Thursday, October 20, 2016

Keeping our Hearts unto Prayer, Part 8 (Praying with an Eye to Eternity)

Flavel's final exhortation to Christians regarding our duty to pray is to "consider what influence these have unto eternity."

He goes on to write:

These are your seed-times, and what you sow in your duties in this world, you must look to reap the fruit of it in another world, Ga. vi. 7, 8. If you sow to the flesh, of that you shall reap corruption; but if to the Spirit, life everlasting. O my soul, answer seriously, wouldst thou be willing to reap the fruit of vanity in the world to come? Darest thou say, when thy thoughts are roving to the ends of the earth in duty [prayer], when thou scarce mindset what thou sayest or hearest; now, Lord, I am sowing to the Spirit; now i am providing and laying up for eternity, now I am seeking for glory, honour and immortality; now I am striving to enter in at the straight gate; now I am taking the kingdom of heaven by an holy violence? O such consideration as this should make the multitudes of vain thoughts that press in upon thy heart in [prayer], fly seven ways before it.
It has been foolishly and erroneously preached from many a pulpit that there are Christians who are so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good. 

Flavel, and more importantly, the Bible, would strongly disagree. In fact, the opposite is true: many Christians are of no heavenly good because they are so earthly-minded.

Solomon himself says, "The discerning [person] sets his face towards wisdom, but the eye of a fool are on the ends of the earth" (Proverbs 17:24), and the apostle Paul exhorts those who "have been raised with Christ" to "keep seeking the things that are above" and "keep thinking about things above, not things of the earth" (Colossians 3:1-2, NET).

In the movie "Gladiator", there is an epic scene at the beginning of the movie where the Roman army is squaring off against the Barbarians. Maximus, the leading general of the army, concludes his exhortation to his troops with a truth that is repeated throughout Scripture: "What we do in life, echoes through eternity."

Dear believer, never forget eternity before you pray, when you pray, and after you pray! 

In Christ, and for His glory to the ends of the earth,

pastor ryan

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Friday, October 7, 2016

Keeping our Hearts Unto Prayer, Pt. 7 (Crying out for Deliverance from Vain Distractions)

Flavel's next help for believers in seeking to improve their prayer duties is simply this: ask God to remove any and every distraction that keeps us from intimate and unhindered communion with God while in prayer:
Mourn over the matter to God, and call in assistance from heaven, when vain thoughts assault thy heart in [prayer].
When Paul was buffeted in his times of prayer by Satan's messenger, he immediately went to God to mourn the issue before Him (2 Cor. 12:8). So too, says Flavel, should the Christian immediate ask God for immediate assistance and deliverance.

As Solomon says, it only takes a fly or two to make sweet-smelling perfume reek (Ecclesiastes 10:1). In the same way, all it takes is an apparently innocuous distraction to ruin a sweet time of prayer with our triune God.

Solomon is saying that something that is seemingly insignificant has great potential in ruining something exceedingly valuable.

And so, says Flavel, "Never slight wandering thoughts in duty as small matters; follow every vain thought with a deep sigh."

In fact, Flavel gives us a model prayer for such times:
Lord, I came hither to speak with Thee, and here a busy devil and a vain heart conspiring together have set upon me. O God! what an heart have I! Shall I never wait upon Thee without distraction? when shall I enjoy an hour of free communion with Thee? Help me, my God, this once; do but display Thy glory before mine eyes, and my heart shall be quickly recovered: Thou knowest I came hither to enjoy Thee, and shall I go away without Thee? See how the heart of Thy poor child works towards Thee, strives to get near Thee, but cannot: my heart is aground; come thou north wind, blow south wind: O for a fresh gale now from Thy Spirit, to set my affections afloat!
"Couldst thou," concludes Flavel, "but thus affectionately bewail thy distractions to God, thou mightest obtain help and deliverance from them."

O how we must, in the wise words of Solomon, beg our Guardian God to "catch all those little foxes (those little foxes!) before they ruin the vineyard of love" (Song of Solomon 2:15).

So often we only seek the Lord's assistance against visibly large foes. May He give us the grace to see that we need just as much for our Warrior King just to fell the little ones as well!

In Christ, and for the glory of His Name,
pastor ryan

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Keeping our Hearts unto Prayer, Pt. 6 - Stoking our Affections

Emotions and affections are a powerful weapon in our lives - whether for good or for ill. This has been proven scientifically by sociologists, and experimentally by every day life experience. 

For example, if you want to deliver a memorable, life-changing message, make sure you have tugged at your audience's heart.

Sadly, it is true that many a false teacher has manipulated the hearts of their listeners with ear-tickling, heart-moving stories, narratives and illustrations that have nothing to do with either Christ or the Word of God (trust me, ask any friend who attends a slappy, happy church what the message is about, and they'll likely rehearse a funny joke or moving story instead of a biblical truth).

