About Asking and Receiving

Like your disciples 
on that day between
your murder
and your return to life
I wait, longing to see
what you have promised.

You said that,
if I would just believe
even a little tiny bit
I could make a mountain move,
I would receive
 from your loving hand
what I am begging for.

So I wait,
and scrape up hope,
asking you for mercy.
Help my unbelief!

When I prayed that prayer, I needed to be reminded of what Jesus told us in his Sermon on the Mount, where he reminded us of how God is our Father, and gives good gifts to his children (Mat. 7:9-11). Good human parents love to give their kids what they need, whatever is good for them and their purposes. God is good, and can be trusted way beyond any humans.

When Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened “(Matt. 7:7-8 NIV) it sounds like an all-encompassing promise. Ask, and you get it. But in the context of his message it is clear that certain parameters are in place, such as which actions and attitudes are eligible for reward from the Father in heaven. Even in his model prayer, he underlined that we are to want God’s will to be done on earth. So when we ask, we need to ask him for things that are in line with his teaching and his purposes. We can trust our good Abba to listen to us and answer in the way that is best for us—like a parent who truly does want their child to have a phone, but will wait to give it when the child is mature enough to handle one appropriately. But if the child wants help for a friend who just fell down then the parent will run to help.

Many commentators find the teaching about asking and receiving, then about good fathers and our good Father, as teachings pasted in rather randomly in this passage. But Dallas Willard, in The Divine Conspiracy, sees a meaningful connection between all the teaching in Mat. 7:1-11 passage, and his analysis makes sense to me. I will try to summarize what he says. We are not to judge others, condemning them and pushing them away. If we truly want to help them, we can often get them to open up by asking open-ended questions that invite them to friendly sharing, even in situations of disagreement or when correction is needed. Condemnation pushes them away. But asking and trying to understand them often will result in understanding, even change. And rather than trying to help guide the conversation on our own, we should turn to our Father and ask him to help us and them. He has told us to reach out to our brothers and sisters, and even to the wider community in the world. This is how Willard puts it:

“We should note that the ask-seek=knock teaching first applies to our approach to others, not to prayer to God. . . .Asking is indeed the great law of the spiritual world through which things are accomplished in cooperation with God and yet in harmony with the freedom and worth of every individual.[1] , , Prayer is nothing but a proper way for persons to interact. Thus Jesus very naturally moves in Matt. 7:7-11 from asking for what you want of others to asking for what you want from your Father. . . “[2]

Most of our English translations miss an element in the Greek text that make this statement ask-seek–knock more than just a one-time deal. Whether drawing out someone with the purpose of helping them, or asking God to help them or yourself, this is meant to be done with perseverance. Here is the grammatical information:

“The three imperatives of v 7 as well as the three participles of v 8 are all in the present tense, conveying the idea of a continual asking, seeking, and knocking. This implied notion of persistence in asking is found in the teaching of Jesus (Luke 18:1–8; 11:5–8).”[3]

Here is an example of a translation that conveys this truth:

Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. (Matt. 7:7 NLT)

That is another truth I needed to consider when I was writing the prayer-poem above, waiting for an answer that I truly longed to receive. Keep on keeping on!

The example of God as a loving Father shows that he is not offended by our asking, even our persistent asking. He wants us to come to him and let him know our needs and concerns.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:6 NIV)

To be like our Father, we need to be willing to engage with others and listen to them. But it is clear that there are some people we should not pressure to participate in such a discussion, particularly about spiritual truths. Verse 6, coming right after the command not to condemn others without careful consideration, is difficult: “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces. (NIV) Willard, along with many others, takes this to refer to not persisting forcefully in sharing the Good News or proper correction with those who resist completely. Characterizing them as “dogs” and “pigs” makes it clear that these are unbelievers:

“They are an exceptional group of stubborn people who are ‘dogged’ and even ‘pigheaded’, one might accurately say, in their decisive rejection of Jesus Christ. Reluctantly we have to drop them. But if verse 6 is the exception, verse 12 is the rule, the Golden Rule. It transforms our actions. If we put ourselves sensitively into the place of the other person, and wish for him what we would wish for ourselves, we would be never mean, always generous; never harsh, always understanding; never cruel, always kind.”[4]

This “Golden Rule” has its place as the conclusion to this part of the Sermon on the Mount! It is not randomly inserted, but actually starts with “therefore,” which, as we know, is there for a reason:

Therefore, however you want people to treat you, so treat them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. (Matt. 7:12 NAS)

And how does treating people that way complete what is taught in the Law and the Prophets? It obviously comes from a key verse in Leviticus:

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. (Lev. 19:18 ESV)

If I truly love my neighbor, I will reach out to them to help them, not to condemn them, because that is how I would like to be treated. And I am not to assume that I am able to do this on my own. It is a huge challenge to always act that way—way beyond me! But I am not alone. I have my Father to call on, persistently. He actually desires that mutual interaction, that connectedness. It is such a strong attachment that it is what gives us life, and the health to live out that life and to bear good fruit. Think about what Jesus said about our need to be attached to the Vine (John 15)! I love Jesus’ prayer for his followers in John 17:18-23, where he contemplates the importance of “being one” with each other and with him, our God. This is an amazing unity. The more we grow in it, the better we will know how to pray and to show love.

We are so blessed to have that kind of Father, who loves us and wants us to converse with him and depend on him for help. We can trust his goodness! That is what produces faith in him, and willingness to wait when that is what he wants us to do! And, as members of the community of prayerful love (as Dallas Willard calls it[5]), we interact prayerfully with Abba and with others, working together with God and our brothers and sisters to promote healthy life:

“So in Matthew 7:1–12 Jesus has introduced us to these basic relationships. At their centre is our heavenly Father God to whom we come, on whom we depend and who never gives his children other than good gifts. Next, there are our fellow believers. And the anomaly of a censorious spirit (which judges) and of a hypocritical spirit (which sees the splinter in spite of the plank) is that it is incompatible with Christian brotherliness. If our fellow Christians are truly our brothers and sisters in the Lord, it is inconceivable that we shall be anything other than caring and constructive in our attitude towards them.”[6]

We need to live this out with all our energy and with God-given wisdom. As the Word says:

The end of the world is coming soon. Therefore, be earnest and disciplined in your prayers. (1 Pet. 4:7 NLT)

[1] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 232.

[2] Ibid. 234.

[3] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, vol. 33A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1993), 174

[4] John R. W. Stott and John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian Counter-Culture, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 191–192

[5] Willard, 215.

[6] Stott, 191–192.

Distorted Vision

I’m sitting with my Abba, here,
laying out the pain I’m feeling
after so much fell apart!
I had thought my words right on,
only pointing out the truth.
But they were heard as harsh put-downs,
and their heart slammed its door on me!
How could they push me away so hard
and tell me to just shut my mouth?

