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

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Guarding our Hearts unto Prayer (part 2)

John Flavel's little book "Keeping the Heart" is a true Puritanical gem.

As a faithful under-shepherd, Flavel guides the Christian through the variegated "seasons" he or she will experience in this life, and how they are to specifically "guard their hearts" (cf. Proverbs 4:23) in each of these seasons.

The sixth "season" he walks us through is what he calls the "season of duty." For us today, we might simply call it the season of prayer.

As we saw in the last blog post, prayer is the most important weapon the Christian has in these last days (cf. 1 Peter 4:7).

And so Flavel asks the question, "How may the heart be kept from distractions by vain thoughts in time of duty [i.e. prayer]?"

He then goes on to give 10 (extremely) practical ways the Christian ought to keep their hearts unto prayer, some of which I will either omit or conflate together, as there is often much overlap.

His first prescription is almost so obvious it doesn't need to be mentioned.

And yet as a Christian, as well as a pastor, I know all too well how often we as Christians fail to do this very thing, which is simply this: plan to pray. He writes,
[First], sequester yourself from all earthly employments, and set apart some time for solemn preparation to meet God in duty. You cannot come directly from the world into God's presence without finding a savour of the world in your duties. It is with the heart (a few minutes since plunged in the world, now in the presence of God) as it is with the sea after a storm, which still continues working, muddy and disquiet, though the wind be laid and the storm be over. Your heart must have time to settle.
In other words, says Flavel, we can't expect to have profitable, intimate times of prayer in God's presence if we don't set apart substantial blocks of intentional time to meet with God.

Anyone who is married knows that the deepest times of relational growth come when a husband and wife "get away" to be alone without distractions (especially if you have kids). I need to communicate with my wife throughout the day. But the times we really grow in our knowledge of each other comes when we put the kids to bed, put our phones away, make sure the computer is not on, and just talk.

It's the same with our relation with God.

In a world that bombards us with trivial distractions (I literally just checked to make sure my phone was in my back pocket), we as Christians need to guard our hearts by guarding our time, especially our prayer time.

So this morning, before I even decided to "pen" this blog (thanks Todoist for reminding me!), I determined to go to bed earlier, that I may get up earlier, so that I may spend time on my knees (literally) crying out to God first thing in the morning. Wifey and the kids won't mind (they're still sleeping), and I have a sneaking suspicion God will honor this desire to draw near to Him (cf. James 4:8).

Ironically, one of my favorite verses in the Bible is one I regularly fail to implement in my own life (I confess, I do spend time praying in my head immediately when I wake up, but I don't have a specific amount of time allocated to active prayer):
O LORD, in the morning You hear my voice; in the morning I set [my sacrifice of prayer] before You and wait expectantly." (Psalm 5:4, my translation)
Reader, I don't know your schedule. But I do know mine, and how little time I intentionally (in the words of Flavel) "sequester" for intentional prayer.

Flavel goes on to write,
Few musicians can take an instrument and play upon it without some time and labour to tune it. When you go to God in duty, take your heart aside and say, 'Oh my soul, I am now engaged in the greatest work that a creature was ever employed about; I am going into the awful presence of God upon business of everlasting moment. Oh my soul, leave trifling now; be composed, be watchful, be serious; this is no common work, it is soul work; it is work for eternity; it is work that will bring forth fruit to life or death in the world to come.' Pause awhile and consider your sins, your wants, your troubles. David first mused, and then spake with his tongue.
May God help us not only to make resolutions to set apart time for prayer, but to also keep our deceitful hearts in check, that we may be able to keep our "appointments" with God.

Maybe take some time right now to ask God to help you guard your heart unto prayer by intentionally setting apart time for prayer and communion with God. As D.A. Carson says, we rarely fall into holiness, and so we must be diligent in our pursuit of God in Christ.

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

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Guarding our Hearts for Prayer (part 1)

"The consummation of all things has drawn near. Therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the purpose of prayer." - 1 Peter 4:7
Every one who has been born again by the Spirit of God desires to have a more robust, intimate, and consistent prayer life.

