My dear Globdrop,
You lament how little progress you have to report over these recent weeks. Your man has not tumbled downhill as quickly as you had hoped. The fly has avoided old webs, and this discourages you. You swear, however, that the numbers sitting on my desk tell but half-truths: a full calendar, not a full heart, gives the vermin the appearance of moral progress. Meanwhile, you await idle moments to “get back to it.”
Get back to what? The trapping of your man down below — or something else? Nephew, I can hear your yawn from headquarters. You’ve bored of “gentle slopes, soft underfoot” in favor of these “mighty tumblings” you speak of. Our traditional ways do not suit you properly. Hubris, nephew, makes for hungry demons. The soft crunch of the forbidden fruit sufficed for our Master, but you want more explosion, do you?
Make no mistake: we love adulterers, thieves, and murderers. But these are delicacies, not the main course. Have you forgotten that most who fall to our Father’s house never expected to arrive? They assumed themselves good enough, if not to merit heaven, doubtless to avoid hell. Most meant — always sooner than later — to ponder life’s biggest questions, to focus more on the Enemy, or make it (back) to church. But death startled them. Although they never got around to giving a damn, they nonetheless received one.Most Innocent Way to Hell
Globdrop, the main course consists of the dreadfully preoccupied persons who otherwise are taken up at present (not accidentally mind you) with more urgent matters. Your man does not need to serve jail time nor burn down the town. He must simply, innocently, carry on believing that eternity is the business of tomorrow. Spiritual procrastination, although not as petting to the ego, has been our stickiest web for the past two centuries. The most common path to hell unsettles least.
Gently along, then, gently along. Do not fixate on luring him back to last year’s vomit. Drown him in new pools. Further down and further out, step by step, as the waters rise.Fill the Room with Mice
How, you may wonder, can we get him to forget his God and his own soul for an entire lifetime? Well, as one of their soldiers asked, how can you hide a rhinoceros standing in the middle of a room? Fill the room with millions of mice.
Diversion, nephew, endless diversions. Release the mice: consuming careers, YouTube videos, birthday parties, dirty dishes, whining children, dream vacations, housework, clicking, typing, scrolling — always something to distract him from the Enemy. We must create that overstimulated, over-caffeinated soul which cannot endure inactivity. A soul that finds no repose with a book, a steady gaze out the window, or a quiet evening left alone.
Such jittery spirits cannot attend to prayer, or sit calmly with the Enemy’s wretched word. Do your job effectively, and over time you can manipulate him to welcome such diversions as a relief from the solitary confinement of the dreadful religious life. He may come to hope to see that the shades need dusting, the dishes need doing, and the dog needs a walk. Anything but stillness — anything but silence. Always be ready to hand him Martha’s busy broom.Turn All Resolves to Tomorrow
Now an excerpt from my forthcoming book that, though dealing with sexual sin, applies in principle to your current situation:
Rule #164: The Doctrine of Tomorrow’s Holiness
Let the vermin admire holiness — so long as it’s only tomorrow’s holiness. Never fear “pure resolves” as long as they fire at anything but the present. Suffer them to value the thought of chastity while being currently unchaste. Let them highly esteem abstinence, practice indulgence, and think themselves the better for highly esteeming abstinence. (Don’t let them see the contradiction.) Allow them to sweetly imagine that they inhabit tomorrow’s holiness merely because they value it today.
To your situation, then: let him sweetly imagine that his vague plans to take up faith tomorrow excuses his negligence today. As the Enemy bids him, “Follow me,” comfort him in reply of, “Yes Lord!” even though he follows it with “But first let me . . .” And while they bury their dead or buy fields or examine their property — delicious alibis for crimes of which we soon will accuse them — teach them that wanting to follow, seek, and obey someday is all but indistinguishable from actually doing so. Comfort him in his good intentions to follow the Savior tomorrow, next week, or “when life settles down.” We know what the road to hell is paved with.Keep Him ‘Nice’
This is where your desire to kill by gunshot backfires. Great sins can awaken thought and jolt a slumbering conscience. Instead, preach our favorite beatitude in his busy season: “Blessed are the nice, for theirs is the kingdom.” Which kingdom? Precisely.
Congratulate him that he does not stew in drunkenness, teach our doctrines, or abuse his closest relations. He is nice. “Nice,” Globdrop, stands in sharp contrast from those curses such as “righteous,” “holy,” or “pure.” Indeed, it is our sugar-free substitute. It tastes like holiness, promises to acquit like righteousness, and alleviates the conscience like purity — all while fattening for the day of slaughter.
Do you see our brilliance, nephew? You need not hassle yourself with these mighty falls. Quietly make him neglectful, busy, temperate. Assure him that the Enemy is obliged to save him as long as he isn’t “tumbling about.” We know better. If we present them to the Enemy lukewarm, he promises to spit them out — and we aren’t nearly so picky.Gently Down the Stream
Remember, the Enemy himself set the excessive standard: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Anything less than “supreme love” and allegiance will not suffice. If friends to the world, then enemies to him. He has built high walls and cut but a narrow path. Our way is much broader.