Abba listens. He lifts my eyes
to look into his, and quietly asks,
“Were they right? Did you speak
in a way that did shut them down?
Were you fondling your grudge
when you took them to task?
Were you showing the kind of love to them
that you’d like them to show to you?”
Ah! I see things now from his point of view.

The wounds (the stabs, the power grabs)
have sliced my sensitivities
and I have let them fester there,
infection that has made it hard
to even want to reconcile
or try to understand their side.
My inner eyes are now aware
That I have sidelined making peace.
Instead, “revenge” has displaced “care.”

“Forgive me, please!” Then comes release.
I feel my Abba wipe out pus,
the rank disgust that has distorted
what I see. Now I’m free to understand
what caused their hurt and those hard words.
I’ll find a place that will feel safe,
where I can ask them to forgive
my thoughtless jumping to conclusions.
Abba will clean up this mess!

I remember several days when I felt like that, when conflict sent me to a solitary place to cry out to God for relief. What I did not expect was when what the Lord said was that I should stop focusing on my hurt and on the fault of the other person involved. Instead, what had I done that had sounded judgmental to them? How had I put them down, or pushed them away?

That was not easy to take. After all, I had thought that the person needed to be corrected for their own good or the good of the community we were in. Are we not supposed to challenge wrongdoing?

Those times, what was pointed out to me was that I had not spoken with gentleness. And I had responded to their reaction in a way that only made them feel more rejected. I needed to let them know that I cared about their well-being. I needed to say that I was sorry for choosing hurtful words, or the wrong time and place.

What I needed was first of all to ask the Lord for his forgiveness. That always brings a sense of unexpected peace—I think it is like being hugged and comforted. Then what is needed is to figure out what Abba is saying about how I might reach out and make things right with that other person.

There is a verse that is extremely applicable to this situation:

Brothers and sisters, if a person is discovered in some sin,you who are spiritual restore such a person in a spirit of gentleness.Pay close attention to yourselves, so that you are not tempted too. (Gal. 6:1 NET)

“Pay close attention to yourselves!” When correcting someone it is so easy to become judgmental in such a way that they feel condemned instead of encouraged to change. This is usually because we are so convinced that we are right and they are wrong that we do not take the time to examine ourselves first, to become aware of any way in which we are ignoring our own propensity to react in anger, for instance, instead of showing loving concern.

Jesus talked about this very thing in his Sermon on the Mount:

“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. 2 For by the standard you judge you will be judged, and the measure you use will be the measure you receive. 3 Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but fail to seethe beam of wood in your own? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye,’ while there is a beam in your own? 5 You hypocrite! First remove the beam from your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matt. 7:1-5 NET)

If I cannot see clearly because my own vision is messed up and even blocked, then it would not be possible to help someone get a speck of something out of their eye. I am near-sighted, and if I am not wearing my glasses I would only hurt the person whose eye I was trying to clean out. Self-examination in the presence of the Father is a way to avoid doing this, a way to see the whole situation with accurate vision and be able to get that speck out. Kind of like putting on corrective lenses!

Paul followed up on Jesus’ teaching in his letter to the Galatians, urging them to take a careful look at themselves. He said “pay close attention to yourselves” in order to not fall into sin as well. What kind of sin? It could be this: not showing the gentleness required. It could be leaping to conclusions without listening first, which is judgmental. It could be rejecting them instead of recognizing one’s own tendency to stumble, and lovingly drawing them in. It is easy to wear blinders that we are not even aware of.

There is a spiritual practice that is essential for avoiding this trap: “confession and self-examination.” As Adele Ahlberg Calhoun explains, this is about opening ourselves up to the Holy Spirit in a posture of trust in our loving God. We can come to him without fearing censure that will have the goal of shaming us. Instead we know he longs to forgive us when we admit our wrongs and desire transformation. These are some of the “God-given fruit” one can expect as a result:

  • “Keeping company with Jesus as he helps you with how much or how little you change
  • Being transformed into Christ-likeness
  • Thinking of yourself with sober judgment, awareness of your blind spots
  • Gaining insight into your temptations and God’s work in your life
  • Having compassion toward others in their faults
  • Seeing yourself as God’s loved and forgiven child no matter what you have done
  • Living in thankfulness for God’s work in your life

“We invite God to come right in and look at our sin with us. . .  we hand over the pretense, image management, manipulation, control and self-obsession . . .We lay down our ability to change by the power of the self. We turn to Jesus and seek forgiveness.”[1]

I can affirm that the process is worth it. There have been times when reconciliation and better mutual understanding happened in a follow-up effort on my part. There were also times when there was still bitter resistance, too. You cannot be in control of the other person’s response. But it sure is worth it to be breathing the comfort of being God’s loved and forgiven child, having done the right thing in accordance with his leading.

Here is a sampling of Calhoun’s wise recommendations for moving forward in self-examination—I recommend her book for incredible help with spiritual growth:

  • Name sins, don’t cover them up with generalization
  • What experiences have affected your ability to give and receive forgiveness?
  • When have you experienced the joy of forgiveness?
  • Ask God to show you what you need to confess.
  • How have you hurt someone? Ask for forgiveness and the grace to forgive them.
  • Pray through Ps 32 or 51. How can you relate to David’s confession?
  • What motivates anger, other strong emotions in you? Confess any sin related to those.
  • Practice this self-examination and develop a habit of immediate confession.[2]

In the beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon, Jesus pointed out that those who are gentle and self-controlled (meek), who show mercy, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and who seek peace and pursue it, these would all be “blessed.” They would be in a state of well-being in the Kingdom. This is what we desire—let’s work on it!

[1] Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us (InterVarsity Press, 2005), 91-92.

[2] Ibid., 93-94.


My fire is lit by You,
by true pure love,
pursuing, wooing, just because
You made us for Yourself,
so when we open up
and let you shine within,
you light us up.

So, like a candlestick
melting down,
quietly cheering all around,
I’ll glow where you choose
to light the dark.
Where you place me I will be
Your loving spark . . . 

spreading the fire,
                      the flame,
                                 the light. 

We just celebrated Christmas, and in my house we are not yet finished: the candles and lights are still all around, waiting for the day when we welcome in a new year. The advent candles are on the dining room table, and every evening we still light them all. Now the song that we sing is “Joy to the World,” because the anticipation of Messiah’s first coming has been resolved in the celebration of his birth.

