When God says No

October 25, 2009

[This devotion is taken from last Sunday’s sermon. The audio for the entire sermon is available here.]

How do you react when God answers “No” to your prayers?
We are tempted to think of ourselves as potential worshipers of different religions, and thus of different gods. These different gods, are almost like presidential candidates vying for our vote, for our affections, for our commitment. If a god promises us enough, and exhibits enough power and love toward us to show he is sincere and able to keep his promises, then we will cast out vote for him. He’ll be our candidate, our god.

How do we cast our vote? By:

coming to church,
giving money,
reading the Bible,
offering prayers.
We say (rather like the immature Jacob in Genesis 28), “If you, god, do your part, I’ll come to worship services, you’ll be my candidate (oops, I mean you’ll be my god).”

God just needs to live up to His campaign promises, and then we’ll live up to our commitment to stand by Him, to worship Him in this quid pro quo sense.

Is that the way you’ve approached God? Is that what your relationship to God looks like?

If your relationship to God is based on such an arrangement, what happens when God says, “No”? What happens is that you switch parties. He’s no longer your candidate, your god. Effectively, you end up saying:

“If God doesn’t save the life of this child,
if He doesn’t bring my husband back to me,
if he doesn’t stop this war,
if he doesn’t take away this temptation I face,
then I’m out of here. That negative answer will show that Christianity doesn’t work. I won’t offer that god any more worship: No more coming to church, no more giving money, no more reading the Bible, no more offering of prayers.”

When we think this way, we are treating God like an approximate equal, a man – a rich and powerful man, perhaps even a good man, but nevertheless a man with whom we have some bargaining power, one whom we need to hold accountable, and make sure He lives up to His agreement.

We must remember again and again: The difference between us and God is much greater than the difference between a two-year-old child and his parents. And two-year-olds should not treat their parents like approximate equals.

Consider this encounter:

Father to two-year-old: “I love you, my child, and I will always provide for you.”

Child: “OK, Daddy, if you’ll put food on my plate each meal and give me warm blankets, then once a week I’ll join my siblings in saying, “Thank you”, and I’ll acknowledge you as a good Dad, and I’ll share my ice cream with you.”

What would you think of two-year-old who says that?:

God is our Father. He loves us. He loves to meet our requests for our genuine needs. Keep remembering Luke 12:32: “It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

As we can see from Jesus’ model prayer in Matthew 6:9-13 (the “Lord’s Prayer”), true prayer has three steps: Acknowledging that God is our loving Father, and we are like little children before Him; asking that He might be glorified, and acknowledging that this must happen; and asking that we might have all we need in order to play our role in glorifying Him.

And this, indeed, is the basis of true worship. Worship is not a quid pro quo arrangement with God – “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” Worship does not consist of our coming to church, giving money, reading the Bible, and offering prayers. Those acts can be acts of worship. But those acts in and of themselves are not worship.

Instead, worship is loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and expressing that love. Worship is valuing Christ more than all the world has to offer, and acting, thinking, and feeling in accord with that value.

So if we are not to treat God like a presidential candidate, how should we understand God’s negative answers to our requests?

When God says no, He is telling us:

“You don’t need that to glorify Me. Trust Me in this. Your trusting me when I seem to say no magnifies My name. Your valuing Me more than the gift you wanted from Me glorifies Me. Know that I love you. I am with you. I will never leave you nor forsake you. My kingdom must come. My will must be done. Believe me.”

Jesus Himself shows us how this is done: The night He was betrayed, He asked that He might not go to the cross, saying:

“My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” . . . “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” (Matthew 26:39, 42)

He begins with the first part of prayer, addressing God as Father, and seeing Himself as a beloved child (Mark records that He said, “Abba, Father” – an even more intimate expression). He then moves to the second part of prayer. Recall that the Lord’s Prayer includes these phrases: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus uses exactly the same words at the end of verse 42: “Your will be done.” He wants God’s kingdom to come. He wants God to be glorified in all the earth. And He knows that His death – as terrible as it will be – is part of God’s plan to bring glory to Himself. As He had said earlier that afternoon:

“Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” (John 12:27-28)

The third, final step of prayer is implicit in both John 12 and Matthew 26: Jesus effectively is asking, “Give me the strength, the courage, the perseverance I need to glorify Your Name in the midst of this horrible, painful death.”

God the Father said no to Jesus’ request to have the cup of death pass from Him. In that sense, His request was denied.

But God glorified His Name. God fulfilled His perfect will. And that always was Jesus’ primary request. God the Father gave Him what He needed to glorify His Name.

