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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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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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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ANSWERED PRAYERS

And we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. And since we know he hears us when we make our requests, we also know that he will give us what we ask for. [1 John 5:14-15 (NLT)]

May he grant your heart’s desires and make all your plans succeed. [Psalm 20:4 (NLT)]

santaWhat do you hope to find tucked into your Christmas stocking or deposited under the tree Christmas morning? From the above words, it’s easy to think God is promising something like Christmas morning every day. Although He promises to hear and answer our prayers, let’s remember that He’s not so specific as to how He’ll answer them.

Remember the story of King Midas? As a reward for the King’s kindness, Dionysus offered Midas anything he wanted. Coveting wealth, Midas wanted everything he touched to be changed into gold. Although he was warned to think seriously about such a wish, the king insisted. How thrilled he was when the twigs and stones he handled became precious metal. Midas’ joy at his gift began to fade, however, when he discovered that gold roses have no aroma and food became metal before it could be eaten. After a simple touch turned his daughter into a golden statue, the king detested the gift he’d so desired. Taking pity on him, Dionysus told the king to wash in the river Pactolus to lose his golden touch and make things right again.

While the Midas story has pagan beginnings, there is much a Christian can learn from this ancient myth, the first of which is not to love material possessions. When we pray, we shouldn’t act like children looking through Amazon’s “Ready, Set, Play” holiday toy catalog or grown-ups browsing through the Neiman Marcus 200-page Christmas Book and marking the pages with our holiday fantasies. Prayer is not like writing a wish list to Santa for all the gifts we desire and God’s promises are never an excuse for greed or selfishness.

Unlike a mythical Greek deity, God will not give us anything that could harm us. While we’re not likely to ask for a snake or scorpion, we have been known to ask for other things that could bring us harm—the extra money, new job, sexy guy at work, vacation in Vegas, or that big house with an even bigger mortgage. Just like King Midas, our limited (and selfish) perspective cannot possibly see all of the ramifications of our prayer requests. We ask for things without understanding how they may affect our life or the lives of others. We may know what we want but God, in his infinite wisdom, knows what will happen if we get it. If God had given me everything for which I prayed, it would have taken way more than a bath in the river Pactolus to clean up the resulting mess and set things right again. It’s been said that God’s answers are far wiser than our prayers and, indeed, they are. With love and wisdom, in His own time and way, God will always answer our prayers. Let’s give thanks that “Yes” is not always His answer to our requests.

The devil doesn’t come in a red cape and pointy horns. He comes as everything you’ve ever wished for. [Anonymous]

You fathers—if your children ask for a fish, do you give them a snake instead? Or if they ask for an egg, do you give them a scorpion? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. [Luke 11:11-13 (NLT)]

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ASK, SEEK, KNOCK

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. [Matthew 7:7 (NIV)]

Ask, seek, and knock—three easy instructions. Ask. Ask as if we mean it, as if we truly care about the answer. Ask as if we believe we’re being heard. Ask with the hunger of a beggar begging bread. Ask with the fervor of someone sinking in quicksand pleading for help. Ask with the thirst of a dying man in the desert requesting water. Ask as if our very lives depend on the answer. Ask.

Seek. Seek as if we were searching for something of value—not a cursory look as if we’d lost a button or dropped a paper clip. Seek as we would for a lost wedding ring, wallet, or child. Seek as we would for an exit from a burning building. Seek by adding efforts to our prayers; after all, we can’t ask God for a harvest without first planting the seeds. Seek as if we care, as if our very lives depended on finding it. Seek.

Knock. Knock as if we truly wanted to enter. Knock with confidence—not shyly as if we don’t know whose door we’re at or timidly as if we’re not sure we’re welcome. Knock and keep knocking as if we desperately need the door to be answered, as if our very lives depended on it. Knock.

We have a promise—God’s promise—and we must ask, seek, and knock as if we believe that promise! Where there is a praying heart, He promises we’ll find a listening God—a God who loves us as a father loves a child. Like a good parent, however, no matter how fervently we ask, how diligently we seek nor how hard we knock, He won’t give us stones or snakes or anything bad for us. While there will be no money for drugs when we need rehab, no car when a bicycle will do, no escape from facing consequences, and even no healing when God’s presence in our pain is enough, there will be mercy, peace, grace, patience, wisdom, strength against sin, and understanding. Rather than sell, loan or rent us His gifts, He gives them to us because He loves us! Trust His promise to generously give good things to those who ask, seek, and knock.

For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! [Matthew 7:8-11 (NIV)]

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PRAY FOR THEM – Part 2

So Peter was kept in prison. But the church prayed earnestly to God on his behalf. … Suddenly an angel of the Lord stood there, and a light shone in the cell. The angel hit Peter on the side and woke him up. “Get up quickly!” he said. The chains fell off his hands. [Acts 12:5,7 (NTE)]

black-crowned night heronIn the early church, it was common for believers to gather together for prayer and, when Peter was imprisoned, they gathered to pray for his release at the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark. For a people who believed in prayer, it’s ironic that Peter thought the angel that freed him to be a mere vision until he found himself free on the city streets and that the church was astonished when he showed up at Mary’s house! Amazing things can happen when the church prays for its leaders. Prayers broke Peter’s chains, imagine what they can do for our pastors!

Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892), known as the “Prince of Preachers,” is said to have had a voice so strong that he could be heard (without amplification) in a crowd of 23,000. His church, the Metropolitan Tabernacle was the largest of his day. Even though it seated 5,000, his powerful preaching drew such crowds that he would ask some of his members to attend other churches to make room for newcomers the next week. In his lifetime, Spurgeon preached to over ten million people and his collected work fills at least 49 volumes. Apparently unstoppable, he also founded 66 parachurch ministries, including two orphanages, seventeen homes for widows, and a free seminary. From where did Spurgeon get the power to accomplish so much for the Lord?

The story is told that one day the legendary preacher was giving some people a tour of the Tabernacle before service began. After asking if they’d be interested in seeing the huge church’s “power plant,” he took them into the basement and led them into a room. While Spurgeon seemed the unstoppable “Energizer Bunny” of preachers, his power didn’t come from batteries or the furnace room. Spurgeon’s power came from prayers—the prayers said by the hundreds of people who gathered in that room before church every Sunday and fervently prayed for their pastor while asking God to bless his preaching!

Behind every healthy church is a commitment to prayer and, behind every good pastor is a commitment to pray for him. Will we be the “power plant” needed by our pastors today?

At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. [Colossians 4:3-4 (ESV)]

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