Real Life Devotions

I’m sure you’ve seen Facebook or Instagram photos of ideal quiet times with the Lord. A beach at sunrise. A sunny deck and a glass of lemonade. A comfy chair, throw blanket, and steaming mug of coffee. A reading plan tidily checked off.

I admit I like having a plan and a routine. And there’s nothing wrong with those kinds of inspirational photos. It’s lovely when the setting comes together beautifully with devotional time. Maybe those pictures document the settings specifically  because they are so rare.

But I think sometimes we set ourselves up for failure because we don’t reach that ideal. When we struggle to stay awake, when we can’t find a quiet minute in the day, when the kids clamor for attention any time we sit down, when we hit the ground running with meetings all day and our attention span is shredded at night … what then? We often give up on our quiet time because it won’t look like we think it shoud.

But Bible reading isn’t just a nice thing to do when we can fit it in, when we can do all the things we think a quiet time requires. It’s vital to our walk with God. It’s our spiritual nourishment. We have our flesh and an enemy of our souls to fight against.

I’ve written before about finding time for Bible reading, so I won’t go into all that here. I just want to encourage you that real life devotions won’t always look ideal. God can speak to my heart in my comfy chair with a half hour set aside. But He can also speak through His Word (and has) when I am tired, rushed, ill, nursing a baby, traveling, or only have a few scattered minutes through the day.

With that in mind, I started a hashtag on Instragram and Twitter for #reallifedevotions. The idea was to show what real Bible reading time “in the trenches” was like.

Here’s my usual spot:

I used to be the comfy couch and throw blanket person, but then I too easily dozed off. So I moved here. My desk is cluttered, my inbox is stuffed, there’s a sprinkling of dust. My drawer is hanging open for easy access to pens, pencils, and sticky tabs. I do believe in dusting and straightening. 🙂 But if I waited to get everything else done before I read my Bible, well, I’d never get to it.

This is my second real life devotions photo:

I used to journal quite a bit, but then it seemed like I was spending more time writing my thoughts rather than reading God’s. For years I didn’t write anything. I guess some of my blog posts are processing what I have read. But lately I’ve started almost a bullet journal, just jotting down a summary, sometimes just a sentence. Sometimes I’ll write more if I need to process something. I look back at what I have written at the end of my quite time for that day, but rarely after that. (DL stands for Daily Light on the Daily Path, a devotional book I first discovered in missionary biographies and have read for years.)

With my mix of printing and cursive, I don’t know if others could even read my notes. (My handwriting has never been good, and trying to take notes in college lecture classes made it worse.) But they’re not meant for others to read. These aren’t the literary quality of The Journals of Jim Elliot or David Brainerd’s diary.

Nor are my journal entries decorative. I love to see what artistic people do with their devotional jottings, like Karla Dornacher. They can probably whip up beautiful art in journals or Bible margins in no time. I know for many, this is a way to meditate on God’s Word. But for me, trying to be artistic would be a distraction, a frustration, and one more thing to do. Their way works for them; my way works for me.

All of that to say, don’t feel like you have to have a beautiful, artistic, calligraphic journal with a pretty cover to jot down notes from your Bible reading time. You don’t even have to write anything down at all. If you do, great!  If it’s lovely, wonderful! But if it’s merely functional, a way to remember or think through what you’ve read, that’s fine, no matter what it looks like.

This third photo is staged because this has not been my practice. It’s in memory of a neighbor from decades ago who had three little stairstep children in a row, all under the age of five. Her washing machine was in her kitchen, and she left her Bible on top of it to get a few minutes reading in as she could.

As I wrote in Encouragement for Mothers of Small Children, the time when my children were little was the most challenging to try to carve out any quiet time, much less to read the Bible in a coherent manner. Yet I suffered spiritually when I didn’t read. It’s important to both read and study the Bible, but some seasons, it’s hard to do either. When I truly only had a few moments, God met with me and fed my soul in that time.

Moses met with God on a mountain. Daniel met with God in captivity. David met with God in pasture while shepherding, in a cave while hiding from enemies, and in a palace. Jonah met with God in the belly of a whale. We can meet with God any time, anywhere.

How about you? What does your real life devotional time look like? How has it changed through the different seasons of life? What was your most unusual devotional setting?

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Biblical Self-Talk

I once heard a preacher say that sometimes he had to sit himself down and have a talk with himself. Have you ever felt that way?

For years after I had transverse myelitis, I struggled with panic attacks and extreme fears. I didn’t realize until fairly recently that, just as I had to recover from the physical effects of the disease, I also had to recover emotionally and mentally from the trauma of the disease itself.

We all know anything can happen any time. We’re not guaranteed our next breath. But then when something catastrophic does happen, it can throw us for a loop. Our foundations are shaken, our security is threatened. Looking back now, it’s no wonder I had panic attacks. Unfortunately, some of the things I feared were psychiatrists and psychiatric drugs, so I didn’t tell anyone what I was going through. I was given Xanax for a while in the hospital, but no one explained why. I heard it was addictive, so I didn’t take it when I got home. I even wondered if they thought my symptoms were in my head.

