Of Course Your Prayers Are Useless

I was sitting in the airport in Haiti when I found out about the Texas church shooting. The man across from me was reading a book while his girlfriend looked at her phone. When the news alert went off on her phone she told her boyfriend. His frustration over the news was evident. His basic response was this: “Don’t tell me anymore. I need to process it.”

If only everyone in our country could react that way.

But instead, we have to blurt out the first thing that comes to mind, regardless of how insensitive or wrong it may be. It’s our new pastime. We argue about gun control. We wonder which ethnicity or political party the shooter belonged to. We fight each other.

This is most evident in the way that skeptics and progressives mocked the idea of prayer in the wake of the Texas church shooting. It’s common for Christians, and even non-Christians, to offer prayers for the survivors of such a horrific event. Now, it’s just as common for non-believers to ridicule those prayers. One celebrity tweeted, “If prayers did anything, they’d still be alive.” Another said, “The thoughts and prayers were literally shot out of them.” Their point was clear. Prayer doesn’t work.

In a sense, they’re right.

Those unfamiliar with what the Bible teaches who still like to pontificate about what the Bible teaches tend to view prayer as a trip to a cosmic ATM. You ask for what you need and wait for it to come. As they see it, the ATM never works. Something better is needed. In this case, that better something is government action. Never mind the fact that it was the government dropping the ball that helped to make this tragedy possible.

Prayer doesn’t work the way that the world thinks it does. In reality, none of us knows how to pray as we should (Romans 8:26). But for those who are in Christ, the Spirit makes up for those shortcomings while the Son prays on their behalf (Romans 8:34). James 5:16 goes further in saying that the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. This verse requires a closer look.

It is not the prayer of a well-meaning person or a passionate person or a religious person but a righteous person that is powerful. No man, regardless of how sincere, is righteous on his own. Human righteousness comes only through Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21). This points us to another way to understand the effective, powerful prayer of a righteous man. Ultimately, Christ is that Righteous Man. He prays on behalf of his people. So in a very real sense, without Christ prayer really is useless.

Without Christ we pray for selfish reasons (James 4:3). Regardless of popular opinion, we are not all God’s children. Without Christ, we are his enemies (Ephesians 2:1-4). Only those who have put their trust in the risen Christ as their Forgiver, Lord, and Savior are children of God. God can answer any prayer he wants to but like the father in a store filled with screaming toddlers, he tends to fix his response on the cries of his own children.

Tragedies have a way of revealing the object of our worship. And make no mistake, we all worship something. Whatever you put your hope in is the place where you run to when the unthinkable happens. The reason why so many run immediately to political causes and Twitter rants is because that is their god. It is their only hope. And it is a terribly inadequate hope.

Frank Pomeroy runs to a different place. He’s the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, the site of Sunday’s shooting. He wasn’t there when the unthinkable happened but his 14-year-old daughter was and she was among the casualties. Frank doesn’t have all the answers but he trusts that God does. He told the bank of microphones before him at Monday’s press conference to, “lean into the Lord” and later, “everything is in Christ.”

 

Government action has it’s place and I guess there’s a time for angry tweets but neither offer any hope. I can assure you that the victim’s of Sunday’s tragedy found no comfort in the angry tweets of Will Wheaton and Keith Olberman. True hope can only be found in knowing that God is in complete control of all things, that he loves you and that you have access to him through prayer.

But this hope is impossible to realize apart from Christ.

Frank Pomeroy is right.

Everything is in Christ.

Because without Christ, our prayers are as useless as a celebrity’s angry tweet.

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Is God Really In Control?

A while back I was having a theological conversation with someone. They were taking issue with my belief in the sovereignty of God, that is, the belief that God is in control of all things at all times. The person’s main concern was that if all Christians believed that God was in control of all things, none of them would do missions.

I thought about that on Wednesday night while I sat and heard a woman telling a story of the sovereignty of God. She and her husband and their five children packed up everything and left behind the comforts of Georgia for the challenges of Romania. For eleven years now the family has been working to break down barriers or racism, rescue women who are or otherwise might be caught in the sex trafficking industry, pulling children out of orphanages and giving them a better home, providing an education and yes, evangelizing the lost.