This year the symbolism of “light” has been made yet more potent by its underlining in Week Three of the Advent readings we’ve been using as a family: “The Promised One,” from Christianity Today 2022. Consider these verses that were contemplated as the six days passed:

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. (Isa. 9:2 NIV)

“I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, (Isa. 42:6 NIV)

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (Jn. 8:12 NIV)

But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. (Jn. 3:21 NIV)

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,”1 made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. (2 Cor. 4:6 NIV)

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome1 it. (Jn. 1:5 NIV)

That last verse has a deeper meaning than we can see at first glance, which is why there is a note on the word “overcome”: 1 Or understood.  It is because the Greek word that is in the text contains the idea of “grasping,” which can be taken as grabbing it or understanding it. Either meaning is powerful here. The light, which is God revealed to the world in the incarnation of Jesus, has not been put out by the darkness that is all around in the world. It was shining in a special way while he was in human form on earth, and it still shines. The dark world usually does not understand what the light really means, or where it originates. Nevertheless, when someone chooses to personally come into the light of the world, they come out of that darkness (Jn. 8:12). And they then understand who God is as they come to know Christ with increasing understanding as they keep walking in the light (2 Cor. 4:6).

Then there is transformation. Knowing the light of the world (Jn. 8:12), those people become the light of the world!!

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. (Matt. 5:14 NIV)

For months now we’ve been going through Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, and we did not skip over this. But having finished two-thirds of the recorded message, it is more than ever clear to me that it teaches us how to be that light. Just as God told his people, before he came as the Christ, that he would “make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles,” (Isa. 42:6), he makes his disciples into a light for those who do not know him yet. The Sermon shows us how to let that light shine.

“To let one’s light shine is to live in such a way as to manifest the presence of the kingdom.[1] . . .The disciples—the blessed recipients of the kingdom—are thus of vital importance for the accomplishment of God’s purpose in the world. They constitute the salt and light without which the earth cannot survive and remains in darkness. Their mission is accomplished, however, not only in word (cf. [Mat.]10:7; 28:19–20) but in the deeds of their daily existence. Others observing their conduct will know that the priorities of these persons have changed—that before them is something of inestimable value, something that gives light and results in the glorifying of God.”[2]

Our conduct is thus what shines that light of Jesus through us to the world. As Jesus detailed it in his Sermon, that light radiates to others when we show love not only to our friends but to our enemies (Mat. 5:43-48), and when we serve and love only one Master, our God and Father (Mat. 6:24). Then we can be like a tree that bears good fruit (Mat. 7:11-19). Our actions actually should surprise others! And they count!

There are many times when we cannot say the words we would love to say to point certain people to Jesus, the Light of the World. But we can live them out. We can show our love for him by worshiping, by singing, by promoting and doing what pleases him. And we can love the people that he puts in our life path, whether they love us or not, and whether we approve of all their choices or not.

We can continue to grow in our knowledge of Jesus and, by spending time with him in intimate communication, we become able to radiate his light in an increasingly noticeable way. All of this must be done for his glory, not ours (Mat. 6:1). We are reflecting his light, who he is, because he lives in us!

In this way I see myself as a candle lighting the dark. Even as my wick, or life, gets shorter and shorter, the light of Christ can still shine to be seen by the community around me. That is how tiny me, one out of billions on earth, can be a light in this world. You can, too!

“This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine!”

[1] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, vol. 33A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1993), 100.

[2] Ibid., 102.

All for that Harvest: Unfailing Love!

You’ve made me your heifer pulling the plow,
you’ve shaped me and trained me, showing me how
to lean to the left when your strong hand presses,
to walk straight ahead, cleaning up messes
and tearing out weeds, preparing the way
for planting the seed in that soil on the day
when all is in readiness, soft dirt tilled,
and we press in the seeds till the rows are all filled.

You bring out the seed: it’s sorted, it’s good;
it’s all about health and the way that we should
be loving our neighbor, helping the torn,
the poor, the lost, the hungry, the worn,
carefully living, meticulously,
the love of the Father for you and for me
and for all the husbandless, all those alone,
for all of the fatherless needing a home.

You must give the seed; my own is diseased.
You must show me how I should plant it, then please –
you must send the rain that will make the shoots thrive,
the rain of what’s right and of hope that’s alive.
The roots will go deep, the stems will grow tall,
the leaves will shout green and the blossoms will fall
to make way for grain that is bred high, above:
a life-giving harvest of unfailing love!

Can you picture yourself as a heifer? The imagery of being cow in the field is not one we would choose in our culture. But let’s take ourselves back to when the prophet Hosea was speaking to farmers in Israel, encouraging them that the Lord was indeed using them for his excellent purposes. He was using them to work out his plans for justice in the world. So he was telling his people to “sow righteousness” because then they would get a harvest of unfailing love!

11 Ephraim is a trained heifer that loves to thresh; so I will put a yoke on her fair neck. I will drive Ephraim, Judah must plow, and Jacob must break up the ground. 12 Sow righteousness for yourselves, reap the fruit of unfailing love, and break up your unplowed ground; for it is time to seek the LORD, until he comes and showers his righteousness on you.  (Hos. 10:11-12 NIV)

Jesus also used this imagery when he was calling out to his disciples to commit themselves to working together with him for his Kingdom purposes:

“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:27-30 NIV)

So what is a “yoke”? The note in the NET version says: “ 52 sn A yoke is a wooden bar or frame that joins two animals like oxen or horses so that they can pull a wagon, plow, etc. together.” If disciples are being guided by the “yoke” that Jesus would put on them, their experience is in stark contrast to what it would be like to follow the nit-picky rules that other teachers were insisting were necessary. He said that his yoke was “easy” and the burden he would put on them “light” because his guidance would always be correct, never leading them off the path!

Just as God had told his people through the prophet Hosea, this would not be a life chained to mere legalism. Instead, they would be working together to spread the truth about Kingdom righteousness, righteousness that the Spirit of God would shower on them. And this good news would bring spiritual rest to them. They would no longer be chained to worry about doing it all through their own effort!

Jesus was making the same priority explicit for anyone who wants to be his disciple when he said in the Sermon on the Mount that their primary goal had to be to do the work of the Kingdom:

31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matt. 6:31-34 NIV)

The command to prioritize the Father’s kingdom and his righteousness is sandwiched in between two injunctions not to worry. The first one concerns anxiety about daily provisions; the second one is explicitly about focusing on the “what-ifs,” the hardships that might come tomorrow. Trust in the goodness and power of the One who is in charge of the future releases the disciple from that kind of worry.

So Jesus made it clear that If his disciples have their priorities straight, they will stop making anything worth more to them than working for their Father the King’s purposes and for personal transformation, to be righteous like God is righteous.

Paul reiterated this when he told Timothy that it is easy to put one’s trust in wealth and personal accomplishment, but instead “you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.” (1 Tim. 6:11 NIV)

It is a pursuit! A farmer plowing a field needs to stay on course, row after row. A runner needs to keep to the route laid out for him, not veering off in another direction. A disciple of Jesus needs to run after the qualities that will make him or her effective in participation in Jesus’ Kingdom purposes.