If I had it to do over again, I’d talk to my neurologist, who was primarily in charge of my care at the time. I’d ask why I was given Xanax, explain what was going on, see what he had to say, and evaluate the options. That’s what I would advise anyone else to do.

Instead, I read what I could about anxiety and panic attacks. I learned that breathing in slowly through my nose and out through my mouth had a calming effect. I would think through or sing through hymns to get my thoughts on another track. And I would remind myself of truth and common sense, which I later learned was self-talk.

For instance, on our way to the church we attended at the time, we almost always got caught at a red light on an overpass. This overpass was one that trembled when an 18-wheeler passed, which happened often. When a visiting speaker’s wife mentioned that this overpass scared her, my own fears escalated. We knew no other way to get to church than this route. So I would tell myself, “Seriously, how often do you hear of these things falling down? Not very often. It’s more likely not to happen than to happen. If it does happen, there’s nothing you can do about it. You’ll either go straight on to heaven, or God will help you through whatever happens just as He did with TM. Don’t ruin or waste your day by worrying about something that is not likely to happen.” Then I’d sing hymns to myself not only to guide my thoughts away from scary things, but also to remind myself of God’s care and promises.

That helped with things not likely to happen. But what about things that could very well happen? TM was a one-time occurrence with lasting ramifications. But one form of it did cause repeat occurrences. And sometimes what was thought was TM was actually found to be MS when repeated attacks occurred. My TM had started with one hand feeling a little funny, like I had slept on it wrong. Within three hours, my whole left arm and both legs were numb and I couldn’t walk on my own. So every time a limb fell sleep, every time I had a funny, not-quite-right feeling, every time symptoms flared up, so did the fears of a repeat attack. I had to remind myself that this probably was not another attack, but just a flare-up. If it was another attack, God would help me just as He did the first time. Eventually, after multitudes of flare-ups without another full-fledged attack, and after a significant amount of healing, I learned to just roll with the symptoms and eventually to hardly notice them.

Sometimes we have to talk to ourselves over spiritual issues, too, don’t we? A tragedy occurs, and we feel like maybe God doesn’t love us like we thought He did. We remind ourselves that God loves us “with an everlasting love” (Jeremiah 31:3), that He loved us even when we were His enemies. Or we feel worthless and remind ourselves we are accepted in the Beloved.

We have several instances of Scriptural self-talk in the psalms. The psalmist asks himself three times, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” (Psalm 42:5, 11; 43:5, ESV). Then he answers himself, “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” David tells himself to “Bless the Lord, O my soul”  in Psalm 103 and then reminds himself why he could do so. He reminds himself about God’s character, what He had done for Israel in the past, what He had done for David himself.In Psalm 57, David is hiding in a cave from Saul. After pleading for God’s mercy and reminding himself of God’s power, love, and faithfulness, David tells himself to wake up and praise God:

My heart, O God, is steadfast, my heart is steadfast; I will sing and make music. Awake, my soul!  Awake, harp and lyre! I will awaken the dawn. (Psalm 57:7-8, NIV).

Other psalms don’t employ that exact language, but they show the writer coming to God with a problem or an issue: Where are you? Why are you not acting? The wicked are faring better than Your people. I’m hurting here. People are persecuting me for no reason.

And then the writer reminds himself of truths about his God: He’s here. He loves us. He cares. The wicked will face their consequences some day if they don’t repent. God will strengthen me and help me.

I shared this quote before from David Martyn-Lloyd Jones in Spiritual Depression, but I love it:

Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them but they are talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you. Now this man’s treatment [in Psalm 42] was this: instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. “Why art thou cast down, O my soul?” he asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says, “Self, listen for moment, I will speak to you.”

Instead of being at the mercy of our thoughts, we challenge them and correct them. We need to take our thoughts captive (2 Corinthians 10:5). We set aside wrong thoughts and actively pursue truth. We steady our souls with God’s truth. We fill our minds with God’s Word so the Holy Spirit can remind us of it.

Have you ever had to give yourself a good talking-to?

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Ways to Both Read and Study the Bible

When I first became a Christian, the church I was in urged people to read the Bible through in a year. I’m so glad, because I believe that grounded me in my faith more than anything else.

In later years, pastors often emphasized the need to read passages of the Bible in context and encouraged to read a book of the Bible through at a time rather than scattering our reading all around. I mentioned last week Drew Hunter‘s quote that we wouldn’t read only page two of a friend’s three-page letter. Nor would we read a paragraph on page three and a line on page one. The Bible isn’t a book of random quotations. Each book is a coherent whole, and all together they present a unified message.

Reading the whole Bible helped me keep things in context and see the grand themes of the Bible. It helped me get into books like Leviticus and Chronicles, which I probably would not have drifted into. I found some nuggets there I would have missed. Reading all of the Bible helps you interpret it, as some passages shed light on other passages.

