Why Don’t My Prayers Move Mountains?

A student recently asked me about Matthew 17:20. Jesus’ disciples asked Him why they were unable to cast out a particular demon, and He responded by saying, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”

Is Matthew 17:20 a promise that God will always answer our prayers affirmatively if we have enough faith? 

Some believe it is. They argue that if you’re sick and not getting better, the problem must be your lack of faith. If you have an unmet need, God has to provide for it if you pray with enough faith. After all, if you have the faith of a tiny mustard seed, you can move mountains, right?

But that belief seems to run counter to our daily experiences. I’ve certainly known people who have prayed in faith and been healed, but I’ve also known people who have prayed with equal or greater faith and yet remained sick (or even died). So what’s the deal? It’s important to consider the context of Matthew 17:20 and the counsel of the entire Bible on this subject.

First, in Matthew 17:20 Jesus is talking to His disciples about a particular situation. They were unable to cast out a demon, and Jesus tells them it’s because they lacked faith. Nothing is impossible for the one who has faith, and in fact just a tiny bit of faith is sufficient to move a mountain. But all of that assumes that casting out the demon was God’s will in the first place. And we know that in this case it was. Why? Because Jesus proceeded to do what the disciples could not. We can’t assume, though, that our every prayer is in line with God’s will, a will that is often mysterious and unknown. The principle to take from this passage is that God is fully capable of doing anything He wants, and He uses our prayers as a means to do His work. The point is not that He’s obligated to do anything we want if we just believe Him enough.

Second, there are biblical examples of faithful people whose prayers weren’t answered as they wished. For example, the apostle Paul prayed three times for his “thorn in the flesh” to be removed, but God told him no (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). David prayed that his child would live, but God chose to allow him to die (2 Samuel 12:15-20). Paul and David were faithful, believing men, yet God didn’t do what they wanted. It’s presumptuous to assume that their prayers weren’t answered because they lacked faith. After all, if these guys were unfaithful, I don’t stand a chance of being heard!

Third, there are many reasons why our prayers aren’t answered. Sometimes it’s because we lack faith, as in Matthew 17:20. Sometimes it’s because we’ve been unkind to others (e.g. our spouses, cf. 1 Peter 3:7). Sometimes it’s because we’re sinful and haven’t confessed our sin (Isaiah 1:15-17). Sometimes, though, it’s because God has a plan for our character that won’t be accomplished by answering our prayers the way we want (again, see 2 Corinthians 12:7-9). Sometimes we simply don’t know why God doesn’t answer.  Why did God preserve Peter’s life but allow James to be killed (Acts 12:1-11)? Do you think it’s because nobody prayed for James like the church prayed for Peter? No, sometimes God’s specific plan is a bit mysterious — and we simply can’t manipulate it or control it.

Finally, prayer is still the most powerful resource we have as we seek to serve Him. Despite the fact that God doesn’t always answer affirmatively, He still listens and responds (James 5:15-18). The Scripture is filled with God’s amazing answers to prayer. My own life is full of examples of how God has answered prayer. Prayer is very powerful. Never believe that it’s a waste of time and energy. It’s not.

We should never assume, though, that prayer is a means to getting whatever we want whenever we want it. Prayer draws us closer to God. It empowers us to do His work. It connects us to God’s power in a way that no other activity can do. Nonetheless, God controls the outcomes of our prayers. It’s our job to trust Him, to obey His Word, and to try to pray in keeping with His will.

What questions or thoughts do you have on the subject of prayer? Do you struggle with the concept of unanswered prayers? Why or why not? 

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You Found What In Your Textbook?

No serious theological reflections today — just a strange and slightly humorous college-related story. Sophia Stockton, a student at Mid-America Nazarene University in Olathe, Kansas recently bought a textbook from Amazon for her Spring course on terrorism.

We’ve all done that, right? It’s usually a bit cheaper than the university bookstores.

Well, when she got the book she was in for a surprise. A small bag of white powder fell out of the book. Fearing that it was anthrax, Stockton took the bag to the police.

It wasn’t anthrax. It was cocaine. About $400 worth. The police destroyed the cocaine, but they let Stockton keep her textbook.

I’ve never found anything in an old book except for mashed bugs and the occasional flower. How about you? Ever find anything strange in an old book? What about a dorm room or apartment? 

