Pressing On

with THE WORD

A study of the Scriptures to discover who God is, what He is like, and how to partner with Him now.

Filtering by Tag: struggle

The snooze button is a liar

A blaring alarm clock is not the thing you want to hear first thing in the morning.  The alarm tone is purposely loud and obnoxious so we are awakened from our slumber to start the day at the right time.  Even though we’re the ones who picked the time for the alarm, we still resent that the alarm is interrupting our sleep.

We’ve got a ton of things to do, and a schedule to keep if we want to do them well.  Yet, sitting deceptively close to the “Alarm Off” button is another button.  It is usually several times larger than the one to stop the alarm – the Snooze Button.

When the alarm is blaring, the main thing I care about is hitting the button to make it stop…but this other button makes an enticing offer: I could lay my groggy head back down on the pillow for an additional 9 minutes.  The Snooze Button invites me to give up “just a tiny fraction” of my morning so I can get that much more rest before starting my day.  I let it convince me that I will feel better and more active, if I could just get a few more minutes of sleep.

But let’s be honest: I rarely hit the Snooze Button only once.  And when I do eventually get up, the morning is super-rushed because I’m now pressed for time.  I barely have time to shower, dress, grab my work bag, and stuff some food in my face before running out the door, all of which could have been easily managed had I not pressed the Snooze Button.

But I’ve noticed two things – First, I am NOT more rested when I take the Snooze Button’s offer of additional sleep, broken up into 9 minute chunks.  If anything, I feel more tired and frazzled at the start of my day.  Secondly, whenever I “sleep in” the first item on my to-do list that gets dropped is my time reading God’s Word.

All throughout the Bible we see examples of God wanting to spend time with us, but what we also see is that God expects us to put in some effort and desire to be with Him.  Look at the three “IFs” Solomon gives his son, and what result will come if he actually follows through:

Proverbs 2:1-5
My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you,
listening closely to wisdom and directing your heart to understanding;
furthermore, if you call out to insight and lift your voice to understanding,
if you seek it like silver and search for it like hidden treasure,

then you will understand the fear of the Lord and discover the knowledge of God.

Why do we need to spend time in the Bible?  Paul reminded Timothy of the Scripture’s usefulness and effect on his life:

2 Timothy 3:16-17
All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

One last example.  Peter is reminding his readers of their main source of food for spiritual growth:

1 Peter 2:2
Like newborn infants, desire the pure milk of the word, so that you may grow up into your salvation

There are numerous other references and examples I could give, but I think you get the point.  God wants to meet with us, but we need to intentionally set aside time to do so.  Perhaps you need to take the small step I need to take: stop hitting the Snooze Button.  That button lies to us – we don’t get what it promises.  We end up starting our day rushed and feeling bad, while missing out on something much, much better.

Are you skeptical that God couldn’t use 9 minutes with Him to make a difference in your life?  I dare you to try it this next week and find out.

Keep Pressing,
Ken

Flashback Favorite - A progressive relationship

There are a lot of moving parts in my life at the moment. Sometimes, life moves at an easy pace. Sometimes, it feels like you’re at the bottom of the dogpile. When things feel more like the latter, I’ve found it’s best reconnect with God through through two things - going to the Psalms and grounding myself in truth God has already taught me.

With the parts of life I’m working through right now and as I’m sorting through the next post series, I need to go back to these truths I learned all the way back in 2015. I hope this reminder is as helpful to you as it is for me.

A progressive relationship
originally posted on May 20, 2015

The Creator of the Universe is a God who values order.  There was order and progression when creation took place – light first, then ground, next plants, followed by animals, and lastly humans.  We refer to the predictable steps of any process as its “lifecycle”.  We understand that every activity we encounter will have a beginning and then subsequent phases that are passed through, one after another.  Similarly, there is a natural progression in our relationship with God.

Read though this section of Psalm 119 and look for the active verbs used to describe how the psalmist interacts with God:

Psalm 119:9-16
How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping Your word.
I have sought You with all my heart; don’t let me wander from your commands.
I have treasured Your word in my heart so that I may not sin against You.
Lord, may You be praised; teach me Your statues.
With my lips I proclaim all the judgments from Your mouth.
I rejoice in the way revealed by Your decrees as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on Your precepts and think about Your ways.
I will delight in Your statues; I will not forget Your word.

I have sought…I have treasured…I proclaim…I rejoice…I will meditate…I will delight

When we look for it, the natural process of a relationship with God clearly stands out.  The verbs are flowing through past, present, and future steps as the author describes his interaction with God.