This family’s belief in the sovereignty of God didn’t keep them from the mission God had for them. It fueled their mission.

Christians like to say that God is in control but I wonder how many of us really believe that. Sure, we can say that he is in control on a random Tuesday morning. But what about on a Wednesday morning when a tornado hits? Or when there’s a bad phone call from your brother? Or when it feels like you can’t possibly go any further? Is God still in control then?

The Bible answers that question with a resounding yes.

I form light and create darkness;
I make well-being and create calamity;
I am the LORD, who does all these things. Isaiah 45:7 (ESV)

This would be quite scary were it not for God’s goodness. Hitler had a pretty good measure of control over Germany. An abusive husband can control his wife. But neither Hitler or the abusive husband are good.

It does us no good to speak of the sovereignty of God if we do not also speak of the goodness of God.

 

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth!
Serve the LORD with gladness!
Come into his presence with singing!
Know that the LORD, he is God!
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise!
Give thanks to him; bless his name!
For the LORD is good;
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations. Psalm 100:1-5 (ESV)

So the sovereignty of God is not intended to free us from the mandate to make disciples of all nations or from any other more specific mission God may have for us. But there are a few things that the sovereignty of God, when understood in union with the goodness of God, will free us from.

Things like fear and anxiety.

It’s interesting to hear how people talk about the upcoming presidential election in the United States. Here’s a basic summary of one point I hear frequently.

“Well, neither one of the candidates are any good but we need to vote for ______________ because at least God can work through that one.”

But God can’t work through the other one? Read the Bible. It’s one big, long story of God working through tyrants to accomplish his perfect will for the good of his imperfect people. Or, to put it another way, the Bible is an account of God’s complete control over all things. That doesn’t mean that we have to support tyranny or some supposed lighter version of it. It just means that we don’t need to be afraid when it comes knocking on our door.

God’s sovereignty and God’s goodness work together to free us from the constant hand wringing that so many have given in to.

God was good and he was in control when he created the heavens and the earth.

God was good and he was in control when Jesus was crucified.

God was good and he was in control on the day that I was saved.

God was good and he was in control on the day that my parents divorced and on the day that my mother got sick and on the day that she died.

When we have our presidential election, God will still be good and he will still be in control, no matter who wins.

And, whether God calls you to Romania or to stay in the states to make disciples, he will still be good and he will still be in control.

Because God is both good and sovereign, we can trust that when bad things happen, God will eventually, some way and some how, work them for our good. We don’t need to know all of the details. When tragedy strikes, the world is better off without us trying to excuse God, speak where he has not spoken or explain away his sovereignty.

We say something much more powerful when we simply trust God and worship him.

He really is in control.

He really is good.

And that frees us to obey him boldly and worship him gladly.

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

“For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?”

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

Romans 11:33-36 (ESV)

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The Children Of God Myth

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Sometimes, in an effort to be comforting, Christians can say the dumbest things.

A mother gives birth to a baby three months early. The baby spends the next two months in the hospital, separated from his mother. When the mother is finally able to go to church with her baby, she’s met with, “I just don’t think I could be away from my baby that long.”

As if the mother had a choice.

A man loses his wife in an automobile accident. He stands next to her casket while friends and relatives wait in line to share their support and love. The hugs and tears of others bring him the most comfort. The comment that, “God just needed another flower in his heavenly garden” did not.

It just made him mad.

We would do well to follow the example of what not to do from Job’s friends. They were okay when all they did was sit and mourn with their suffering brother. It’s when they started speaking for God that they got themselves into trouble. That’s not to say that we should never use theology to bring comfort. We must. But when we do, it’s important to make sure that the theology is correct.

After the terror attack in Orlando, many Christians went to social media to remind us that we are all God’s children. And by all, they meant all. As in every human being on the planet. While this may bring comfort to some, it simply isn’t true. It’s dangerously unbiblical. It’s sort of like convincing the skydiver that the big thing strapped to his back will only weigh him down.

The idea that we are all God’s children is only partially true. According to the Bible, apart from Christ, we are all children. Children of wrath fighting against God.

