Instead of writing to Father Christmas, why not write a letter to the Father of Lights?

“What do you want for Christmas?” is a question most of us will both ask and be asked in the run up to 25th December. No doubt more than a few have already sent off their annual letter to Father Christmas.

And it’s big business. The Retail Gazette reckons that people in the UK will spend a whopping £73 billion – yes billion not million – on Christmas this year.

In case you weren’t aware, the Bible doesn’t mention Father Christmas, even though he has connections with the St. Nicholas of church history.

It does however refer to our heavenly Father as the Father of Lights. James, Jesus’ brother is the one, the only one who uses this title for God:

16 Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. 17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.(James 1.16-18)

Here’s my suggestion: amongst all the giving and receiving that you do this Christmas, why not ask the Father of Lights for a special gift?

How can you ask and be sure you will receive?

First of all, ask with a right motive.

James again:

When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures (4.3).

It’s possible to ask for something for the wrong reason. God will not give you a “something” that revolves around your pleasure!

Secondly, ask for what is in line with God’s revealed will.

Here’s what Jesus’ disciple John said about asking God:

This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him. (1 John 5.14-15)

Wow! If what we ask for is in line with His will, we know that He hears us, and because we know He hears us we know we will receive what we asked for!

The Amplified Bible drives home the point even more strongly:

This is the [remarkable degree of] confidence which we [as believers are entitled to] have before Him: that [c]if we ask anything according to His will, [that is, consistent with His plan and purpose] He hears us. 15 And if we know [for a fact, as indeed we do] that He hears and listens to us in whatever we ask, we [also] know [with settled and absolute knowledge] that we have [granted to us] the requests which we have asked from Him.

The question therefore is how does what you are looking for line up with God’s will?

There are lots of things we don’t know about God’s will. But there are lots of things we do know about God’s will. That He wants us to be full of the Spirit. That He wants us to be more like Jesus. That He wants us to have a godly influence on the people around us. That He wants our families to know His love. That He wants to give us wisdom.

Finally, what result would a positive answer to your request produce?

The prayer Jesus taught His disciples, that we know as the Lord’s prayer gives us a guide to the kind of results we should look for from our prayers:

  • Extension of God’s influence – your kingdom come, your will be done
  • Needs being met – give us this day our daily bread
  • Strengthening our relationship with God and others – forgive us our sins as we forgive
  • Prevailing in spiritual conflict – lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil

Why not get writing to the Father of Lights? After all, it’s not like He’s keeping a big brother-like eye on you to make sure you’ve been a good boy or girl.

No, He gives to all without finding fault (James 1.5) .

Prayer: turning the language of weakness into the language of prayer

I don’t think I have ever met a Christian who has not at some point in their life struggled to pray.

There can be all sorts of reasons for this. Sometimes it is because of physical or emotional tiredness. Sometimes it is the pressure of a busy life. Sometimes we go through a season of what is vaguely described as a season of spiritual dryness. Difficulty in praying is often the result when we experience any of the preceding.

What can intensify the inner struggle that we experience, and even the sense of failure, is the recognition that we have all been given so much in Christ. We have the Holy Spirit living in us. We are adopted children of God. What’s the problem? Why should there be any problem whatsoever with prayer?

Thankfully, the Bible does take into account our humanity and the way that impacts on our prayer life. And God has given us His Spirit to help us precisely because we still live in mortal bodies in a fallen world.

In Romans 8.26, Paul says that the Spirit helps us, not in spite of our weakness, but because of our weakness. Our weakness is a combination of living in human bodies in a fallen world and not knowing what to pray for. That’s why we need the Spirit’s help.

The word helps is the same word as is used in Luke 10.40 when Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her. She was seeking her sister’s assistance. The Spirit assists us.

The Spirit helps us by giving us a language of prayer. The words wordless groans have been interpreted in various ways. Some maintain that it is the Spirit who does the groaning. Some say it is a reference to speaking in tongues. Some say that the Spirit transforms our groans into the language of prayer.

I don’t think we can say that the Spirit does the praying for us, so that we don’t have to pray. It’s more a case that He helps us in prayer by praying through us. He prays through us in wordless groans. (This could I believe refer to speaking in tongues as an aspect of this kind of praying. I don’t have space to set out the reasons here. Leave a message if you want to know my thoughts on this!)

Groaning is not an unknown form of prayer. When Jesus healed the deaf and dumb man, as recorded in Mark 7, verse 34 says that He sighed. The word translated sighed is the same as the word translated groans in Romans 8.26.