Kelly Needham says:

Most Christians I talk to have never read the entirety of the Bible. They may read it frequently but only parts of it. But daily reading parts of the Bible doesn’t mean you know it any more than daily reading the first chapter of Moby Dick makes you an expert on the famous novel. Ignorance of the whole of God’s Word makes us easy targets in the war Satan has waged against God. Lies can slip through undetected like poison gas because we’re just not that familiar with the truth.

I still believe in reading the Bible through, but I don’t do it in a year any more. Sometimes I wanted to slow down, but felt I couldn’t or I’d fall behind schedule. Once one does fall behind, it’s hard to catch back up. So now I just go at my own pace. I don’t even know how long it takes me. Sometimes I read a couple of chapters a day. Other times I read more or less. I usually read the shorter epistles a few times through before moving on because they’re packed so full and go by so quickly.

I’ve seen some two-year or other plans. John O’Malley said in Overcoming Your Devotional Obstacles, “If it takes you five years to read through the Bible, you are not less of a Christian. Read it at a pace that you can comprehend it and receive something from it.”

Some folks I know have tried “binge-reading” the Bible occasionally. Joel Arnold says, “A pretty average reader can finish in 100 days by reading just 40 minutes a day.” My friend Kim once read the whole Bible in 90 days and shared her experience here.

Joel once read the whole Bible in a week, 10-12 hours a day. Afterward he noted:

The Bible is the most intertwined body of literature I’ve ever read. The books cite, quote, allude and echo each other constantly. It’s like a city, built up layer by layer, strata by strata, so that each later addition rests on every layer that came before … We don’t usually sense these relationships because we’ve forgotten 95% of the OT before we ever get to the New. But having it all out in front of your brain at once changes that completely. You find yourself flipping back and forth constantly between the testaments, jumping across thousands of years of history to study the same teachings and sometimes even the same phrases (Meditations from Binge-Reading the Bible).

Obviously no one can read 10-12 hours a day every week. But if we can use vacation time to binge watch a TV series, why not use it to read the whole Bible?

However, if we only read the Bible in great chunks, we miss something. We’re also told to study it, meditate on it, chew on it. Sometimes we need to slow down and spend more focused time on a smaller passage. Charles Spurgeon is quoted as saying, “Some people like to read so many [Bible] chapters every day. I would not dissuade them from the practice, but I would rather lay my soul asoak in half a dozen verses all day than rinse my hand in several chapters. Oh, to be bathed in a text of Scripture, and to let it be sucked up in your very soul, till it saturates your heart!” Sometimes there’s nothing like honing in on one or a few verses for an extended amount of time.

Remember, the early churches did not have the entire Bible bound in one book for a long while. They had the Old Testament and gospels, but they would have spent a great deal of time on the one letter sent to their congregation and others as they came around.

I mentioned last week that Tim Challies said the larger blocks of reading were for familiarity, and reading for intimacy was slowing down and meditating on or studying shorter passages. Kelly Collier calls these two methods plow work (which “moves through large portions of Scripture more quickly,” like reading the Bible in a year or two) and trowel work (“taking a passage or verse of Scripture and settling in to dig for a long time,” like inductive Bible Study). I likened the two styles to a panoramic or macro lens. Or we could simply call them reading and studying.

I wrote a few years ago about finding time to read the Bible. Some seasons allow for both reading and studying, and it’s great to do both each day if you can. With the friend’s letter I mentioned earlier, we usually read the whole thing once or twice and then go back over it section by section. That’s good to do with a Bible passage as well. But it’s hard enough some days to get a few minutes to read the Bible at all. How can we possibly employ both reading and studying?

Here are some ideas:

Take turns. Often after I’ve finished a book of the Bible, I’ve taken a break to do a shorter study. Then I go back to the next book of the Bible.

Alternate days. Use a few days of the week for general reading, the others for more focused study.

Do the opposite of your church. For several years we were under a pastor who took a very detailed, thorough approach to preaching through a book of the Bible at a time. It took us years to get through Romans. But that was great, because then we knew it well. Since the preaching I heard was the in-depth, verse or two at a time style, my personal reading was more general. By contrast, when in other churches where the preaching covered more ground, I liked to do in-depth studies on my own.

Join a Bible study group. Bible studies tend to be slower and more focused (unless they’re topical), so I did in-depth study for the group and more general study on my own.

Adjust as needs arise. Once, chagrined and ashamed after an angry outburst, I set aside my regular Bible reading to look up and mediate on passages dealing with anger. That kind of thing has happened several times: an issue came up that I had to study out now.

Slow down and speed up as you feel led. In reading the Bible through, if I feel the need to put the breaks on in a certain passage and camp out for a while, I do so. Then I’ll pick up the pace for more general reading later.

There are going to be days when your regular routine flies out the window: illness, traveling, company, emergencies. God gives grace for those. I have a small devotional book called Daily Light on the Daily Path that is a few verses on a certain theme each day. Usually I use it to start my devotions, but some days that’s all I get to.

