Desiring God Through Fasting and Prayer

Session 2

Hunger for God

Here’s a little thought by way of review and then some questions here that were handed to me. The focus last night after introductory remarks was on how we commune with God, have fellowship with God, experience hunger and feasting on God through the word. The focus was on the words, and this morning the focus will shift to prayer.

Our Pleas for God’s Help

This morning my devotional reading, in my trek through the Bible, brought me to the end of Psalm 119, and I thought I would just make a comment or two. Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible and it is an extended meditation upon the word of God. Therefore a really good way to apply last night’s focus would be for you to read through Psalm 119. I would suggest that over your lifetime, you read through it often and you read through it looking for different things.

My reading was just in the last few paragraphs and I went back through it really fast, just running through, keeping a record, and I counted at least 40 verses where the Psalm is a prayer asking God to do something. Now we’re familiar with paragraphs like this one:

How can a young man keep his way pure?
     By guarding it according to your word.
With my whole heart I seek you;
     let me not wander from your commandments!
I have stored up your word in my heart,
     that I might not sin against you (Psalm 119:9–11).

When you get over to Psalm 119:25, look at how many pleadings there are:

My soul clings to the dust;
     give me life according to your word!
When I told of my ways, you answered me;
     teach me your statutes!
Make me understand the way of your precepts,
     and I will meditate on your wondrous works.
My soul melts away for sorrow;
     strengthen me according to your word!
Put false ways far from me
     and graciously teach me your law! (Psalm 119:25–29).

Those are all prayers. So the chapter that is most about the word of God, maybe along with Psalm 119 in all the Bible is saturated with prayers. So that’s the transition in this seminar. We move from word focus to prayer focus. In the Bible they are wedded like this with Psalm 119 in particular. It’s word, word, word, word, word. And then, “Please help. Please help. Please help.” And then it is according to word, according to word, according to word. So in your life there shouldn’t be any big bifurcation between the word meditation part of your life and the prayer, pleading, praising, and confessing part of your life. They should just be interwoven. And that’s the way it has worked for me over the years. If I try to split those out, it doesn’t make any sense to me. Experientially it doesn’t work. Should I have a Bible time and a prayer time?

Now you can have emphasis and focus, but each one interpenetrates the other. It’s impossible for me to read the Bible without praying. Anytime I see something wonderful, he gets told, “That’s wonderful.” And if it’s a command, “Help me. I don’t think I can do that.” If it’s a warning, “Please protect me.” If it’s just always shooting up to him out of my heart as the word comes in. And then the same way with prayer. As I kneel to pray and think, “Now who should I pray for? And what should I ask him for? And what should I say?” The only guideline I have in my head is the Bible. If I try to make it up, then I’ll probably wind up being very self-centered. So prayer and the word are profoundly interwoven.

Our Propensity to Wander

One other thing I wanted to show you because I was at the end of this. Psalm 119 ends with Psalm 119:176. Look how this Psalm ends. This Psalm has spent 176 verses extolling the word of God, pleading with God to apply the word to the Psalmist and live it out and saying that we can keep our way pure by guarding it according to your word. How would you end a Psalm like that? Look how he ends it:

I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant,
     for I do not forget your commandments.

That’s amazing. Here you have a Psalmist who has spent 176 verses extolling the power of the word of God, the beauty of the word of God, crying out to God for help and guidance and conformity to the word of God. And the last thing he says is, “I have gone astray.”

And then he pleads, “Seek me.” It’s like, “Help shepherd. I just went outside the corral again. Over here. I’m caught in the thicket. Over here shepherd. Seek me, seek me. Hear me.” What a way to end a Psalm on the word of God. He says, “For I do not forget your commandments.” We’re saying, “I blew it, but I haven’t thrown them away. I don’t mean to say that you’re not my God. I don’t mean to say that I’m trampling upon your word. I’m holding fast to your commandments, and I’m sorry that I’m out here. Have mercy upon me and come find me and loose me from these thorns and put me back in the corral and grant by your grace that I would not escape again.” I find that remarkable. The whole Old Testament is a testimony to our need for a Savior, isn’t it? So that’s Psalm 119. Let me take some of these questions and then we’ll pick it up where we were.

Questions and Answers

I have a desire to commune distinctly with each person of the trinity, but how do I do this without turning the one triune God into a collection of three individual gods? Especially since my mind is not very good at multitasking.

I don’t want to create the impression that that’s the only or the main way that you do your meditation or with your prayer is with a conscious focus on that, as if I need to keep them separate in my head. I need to say appropriate things to the Father and appropriate things to the Son, appropriate things to the Spirit. And you start to feel constrained, like I’ve got to treat them all with a distinct respect. I never need to talk about God. I don’t mean that. Let the Bible be your guide here. The Bible doesn’t do it that way. The Bible doesn’t make those careful distinctions that are always a word for the Father, always a word for the Son. So just relax and when you’re reading the Bible, do what the Bible does.