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If You’re Not Interested, Just Say So

When I was in high school, I asked a girl out and she said “yes,” much to my surprise and delight. I enjoyed the date, so I asked her out for a second date. That’s when the confusion began.

“I’m spending time with my sister this weekend. She’s coming home from college and we’re going to a movie together.”

“Great! Can I call you again next week?”

“Oh, sure.”

So I called her again the next week. And wouldn’t you know it, her sister was coming in town again. Except she seemed less certain of it this time. I think it only took three visits from her sister before I got the point that she didn’t want to date me. (At first I thought maybe the point was that I should ask out her sister, but it turns out that wasn’t right).

Here’s the deal, ladies: if you don’t want to go out with him, just say so. You don’t have to be mean. Don’t say, “I would never be seen in public with somebody as weird/awkward/smelly/hairy as you.” Just be honest and say something like, “Thanks so much for asking me out. I really appreciate it. But I’m not interested right now.”

I know. It sounds so harsh and so…honest. Every time my wife tells a group of young women to simply tell the truth when they’re not interested in a guy, the girls literally gasp in horror. Then I ask the men to raise their hands if they would prefer women to be honest instead of lying to preserve their feelings. Every guy’s hand goes up. Every single one.

He’s going to figure out sooner or later that you’re not interested. When it finally dawns on him that you’ve been avoiding him by making lame excuses, it’s actually going to hurt him worse than if you’d just told him the truth the first time. Because not only will he feel rejected, he’ll feel foolish as well.

You can’t spare his feelings, but you can spare his dignity. Yes, it will hurt him that you’re not interested. But you can treat him with respect and let him know that you consider him man enough to handle the truth.

For Christian women, I think this is particularly important. When my wife and I talk to students about dating, we always structure the discussion around Proverbs 3:3: “Do not let kindness and truth leave you; Bind them around your neck; Write them on the tablet of your heart.” Kindness and truth exist together — you don’t want one without the other. Speak kindly, yes. But speak honestly as well.

You want the men in your life to be up front and honest about their feelings, right? In fact, I’ve strongly encouraged that on this very blog (see here and here). If that’s what you want, then it’s a good idea to return the favor.

Trust me: the men in your life will be grateful, even if they’re also a little bit sad.

What do you think about the concept of honesty in dating relationships? Is my advice completely unrealistic? I’d love to hear from men and women here!

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How Should We Talk About Sex?

So Mark and Grace Driscoll just released a new book about marriage and sex, and it’s #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List. It’s generated a good deal of controversy because of one chapter, in which the Driscolls answer graphic questions about what sort of sexual behavior is permissible in marriage.

Pastor Ed Young also released a new book with his wife Lisa, called Sexperiment (yes, that’s the real title), based on the highly publicized challenge they issued to married members of their church to have sex every day for seven days. In conjunction with the book’s release, the Youngs staged a “bed-in” on the top of their church building for 24 hours. I think the idea was to generate buzz around the concept that sex is a good thing created by God. Something like that.

All of this has raised the question of how we should talk about sex in the Christian community. The Bible talks about sex and marriage a lot, and in today’s sexually obsessed culture we can’t ignore the subject. As a college pastor, I’m solidly convinced that it’s a critical topic to address, especially with young people.

But are there boundaries we should set around how we discuss the subject? Let me suggest a few principles for how to discuss sex in a straightforward yet productive way:

1. Treat it as a sacred subject. Why? Because sex is sacred. Paul tells us that the “one-flesh” relationship in marriage represents the relationship between Christ and His church (Ephesians 5:31-32). So sex isn’t something to snicker at or sensationalize. Every pastor knows that talking about sex is an easy way to fill the room. Our world is fascinated with the topic. So it’s quite tempting to talk about it in a way that’s certain to generate attention and controversy. But that’s a mistake. The Bible treats it as an important and serious subject, and I think we should as well.

2. Treat it as a deeply personal subject. Every person has different feelings and attitudes toward sex. Some are addicted to it, some are afraid of it, and some are repulsed by it. Some people have been abused, used, or neglected. And of course some people have perfectly healthy views about it. I don’t think it’s wise to give everybody the same advice when it comes to specific expressions of marital sexuality. For some couples, having sex every day for a week is a good idea. For others, it’s a terrible idea. In fact, some couples should probably be advised to abstain for awhile, to work on other areas of their relationship first. Because every person is different, every marriage is different and should be approached that way.