This day his wretched Maker calls to your vermin, entreating him to come. He promises if he will but seek — and give himself to seeking — he undoubtedly will find. More tasks. More caffeine. More television. Send forth the mice.
You may get more satisfaction from shooting your prey and hearing him squeal, but our Master assigns us to quietly drown souls under calm streams. Never tire of this. Send him down the halls of Titanic to clean rooms and fix faucets. Don’t let him notice the subtle decline nor mind the frantic pleadings of others onboard. He will be fine. Further down, further out. What’s the worst that can happen?
Your expectant uncle,
In The Globdrop Letters, a senior demon (Wormwood) corresponds with a junior demon (Globdrop) to advise him in the evil art of subtle deception. The series follows in the large footsteps of C.S. Lewis in his classic work, The Screwtape Letters.
I struggle with knowing how to pray. Should I trust that everything is in God’s hands and rest knowing he will do the best thing for me? Or should I cry out to God earnestly to change the situation, giving him reasons to answer my prayer?
Wrestling with God or resting in him. Which is better?
Resting seems godlier, trusting that God will give me what I need without even asking. It seems more holy, more faith-filled, more biblical. Resting seems to indicate a more mature faith. But when I look at the Bible, I see a fuller picture of prayer. Jesus tells us to ask, and it will be given to us (Matthew 7:7) and that if we abide in him, we can ask for whatever we wish, and it will be done for us (John 15:7).
Not only that, Jesus exhorts us “always to pray and not lose heart.” He tells the parable of the unjust judge, who gave the widow justice because she kept coming to him and likened that to the way we need to cry out to God (Luke 18:1–7). He commended the Canaanite woman for her faith and did what she asked because she was persistent, giving Jesus reasons to answer her (Matthew 15:21–28). When Jesus spoke about prayer, he told us to bring our requests to God.
Wrestling with God is asking him for what we want, persisting in prayer, crying out to him for ourselves and others. There can be no detachment or apathy in wrestling; it involves direct and constant contact. When we wrestle, we believe that our cries and prayers matter. We have hope that our situation will change. We are fully engaged.They Grappled with God
Throughout the Bible, we see people wrestling with God. Moses wrestled with God, interceding on behalf of the people to change God’s mind. He pleaded with God. He gave God reasons to answer his prayer. He reminded God of his promises. And as a result, God often relented of his judgment (Deuteronomy 9:18–19). Moses was willing to ask God anything, and when the answer was “no,” Moses rested. Moses deeply trusted God and dared to believe that what he said mattered.
David also believed that his prayers mattered. He poured out his lament through tears, expecting God to answer. Most of David’s psalms of lament melt into praise because through his wrestling, David came to rest and trust in God. When David’s child with Bathsheba was ill, David sought God on behalf of the child. He fasted and prayed and lay all night on the ground. But when the child died, David got up, anointed himself, and went to the house of God and worshiped (2 Samuel 12:16, 20).
Habakkuk begins his book asking, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you ‘violence!’ and you will not save?” (Habakkuk 1:2) But after his wrestling, Habakkuk is content to rest in God declaring “though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines . . . yet I will rejoice in the Lord” (Habakkuk 3:17–18).
We see the apostle Paul’s pleading with the Lord to remove the thorn in his flesh, but then be content in his weakness so that the power of Christ would rest upon him (2 Corinthians 12:7–10).
Ultimately, we see Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, asking God to remove the cup from him, sweating drops of blood in his agony. And yet ultimately, Jesus declares, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).Closer to God
Throughout Scripture, we see that wrestling leads to resting, which leads to worship. That’s been true in my life as well. Despairing for a loved one years ago, I prayed day after day, face down on the carpet, begging God for deliverance. And then it happened — the situation miraculously changed. I remember reading that God “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17), grateful and wide-eyed that God answered my prayer. I fell on my face in worship and gratitude.
Yet another time when I wrestled with God, asking just as persistently and earnestly, God said no. I was heartbroken but kept wrestling with his answer, voicing my frustration and disappointment to God. Like the psalmist I cried, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1). In clinging to God, honestly lamenting my pain, I grew closer to God; I felt his presence. This was worship also.
My wrestling has brought me closer to God. It did that for Jacob too, when he wrestled with an unknown man until daybreak. This man was clearly stronger than Jacob (he simply touched his hip to put it out of joint), but this stranger knew that wrestling was important for Jacob. Jacob clung to him, refusing to let the man go until he blessed him. After he was blessed for his persistence, Jacob said, “I have seen God face to face” (Genesis 32:22–32).Resting Begins with Wrestling
This wrestling with God in prayer doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t rest in him. As we give our burdens to Jesus, he gives us rest. We can cease striving and find rest for our souls (Matthew 11:28–29). We can find peace and contentment when we are fully satisfied in him, trusting in his care (Isaiah 26:3).
Yet sometimes resting can be a cover for resignation because we’ve given up hope. Sometimes saying we are trusting is a way of protecting ourselves from disappointment. Sometimes not asking is a sign of drifting from God, unwilling to actively engage him. We need to understand where our rest is coming from.