However, many of us in the evangelical world, in trying to disassociate and distance ourselves from such homiletical chicanery, intentionally try to bypass the emotions and affections of our hearers altogether. We want to cold, hard facts. No stories. No emotions. Definitely no passion.

This (apparently pious) bypassing of the heart is often just as true for us when it comes to prayer. 

I confess that I have been greatly turned off by so many of phony prayers filled with many tears and loud wailing that I experienced in my early Pentecostal days. The Puritans called this kind of "show" in prayer "affectation." 

However, though the Puritans were strongly opposed to affectation in prayer, they were entirely supportive of strong affections in prayer (anyone who has ever read Jonathan Edwards' "Religious Affections" will recall his thesis that the ultimate "fruit" of conversion is a kindled affection for the Triune God).

This is precisely what John Flavel lists as his sixth help for those seeking assistance in prayer:
"Endeavor to engage thy affections to God in duty, if thou wouldst have thy distractions cured."
What Flavel is simply saying is that the things that usually distract us will do so no longer if we have a greater affection for the One we are praying to.

This can be simply illustrated by the husband, who, engrossed in a football game, is impervious to the repeated summons of his patient wife telling him it is supper time. Of course, such a 'distraction' would undoubtedly occupy his attention were he watching baseball or golf, or needed to be cutting the lawn or fixing the gutters.

The difference: he is passionate for football. He cheers when the Colts score, and has to watch himself when Luck tries to force a ball, only to be intercepted (again).

His heart is in the event. Therefore, there is no need to cajole or trick him into spending more time in front of the TV if the game providentially goes into overtime.

Again, Flavel's words are helpful:
When the soul is intent upon any work, it gathers in its strength, and bends all the thoughts about it; and when it is deeply affected, it will be intent, the affections command the thoughts to go after them. Deadness causes distraction, and distraction increases deadness.
It is with the heart in prayer, as it is with those that dig for gold; they try here and finding none, try there; and so go from place to place, till at last they hit upon the rich vein, and there they sit down. If thy heart could but once hit the rich vein in prayer it would dwell and abide there with delight and constancy. "Oh how I love Thy law, it is my meditation day and night!" (Psa. 119:97) The soul could dwell day and night upon its knees, when once its delights, loves, and desires are engaged.
What is the reason your hearts are so shuffling, especially in secret prayer? Why are yoiu ready to be gone almost as soon as you are come into the presence of God, but because your affections are not engaged?
Flavel doesn't immediately show us HOW to have our affections engrossed and engaged when in prayer. 

The answer is simply this: we need to be more mesmerized by God's face in prayer than by a silly football game on Sunday (or whatever it is that has captured our heart). 

When Christina and I were courting before we got married, there were few (if any!) "distractions" that could come between us. Spending time in her presence and talking with her was no chore because I was absolutely consumed with her.

May it be so with our Christ. May God by His Spirit afresh shed abroad in our hearts His great love for us in Christ as demonstrated in the gospel (cf. Eph. 3:14-19).

Oh that with the Psalmist, we would adore God as revealed in His Law and Gospel, and irresistibly meditate upon Him all the day!

Help us in this Father,
In Jesus' Name.

For Christ and His glory to the ends of the earth,
pastor ryan

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Keeping our Hearts unto Prayer, Pt. 5 (Praying without Ceasing)

Last time, we looked at how having a high view of God's dreadful holiness helps stimulate true and humble prayer.

Today, we consider Flavel's suggestion of "maintaining a prayerful frame of heart in the intervals of duty." Specifically, he says,
What reason can be assigned why our hearts are so dull, so careless, so wandering, when we hear or pray, but that there have been long intermissions in our communion with God?"
Perhaps a personal illustration will help illuminate what Flavel is driving at...

Two years ago, I blew my knee out playing soccer, tearing my ACL, MCL, and meniscus (the terrible triad, as my doctor so fondly put it). Unfortunately, I will likely be [increasingly] plagued with the residual effects of this injury. It hurts to walk almost every day. Whereas I used to love walking to work, I sometimes cringe at the very thought of the venture, knowing how painful my next day will be. However, I have learned that by stretching my knee throughout the day, it actually makes it easier to do the long distance walking trips. If I don't take a few seconds here and there, my knee seizes up, making it much, much more difficult to do long distances. My knee, as it were, rusts up, and it takes a lot more effort to get it working if I am not diligently 'unrusting' it, if even for a 10 second stretch, throughout the day.

This is how we are to see prayer.

As D.A. Carson once said, it is more useful to pray short prayers throughout the day than to 'lump' all of our time with God into one extended session.

But I would go one step further.

For me, at least, those "long sessions" with God are incredibly difficult if I haven't been communing and communicating with the Lord throughout the day.