That is His promise to us. And that is how we should pray. If we are praying rightly – that is, if we are following the three steps of the Lord’s prayer, all our requests build on the first two steps:

All our requests are based on God being our loving Father, and we being His children through faith in Jesus Christ. Thus all our requests begin with an acknowledgment that He is much, much wiser than we are.
All our requests aim to glorify God, to bring in His kingdom, to accomplish His will. In true prayer, any requests for ourselves are made with that end in mind.
God promises that He always answers yes to such requests. But because we are two-year-olds and He is Father, we often won’t understand how He has answered our prayers. We will need to trust Him. We will not receive all we think we need. But He will always give us what we truly need to glorify Him.

So have you been bargaining with God? Have you effectively put yourself in the role of a voter, and God in the role of a presidential candidate seeking your endorsement?

See Him as Father. Make knowing Him the desire of your life. Seek His honor and His glory above all. And then ask – and you will receive what you need to glorify Him.

“Asking of Your Father” by Martyn Lloyd-Jones

October 17, 2009

[Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981) was a Welsh preacher who ministered in Wales and in London in the last century. God used him mightily, particularly in holding up the value of expository preaching when most ministers had abandoned it. The following is taken from his sermon on Matthew 7:7-11, which includes the sentence: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” I quoted from this in last Sunday’s sermon on God as our fatherly provider; this selection is also relevant for tomorrow’s sermon on prayer. You can read and listen to Lloyd-Jones through this website – Coty]

If you should ask me to state in one phrase what I regard as the greatest defect in most Christian lives I would say that it is our failure to know God as our Father. . . . Ah yes, we say; we do know that and believe it. But do we know it in our daily life and living? Is it something of which we are always conscious? If only we got hold of this, we could smile in the face of every possibility and eventuality that lies ahead of us.

How then are we to know this? It is certainly not something based on the notion of the ‘universal Fatherhood of God’. . . . That is not biblical. Our Lord says something here that ridicules that and proves such an idea to be nonsense. He says, ‘If ye then, being evil’. You see the significance? . . . ‘Ye being evil’ means that we not only do things which are evil, but that we are evil. Our natures are corrupt and evil, and those who are essentially corrupt and evil are not the children of God. . . . No; by nature we are all the children of wrath; . . . by nature we are not His children. . . . God is your Father only when you satisfy certain conditions. He is not the Father of any one of us as we are by nature.

How then does God become my Father? According to the Scriptures it is like this. Christ ‘came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power (i.e., authority) to become the sons of God’ (John 1:11, 12). You become a child of God only when you are born again. . . . Believing in [Christ], we receive a new life and nature and we become children of God. Then we can know that God is our Father; but not until then. He will also give us His Holy Spirit, ‘the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father’; and the moment we know this we can be certain that God as our Father adopts a specific attitude with respect to us. It means that, as my Father, He is interested in me, that He is concerned about me, that He is watching over me, that He has a plan and purpose with respect to me, that He is desirous always to bless and to help me. Lay hold of that; take a firm grasp of that. Whatever may happen to you, God is your Father. . . .

But that does not exhaust the statement. There is a very interesting negative addition. Because God is your Father He will never give you anything that is evil. He will give you only that which is good. ‘What man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?’ Multiply that by infinity and that is God’s attitude towards His child. In our folly we are apt to think that God is against us when something unpleasant happens to us. But God is our Father; and as our Father he will never give us anything that is evil. Never; it is impossible.

[Another] principle is this. God, being God, never makes a mistake. He knows the difference between good and evil in a way that no-one else does. . . . The earthly father at his best sometimes thinks at the moment that he is acting for the good of his child, but discovers later that it was bad. Your Father who is in heaven never makes such a mistake. He will never give you anything which will turn out to be harmful to you, but which at first seemed to be good. This is one of the most wonderful things we can ever realize. . . . If we but knew we were in the hands of such a Father, our outlook upon the future would be entirely transformed.

Lastly, we must remember increasingly the good gifts which He has for us. ‘How much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?’ This is the theme of the whole Bible. What are the good things? Our Lord has given us the answer in that passage in Luke 11. . . . ‘If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?’ That is it. And in giving the Holy Spirit He gives us everything; every fitness we require, every grace, every gift. They are all given to us in Him. . . . You see now why we should thank God that asking, and seeking and knocking, do not just mean that if we ask for anything we like we shall get it. Of course not. What it means is this. Ask for any one of these things that is good for you, that is for the salvation of your soul, your ultimate perfection, anything that brings you nearer to God and enlarges your life and is thoroughly good for you, and He will give it you. He will not give you things that are bad for you. You may think they are good but He knows they are bad. . . .

