IF HE CAN

“What do you mean, ‘If I can’?” Jesus asked. “Anything is possible if a person believes.” The father instantly cried out, “I do believe, but help me overcome my disbelief!” [Mark 9:23-24 (NLT)]

Beauty Berry FlowerPrayer is calling on God’s power; it’s like calling in the big guns to fight the battle. When doubt in the efficacy of prayer sneaks in, however, it’s more like calling in the big guns but not believing they’re loaded with enough ammunition. I am often like the father in Mark 9 who qualified his request that Jesus heal his son by saying, “If you can.” Like that father, I profess to believe but I need God to help me believe more! Sometimes, the enemy sneaks into my heart and causes me to doubt both the ammunition and God’s aim.

Looking for a feel-good movie to escape from the challenges of the day, we recently streamed the War Room. Not to be confused with the 1993 documentary The War Room, the war room in this 2015 movie is a converted closet with prayer requests covering the walls rather than an Arkansas political campaign headquarters. Focusing on the power of prayer, the story is about a crumbling marriage that is redeemed by prayer.

In one memorable scene, Elizabeth Jordan, the woman in the troubled marriage, and Miss Clara, a prayer warrior extraordinaire, are walking together when they’re confronted by a knife-wielding mugger demanding their money. As Elizabeth starts to get out her wallet, Miss Clara successfully defies him just by saying, “You put that knife down right now in the name of Jesus!” The next scene shows a frazzled Elizabeth reporting the incident to a skeptical policeman while the unruffled Miss Clara enjoys some ice cream.

Even the most positive reviews of this movie were critical of the unreality of those scenes but, as improbable as they were, their inclusion in the movie were necessary because they demonstrate the absolute faith—the total certainty—that is necessary for truly powerful prayer. Facing that mugger, Miss Clara had no doubt that she was in God’s hands and was certain that He would rescue her if she called on Jesus’ name. Later, as she calmly consumed both her and Elizabeth’s ice cream, it is obvious she wasn’t surprised by God’s protection. She expected it, as should we all if we truly believe. After all, nothing is impossible with God!

I’m not sure that God wants us to respond to a weapon-wielding robber the way Miss Clara did but I think He does want us to have the kind of faith demonstrated in that scene. When we come to Him in prayer, we must have faith enough to put our entire lives in His hands. We must believe that our prayers can actually make a difference. Indeed, prayer is the key to winning all those battles we can’t win on our own.

When we pray, do we ask with our lips but doubt in our hearts? When we ask, are we surprised when we receive? Father in heaven, I don’t know why I still doubt when you’ve shown me over and over again that my prayers do not fall on deaf ears. I have faith, dear Lord; please, help me have more!

Faith is not believing that God can. It is knowing that God will. [Ben Stein]

But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. [James 1:6-7 (NLT)]

Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. [Ephesians 3:20 (NLT)]

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SELLING YOUR SOUL

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. [Romans 3:23-24 (NLT)]

Many stories, novels, operas, musicals, and movies have been based on the theme of selling one’s soul to the devil. In Christopher Marlowe’s 1592 play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, a brilliant scholar who’s sure he’s learned all there is to know by conventional means turns to magic and ends up summoning the devil Mephistopheles. The two agree that, after Faustus has enjoyed twenty-four years of absolute power (with Mephistopheles as his servant), his soul will belong to Lucifer. When the handsome Dorian sells his soul so that he will never age in The Picture of Dorian Gray, he enters into a lifestyle of debauchery. While Dorian remains handsome, his picture changes to reflect the immoral and sinful life he’s led. In the 1968 horror movie Rosemary’s Baby, the naïve Rosemary discovers that her husband sold both his soul and her womb to Satan for riches and career success. As expected, none of those tales end well. The Devil and Daniel Webster, however, does but only because of the eloquence of the famed lawyer and statesman Daniel Webster.