It's the same with any relationship. I don't ignore my wife all week, and then give her a couple hours of my time for 'catching up.' It's great to spend a couple hours with Christina. But it will be incredibly difficult to "last" that long if we haven't been communicating all week. Even a short little text can be greatly used to keep us "wired."

This is what Paul means when he exhorts the believers in Thessalonica to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thes. 5:17). It doesn't mean that I have to pray every second of every minute of every hour of every day. It just means keeping an "open line" of communication to God throughout the day, that we wouldn't limit our time in prayer to those moments before we close our eyes in sleep.

In Joel Beeke's excellent book on prayer ("Developing a Healthy Prayer Life"), he illustrates this principle well by telling of the story of some pastors who regularly gathered to discuss theological and pastoral issues. One meeting, they were trying to figure out what it meant to "pray without ceasing." At a loss, they were interrupted by their servant girl who just happened to be in the room. Humbly, she said she knew what the text meant, and how she herself had employed it.

She said that for her, praying without ceasing was as simple as remembering who God was in every circumstance of her life, and turning those things into petitions before Him. For example, she said, when she would wake up, she thanked God for the gift of rest, and asked Him to help her rest in Christ purchased for her. When she began planning her day, she would ask God to provide guidance for her in her decisions. When she would get dressed, she asked God to clothe her in the righteousness of Christ. When she needed to sweep the house, she would ask God to remove the sin that still resided in her heart. When it was time to eat, she would pray that Christ would be her true meat and sustenance in life. When she found herself thirsty, she simply asked Christ to satisfy the true spiritual thirst of her soul. The point was well made, and hopefully well taken.

How differently would our lives be if we employed this simple principle. How differently would we "see" changing dirty diapers or disciplining our children, making meals or making money, taking showers or weeding gardens.

At the root of this, I know, that I need more love for Christ. I will not find prayer a delight if I don't love Him as I ought (read and pray Ephesians 3:15-19 here). The more I love Christina, the more I will seek time with her. How much more true when it comes to loving Christ and spending time in prayer with our glorious triune God!

Lord Jesus, help Your humble servant to understand what it means to pray without ceasing. Help me to "redeem" every circumstance the You sovereignly place me in, and give me the grace to turn it into a time of communion and prayer with Your Father and mine.

pastor ryan

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Keeping our hearts unto Prayer, pt. 4 - Remembering God's Awful Presence

John Newton once told the story of a pauper who was graciously granted access to the king of England's throne, where he was given access to ask the king for whatever he wanted.

As the king began to address this poor, yet now extremely privileged man, a butterfly came flitting into the room, and made its way between the two men.

What happened next is breathtaking: though kneeling before the presence of the mightiest potentate on earth, the beggar, completely mesmerized with this inconsequential insect, gets up and begins chasing it, despite the fact that the king is in the act of addressing the very request the beggar had so importunately fought to bring before him.

This, says Newton - though on an infinitely lesser scale - is precisely what we do when we are in prayer and begin daydreaming, or making our plans, or worse. We have come into the very throne room of grace and have gained the ear of God Almighty. We have brought our prayers and petitions to Him through Christ.

Amazingly, the King opens His mouth and begins to answer our request.

Even more amazing than this is how often we cut Him off as it were mid sentence and begin thinking about our plans for the day, a YouTube clip, something nasty someone said to us, something we want to buy, our kids, our jobs, our recreation.

It seems we think about almost anything and everything but the very fact that we - as lowly beggars - have been granted access to the King of kings.

Newton's puritan predecessor, John Flavel, gives us another important strategy for keeping our hearts in a prayerful frame: the awful presence of God:
If you would keep your heart from vain excursions when engaged in duties [i.e. prayer], realize to yourself, by faith, the holy and awful presence of God. If the presence of a grave man would compose you to seriousness, how much more should the presence of a holy God? Do you think that you would dare to be gay and light if you realized the presence and inspection of the Divine Being? Remember where you are when engaged in religious duty [prayer], and act as if you believed in the omniscience of God. 'All things are naked and open to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do' [Heb. 4:13]. Realize His infinite holiness, His purity, His spirituality.
One of the greatest travesties of the seeker sensitive movement in evangelicalism is how it has 'neutered' God. Since the concept of a God who is infinitely holy, infinitely hates sin, is infinitely jealous for His glory, and infinitely powerful to judge sin is distasteful to the modern man, the church, in her desire to fill her pews more than honor her King, has jettisoned the biblical notion of the God who is "a consuming fire" (Heb. 12:29).

And, whether we realize it or not, our theology - for good or for ill - always impacts and affects how we live. If we have a low, trifling view of God, we will have a low, trifling view of prayer. If Jesus is merely my 'homeboy', then I will treat Him as such. But if I see Him as He really is, "holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens" (Heb. 7:26), I will come into His presence more like Isaiah did: with fearful humility and reverential awe (see Isa. 6:1-7).