The point of last night’s focus with John Owen on community with the Trinity is that as you experience biblically the work of each for you, just be consciously thankful to each for that work. If you read that the Holy Spirit will teach you in that hour what you should say. Jesus said don’t be panicked when you have to talk for him in a crowd where you may not be prepared or a little group where you may not be prepared. Trust him. The Spirit will give you words. When he does that, be thankful to the Spirit. Have some special affection for the work of the Spirit. And if you said at that moment, “Thank you God for helping me,” he’s not going to be upset with you for saying God, instead of saying Spirit. I don’t want you to feel like you’ve got some kind of armor you’ve got to wear here that doesn’t fit you at all.

So let the Bible be your guide. As you read it and you discover that it was Jesus Christ, the Son who died for you, have a special affection for the Son’s payment. That the Son obeyed the Father and was obedient unto death, even death on a cross that should cause affections to rise for him, in his way he related to the Father. It’s just that simple. Let the Bible be your guide and don’t feel in any way locked in or constrained to getting it just right each time you open your mouth.

Have you done congregation-wide corporate fasting at Bethlehem? If so, what advice would you offer from that experience?

We’re jumping the gun there a little bit on fasting, but I’ll go ahead and answer it anyway because we’re going to talk about that in an hour or two. We’ve tried, the book that I wrote on fasting in prayer was owing to my own experience being deeply moved by Bill Bright, the head of Campus Crusade, who was in a season where he was encouraging the church to take fasting very seriously. I went to a seminar that he gave and was deeply moved. I went home and said, I’m going to study this. I made a study of it and I preached six or seven sermons to my people on it. In the preaching, I summoned them to join me in regular fasting during that series. And then we ended the series by institutionalizing the first Tuesday fast. The first Tuesday of every month we call the first Tuesday fast and we just summon the church to fast for the coming of the Lord as you’ll see the connection between the second coming and fasting later.

So leftover from that series, which I preached, 10 or 15 years ago, we still do that. Now how many of our people do that? I have no idea. Fasting is the kind of thing where you have to be so careful between knowing that you’re doing it and doing it. I probably shouldn’t talk to you too much about my patterns. It’s just because Jesus said don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing. When you fast wash your face, comb your hair so nobody knows you’re fasting except the Father (Matthew 6:16–18). And then you’ll know if your heart is right. If you’re constantly talking about your fasting, you’re not fasting, you’re just boasting. I don’t have any idea what the patterns of my people are in terms of their fasting. I think if you’re a pastor or a leader of a Sunday school class or youth leader, you teach on it, you hold it out, and every now and then you may do a corporate event.

I think I’ll share this. Whenever our staff does a pastor’s prayer and planning, we skip breakfast. We used to have breakfast all the time. We love breakfast. I love breakfast. I had a big bowl of granola this morning. I love breakfast. But we skip it and go right into worship and prayer and we try to intentionally say that’s our hunger for you Lord. We’re going to express it with worship and prayer and then we eat a big lunch. There are various ways that you can try to build that in.

My wife and I are in college, how do we encourage each other to hunger for God together amidst the busyness of daily life?

I’m glad that the man wrote this card, because that’s part of my answer. My answer is that while it’s perfectly right for a woman and a man in a marriage to encourage each other, it is supremely the man’s responsibility to set the pace, set the tone, and try to lead the family. So since it’s the man who’s asking this question, I would say think through a pattern of devotional life. You don’t have kids yet perhaps. And even if they’re very little, you can still keep doing this. Think through a pattern by which you will read the Bible and pray together as a couple. If you have kids, one of the best things a husband can do for a wife is to make sure she has the time for freedom to be alone with God. If she has little kids clinging to her, say, “I’m taking those little kids.”

All of life can’t be like this. But when my wife and I did a four-week vacation, our pattern for I don’t know how long was for her to take the kids in the morning and I had the whole morning to myself in a little room reading, doing what I love to do. In the afternoon I took all the kids and she was totally free. She could go to the shop, she could do anything she wanted to do all afternoon, and in the evening together as a family until the kids went to bed and then the two of us. So that was our little way of making sure that each had the free time to go after God or however we wanted to use it.

But then there’s the time together for family devotions and I think the man should take the initiative to say, “Why don’t we see if we can build in right after breakfast, before we leave the table, a time where we read the word together and pray together, dedicate the day to the Lord together. And then maybe before we go to bed at night, let’s take a few minutes and we’ll read and we’ll pray together and maybe even form the habit of kneeling by the bed before you get into bed at night.” There are little things like that.

Some of you may do a half an hour together, others an hour and others five minutes. It depends on where you are and what your life is. I think my basic answer is the man who wrote the card and all of us men should take the initiative to do the effort to make it happen, which of course means we listen to our wives. Our idea may be stupid. We may say right after breakfast, and she may say it doesn’t work because of these three reasons. Say, “Okay, what was your suggestion? How about before? Okay, let’s do it before?” Leadership is not infallibility, get that guys. Leadership doesn’t mean you’re infallible, it just means you take initiative. Then you listen and you correct. Wives I think want their husbands to just do something. Move. Let them have some say but get it going. That’s what I think leadership involves.

If walking in the light is walking in grace as you said, can you speak to Hebrews 12:15, which says, “See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God.” How or why might we come short of or not obtain grace?

This is a huge question. I’ll give a short answer and it may not be adequate because of how big the issue is. The book of Hebrews is a book of very serious warnings that a person can make a kind of start with God and not be really saved. The way you confirm your salvation is by persevering. So for example, Hebrews 3:13–14 says:

But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.