Where do you find yourself in this progression?

I have heard many well-intentioned speakers tell me that I need to be rejoicing in the Lord and that I should always delight in Him.  While I agree that those actions are great things to do and I would love to be able to whole-heartedly rejoice and delight in God always…the progression we see in the psalm reveals why I’ve likely struggled with doing them or felt guilty about not feeling completely genuine when I try to do them.

Before the psalmist rejoiced, or even got to delight, can you see where he started?  He sought God with all of his heart.  Next he purposely treasured God’s word in his heart, in order to avoid sin and the damage that sin would cause to the relationship.

It wasn’t until after he had pursued God and valued God that the psalmist was ready to proclaim all the judgments from God’s mouth.  He wasn’t able to communicate God’s decisions until after he knew God intimately.  Historically, the American church has pushed its people to make sure they are “spreading the gospel” and “sharing their story” instead, the church’s focus should have been making sure we’re actively seeking God and valuing His word.  Telling others about Jesus will be easy if we already have the relationship in place, but it’s nearly impossible to explain the decisions and motivations of a person you have no relationship with. 

From there the psalmist found joy in the way revealed by God’s decrees, even to the point that he now looks forward to meditating and thinking about God’s ways.  The delight that he takes from God’s word then isn’t something he’s drummed up from within himself, rather it is the culmination of a deep-seeded relationship with his Creator.

If you’re not where you’d like to be in this relationship timeline, take a step back and ensure you’re developing your intimacy with God by seeking Him and purposely treasuring His word.  The rest will naturally progress from that investment.

Keep Pressing,
Ken

A question of belief

Can I be open and honest with you?

Throughout my decades as a follower of Jesus, I have had several mini-crises of faith.  Times of struggle or tragedy in my own life (or in the lives of those that I love) have caused me to pause and wonder a number of different things, like:

·       Does God really care what happens to us?
·       Is living the Christian life really worth it?
·       Do I really believe all this “Jesus stuff”?

These are hard-core questions, and our pride may make it difficult for us to admit to other people that we wrestle with these kinds of thoughts.  But we wonder, just the same.  And it’s hard to reason through these kinds of questions.  Our feelings can be all over the places, especially when life goes sideways.  Throw in the daily struggle with sinful desires, and we can easily start a mental tailspin.

As our feelings ebb-and-flow and our actions are typically tainted with at least some level of selfishness, we can’t rely on ourselves to answer these questions and doubts.  This is where it is helpful to look at what Jesus explicitly said about us and about Himself. 

John’s record of a conversation between Jesus and Martha can help as we deal with our questions and doubts:

John 11:17-27
When Jesus arrived, He found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.  Bethany was near Jerusalem (less than two miles away).  Many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother.

As soon as Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet Him, but Mary remained seated in the house.  Then Martha said to Jesus, “Lord if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.  Yet even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give You.”

“Your brother will rise again,” Jesus told her.

Martha said to Him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.  The one who believes in me, even if he dies, will live.  Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.  Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord,” she told Him, “I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who comes into the world.”


Martha was going through what was likely the toughest time of her life – her brother had fallen sick and she watched over him as he died.  God hadn’t answer her prayers to heal Lazarus.  Jesus didn’t arrive in time to rescue Lazarus from the pain he was suffering.  Martha had been grieving for four days when Jesus arrived.

Martha was looking toward future events for comfort, instead Jesus directed her to look at who was standing next to her.  What Jesus offered was Himself.  It is in this conversation that Jesus states one of His greatest “I am” statements: I am the resurrection and the life.  If we believe this statement, then Jesus guarantees that even if our bodies experience physical death, we will still live – forever.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t say to clean up our lives and then He’ll give us eternal life.  He does not tell Martha to examine her life to see if she really does believe in Him.  He also does not tell her to make sure she continues to act a certain way.  In fact, Jesus does not tell Martha to look at herself, at all.

Jesus said that those who believe in Him have eternal life, no matter what else happens in this life.  Based upon what Jesus said, our hope and eternal security are found exclusively in Him – not in our circumstances, not in how we feel, not in how we behave.

Do you believe this?

Keep Pressing,
Ken
 

Struggling with not knowing God's purpose

Last time, we saw how Jesus’ disciples struggled to trust His plan, even after He explicitly told them what He was planning.  Now we’re going to look at the other side of the equation, the one we’re much more familiar with – struggling to cope when we do not know how God’s plan is going to unfold.

