The Mystery of Prayer to a Sovereign God, part 1 [30 Days of Prayer]

Summer of Prayer Ads_BannerThe Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” (Romans 8:15)

One pervasive problem of prayer is how our prayers relate to the sovereignty of God. If God is all-knowing and rules over all the cosmos, then why should we pray and what effect do our prayers have upon God and the universe? Over the next few days, we will explore this important challenge of prayer.

The starting point for this reflection is our firm belief that God is both the Creator of all the earth (Genesis 1-2) and the King over all the earth (Psalm 29:10). The cosmos has its origin in God and is sustained by God (Psalm 24:1-2; Colossians 1:17).  There is nothing that is hidden from God because God knows all things (Psalm 147:5; Hebrews 4:13).

If this is true, then why should we pray? The first way to answer this question derives from our relationship with God. We pray to the Sovereign God because He wants us to enter into relationship with Him. The entire Bible testifies to this, especially the great covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. Furthermore, the very reason Jesus came as incarnate Messiah was “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10) in order to reconcile us to God (Romans 5:10).

Reconciliation is all about restoration of relationship. Our relationship with God is established through Jesus Christ and infused with vibrant interactivity by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. This is why the Apostle Paul writes to the church in Rome: “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father’” (Romans 8:15).

It is in prayer that we communicate with God, both establishing and strengthening our relationship. As John Piper writes, “Prayer is the nerve center of our vital fellowship with Jesus.”[1] Like two friends who grow in relationship by talking over a meal, or two spouses who communicate over great distances through phone calls, our prayer life with the sovereign God breathes life into the relationship we have with God the Father through Christ Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit –
  the Sovereign, Triune God –
thank You for reaching me
  when I was lost in the dark territory of sin.
Before I ever gave a thought to You,
  You thought of me and rescued me.
I thank You and praise You.
  I worship You and offer my life to You.
Grant me the gift of knowing You more
  as I learn how to pray to You, my good God.


[1] John Piper, Desiring God (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1986), 145.

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

Learning the Dance of Forgiveness

Forgiveness is one of the most freeing and challenging practices we encounter in life. We all know we need it from others and should give it to others, yet learning the way of forgiveness can feel unnatural and confusing. This feeling may grow stronger when we read the strong words of the Apostle Paul:

Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Colossians 3:13)

forgiving-as-weve-been-forgivenThis past weekend in my message, “Reconciliation,” I quoted from Célestin Musekura‘s book Forgiving as We’ve Been Forgiven which he co-authored with L. Gregory Jones. Here is the quotation I referenced, where Musekura reflects on the Cross of Christ:

Because of this divine act, the Christian model of forgiveness stresses the granting of unconditional forgiveness to those who cause injury, pain and suffering in this life.

In the book, Musekura shares his own journey through the pain of the 1994 Rwandan genocide and beyond. Reading his words thrust me back into the trauma-filled stories I had heard from other survivors in Rwanda when visiting in 1999 and 2000 as a staff member of World Relief. Musekura’s own journey into forgiveness and the work he has done with African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries (ALARM) brought him to this powerful realization:

If forgiveness is the heart of the gospel, it is the center of the church’s mission as well.

Jones puts legs to this, using the metaphor of the dance of forgiveness. Comparing the work of forgiveness to learning how to dance, Jones offers six steps of forgiveness that I found incredibly helpful as we seek to grow in the grace of forgiveness. I wanted to share them here as we reflect on our own lives and the divided society around us:

Step 1: Truth Telling: We become willing to speak the truthfully and patiently  about the conflicts that have arisen. “We need not only honesty but also patience…[to] discern more clearly what is going on….We must, rather, take the time to talk to one another about the things that divide us” (46-47).

Step 2: Acknowledging Anger: We acknowledge both the existence of anger and bitterness, and a desire to overcome them. “Whether these emotions are our own or belong to others who are mad at us, it does no good to deny them….We learn to overcome bitterness as we begin to live differently through practices that transform hatred into love” (48-49).

Step 3: Concern for the Other: We summon up a concern for the well-being of the other as a child of God. “Seeing as children of God the ones on whom our bitterness focuses challenges our tendency to perceive them simply as enemies, rivals or threats. Now they are potential friends of God” (49-50).

Step 4: Recognizing, Remembering, RepentingWe recognize our own complicity in conflict, remember that we have been forgiven in the past and take the step of repentance. “People need to be held accountable for their actions…we also need to recognize and resist our temptation to blame others while exonerating ourselves….Repentance breaks the cycle of violence and creates space for God to do something new” (51).

Step 5: Commitment to ChangeWe make a commitment to struggle to change whatever caused and continues to perpetuate our conflicts. “Forgiveness out to usher in repentance and change. It ought to inspire prophetic protest wherever people’s lives are being diminished and destroyed. Forgiveness and justice are closely related” (53).

Step 6: Hope for the FutureWe confess our yearning for the possibility of reconciliation. “Continuing to maintain reconciliation as the goal – even if this is ‘hoping against hope’ for reconciliation in this life – is important because it reminds us that God promises to make all things new….Every concrete act – every prayer prayed, every apology offered, every meal shared across dividing lines – is a sign that our history and habits of sin have been definitively interrupted by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ” (55).