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. Ephesians 2:1-3 (ESV)

Here’s a quick experiment. Go to Walmart. I’ll wait for you to get back.

You saw a kid having a fit, didn’t you? I knew it. He was all upset because his mother wouldn’t let him drink his Red Bull before they got to the car. She was threatening him with a hairbrush she found in the cosmetics section. I know. I know. It’s almost like I was there with you.

And I bet I know how you responded to that screaming kid. You kept on walking. You got as far away from him as you could. And you came back home and hugged your own kids a little tighter. Or you gave thanks for not having any kids. The screaming kid wasn’t yours so you just carried on with your visit.

That’s because there is a difference between a child of wrath and a child of God.

A child of wrath is not a part of the family. A child of God is.

But before we start getting the big head, we must remember that the Christian’s status of child of God is not due to any quality of that individual over others. It is solely a result of God’s grace. It is a product of faith, not accomplishments or achievements. Even that faith is a gift from God.

One more experiment. If you have a kid, think back to a time when you heard him cry. You couldn’t see him. Maybe he was in the backyard while you were inside. But still, you heard that cry. You know that cry. Above all other noises on the planet, you know that cry. And when you heard it, you didn’t carry on with your day. You responded. It was not just any cry. It was your child’s cry.

And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. Galatians 4:6-7 (ESV)

In one way or another, everyone cries. But not everyone has a heavenly Father to cry to. Only Christians enjoy such a privilege. So, my fellow Christians, the next time something terrible happens, be careful what you say. Weep and mourn with those who weep and mourn before you get theological.

When that time finally comes, point your brothers and sisters in Christ to their heavenly Father who rules over all things and cares for them immeasurably. And point those who do not have that same hope to all that could be theirs in Christ through faith and repentance.

Speak hope.

But be extra careful to speak it in the right way.

Christian, Nothing Will Happen To You Today

There are very few guarantees. You can’t be sure what will happen to you today. Things could be bad. The earthquake could hit your town. The siren could stop at your door. We can’t be sure.

But if you are a Christian, there’s something you can be sure of.

Nothing will happen to you today.

Nothing will happen to you today that God can’t redeem.

His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. Genesis 50:18-20 (ESV)

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28 (ESV)

Nothing will happen to you today that will diminish the source of your joy.

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. James 1:2-4 (ESV)

Nothing will happen to you today that is beyond God’s forgiveness.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9 (ESV)

Nothing will happen to you today that is outside of the loving control of Jesus Christ.

And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Colossians 1:17 (ESV)

Nothing will happen to you today that will separate you from your Creator.

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:31-39 (ESV)

Nothing will happen to you today that will take away your inheritance.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 1 Peter 1:3-5 (ESV)

This day could end up being a bad one for you. I hope not but it could. We just don’t know. But when you lay your head down tonight to go to sleep, you will still be able to say that nothing happened to you today.

Nothing.

Nothing but the overwhelming love of Jesus played out before you in a thousand different ways.

Whatever You Do, Don’t Think About The Victims

Thirteen people are dead as a result of the latest American tragedy. Now, hundreds of loved ones are grieving. And an entire nation is grieving too.

You can tell a lot about people by how they grieve.

Take, for example, Monday night’s game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals.

Before the game started, even before the national anthem was sung, a solemn voice came over the stadium’s intercom. Those in attendance were asked to stand. Stand and reflect. Stand and think about the victims of the mass shooting that had taken place earlier that day.

Reflect.

Think.

Maybe I’m just missing something. But what exactly is the point of reflecting? And how are families of victims benefited by our thoughts?

I get it. We’re not a Christian nation. Maybe we never were. That’s a debate for another time. But it’s not like I expected the public address announcer to begin a church service.

“And now, please rise as A.J. Green reads a selection from C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed while your Bengal cheerleaders do a creative movement routine to It Is Well with My Soul.”

But some cliches, no matter how ingrained they are in our vernacular, still make no sense. At best, they serve as ugly reminders of the void left when a culture has tried its best to do away with anything having to do with God.

I always have people telling me that they are praying for me. Before I preached last Sunday, I’m guessing that ten or fifteen people told me that they were praying for me. It did me a lot of good to know that a fellow Christian was going before the Creator of the universe on my behalf. And it encourages me to know that prayer is an action that involves each member of the Trinity, working for my ultimate good.