Resting begins with wrestling. So pray bold, daring prayers. Expect God to move. Talk to the Lord constantly. Ask, seek, and knock. And when your wrestling is over, you’ll find an intimacy sweeter than you have ever known. And that wrestling will lead you to true rest in the one who is worthy of all our worship and praise.
Planning becomes sinful when we presume whatever we schedule will come to pass. Preface all of life with “If the Lord wills.”
The doctrine of penal substitution is under attack today — and that’s an understatement. From voices outside of evangelical theology to those within, the historic Reformation view of the cross is claimed to be a “modern” invention from the cultural West. Others criticize the doctrine as sanctioning violence, privileging divine retributive justice over God’s love, condoning a form of divine child abuse, reducing Scripture’s polychrome presentation of the cross to a lifeless monochrome, being too “legal” in orientation, and so on.
All of these charges are not new. All of them have been argued since the end of the 16th century, and all of them are false. Yet such charges reflect the corrosive effects of false ideas on theology and a failure to account for how the Bible, on its own terms, interprets the cross. Given the limitations of this article, I cannot fully respond to these charges. Instead, I will briefly state four truths that unpack the biblical-theological rationale of penal substitution. In so doing, my goal is to explain why penal substitution should be embraced as God’s good news for sinners.Four Questions to Get Right
It is only in viewing Christ as our penal substitute that we truly understand the depth of God’s holy love for us, the horrendous nature of our sin before God, and the glory of our substitute — Jesus Christ our Lord — whose obedient life and penal death achieved our right standing before God and the full forgiveness of our sins. Let us now turn to these truths that are crucial to affirm and that lead us to glory in our Lord Jesus Christ as our penal substitute.1. Who Is God?
First, we must get right who God is as our triune Creator-Covenant Lord. Mark it well: debates over the nature of the atonement are first and foremost doctrine of God debates. If our view of God is sub-biblical, we will never get the cross right. From the opening verses of Scripture, God is presented as eternal, a se (life from himself), holy love, righteous, and good — the triune God who is complete in himself and who needs nothing from us (Genesis 1–2; Psalm 50:12–14; Isaiah 6:1–3; Acts 17:24–25; Revelation 4:8–11).
One crucial implication of this description is that God, in his very nature, is the moral standard of the universe. This is why we must not think of God’s law as something external to him that he may relax at will. Instead, the triune God of Scripture is the law; his will and nature determine what is right and wrong.
This view of God is often forgotten in today’s discussion of the atonement. Following the “New Perspective on Paul,” some argue that God’s justice/righteousness is only “God’s covenant faithfulness,” that is, God remaining true to his promises. No doubt this is true. However, what this view fails to see is that “righteousness-justice-holiness” is first tied to God’s nature as God. That is why, in light of sin, God, who is the law, cannot overlook our sin. God’s holy justice demands that he not only punish all sin, but also, if he graciously chooses to justify the ungodly (Romans 4:5), he must do so by fully satisfying his own righteous, holy moral demand.
Thus, given our sin and God’s gracious choice to redeem us, the question that emerges across redemptive history is this: How will God demonstrate his holy justice and covenant love and remain true to himself? The answer is only found in the Father’s gift of his Son, Jesus’s obedient life and substitutionary death, that results in our justification before God in Christ (Romans 3:21–26).2. Who Is Man?
Second, we must get right who humans are as God’s image-sons created to be in covenant relationship with God. Specifically, we must grasp who Adam is, not only as a historic person, but also as the covenant representative/head of the human race (Romans 5:12–21; 1 Corinthians 15:21–22).
Why is this significant? Because in creation, our triune Creator-Covenant God sets the conditions of the covenant and rightly demands from Adam (and all of us) total trust, love, and obedience — a truth reflected in God’s first command. But the flip side is also true: If there is covenant disobedience, given who God is, there is also his holy judgment against our sin that results in the penalty of physical and spiritual death (Genesis 2:15–17; cf. Romans 6:23).3. How Can God Justify Sinners?
Third, we must get right the serious problem of our sin before God. Sadly, Adam did not love God with full covenant devotion. Instead, he disobeyed God, thus bringing sin, death, and God’s curse into the world. In the Bible’s storyline, Adam’s sin changes everything!
From Genesis 3 forward, “in Adam,” the entire human race becomes guilty, corrupted, condemned, and under the judicial sentence of death (Genesis 3; Romans 5:12–21; Ephesians 2:1–3). If God is going to redeem, which he has graciously promised to do (Genesis 3:15), how is he going to do it?
Remember, given who God is in all of his moral perfection, and given that he is the standard of holy justice who will not deny himself, how will God declare sinners justified before him apart from the full satisfaction of his moral demand? God must punish sin and execute perfect justice because he is holy, just, and good. He cannot overlook our sin nor relax the demands of his justice, and in truth, thankfully so! But to justify us, our sin must be fully atoned. How, then, can God punish our sin, satisfy his own righteous demand, and justify sinners?