But first, a quick recap of the situation:

Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are siblings who live outside of Jerusalem in a town called Bethany.  They also are very close to Jesus.  The Scriptures say repeatedly that Jesus loved them.  One day, Lazarus becomes so sick that the sisters send someone to make the several-days long hike to find Jesus and bring Him back so He can heal Lazarus.  As soon as He gets the news, Jesus says “Lazarus’ sickness will not end in death, but is for the glory of God” (John 11:4).  So that means He immediately gets up and leaves for Bethany, right?  Nope.  Instead, He waits.

John 11:6-7
So when He heard that he was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was.  Then after that, He said to the disciples, “Let’s go to Judea again.”

Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  They didn’t get to hear Jesus’ response.  They just knew someone had gone to get Jesus.  Surely, He would come to Bethany as quickly as He could.  Probably only stopping to sleep, definitely moving as quick as possible during the daylight.  I can easily imagine the sisters trying to encourage their brother:

“Just hang on, Lazarus.  Jesus is coming.  When He gets here, he’ll make you better.  Just hold on.”

But what’s going through Lazarus’ mind?  He can feel his body giving out.  He’s likely in pain and suffering.  He wants to hold on, so Jesus can fix him…but he’s not sure how much longer he can keep on holding.  Does he worry about dying?  Does he worry about what happens to his sisters if Jesus doesn’t arrive in time?

And then…Jesus doesn’t arrive in time to perform a healing.  Lazarus dies.  His family and friends go through the Jewish burial ceremonies, prepare the body to be buried, and then put him in a cave of a tomb – sealing the entry with a large rock.

Their emotions had to have been all over the place.  They watched, helplessly, as their brother died.  Did the messenger not reach Jesus in time?  Was He delayed?  Why did this happen?  Why were their prayers unanswered?  They grieved and processed these questions for several days…and then Jesus shows up.

As if their world wasn’t topsy-turvy already, now a new round of emotions flooded over them.  Frustrated, surprised, angry, bewildered…how would you have felt?  While the sisters separately approached Jesus, they both had the same mindset:

John 11:20-21, 32
As soon as Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet Him, but Mary remained seated in the house.  Then Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”…As soon as Mary came to where Jesus was and saw Him, she fell at His feet and told Him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!”

I believe they were 100% right.  Based upon other comments Jesus makes in this chapter, I am certain that had He been there, Jesus would have healed Lazarus.  Even though it wasn’t what Mary and Martha wanted…He waited, and it wasn’t because He didn’t care:

John 11:33-35
When Jesus saw her crying, and the Jews who had come with her crying, He was deeply moved in His spirit and troubled.

“Where have you put him?” He asked.
“Lord,” they told Him, “come and see.”

Jesus wept.

This moment answers the questions we often struggle with: “Where is God when bad things happen?  Where is Jesus when everything is wrong?  Where is God when it hurts?”

His timing may not be what we would choose, but we’re not abandoned.  He’s not cold and distant.  Jesus is deeply moved and troubled as He sees us struggle.  Jesus weeps right along side of us. 

Jesus cares deeply about what we’re going through.  Jesus weeps at how we are affected by the consequences of sin.  He knows that without Him, both physical and spiritual death is inevitable for all of us.

And although we struggle to see it, He knows exactly what He’s doing.

Keep Pressing,
Ken
 

Struggling with knowing God’s purpose

We often want to know EXACTLY what God is up to.  We look around at the state of the world, or even at a struggle in our own lives and think, “Man, if only God would tell me WHY this is happening, I think I could deal with it all.

The truth is, we may be giving ourselves too much credit.  I’m not so sure that we could ‘handle it’ even if God was blunt and spoke plainly to us.  After all, take a look at the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ revealed plan for Lazarus:

John 11:5-10
Now Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus.  So when He heard that [Lazarus] was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was.  Then after that, He said to the disciples, “Let’s go to Judea again.”

“Rabbi,” the disciples told Him, “just now the Jews tried to stone you, and you’re going there again?”

“Aren’t there twelve hours in a day?” Jesus answered.  “If anyone walks during the day, he doesn’t stumble, because he sees the light of this world.  But if anyone walks during the night, he does stumble, because the light is not in him.”


The disciples are trying to get Jesus to make a “business decision”.