How can one seek the Father’s righteousness and pass that on, “sow” it? As Dallas Willard explains, the Greek word that is usually translated “righteousness” is dikaiosune which should be understood as “true inner goodness” –the “relationship of the soul to God.”[1] A disciple makes the development of that relationship his priority, so that his reflexes become increasingly like God’s—he sees a need or an opportunity and reacts the way his Master reacts. His bonds to the Master are that strong! Or if we continue with the imagery of being in the Master’s yoke, the disciple is directed the way the Master wishes.

It’s true that we cannot earn our right standing before God through our own efforts at building our character; no, he makes it clear that faith is what makes it possible for us to enter his Kingdom, to become his disciples (cf Rom. 4:3-5). But that is not an endpoint but a new beginning—he has prepared specific things for us to do:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith– and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Eph. 2:8 NIV)

That is why we are like the cattle being directed by the farmer to plant seed that is going to produce the desired harvest—as Hosea 10:12 underlines, a harvest of “unfailing love.” God is love, and when we are driven by him, in his yoke, we are sowing that inner goodness that is characterized by love. It is shown by our commitment to spread the good news of the Kingdom of love and rescue, and in our personal pursuit of becoming like Jesus, gentle, humble and loving. He “showers his righteousness” on us through his Spirit (Hosea 10:12) so that we can live out those qualities, “sowing” right living, reaping a harvest that is unfailing love!

That is the “easy” yoke?? Yes, because instead of stumbling around, on and off the right path, when we are directed by Jesus we know that we are truly partnering with him, and he keeps us going the right direction. He transforms our inner person so that we can be that “trained heifer” (Hosea 10:11) that can accomplish his work. That righteousness, “true inner goodness,”[2] is to be our Kingdom priority (“but seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness” Mat 6:33.)

Bound to him in purpose and in love, we are then true disciples with no more worries about what may happen next. He directs the journey and provides all that we need along the way.

[1] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 145.

[2] Ibid.

Worry is a Trap

The price of gas keeps peaking
(we think it’s over, lower,
then it’s not)!
Insurance for our home, our car,
is suddenly becoming
beyond what we expected.
Christmas season brings good cheer,
expensive food to share
and gifts to buy . . .
I think that I’ve decided that
my spending is all done.
I’m shutting down.

But they’re extending super sales!
Black Friday isn’t over,
it has become Black Week!
My sheets are old, my blue jeans
and my skirts and shirts
all out of style!
Should I make sure I catch this sale?
Or should I wait
and not give in?
But then, this also is the time
to triple impact, give yet more
to help the poor!

My anxious thoughts are winning,
dimming Christmas lights,
humming worry versus carols.

I pray. He says, “Just breathe!
Remember the true sense
of why I came,
that baby in the feeding trough,
the joy I brought,
and all my suffering,
the life I live, the love I give
to all my dear ones,
Just trust me! I provide!
Your worry is a trap.
Rest on my lap!”

Is your inbox flooded with ads these days, so many it’s hard to weed through them to find any real mail? Mine is. And sometimes I take advantage of good deals that come just at the right moment. That’s fine, when I choose well. But the temptation to step outside of my “real needs” box is there, every day. Then we open the mail that comes in envelopes, and to our chagrin, we get news that shows that our budget is indeed going to be stretched.

It is easy, then, to either blissfully ignore one’s over-spending or to become anxious. For most of us who are contemplating this together today, our needs for daily food and adequate clothing are already being met. We also know that there are people suffering in severe poverty, both in Western countries and around the world. We know that there are street people not too far away who are wondering what they will eat tomorrow, or how they will deal with winter cold. And then there are those in the slums of cities like Calcutta, in the villages in warn-torn nations in Africa, and people who have lost all they owned in Ukraine. We may have empathy for these needy people and give to help them.

But it is also easy for those of us with “normal” plans for improving our housing, replacing an old car, or updating our wardrobe to become swept up in the kind of idolatry that Jesus was talking about in Matthew 6: 24, when he stated, “You cannot serve both God and money.” Last week we dug into the meaning of the word translated most times as “money”: “mammon.” In its original setting it pointed to a kind of idolatry. If we let the cultural approval of consumerism (the pressure to always buy what will improve our lifestyle) influence us to the extent that we shift our devotion away from our Father in heaven and focus on wealth or sales or increased comfort or today’s fashion, we are falling into idolatry. We are serving another master.

This does not mean that Jesus did not understand our need to provide what is good for ourselves and our families as well as our neighbors. That is why he points to the birds as an example of how the Father provides: They don’t just sit in their nests and expect to be fed; they go out and search for their food every day. But they are not focusing on storing up an exorbitant pile of future provisions in a barn somewhere. How does this apply to human beings? Is it not a good thing to know that your pantry has what you might need if a storm comes and shuts down access to groceries? No, it is about what becomes the driving force behind our accumulation of food or other goods.

As Donald Hagner says, “a life dominated by concern for such matters is misdirected and will of necessity lack full commitment to what is really important.”[1] What is really important? It is trusting God and having him first in our lives. If we believe he is good, and that his promises to provide what we need are solid, then worry will not rule our emotions.

I’m sure you have heard the injunction: “Whenever you see a ‘therefore,’ you need to look to see what it is there for.” In this section of the Sermon on the Mount that we are considering here (Mat. 6:24-32) there are several of these, but the one that gives us the overall answer is at the beginning:

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. 25Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? (Matt. 6:24 NIV)

When we have entered the Kingdom of the King of the Universe, our Father in heaven, we now have one law which is to guide all our decisions and actions: 

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Lk. 10:27 NIV)

Our Father does not guarantee that we will never face difficulties. I think of what his emissary Paul went through (cf 2 Cor. 3:23-27), suffering which included “labor and hardship, many sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, often without food, cold, and lacking clothing.” (2 Cor. 11:27 CSB) Nevertheless, Paul said, through those sufferings he experienced God’s grace in his life as never before, and was strengthened in his complete devotion to Christ (2 Cor. 12:10).

John Stott summarizes our situation this way: “So then God’s children are promised freedom neither from work, nor from responsibility, nor from trouble, but only from worry. Worry is forbidden us: it is incompatible with Christian faith.”[2]

The Lord’s model prayer does tell us to come to the Father with our needs, such as “Give us today the food that we need” (Mat 6:11 NLT). That is an example of unloading our worries onto him, letting him take the concern off our minds and hearts. That is often a challenge for us, but it is not impossible or he would not have told us that we must do it, choosing to trust him and his character.

When we worry, we are allowing the Enemy to weaken our faith. Instead of falling into that trap, we are told to: Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. (1 Pet. 5:7 NIV) If we trust the Father’s love, then we know that he is taking care of us. I love the way the French translates this verse: Déchargez-vous sur lui de tous vos soucis (1 Pet. 5:7 BFC), which could be understood as “get that load of worries off of you and put the load on him”. It is a kind of unloading that leaves us free to carry on with a different focus, serving him in whatever way he has put in front of us. “We cannot be serving God by glorifying him if we are constantly filled with doubt about his ability to take care of us.”[3]

My parents had a collection of LPs that satisfied my longing for music whenever I was home from school. One of my favorite songs from one of those records has been humming through my mind today while writing this: “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” sung by Ethel Waters (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QbeNSatFFo):

“Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heaven and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My constant friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

I sing because I’m happy,
I sing because I’m free,
For His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.”