We have shared in Christ. We really did become Christians, we really have the Holy Spirit, and we really are born again, if we hold our first confession firm to the end. So a text that says, “See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God,” I think means see to it that you persevere to the end and inherit all that grace has for you, lest in stopping anywhere along the way and throwing God away and throwing Christ away and throwing the faith away, you testify that you never were saved. It doesn’t contradict eternal security. It doesn’t contradict the perseverance of the saints. Rather it affirms that a genuine Christian perseveres. Again, it’s not perfection in this life but in the rhythm of repentance and stumbling and getting up and repenting and pressing on and growing, but you do persevere. You don’t apostatize. You don’t throw it away. You don’t say, “I’m done and I’m out of here.” A genuine Christian doesn’t do that. First John 2:19 says:

They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.

That verse clearly teaches eternal security, meaning if you’re of us, you stay. If you’re not, you go out. So you may stay for 10 years. You may be a deacon and not be saved. And there comes a point where you just say, “I’m just tired of playing that game. I’m out of here. I don’t believe in that Christianity stuff anyway. I’m gone.” And you wonder, “What was that all about? All those years they were in the church. What was that?” It was a game. And that shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus is dealing with Pharisees who are experts in church, and they’re not saved.

So “see to it that no one comes short of grace” means to experience grace now that you show by your continuing in it that you really have it, it’s truly yours. The reason any of us is saved is because God saved us and he keeps us.

Defining Prayer

Now we are in our outline at the prayer section. Here’s the Westminster Catechism definition of prayer:

Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies.

Let me let this be an occasion to say something. I don’t think it helps to talk about prayer as God speaking to you. People say, “I’m in a conversational prayer and God speaks to me and I speak with him.” That happens. God speaks to us by the word, we speak to him. But when he’s speaking to us, that’s not prayer. Prayer is when we offer up our desires to God for things agreeable to his will in the name of Christ with confession of our sins and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies. Prayer is always directed toward God. When God is coming towards us that’s not called prayer in the Bible. So just be careful with your language and keep the reality and just get the language right.

God, Not His Gifts

God and not his gifts is the heart of communion with God or proper prayer toward God and hearing from God. Here’s an important passage from James 4:1–5:

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.

One of the reasons he says that we are treating others so badly — murder, envy, quarreling — is because our desires are frustrated. We’re not getting what we want and people are not giving us what we want, so we get mad at them. We might even kill them, quarrel with them, and envy them. And then he says that one of the reasons you’re frustrated is because you’re not asking God. You’re asking people. And then he says, and one of the reasons you’re frustrated is that you’re asking God and you’re not receiving because you’re asking with wrong motives to spend it on your pleasures. Now, what is he getting at there? Here’s the next statement: “You adulterous people!” (James 4:4).

So he’s now putting, asking the father for something wrongly in the category of me being an adulterous. I’m operating with this image of adulterousness. I’m going to have a lover in the world. I’m the woman here now and I have a husband in heaven and I want the world to come in bed with me. James says:

You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? (James 4:4).

Yes, that would make sense. Wouldn’t it? You go out and have the world be your lover instead of God being your lover, God would be jealous. He should be. He continues:

Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He (God) yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? (James 4:4–5)

A Love-Affair with the World

What he’s saying there is that our husband wants us for himself, be mine. He is saying, “I made you for me. I married you, I bought you. I paid a dowry for you. It cost my Son’s life, you’re mine.” And the image here with that word adulteresses, is you are going out and getting another lover and it’s making me mad. But now how does that relate to prayer? He says, “You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly to spend it on your pleasures.” Here’s the picture in my head to make it really stark. Here’s your bedroom down the hall with your husband and you go in there and instead of getting in bed with him, you ask him for $50. This is prayer. You say, “Do you have 50 dollars, dear husband? God?” And he says yes. You take the 50 dollars and you go down the hall and pay for the paramour, the guy, and you sleep with the guy with the money you got from your husband.

I think that’s what’s going on in this text. You pray to your husband. You adulteresses. Why does he say “you adulteresses” right after saying you ask and do not receive because you ask with wrong motives so that you may spend it on your pleasures? You adulteresses. So evidently praying for something from God and then going out and using it not to satisfy yourself with God, but to satisfy yourself on the world, God looks and says, “That’s not what prayer’s for. That’s not why I married you. That’s not why I promised to supply every need of yours, so you can take every need that I supply and go out and have boyfriends.”

The point that I’m trying to make here with God and not his gifts is the heart of communion. Prayer in James 4, is indeed to help us be satisfied so we don’t hate each other, quarrel with each other, and kill each other, but have a deep, sweet contentment in our souls and we get it by going to our Father and speaking our heart’s need to him and having our heart’s needs satisfied so that he is our all. Then we’re in a position to go out and use the world appropriately. I don’t think God created the natural world with all of its pleasures — food pleasures and sight pleasures and ear pleasures and smell pleasures and touch pleasures — just to tempt us with idolatry. It does tempt us with idolatry, or to become friends instead of God being our satisfying friend. But he did it so that we would use them appropriately with gratitude to the husband or the Father that would honor him and reveal more of him.