Interestingly in Acts 7.34 we are told that God heard the groaning of the Israelites when they were in slavery in Egypt. And we know what happened there!

The Spirit takes what most would consider the language of pain and transforms it into the language of prayer.

It might seem at first glance that this kind of praying is praying in its weakest form. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. It is through this kind of praying that we are able to pray for the church in accordance with God’s will. This kind of Holy Spirit empowered praying enables us to pray effectively because it enables us to pray in God’s will.

How do we pray like this? We simply open our hearts to God and let the Spirit take what is within us and turn it into effective prayer. Perhaps our weakness isn’t such a big deal after all.

Reconnecting with your inner priest

Over the last couple of decades there has been a lot of discussion as to what exactly the church is never mind what it does. Such discussions often draw on the images of the church that are found in the New Testament. Some think of the church primarily as the bride of Christ. Others focus on the family image expressed in the teaching about God’s fatherhood and our new status as adopted sons and daughters. For others still the metaphor – and reality – of spiritual conflict makes them think of the church primarily as an army.

One strand of New Testament teaching that is frequently overlooked in the discussion is the presentation of the church as a spiritual priesthood.

It is both surprising and unsurprising that this aspect of revelation has been neglected.

Unsurprising, because of the complicated history of priesthood within the church and the misgivings many have about the catholic understanding of priesthood. And it is unsurprising that this aspect of revelation has been underplayed in the Western church as the alternative to Christianity until fairly recent times has been secularism; in the developing world the religious alternatives are usually some sort of religious system in which a priest or priestess is central.

It is also surprising, because in both the Old and New Testament, God reveals His intention that His people are to be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19.6; Revelation 1.6). According to 1 Peter 2.5 the church is a holy priesthood and verse 9 of the same chapter describes the church as a royal priesthood.

So how does seeing ourselves as a priesthood affect the life and ministry of the church?

For a start, it directly connects us to the life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus was and is our Great High Priest (Hebrews4.14). He is the priest who offered up Himself as a sacrifice for us. And according to Hebrews 7.25, He always lives to make intercession for us.

Jesus is Saviour, King, Redeemer, Prophet, Son of God. He is also Priest.

There are three things, amongst others, that a priest does, that have great significance for us.

Firstly, priests offer sacrifice.

What kind of sacrifice can we offer? According to Romans 12.1-2 we are to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice. In other words the sacrifice that we make is to use our bodies to glorify God. That is our sacrifice. Just as Jesus offered up His body as a sacrifice, so we offer ours as a living sacrifice.

Secondly, priests pray.

Hebrews 5.7 says that Jesus offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears.

In any religion the priest or priestess is seen as a mediator. Someone who stands between people and God. Who represents God to people and people to God.

The church is God’s representative on earth. The church is to bring the needs of the world to God in prayer. And to bring the God’s love to the world through evangelism and acts of service.

Finally, priests offer worship to God.

Hebrews 13.15 says “Let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise, the fruit of lips that confess His name.”

The church is not only a praying community. God intends it to be a worshipping community.

God has placed His church in the world to represent His ways and to care for the people of the world. The teaching of the church as a priesthood captures this truth in a way that none of the other images of the church do. Perhaps it’s time we reconnected with our inner priest.

Abraham Lincoln: Prophet for our times?

Every now and again you discover something that stops you dead in your tracks. Or at least makes you think. Such was my recent discovery of the text of Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation of a national day of fasting.

Living in the times we do, it is almost inconceivable that the leader of a Western nation – or any nation for that matter – would make such a proclamation. Even a quick read of the text reveals an outlook on the world that is lost to the political elites who govern us today. Given that Lincoln’s proclamation was in response to a request from the Senate, it is all the more astonishing.

Lincoln’s declaration of a national day of prayer and fasting, made as it was during the civil war, makes a sharp and distinct connection between the nation’s woes and its forgetfulness of God: America had become too proud to pray to the God that had established and blessed her.

In describing how the spiritual condition of the nation had degenerated, Lincoln’s words have an uncomfortable resonance with our own times. Let me give you a flavour of the text:

 “We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity.”

“We have grown in numbers, wealth and power..”

“But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us…”

“…we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success…”

“… we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!”

Lincoln’s analysis at times feels like a prophecy of twenty-first century Britain. We might never had had it quite so good as America, but for most of the people for most of the time since the end of second world war, life has been pretty good – certainly in comparison to pre-war years and in comparison to many other nations in the world.  And whilst we might not be in a civil war, it is not too hard to spot the economic, political and religious fault lines that threaten to widen the divisions that already exist in our society.