When I read this text, I am reminded not only of the purpose and power of prayer, but also the preeminence and priority it ought to have in my life.

The end has come. Peter's admonition? Pray.

As simple as this may seem, we as Christ's sheep must never forget that we have an adversary who also understands just how powerful prayer is to the believer. And since he hates Christ and His people, our ancient foe "prowls to and fro" seeking ways to thwart and hinder our prayers.

The book of Revelation portrays Satan as a defeated foe who, unlike many Christians, understands that his "time is short." Though he has been definitively defeated by our strong Warrior (Col. 2:14), we must never forget that he is still - at this moment - thrashing around in his death throes.

This thrashing is much more cunning and subtle than can be seen by the naked eye.

With his dying breaths, his strategy to destroy and dismantle Christianity - at least in the affluent West - primarily consists of distracting the church from using her greatest weapon: prayer.

Think about it: if you were battling someone who had an unstoppable weapon, wouldn't it be in your best interest to find a way to prevent them from using that weapon?

This is precisely what the great liar and deceiver does to Christ's church. Whatever it takes - distraction, lukewarmness, love of the world, moralistic busyness, social justice, sin - Satan seeks to keep Christ's people from praying.

And so Peter, himself not ignorant of Satan's schemes, reminds us of our great need to be "self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of our prayers" (ESV).

The first word comes from two Greek words, "save" and "mind", and literally means "safeguard your mind."

The best way to safeguard our mind is to be continually renewing it by the Word of God (cf. Eph. 4:20-24; Col. 3:16; Phil. 4:8; Rom. 12:1-2; Psa. 119).

The second word literally means "to be sober." Again, we see the importance of having temperance in our thinking, which of course comes from immersion in the Word of God.

Just as I used to do foolish things when I was not "sober" as an unbeliever, so also do we as Christians act foolishly (e.g. with our time, talents, treasures) when we fail to act soberly in the spiritual realm by not guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Dear believer, the consummation of all things has drawn near. We are living in the last days. Oh that we might heed the Spirit's call in this text to be self-controlled and sober-minded, especially with regards to our prayer life.

When we read the Bible, we see just how important prayer is. When we are not in the Word, we quickly forget this, and begin drifting away from a vital, powerful, Spirit-enabled walk with Christ.

For the next couple of weeks, I will be working through a short section from John Flavel's gem "Keeping the Heart", focusing on 8 ways he gives for the believer to "guard their hearts" with regards to prayer.

But for now, it might be beneficial for you simply to memorize 1 Peter 4:7. It has been a great reminder to me these last few weeks of just how desperately I need to be a man of prayer, and how desperately I need to "safeguard my mind" and "be sobered" by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In Christ, and for His great glory,
Pastor Ryan

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Using God's Gifts for God's Glory

"As each has used a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks the oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies - in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory and dominion forever. Amen." (1 Peter 4:10-11)
Peter's point couldn't be any clearer or simpler: our gifts are meant to further God's dominion and glory in Christ.

Dear reader, what gifts has God entrusted to you?

Are you using them to make a name for yourself, or are you using them to glorify the name of Jesus?

Let us pray that the Spirit would help us to use 'our' good gifts to carry out God's good works (Eph. 2:10; Tit. 2:14; 3:8, 14; Gal. 6:10) for the good of all people, but ultimately for the glory of God in Christ.

Let us not be like those in Genesis 11, who, though endowed with amazing and diverse giftings, sinfully and selfishly sought to build their own empire and dominion.

Let us rather, in the words of Paul, do everything - which includes the faithful use and stewardship of all our gifts "for the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31), that the saints might be "built up", and the lost might be "brought in."

May God, in answer to Peter's prayer, give us all the strength to do so.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Ryan

P.S. - if you are not sure what "gifts" you have, the best way to find out is to regularly get into a gospel community. As you do life with other Christ followers, it will become clear both to them and to you what your gifts (whether natural or supernatural) are.