There are going to be seasons in life when finding time for quiet study is nearly impossible, like when young children are in the house. Just like we sometimes grab a protein bar instead of having a sit-down lunch, so our spiritual feeding sometimes has to be grab-and-go rather than a leisurely meal. When I truly only had time for a verse or two, God fed my soul with just those verses. Anything is better than nothing. One writer proposed a micronutrient Bible reading plan for those times.

We need to keep in mind the goal for reading the Bible isn’t just to get through it in a specified time. Instead, we read to learn it, learn from it, get to know God and His Word better.

Our current church has us read through a book of the Bible together. We’re asked to read five chapters of the Bible a week, one a day Monday-Friday with Saturdays to catch up. Then the preaching focuses on a short passage of a different book. Then we all learn a verse each month. So we incorporate the general overview reading, have a more in-depth study of a short passage, and spend a longer time meditating on one verse. That’s not a bad practice for one’s personal reading as well.

What ways have you find to incorporate both reading and studying the Bible? Do you tend toward one more than the other?

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Book Review: Engaging the Scripture

I enjoyed Deborah Haddix‘s Journaling for the Soul so much, I bought her new Engaging the Scripture: Encountering God in the Pages of His Word not long after I first saw it.

I love that Deborah emphasized engaging the Scripture—not just reading an assignment, not just searching for information. Rather, “we are to read intentionally with the purpose of hearing from God, knowing Him, deepening our relationship, and nourishing our soul” (p. 28).

Deborah has chapters on the importance of God’s gift of His Word, dealing with distractions, further explanation about what’s involved in engaging the Scripture. Then she has a chapter for each aspect of engaging Scripture: reading, writing, meditating, memorizing, and praying it. A later chapter shares ways to interweave these practices (meditating while memorizing, praying verses while writing them, etc,)

Each chapter is fairly short: three to six pages of text, a page of personal reflection about the chapter, a section on resources for implementing the chapter, and a practice page or two.

Each chapter includes multiple ideas for engaging, with the encouragement to chose which works best with your wiring, schedule, and season of life. Tidbits of advice, encouragement, and wisdom are interspersed throughout the pages. Just a few:

Experiencing distractions during our quiet time does NOT make us a failure (p. 34).

Overwhelm often results in total abandonment. Start small. Experience success. Then incorporate additional ideas as you move forward (p. 39).

The physical food we take into our physical body does not nourish us unless we properly digest it and take it into our cells. Just as physical food is needed for physical strength, spiritual food is necessary for spiritual strength. The Word you read (the spiritual food) must be chewed, digested, taken into your being, and one way to chew your food is by memorization (p. 100).

Deborah has mastered the art of writing the way writers for the Internet are advised to: short paragraphs and lots of white space. The book isn’t long, but its style makes it seem even more manageable.

This is a wonderful resource that I highly recommend.

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Making the Bible Come Alive

“He really makes the Bible come alive!”

Have you ever heard that about a preacher, speaker, teacher, or writer?

People could mean several different things by that statement. Perhaps they mean the teacher is exciting. They have a dynamic presentation. Or maybe they make the Scriptures seem particularly relevant. Maybe they help us understand things from the Scripture that we hadn’t before. They use a lot of eye-opening illustrations.

Those are all good traits. Years ago, at a former location, a Christian radio station ran a program from a local pastor who spoke in a monotone. I used to turn off the radio when his program came on. I actually got angry at him and thought, “Doesn’t the Bible deserve better treatment than that?” Then I got convicted of a wrong attitude. The man had been a pastor and had this program for years, so he obviously had listeners. Maybe some people like monotones, who knows.

But here’s the thing: we don’t make the Bible come alive. It IS alive.

Jesus said “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” (John 6:63, ESV).

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12, ESV).

We’re the ones that need to be made alive. And what enlivens us? I like the King James word “Quicken,” which sometimes means to make alive, sometimes revive. God quickens us with His Word:

My soul cleaveth unto the dust: quicken thou me according to thy word. (Psalm 119:25)

This is my comfort in my affliction: for thy word hath quickened me. (Psalm 119:50)

I will never forget thy precepts: for with them thou hast quickened me. (Psalm 119:93)

God making us alive through His Word is not surprising, really. He created the universe and everything in it with His Word.

God’s Word can enliven us even if it’s read in a monotone.

That doesn’t mean we should be careless when we read, explain, or teach from it. There’s no virtue in reading the Bible in a monotone or presenting it in a dull way if we know better and can help it. We should try to present it in as understandable and winsome a way as possible.

Each of the Bible writers has a style about them: the Holy Spirit gave them the words, yet worked through each of their personalities to express truth.

But we should be careful of our tendencies to follow “exciting” teachers. If they can be exciting and Scripturally accurate, great. But too often, people gravitate towards excitement rather than truth.

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 2 Timothy 4:3-4, ESV).

The Bible is so full of good truth that convicts, comforts, enlightens, teaches, rejoices our hearts, builds us up. We don’t need to dress it up or manipulate it to make it “interesting.” We just need to show people what it says. And we need to know it well enough to seek teachers who do the same.

