A Letter from Prison (Philippians, pt 1)

Over the next several weeks, I’m going to share some thoughts from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. These posts are personal reflections taken from devotional reading of the book.

At the beginning of his letter to the Philippian believers, Paul is eminently thankful and joyful:

  • verse 3: “I thank my God in all my remembrances of you”
  • verse 4: “always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy
  • verse 5: “thankful for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now”
  • verse 18: “what then? only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice
  • verse 19: “Yes, and I shall rejoice. For I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance”

Paul is imprisoned while writing this, yet his letter bursts forth with life and joy. What is it that makes Paul able to write with such exuberance? It is his confidence in God.

By divine coincidence, while reading these words from Paul, I came across Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s words on thankfulness in community in his masterful work Life Together:

Thankfulness works in the Christian community as it usually does in the Christian life. Only those who give thanks for little things receive the great things as well. We prevent God from giving us the great spiritual gifts prepared for us because we do not give thanks for daily gifts….How can God entrust great things to those who will not gratefully receive the little things from God’s hand?

If Paul can live with joy and thankfulness in prison, how can we not be thankful and joyful in our daily lives today?

What are you thankful for today? What life situation or setting makes it a challenge for you to be thankful?

[If you want to explore Philippians further, consider viewing the 2018 preaching series, “Unshackled: Joy Beyond Circumstances,” beginning with the message, “The Joy of Faith.”]

New Year: Questions for growth, reflection, and prayer

crossroadsMany of us make resolutions for growth and change in the New Year. Unfortunately, statistics show that most of these resolutions do not hold for long or really make much long-term change. I believe this is in large part because we do not include the Living God in this process of resolution, and also because we do not let our resolutions penetrate deep enough into our vision for the year and the transformation of our will. The following series of questions are intended as a tool for reflection upon the previous year and resolution into the coming year.

Reflecting back:

What am I most thankful for from the past year (5-10 items)?

How have I most seen God at work in me or around me this past year (3-7 items)?

Who am I closest to in my life and how has that proved true this past year (2-3 items)?

In what ways am I experiencing a lack of resolution from this past year in my personal life, my relationships, my endeavors, or my life with God (2-3 items)?

What must I confess to God or repent over from this past year (2-3 items)?

Gather all these responses up in prayer before God, concluding with the Lord’s Prayer.

Looking forward:

What am I most looking forward to in this coming year (5-10 items)?

What do I sense are my greatest desires or needs for growth with God this year (2-3 items)? What are the practical means by which I will pursue that growth daily, weekly, or monthly?

Who do I want to become this new year?
What must I let go of in order to grow in this way (2-3 items)?
What must I grab ahold of in order to grow in this way (2-3 items)?

How are my relationships helping or hindering my growth with God or my development as a person (2-3 items)?
What relationships must I prioritize and how will I practically do this daily, weekly, and monthly in this coming year?

In what ways do I sense God is inviting me to serve Him by serving others this year (3-7 items)
How will I do that practically on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis?

Gather these responses up in prayer before God, trusting His providence for your life, relinquishing control of your life, and yielding your will actively to the Holy Spirit for strengthening. Conclude with the Lord’s Prayer.

Live Thankful

thankfulEvery year in the US, we mark out a day to reflect gratitude for life and what we have. Thanksgiving Day, in my opinion, is actually one of the few culturally meaningful moments that still exist in our country. In this time, as a nation we actually take time out from work and normal routines to simply celebrate and enjoy the goodness of life. Of course, like all things, Thanksgiving Day can be trivialized by commercialism, but it is still a powerful moment in our country’s experience.

As Christians, Thanksgiving Day takes on even greater significance because of our relationship with the Living God through Christ Jesus. The wonder of the life with God is that each day spent following Jesus propels us into thanksgiving. The abundance we have received from God through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is beyond words. Today, we want to come alive with thankfulness.