That is the way to face the future. Find out from the Scriptures what these good things are and seek them. The thing that matters supremely, the best thing for all of us, is to know God, ‘the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom (he) hath sent’; and if we seek that above everything else, if we ‘seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness’, then we have the word of the Son of God . . . that all these other things shall be added unto us. God will give them to us with a bounty that we cannot even imagine. ‘Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.’

[Studies in the Sermon on the Mount Volume 2 (Eerdmans, 1960), p. 202-205.]

Your Two Most Important Tasks

October 9, 2009

[This devotion is taken from last Sunday’s sermon – Coty]
What task has God given you? What is the most important of all tasks?

Is your most important task to do something great for God? Is your most important task, specifically, to fulfill the Great Commission: To go, make disciples of all nations, of every people group?

No. That is indeed an important task. But it’s not your most important task. And you can’t fulfill your role in completing the Great Commission unless you first fulfill this most important task.

What is it?

Jesus says the first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with al your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength (Mark 12:30). And He says we must turn and become like little children – resting on our Daddy, rejoicing in our Daddy – if we are to enter His kingdom (Matthew 18:3). Paul commands us to rejoice in the Lord – always (Philippians 4:4)!

This is your number one task: To delight in your Daddy. To know that you are nothing and He is everything. To know that He has given you every good gift you have. To acknowledge that you don’t deserve anything, that you can’t earn anything – you are just the recipient of His love again and again. To delight in Him, so that you show through your attitudes and affections that He is most important, that He is supreme.

That is your number one task: To have joy in Christ – and to express that joy.

George Mueller, who in 19th century organized and ran orphanages in Britain that served thousands, wrote this:

According to my judgment the most important point to be attended to is this: above all things see to it that your souls are happy in the Lord. Other things may press upon you, the Lord’s work may even have urgent claims upon your attention, but I deliberately repeat, it is of supreme and paramount importance that you should seek above all things to have your souls truly happy in God Himself! Day by day seek to make this the most important business of your life. . . . The secret of all true effectual service is joy in God, having experimental acquaintance and fellowship with God Himself

So the first question for you to ask yourself is not: What are you doing to serve mankind?

Nor is the first question: What are you doing to serve God?

But the first question is: Are you happy in God?

There is, however, a second task. A second question. Indeed, Jesus says the second greatest commandment is like unto the first. Furthermore, fulfilling this second task is a means toward achieving the first task.

What is the second task?

We can state it many ways: Love your neighbor as yourself. Make disciples of all nations. Fill the earth with the knowledge of His glory as the waters cover the seas.

But we can more clearly see the link with the first task if we define it this way:

Your number two task is to deepen joy in Christ among those who know Him, and to spread joy in Christ to those who do not.

We are to say, “I rejoice in Christ! He is all to me! And because He is all to me, I can love you and serve you and pour myself out for you – even if you reject me, for I have all I need in Him. But I want Him to be all to you – for your joy!”

This is a holy ambition – an ambition that only flows out of our living up to the number one task of rejoicing in Christ.

We, like Paul, should have a deep passion for this second task, combined with a humble willingness to play any role in fulfilling that task, while we keep our eyes fixed on the number 1 task of rejoicing in God.

If you have that attitude, you are not wasting your life – whatever specific ways you end up working to fulfill the second task.

Now, think about that word, “Whatever.” It means being able to say something like this:

“I am willing to lead a movement that brings millions to faith in Christ” (to say “I could never do that)” is false humility, a denial of God’s transforming, enabling power.)
“I am willing to labor unnoticed feeding, clothing, and changing diapers for disabled orphans for rest of my life”
“I am willing to lie flat on my back, paralyzed, unable to do anything other than to accept the service of others, to be gracious and kind to those who serve me, and to pray for the advance of God’s kingdom.”
“I place myself in Jesus’ hands to use me in any way He sovereignly chooses.”
“My status before God does not depend on my accomplishments. And my status before Him is the only status that counts.”
Can you say that?

The 19th century Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon once wrote this when he was flat on his back, unable to minister:

It is of the utmost importance to us to be kept humble. Consciousness of self-importance is a hateful delusion, but one into which we fall as naturally as weeds grow on a dunghill. We cannot be used of the Lord but what we also dream of personal greatness, we think ourselves almost indispensable to the church, pillars of the cause, and foundations of the temple of God. We are nothings and nobodies, but that we do not think so is very evident, for as soon as we are put on the shelf we begin anxiously to enquire, “How will the work go on without me?” As well might the fly on the coach wheel enquire, “How will the mails be carried without me?”

Or, to update the image: As well might the fly clinging to the windshield wiper of a UPS truck ask, “How will the packages be delivered without me?”