Yes!  I know He watches over me with love! Worry cannot hold me captive!

[1] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, vol. 33A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1993), 163.

[2] John R. W. Stott and John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian Counter-Culture, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 168

[3] James Montgomery Boice, The Sermon on the Mount: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1972), 221.  

This Tricky Combat Zone

Lord, you, the Ultimate General,
	you are my one
	perfect leader,
	unchained, in charge –
	compassionate and wise,
	completely good,
	reliable in every situation.

You have my back:
	you tell me who I am,
	speaking truth
	when the Enemy shouts lies—
	he says I have failed,
	pointing out issues,
	determined to mislead.

He tries to make my courage sway,
	to put my trust
	in other things:
	to see success and riches
	as the way to get ahead
	and find a place of safety
	in this chaotic world. 

But you in your great love 
	have chosen me,
	paid the high cost
	to make me your own kin.
	So you are here,
	shielding me, on guard
	in this combat zone.

For millions of people, life in this world is just a struggle to survive, whether the obstacles are war, extreme poverty, or no access to healthcare. For millions of others like me and most of my readers, the temptation is to put our confidence in a certain political leader or in adequate wealth to have a sense of peace when there is chaos all around. But at this time of year we sing the angel’s song, praying for “peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased” (Luke 2:14b, NLT). Whether it is peace in a secure community or peace in our hearts, we long to experience it.

The problem is that all too often those of us in relatively peaceful countries think that it will come from economic security, and our main focus becomes working hard to have more money than we do. It may start out with a longing to buy more Christmas gifts. It may become such a desire to have wealth that we lose what must be our main goal: obedience to our Master. Wealth in itself is not a bad thing—God blessed Solomon with much wealth due to his request for wisdom instead for honor and riches (2 Chronicles 1:11-12). But when we read King Solomon’s life story we cannot miss the truth that he wandered into accumulating goods, including the status that came to kings back then through owning many women. He lost his heart for godly wisdom.

Jesus issued strong warnings against this. He was not saying that it is wrong to work hard and provide for family or others as well as for oneself. But he was saying that we should not let prosperity be our “master.” A master in this sense is the one that we are constantly serving, listening to, obeying. Right after admonishing us to build up treasures that will last forever, in heaven, by practicing good deeds and especially generosity, he said:

“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. (Matt. 6:24 NAS)

Since “mammon” is not a word familiar to us now, most translations say, “You cannot serve God and money.” The meaning of the original word, transliterated to English from Aramaic, actually had a broader meaning for the people of that time. The Friberg lexicon gives this explanation: [1]

μαμωνᾶς, , (also μαμμωνᾶς) transliterated from the Aramaic; usually in a derogatory sense property, wealth, earthly goods (LU 16.9); personification Mammon, the Syrian god of riches, money (MT 6.24)”

It is crucial to understand that in Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13, “ ‘mammon’ is personified as a rival to God for the loyalty of the disciple: To which master will obedience be given?”[2]

Any time increasing one’s worldly goods becomes all consuming, it removes one from undivided loyalty to God. He requires total commitment. In fact, the picture of serving a master in this verse is about being a slave, one who is owned by the master and therefore completely in his employment. If a slave were to start obeying instructions from a different master, he is traitorous.

So if we take our eyes off our Lord and give in to covetousness (remember the greedy eye in verse 22?), we are no longer walking in the light. In fact, we are not following God as our master but the “god of riches” who is personified here. We are showing who we truly love. Satan thought he could tempt even Jesus to change his allegiance from God to this “other power” to possess the whole world and its riches, but Jesus did not cave in:

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’1 ” (Matt. 4:10 NIV)

When we no longer make doing God’s will our one objective, and we divert our efforts to getting whatever we want, then instead of storing up treasures in heaven, we are putting our efforts into storing up treasure here on earth. And that kind of treasure does not last.

It is sad that the “prosperity gospel” is spreading around the world. It basically turns the heart away from knowing and serving God to getting anything you may want, teaching that one can manipulate God into giving us any kind of wealth that is desired by saying the right words, praying in a prescribed manner. This is an insidious way of leading people to pretend that they are following their Master, Jesus, but with an assumption that this will lead to storing up treasures here on earth rather than obeying his lead. I was once in a service in Abidjan, the major city of Côte d’Ivoire, where an invited speaker unfortunately began to preach this very thing: “If you want an airplane to facilitate your travel, just claim it!” he said.

That is truly bossing around the King, the Ultimate General, our Master. It lacks respect for his goodness and wisdom. A servant who relies on the goodness of his master will trust him for the provision of daily needs and be on alert for his directives as to how to use them for Kingdom purposes. Jesus warned that being covetous leads away from healthy spirituality to a diseased essence (Mat. 6:23).

Instead of keeping our hearts open to the Master’s guidance and doing what he says to do, we can easily slip into selfishly putting our trust in our own abilities to store up riches for our own good. That could be through turning spiritual growth into a quest to make God give us riches, or making the accumulation of wealth our personal goal in life. It is a slippery slope.

Let’s serve our perfect Master, who is completely good and gracious and trustworthy! We do live in a combat zone in this world, and need to remember that the Lord of Heaven’s Armies (the “Lord of Hosts”) is our All-Powerful General.  When we belong to the One True God who is the Prince of Peace, we must trust his judgment and follow his directions. Material wealth can in no way provide the security that he gives: peace and treasure that last forever!

[1] Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg and Neva F. Miller, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament (Baker’s Greek New Testament Library)

[2] Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Mammon,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 1384.

What Matters Most

Lord, I am your servant,
my body the vehicle
you sent here,
my health the strength
you provide
to do my service
for you and your Kingdom.

I am but a scribe,
my fingers the feather in your hand,
my eyes dependent
on the light 
that you shine
on truth and mistakes.

But I am also your child,
your daughter, chosen
to be adopted,
to be loved and treasured!
Abba, your arms
protect me, hold me tight.

Your purpose
is the beat of my heart
because I love you,
so I care about what matters
most to you. At least
that is what I want to do!

I hear you say,
“Yes, what matters most
is that you love me
and carry out my purposes,
letting my love be the seed
that brings in the harvest!”

I grew up a people-pleaser, longing for my mom and dad, in particular, to approve of me. That was basically the reason that I decided, while in high school, to go into medicine. I got good grades, and my life in a medical family had led me to believe that the best way to use a gift of “smarts” was to be a doctor. Mom even urged me to not consider nursing as a career; she often wished she were a doctor so could do more. So I helped Mom with newborn babies and scrubbed in surgery with Dad. At the Ferke hospital, those experiences were possible! Pleasing my parents was a normal step forward, as it is for most kids with great parents.