Add to this point: To undo, reverse, and pay for Adam’s sin, we need someone who will come from the human race and identify with us (Genesis 3:15), render our required covenantal obedience, and pay the penalty for our sin. We need someone who will become our covenant representative and substitute, and by his obedient life and penal death secure our justification before God. And wonder of wonders, Scripture gloriously announces that there is one man — and only one — who can do this for us, namely our Lord Jesus Christ (Hebrews 2:5–18).4. Who Is Jesus?
Fourth, we must get right who Jesus is, what he does for us, and that he alone can redeem, reconcile, and justify us before God. Who is the Jesus of the Bible? In short, he is God the Son incarnate, the second person of the triune Godhead. He is no abused child or some third-party individual who stands independent of God. We cannot think of his atoning work apart from thinking of the entire triune God accomplishing our salvation.
Furthermore, as the eternal Son, eternally loved of his Father and the Spirit, in God’s plan, he voluntarily took on the role of becoming our Redeemer. And in his incarnation, he identified with us in order to represent us before God (Hebrews 5:1). In his obedient human life, Jesus, as the Mediator of the new covenant, obeyed for us as our legal covenant representative.
In his obedient death, Jesus, as the divine Son, satisfied his own righteous demand against us by bearing the penalty of our sin as our substitute (Romans 5:18–19; Philippians 2:6–11; Hebrews 5:1–10). And in doing all of this, the Father’s love was revealed in Jesus’s penal substitution because of who Jesus is as the Son incarnate, the Last Adam, and the only Mediator of God’s people (Romans 5:8–11).Don’t Get Bored with the Gospel
The truth of the matter is this: penal substitution is not a view to be replaced by something “better” or dismissed as a relic of the past. There is no greater news than this: Christ Jesus, as the divine Son incarnate, perfectly meets our need before God by his obedient life and substitutionary death. In Christ the triune love of God is gloriously revealed because in Christ we receive the gift of righteousness which is now ours by faith in him. In union with his people, Christ, as our new covenant head, obeys in our place, dies our death, and satisfies divine justice, which is evidenced in his glorious resurrection.
As a result, by faith alone, in Christ alone, his righteousness is ours — now and forever (Romans 8:1; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13). By faith-union in Christ, we stand complete: justified before God by the forgiveness of our sins and clothed in his righteousness (Romans 4:1–8; 5:1–2). Following the Bible’s teaching on this matter, may we learn anew to say with Paul, “For I decided to know nothing . . . except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:15).
The rise of media saturation has ushered in a new age of rivalry with the gospel for the human gaze. We live in an age of competing spectacles.
God’s sovereign control is complete, not partial. He governs every aspect of nature, every aspect of history, and every aspect of personal life.
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who are simply natural and those who have supernatural life in them. Some were born only once; others have been born again. Many do not trust and treasure Jesus as Lord and Savior. A precious few do.
For now, it can be difficult to distinguish these two types of people. Though false professions abound and unbelievers demonstrate remarkable virtue in society, at the bottom of our shared humanity lies one great difference: whether we truly know God himself, through Jesus, or not. Given enough time, the tree will bear fruit, or not. The truth will become plain as to whether we truly have supernatural life in our soul, or not.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus points to “the Gentiles” as those who do not know God. Four separate times they are negative examples of what Christians are not to be. But against our natural instincts, and through the grace of God’s word and Spirit, Jesus calls us not to Gentile love (Matthew 5:47), not to Gentile prayer (6:7), not to Gentile fears (6:32), and not to Gentile leadership (20:25; also Mark 10:42; Luke 22:25). In short, he calls us to live like we know God.Not Like the Gentiles
Until the coming of Christ, Gentiles (non-Jews) were, by and large, merely natural, worldly persons, born under sin and still under sin, “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). God chose Abraham, birthing a special ethnic people to whom he revealed himself. God spoke specially to his chosen people, the Jews. Meanwhile, the Gentiles, with rare exceptions, did not hear from or know the true God.
Even in the ministry of Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles (Romans 11:13; 1 Timothy 2:7), the stigma held. Paul wrote that Christ crucified was “folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23) and charged his converts to “no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds” (Ephesians 4:17). Peter also warned Christians of Gentiles who “speak against you as evildoers” (1 Peter 2:12); he drew a clear line between Christian conduct and “doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry” (1 Peter 4:3).
Maybe most revealing of all, Paul writes to believers “that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thessalonians 4:4–5). At bottom, the issue is not ethnicity, but knowing God. Christianity makes the radical claim, and represents the remarkable reality, that through Jesus Christ, and by his Spirit, we know and enjoy the true God. Two kinds of people populate our world: those who know God in Christ, and those who do not.Knowing God
Given the first-century expectations that Jews would know him, having been trusted with God’s oracles (Romans 3:2), and that Gentiles would not, we shouldn’t be surprised to find Jesus working with these categories in the Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus calls his people, those who know the true God as Father, to kinds of love, prayer, life, and leadership that are distinct from “the course of this world” (Ephesians 2:2) and “the passions of your former ignorance” (1 Peter 1:14). He calls us to love and pray and live and lead not according to our natural instincts but according to supernatural power and perspective and practice.