God doesn’t need you. He doesn’t need me. He doesn’t need my education, my skills, my talents, my experience.

But as long as God keeps me here on this earth, He has a purpose for me – and I must not waste my life; I must not be diverted from that purpose.

He gives me a twofold task:

Delighting in Him
Deepening and spreading that joy – in ANY way He chooses.
We need to honestly say before God: “Use me in any way you wish:

“Prominent, or not prominent;
“Seemingly important, or not seeming to have any importance;
“Doing and praying, or only praying
“Just use me for your glory!”
Will you say that? Will you follow our Lord? Will you first delight in God – and then spread and deepen that joy, to the glory of God?

The Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven

October 2, 2009

[In last Sunday’s sermon, we looked at Matthew 18:1-4 to see how Jesus speaks of humility, and to learn how we can balance the biblical injunctions to be ambitious for God with that humility. We’ll continue to discuss those issues this Sunday. Here are three key questions about the Matthew 18 text – Coty]

Matthew 18:1-4 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3 and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

1) What does Jesus mean by telling us to “turn and become like children”?

The disciples are asking who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven – clearly thinking that one of them is the greatest. They want Jesus to say, “James – I pick you as the greatest because of all you’ve done. You’re number one!”

Instead, Jesus says this: “Your entire conception of greatness is wrong! You think in terms of your qualifications. You desire to get positions of power and privilege. You keep comparing yourselves to each other, with each of you trying to exalt himself over the others. You have to turn! You have to change your mindset completely! Look at this little two-year-old. Become like him! This child is not seen as great by anybody. He is completely dependent on his parents. He has no influence. He is weaker than every adult. He cannot make money. He has no exceptional abilities. He has no authority and no power. He just loves his Daddy; he knows he is dependent on him, and delights in him. He doesn’t even think about himself compared to others. He just thinks about how wonderful his Daddy is. You must change and become like THAT if you are to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

That is Jesus’ point.

2) Why must we turn and become like children to enter the kingdom?

This is the Gospel! God created man to glorify Him by delighting in Him. But each of us has rejected that purpose, choosing to delight in ourselves and in the things of this world rather than in God. Having failed to fulfill the purpose of our creation, we deserve to be rejected by God, thrown out by Him. Yet He sent His Son into the world to become man, to live a life of rejoicing in the Father, delighting to do all that He commanded, fulfilling our purpose. He then willingly died the death we deserved on the cross, taking on Himself our punishment. God raised Him, showing the sacrifice was sufficient, the penalty was paid. The benefits of that death accrue to every person who confesses his sin and believes in Jesus as Savior and Lord. And God then promises that He will create a new heavens and a new earth, the final, complete kingdom of heaven, in which all the redeemed will dwell, together fulfilling the purpose of humanity: Rejoicing in the greatness of God (Philippians 2:9-11; Revelation 7:9-12). Here no one will seek greatness for himself. No one will argue about who is the greatest. Instead, we will all rejoice in the greatness of God, and of His Son. We will all see that greatness comes only from God Himself.

This is the goal of the Gospel: The joy of all people in the greatness of God. If we understand the Gospel, it makes no sense at all to jockey for a position of greatness. Jesus is great! Rejoice in His greatness! And then rightly be humbled. As the 19th century Anglican bishop J.C. Ryle says, “The surest mark of true conversion is humility.”

3) Who then is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?

Clearly Jesus is the greatest. God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the greatest.

I can imagine the disciples (and myself!) at this point saying, “Sure, of course. But what about among resurrected mankind? Which of them is greatest? Could it be me?”

So Jesus says in Matthew 18:4: “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

Note that Jesus says in verse 3 that unless you turn and become like this little child, unless you become humble like a 2-year-old, you will not even enter the kingdom. And then He says in verse 4 that if you humble yourself like this child, you are the greatest in the kingdom.

So do you see the implication? Everyone in the kingdom of heaven is the greatest! For everyone has the righteousness of Christ credited to his account. Everyone has the Spirit of God dwelling in him. Everyone is perfected by God for His glory

So look around you. Across ages. Across ethnicity. Across the ability to speak English. Across levels of theological training. Across length of time as a Christian. Across differences in giftedness, in education, in income. For those who are in Christ, for those who have faith in Him: ALL are made perfect. ALL are great. You are no greater than anyone else. You are not less than anyone else. Because every believer has the righteousness of Christ – and that is what matters.

Note: In eternity, there will still be differences among those who are saved. But there will be no differences in status, in position before God, or in moral perfection. There will be no difference in greatness.

For greatness consists in humble dependence on Jesus Christ. And no one is saved apart from that very greatness.