Throughout the Scripture, we encounter many sacrifices offered in worship of God. In Psalm 50, however, we encounter a different kind of sacrifice:

I have no complaint about your sacrifices
or the burnt offerings you constantly offer.
But I do not need the bulls from your barns
or the goats from your pens.
For all the animals of the forest are Mine,
and I own the cattle on a thousand hills. (Psalm 50:8-10, NLT)

God is familiar with all the burnt offerings and sacrifices of the Israelites, but He is looking for something else. And here is what it is:

Make thankfulness your sacrifice to God. (50:14, NLT)

Thankfulness brings life to us. When we make our lives an altar where gratitude rises up to God like a sacrifice, He is pleased. At the same time, offering thanks back to God for who He is and all He has done brings life to us. Thanksgiving brings life to our souls because when we voice our thanks we are forced to reflect on all His goodness toward us. Thankfulness draw us closer to God.

At that same time, we may soon realize in life that thankfulness is not – or at least should not be – limited by our circumstances. Circumstances change with seasons and times of our lives, sometimes for good and sometimes for ill. Yet God, in all His unchanging faithfulness, never alters in His work in us and goodness toward us. So as Paul urged one early group of believers that they – and we – can learn the way to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Today, why not come to life with God by offering a sacrifice of thanksgiving? You might even want to stop for ten or fifteen minutes right now to thank God for all He has done, for all He has given, and for all the things You may not even know that He is doing right now in Your life.

Praying with Paul: Philippians 1 [30 Days of Prayer]

Summer of Prayer Ads_Banner“In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy.” (Philippians 1:4)

It is fitting that this last day of the 30 Days of Prayer devotional ends with Philippians. This letter of Paul is jam-packed with lived theology as the Apostle writes an epistle of joy from prison to believers suffering greatly. It is not without reason that this letter of joy has lifted the spirits of believers throughout history in diverse places. Neither should it be missed that Paul’s prayer near the beginning of the letter encapsulates all the themes of the letter in one great prayer saturated with joy and concluding with praise.

Open your Bible to Philippians 1:3-11 and read this section of the letter. Take note of the gratitude and tender love which Paul expresses to the Philippian believers in verses 3-8. Paul’s prayer arises from meaningful relationships that have history and shared experiences. As you read through the entire letter you sense that the Philippian church has a special place in Paul’s heart. Maybe you could stop right now and thank God for the believers in your own life who mean so much to you. Consider the ways that God has blessed you through others and with others in your life. Thank Him for those who hold a special place in your heart.

The meat of Paul’s prayer begins in verse 9 as he asks God to increase their love. If Jesus said that people would know we were His disciples by the way we love one another (John 13:35), Paul takes this seriously in prayer. The increase is not at random, however, and is connected to a series of requests related to knowledge, insight, and discernment. All these wisdom requests are like links in a chain leading toward Paul’s prayer that the believers’ lives would ultimately be filled with the fruit of righteousness. Thus, growth in the love of Christ toward others is paralleled by growth in the character of Christ within their lives. Do we need to grow in love? Do we need knowledge, insight, and discernment about God’s will? Do we need increasing fruit of righteousness in your life? I do. Why not stop right now to pray that God would shape those things within your life, in the life of your friends, and the life of your church fellowship?

The end of Paul’s prayer here is “to the glory and praise of God” (1:11). Every time I hear this final phrase in the prayer, I cannot help but think of the ending of the Lord’s Prayer: “For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever. Amen.” All our praying concludes with praising. This is not just a formula that we apply to our regular prayers. No, this is truly a theological and eschatological reality. One day, all our confessions and petitions will cease and we will, at the end of all things, be caught up in the greatest praise of the Living God for eternity. At that day, we will join in with the elders, and the living creatures, and all the hosts of heaven around the throne of God in our eternal praise: “Holy, holy, holy, are you Lord God, Almighty….You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power…To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” (Revelation 4:8, 11; 5:13). As we conclude the 30 Days of Prayer, why not spend time now in praise of our God who deserves more than we could ever give?

[This post is part of the “30 Days of Prayer” devotional. Read other posts here.]