How will our love, our prayers, our anxieties, and our leadership be different from the course of this world when we know Jesus?How Not to Love
One of Jesus’s most famous teachings is his startling call to enemy love. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Even Gentiles love their friends.
If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matthew 5:46–47)
So, we have Gentile love. Which is the same as tax-collector love. Even tax collectors love those who love them. Even Gentiles greet those who greet them. It’s only natural.
But Jesus calls his people to love and greet others beyond what is natural. He calls us to supernatural love that goes beyond the pattern and norms of this world. Love that doesn’t have its immediate reward in this life, but waits patiently for the heavenly reward. Love that transcends the expectations of this world, defying natural explanation, so that it eventually will be said of us that something is different about us.
Enemy love is what our Father has shown to us (Romans 5:8, 10), and it is what will show the world that we are “sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:45). Loving our enemies doesn’t earn our heavenly sonship but evidences it. We display the supernatural love of our heavenly Father when we love those who do not (yet) love us.How Not to Pray
Just sentences later, Jesus casts a radical new vision for prayer, unlike the way a natural person prays. “When you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7).
Apart from special revelation from God himself, in his word, and in his Son, natural people assume we need to secure or earn God’s attention with “many words” — by heaping up pious sounding phrases. Jesus paints a vastly different picture of his Father, who “knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8). In Christ, we come to know God as he truly is, as a loving and intimate Father who sees and knows our every need. Which means we don’t have to flag him down with many words and empty phrases.
Jesus then models prayer that is astonishingly direct and simple: a mere fifty words (Matthew 6:9–13). Christians will pray differently than those who can only speculate what God is really like. The difference comes down to knowing the true God, not a figment of human imagination and conjecture. “Do not be like [the Gentiles], for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8).How Not to Fear
Jesus then turns to address the everyday fears and anxieties of life in this world. “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on” (Matthew 6:25). He points his followers beyond the basics of human existence that can consume the natural mind, especially when food and drink and clothing become scarce. However, if we know God as Father, we know how he cares for his creatures and, all the more, his image-bearers.
Look at the birds, how he feeds them. Look at the lilies, how he clothes them. Are you not of more value to your Father than many birds and countless lilies? “Therefore,” Jesus says, “do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all” (Matthew 6:31–32).
Gentiles seek the things of earth without an eye to heaven. Jesus calls his people, who know his Father, to rise above the base concerns of natural people to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33), banking on their Father’s help and concern.How Not to Lead
Finally, we move to Matthew 20, where James’s and John’s mother asks Jesus if her sons can sit at his right and left in the kingdom. This is an audacious request, more so than she even knows. Jesus says such is not his to decide (Matthew 20:23), but then says more, pointing out the unsound foundation beneath her question.
Such a petition is founded on Gentile (or natural) assumptions about leadership as personal privilege. Jesus calls his men to another vision, the very vision of supernatural leadership he is living out as he walks toward the cross.
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:25–28)
Natural leadership lords it over those in our charge. Gentile leadership exercises authority without self-giving service. But Jesus says, “It shall not be so among you.” He himself is cutting a new path, and summons his followers to join him. He does not use his followers for personal privilege and private benefit. He does not empty them to fill himself. Rather, in his fullness, he empties himself, without abdicating his lordship, for the good of his followers. He does not surrender his authority but wields it for the good of those in his charge, not for selfish ends.Hope for the Gentiles
Jesus calls his people to be distinct from the world, its patterns, and what’s natural. He calls us, guided by his gospel and supplied by his Spirit, to be like our supernatural Father in heaven, who loved us when we were yet enemies, hears our simple childlike prayers, knows and cares for our every need, and exercise authority with grace and self-sacrifice, not dominance or heavy-handedness.
God’s transforming grace means there is great hope for Gentiles. The negative references to Gentiles in the Gospels soon erupt into magnificent hope for the Gentiles in Acts and Romans, in the great “turning to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46). No Gentile, no matter how far off he once was, is beyond Christ’s reach. And our Lord loves to redeem the ways that we, Jew or Gentile, fail to love, pray, live, and lead as we ought.
God is not surprised that we need deep retraining, and often default back to our Gentile ways. Yet at every turn in our journey to final glory, knowing him makes all the difference.
Laziness does not seize control of our lives overnight. It takes a few inches each day, singing its sweet and familiar song,
A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest . . . (Proverbs 24:33)
Notice how little creeps in undetected. What’s wrong with a little extra rest? The next verse warns us,
. . . and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
and want like an armed man. (Proverbs 24:34)
Laziness lulls us to sleep with the music of soothing excuses, with all the reasons that we really deserve a couple more hours of sleep, or television, or Instagram, or YouTube. But even a little rebel rest can eventually leave us lying in wreckage. The writer of Proverbs warns about physical poverty and destitution, but the wisdom is manifestly spiritual and pervasive. If the reality holds true for food and shelter, how much more for your soul?Reward of Laziness
When the wise man comes across the sluggard’s disgrace, he writes, “Then I saw and considered it; I looked and received instruction” (Proverbs 24:32). Instead of turning away in shame or disgust, he looked even closer. He stepped through the ruined field, and into the ravaged vineyard. He considered what his own life might be like if he let laziness have its way.