But while I was in college I realized that what I was really made for was in another dimension: words. I loved reading, writing and languages. The game-changer came the day that I realized that doing what my Father God wanted was exactly what I wanted to do, because he is good and his plans are best. The more that I grew in my attachment to him, the more he was able to show me how to follow his plans, step by step. My life story then became one of letting my Lord reveal the purposes that he had for me.

So let’s remember: what is the commandment that covers all the others?  Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” (Deut. 6:5 NIV)

I discovered later that my earthly parents actually approved of my life path, because they saw that I had been made for it! They were people who loved God with all their heart and soul and strength. When we actually love God with all that is within us, not just “believing” but actually following him and growing in our devotion to him, we want to please him by carrying out his plan. We also long to be like him: loving, compassionate, full of grace and truth!

That is a theme in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. He keeps saying that we must live to please the Father, who is carefully watching over us all the time, not to live with the aim of earning the approval of people. And he says that living our lives for the Father is the only way to get a true reward, one that lasts. So are we in some kind of contest, running a race to see how many awards we can get? No! But we are pressing ahead toward what will last forever, versus what is merely temporary:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matt. 6:19-21 NIV)

Ah! What is essential is that my heart be focused on the right values! The heart is the symbol of the inner person, the source of emotions and choices. If my heart is fixated on the importance of my status, the approval of others, entertainment or material wealth, or even my family above everything else, that will show up in how I spend my life. But if my first and foremost attachment is to God, those things will all be seen with a new perspective. That is why Jesus cited Deuteronomy 6:5 when asked what the greatest commandment really is (cf. Matt. 22:37 NIV)

He gave me my family, my beloved parents and husband and children. They are gifts from him and he has underlined the importance of honoring them, providing for them and loving them. The proper perspective is to let the Lord’s love rule in me and pour out to them, serving my Father in whatever way he has told me to. That has brought challenges for me, being a missionary and needing to be willing to let go of living near my children and grandchildren as much as possible, for instance.

My Father gave me this world to enjoy, and he saw that his creation was good. He longs for me to take good care of what he made, not to cause it harm. He made all the diverse peoples of the earth, too, and he loves them. That means I am to love them too.

He blesses me with food and possessions; it is not wrong to have them, but it is wrong to make increasing them the goal of my life. I am not to covet, not to want what others have in such a way that my heart gives in to greed or jealousy. Letting any of these temporary things become my priority in life means that I am living for them, not for my Father. It is a way of “putting other gods before him,” which I am commanded not to do (cf. Ex. 20:3).

So how can I prioritize what will last forever? Is it even possible to store up treasures in heaven while I am still on earth? Yes, because heaven is not just an afterlife. The Kingdom of Heaven is among us. We who belong to Jesus have entered it, and as we fulfill his purposes, we are doing what will last forever. This is how Paul put it:

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19 In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (1 Tim. 6:17-19) NIV)

Jesus underlined the importance of generosity in the words that follow his command to store up treasures in heaven:

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy,your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy,your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! (Matt. 6:22-23 NIV)

If we could understand this the way that Jesus’ audience would have heard it, it would take on deeper meaning. The eye allows a person to see, and then the body can move about in the environment as it should.[1] If the eye does not let in light, one does not have proper direction for action. One action we are told to take is doing what is good, which includes being “generous and willing to share” (cf.1 Tim. 6:17).

So it is very meaningful that the Greek word used for “healthy” here has the connotation of “generous,” and the word for “unhealthy” carries the meaning of “stingy.” The “evil eye” in the cultures of the Near East at that time was greedy, avaricious. As Hagner explains:

“The ἁπλοῦς eye, given the symmetrical structure of the passage, is probably the opposite of the evil eye, namely, a generous eye, as in the cognate adverb ἁπλῶς, “generously,” in Jas 1:5 (cf. Rom 12:8; 2 Cor 8:2; 9:11, 13)—an eye that is not attached to wealth but is ready to part with it.”[2]

So I propose that a dynamic translation of Matt. 6:22-23 might be like this:  The eye lets light into the body so that it can act wisely. If your eyes are open to the light of generosity, your body will know how to respond by sharing. But if your eyes are cracked shut so as not to acknowledge the needs of others or be willing to help them, you will not be walking in the light but in darkness.”

John Stott makes this very clear:

“The argument seems to go like this: just as our eye affects our whole body, so our ambition (where we fix our eyes and heart) affects our whole life. Just as a seeing eye gives light to the body, so a noble and singleminded ambition to serve God and man adds meaning to life and throws light on everything we do. Again, just as blindness leads to darkness, so an ignoble and selfish ambition (e.g. to lay up treasure for ourselves on earth) plunges us into moral darkness. It makes us intolerant, inhuman, ruthless and deprives life of all ultimate significance.[3]

So there is a way to do what contributes to the riches that are intended for us when we are children of God, citizens of the Kingdom Among Us. Even now we may see a “harvest” when we sow seeds of love that come out of our union with our God who is love. And the Word is clear that we are storing up treasure that lasts forever:

Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. (Gal. 6:8-10)

When we give generously, we partner with our generous, gracious God who gives good gifts, and our Father is delighted. May we learn to love the way that we are loved–and make a difference!

[1] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997) 206.

[2] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, vol. 33A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1993), 158.

[3] John R. W. Stott and John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian Counter-Culture, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 157.

Other Food

I find I’m not
at the mercy of my appetite –

You satisfy me
more than the richest of foods.

bread of heaven,
bread of life broken for me,

my flesh-bound soul
with words from the mouth of God –

His mouth
to my heart,
growth-food designed perfectly:

hot from the oven,
fresh with the taste of the Real.

Fasting did not attract me, for years. I had relegated it to ritual practices of other religions or denominations. Living among people who practiced Ramadan fasts, it seemed like an attempt to gain points in righteousness. Besides all that I was not jumping at a chance to ignore my hunger pangs.

And I knew that Jesus had said to do it in private. How could a mom do that? How on earth could I fast without my kids and my husband knowing about it? And when friends came over, how could I serve them but not eat with them? Jesus had warned:

When you fast, do not look sullen like the hypocrites, for they make their faces unattractive so that people will see them fasting. I tell you the truth,they have their reward. 17 When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others when you are fasting, but only to your Father who is in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you. (Matt. 6:16-18 NET)

Then there came a time when Glenn and I were being faced with a major decision. He had been chosen by our field to take over the job of field treasurer, and the leadership assumed that it would mean moving from Ferkessédougou, where we lived, to Korhogo, where there was access to mission accounts at the banks as well as proximity to the other leaders. It had become like a “field headquarters.” I was stunned. Korhogo was not Nyarafolo territory! I was deeply involved in digging into that language, preparing for translation. Glenn and I were just starting to disciple a small group of Nyarafolo believers. How could we leave all this? Glenn was in a quandary. What should he do: obey the leaders, or refuse their direction?