While it was Daniel Webster’s persuasive arguments that saved the soul of Jabez Stone from the clutches of the devil, it is Jesus who saves ours! Before we came to Christ, we all were in bondage to sin and condemned to death. Satan may have authority over those who aren’t Christ followers, but he doesn’t over us. Just as Jesus set the demoniac free, he sets us free, as well.

While stories of selling one’s soul are morality tales that vividly illustrate the wages of sin, they are fiction and the concept of making a deal with Satan is not Biblical. Nevertheless, let us not forget that Satan is a deceiver and tempter who is committed to opposing God and all who follow Him. While Jesus has freed us from condemnation, He has not freed us from temptation.

Satan tempts us with things like power, riches, or status every day, just not as blatantly as he did in those fictional accounts. Rather than offering us a contract to be signed in blood, he subtly offers a seemingly trivial compromise one day followed by a minor concession or false rationale the next. Dangling some reward in front of us, he whispers that everyone else is doing it, we deserve whatever it is, no one will ever know, or that we’ve got to look out for ourselves since no one else will! With each concession, we surrender a little bit of ourselves in the false belief that what we’ll gain is more valuable than what we lose.

Temptation is an inevitable part of living in this fallen world but we have not been left defenseless. We won’t need Daniel Webster’s skillful courtroom arguments because we have prayer, self-discipline, and God’s armor. We wear the belt of truth and the breast-plate of righteousness and have the Gospel of peace for shoes. We carry the shield of faith, place the helmet of salvation on our heads, and fight with the sword of the Spirit and God’s Word. Our souls are not for sale!

As the most dangerous winds may enter at little openings, so the devil never enters more dangerously than by little unobserved incidents, which seem to be nothing, yet insensibly open the heart to great temptations. [John Wesley]

A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. [Ephesians 6:10-12 (NLT)]

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TWO MEN AND TWO CHOICES

You should know that your body is a temple for the Holy Spirit who is in you. You have received the Holy Spirit from God. So you do not belong to yourselves, because you were bought by God for a price. So honor God with your bodies. [1 Corinthians 6:19-20 (NCV)]

peonyAlthough Elijah had just won an amazing victory over Baal and his prophets, we find the prophet running for his life in 1 Kings 19. The journey of over 120 miles left him physically exhausted and, having endured so many setbacks and challenges, the disheartened prophet was emotionally exhausted, as well. Wanting what he saw as a hopeless situation to end, He begged the Lord for death and he’s not the only one of the Bible’s heroes to do so. Overwhelmed by the heavy burdens he carried, Moses cried to God, “If you are going to continue doing this to me, then kill me now. If you care about me, put me to death, and then I won’t have any more troubles.” [Numbers 11:15] A discouraged and frustrated Jonah told God it would be better for him to die than to live. Job, in his despair and agony, and Jeremiah, in his disappointment after decades of prophesying with no appreciable results, were so miserable that they cursed the day they were born! Even the Apostle Paul admitted having been nearly overwhelmed by his troubles. Yet, as hopeless at their situations seemed, none of them died when they wanted to and none took their own lives. God did not abandon them and they did not abandon life.

One week ago, in a Maryland hospital, 57-year-old terminally ill David Bennett, Sr. underwent open heart surgery and received a genetically modified pig’s heart as a replacement for his own severely damaged one. That same day, in Cali, Columbia, 60-year-old Victor Escobar chose to die by euthanasia. While Escobar suffered from intense pain, his condition was not terminal and he fought for two years in Columbian courts for the privilege of ending his life on his own terms. “I do not think God will punish me for trying to stop suffering,” he said. In stark contrast, Bennett, whose condition was terminal, said, “It was either die or do this transplant. I want to live. I know it’s a shot in the dark, but it’s my last choice.” One chose to die while the other (who was well aware of the risks) chose to continue living for as long as possible.