The remedy? Says Flavel,
Strive to obtain such apprehensions of the greatness of God as shall suitably affect your heart; and remember His jealousy over His worship. 'This is that the LORD spake, saying, "I will be sanctified in them that come nigh Me, and before all the people I will be glorified"' [Lev. 10:3]. A man that is praying should behave himself as if he were entering the court of heaven, where he sees the Lord upon His throne, surrounded with ten thousand of His angels and saints ministering to Him.
When you come from an exercise in which your heart has been wandering and listless, what can you say? Should your tongue utter all the thoughts when you are attending the worship of God, would not men abhor you? Yet your thoughts are perfectly known to God. O think upon this Scripture: 'God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of His saints, and to be had in reverence of all them that are round about Him' [Psa. 89:7]. Why did the mountains smoke under Him, and the people quake and tremble about Him, but to teach the people that their God was a consuming fire? Such apprehensions of the character and presence of God will quickly reduce a heart inclined to vanity to a more serious frame.
All I can do is pray, "Lord, help me to see You as You really are. And in seeing You, may all my vain thoughts be burned up in Your holy presence. Lord, help me to pray as I ought."

In Christ, our great High Priest who has purchased for us a confident access to the throne of God's grace, where we might receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Pastor Ryan

P.S. some great resources to foster a biblical reverence for God in His holiness are the following:

Arthur Pink: The Holiness of God (from his book, "The Attributes of God")

R.C. Sproul: The Holiness of God (video series from Ligonier ministries)

Monday, April 11, 2016

Keeping our Hearts unto Prayer, Pt. 3 (Putting away Distractions)

Last time, we considered the first and essential step to a fruitful prayer life: planning to pray.

Today, we will look at Flavel's second word of advice to Christians who are seeking to guard their hearts unto prayer: putting away distractions.

If we really think about it, this could really be seen as a subset, or even a logical application, of what it looks like to plan for prayer. 

Not only must we plan to pray. We must also plan to make sure our times of prayer are as distraction-free as possible. 

If we set aside half hour to pray, but are constantly distracted by incoming text messages or emails or kids who want to play or music playing in the adjacent room, we will probably not really spend half an hour in true prayer.

One of my pet peeves in our day and age is trying to talk with people who incessantly fondle their phone throughout the conversation. Though they're "umm-hmmming" and nodding their heads here and there, we're not really having a conversation (and especially not an intimate one). 

The truth is, we can convey more in 2 minutes of distraction-free talk than in 10 minutes of us trying to talk to them while they're texting, responding to an email, or checking their Facebook.

The same is just as true for us when it comes to prayer: we will get more "accomplished" in 10 minutes of uninterrupted prayer than we will in an hour of mind-wandering pseudo-prayer.

Here are a couple of [obvious] distractions we can plan to remove during our times of planned prayer:
  1. Put your cell phone in a different room. It's not enough to put it on vibrate: once it buzzes, your mind will likely begin to wonder who it is that just texted you or updated their FB status. At that moment, you have lost your train of thought, and will likely have to spend the next 10 minutes trying to get back to where you were.
  2. Pray somewhere where you have no technology. My mind never stops. And so, in prayer, I may remember I need to email someone, or update the church's website. Sometimes I will tell myself that I need to send the email or update the site. At best, this inevitably causes my mind to wander even more (I start planning my day, etc.). At worst, I may be tempted to check Twitter or YouTube (even to watch something godly), which basically terminates any further prayer at that time.
  3. Pray somewhere quiet. I have four young kids. It's hard to pray once they're up and running. They knock on the door, talk under the door, loudly ask me to come and play with them through the door. My most effective times of prayer are before they wake up, or when I go on a long walk outside.
  4. Avoid reading or watching material that "gets you going." After watching football highlights is not a good time for me to pray, as my mind will inevitably begin replaying some of the more memorable ones. Pray before you watch that movie with your spouse. Pray before you have that difficult conversation with a family member or friend. This is why it is often wisest to plan to pray first thing in the morning. 
I am sure there are many more distractions we can remove. I simply list these as a sample collection to be built upon.

1 Peter 4:7 says, "The end of all things is near; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers" (ESV).

Being self-controlled and sober-minded "unto prayers" means removing distractions that seek to high-jack our devoted times of prayer.

Jesus' words are as true today for us as believers as they were when He first uttered them to His disciples 2000 years ago: "The spirit is willing [to pray], but the flesh is weak."

May God therefore give us the grace to plan not only to pray, but also to intentionally plan to remove any and all distractions. Let us never forget that self-control is an essential fruit that the Spirit of Christ gives His people to live in a manner worthy of the gospel!

In Christ, and for His glory to the ends of the earth,
pastor ryan