Your words were found, and I ate them,
    and your words became to me a joy
    and the delight of my heart,
for I am called by your name,
    O Lord, God of hosts. (Jeremiah 15:16, ESV)

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Biblical Prayers

I mentioned in my earlier post about prayer that I sometimes like to pray Scripture directly.

Of course, not every prayer in Scripture is something we would pray today. Sometimes people in the Bible prayed for specific situations or people that we don’t deal with. We can still learn from them, but in our day we wouldn’t pray the same thing.

Also, as I said earlier, praying isn’t a matter of finding a magic formula or reciting certain words rotely.

But some examples of prayer in Scripture lift us up out of everyday life into real soul work, for ourselves and others. Some years ago I started making a list of these prayers when I came across them, and I still add to this list occasionally. So I thought I’d share with you what I have so far (all are from the ESV unless otherwise noted):

  • May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 15:5-6 (Though this is talking about the church, I often put this on wedding cards.)
  • For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places. Ephesians 1:15-20
  • For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God. Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen. Ephesians 3:14-20 (KJV)
  • And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. Philippians 1:9-11
  • For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God; Strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness; Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light. Colossians 1:9-12 (KJV)
  • May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. 1 Thessalonians 3:12-13
  • Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. 1 Thessalonians 5:23
  • To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12
  • Now our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God, even our Father, which hath loved us, and hath given us everlasting consolation and good hope through grace, Comfort your hearts, and stablish you in every good word and work. 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17 (KJV)
  • And the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God, and into the patient waiting for Christ. II Thessalonians 3:5 (KJV)
  • Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way. The Lord be with you all. 2 Thessalonians 3:16
  • Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, Make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is wellpleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. Hebrews 13:20-21 (KJV)

And that’s just the epistles!

Many of the psalms are prayers that we could pray in our day, like David’s prayer of repentance in Psalm 51 or  his prayer of wonder and praise in Psalm 8.

A couple of Old Testament pleas come to mind often, like 2 Chronicles 20:12: “For we are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” and 2 Chronicles 14:11: “LORD, it is nothing with thee to help, whether with many, or with them that have no power: help us, O LORD our God; for we rest on thee, and in thy name we go against this multitude. O LORD, thou art our God; let not man prevail against thee.”

Jesus gave us what we call the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6:9-15:

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come, your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
     and forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from evil.

Phrases from the gospels come to mind as prayers:

Jesus said, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). The more we read the Bible, the more the Holy Spirit can bring back to our minds what it says, the more our thoughts and prayers will be infused with God’s truth and will.

Of course, we can’t just rip words out of context and use them in prayer. But as we read the Bible and see how these prayers arise in context, our own hearts can be stirred up to pray according to God’s will.

Even verses that aren’t prayers in themselves can be turned into a prayer request that God will help us understand and incorporate the truth of it into our lives.

Writing this post has given me the idea for a project. Maybe the next time I read through the Bible, I’ll make note of any prayer that we could pray today. That would be an interesting study!

Are there prayers from the Bible you like to use when you pray?

Prayer: Talking with Our Father

Articles abound claiming ways of improving our prayer lives. Some tout titles encouraging us to try new or ancient “forms” of prayer, as if an improved prayer life is a matter of certain words in a certain order. Others proclaim “Five [or however many] Prayers to Unleash God’s Power in Your Life,” as if we have God on a leash.

I’m concerned when improving our prayer lives seems to be a matter of trying different fads or rituals.

We tell unbelievers that Christianity is a relationship with God to help them realize it’s not just a set of certain behaviors. But sometimes we forget the relationship in our own practices. Spiritual disciplines are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Improving prayer, Bible study, or any other facet of Christian life needs to be a matter of enhancing the relationship, not just finding a better form of practice.

Granted, most of us change and grow in how we practice these disciplines over the years. And different personalities gravitate to different “styles.” I attended a prayer meeting that was so regimented, it seemed to me to choke the life out of what we were doing. I felt constricted, burdened, and frustrated. But perhaps that style of prayer was deeply meaningful to the person leading the meeting.

What helps me most is remembering that prayer is just talking to my Father. Like any relationship, hopefully communication improves over time. But He doesn’t wait for me to get just the right form. He hears my heart.

The best place to learn how to pray is the Bible. God’s Word gives specific instructions about prayer. Just a few:

God also gives us wonderful examples of prayer. Some of my favorites:

From the examples in the Bible, we see how people prayed, in what attitudes and circumstances, and what specifically they prayed for.

One of my favorites of Paul’s prayers is Colossians 1:9-14:

And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

While it’s fine to pray for health and financial needs, how much more do we need to pray for these kinds of things for ourselves and each other.

Following a certain form would seem artificial to me. I don’t talk to anyone else in my life via specific forms. On the other hand, because we’re talking to someone we can’t see and who doesn’t answer us audibly, sometimes our minds can wander. So in some ways it does help our feeble flesh to have something to corral our thoughts and keep on point. Some use acronyms, like

Pray
Repent
Ask
Yield

Or:

Adoration
Confess
Thanksgiving
Supplication

When my thoughts seem too scattered to pray, most often I use what we call “the Lord’s prayer” as a jumping-off point. It might go something like this:

“Our Father in heaven.” Thank you that I can call you Father, that you loved me and saved me and brought me into your family. Thank you for forgiving, leading, and guiding me. Thank you for being a kind and gracious Father.

