January 2014 Archive
Week of January 5th
GROWING IN PRAYER
A friend was lamenting recently that, as she heard her children pray, she feared she had given them the impression – by her own example -- that God was just a big "Santa in the Sky" who would give them the things they asked for. That could be a concern, if our children never hear us pray for anything other than our material needs or wants. But I know this woman and I know her prayer life is far deeper than this.
And really, isn’t this the way we all learn to communicate in the beginning? The baby’s wails say to us, "I’m hungry!" Or "I need my diaper changed." Or "I’m tired! Won’t somebody put me in my bed?" It’s all about letting our needs be known.
Later, the toddler’s insistent, "Mom . . . Mom . . . Mom," (especially when you’re on the phone) gives us opportunity to speak back giving instruction. The child learns that communication is a two-way street. It involves listening as well as speaking. And I’m sure that God, the Ultimate Parent, is much more patient and wise in His response to persistent pestering by His immature children than we are. In fact, Jesus’ parable about the importunate widow would seem to encourage such pestering (Luke 18:1-8).
A real relationship is built on real communication. It is as we parents let our children know we are genuinely interested in the daily, little things they talk to us about that they begin to share the more intimate concerns of their hearts. Sooner or later the superficial gives way to deeper, heart-level dialogue.
It is the same in prayer. As we become more comfortable asking God for the things we need or want (and which He wants us to do), we may also find ourselves more ready to speak to Him about our deeper needs and our less material desires. It is then that He is able to speak back to us, giving us a broader vision of what we have asked for, or perhaps revealing and then purifying us of a selfish motive.
Psalm 37:4 is one of my favorite Bible verses. "Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart." On one level this would seem to say that if we just love the Lord, He will give us whatever we want. He would indeed, be only the big Santa in the Sky if this were all it meant.
When people fall in love, they spend hours just talking. They begin with chit-chat and move to more serious, and then intimate conversation as they become more and more delighted with each other. I believe this is the kind of relationship God wants with us. He wants to know us deeply so that we can know Him deeply. When we get to the place where we can reveal the deepest things in our hearts to God, then He can plant in our hearts the deepest things in His heart. This is what I believe the last part of Psalm 37:4 means. It means God can change our hearts to want what He wants and when that happens we can know that He will give us what we want (see 1 Jn. 5:14-15). But it all begins with just asking for what we need.
© J.H.Nichols 2013
Week of January 12th
We all know the story of the disciples’ asking Jesus who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 18:1-4). Jesus set a little child in their midst and said unless they changed and became like this, they would never enter the kingdom. And whoever humbled himself like this little child would be the greatest in the kingdom.
When we think of what it means to be child-like, we think of being trusting and unpretentious. We think about all the good qualities of child-likeness – innocence, generous with affection, spontaneously joyful, exhibiting unfettered emotion, and we come up with a vision of how the world would be so wonderful if we were all child-like.
But there are also some negative aspects to being child-like. Little children are self-centered. And why not? When the baby cries, his needs are met. As this is repeated time after time, he learns that he is the center of his universe; all things revolve around him. Little children are dependent; they are needy. And some of that wonderful unfettered emotion expresses itself as persistence, even insistence on getting those needs met and expressing displeasure when they are not. They are impatient, to say the least. Their manners are crude if not lacking all together. They are insensitive to the needs and feelings of others.
I think Jesus used a child as an example of greatness in the kingdom, not so much for us to emulate the positive qualities of child-likeness, but because we are all like that before Him. He knows us intimately (Psalm 139:1-4). He knows the thoughts and intentions of our hearts (Heb. 4:12-13). No matter how polished our manners, no matter how well developed our sensitivities to others, no matter how patient we have learned to be, no matter how successful or self-sufficient we have become, deep down inside there is something within us that still thinks we should be the center of the universe.
But we have learned to hide from others the selfishness we feel and resist. We much prefer to meet others’ needs than to have to share our own. We work harder, striving for independence, even though we know in our heads the load could be lightened with the assistance of others. Reining in our negative emotions may fool the people around us, but not God. Using good manners and being sensitive to others are learned behaviors that we apply regardless of how we really feel inside.
Rather than trying to imitate the positive characteristics of child-likeness, what Jesus wants from us is to recognize with great clarity the negative inclinations of child-likeness that reside within us, and to turn to Him in humble repentance. It is only in admitting that we do not have what it takes to make it on our own, that we have needs we cannot meet, that we are incapable in ourselves of being the kind of people God desires and calls us to be, that we are ready for His kingdom and His lordship.
© J.H.Nichols 2014
Week of January 26th
Most of us would consider having an excess of money to be a great blessing. Finding ways to stretch our incomes to cover our expenses is, for most of us, a constant challenge. Our financial struggles are put in the category of problems, not blessings. But the case could be made that those labels should be reversed.
A case in point would be the rich young ruler who came to Jesus asking what good thing he needed to do to inherit eternal life (Matt. 19:16-22). He was, in addition to being rich, a sincere young man who had kept the commandments all his life, yet still felt there was something lacking. That something, he knew deep down, did have to do with the commandments because, when Jesus told him to obey them, he looked for some wiggle room by asking, "Which ones?" The obvious answer would have been, "All of them, of course!"
But Jesus led him to identify the one he was not obeying by omitting it when He enumerated the commandments for him. The man probably breathed a sigh of relief when he was able to say with a clear conscience that he had never murdered, stole, committed adultery, or bore false witness, and that he had honored his parents and loved his neighbors. It was then that Jesus pinpointed what he lacked. His lack was in having too much. "If you want to be perfect," Jesus answered, "go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me." The obstacle to his gaining eternal life was that his treasure was in this life. The commandment he had broken was, "Thou shalt not covet."
The man probably did not realize he was covetous. I would not have thought him so. I always thought it was those who lacked and wanted what others had who coveted. I would have identified coveting with those who try to "keep up with the Joneses," not the Joneses themselves. The sad fact is that coveting knows no material boundaries. The "haves" can be caught up in it as well as the "have nots."
A major part of the deceitfulness of riches is the notion that having more will make us happier and more fulfilled. Often just the opposite is true. Solomon put it succinctly when he said, "Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income .. . . As goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owner except to feast his eyes on them?" (Eccl. 5:10-11).
We, like the rich young ruler, would do well to heed Paul’s advice to Timothy. "Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed" (1 Tim. 6:17-19).
© J.H.Nichols 2014