Desiring the Giver of all Good Gifts

The lesson here in James 4 is that I think the heart of prayer should be, “Father you have offered to hear my voice so that when I ask for whatever I’m asking for, it would make you more prominent in my life and it would make you more satisfying in my life.” Have you ever asked why the Lord’s prayer begins the way it does? They say, “Teach us to pray, Lord.” The first prayer is, “Hallowed (sanctified, reverence, treasured set apart as uniquely precious and valuable) be your name in my heart and in the world.” The first prayer you should pray is, “God, make your name supremely important and valuable and satisfying to my soul.”

That’s the first prayer. And all the other prayers serve that. I think the Lord’s prayer is structured in one sense with three requests and the rest, but really it’s one request and the rest. The three requests are “hallowed be your name,” “your kingdom come,” and, “your will be done.” Those are all Godward. We pray, “Your name hallowed, your kingdom come, your will be done. And that’s why I need bread and that’s why I need forgiveness and that’s why I need protection from the devil.” But really it’s one: “My heart is made to hallow your name, and when your reigning is king, that’s the effect it has. It makes my heart hallow your name. And when your will is being done, that’s the effect it has making my heart hallow your name.” So the number one above-all, overarching reason for the universe is God’s name is to be hallowed in his people and need to pray that every day. Pray it every day. Hallowed be your name. And that’s what was missing here in these folks in James 4.

They were asking and were not receiving because they weren’t being satisfied in their souls, they were left just as miserable because they were just using God, turning God into a cuckold. Do you know that old 18th century word? A cuckold is a man who’s cheated on by his wife. You don’t want to turn God into a cuckold by the way you pray. You want to pray with God at the center of your prayer. So God and not his gifts is the heart of communion. It doesn’t mean you can’t pray for things, it means you pray for things for God’s sake.

Expressing Our Desires for God Himself in Prayer

Here are just some examples of doing what I said is the heart of the matter. Psalm 73:23–26 says:

Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
     you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
     and afterward you will receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
     And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
     but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

I think you would do well to memorize verses 25 and 26. I memorized them years ago. I can remember in the early days of my ministry, Psalm 42 was one and this verse was another and I would pray it over and over again. I would pray it over and over again. And when you pray it, you know it’s not completely true. The reason the Bible gives these high and beautiful standards and statements is not because we’re there, but because when we learn them and say them as we say them, we’re confessing our shortfall. We’re confessing our inadequacy and we’re yearning and longing for a fuller experience of the very thing we’re saying. Use the Bible that way.

When the Bible seems beyond you, learn those parts, memorize those parts, and then just in a confessing, humble whispering to God of your inadequacy, grow up into them and God will give you seasons where you taste profoundly that’s true. Right now that’s true. And you know where it comes true most? It’s in the waiting room while your wife’s in surgery, or your kid. When you might lose them and you say, “The Lord is my strength and my portion. If I lose her, you are my portion. I don’t want to lose her.” I’ve only sat in that situation one time with my wife and it was good for a pastor to sit there, to be able to resonate with this sheep when they’re sitting there.

You don’t want to lose her, but the Holy Spirit comes and he whispers to you, “I’ll be enough. I will be enough.” And you can say these words and there’s a sweet deep sense of authenticity in that moment. Yes. When you’re saying, “The Lord is my portion, I have no desires for anything besides you,” and you’re surrounded by 1,000 good things that nothing’s going wrong, you think, “Well, maybe I mean it and maybe I don’t, because I’ve got so much going for me right now.”

But when you’ve lost your job and the hurricane just turned all your furniture into mush and you can’t find your child because they got swept away, then if you said this and the Holy Spirit gave you the grace to believe it, it would mean something amazing and profound.

The Thirst of Our Souls

Psalm 63:1–2 says:

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
     my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
     as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
     beholding your power and glory.

If you’re not an emotional person, you’re a pretty pragmatic person, a get it done kind of person. Don’t talk a lot about your feelings and your dad was that way and now you’re that way. One of the greatest things you could do to make sure that you’re not confined and constricted unnecessarily is memorize a few passages that have this kind of language that’s very alien to you. You don’t talk this way. Well, memorize it and talk that way to yourself. And if you talk that way to yourself enough, you just might be a bigger person. The repertoire of your affectional life would be expanded. And guess what? The people around you will like that. Your wife will like that, your husband will like that.

We sometimes type ourselves and just live that way forever. We think, “Well, I’m this way. My dad was this way, my granddad was this way. That’s the way we are.” And that’s true. There are limits that genes put on us. That’s true, but probably not as many as you think. And one of the ways for you to both vertically toward God and then affectionately towards others to broaden your scope, the language and the capacities of your heart, is to memorize, “My soul thirsts for you. My flesh yearns for you in a dry and weary land where there is no water. I have looked on you in the sanctuary to see your power and your glory.” It’s thirsting language and yearning language and hunger language.

A Method of Prayer

Psalm 90:14 says:

Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
     that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.

I don’t think I include anywhere in this set of slides, my IOUS acronym, so I’m going to give it to you right here. I use acronyms, like APTAT, ANTHEM, and IOUS. This is my IOUS. Why is that? There are times if I don’t have a little help, artificial help, then I just draw a blank. It’s crazy. I’m a pastor, I’ve been in this work for a long time. I know a lot of Bible and it just goes blank. It’s just blank. And you’re groping for something to do next in your prayer and it’s just blank. It’s weird. I think it’s partly demonic. I think arrows of blankness are being shot at my soul by the devil. It’s my own corruption, whatever it is, I need a breakthrough.