“Hallowed be your name.” You’re not just my Father, but also my King. Help me not to forget your greatness and holiness.

Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” I pray for Your perfect will to be done in these various situations I bring before You.

Give us this day our daily bread.” I’m grateful You know my needs before I even ask. I praise You that I can trust You to provide for me and those I pray for.

“Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” I confess these sins to You (naming them individually) and ask Your forgiveness. Help me to forgive others just the way I want to be forgiven.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” You know what’s ahead this day. I pray for your protection from evil that may come my way and from the temptations of my own heart.

“For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen!”

I’ve made a list of different prayers in the Bible that I like to use in praying for myself and for others. Many of them are from the epistles, like the one from Colossians mentioned above or from Philippians. When we pray God’s Word, we know we’re praying according to His will. But, again, it’s not just a matter of praying certain words rotely: it’s talking with our Father.

Elisabeth Elliot wrote once of waking up in the morning, cold, fuzzy-headed, not feeling very spiritual, stumbling into another room to spend time with the Lord. She felt she needed help putting her own heart in the right frame of mind, so she started her prayer and devotional time either reading or singing psalms or hymns (from the chapter “Meeting God Alone” in On Asking God Why). Many hymns are wonderful prayers, like:

Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,
Pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but Thou art mighty,
Hold me with Thy pow’rful hand.
Bread of heaven, Bread of heaven,
Feed me till I want no more;
Feed me till I want no more.

(William Williams, 1745)

Or:

Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art;
Thou my best thought, by day or by night;
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

(Dallan Forgaill, 6th century; translated and published 1912)

Modern hymns like Speak, O Lord and O Great God are prayers meaty with Scriptural truth and greatly meaningful to me.

I also used to think I hadn’t “officially” prayed for something unless I mentioned it in my devotional time. But I learned we can talk to God all through the day. When my first clear thoughts form in the morning, I try to remember right then to give Him the day and ask His help for it. When I hear a bit of good news or find something that perfectly meets my needs, I can thank Him on the spot. When I come across a prayer request, I try to pray for it immediately.

Like with other relationships, we can touch base with God off and on all day. But then we also need times of setting aside everything else just to focus on each other.

And when we have no words, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).

In the chapter I mentioned by Elisabeth Elliot, she said:

My own devotional life is very far from being Exhibit A of what it should be. I have tried, throughout most of my life, to maintain a quiet time with God, with many lapses and failures. Occasionally, but only occasionally, it is impossible. Our Heavenly Father knows all about those occasions. He understands perfectly why mothers with small children bring them along when they talk to him.

If hers was not Exhibit A, how much less is mine! I started to take all personal references out of this post for that reason (and due to length). But it has helped me to read others’ experiences with prayer, so maybe this might be a small help to someone else.

What I mainly wanted to share with you is this: if we feel our prayers need livening up, perhaps the first place to start is to remember who we’re talking to and why. Then, as we read His Word, we can take note of what it teaches about prayer and learn from examples there.

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Kingdom Bloggers, Literary Musing Monday,
Tell His Story, Purposeful Faith, Let’s Have Coffee, Recharge Wednesday, Anchored Truth, Worth Beyond Rubies, Woman to Woman, Grace and Truth, Faith on Fire)

Studying the Parts to Understand the Whole

A few years ago I read an annotated version of The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. Sometimes I struggled with disrupting the flow of the story to read the notes. But the notes added so much to understanding the story, they were worth it in the long run.

I read recently an article where someone brought up this difference between reading for pleasure versus reading an annotated version of a story, stopping to read every footnote. This writer brought out the disruption of this type of reading. She pointed out that we don’t read regular books that way (unless we’re in school reading an assigned text), so we shouldn’t read the Bible that way.

There are times we should just read a particular passage as it is for pleasure, with no cross references or footnotes. But there are other times we should study it out in depth. It isn’t either Bible reading or Bible study. We need both.

Some people read and study in tandem. They’ll read one passage devotionally and study another, possibly to prepare for a group Bible study. Others will take turns: they’ll read one book of the Bible all the way through, then do a Bible study project on another book or topic, then read another book of the Bible through.

When I first started using a study Bible, I wasn’t sure I liked reading a verse or two and then stopping to read the footnotes sidebars, and charts. It did seem more halting and fragmented than just reading the passage. But the extra material did aid in understanding the passage.

Instead of reading a verse and it’s footnote one by one, sometimes I read a paragraph at a time, then look over the footnotes. Or, if there is a lot of footnote information for each verse, I’ll read each footnote after its verse, and then go back over the last few lines of text just to put it all together.

Then, beyond just the notes in a study Bible, there are commentaries, Bible study guides, and a whole slew of other Bible study materials with which to dig into a passage even further..