Praying with Paul: Ephesians 1 [30 Days of Prayer]

Summer of Prayer Ads_Banner“For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.” (Ephesians 1:15-16)

There are two exemplary prayers of Paul in the letter known as Ephesians. The first prayer arises in 1:15-23 and the second in 3:14-21. Today, we will explore the first of those prayers, so open your Bible and read Ephesians 1:15-23.

Although more brief here than in Colossians 1, notice that Paul once again begins his prayer with thanksgiving before turning to his requests. Gratitude is an important entry point for prayer. It shapes our thinking and praying with an attitude of plenty, as opposed to merely an attitude of need. “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good. His love endures forever” (Psalm 136:1). There is always something to be thankful for in prayer.

As is often the case, there are many parallels between Colossians and Ephesians, and that is seen in Paul’s prayers within Colossians 1 and Ephesians 1. However, the prayer in Ephesians seems to go deeper in its request for understanding (Ephesians 1:17; cf. Colossians 1:9). This request expands with the penetrating prayer “that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened.” Paul wants the believers to have an inner revelation that comes into their hearts from God. That revelation consists of three things: 1) the hope of our calling, 2) the riches of our inheritance, and 3) the incomparable power of God at work within us.

One of our greatest, recurring problems in life is a lack of understanding. There are many times when we feel confused. Paul knows that it is not just the answer to general questions or getting some sense of direction that we most need. No, what we need even more is a deeper, “heart” awareness of all that God has made available to us through Christ. Paul’s prayer shoots like an arrow into the presence of God on the believers’ behalf toward the bullseye of divine revelation and knowledge.

Near the end of his prayer, Paul gets so carried away with the wonder of what God has given us in Christ, that his words cascade forth into a fountain of praise to God in Christ. It is no wonder that this happens to Paul. He lives in the reality which he is praying will come alive for others. Knowing the greatness of the hope, inheritance, and power of God available to the believer, and ministering out of that place, Paul finds himself regularly overcome by all of who God is and all that God has done.

May our prayers also launch with gratitude into the throne room of God. May we ask for what we most need, which is a divine unveiling of wisdom within our hearts that comes from God. And may we regularly be overcome by the goodness and greatness of God even as we approach him for what we need.

Take a moment here at the end of this devotional to personalize the prayer of Ephesians 1:15-23. Pray it back to God, inserting your own name, and then the name of your local church, into the prayer.

[This post is part of the “30 Days of Prayer” devotional. Read other posts here.]

Praying with Paul: Colossians 1 [30 Days of Prayer]

Summer of Prayer Ads_Banner“We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you…For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you.” (Colossians 1:3, 9) 

To conclude the 30 Days of Prayer, I want us to have some interactive exploration of the Apostle Paul’s prayers in his letters to churches. Today, we begin with Colossians 1:3-13. Open your Bible and read through those verses. When you do, you will notice that Paul’s prayer has two basic parts. The first part (1:3-8) focuses on gratitude to God and the second part (1:9-14) focuses on requests asked of God.

Consider what Paul is thankful for in this first section of his prayer. He celebrates the faith and love of the believers. He is grateful that their faith and love overflows to bear fruit because of their hope in the Gospel. Any form of gratitude is good, and there are many things that we can be thankful for in our lives. However, Paul chooses specific sorts of things to thank God for in the life of believers. Those themes of gratitude reflect the essence of the Christian life and the fruit of the Spirit. This shows us that Paul is watching for certain things in the churches, and also that certain sorts of things lift Paul’s prayers toward thanksgiving.

Following his prayer for gratitude, Paul strings together a series requests of God on behalf of the Colossian believers. He asks God:

  • that He will fill them with knowledge of his will (v 9)
  • for wisdom and understanding from the Holy Spirit (v 9)
  • that they might live a life worthy of the Lord (v 10)
  • that the believers would bear fruit in good works (v 10)
  • that they would grow in knowledge of God (v 10)
  • for strength within God’s power for patient endurance (v 11)
  • that they would find joy in the inheritance given by God through Christ (v 12)

Paul’s series of requests in prayer resound with a depth and focus that often does not characterize our prayers. His requests focus on the life of the believers becoming more God-centered and God-shaped in every way. Paul takes seriously the need for ongoing growth in the life of the believers, seeking that God would mature them even more deeply in Christ.