If you haven’t heard the term before, it’s a straight-forward concept.  A “business decision” usually comes when people want to ensure their own safety, even if it means they end up taking a short-term loss, or even potentially end up neglecting others.  One modern-day example is sometimes seen in college football: a sure-fire top-10 draft pick decides to sit out of his team’s bowl game, because a good performance won’t help his stock any, so playing one last game isn’t worth the risk of injury to his future career.  Similarly, a few years back in the Super Bowl, a team’s starting Quarterback opted to not reach out for the football that was fumbled near him.  Why?  Because there were six 300 lb men also nearby, and they were all diving for the ball at the same time.  He didn’t want to risk injury, even if it meant the other team would recover the ball.  In that split-second, the QB made a “business decision”.

With the disciples, we really can’t blame them for bringing up what happened the last time they were in Jerusalem – the Jewish leaders did try to kill Jesus.  And if they’re ready to kill Him, then they would have no issues killing a disciple, either.  So, I understand their “business decision” argument.  Their line of thinking could have easily gone like this:  Jesus said that Lazarus would get better, and we’ve seen Him heal from a distance before, so why risk death when we don’t have to?  Instead, Jesus rebuffs their argument, reminding them that they will be fine as long as they are walking with Him.  Then Jesus tries to gently break the news to them about Lazarus…but they don’t quite understand:

 John 11:11-16
He said this, and then He told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I’m on my way to wake him up.”

Then the disciples said to Him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will get well.”

Jesus, however, was speaking about his death, but they thought he was speaking about natural sleep.  So Jesus then told them plainly, “Lazarus has died.  I’m glad for you that I wasn’t there so that you may believe.  But let’s go to him.”

Then Thomas (called “Twin”) said to his fellow disciples, “Let’s go too so that we may die with Him.”

Even after explicitly telling the disciples:
where He was going,
why He was going,
and what He was going to do when He got there…

Some of the disciples were still convinced Jesus’ actions were not going to end well.  Just like most of us probably would, Thomas uses sarcasm to cope with and even cover for his fear: “Well, since Jesus is on a death mission, we might as well march along with Him.  What else are we going to do?”

So here we have God telling them EXACTLY what He was up to…and they tried to talk Him out of it.  The important thing to note, however, was that after Jesus confirmed to them that this indeed was the direction He was going – the disciples still went with Him, even though they had reservations, because they trusted Him.  And because they followed, they witnessed the biggest miracle they had ever seen.

That’s our take home message here: Even when God’s chosen path doesn’t make sense, and we would have opted to take another route, we still follow Him because we trust Him. 

Keep Pressing,
Ken
 

Making the effort, but struggling in weakness

Christ, the Greater Messenger, has invited us to partner with Him now.  The reward for doing so is entering God’s rest, which is the administration of His future kingdom.  The author of Hebrews is using the example of the Israelites leaving Egypt and their opportunity to participate in the administration of the future county of Israel as a parallel to our own lives:

Hebrews 4:9-11
A Sabbath rest remains, therefore, for God’s people.  For the person who has entered His rest has rested from his own works, just as God did from His.  Let us then make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall into the same pattern of disobedience.

Notice that the author is stressing our need to make every effort to enter that rest; as such, he is clearly not taking about Jesus’ offer of eternal salvation from the penalty of our sins.  If the rest discussed here were simply heaven, we wouldn’t have to work for it, because eternal life is an unearned gift (John 3:16; John 10:25; Ephesians 2:8-9; Revelation 22:17).  Effort, however, is needed if we are going to be partners with Jesus and His administration of the universe.  Our efforts now do not affect “where” we will spend eternity, but our efforts now will effect “what” we will be doing in eternity future.

Since the Israelites’ example and Jesus’ superior message are available in Scripture, this is the place we should be looking to see what we must do NOW in order to enter into the future kingdom participation LATER.  However, when we look through Scripture, we discover:

Hebrews 4:12-13
For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating as far as to divide soul, spirit, joints, and marrow; it is a judge of the ideas and thoughts of the heart.  No creature is hidden from Him, but all things are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give an account.

Since an account for my life will be given, all my times of having a sinful, unbelieving heart will be known…and I remember how God dealt with the Israelites for the unbelief (they missed out on participating in the establishment of the kingdom of Israel!)  What am I going to do, then?  Given my mistakes, sins, and all the times I act selfishly…How can I ever be considered qualified to partner with God in the future?

Hebrews 4:14-15
Therefore since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens – Jesus the Son of God – let us hold fast to the confession.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tested in every way as we are, yet without sin.

This tells me that Christ is on my side, as my brother in the family and the bridge for my relationship between me and God the Father.  I am not alone in my struggles!  Even greater still, we are told:

Hebrews 4:16
Therefore let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us at the proper time.