One way to avoid the pitfalls of laziness is to look more closely at the pitfalls of laziness — to examine the thorns and nettles (Proverbs 24:31). The vineyard had not only ceased to bear fruit, but was now unable to bear fruit. The once fertile ground was covered with weeds. Before anything good could grow here, everything would have to die.
The sluggard always reasoned that he would tend the vineyard next year, but a decade or more had gone by while his comfort slowly ravaged his garden (and probably everything else he owned). Like Samson, he lost everything while sleeping soundly (Judges 16:19–20). The man never intended not to tend the garden. But that was the problem, right? He never intended much of anything. He simply followed his impulses for a little more sleep until he had painfully little left.
Whatever little he had left, it was not worth guarding. The stone walls he built to guard his vineyard now laid in pieces (Proverbs 24:31) — and no one seemed to care. Why work on the wall when no one would want what laid inside? You would think he might put a couple stones together just to hide the mess. Maybe tomorrow.
What are we supposed to see and feel among the weeds? That unchecked laziness eventually diseases and cripples a life.Four Prayers for the Vineyard
The observations, though sobering, are not meant to stir depression, but inspiration. They’re meant to make us wonder at the worth of wisdom. The eyes of our heart are prone to droop. The vigilance we need to keep our hearts is its own spiritual gift (Proverbs 4:23). And one way God wakes us up again is to confront us with the consequences of negligence.
What does he awaken us to? To whatever threatens the vineyard.God, awaken us to the thorns that would choke our faith.
Jesus warns, “As for [the seed that] fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature” (Luke 8:14). If we cultivate laziness, we reap immaturity. Even the sweetest gifts God gives — the pleasures of life — can be poisoned for us. Therefore, we nurture and enjoy whatever brings us more of God and uproot whatever dulls our love for him.God, send the roots of our faith deeper than our trials.
Again Jesus says, “The [seeds] on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away” (Luke 8:13). One way a vineyard fails is to never really have started. The roots never make it deep enough to sustain life. If our roots are short, we only love Jesus as long as life is going well for us. When storms comes (and they will come), our boat sinks, often quickly. Therefore, we ask God to give roots in him deeper and stronger than any heartache or temptation.God, thwart the thief and his schemes to undo us.
Satan lives to spoil vineyards. Jesus says, “The [seeds] along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved” (Luke 8:12). Imagine this happening in your church. The word is scattered again on Sunday, but the devil scrambles from pew to pew, snatching up seeds like they’re $100 bills. We are growing vineyards on the frontlines, planting and watering seeds while bullets fly. So, as we seek, serve, and sleep, we pray against our true and greater enemy.God, give us the vigilance to bear fruit with patience.
Jesus ends his parable, “As for that [seed] in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience” (Luke 8:15). The faithful are not in a hurry, but they are focused. They know they need to sleep, but they do not live to rest. They hold fast the word with holy jealousy, meditating on it day and night, and their lives are one long harvest. Having put off laziness, they have found abundant life.Precious and Dangerous Gift
Sleep is not our enemy. The psalmist writes, “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep” (Psalm 127:2). The sluggard’s rest is in vain, but so is the workaholic’s labor. Righteous rest is an ambassador of heaven. Whenever it goes wrong, we have been the spoiler. When it comes to the bread of anxious toil, we should all live gluten-free and freely sleep.
But the Bible sounds another alarm: “Love not sleep, lest you come to poverty; open your eyes, and you will have plenty of bread” (Proverbs 20:13). Wisdom knows when to get some sleep (Proverbs 3:24), and when, in love for God and others, to forgo the gift for a greater good. For any of us to sleep well, though, sleep cannot be our true rest. King David writes, “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8).
Sleep does not make the garden grow. God does. When we receive sleep from him as a gift, without loving sleep more than him, we are like the blessed man in another parable: “He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how” (Mark 4:27). We plant and water, meditate and pray, love and serve — with all vigilance — and then watch him give the growth.
Over ninety times, Paul speaks of “the flesh.” So what does this word mean to the apostle? Pastor John forms a definition from two key passages.
Praying has always been hard for Christians. I once heard John Stott say that prayer was his greatest struggle in the Christian life, and I suspect he wasn’t alone. I’m also convinced that right now in the evangelical world we pray less than we used to. Why might that be?
In my lifetime (I’m 52), there has been a real shift in the way in which evangelicals pray. When I was a student in both Ireland and the UK, one of the defining features of University Christian Unions was the prayer meeting. Evangelical student groups had two main gatherings each week — one focused on Bible teaching, and the other dedicated completely to prayer. Almost universally, coming together to pray was a reliable index of a group’s spiritual maturity and commitment.