So I have these little things stored away in my head. So here they are. The “I” is, “Incline my heart to your testimonies” from Psalm 119:36. I pray, “God, I don’t feel as fully engaged or desirous of the Bible this morning as I should. Would you incline my heart, take my heart and push it, incline it not towards the internet and not towards breakfast, but towards Bible.” Then “O” is, “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18). So if you incline me to get over the word, would you open my eyes so that it’s not just marks on a page, it’s wonderful things. I see wonders there.

Then “U” is, “Unite my heart to fear your name (Psalm 86:11). That means, “Would you please take all the fragmentation of my heart, part of it, going after concern for one of my sons and part of it concern for issues at church and part of it concern for financial issue and part of it here and my heart is going all over the place. I pray, “Would you unite my heart to fear your name so that I’m not a divided person?” And then “S” is right here in Psalm 90:14, which says, “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love.” I ask the Lord, “Satisfy me in the morning. I’m reading your word, looking for satisfying revelations of yourself by which the Spirit communicates to me your value.” And I’m asking that that would satisfy my heart.

Sometimes people come to me in counseling situations and they will tell me how nothing’s working. They say that the Bible is not making a difference in their lives. And I will ask sooner or later, probably sooner, do you earnestly plead with God as you’re reading the Bible that he would satisfy you? Often the answer is no. They’ve given up before they even pleaded with God to do what they feel can’t be done. In other words, you go to the Bible and nothing’s happening, you don’t feel anything. There’s no satisfaction, there’s no unity. There’s no wonder. They say, “Well I guess I’m not that kind of person, or maybe I’m not saved,” and they just stop. I’m urging you to pray these four things. These are cries from psalmists. A psalmist needs to have his heart inclined to the word. A psalmist needs to have his eyes open to the wonders. A psalmist needs to have his heart united. A psalmist needs to move from dissatisfaction to satisfaction in God. That’s amazing and very encouraging that the psalmists had to pray that way. And if they had to pray that way, how much more would we?

Communion with God by Echoing His Word in Prayer

When you pray, pray the word, echo it or just quote it. Here’s an example. The church gathered together in Acts 4, they lifted their voices to God with one accord and said:

And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit, “ ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’— for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place (Acts 4:24–28).

That’s simply an example that when you pray, pour the Bible into your prayers. I love praying with folks at Bethlehem. Many, many, many of you have learned this over the years. I go to at least four prayer meetings a week. Tuesday morning, Friday morning, Saturday night before service, and Sunday morning before service. I think there’s another one stuck in there somewhere, but I can’t remember. What I love about these little prayer gatherings — usually anywhere from six to 20 people — is that the people pray the Bible. They pray the Bible. There’s hardly a prayer that’s prayed that doesn’t have some echo of the Bible in it. It’s very powerful and very refreshing to be among people who pray the word of God.

You will run out of gas almost certainly after just a minute or two of trying to pray without the Scriptures. It’ll start to sound repetitive. You won’t know what to pray next. You’ll fall into ruts.

No Enemy to Spontaneity

Let’s say a word here about ruts and spontaneity. In reaction against form, in favor of spontaneity, regularly spontaneous people fall into ruts of form in the name of spontaneity. They think by resisting a memorized text or a verse in the Bible and just praying what they feel like praying, they’re being creatively spontaneous. And you hear the same thing over and over again. It’s not creative and it’s not spontaneous, it’s rut. It’s the way human beings do it.

I grew up in a church where I just didn’t want to hear the prayer at the communion table. I didn’t want to hear the prayer in the pulpit. They all said, “We’re thankful that we have the privilege of being here this morning and we pray that you lead, guide, and direct and be a blessing on this service now in Jesus name. Amen.” Read a prayer. Say something different. And all that in the name of, “Oh, we’re Baptists, we don’t read prayers, we don’t do anything form-laden.” This is pure form. It’s called a rut. It’s the same thing I was saying last night about legalism. Don’t believe that in resisting help in formulating your prayer from the Bible in particular, that you’re going to move into a wonderful, free creative, spontaneous, authentic expressiveness. You’re not, you’re going to start saying the same stuff over and over and over again at the table and devotions.

You’re going to start every prayer, “Thank you Lord for blessing us today. Bless, bless, bless . . .” Would you think? I’m saying here that God gave us a very big book. This book is creative. This book is rich. This book is deep. This book is wide. This book is high. This book is glorious. And if you would build it into your brain and build it into your heart and just let it tumble out in your prayers in any way you please, you will be spared from a lot of ruts. Your kids will hear the rut immediately, and they will be able to discern if mommy and daddy are walking in living communion with God, nourishing their hearts by fresh feedings of the word of God every day that are finding their way out in the way they’re expressing their desires for the kids and for the home and for God and the church. They’ll know. So the word is a precious gift to form our prayers.

Communion with God by Seeking from Him the Help to Hear Him Speak in His Word

Here’s what I mean:

Incline my heart to your testimonies
     and not to selfish gain (Psalm 119:36).