I’m not going to enter into the controversy regarding assisted suicide, euthanasia, or the use of animal organs in transplants. There’s nothing I can add to what theologians, ethicists, physicians, and lawyers have already said. Nevertheless, I can’t help but ponder the choices made by these two men. If I were in Bennett’s shoes, knowing the risks and low probability of long-term survival, would I make such a last-ditch effort in hope of gaining of few more days, weeks or months?  On the other hand, were I confined to a wheelchair and suffering from diabetes, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and spasms as was Victor Escobar, would I beg God for death? If I felt like I were living in a torture chamber, would I consider suicide or euthanasia?

Looking to Scripture, we have Paul’s words that we belong to the Lord, body and soul. Just as we have no right to tear down our neighbor’s house no matter how dilapidated it may be, we have no right to destroy our broken-down bodies; they are not ours to destroy. We are the Holy Spirit’s temple, were purchased with Christ’s blood, and our bodies belong the Lord! While we may long to depart this world, the where, when and how of that departure is God’s choice, not ours. Although I’m not sure I would make Bennett’s choice of such radical surgery, I do know I will never make Escobar’s of euthanasia.

I suspect that, like those Biblical heroes, there will be times in every believer’s life when we dread waking up to another day—there certainly have been in mine. Wanting whatever is plaguing us to be over with and gone, we might even cry, “I wish I were dead!” Yet, as desperate and despondent as were Elijah, Moses, Jonah, Job, Jeremiah, and Paul, none of them took their lives. God heard their cries of despair just as he hears ours.

A Christian will part with anything rather than his hope; he knows that hope will keep the heart both from aching and breaking, from fainting and sinking; he knows that hope is a beam of God, a spark of glory, and that nothing shall extinguish it till the soul be filled with glory. [Thomas Brooks]

Don’t you know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person, because God’s temple is holy and you are that temple. [1 Corinthians 3:16-17 (NCV)]

We do not live or die for ourselves. If we live, we are living for the Lord, and if we die, we are dying for the Lord. So living or dying, we belong to the Lord. [Romans 14:7-8 (NCV)]

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THE PRAYER OF INDIFFERENCE

And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure. [James 4:3 (NLT)]

santa rose de lima - NMWhen we pray about a decision, we often set the desired outcome we want rather than ask God to reveal His will to us. Instead of trusting our decision to Him and bending our will to His, we want God to bend His will to our desires. If His response to our pleas isn’t the one we want, we refuse to recognize it or complain that He never answered our prayers! Until we’re willing to step back and say, “Thy will be done,” we can’t truly discern God’s will.

When writing about discerning God’s will, Ruth Haley Barton suggests starting the decision-making process with a prayer of trust that acknowledges our need to trust in God. The second prayer, the one Barton calls “the prayer for indifference”, is far harder. In this prayer we ask God to free us from our personal stake in the issue or our attachment to a particular outcome so that we become indifferent to anything but God’s will. This prayer echoes the one of Jesus when He asked God to take away His cup of suffering: “Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” [Matthew 26:31] It is only then, when we are willing to abandon our agenda and detach ourselves from the outcome, that we are ready for the third prayer in which we ask God for wisdom in discerning the answer.

Twenty-five years ago, long before I knew of this three-step process in discerning God’s will, the Spirit guided me through it. Our daughter was finishing up her post-graduate year of internship at a Chicago hospital when she received two good job offers at the same time. One was from the hospital where she was interning—meaning she could remain in her apartment and live no more than 90-minutes from any of the family. The other offer was from a hospital 1,400 miles west that wanted her to start work within two weeks. The thought of relocating in so short a time to a place she’d never been and a city where she knew no one was daunting. When my daughter called to ask for advice, I wanted to say, “Stay here near family and friends!” The Spirit put His hand across my mouth and reminded me that this was not my decision to make and filled me with wisdom I didn’t know I had. Rather than telling her what I wanted, I advised her to trust that God would handle the logistics if she decided to move and suggested comparing the jobs as if they both were in the same location. Promising our prayers that evening, I told her to trust in the Lord and ask Him for wisdom in making her choice.

