. Check it out…]


I like watching clouds–especially the interplay of sun and clouds around sunrise or sunset–but clouds are not as common a sight where I live in Southern California as where I grew up in Oregon. (I’m talking big, fluffy white clouds here, so smog doesn’t count.) Sometimes, if I’m watching the sun peek from behind the clouds and trace their edges with fiery gold, when I turn my attention back to what’s in front of me, my eyes are momentarily dazzled by the brightness and it takes a second or two for them to adjust.

I’ve been reflecting this week on an old chorus that we sang in our worship service on Sunday. And this chorus seems to be speaking of a similar “dazzling” effect that leaves our eyes blind to other things. This is what it says:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus, 
Look full in his wonderful face; 
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim 
In the light of his glory and grace.  

Turn your thoughts upon Jesus 
Think deep of His wonderful love 
And the thoughts of sin and of self and strife 
Will be lost in that rapture above.

This is a very different strategy than saying “Stop focusing on the things of this earth!” or “Don’t be so wrapped up in yourself!” Trying to directly quit focusing on something that our eyes and mind are drawn to is often impossible. But when our eyes are dazzled by something else or our mind is captured by a different thought, then those earthly, self-focused things are more likely to fade away.

Either way there is a turning that happens. Either I follow the inward-turning rut of my sinful autonomy from God, or I turn upward and outward toward God in trust and worship of Him. And which way I turn has much to do with my eyes and my thoughts–what I’m looking at and what I’m thinking about.

The author of Hebrews says much the same thing as this chorus when he writes of “fixing our eyes on Jesus” (Heb. 12:2) and “consider[ing] Him” (Heb. 12:3). And in 2 Corinthians 4:18, Paul says we are to “look, not at the things that are seen, but the things that are unseen.” In other words, we turn our eyes, and our thoughts, upon Jesus, in order to not lose heart.

This is a mellow chorus, which may give the impression that turning our eyes and thoughts on Jesus is something to be done stoically and calmly. However, I believe that loud laments and intense emotions could also accompany this kind of turning toward God, because that is what a lament does–it voices my complaint and need to God (rather than to myself).

So turn…and let your eyes be dazzled by the beauty of your God! He is good. He is merciful. He is holy.

Escaping from the Giant Despair

At one point in John Bunyan’s classic allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian and Hopeful get captured by the Giant Despair, who beats them mercilessly and throws them into his dungeon. There they languish in great pain and sorrow for several days, until–as they labor long in prayer–Christian suddenly remembers that he has a key hidden away that will open the doors of the dungeon and set them free. The forgotten key that he is reminded of is called Promise. Sure enough, when Christian tries the key of Promise, it works! And he and Hopeful escape from the clutches of Giant Despair in order to continue their journey to the Celestial City.

Bunyan’s footnote to this part of his story says this: “Precious Promise! The promises of God, in Christ, are the very life of faith. Oh! how oft do we neglect God’s great and precious promises in Christ Jesus, while doubts and despair keep us prisoners!”

Languishing in a dungeon in a stupor of suffering is an apt metaphor of what despair can do in any person’s life. Yet for the Christian, there is a key to escape this dungeon, but it is a key that is easily forgotten when despair looms like a giant. The promises of God do not disappear when despair takes us captive, but they must be remembered and acted upon if they are to truly be a key of escape.

So a promise of God that I am rehearsing and holding on to today is that my heavenly Father sees what I do, and He will reward me (Matthew 6:4, 6, 18). In fact, God Himself is called the “God who sees” (Genesis 16:13). And not only does God see, but He also vindicates (Isaiah 54:17):

No weapon that is formed against you will prosper;
And every tongue that accuses you in judgment you will condemn.
This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord,
And their vindication is from Me,” declares the Lord.

A recent newsletter from John Eldredge expresses well why these promises of God seeing and vindicating are so significant to me.

You probably have a number of stories you would love to have told rightly–to have your actions explained and defended by Jesus. I know I do. 

All those decisions your family misinterpreted, and the accusations you bore, the many ways you paid for it. The thousands of unseen choices to overlook a cutting remark, a failure, to be kind to that friend who failed you again. The things that you wish you had personally done better, but at the time no one knew what you were laboring under–the warfare, the depression, the chronic fatigue. The millions of ways you have been missed and terribly misunderstood. Your Defender will make it all perfectly clear; you will be vindicated.

My God sees. My God vindicates. My God will reward. These are great and precious promises that have the power to release me–and you!–from the dungeon of despair. How do we know? Not only are these clearly written in Scripture, but they are fulfilled in Christ. Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, resurrection and intercession all proclaim that God sees our deepest need and has made a way for that need to be met. Hold on to that key of Promise!


Talking to Myself

What does Paul mean in Ephesians 5:19 when he writes of “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (NASB)? If that is one of the ways that Christians are to keep on walking under the influence of the Spirit (Eph. 5:18), does it mean that we are to go around serenading each other with Great Is Thy Faithfulness or quoting Psalm 119 in every conversation? Regardless of how you might distinguish between psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, what in the world does it mean to speak to one another in this way?

The New American Standard version has a footnote on the words “one another,” which says “Or yourselves“. And when I looked it up, the Greek word is not the usual one that is translated “one another,” but is a different word that is translated in either singular or plural as “himself” or “oneself” or “yourselves” or “themselves” (among others). On the surface that doesn’t seem like a huge difference from “one another,” but as I thought about it, it could actually be very different.