In all honesty, my human mind would not expect this.  We are so weak…so very, very weak.  We do not deserve the first, second, or any chance to partner with God.  And once again, our God blows away our expectations with His mercy and grace.

Jesus is here to sympathize with our weaknesses and to help us in our time of need, so that we can make every effort to enter that rest.

Keep Pressing,
Ken
 

Why God makes us wait

I am a rather weak creature, much weaker than I care to admit.

When life is “good”, I am content to coast as long as possible.  I expend as little effort as I can, so I don’t rock the boat and change the comfortable circumstances.  However, my inactivity quickly leads to stagnation.  When I’m stagnant, I become sluggish and self-centered.  I neglect my time with God, and I resent my time around others.  I become fully focused on me and the protection of my comfortable circumstances.

It’s for these reasons that I believe God allows difficulties and adversaries into my life.  When life gets bumpy or takes a detour, I am jarred out of my stagnation.  I am forced to recognize that I am not the one in charge…and that my best course of action is to pray to the one Who is.

At some level, it’s comforting to me to know that I’m not the only follower of God who struggles with this.  Because of his adversaries, David also recognized his immediate need for God and His guidance.

Psalm 27:11-14
Because of my adversaries,
show me Your way, Lord,
and lead me on a level path.
Do not give me over to the will of my foes,
for false witnesses rise up against me,
breathing violence.

I am certain that I will see the Lord’s goodness
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be courageous and let your heart be strong.
Wait for the Lord.

At the beginning of this psalm, David said: 

The Lord is my light and my salvation –
whom should I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life –
of whom should I be afraid?

When David referred to the Lord as my salvation, he wasn’t talking about eternal salvation from the penalty of sin.  David has confidence that he will see the Lord’s goodness in this life, that he would be saved from those who wanted to do him harm…but David also recognized that he would have to wait for the Lord’s assistance.

I believe that for the same reasons He allows adversaries and difficulties into our lives, God also allows us to wait for His rescue.  Our struggle to patiently anticipate the Lord’s salvation develops our faith in ways that only waiting can.

When life takes a detour, be courageous and let your heart be strongSalvation is coming, you just have to trust and wait for the Lord.

Keep Pressing,
Ken

Finding rest

The world can be rough place.  We liken our struggles to living in a jungle, or going rounds in a boxing match, or constantly playing a part on stage.  At times the difficulties seem so insurmountable that we have to remind ourselves to breathe.  And no matter how independent we say we are, dealing with life is always more difficult when we try going at it alone.

As we look at Paul’s prayer for Philemon, look closely for the characteristics of Philemon’s relationships with others:

Philemon 4-6
I always thank my God when I mention you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and faith toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints.

I pray that your participation in the faith may become effective through knowing every good thing that is in us for the glory of Christ.

After praying about the out-workings of his faith, Paul continues with how Philemon demonstrates his love toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints:

Philemon 7
For I have great joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.

Paul commends Philemon for being a person whose presence invites people to rest.  The Greek word for refreshed means to cause or permit someone to cease from any movement or labor, in order for them to recover and collect their strength.

The believers who met in Philemon’s house didn’t have to work to earn his love.  Philemon’s manner and attitude allowed them to relax and regain strength.  The ancient world didn’t really view being a Christ-follower as a good thing, so you can imagine that the first century believers dealt with constant social, business, and family pressures because they chose to trust Jesus for eternal life.

What’s also interesting is that Jesus used the same Greek word when He gave an open offer to the crowd in front of Him:

Matthew 11:28-29
Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  All of you, take up My yoke and learn from Me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for yourselves.

I’m certain that Philemon was able to generously act this way because he took Jesus up on His offer and found rest in his own relationship with his Savior.  As he had experienced rest and refreshment, Philemon was then able to provide a similar environment to others.

We, too, need brothers and sisters in our church families that can provide a safe place for us to rest.  We need a place and time to cease activity and gather our strength for the next round that life will throw our way. 

I think it is also important that we show love to other believers the same way that Philemon did and provide a place of refreshment.  However, we won’t be able to do so until we take Jesus up on His offer to find our rest in Him.  So we have a couple of hard questions we need to ask ourselves: 

Where do we go when we’re tired and worn down? 
Do we escape into a hobby, our phones, TV, food, or something else? 
How quickly do we turn to Jesus for rest?
Do we trust that Jesus’ rest will satisfy and refresh us?