I also think some things are meant to be private. The details of one’s sex life in marriage aren’t meant to be shouted from the rooftops or sold in the local bookstore. I don’t think this is prudishness. Instead, it’s an acknowledgement of the deeply personal and sensitive nature of sexuality. We need to be careful not to make others feel unnecessarily ashamed or inappropriately curious or deeply disgusted. A good question to ask is, “Why am I sharing this detail? Even though sharing it isn’t a sin, is it productive and beneficial?”

3. Acknowledge that sex is more than a physical act. Because our bodies and spirits are so closely connected, sex is much more than the union of two bodies in a bed. My sexuality is deeply tied to my sense of personal identity. When people engage in sex, they are opening themselves up to another person in more ways than the physical. Even those who have never engaged in sex recognize that their sexual desires touch on issues much deeper than the physical body. So when we talk about sex, we need to discuss it in conjunction with other critical issues, like how we relate to God and to other people. Crude discussions about what positions or activities are acceptable from a physical standpoint tend to miss the point. The bigger issue is how we ought to approach sexuality from the standpoint of discipleship — in other words, what does my sexuality have to do with how I follow Jesus? The Bible seems much more concerned with that question than about the specific details of how and when and where to engage in marital sex.

Like I said above, we have a responsibility to address this critical subject from a biblical standpoint. I think most Christians would agree. But I wonder sometimes if we cross the line from biblical teaching to sensationalism. Or from discussing sex to idolizing it. “Everything is permissible — but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible — but not everything is constructive” (1 Corinthians 10:23). I pray we’ll have the ability to discuss the topic in a way that is both permissible and constructive.

What would you add or take away from my analysis here? 

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Are You Hooked On Video Games?

Nearly every college male I know plays video games sometimes. I know there are exceptions, but not many. I was certainly no exception during my college and young adult years.

I recently ran across a Pew Research survey which states that 82% of full-time college students play video games. What surprised me was that women participate in video games nearly as much as men. The only difference seems to be that men play games on consoles more often than women. Women tend to use computers, phones, and other devices. 50% of young adults play every day or several times each week, and another 30% play a few times each month.

I hope to blog more extensively about this topic in the near future, but I used to play video games pretty heavily. There’s no doubt that it kept me from doing other, more important, things with my time. I wasn’t ignorant of that fact when I was playing them a lot. But for some reason I enjoyed video games so much that I just ignored the guilt they caused.

In the past few years I’ve played very rarely, although I still own a Wii and a Playstation and I occasionally play games in social settings or with my kids. It wasn’t necessarily a strong spiritual conviction that caused me to play less, but instead the reality of having three kids and wanting to spend more time writing. (I will admit that I play Tiny Wings on my phone when I’m waiting around for something and I don’t have a book handy).

I don’t think most video games are inherently evil. I do think they can be a colossal waste of time if we’re not careful. Since the Scripture tells us to “make the most of the time” (Ephesians 5:16), I think we should at least  raise the question of whether playing video games all the time poses a threat to our spiritual lives.

I’m curious to hear from my readers on this subject. Do you play video games frequently? If so, do you ever feel guilty about it? How do you think video games affect your spiritual life? Your social life? Your productivity? 

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I Want to Grow Up Now

I’ve been thinking about the topic of spiritual maturity a great deal lately. It seems to keep coming up in conversations, often with students and young adults who are frustrated by repeating the same patterns of sin over and over again. I know too well the discouragement of thinking that I should be further along than I am, that I’ll never amount to anything of significance because I still struggle with some very basic maturity issues.

But here’s the truth: maturity is measured in years, not in days or weeks or months. Sometimes that’s a tough pill to swallow. It bothers us that we still struggle with the same old sins, the ones we struggled with a year ago or ten years ago. Sure, there’s been some progress, but we want to be complete, fully mature. And we want it right now.

Whenever I feel that way, I take comfort in knowing that I’m not alone:

Abraham repeatedly made the mistake of lying about his wife’s identity because he didn’t trust God to protect him. Yet he was eventually willing to trust God with his only son.

Moses needed 40 years in the wilderness before he was ready for something great. He continued to struggle with impatience and a quick temper throughout his life, but he was the greatest leader Israel ever knew.