That is, “Help me to hear you speak. Help me.”

Psalm 119:18 says:

Open my eyes, that I may behold
     wonderful things out of your law.

Psalm 86:11 says:

Teach me your way, O Lord,
     that I may walk in your truth;
     unite my heart to fear your name.

Or listen to Psalm 119:169:

Let my cry come before you, O Lord;
     give me understanding according to your word!

So grant me understanding. All those texts just say in communion with God, as we’re reading the Bible, we don’t just pray the Bible, we ask him for a grasp of the Bible so that the Bible would have its appropriate effect on us, that we would be able to see and understand the Bible. So prayer is built in.

Communion with God Through Confession of Sin

If you know yourself, then you’ll scarcely be able to come to God ever without some element of apology or confession, because you just know, we all know of how short we fall. It will sweeten our experience of grace bought with the blood of Jesus and it will make us real with God. Psalm 32:1–2 says:

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
     whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity,
​​     and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

That’s the kind of deceit that says, “I’m not going to let anybody know my sin. I’m going to let God know. I’m not going to make any deal out of my sin.” That kind of deceit won’t work. The Psalm continues:

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
​​     through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
​​     my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer (Psalm 32:3–4).

Communion with God is blocked by unconfessed sin. Here’s a person who’s keeping silent about their sin, silent with respect to God in particular. And what’s happening is that it is having a horrible physical effect. You’ve tasted that. It creates sleeplessness, it creates anxiety and nervousness, it creates ulcers, it creates psychological syndromes of all sorts when there’s suppressed, repressed, sinning. There’s groaning. His body was wasting away, groaning, and a heavy hand was on him. That’s God in his mercy not letting us flourish. It’s vitality drained away like the fever heat of summer.

God’s Provision for Our Sinfulness

There was a day when one of the staff members of our church was in immorality about 20 years ago and it was a horrible time. There were about six weeks between the evidence starting to emerge of the sin and the proof that the evidence was true. During those six weeks was one of the worst times of my life because I found the evidence. I believed I had found it and knew what it meant and hundreds of people disagreed with me, and therefore thought I was bringing wrong charges. It was a horrible time. I got a phone call at 10:30 p.m. one night from this person that I believed was in immorality and I couldn’t prove it, but I believed it. I had evidence for it but I couldn’t prove it. He called me and said, “I need to meet you at church now.” I said, “I’ll be there. Can I bring some elders?” He said, “Yes, you can bring some elders.” I brought six elders with me at about 11 p.m. at the church at night.

We sat down together and he quoted this psalm. He said, “I can’t take it anymore. I can’t bear the body wasting away (and he looked terrible). I can’t bear the groaning, I can’t bear the heavy hand on me. I can’t bear the vitality draining away from me. I can’t bear the fever heat.” And he confessed everything. It was worse than anybody thought. It was the most vivid portrayal of this Psalm I’ve ever seen. And it may not be that bad for you like you’re hiding adultery, but it may be just something simple, something not right at work that you’re covering up, or something you haven’t told your wife that she really should know or just something. While that’s happening, communion with God is going to be cut off. It’s going to be impossible.

But how blessed it is to just say it. God has a provision. God’s not going to throw you away. He’s not. That’s the glory of the cross, right? If we had no good news, you may as well go ahead and just waste away in misery because if you confess we’re just going to smack you down anyway and life will be worse. But that’s not the way God set it up. If you confess your sins and if you trust in him, there’s this transgression being forgiven and sin being covered and no imputation of iniquity. God is saying, “I just won’t count it against you. I won’t count this adultery against you.” That may have human consequences that take a good while to sit right with a wife or a church. You can’t just go on as usual say, “Oh, that’s no big deal.” It is a big deal. You’ve broken trust. Trust can’t be rebuilt overnight. It takes years to rebuild trust. But forgiveness can happen immediately and it does.

So communion with God through confession of sin means preserving the channels open and free by being absolutely open with God about everything you’re feeling and doing. It’s insane not to tell him anyway, he knows. And it’s insane really not to tell the people against whom you’re sinning too because of all these consequences here. Psalm 32:5–6 continues:

I acknowledged my sin to you,
​​     and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
​​     and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.
Therefore let everyone who is godly
​​     offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found;
surely in the rush of great waters,
​​     they shall not reach him.

That’s what happened that night. There was an acknowledgement of sin, iniquity was no longer hidden, confession was made of transgressions (which were many), and forgiveness happened. And to my great delight, I can say to you, 20 years later, both those marriages of the two involved survived. A year ago or so, I had lunch with this person just to make sure we were okay. We’re going to meet the Lord together someday I believe. We’re going to rise together to meet the Lord. We will look each other right in the eye as we rise at the resurrection. How will we feel about how we dealt with this and how we ended it?

Keeping Short Accounts

Let me say another word about that because you may be in that situation. If I never saw him again and we died and met, I’d feel good about the way this has gone down. But I got a phone call from a teacher at Bethel. He’s gone to be with the Lord now, but we taught together for a while. I won’t tell you who it is, because some of you might know. But it was a long time ago because I’ve been gone from there for 33 years. He was a feisty guy. I liked him a lot. He was always turning language funny and just inserting things at times that offended people. I never was offended by him, but he was annoying to a lot of people, so I kind of liked him.