Are we willing to offer a place of rest and refreshment to other believers?

Keep Pressing,
Ken

The hard work of prayer

Paul would often tell the recipients of his letters the specific things he was praying for them.  In several instances, he would ask his readers to pray for him.  However, out of all his letters in the New Testament, only once did Paul commend someone for the way they prayed.

Colossians 4:12-13
Epaphras, who is one of you, a slave of Christ Jesus, greets you.  He is always contending for you in his prayers, so that you can stand mature and fully assured in everything God wills.  For I testify about him that he works hard for you, for those in Laodicea, and for those in Hierapolis.

When we think of doing hard work we immediately think of manual labor.  We associate the phrase hard work with physical activities, such as digging trenches, heavy lifting, and constructing structures.  Similarly, we identify a hard worker as a person with a “sun up to sun down” work ethic; someone who is relentlessly pursuing the completion of a project.

Interestingly enough, Paul says that Epaphras works hard in his prayers for those in and around the town he was from.  When Paul wrote the letter to the Colossian believers, Epaphras was working with Paul while he was imprisoned for preaching the gospel.  It’s possible that they were as far away as Rome.

And despite that distance, Epaphras believed there was some way for him to continue to help his home community.  So he prayed.  But Epaphras didn’t just ask God to keep them safe; he wasn’t offering up a quick “God please help them with their…stuff…they’re going through” prayer request.  Instead, Epaphras prayed, and prayed hard.

When describing the way Epaphras prayed, Paul said that “he is always contending for you in his prayers”.  The Greek word for contending is “agonizomai” from which you can see a relation to our English word “agonize”.  Agonizomai was an athletic competition term, and it was used when a person had an intense struggle or fight. 

This is how Epaphras would pray for his fellow believers.  He loved these people so much, that he was willing to regularly struggle and strive before God on their behalf.  The main focus of his prayers wasn’t asking for them to be comfortable or even healthy.  Instead, he aggressively petitioned God for their maturity and that they would be fully assured that their choices were lined up with God’s desires.

Epaphras is an incredible example for us.  Whom are we willing to do heavy lifting in prayer for?  Those in our immediate family are easy ones to start with.  However, even those we are not physically close to are worth praying over.  After all, the One we pray to is near to every believer.

Keep Pressing,
Ken

How to stay focused while praying

About a year ago, I started a series exploring the way Jesus prayed.  My theory was that if God’s goal is to make me more Christ-like, then I should probably take a look at how, when, and where Jesus prayed.  Out of the numerous things I learned, two observations of Jesus’ prayer life stuck out:

First, that He frequently went off to quiet places to spend time with the Father in prayer.  Out of a variety of circumstances, Jesus was constantly devoting chunks of alone time to talking with His Father in Heaven.

Second, Jesus’ main concern in His prayers was the Father.  Jesus was primarily focused on the Father’s plan and the Father’s glory.  His aim was to increase the Father’s glory – which means to enhance the Father’s reputation and honor in the world, and this was primarily achieved as Jesus completed the mission that the Father gave Him to accomplish.

As rich as that study was, as I moved on to other parts of Scripture I didn’t always remember these main lessons.  Looking back, my prayer life has both ebbed and flowed…tossed about by circumstance and my mental state of the moment.  One particular item I’ve struggled with is staying focused while praying. 

When I pray, I’m usually sitting in a quiet room with my eyes closed to avoid visual distractions.  My conversation with the Father starts out alright, but about half way through the fourth sentence…my mind jumps to something that needs my attention later on in the day, or I remember what I had forgotten to buy at the store, or I start to process a relationship problem that needs addressed at work or with a friend or in my family. 

It never fails…my mind picks the worst possible moment to leave the deep waters of relationship with the Father, and I starting splashing around in shallow thoughts of the smaller parts of life.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve apologized to God for mentally abandoning our quiet time together.

I don’t think my struggle is all that unique, either.  In various forms, I’ve heard other Christians voice similar difficulties.  I suspect that ancient believers also dealt with this, because towards the end of his letter to the believers in Colossae, Paul wrote

Colossians 4:2-3
Devote yourselves to prayer; stay alert in it with thanksgiving.

Since Jesus’ death and resurrection bridged the gap between us and God, we know that as a child of God, we can pray at any time to our Father.  However, I think we tend to take advantage of that freedom and we get comfortable with sporadic communication.  Paul’s instruction here is to make prayer a priority, something we are devoted to.  Just like Jesus purposely setting aside chunks of time, we should as well.  Early morning, late night, commuting to work, or wherever we can consistently get time for just us and the Father; we need to make the time and protect that time from other things that will try to distract us.