Focusing on gratitude without need can lead to unrealistic prayer that is out of touch with our lives. Focusing on our needs without gratitude can often lead to self-centered prayer that is out of touch with God’s power.

Take some time now to thank God for the fruit of the Spirit that you see in believers around you and in your church. Then, take some time to intercede before God in a way that is similar to Paul’s petitions on behalf of the Colossian believers. Perhaps you could write out a prayer to God in response to this devotional. You may even want to slowly pray the words of Paul’s prayer back to God to conclude your time in prayer today.

[This post is part of the “30 Days of Prayer” devotional. Read other posts here.]

30-Days of No Complaining Challenge

grumblingNicole Pajer, a freelance columnist for Rolling Stone and The New York Times, discovered something interesting about complaining. After deciding to participate in what she called a “30-days of No Complaining Challenge,” her entire perspective on her circumstances changed. She realized much of what she complained about were “what-if” situations that had not happened yet. She also found that she was able to be more present generally in life and specifically with others, more grateful for what she did have, and overall she experienced more joy in her life.

As I mentioned this past weekend in my message “Shared Joy,” I’d like to take Pajer’s concept of the “30-days of no complaining” and connect it to spiritual growth in light of Philippians 2:14-15, which says:

Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, ‘children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.’

Following on his discussion of living as citizens of a new kingdom in a manner worthy of the gospel (Philippians 1:27), and after highlighting Jesus as the example of selfless love and humility, Paul the Apostle calls the Philippian believers to “work out their salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you” (2:12-13). Unexpectedly, Paul’s chief application of this is toward our words and speech. Specifically, he calls believers to let go of grumbling and arguing so that joyful witness to Christ might rise up. This is a veiled reference to the failure of Israel to live as a blessing to the nations, instead to devolving into grumbling after their deliverance in the Exodus and the parting of the Red Sea.

For those of us who follow Jesus, this exhortation from Paul is both challenging and helpful. Paul is basically saying to us: do not let anything in or from your mouths hinder your witness. He is saying to the early church, and through them to us: learn from Israel’s failure and respond to God’s grace from your hearts, in your lives, and with your mouths. Yet how challenging that is!

Now, there is a difference between complaining and pointing out something that is wrong. There is a right and good place to say hard things in a way that contributes to the good in ourselves and others. One example is that famous proverb, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).  Grumbling and complaining, however, is rooted in a disposition of discontent that leads to murmuring or muttering in every direction. In a sense, grumbling and complaining are expressions of how much we feel out of control in life or our circumstances. Likewise, arguing, at least in the sense that Paul is addressing here in Philippians 2:14, is an attempt to assert control when we feel out of control. Grumbling, complaining, and arguing are contagious in the worst ways possible.

Yet, a basic truth of life that we all must realize is that we are truly out of control in life. Although we do have domains of responsibility, all of our spheres of control are ultimately contingent or delegated to us. As those who know God through Christ, the freeing truth is that we are out of control yet we are held by the only One who is ultimately in control. This realization can move us from complaining to rejoicing, from grumbling to gratitude.

So, I want to invite you to join me in a “30-Days of No Complaining Challenge.” Think of it as a form of fasting within your speech. Maybe you want to choose with me to take the next thirty days to:

  • turn away from ourselves and our grumbling, complaining and arguing
  • turn toward God in prayer, rejoicing, and gratitude
  • learn from our failures in our words about our tendencies to grumbling and complaining
  • surrender to God in new ways, particularly in our speech, in order to reflect Him more truly

Jesus said, “the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Luke 6:45). Grumbling and arguing arise from a disordered heart. Join me in allowing God to do a new thing in our lives that begins in our hearts and minds and overflows into our lives and mouths, so that we might “shine like the stars” in our witness to Him and He might get the most glory out of us.