Let’s see if I can illustrate the benefit of study in another way. I was not exposed to classical music much as I was growing up. I remember one Girl Scout trip to a symphony, a couple of performances of Handel’s Messiah in school or church, our pastor playing excerpts of Mendelssohn’s Elijah oratorio in a high school assembly. I remember thinking the pieces were nice and enjoying a few of the songs more than others (especially “He, Watching Over Israel,” based on Psalm 121:4, from Elijah). But I didn’t get much more than that from the pieces.

Then I went to a Christian liberal arts university which wanted to teach us more than academics, so we were exposed to various kinds of classical music concerts, Shakespearean plays, etc. During my junior year, I asked a sophomore music major roommate to help me pick out some classical vinyl albums marked down to $3 at the bookstore that she thought I might enjoy. I grew a bit more in my appreciation of classical music.

But it wasn’t until my senior year in college, when I had a class called Music Appreciation, that I really began to understand and then love classical music. We went era by era, learning what kind of music was produced by which composers in each period. We learned something of the lives of major composers. We listened to and took apart some famous works. We learned to identify the different themes in each piece, note their development, and trace how they interacted with each other. We’d have tests where the professor would play a few seconds of a piece of music, and we’d have to identify it as the first theme of the second movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony (a melody which was later given words by one of his students and turned into the lovely song “Goin’ Home“). Some of the works we studied then are my favorite pieces today – New World, Hayden’s Surprise Symphony (and the fun story behind it), Smetana’s The Moldau, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture and others. Listening to them again is like rereading a favorite book, enjoying and anticipating the flow. I came to understand and enjoy the whole much more by studying the parts. In fact, I haven’t added any new classical music loves because I haven’t studied any pieces to the extent I did then.

It’s the same way with the Bible. As we study the individual parts of a biblical book, we learn what the details mean, how they fit within the book itself, how the book fits within the whole Bible. We trace the themes and see how they intertwine. We’ll know and get more from those passages in ways we don’t know those we’ve only given a cursory reading. And each time we read that book, we build on what we know and appreciate what we remember from previous studies. Study might seem tedious in the midst of it, but it’s worth it when you put it all together. C. S. Lewis contrasted the difference between meditating on a single verse devotionally vs. working through a longer passage: “Hammer your way through a continued argument, just as you would in a profane writer, and the heart will sometimes sing unbidden (from The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis).

Some days, even some seasons of life, like when young children are in the house, our Bible reading may be more like grabbing a quick protein bar instead of sitting down to a meal. There are many good reasons to read the Bible, and sometimes we’re greatly blessed from just reading a passage. While working on this post, I read Julia Bettencort’s great post about reading the Bible for pleasure. Some days our thoughts are already scattered, and focusing on and absorbing a single passage is more helpful than adding notes or references. But we also benefit from studying more in depth at times. Our study informs and enhances our general reading. It’s good to make time for both.

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Tell His Story,
Let’s Have Coffee, Share a Link Wednesday, Grace and Truth, Worth Beyond Rubies)

Book Review: Read the Bible for Life

I first discovered George Guthrie through links to his blog from others. The posts I read there were so helpful that I got his book, Read the Bible for Life: Your Guide to Understanding and Living God’s Word.

After an introduction detailing reasons for reading the Bible, lamenting a lack of Biblical literacy among Christians, and posting several reasons why Christians don’t read, Guthrie launches into the four parts of his book.

The first part covers “Foundational Issues,” like how to read it, reading it in context and for transformation. etc.

Part 2 discusses reading the various genres in the Old Testament: stories, laws, psalms and proverbs, and prophets.

Part 3 covers the different types of literature in the New Testament: stories, Jesus’ teachings, epistles (letters), and Revelation.

Part 4 contains four chapters concerning “Reading the Bible in Modern Contexts,” like personal and family devotions, as a church, and in times of sorrow.

At the end, Guthrie includes a couple of reading plans, including a chronological one.

Most of the chapters are the result of interviews Guthrie conducted with experts in various fields of Bible study. I appreciated that the interview format kept the book informal and accessible rather than academic. But because of the interview setting, sometimes extraneous details were included, like scenes from where the interview took place, the interviewee’s posture, etc. But I think the benefits of this process probably outweighed the extra unnecessary details.

I have multitudes of places marked in this book, but I’ll try to share just a few. If the source was someone other than Guthrie, I put that person’s name in parentheses.

God’s Word, wielded by the Holy Spirit, has the power to sort us out spiritually, to surprise and confront us, growing us in relationship with our Lord Christ. Thus, reading the Bible ought to at once be as encouraging as a mother’s gentle touch and, at moments, as unsettling and disturbing as a violent storm.

I would suggest that true literacy—the kind that matters—brings about clearer thinking and informed action. Thus, true biblical literacy involves an interaction with the Bible that changes the way one thinks and acts, and that kind of interaction takes time.

As we read on a daily basis, growing in our skill in Bible reading, the rhythm of a life lived deeply in God’s Word will become as nurturing as our daily meals, as spiritually strengthening as daily exercise, and as emotionally satisfying as a good-morning kiss from a spouse. It takes discipline, but Bible reading can come to be a discipline of delight if we open our hearts and lives to it.