The implied subject in that paragraph of Ephesians 5 is a plural “you.” Paul is writing to the Christians in Ephesus, not just to an individual. So if he’s saying to a group of believers, “Speak to yourselves…” it could be understood in two different ways. It could be understood as speaking to one another (You speak to me and I speak to you). But it could also be understood as each of us speaking to ourselves (You speak to yourself and I speak to myself). And that would be a very different understanding.

Certainly we know from other Scriptures that we are to “encourage one another” (I Thes. 5:11) and “speak truth to one another” (Eph. 4:25), so speaking to one another in psalms and hymns could definitely be another way in which we show that kind of love to one another. But is it possible that Paul is also saying here that we need to speak those things to our own hearts?

Perhaps what this verse is telling us is that we are to do like the psalmist himself does–remind our own heart of what is true. Do I ever say to my own soul “Why are you cast down, O my soul? Hope in God…” (Ps. 42 & 43) or “Bless the Lord, O my soul” (Ps. 103 & 104) or “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence…” (Ps. 62)? My heart needs those reminders, and maybe those are some of the very psalms that Paul had in mind that we are to speak to our hearts.

So rather than thinking of this verse as a call to sing all our conversations with one another–as if in a musical–maybe we need to see it as an invitation to speak to our own hearts the truths that we so easily forget. And because we forget so easily, the words of songs and psalms help those truths stick a little better. So in the words of Kari Jobe (in a “spiritual song” called Love Came Down):

If the storms of life they come
And the road ahead gets steep
I will lift these hands in faith
I will believe
I’ll remind myself
Of all that you’ve done
And the life I have
Because of your son
Love came down and rescued me
Love came down and set me free
I am yours
Lord I’m forever yours
Mountains high or valley low
I sing out and remind my soul
I am yours
I am forever yours

Consider Your Ways

Twice in Haggai chapter one, the word of the Lord through the prophet Haggai is “Consider your ways.” The first time (in verse 5), God is instructing His people to consider what has been happening in their lives–to wake up to the reality of the emptiness of their condition. They are to look carefully at what is going on, in order to see what is broken and in need of change. Then when God again says “Consider your ways” (in verse 7), He follows that with an exhortation to do whatever they can to deal with the brokenness of their current situation, and He promises His presence–that He will bring about the change as they takes steps of obedience.

Considering our ways is something that should be happening all throughout the year, but it is especially appropriate at the beginning of a new year. And what God says through the prophet Haggai gives us something more to work with than merely generating a random list of New Year’s resolutions. We would do well to first consider what is broken or empty or ineffective in our lives, and then consider what God is calling us to do to address those areas of brokenness or need. But that whole process must be anchored in the reality that God is present with us, and He alone brings lasting change in our hearts and our circumstances.

Toward that end, I discovered an excellent list of questions to help us consider our ways as we think through the year to come. These are from Don Whitney, an author and professor in Louisville, Kentucky.

1. What’s one thing you could do this year to increase your enjoyment of God?

2. What’s the most humanly impossible thing you will ask God to do this year?

3. What’s the single most important thing you could do to improve the quality of your family life this year?

4. In which spiritual discipline do you most want to make progress this year, and what will you do about it?

5. What is the single biggest time-waster in your life, and what will you do about it this year?

6. What is the most helpful new way you could strengthen your church?

7. For whose salvation will you pray most fervently this year?

8. What’s the most important way you will, by God’s grace, try to make this year different from last year?

9. What one thing could you do to improve your prayer life this year?

10. What single thing that you plan to do this year will matter most in ten years? In eternity?

You can read his whole article here. I was especially challenged by the first question–that is not one I have ever considered as I think about goals each year. May you also be challenged to consider your ways in this year ahead…



Hope of Glory

Another Christmas has come and gone. Another New Year is upon us. What gives us hope  for all that is ahead of us?

In Romans 8 and 2 Corinthians 3-4, the apostle Paul speaks of finding hope in the glory that awaits us as Christians. He knows that suffering is not the end of the story, rather the end that we await is glory. Conceptually, I know that to be true. But in my everyday existence and struggle, I don’t think of future glory as being the source of my hope.

My functional hope is much more shortsighted than future glory. I hope in the goals and plans I make for the new year. I hope in relationships changing. I hope in circumstances improving. I hope in my own slow growth toward maturity in Christ.

But those are all hopes that are bound to fail or fade. I know all too well that my goals and plans often don’t materialize. I experience the frustration of relationships that seem like they will never change (and indeed, they may not change). I live in a sinful, broken world in which circumstances don’t always work out the way we desire. I wrestle with the ugliness of my own sinful flesh that constantly wars against my growth in Christ.

Romans 8:21 says hope is found in the “freedom of the glory of the children of God.” The glory that awaits me as a Christian is not just that the things that are wrong here will be fixed or patched up. No, the glory that awaits is that the whole process of decay and corruption will be no more—and instead all things will be made new and there will be no more bondage to corruption.

For Christians, that process of being made new is already happening. In fact, we are being transformed into the likeness of Christ “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). So the future glory and freedom that we await is beginning now and will one day be finally made complete. That is an incredible hope!!

To be finally free from a world where everything is broken and keeps breaking down—to be finally free from bodies that are decaying—to be finally free from the corruption of our own hearts that continually pulls us away from God…that is the glory that awaits us! And this is not a glory that merely pulls us out of the bondage of decay into some kind of disembodied state, but it is the glory of a whole new reality: a new world, a new body, a new heart. What a glory that will be!

So brother or sister in Christ, this is your hope, as it is my hope. As this new year begins, may we be reminded that “Christ in you” IS “the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).