Reflecting on Jones’ dance steps of forgiveness, I couldn’t help but reflect on numerous situations I’ve experienced in my own life or in walking with others as a pastor. Some of these steps come naturally, while others take great selflessness and humility. Still, I see them as helpful guides into the pathways of forgiveness.

If, as Célestin Musekura writes, “forgiveness is the heart of the gospel” and “the center of the church’s mission,” then it may be time for some dance lessons! What do you think?

Reconciliation [Life of Joseph, part 5]

This past weekend at Eastbrook Church we continued our series “The Life of Joseph: God’s Sovereignty in Our Suffering” by looking at Joseph’s overtures toward reconciliation with his brothers in Genesis 45-46.  This message was essentially about the nature of and difference between forgiveness and relational reconciliation.

You can view the message video and sermon outline for this message below. You can follow the entire series at our web-site, through the Eastbrook app, or through our audio podcast. Also, join in with our daily devotional that accompanies this series during Lent.

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Next Steps after “A Wake Up Call to Live the Dream”

MLK-Gathering-Ads_App-Wide.pngLast night, we had the immense privilege of hosting an event at Eastbrook Church put on by the Milwaukee Declaration group entitled “A Wake Up Call to Live the Dream.” It was an amazing multi-ethnic gathering of believers from congregations around the city and suburbs of Milwaukee. At the end of the night, we provided some possible next steps. Since some folks have asked me about that resource list, I am posting it to my blog below.Read More »

Praying into the Center (discussion questions)

Jesus at the Center Series Gfx_App SquareHere are the discussion questions that accompany my message, “Jesus the Revelation of God,” from this past weekend at Eastbrook Church. This is the second part of our series, “Jesus at the Center,” from the book of Colossians. This week we looked at Colossians 1:15-23.

Discussion Questions:

  1. If you were to describe why Jesus is important in 2-4 sentences, how would you put that into words?
  2. This week we continue our series, “Jesus at the Center,” from Paul’s letter to the Colossians. We pick up where we left off by reading Colossians 1:15-23. Whether you are on your own or with a small group, begin your study in prayer, asking God to speak to you through His word, and then read that portion aloud.
  3. Background: Some scholars think that Colossians 1:15-20 is part of a pre-existing Christian poem or hymn that Paul uses here to illustrate his thoughts in words with which his readers might be familiar.
  4. Paul highlights two critically important features of God’s work in Jesus Christ in this section. The first of those features is found in verses 15-18a. What do you think it means that Jesus is “the image of the invisible God”?
  5. The word ‘firstborn’ can mean either literally being born before others or it could mean having precedence over other things or people. Based on what we see in vss 16-17, which of these meanings do you think is accurate to the sense of verse 15? Why?
  6. What do you think Paul is trying to communicate about Christ’s place in God’s creation work in these verses (vss 15-18a)?
  7. Midway through verse 18, Paul turns toward a second feature of God’s work through Christ, that of reconciliation. The word ‘firstborn’ is used again here. What does Paul want us to understand this time about Jesus as the firstborn?
  8. These verses are more focused on Christ’s earthly life and ministry. How would you say Jesus had God’s fullness in Him during His earthly life and work?
  9. According to vss 19-20, how did God reconcile and make peace through Christ? Why is this important?
  10. Paul turns a corner in verse 21, aiming the same themes of the previous verses at the manner in which believers live their lives for God. What does Paul say here about our life with and for God? Why do you think this is important for this part of the letter, for the Colossians in their time, and for us today?
  11. What is one significant thing that God is speaking to you through this study? If you are on your own, you may want to write it down, pray about it, and then share it with someone later. If you are with a small group, share these things with one another and then pray for one another about these things.

Memorize: This week we begin to memorize Colossians 1:15-20 together by focusing on Colossians 1:15. Read the verse through multiple times a day this week. Consider some of our other recommended helps for Bible memorization here.

What the Church and Pastors Need to Learn from Ferguson

Chris Brooks & Matt EricksonThis blog post is co-authored by Chris Brooks and Matt Erickson. 

As I watched things unfold in Ferguson recently, I felt a surging of different thoughts and feelings within me. There was a mixture of sadness and fear, anger and helplessness, and my mind raced to come to terms with what this means not only for our nation but for the church. I’m a pastor of a multiethnic church in Milwaukee. Our church has been a community that is diverse ethnically, socio-economically, politically, and in other ways. As I sat and watched the events and all that has followed since, I wondered, “what is required of the people of God when such difficult and painful things grip our nation?”

As I have reflected since that painful evening last week, I have reached some preliminary conclusions. Let me suggest the following things we need to do as Christians, and a few action steps specifically for church leaders in light of the events of this past week and the ongoing national dialog.

1. Humble yourself: A posture of humility allows you to hear God’s voice above the political commentators and the ungodly opinions of this fallen world. In this situation, humility means that we are willing to step beyond our own desires, fears, and pride to consider things from God’s perspective and desires.

2. Think theologically: This is not just a social issue, this is a theological issue.  God created all of humankind in His image, yet not all are necessarily treated as “image bearers.”  This should cause unrest and lead to repentance within our Churches and Christian Institutions.Read More »