Our prayers that night were difficult ones because my husband and I were not indifferent to our daughter’s decision. Although we’d raised her to fly from the nest, we didn’t want her flying across the country to New Mexico! We wanted her to be on her own but with the caveat that she be on her own while staying close to home! Nevertheless, putting our personal feelings aside, we detached ourselves from the outcome and fervently prayed not for what we wanted but for what God wanted and that our daughter would have wisdom enough to discern His plan and make the right decision—whatever that was!

The following morning, our daughter told us that, in spite of the challenges of moving, the right job for her was the one in New Mexico. I don’t think it was dumb luck that, with just a few calls, we found her an apartment there or that the first moving company we called happened to have a truck (with the right amount of space available) passing through Chicago the day before our daughter’s graduation, or that it was scheduled to arrive in Albuquerque the day she took possession of her new apartment! When we trust God and follow His plan, He has an uncanny way of making things come together.

We often complain that God hasn’t answered our prayers. Perhaps we should consider that He may have given us the answer but, because we’re vested in a particular outcome, we haven’t seen it. I wish I could say that I abandon my will and become indifferent to God’s answer whenever I pray, but I can’t. Nevertheless, remembering how well it works when I do, I continue to try!

Jeremiah replied. “I will pray to the Lord your God, as you have asked, and I will tell you everything he says. I will hide nothing from you.” Then they said to Jeremiah, “May the Lord your God be a faithful witness against us if we refuse to obey whatever he tells us to do! Whether we like it or not, we will obey the Lord our God to whom we are sending you with our plea. For if we obey him, everything will turn out well for us.” [Jeremiah 42:4-5 (NLT)]

Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. [Psalm 143:10 (NLT)]

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MAY WE NEVER FORGET

Let all that I am praise the Lord; with my whole heart, I will praise his holy name. Let all that I am praise the Lord; may I never forget the good things he does for me. … Praise the Lord, everything he has created, everything in all his kingdom. Let all that I am praise the Lord. [Psalm 103:1-2,22 (NLT)]

little blue heronThe Bible is filled with evidence of God’s goodness and the great (and miraculous) things He’s done for His people. Daniel emerges unscathed from a lion’s den, David defeats Goliath and the shepherd boy becomes a king, wisdom and riches are given to Solomon, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego aren’t even scorched from a fire. Water is parted more than once, the walls of Jericho collapse, jail doors miraculously open, and storms cease at a word. Armies are led to victory, manna falls from heaven, fish and bread multiply, the barren give birth, the sick and lame are healed, and the dead rise. The Bible is full of marvelous accounts of miracles, majesty, and triumphs.

While probably less noteworthy, God’s hand has been as present in our lives as it was for David, Moses, the Apostles and everyone else in the Bible’s Hall of Faith. Although it wasn’t the Red Sea or the Jordan River, He’s kept us from drowning in the deep waters of life and, while it wasn’t a fortified city like Jericho, walls that blocked our way have tumbled down more than once. It may not have been 135,000 Midianites against only 300 of us as it was for Gideon, but He’s given us victory over foes just as formidable when the odds were just as bad. Instead of a fiery furnace, He’s gotten us out of hot water many times and, while it probably wasn’t lions or an invading army, He’s saved us from plenty of perilous situations. We may not have the enormous wealth or wisdom of Solomon, but God has given us more than enough of both.

Let us never forget that God didn’t stop working in people’s lives when the last words in Revelation were penned. Our stories may not be as exciting and astonishing as those in the Bible, nevertheless, they are every bit as wonderful and worthy of thanks and praise. We’ve emerged unharmed when we should have been hurt, been nourished when hungry, been loved and comforted in our anguish, and been helped when we lost all hope. Jesus freed us from the chains of sin and the prison of despair and gave us a new life and the Holy Spirit! Indeed, God is good!