I decided it was time to fast. I needed space to truly study the Word about discovering God’s will, and to pray. So I explained to my kids that they were not to worry about my avoiding meals, that I was going to spend mealtimes in prayer. I still put food on the table for the family, then retreated. They accepted it.

After a few days, I was increasingly convinced that we should not move. And Glenn found a solution: he offered to take that financial responsibility but said that he would need to stay in Ferke, making trips over to Korhogo as necessary. The leadership accepted his offer! The two of us breathed relief.

It was a learning curve for me in more ways than one. Yes, the hunger pangs were impossible to ignore, so they truly reminded me to keep praying and to seek my Father’s direction. And I began to understand that what Jesus was teaching was not that I had to find a way to fast without anyone knowing it, but that I should do it in such a way that it was not being advertised in order that others would be impressed with me. It also was not about trying to force God to give me what I was demanding, but rather should be a time to focus on truly searching for direction from him. I could share my concerns with him, and then see how he would respond. I can attest to the truth that, with practice, sweet moments of delight can come with it, when the presence of Jesus becomes very real, when his promises or his word of direction become clear.

Our reactions as evangelicals to the rituals of fasting have led many of us to erase that practice from our lives, just as I had been doing. But it is obvious here that Jesus assumed that his disciples would fast: “When you fast . . .” he said. He also explained that while he was physically on earth his disciples would not fast, since he (the “bridegroom”) was present, but “the days are coming when the bridegroom will be taken from them,37 and then they will fast. (Matt. 9:15 NET). 

And in the New Testament there are examples of fasting (Acts 13:2, 14:23). It was done to ask the Lord for discernment of his will, as well as to spend time in prayer for leaders they had just selected in the church.

The Hebrew word for fasting implies humbling oneself and repenting. I can attest that it is indeed humbling to fast from food or something else that I rely on for comfort: I discover how much those things control me. Yes, I know of one time in particular when I did something that was not only unwise but wrong, and it incited a period of repentance with fasting so that I could commit myself to prayer concerning the situation, and how I should proceed. It was worth it!

What is taught in the Sermon on the Mount is that fasting for Jesus-followers is not to be a religious rite that is done for the approval of others. Instead, it is a spiritual discipline, “an opportunity to lay down an appetite . . . This act of self-denial may not seem huge . . . but it brings us face to face with the hunger at the core of our being. . . .Through self-denial we begin to recognize what controls us . . . Fasting reminds us that we care about ‘soul’ things. We care about the church. We care about the world. We care about doing God’s will. Thus we willingly set aside a little comfort so we can listen and attend to the voice and nourishment of God alone.”[1]

Setting aside time to practice this does require solitude. It is a way to let go of our natural routine and focus on listening to the Father. No wonder this teaching follows the Lord’s Prayer, with its emphasis on private conversation:

But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you. (Matt. 6:6 NET)

The secrecy is the performance of the practice in such a way that it is done for the Father alone, not for the approval of others. In fact, that teaching is applied to doing good works like giving to the poor, as well. And it is an application of the general command that begins this entire section:

“Be careful not to display your righteousness merely to be seen by people.Otherwise you have no reward with your Father in heaven. (Matt. 6:1 NET)

Jesus is talking about personal spiritual practices; he is not prohibiting community fasting. That was what God had prescribed for Israel, still practiced in the festivals of the Day of Atonement and New Year.[2] We, as his disciples, are also expected to practice fasting and to learn, in the process, how to spend time focusing more intently on our relationship with our Father, listening to him.

This is freedom! It is relishing the bread of life (cf John 6:35,48)!

God, you are my God! I long for you! My soul thirsts for you, my flesh yearns for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water. Yes, in the sanctuary I have seen you, and witnessed your power and splendor. Because experiencing your loyal love is better than life itself, my lips will praise you. For this reason I will praise you while I live; in your name I will lift up my hands. As if with choice meat you satisfy my soul. My mouth joyfully praises you, whenever I remember you on my bed, and think about you during the nighttime hours. For you are my deliverer; under your wings I rejoice. My soul pursues you; your right hand upholds me. (Ps. 63:2-8 NET)

[1] Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 220.

[2] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, vol. 33A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1993), 153

This is What it Means

To acknowledge the wound
	and all its pain,
to turn and hand it over
	infection and all
to the pierced hands
	reaching out to me,
to let go, relinquish,
	give up all ownership
along with every need
	to even up the score,
this is what it means to forgive.

And if some fungal spore
	got left behind,
if I see new pustules
	welling up within,
if I find myself still fondling
	the old scars,
if my taste buds yearn to savor 
	secret bitterness,
I must yank it all out
	by the roots.
This is what it means to forgive.

So when I fail, and clutch
	some stack of grudges,
when I’m blind to residue
	of garbage,
when I lack the will
	to scrub it out
and leave it at the cross,
	leave it for good,
be my surgeon, Jesus!
	Come debride me!
Then I will be able to forgive.

When Jesus gave us a model for prayer, what we call the Lord’s Prayer, he included that essential element of asking for our Father in heaven’ forgiveness:

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. (Matt. 6:12 NIV)

Those “debts” are our moral failures. We stumble and fall. So do those around us, and if we expect the Father to forgive us, we need to acknowledge our need to forgive others. But that is not at all easy! I think that is why Jesus chose to underline that one line in the verse that comes right after the prayer, by repeating how essential it is that we be practicing forgiveness of others:

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. (Matt. 6:14 NIV)

In other words, our request in the prayer actually includes an implicit petition for help from the Father in this area. We yearn for his forgiveness of our own failures to act rightly, and we know that we need to forgive those who hurt us by their words or actions. But this is not what we broken humans do naturally.

So how do we learn to forgive?

When I wrote the prayer-poem above, I was aware that my heart was full of hurt from things that had been done to me, and although I wanted to be free of the grudge that would pump its way forward when I thought about that person, it was like an abscess inside. My dad, doctor at the hospital in Ferke for so many years, would show pictures of huge abscesses that had developed from an infected wound. When he would make an incision, the pus would begin to ooze out, but it would also take some careful scraping to make sure all was removed. Then antibiotic was needed to kill the microbes that could make it all become infected again.