What can we do about it? Given that twenty-first century Abe Lincolns are in short supply, our best course of action is one that the apostle Paul said was of first importance. It is of course to pray for good government.

We hear a lot about apostolic ministry today. In 1 Timothy 2.1-2 Paul states that prayer for good government is a number one apostolic priority:

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.

Somehow these words seem to have lost their force. Even in churches that have inerrancy and infallibility written into their statements of faith, zeal to implement Paul’s instruction is not always evident. If we spent as much time considering how we might apply Paul’s crystal clear teaching to pray for good government as we spend debating and discussing how to apply Paul’s less than clear teaching in verses 11-5 of 1 Timothy 2, we might begin to see a turnaround in our nation.

We will, I fear, wait a long time, perhaps in vain, for our political leaders to pick up the mantle of Lincoln and call us to prayer. But we can pray ourselves. And we can wait on the Lord, knowing that waiting on Him is never in vain.

The full text of Lincoln’s proclamation can be found here.

“God makes a way for a praying man “

One of the things I had hoped to do at the end of last year was post an article on the best books I had read in 2015. Somehow that post never materialised. It never got further than a few thoughts in my head. If I had written it, one book would certainly have made the top three, if not the number one spot. It was a biography of David Wilkerson, by his son Gary, The Cross, The Switchblade and The Man Who Believed.

David Wilkerson was a spiritual giant. Preacher, leader, pioneer. We’ll remember him as all those things. However, I have a feeling that Wilkerson saw himself as first and foremost a man of prayer.

When he was a boy, his dad use to say to him words that shaped his ministry: “God always makes a way for a praying man.” He never forgot those words. And they stood him in good stead throughout his life and ministry.

When you read through the Bible, you will search in vain for anyone who accomplished anything of any significance who was not a man or woman of prayer.

When the disciples wanted special instruction from Jesus, they did not ask Jesus to teach them to preach or lead worship. They said “Teach us to pray” (Luke 11.1). Jesus “often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5.16).

Out of David Wilkerson’s praying came Teen Challenge. Out of his praying came prophetic insights that were forty years ahead of their time.

Who knows what God will do as we seek His face in prayer and fasting? Jesus instructed us to pray and fast without drawing attention to ourselves. And He also promised that His Father would reward those who “did the business” of prayer and fasting in secret (Matthew 6.6, 18). Perhaps it was His way of saying “God makes a way for praying men and women.”

One Word For 2016

Words of advice and aspiration abound at this time of year. And so they should. New Year is as good a time as any to set goals, dream about the future and think about what we could do differently.

However, you don’t have to be a prophet to predict that 2016 will bring its own challenges and difficulties. Apologies if that thought is an unwelcome intrusion into your dreaming and planning! In our more realistic and honest moments, most of us, I think, acknowledge that the assertion that 2016 will not  be a sunny walk in the park is more a statement of fact than a mere opinion.

Having said all of that, what could be said that might help us as we enter a new year? I want to suggest one word that, understood and applied, could really make a big difference. I know some of you will guess that the word is “Jesus” or “faith”. How could I argue with you? However, let me suggest another word: resilience.

My definition of resilience is the ability to keep going when things get difficult or to bounce back when you have been knocked back.

Proverbs 24.16 indicates that the capacity to bounce back is something that belongs to the righteous: for though the righteous fall seven times, they rise again.

Consider for a moment how your life would change if you could up your resilience capacity by five per cent?

In Luke 18.1-8, Jesus tells a story in order to teach His disciples that they should always pray and not give up. It is a story about resilience.  

Why did the disciples need to hear this story? Why do we need to hear this story?

Although the Bible does not reveal anything more than the purpose of the story, three possible reasons present themselves.

Firstly, we need to hear a story about resilience because we have a propensity to give up in the face of difficulty. For some, the “giving up” threshold is high. It takes a lot to make them give up. For some it is low. A minor setback and they quit.

Secondly, Jesus’ story is reminder that when all our best efforts in any given situation have failed, we can always pray. No-one can stop you from praying. Not even the devil! No-one that is except you! When it looks like the last word has been spoken and there is no hope, you can still pray.

Finally, Jesus’ story is not just a story of resilience, it’s a story of promise. The woman had her request granted!  God answers the prayers of those who call to Him day and night. That’s a promise. Our priority is to stay in faith: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?”

There is eventual breakthrough.