The Psalmist tells us never to forget all the good things God has done and yet, considering these past two years, it’s easy to do just that. As we face what promises to be an equally trying 2022 and the various challenges of a continuing pandemic, flight cancellations and delays, a still broken supply chain, and extremes in weather (along with countless other troubles), let us remember the many blessings of the past and appreciate the little blessings of each day.

Praise the Lord, oh my soul; let all that I am praise the Lord!

Count your blessings instead of your crosses.
Count your gains instead of your losses.
Count your joys instead of your woes.
Count your friends instead of your foes.
Count your smiles instead of your tears.
Count your courage instead of your fears.
Count your full years instead of your lean.
Count your kind deeds instead of your mean.
Count your health instead of your wealth.
Count on God instead of yourself. [Author unknown]

Give thanks to the Lord and proclaim his greatness. Let the whole world know what he has done. Sing to him; yes, sing his praises. Tell everyone about his wonderful deeds. Exult in his holy name; rejoice, you who worship the Lord. Search for the Lord and for his strength; continually seek him. Remember the wonders he has performed, his miracles, and the rulings he has given. [Psalm 105:1-5 (NLT)]

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THORNS

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” [2 Corinthians 12:7-9a (ESV)]

thistlePaul was speaking metaphorically of his thorn and whether it was a spiritual, emotional, physical affliction, or something else entirely, we don’t know. Since Paul dictated his letters, some speculate that that he had poor eyesight: perhaps cataracts or macular degeneration. Then again, severe arthritis in his hands may have prevented him from holding a stylus. Paul may have had a chronic medical problem such as gout, migraines, severe asthma, or spinal stenosis. It may have been a person: perhaps, Alexander the metalsmith who was harming his ministry. Considering the number of times the apostle was arrested, the thorn may have been an old injury from the many beatings inflicted upon him. Paul even may have suffered from bouts of depression or the 1st century equivalent of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. The identity of his thorn (or even thorns) is unimportant to us. It is how Paul dealt with his thorn that matters.

This last year has been challenging for many of us; it certainly has been for me. Rather than a single thorn, I feel like I’ve fallen head-first into an enormous patch of thistles or spiny hawthorns. Along with a never-ending pandemic and the disruption Covid-19 has brought to our daily lives, I’ve been dealing with a variety of painful health issues, the deaths of several loved ones, and a recurring case of the glums and gloomies. There has been far too little sleep and laughter and far too many tears and pain.

Like Paul, in my initial prayers I pled for relief. Perhaps, he made the same argument as did I and patiently explained to God how much more effective he’d be in his ministry without that pesky thorn. Unlike Paul, however, I didn’t stop at a mere three times before understanding (and accepting) that God’s power “is made perfect in weakness.” Eventually, I understood that God’s denial of relief didn’t mean He failed a test of His love for me and realized that I was undergoing a test of how much I loved and trusted Him! Although I wanted the emotional, spiritual, and physical pain to go away, God had other plans; He was doing a bit of unwelcome “character building.”

Having just revealed to the Corinthians that he’d been caught up to Paradise where he saw and experienced such amazing things that he was incapable of expressing them, Paul explained that he’d been given the thorn to keep him from becoming proud, arrogant, or big-headed because of what had been revealed to him. Although I haven’t had such an extraordinary spiritual experience as Paul’s, I did need a lesson in Christ-like humility and a few thorns to keep me mindful of my need for God’s power!

Thorns drive us to acknowledge our weaknesses and make us depend on Christ for strength so that His power can surround and enable us! Accepting that God’s grace is sufficient for my needs, my prayers have become simpler and far less demanding. Trusting Him for tomorrow, I simply ask that He grant me grace enough to get through today! Indeed, His power is made visible in my weakness.

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. [2 Corinthians 12:9b-10 (ESV)]

I can do all things through him who strengthens me. [Philippians 4:13 (ESV)]

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