He called me from New Mexico. He’d been retired for several years and he said, “Hi John, you might’ve heard I had a heart attack a few months ago.” I said, “Yeah, I did hear that. How are you doing?” He said, “Well, I think I’m okay. But they say I’m a walking time bomb and I’m just calling everybody to make sure there’s nothing wrong between us.” He was just going down his list with all his colleagues saying, “Did I step on your toes in any way that I need to make right, right now?” I looked at my phone and I said, “God, that’s good. Not everybody gets a chance to do that.” Not everybody gets a sweet heart attack that says, “Hey, your time’s about here, you might want to make some calls,” because you don’t want to meet all those people on the judgment day or in the resurrection and you didn’t do anything to make it right. You’re just going to hang your head in shame. So communion with God through confession includes confession to people as well where necessary.

Questions and Answers

What would you advise someone who has committed adultery 25 years ago? The person has known forgiveness from God, experienced personal revival, and has a deeper walk with God, but still the spouse doesn’t know. The marriage is good today.

Wow, it’s a 25-year secret. That’s amazing. My whole default mode between a husband and a wife is honesty. It’s very hard for me to counsel ongoing ignorance of something so deep. It would cause a huge amount of pain and the season of adjustment would be significant. But that’s the direction I lean. I’m just trying to imagine Noël and me. Twenty-five years ago would be the late 1980s, and we’re 66 and have another maybe 10 years plus to be together. She’s going to know sooner or later in the resurrection or sometime. My view of the life to come is that it’s a very significant continuation of this life and that the more things we have settled here, the better. I think I would talk to the wisest spiritual woman you know. This is the man we’re talking about here, isn’t it? Oh, it doesn’t say. I can’t tell whether it’s the wife or the husband we’re talking about.

So when I say that, I mean, if you’re the husband and you committed adultery 25 years ago and you’re contemplating telling her now 25 years later, go to the wisest, spiritual woman and ask her how to do that. And if you’re the woman who did it, go to the wisest, spiritual man and ask him, “If you were my husband, how would you want me to go about this?” That would be my counsel there.

Where’s the balance between honoring your father and mother and doing what you feel God has planned for you without disrespecting them?

There is a huge difference in the age. If you’re 16, you do what your parents say if it’s not sin. Okay? If you’re 11, 12, 16, 17, or 18 it’s the same. And then as you become a unit of independent life living on your own, then I think your responsibility before God becomes increasingly personal and independent from that authority. And that’s one thing.

The second thing is never, ever take their counsel lightly. Never say, “I’m not under your authority anymore, so it doesn’t matter what you say.” It matters a lot what they say. It matters what they think and you want to respect them. So there’s a way for a kid who is called to missions to relate to their parents. This would be the kind of thing I run into a lot. The kid is saved and the parents aren’t saved. The young person at 22 has gone to three Passion conferences and several missions conferences and is aflame with passion for missions and they believe God’s calling them to serve in China or Indonesia or somewhere. And mom and dad think they’re insane and crazy. They’re gifted. They think, “You could make a lot of money, you could have a wife, you could have everything you need right there. And you’re throwing it all away by going around playing the pauper by asking people to support you.” And what should you do?

I think you sit down with them and you say, “Mom and dad, I love you so much and I appreciate so much all that you did for me. I owe you so much because of your providing for every need that I had for so long. I don’t want to disrespect you. I want you to know I listen long and deep, but you have brought me up to be a thoughtful and independent thinker and I believe in Christ. He’s my Lord now and he’s told me to love you, but he’s Lord. So I think I should obey him. And I’m just pleading with you to respect me for that. I know it doesn’t make sense to you.” That kind of talking would sound respectful I think to a typical parent. They still might not like what you’re doing, but they would, I hope, hear respect.

What’s your favorite Bible app or the most helpful one?

The one that I use there is the “Olive Tree.” There’s so many out there, I wouldn’t begin to say it’s the best because I haven’t begun to do them all. But for years I have used “Olive Tree” because it just works for me. It’ll show a parallel with Greek. It’ll show up parallel with Hebrew, and it has these ways to read the Bible built in. I guess most of them do. This is what I use it for most. I read my M’Cheyne chapter for the day and at the bottom it says, “Now you’re done in Hosea. You will go now to 1 Timothy 2. And you tap on it, it takes you right to 1 Timothy 2. And then that takes you reading four places. And when it does, it says done and hit done. And the next day when you come back to the app, it’s in the new place where you’re supposed to be. So you don’t have to be fumbling around in your Bible about, “Where to read today?” Because the app is just keeping you moving through the Bible in a year. Actually M’Cheyne takes you through the whole Bible in a year and Psalms twice and the New Testament twice in a year by reading a little over four chapters a day.

So I like Olive Tree a lot. And of course the ESV Study Bible is there and the ESV Bible is just stunning. One of the things I have the ESV Study Bible on here for is because it talks to me. If I’m too tired to read, I just have it read to me. It’s just gold. I only do that when I’m tired, because I don’t think it’s necessarily the best not to engage yourself by reading. Enough on that, sorry if I offended anybody’s favorite one because there may be better ones that I haven’t discovered.