For most students, this pattern was replicated in their local churches, where Sunday’s teaching was accompanied by some kind of prayer gathering through the week. The vibrancy may have varied, but a commitment to prayer was at the core of church life. That is no longer the case. Very few churches I know of have a dedicated meeting for prayer.Prayer Pushed to the Margins
Richard Lovelace, in a book called The Dynamics of Spiritual Life, writes this:
Ask evangelicals what the most essential condition of revival is, and they are most likely to point to prayer. In much of the church’s life in the twentieth century, however, in both Evangelical and non-Evangelical circles, the place of prayer has become limited and almost vestigial. The proportion of horizontal communication that goes on in the church (in planning, arguing, and expounding) is overwhelmingly greater than that which is vertical (in worship, thanksgiving, confession, and intercession). Critically important committee meetings are begun and ended with formulary prayers, which are ritual obligations and not genuine expressions of dependence — when problems and arguments ensue, they are seldom resolved by further prayer but are wrangled out on the battlefield of human discourse. (153)
Lovelace was writing in 1979. If our prayer habits have changed in the past forty years, they have gotten worse rather than better. Corporately, prayer has slipped further down the agenda. Individually, I suspect that prayer is the great guilty secret of the evangelical church. The important question is why.Why Are We Praying Less?
I don’t think there is a single reason why prayer has slipped off our agendas, but there are several significant factors which make it harder to pray today than in previous generations.1. The Rise of Bible Study Groups
In almost every church I know, a central midweek meeting which involved at least some focused time for prayer has been replaced by a series of home Bible study groups. Now please don’t mishear me — I think this change has been positive in many ways. But despite intentions, this move hasn’t led to more prayer. The typical pattern is that the study overruns and prayer gets squeezed. And the prayer requests? All too often we don’t get past praying for the sick or dealing with random requests passed to group members for other people.2. The Increasing Ease of Life
For many people in the English-speaking world, life is better than it used to be. We are more prosperous and safer than ever before. Global terrorism is frightening, but compared to the specter of the Cold War, for example, it doesn’t have the same effect of driving people to pray.3. The Dominance of Pragmatism
In the past thirty years, we have made a stunning array of technological advances. I now carry hundreds of times more computing power in my pocket than sat on my desk when I was doing my PhD. We have instant access to the entire repository of human knowledge. We can do things. Add to that the changes in church life — in many evangelical churches, the preaching is better, the music is better, the seats are more comfortable, and the strategy is more sound. So why would we pray?4. The Availability of Good Teaching
A strange side effect of the staggering array of great teaching material online has been to reduce our sense that we need to pray for the preacher. In the bad old days, Christians were basically reliant on their own pastor for teaching. (It sounds bizarre, I know, but it was true.) That moved people to pray — in some cases, to pray very fervently! We knew our pastor’s weaknesses, his tiredness, the three funerals he had performed recently, his sick kids — so we prayed.
But now, if we are sitting in front of a screen watching or listening to a sermon preached by a guy we don’t know, in a place we’ve never been, to people we’ve never met, it isn’t quite the same. To put it bluntly, it doesn’t really matter to us if God showed up and addressed his people through his word that day. It doesn’t really matter what was going on in that church or in the preacher’s life. The only thing that matters is that he produces the goods. And we expect him to. We don’t need to pray, then; we just need to touch play. The connection between our prayers and the sermon is broken — and when that happens, it isn’t easily fixed.
I don’t think we can really argue against the claim that we are praying less. So what should we do? I am convinced that once we grasp what the Bible actually teaches about prayer, it makes a real difference in the way we think about it — and do it.Relearning How to Pray
When we step back from the cultural factors that have made prayer more difficult, and instead return to what the Bible says about prayer, we will change both how we pray and what we pray. Consider first how Scripture shapes how we approach God in prayer.Recognize Your Greatest Needs
Once we realize that God’s agenda for us is nothing less than transformation into the likeness of Jesus (Romans 8:29) — once we get the fact that God is passionate about enabling us to live wholeheartedly for him all day, every day for our whole lives (Matthew 22:37) — then our need to pray becomes rather obvious.
If we are asked to give a talk, teach a Sunday school class, lead a home group, meet to pray with someone else, or visit someone who is ill, can we do those things? Yes, we can. We can cut out the craft, prepare the lesson, read the passage, make the coffee, and get in the car and drive to the hospital. There are things that we can all do quite competently without being thrown into a blind panic. But can we do the work of God in our own lives or in anyone else’s? You must be joking! We may be able to go through the outward forms of all these activities, but apart from Jesus we can do nothing of lasting spiritual worth (John 15:5).