That was what I knew my heart needed. The festering anger, though not outwardly expressed, needed attention. But it was beyond me to get rid of the resentment, especially when the other person saw no need to be forgiven, unwilling to accept that what they had done was hurtful and wrong. I was desperate for the Surgeon to cleanse me! I needed to let go of it all, to no longer hang onto any desire for the other one to suffer for what had happened[1]. That did not mean that I would not pray for them, and ask the Father to bring them to a place of healing as well. But it would not be up to me to make them pay for it. Extend, I was to live out the unnatural Jesus-way of dealing with someone who opposes me:

But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you!!!! (Matt. 5:44 NIV)

That is what Jesus did on the cross, crying out: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Lk. 23:34 NIV)

And I am supposed to grow to be like him—this is the goal of a true disciple. Peter, his disciple, learned that lesson and made it his purpose to pass it on. In his second epistle he wrote:

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4 Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. (2 Pet. 1:3 NIV)

A godly life is one that is like his. And he has given us the road map to achieve it: knowing him, learning his good character and his promises to hone us to be like him—to the point that we even “participate in the divine nature!”

This requires an intentional pursuit of intimacy with Jesus. The more that we understand how he would act, the more that we experience his compassion for us, the more we will be able to pass that on to others by forgiving even those who have not been willing to admit their wrong. The huge blessing for us is that the abscess is removed. We can move ahead, no longer weighed down by combatting that infection.

Appreciation of the grace of God’s offer of forgiveness to us enables us to take this step. Jesus emphasized the importance of this, underlining it with the explanation given after our petition for forgiveness in the model prayer. Louis A. Barbieri Jr. explains it this way: “Though God’s forgiveness of sin is not based on one’s forgiving others, a Christian’s forgiveness is based on realizing he has been forgiven (cf. Eph. 4:32). Personal fellowship with God is in view in these verses (not salvation from sin). One cannot walk in fellowship with God if he refuses to forgive others.”[2]

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Eph. 4:32 NIV)

Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Col. 3:1 NIV)

A forgiving spirit characterizes someone who is grateful to God for his forgiveness of his own sins, and longs to be like his Rescuer. Things may not be all worked out as was hoped, but that person is willing to “bear with” the offender, growing in their “participation in the divine nature.” (2 Peter 1:3)

[1] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997)262.

[2] Louis A. Barbieri Jr., “Matthew,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 32.

Those Slippery Traps

The traps are there


smooth slippery sand

lurking in my stomping grounds


for that moment when

(tired, stressed, stumbling)

I forget to watch

and slide

down that slope

into disaster

 I let life take over


pushing hard to meet my goals

eyes distracted by the rocks

obstacles I could climb over

holding Your hand


 I lose my focus

stop listening to the Voice

step over the line

slip slam

my enemy just laughs

Those of us who grew up in dry, sandy territory know the ant lion (sometimes we called it a “doodlebug”) and its traps. In Côte d’Ivoire, as a child, when I would find some of these inverted cones sculpted into the dirt, I would crouch down and tickle the edges with a twig to see if there would be a response. Sure enough, as tiny ripples of sand slipped down toward the cone center, claws would reach out to grab the victim. Only there was none; this was a science experiment! But if I was lucky enough to catch a moment when some little black ant was wending its way across the area, looking for food, I would see it stumble at the fragile edge of the cone and slip sideways, just far enough for the claws to grab it. Now it was the food for the crafty ant lion.

Okay, so this creature doesn’t look like a lion! It is actually the larvae of an insect that looks like a dragonfly when full grown, but that spends the huge majority of its life in this little crablike form that feeds on passersby, usually ants. Ingenious traps! They are in full view from above but not to the little insect walking by:

“ . . . the ant lion larvae lies motionless at the bottom, waiting for its first victim. An ant or a small insect steps inside the rim of the pit and begins the fight for life. The steep sides make it hard to crawl out. The ant lion further confuses the process by flicking particles of sand or dirt onto the frantic insect, aiding its descent into the pit. At some point in the struggle, the insect falls into the bottom of the trap or is impaled by the ant lion’s piercing mandibles. The predator drags its prey deeper into the sand, where it sucks out its body fluids. The ant lion then calmly takes out the trash, flicking the carcass out of its pit, and awaits its next victim.”[1]

When I was sitting in my “sacred grove” under the golden rain trees in my yard as an adult, I could watch the same thing happening. It became a picture of the various slippery traps our Enemy puts along our path. He thinks he knows how to get us to step unknowingly onto some empty promise or on the edge of a delectable temptation that leads to a fall. It may seem like a shortcut, an easier way forward. Or maybe we just forget to watch out and make a false step. Oh-oh!

It is no wonder that Jesus told us to pray that we would not be victims of our Enemy’s schemes. This is the last petition in the Lord’s Prayer:

And lead us not into temptation,but deliver us from the evil one (Matt. 6:13 NIV)

This does not refer to the kind of testing that God uses to examine us and to hone us:

On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. (1Thess 2:4 NIV)

For we speak as messengers approved by God to be entrusted with the Good News. Our purpose is to please God, not people. He alone examines the motives of our hearts. (1 Thess 2:4 NLT)

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (Jas. 1:2-4 NIV)

When he examines our motivations, and we listen to his findings, we can confess wrongdoing and stumbling and move on to greater maturity. And when we are walking with him, he uses rough paths to make us stronger. I see it like a kind of exercise program that makes us stronger and healthier.

In the Lord’s Prayer, the temptation referred to comes directly from the Evil One, our Enemy, Satan. The word used in the text can be translated either “evil” or “evil one,” but most commentators agree that it makes more sense to focus here on the Enemy who is contriving to undo us. This evil has the purpose of making us stumble off the path, and Satan will use whatever will distract us, attract us or get us to make a wrong choice so that he can keep us from lives that honor our Father, King of the Universe. His Kingdom is now among us, and we desperately want to stay on his good paths rather than slide into danger.

Since we cannot always trust our own discernment to recognize the traps set for us, we need to ask God to please rescue us before we get caught. The Good Shepherd will lead us to the right places for sustenance and for service, and will ward off the Enemy with his shepherding weapons (cf. Psalm 23). Dependence on him is our safeguard. I think of how we ask Google to warn us of traffic issues ahead as we drive, or of the way that navigators on the ocean depend on warnings of hazards. We know we cannot see everything with either our physical or spiritual eyes. We need help from the One who sees and knows everything, and loves us.

I love the way John Stott summarizes the three types of requests that Jesus included in this model prayer:

“Thus the three petitions which Jesus puts upon our lips are beautifully comprehensive. They cover, in principle, all our human need—material (daily bread), spiritual (forgiveness of sins) and moral (deliverance from evil). What we are doing whenever we pray this prayer is to express our dependence upon God in every area of our human life.”[2]

Following our Shepherd’s teaching, let’s consciously depend on him for guidance every single day. We need to have hearts ready to listen, and trust that what the Shepherd says is the best counsel ever, protecting us from slipping into the Enemy’s traps!

[1] Theresa Duncan, “Doodlebug Death Traps: A Closer Look At The Infamous Ant Lion.”  (Montana Public Radio, August 7, 2019). https://www.mtpr.org/arts-culture/2019-08-07/doodlebug-death-traps-a-closer-look-at-the-infamous-ant-lion

[2] John R. W. Stott and John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian Counter-Culture, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 150–151

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