The Father hears me and knows what I need before I even approach him.

“And 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. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Matthew 6:7-8 (ESV)

Jesus, the Son, actually prays on my behalf. As nice as it is to know that friends are praying for me, I am overwhelmed that God’s Son takes my name and needs to the Father as he sees fit.

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Luke 22:31-32 (ESV)

Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Romans 8:34 (ESV)

And when we pray, the Holy Spirit takes our weak efforts to the Father, laying them before him with love and passion that words cannot describe.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. Romans 8:26 (ESV)

With all that in mind, it seems a little silly to “send out my thoughts to the families.” It’s sort of like giving someone last week’s losing lottery ticket. Thanks for nothing.

So the next time something bad happens, whatever you do, don’t think about the victims. Pray for them. It really does work (Matthew 7:7-11).

And if something bad happens to you, don’t go nuts when someone says that they are, “thinking about you” or “sending positive energy your way.” I’m sure that the people mean well.

But just remember that the God who created you is doing more than thinking about you.

He is listening to you.

He is working on your behalf.

He is praying for you.

The Next Time Disaster Strikes

It’s a crazy world. We’re reminded of that on a national level about every three or four months when disaster strikes. A man shoots up a school. A tornado wipes out an entire town. But the disaster doesn’t stop there. It continues in the ensuing days and weeks as we try to explain what happened, or even worse, exploit what happened.

The next time disaster strikes, here are a few things we would do well to remember before going public with our reaction.

1. It’s called a tragedy for a reason.

I was with a friend who had just lost everything in a hurricane. Everything. When we stopped at someone’s house for a meal, my friend wasn’t offered extra clothes or a gift card to Target. Instead, she got a sermon. A sermon about how the government has essentially weaponized the weather. I was fascinated. My friend was heartbroken.

Assuming for a moment that this theory and others like it are true, it doesn’t mean that you have to talk about them while people are still hurting. If you want to share conspiracy theories with your buddies over a meal, fine. No problem. Just wait until the water recedes or the bullets stop flying. In the meantime, find the hurting people and do what you can to help them.

2. Put the tired old sayings to rest.

I’m looking at you, media. Here’s how it usually plays out.

The talking head puts on his best concerned look while simultaneously hiding his excitement over the fact that his ratings are going to skyrocket. And then this little jewel comes out.

“What a terrible tragedy. But the people of ________________ are strong. This is a tough town and they will fight back.”

First, has anyone ever seen a good tragedy?

Second, what does it mean that people from ______________ are strong and that they will fight back? If it means that they will resist militarized police from coming into their homes without a warrant to find some bad guy then, by all means, the people of ________________ are tough. But that’s usually not the case. So stop saying it.

3.  Stop taking God’s name in vain.

I’m not just talking about the man who uses God’s name like a cuss word after seeing for himself just how big the tornado is.

Well meaning Christians can take God’s name in vain when they try to apologize on his behalf.

“God would never do anything like this.”

Really?

By the breath of God ice is given, and the broad waters are frozen fast. He loads the thick cloud with moisture; the clouds scatter his lightning. They turn around and around by his guidance, to accomplish all that he commands them on the face of the habitable world. Whether for correction or for his land or for love, he causes it to happen. “Hear this, O Job; stop and consider the wondrous works of God. Job 37:10-14 (ESV)

But if there’s one thing that we can learn from Job’s friends it’s that you can say the right thing in the wrong way or at the wrong time or in the wrong spirit. It’s another way of taking God’s name in vain.

“God was clearly punishing the people of __________________ for the way that they voted on ___________________ six months ago.”

That could very well be the case but unless God has told you his specific reason, cool it with the theological analysis.

Look, seminary costs a lot of money and you didn’t go in to debt to tell people, “I don’t know.” But sometimes that’s the best way to go.

We do know that God is always good.

We know for sure that God is always in control over all things.

And sometimes, it’s best to just leave it at that.

That way, instead of prolonging the disaster by trying to show off our big brains, maybe we can help to start the healing process by more faithfully representing our big God.