Paul Miller so helpfully says that “learned desperation is at the heart of a praying life” (A Praying Life, 98). And that desperation comes when we see the massive scope of God’s plans for us and our world. When we see our inability to do anything that makes any difference to ourselves or our world. When we see past what’s happening right now, and today, and tomorrow, to what God has been doing in us and our world, and to what God will do in us and our world. When we see how much we need God to change us by his Spirit, and to change other people by his Spirit. When we see these things, then we will start to pray — and keep praying.Realize That Prayer Will Always Be Hard Work
There is a commonly accepted myth that if we are praying properly (if we are those who are really spiritual), then prayer will be a real breeze. This is not a new idea; it has been around forever. The problem is that it’s just wrong! Paul tells the Colossians that Epaphras, who is held up as a model of what it means to follow Jesus, is “always struggling on your behalf in his prayers” (Colossians 4:12). Prayer is hard work! A simple glance at Jesus’s prayer in the garden of Gethsemane shows beyond any doubt that prayer isn’t always a walk in the park (Matthew 26:36–46).
Let’s make sure we don’t think that if prayer is hard, that’s a problem — it’s supposed to be like that. Prayer is hard because we live in a fallen world. But it’s also hard because it is intricately linked to God’s lifelong work of transforming our lives. Do you find praying hard? Good — you are on the right track. Prayer is designed to be a key part of God’s lifelong work of transforming us right in the middle of a fallen world.Pray Patiently and Look for Small Answers
We may not see the answers to all our prayers for God’s work in our lives. We will not wake up one morning to discover that, to our surprise, we are now really like the Lord Jesus. We will not realize, as we lie in bed one night, that now we know all there is to know about God. We will not see the complete answer to many of our prayers. At points, God in his kindness gives us grace-filled glimpses of what he has done in us. But more often than not, we will have to wait. So how do we remain patient and persevere in praying for the same things?
You know how, if you change your car, you suddenly become aware that there are, in fact, far more red Toyotas on the road than you realized? We need to go through the same kind of experience when it comes to prayer. We need to learn to see what’s already there.
I pray regularly for our girls to grow in their love for Jesus — but sometimes I don’t see what happens next as an answer to prayer. The searching question, the sight of one of them reading the Bible in her room, the selfless action that can only be because of grace at work, the uncomplaining commitment to church this week, the hour they spent talking to each other in their rooms, the opportunity to speak the gospel to their friends — these are all answers to prayer that I often miss. Recognizing these “small” things enables us to keep going, praying patient, persistent, gospel-shaped prayers.Relearning What to Pray
What we should pray for is controlled by the gospel. Over and over again in the Bible, God tells us to ask for stuff because he is delighted to give. It’s no accident that all the words in the Bible for prayer mean basically the same thing. They don’t mean “meditate with a pious look on your face,” or “commune,” or anything other than simply this: ask.
That fits perfectly with the gospel, doesn’t it? The core of the gospel is that we have nothing, contribute nothing, bring nothing to God — we are rescued by grace alone through faith (asking!) alone. It shouldn’t come as a shock that prayer, which is made possible by the gospel and shaped by the gospel, works exactly the same way. The gospel tells us that God gives to us; we don’t give to God. So we need to ask. God has spoken to us; we talk back to him — and basically, that means asking! We ask for help to understand what God has done for us, to live in the light of what he has done for us, to hold on to what he has done for us, to show other people what he has done for us.Get On with Asking
Now in one sense, we don’t need to get too uptight about this. In a marvelous passage in Luke 11:9–13, Jesus makes it clear that we are free to ask our Father for stuff, knowing that he won’t give it to us if it’s bad for us or bad for his kingdom (or just plain stupid!). So what should we do? Get on with asking!
I’ve learned a lot about this from Rebekah, our youngest daughter. Becky is both completely ridiculous in her asking, and also completely content to take no for an answer. “Daddy, can I have a car of my own?” “No, Rebekah.” “That’s fine, Daddy. Can we have a pet Tasmanian devil?” “No, Rebekah.” “That’s fine, Daddy. Can I take all my sisters’ precious things?” “No, Rebekah.” “That’s fine, Daddy.” I suspect that we are not far here from what Jesus means when he says that we must become like little children (Matthew 18:3–4). Children often have no problem asking, nor in trusting their parents to give them only what’s good for them.The Focus of Our Prayers
But “ask anything” is not the burden of the Bible when it comes to prayer. The Bible is actually very explicit in telling us what we should be praying for — or at least what the focus of our prayers should be. That’s because there are some prayers which God has said he will always answer. And I would argue that the prayers that God has said he will always answer positively are those prayers which explicitly ask God to deliver on his new-covenant promises.
To put it more generally, God will always answer when we ask him to do his work through his word. So we should pray for God to do his new-covenant work through the gospel.Become an Expert Ask-er
So, do you want to become an advanced pray-er? Then you don’t need a stopwatch. You don’t need to learn new contemplative methods. You don’t need to do knee exercises. But you do need to become an expert ask-er. This is gospel-driven prayer. You need to realize that without God helping you every step of every day you would make a train wreck of your life and the lives of those around you. You need to realize that the gospel preaches to us, “You are weak and sinful and flawed — but he is strong and gracious and good.”
And then you need to ask him to do what he has already promised to do — especially for the spread of the gospel. God will answer, because this is how he displays his goodness and glory in our broken world. Then keep going until that day when we won’t need to pray, because we will see our God and King face-to-face.
God’s sovereignty means he reigns over every trial. And his love means that he intends them all for our good and his glory.