God has chosen to speak to us through his word written in the Bible. Do you believe that he speaks to us outside of the Scriptures? I don’t mean the Spirit reminding us of the Scriptures, but interacting with us in communion, in other words.

In a sense, yes. And in another sense, no. If my mind says somebody is coming to me with new information about God, I’m very skeptical and don’t put any stock in it, because I think the canon is closed. It’s the faith once for all delivered to the saints and that we should not look for new information about God and his work in the world and how to do his will. So I don’t think you should have a Book of Mormon and I don’t think you should have the Jehovah’s Witnesses Scriptures that add on and add on. The add-ons almost inevitably undermined what’s here. So that’s my first warning, that God has given us what we need here, they are profitable for teaching, for correction, for proof, for training, and righteousness that the man of God be equipped for every good work. It’s not like you’re equipped 90 percent for every good work, but equipped for every good work by the Book.

Now in applying the book, can the Lord say, “Talk to that person about me,” or something like that? You’re walking down the street, you’re sitting on an airplane or whatever, can the Lord “say” that? And the reason I put quotes around it like that is because I don’t ever want to put the prophetic voice of the Lord or the leading of the Lord in the same category of the Bible’s authority. I think the Bible is always authoritative. If there is something like God’s inclining or leading or prophetically bringing to mind, it’s always under the Bible. The Bible is always over and assessing and judging and in charge of what comes into your head. But it seems to me as I’ve studied the gift of prophecy, or words of knowledge, or wisdom — those three gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12 — that they are real and they are valid and they have to be handled with great care.

I’m with Wayne Grudem in his book on The Gift of Prophecy, if you want to read the most thorough book on the gift of prophecy. It’s Wayne Grudem’s doctoral dissertation, which is readable and understandable and published. And he defines the gift of prophecy as “God spontaneously bringing to mind things he wants us to think apart from what we would have by ordinary natural processes.” So I’ll give you an example or two that have happened to me, and this does not happen regularly. I don’t think I have the gift of prophecy in any continual way. If you come to me and ask me I won’t just say something then give you wisdom for your life that’s just going to solve all your problems sometimes.

This is an example I think, and Spurgeon has examples. Most pastors have remarkable examples of this sort of thing. So when I’m sitting there getting ready to preach like tonight, and I do my APTAT, when I get to P and pray, one of the things I pray for is, “Help me to love the people, keep me humble, keep me faithful to your word. Grant me the gift of prophecy.” Now, what do I mean when I say that? One of the things I mean is to bring to my mind while I’m preaching things I did not prepare that will go like arrows into the hearts of people that I totally did not plan and they feel as an unbelievable bolt from heaven. Bring those kinds of things to my mind. I wouldn’t even know when it happens necessarily.

I was preaching one Sunday on the importance of small groups and outreach Bible studies, small groups that have an outreach orientation. I was in the old sanctuary and I turned and I said, “Some of you may want to start a Bible study on the 32nd floor to the IDS tower and start a Bible study there and lead people to Christ in that way,” and I went on. That was totally out of the blue when I said that. I said the 32nd floor. This lady comes up to me afterwards, she takes my hand, and she says, “Why’d you say 32nd floor?” I said, “I have no idea why I said it,” because I didn’t know. I didn’t say this, but I pray that I would say things I don’t know what I’m saying. She said, “I work on the 32nd floor and I’ve been praying this week about a Bible study up there.” I said, “Well, I think you just got a word.”

So that I think happens. Now, I do not believe she should say that’s as authoritative as something I read in the Book. I don’t think that’s the way she should think. I think she should take it as a gift. Generally when people come to me and they say they’ve heard from me things like that, I say, “You should receive it as a gift from God and ask him what to do with it.” I don’t say that about the Bible. But this is a gift that God is offering to you. I’m fallible. You are fallible. Our processes of where that came from and discern that are all fallible. But God does that sort of thing for our encouragement and for our guidance. So yes is the short answer, and it’s different from the way he speaks in the Bible.

I believe, love, and enjoy studying the word. But how do I extend the joy to others who don’t enjoy thinking, reading academically?

I’m not sure what it’s meant by “academically,” if it means rigorous, thoughtful, careful analysis of the wording and how the clauses fit together. I totally believe in that. A lot of people, their brains just short circuit when you start pushing them to do that. I would say, you’re just not going to make everybody love that, and that’s okay. So if the sense is, “I must help everybody around me love to analyze the Bible the way I do,” then just give that up. What you want them to do is love the Bible and grow in understanding as much as they can given the way they’re wired. And the best thing you could do for them is to just model the fruitfulness of your method.

It’s not that they do the method, but they taste the fruit. If they taste the fruit every small group meeting, every sermon, every lesson, they’re going to like to be around your teaching and then they’re going to have a little more openness to how you see things like that in the Bible. They’ll ask, “Where do you get that?” And then you’ll say this and they will say, “Oh, I suppose I need to do some of that.” Well, maybe it would help. I think rather than pressuring people to read the Bible like you read the Bible with the same academic rigor, dump a truckload of helpfulness on them from the fruit that you get from reading the Bible that way, and they’ll lean in to your way of reading the Bible and probably then grow more fruitful.