David needed several years of running from King Saul before he was prepared to ascend the throne. Even then, his reign wasn’t a perfect one and his character was often questionable. Yet God continued to forgive him and to use him in great ways.

Peter was a fascinating mixture of rock-solid faith and reckless personal ambition. But his impact for Christ was unparalleled in the early days of the Church.

I’m not saying we should sit back and complacently accept our sin. Quite the contrary. What I am saying is that maturity and eternal impact don’t come easily. And they don’t always come quickly. We live in a culture that idolizes youthfulness and expects us to make our mark on the world before we’re 25.

But that’s not realistic, or even biblical. Maturity is measured in years…and years…and years. If you feel discouraged by your lack of progress or by your lack of impact, remember that your story isn’t finished yet. In fact, when you consider the scope of eternity, it’s hardly begun yet.

The solution to your immaturity isn’t to throw up your hands in despair. Instead, the solution is to keep chasing the goal of knowing Christ, of conforming to His image, until the day you see Him face to face (Philippians 3:7-11). And along the way, who knows how He might use your life?

Do you ever feel frustrated by your lack of spiritual growth? How do you deal with that frustration?

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God, Tim Tebow, and Life’s Disappointments

So the unlikely (and seemingly divinely inspired) season of Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos finally ended last weekend with a 45-10 loss to the New England Patriots. Because Tebow is a committed and outspoken Christian, some have raised the question of whether or not God pays any attention to football. And if He does, why didn’t He just let the Broncos win? Wouldn’t it have been a wonderful testimony of God’s power if such a strong Christian player had won the Super Bowl? To end such a great season in defeat seems disappointing, if not altogether heartbreaking.

Reading Tebow’s postgame interview, though, I have the impression that he took the loss in stride. It’s a real disappointment, to be sure, but not a true tragedy. He’s stated a number of times that He cares more about making an impact on other people than about winning football games.

Still, does God care about life’s little disappointments, even if they don’t rise to the level of life-and-death tragedies? Does He care that one of His servants lost a game he really hoped to win? For that matter, does He care that some of you who are reading this made bad grades on your Fall semester finals, or are experiencing career setbacks, or are struggling with back pain? Does He care that your car is falling apart and you can’t find the money for a reliable one right now?

Actually, He cares more than we know. The Bible gives us a clear picture of a God who is actively engaged with the world, even with its smallest details. He knows when sparrows fall out of the sky and how many hairs are on your head (Matthew 10:29-31). He sees you at every moment, in the midst of every activity, and He understands exactly what you’re feeling (Psalm 139:1-16).

So yes, He cares about football losses and other small (or not-so-small) disappointments. 

BUT…He might care about them for different reasons than we do. I care about football because I want my team to win. God cares about it because He loves the players, the coaches, the spectators, and the guy who sells hot dogs at the stadium. And He knows how to use every situation to give those people a chance to know Him, or to draw them closer to Him (Acts 17:24-27). Every situation, every disappointment, every victory, all of it matters, because God is arranging history to suit His purposes. And every moment in every place is a part of that plan. Even a football game.

So what is my role in the midst of life’s disappointments, even small ones? To trust Him, because He knows what He’s doing. To seek to be transformed into the character of Jesus Christ, because that’s God’s greatest desire for me. And to keep things in perspective, because this is just one moment in God’s perfect and eternal plan.

So why didn’t God just let the Broncos win? I don’t know. But God knows. Because God cares about Tim Tebow, Tom Brady, the Broncos, and the Patriots. (And even about me).

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Why Don’t Young Adults Like Church?

Just last week I ran across an article by the Barna group called, “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church.” The study claims that 59% of young Christians leave church for an extended period of time after age 15. The reasons it gives: churches are overprotective, shallow, antagonistic toward science, judgmental about sexuality, too exclusive, and unfriendly toward doubters.

I’m generally skeptical of Chicken Little prognostications about the end of Christianity, but this article interested me because of the specific reasons it gave for why young people leave church. What intrigues me, though, is the question of whether these perceptions are generally accurate or whether they are simply perceptions. In other words, are churches truly this way, or do young adults just think they are this way? And if so, why do they think churches are so bad?

I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Did you leave church as a young adult? If so, why? Have you returned to church? Finally, do these problems exist in the churches you’ve attended? 

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Do You Have a “Soul-Mate”?