This is where I’m so grateful for the second half of Paul’s instruction – stay alert in it with thanksgiving.  When my mind drifts off, I can immediately refocus my attention by thanking God for something, anything.  Giving thanks takes the focus off of me and my agenda because it makes me look toward the person I’m saying “Thank you” to.

As I have been applying Paul’s instruction, I’m realizing how a lack of thanksgiving has kept me unfocused…and being unfocused has prevented me from growing deeper with the Father.  So I need to make sure I’m purposely scheduling chunks of time with the most important Person in my life, and also telling Him about all the parts of my life that I am thankful for.  I’m certain that as I do this, my concern for the Father’s plan and the Father’s glory will increase.  Then I will begin praying like Jesus did, because my relationship with the Father will be a lot like Jesus’ relationship with the Father.

Maturity, growth, and deep relationship will not happen if we give God some sporadic moments of talk during our week.  The richness of a relationship with our Creator will only happen as we devote time to Him.  Will you make that choice?  The first step is simply saying “Thank you”.

Keep Pressing,
Ken

Worth the effort

We usually have a rather negative understanding of the words “struggle” and “striving”.  Maybe it’s because of our risk-adverse mentality…we don’t like pain, so we want to avoid difficult situations.  Maybe it’s because of our egos…we don’t want to appear inadequate, so we skip out on anything hard.

Whatever our reasons may be – when we think about struggling, it’s assumed to be a bad thing.

Paul did not hold to this kind of thinking, at least not with his mission from God.  Paul’s goal wasn’t just to get people “saved” and then move on to the next group of people.  Instead, look at who Paul was willing to struggle and labor for:

Colossians 1:28-2:1

We proclaim Him, warning and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.  I labor for this, striving with His strength that works powerfully in me.  For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you, for those in Laodicea, and for all who have not seen me in person.

He desired that everyone who believes on Jesus would become mature in Christ.  In Paul’s mind, if people are important enough for Jesus to die for, then they are important enough for Paul to labor, strive, and struggle for.  He is not just being twisted up in anguish, wishing the people of the world would just get better.  Instead, Paul takes specific actions – to proclaim Jesus, and then both warn and teach everyone who will listen.

Paul proclaimed the good news of the gospel wherever he traveled.  After someone would believe on Jesus for eternal life, Paul would then give them their next steps – providing both cautions and encouragements for how to live their new life in Christ.  However, these steps aren’t always easy to communicate, and many times these messages are hard to receive.  Making sure we give clear instruction and guidance, as well as being sure that the message is correctly understood, can take great effort on our part.  Paul was up front when he said that these actions were a labor for him. 

However, did you notice how Paul was able to press on in this important task?  As Paul labored and struggled in maturing others, he didn’t do this out of his own bull-headed effort.  Instead, he trusted that Jesus would provide His strength and that strength would work powerfully through him.  Paul knew that since God had given him this mission to develop and mature others, then God would provide him with the means and the strength to get through the struggles that would come.

Are there people in our lives that are worth the effort to strive and labor for their maturity?  You bet there are.  But we can’t just sit around and wish that they would mature or that someone else will help them along.  We need to be the ones to proclaim Jesus, and then be willing to both warn and teach those whom God has placed in our path.

Keep Pressing,
Ken 

Finding our purpose

A few years ago, I was having a “parental discussion” with one of my sons.  As he was struggling with the situation at hand, I pointed him toward what God had to say about the subject…to which he snapped in frustration, “Does everything have to be about God?

I honestly can’t blame him for asking.  In fact, he verbalized something we all struggle with, but are typically too scared to say out-loud.  We don’t want to think about the bigger, God-sized perspective when we’re angry about our current circumstances.  We secretly don’t want to admit that we are not the main character in our life’s story.  We’re afraid that if we’re not in control of the situation, everything will fall apart…or at least not turn out the way we think would be best for us.

These kinds of questions and struggles are not new.  It is part of the sanctification process, part of us growing closer to God after we’ve accepted Jesus as our Savior.  Even believers in the first century dealt with the same struggles we face.  In his letter to the believers in Colossae, Paul’s solution to these kinds of doubts is to have an accurate view of who Jesus truly is.

Speaking about Jesus, Paul states:

Colossians 1:15-16
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation;
because by Him everything was created, in heaven and on earth,
the visible and the invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities –
all things have been created through Him and for Him.