The key is to have a posture toward God’s Word by which His Word is changing us in our context rather than our molding the Word to our cultural tastes and values. That is hard to do. We have to read with humility. And I think the beginning of humility is the fear of God. We have to believe in the authority of God’s Word and be ready to adjust our lives to it. (Andreas Kostenberger)

Jesus meant for people to put His words into action in specific, tangible ways. Our problem is that we think it is enough just to grasp general concepts as if taking in the Word of God is a mental exercise. Jesus, rather, meant our interaction with the Word to be a life exercise.

When we begin to see the beauty and power of the Bible’s story as a whole, we then begin to read each part of the Bible better. (Bruce Waltke)

When slogging through the myriad of laws about priestly worship practices, the tabernacle, uncleanness, and primitive issues of justice, you may feel like the wheels are coming off your momentum. Yet this part of Scripture is also God’s gift to His people. Gems here are waiting to be unearthed from under the seemingly crusty surface, and those gems form a vital part of the foundation of the Bible’s grand story.

I would hope, that when we come to Scripture, we would approach it not as a chore or a duty or a textbook but as a source of delight. At times we should say, ‘Wow! I’ve actually got the next half hour to read the Bible and talk to God!’ (David Howard)

So we need to remember that the Lord wants us to understand this book. We should pray, asking the Holy Spirit for insight and discernment as we read, even as we are putting forth effort to study and understand it. (J. Scott Duvall)

Lament teaches us that we have to go through the process of dealing with our suffering before God. You don’t just stuff your feelings down and put a good face on it, like a lot of us tend to do. You need to go through the process of pouring your heart out to God. And if you don’t have the language for it, the Bible will give you the language. (Michael Card)

Because we are ‘self-help’ oriented, too often we as Christians have become more content to go to the Christian bookstore and get good books there, neglecting our reading of the Bible. We think those books apply to us better than the Bible does, but the reality is, no book in the Christian bookstore can do what the Bible is divinely inspired to do: to transform us at the deepest levels in the way we think and live, to mold us into the image of Christ and show us our place in the grand story of Scripture. (Buddy Gray)

All I know about Guthrie is from some of his blog posts and this book, and I didn’t know any of the people he interviewed except that I had heard of a few of them. But don’t remember seeing any theological problems or concerning issues or statements.

This is a book I wish I had kept running notes or outlines of. But Guthrie does include a summary of the principles discussed at the end of each chapter, which helps for a quick review.

The general helps to reading and understanding as well as the specific advice and tips for the different genres were greatly helpful. I thought this book was an excellent resource for anyone who would like to understand and apply more of the Bible.

(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Women of the Word

WOTWIf you could only read one book about studying the Bible, I would recommend Women of the Word by Jen Wilkin.

I read it four years ago, but wanted to read it again. I should probably reread it every few years.

Jen opens with some of the mistaken approaches she took to reading the Word of God at first. One was reading it as if it were a book about her and to help her. Though the Bible does help us, it is a book about God. Another “turnaround” for her was the realization that the Bible should speak to the mind as well as, and even before, the heart.

If we want to feel a deeper love for God, we must learn to see him more clearly for who he is. If we want to feel deeply about God, we must learn to think deeply about God (p. 33).

We must love God with our minds, allowing our intellect to inform our emotions, rather than the other way around (p. 34).

Jen’s great passion is promoting Bible literacy, which she says “occurs when a person has access to a Bible in a language she understands and is steadily moving toward knowledge and understanding of the text” (pp. 36-37). She emphasizes the steady movement: we won’t some day “arrive” at complete Bible knowledge, but we should be ever growing.

But “we may develop habits of engaging the text that at best do nothing to increase literacy and at worse actually work against it” (p. 37). She discusses several of those wrong habits, like the Xanax approach (which “treats the Bible as if it exists to make us feel better,” p. 39), the Magic 8 ball approach, and several others.

Then she shares Five P’s of Sound Study: purpose, perspective, patience, process, and prayer, explaining, illustrating, and giving example of each. Within “process” she discusses comprehension, interpretation, and application, and she stresses reading in context and in consideration of the genre of each book.

Throughout the book Jen emphasizes that Bible study and literacy is not an end in itself: it is a means of knowing God for who He is, getting to know Him better and being changed to become more like Him.

Our study of the Bible is beneficial only insofar as it increases our love for the God it proclaims. Bible study is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. It is a means to love God more, and to live differently because we have learned to behold him better. And it is a means to become what we behold. The reciprocal love of God is a love that transforms (p. 148).

She includes an excellent chapter expressing the great need for women to teach women and sharing helps for those who would go on to lead Bible studies. I especially appreciated the admonition to avoid “ricocheting around the entire Bible…Good teaching will necessarily involve the use of cross-references, but not at the expense of the primary text” (p. 139) and to avoid “feminizing the text” (p. 140) as well as the rest of the advice in this chapter.

I am glad I read this again, and I am happy to recommend it again.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books,
Literary Musing Monday,
Carole’s Book’s You Loved)