The other day I ran across an article about an online dating service that promises to “find God’s match for you.” Of course, that raises the question of whether God has just one match for you, one “soul-mate” whom you’re intended to be with forever.

There is no doubt that God arranged the circumstances of our lives (Acts 17:24-28). The case of marriage is an interesting one, though, because it seems to involve a combination of God’s sovereignty and my personal choices. However, I’ve really no doubt that God knows if we’ll get married and to whom, and I’ve no doubt that in some sense He arranges it all.

But the question of “soul-mates” is another matter entirely. I find the concept troublesome for a couple of reasons.

First, there’s simply no guarantee you or any person will get married. The Scripture says that some people aren’t meant to marry (Matthew 19:12; 1 Corinthians 7). So if everybody has a soul-mate who completes them, what does that say about single people? Are they incomplete? Do they somehow bear less of God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27)? Of course not.

Second, I think the concept of one perfect soul-mate creates unrealistic expectations. What if I marry a person who has emotional problems, who has a “past,” or who is less than ideal? What if I’m less than ideal? Does that mean I’m not qualified to be somebody’s soul-mate? After all, I can’t complete another person if I’m messed up myself. What if problems emerge 5, 10, or 20 years after we get married? Are we no longer soul-mates? When my partner doesn’t seem to be my soul-mate, won’t I be tempted to abandon ship and find my true match?

The Bible doesn’t command us to go find our soul-mates. It does command us to love the mates we already have (Ephesians 5:21-33). I’m not saying we should forego discernment in our choice of marriage partners. Instead, I’m saying that we can’t so accurately discern God’s hidden intentions about whether somebody is our secret soul-mate.

Finally, the idea that an online dating service promising to “God’s match” for you is not only silly and ridiculous. It’s offensive. An online dating service can be useful to connect people. It can even tell you whether you’re likely to get along with another person. But it can’t tell you God’s will. In the South we have a word for claims like that: hogwash. (Well, there are other words, but I can’t print them here). To set people up with the expectation that you’re acting as God’s matchmaker is false advertising at the highest level.

OK, there’s my two cents. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Writing Like Madmen

Well, hopefully we’re not writing like literal madmen, but it feels a bit crazy at the moment.

Last Fall, two of my coworkers and I signed a contract with TH1NK, an imprint of NavPress, to write three 8-week Bible studies. The elder board and staff at Grace have been extremely generous in allowing us time to work on this project. Because our church calendar is (technically) slow right now, we’ve pulled away this week to work on the third and final study.

We’re excited about these studies and the potential they have to introduce our church’s approach to Bible study to a new group of students and adults. For many years we’ve been writing Bible studies for use within our congregation (and that won’t change anytime soon), but this is a chance to share what we’ve learned with those outside of our walls as well. Most importantly, we believe that studying the Scripture in-depth is one of the surest paths toward spiritual maturity. We’re hopeful that these studies will facilitate that.

TH1NK publishes material geared toward high school and college students. That age group has always been a key focus of Grace Bible Church, so this feels like a good match. The studies are tentatively slated for release this coming Fall. Here’s a brief summary of each one:

Gideon: From Weakling to Warrior – Based primarily on Judges 6-9, this study examines how God can use an ordinary and fearful man to change the course of history. When we meet Gideon, he’s hiding from his enemies, afraid to take a stand. But through God’s power he becomes a strong and capable military leader.

Peter: From Reckless to Rock Solid – This study examines the life of Peter, one of the most prominent of Jesus’ apostles. Peter was also an ambitious man who assumed that by attaching himself to Jesus he would become powerful and famous. He often made foolish decisions that landed him in hot water. But once the Spirit of God took hold of his life, he transformed into one of the greatest leaders in the history of the Church.

Daniel: Standing Strong in a Hostile World – Daniel and three of his friends were exiled from their home because of the sin of their nation. Through no fault of their own they were forced to serve a foreign king in the midst of a culture that was hostile to their beliefs. Yet God provided them with the faith and courage to stand strong in the midst of hardship and persecution.

Each of these studies will look at how our lives can be similarly transformed through the work of God’s Spirit in our lives.

Pray for us as we finish up the third study (Daniel) and deliver it in February. If you’re a college pastor, youth pastor or ministry leader and are interested in considering these for your group, let me know. Once we have copies in our hands, we’ll try to get you one to evaluate.

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