Florence Chadwick was a phenomenal swimmer. In 1950 she broke the women’s record for swimming the English Channel. A year later, she became the first woman to swim the Channel both ways.

Not content with her records, Chadwick decided to swim from Catalina Island to the coast of California in 1952. She was making great progress, until a fog set in. She told her mother who was in one of the boats that she did not think she could continue. What she did not realise was that she was just one mile from her destination. She told the press afterwards: “All I could see was the fog…I think if I could have seen the shore I would have made it.”

Sometimes the mist of circumstances, emotions or even offence descends and we lose sight of the shore. The promise of God lifts the fog and brings breakthrough into view.

Whatever you do in the year ahead, keep swimming. Keep the promise of God before you. Have a resilient 2016.

3 reasons people find it hard to pray

I read a story sometime in the last decade about a man who went to a prayer meeting. The man was from Asia. He was visiting America and decided he wanted to visit one of the churches. One Sunday he went to a well-attended church and enjoyed the service. So he thought he would return mid-week for the prayer meeting. He checked the day and the time.

On the appointed day, he set out for the prayer meeting. He wanted to be in time to get a seat, so he aimed to be at the church one hour before the beginning of the meeting. This church, he reasoned, is so big and so influential the prayer meeting will be packed out. So off he went, expecting to join a queue of prayer warriors.

To his surprise, he found that he was the only one at the appointed place so early. As the time for prayer approached, a handful of others joined him. But it was only a handful. How could such a great church, he wondered, be so successful with such a poor attendance at the prayer meeting?

Why is it in the Western world we often find it so hard to pray when it should be something instinctive to Christians? You know the saying about prayer being the Christian’s vital breath, and all that?

Let me offer three reasons why we either don’t pray or find it hard to pray.

One reason we do not pray is a very simple one: prayer is nowhere near first on our list of priorities.

We do what is important to us. We make time for things that are important to us, even if they are not really that important!

The issue is not whether prayer is important or not. We all know it’s important. It’s whether it’s important to me? That’s a question we have to answer for ourselves.

A second reason we do not pray or struggle with prayer, is also a very simple one. It’s the flesh.

In the hour when Jesus sought the prayer support of those disciples who were closest to Him, they failed Him miserably. They fell asleep when they should have been praying. Let’s face it, if you are tired and trying to pray, it’s not too hard to nod off.

Jesus summed up their failure with words that have been applied to scenarios far removed from falling asleep in prayer, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

To pray – and pray effectively – we have to press through the demands and excuses of our flesh. My flesh will convince me that watching tv on a Friday evening instead of going to the prayer meeting is spending quality time with my family. It will reason that I need that extra half hour in bed instead of attending the Saturday morning prayer meeting. It will tell me all sorts of pious tales about how people can become so heavenly minded but be no earthly use. Those, dear friends, are the kinds of arguments our flesh uses to keep us from prayer.

The only way to handle the flesh is to put it to death. How do you do that? Say “No” to it!

A third reason we do not pray, or struggle with prayer, is that of frustration.

There are all sorts of ways we become vulnerable to frustration. We prayed and believed God for a specific answer in a specific situation, but the opposite happened. Or we have prayed for someone or something for a long time but there is still no change. If this describes you, don’t give up! Keep praying! Jesus told His disciples a story about prayer that had one point: we should always pray and not give up (Luke 18.1).

Another way in which we become vulnerable to frustration is perhaps a bit surprising.

The example of the great prayer warriors can serve to intimidate us rather than inspire us. Generations of Christians have been brought up on Rees Howells, E.M. Bounds, Praying Hyde and a host of other incredible prayer warriors. People like this can be inspiring, but taken the wrong way, they can make you feel that you have never prayed at all! I would suggest that we have much to learn from the prayer “Greats”, but they should not be regarded as role models. Unless that is, you have a specific calling from God.

One of the great pray-ers of the last century was Smith Wigglesworth. He once said he never prayed for more than twenty minutes, but that he never went more than twenty minutes without praying! That kind of approach is probably more helpful. Make the most of the spare moments. Don’t allow yourself to be locked into a particular form or expression of prayer. Intimacy with the Spirit will take you into a far more effective and satisfying prayer life than the inspiration of prayer giants past or present.

Paul says in Colossians 4.2:

 Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.”

The Amplified Bible translates:

“Be earnest and unwearied and steadfast in your prayer [life], being [both] alert and intent in [your praying] with thanksgiving.”

That’s the challenge. But by the grace of God and the power of the Spirit, it’s one we can rise to.