The fact that Jesus is the One who created everything is explored in these verses.  The last line says it clearly – all things have been created through Him.  However, I don’t think that any of us believers have a problem accepting that.  We look at the magnificent world around us, and understand that it was created.  The design and detail we find as we explore creation points us toward an intelligent purpose rather than suggesting the world “happened” by some “random chance”.

However, it’s the last two words of the sentence that give us pause:

all things have been created…for Him

Did anything inside you bristle or pull back, even just a little bit?
With that slight recoil, we’re internally asking, “Does everything have to be about God?

Because if those two words are true, if all things have really been created for Him, then our perspective on all things will have to change, won’t it?  When I’m honest with myself, I worry that I won’t have any say over what happens next if I’m not the most important person in my life-story.   I’m not sure of where this new understanding of life will take me.  In a word, accepting that all of creation – including my life – was created for Jesus…it scares me.

But let’s take a breath and think through this a moment…

The one who creates is the one who knows the full purpose of his or her creation.  Ask any artist, architect, or teacher, and they will tell you how both the design and purpose of their music, their building, or their lessons are intertwined.  Each one of them knows the detailed reasons for their creation.  Each of them has a specific design and purpose for their creation to fulfill. 

Likewise, since we know that we have been created by Jesus – we should also recognize that He knows our purpose.

So don’t bristle, don’t pull back.  Even though we may not fully understand, even if the future looks murky…the One who designed us is with us, and He perfectly knows what to do with us.  And we can take comfort in the very next verse:

Colossians 1:17
He is before all things, and by Him all things hold together.

We don’t have to be the one to hold all things together, that’s not our job.  Instead, we just need to trust the One who created us, the One who created our purpose.

Are we willing to let go and trust that we were created for Him?

Keep Pressing,
Ken 

A progressive relationship

The Creator of the Universe is a God who values order.  There was order and progression when creation took place – light first, then ground, next plants, followed by animals, and lastly humans.  We refer to the predictable steps of any process as its “lifecycle”.  We understand that every activity we encounter will have a beginning and then subsequent phases that are passed through, one after another.  Similarly, there is a natural progression in our relationship with God.

Read though this section of Psalm 119 and look for the active verbs used to describe how the psalmist interacts with God:

Psalm 119:9-16
How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping Your word.
I have sought You with all my heart; don’t let me wander from your commands.
I have treasured Your word in my heart so that I may not sin against You.
Lord, may You be praised; teach me Your statues.
With my lips I proclaim all the judgments from Your mouth.
I rejoice in the way revealed by Your decrees as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on Your precepts and think about Your ways.
I will delight in Your statues; I will not forget Your word.

I have sought…I have treasured…I proclaim…I rejoice…I will meditate…I will delight

When we look for it, the natural process of a relationship with God clearly stands out.  The verbs are flowing through past, present, and future steps as the author describes his interaction with God.

Where do you find yourself in this progression?

I have heard many well-intentioned speakers tell me that I need to be rejoicing in the Lord and that I should always delight in Him.  While I agree that those actions are great things to do and I would love to be able to whole-heartedly rejoice and delight in God always…the progression we see in the psalm reveals why I’ve likely struggled with doing them or felt guilty about not feeling completely genuine when I try to do them.

Before the psalmist rejoiced, or even got to delight, can you see where he started?  He sought God with all of his heart.  Next he purposely treasured God’s word in his heart, in order to avoid sin and the damage that sin would cause to the relationship.

It wasn’t until after he had pursued God and valued God that the psalmist was ready to proclaim all the judgments from God’s mouth.  He wasn’t able to communicate God’s decisions until after he knew God intimately.  Historically, the American church has pushed its people to make sure they are “spreading the gospel” and “sharing their story” instead, the church’s focus should have been making sure we’re actively seeking God and valuing His word.  Telling others about Jesus will be easy if we already have the relationship in place, but it’s nearly impossible to explain the decisions and motivations of a person you have no relationship with. 

From there the psalmist found joy in the way revealed by God’s decrees, even to the point that he now looks forward to meditating and thinking about God’s ways.  The delight that he takes from God’s word then isn’t something he’s drummed up from within himself, rather it is the culmination of a deep-seeded relationship with his Creator.

If you’re not where you’d like to be in this relationship timeline, take a step back and ensure you’re developing your intimacy with God by seeking Him and purposely treasuring His word.  The rest will naturally progress from that investment.

Keep Pressing,
Ken