Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

When You Don’t Know What You Need

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I lay in bed too tired to think, not knowing where to start — children, church, marriage, friends, my own soul? It had been a long time since I had talked to God about it all and I was at a loss at what to ask. The words came to mind as I struggled to pray:

Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

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“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matt. 6:7-8)

Once, during a particularly long kid-induced stretch of sleep deprivation, I stood in front of a store counter and had to stop myself mid-sentence to tell the associate, “Sorry…I have no idea what I’m saying.” Even with a clear mind, I dread calling customer service most days. I dislike having to think on my feet during the unpredictable exchange. Is the person on the line going to be rude? Pushy? Honest? Competent?

If you’re like me, you might script what you’ll say before calling customer service so you’re not bumbling when the person picks up. But imagine if the person we’re calling already knows what our problem is and how to fix it. Imagine they are glad we called, speak kindly as we make our requests, and patiently offer help.

“Pray even though God knows what you need,” some may say, apologetically even and on the defense. Because, why bother talking to God about what he already knows I need? It’s a fair question and with good answers, my mind is less troubled than it used to be about it. Providence makes prayer effective, and God’s sovereignty has become the bedrock I stand on as I make my petitions. Still, I have often failed to consider that this truth— that God knows what I need before I offer a word in prayer— is more than a prompt for questions about divine paradoxes. It is even more than just rebuke against the babblers Jesus speaks of in Matthew 6.

What I am experiencing these days is not pray “even though” God knows. No, no, not as a concession. Pray because he does.

God’s knowledge, I am finding, is my assurance and sweet comfort for all his children.

Because when you’re young and think you know what you need, you can only see it as redundant to speak to God about it. But then, you live longer. And as life’s complications and sorrows and hard lessons come, we begin to see that maybe we don’t know what’s best like we thought we did.

And what do you ask God for then? What happens when your feelings can’t be trusted? When your mind is unable to make sense of things to form a coherent request? When your foresight has failed and your problems outweigh your wisdom? When you’ve run out of solutions and suggestions to offer to God?

Where do you start when you don’t even know what you need?

There are so many good things we can pray, much is modeled in Scripture for us. For deeper knowledge of God, for deliverance from trial, for perseverance through it, for greater joy, for more love. But never is the call to prayer a request for information from God.

I think of kids. How readily they go to mom and dad for help, and how often their needs aren’t even known to them. Babies just cry. Older children may carry their complaints, tears, calls for justice. Still, usually parents can tell if they’re just tired and hangry, or truly sad and discouraged, or hiding jealousy and wanting revenge. If we, imperfect parents, know our kids enough to give them what they truly need, how much more the Father whose parenting every good mom or dad faintly shadows?

Our Father, says our Elder Brother, knows what you need before you utter a word. Therefore, you are not heard because of your flowing eloquence, the strength of your passion, or the might of your wisdom. You are heard because you are known completely and loved deeply. You are known because through Christ, you belong to God. And you are invited to God’s throne room, not to offer him tidbits he doesn’t know, but to receive mercy and find grace to help you in time of need (Heb. 4:16). The nature of the help may vary, but always it comes from one who knows exactly what you need.

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Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Thus beloved, we pray. And when we don’t even know what to ask? It’s okay. My children don’t need to know much to get my help, only that they’re not doing so great and that Mom can do something about it. So it is that as we walk with Jesus we will come to times when we can only be sure of two things: One, our need is great and two, there is only one Person who can help. And as it turns out, in these moments, that may be all we really need to know.

Motherhood & Family, Taking Heart

Of Mice And Men And God Whose Purpose Stands

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The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own’, or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life – the life God is sending one day by day: what one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s own imagination. -C.S. Lewis

Him: Can I go run in the leaves?

Me: No…Why?

Him: So I can jump in them and be happy!

“The best-laid schemes of mice and men / often go awry,” goes the poem, and the incidence of things going “awry” seems unusually high lately. Sickness, unexpected calls, frustrating inefficiencies (making a wrong turn and watching the time to destination jump up exponentially, anyone?), kids being kids.

So I’ve been walking around, muttering to myself, of mice and men, of mice and men.

I say I’ve been muttering, but a better word for it would be grumbling. I have been grumbling about interruptions from people, my circumstances, and the general state of being human which guarantees my making mistakes. But I am fighting, and failing but by grace still in the fight, to pivot my perspective around Proverbs 19:21.

Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand. 

Few things show my sinful desire to be God, and my inability to be him, like my plans do. More specifically, the interruption of them. Again and again in the Scriptures God challenges those who pridefully make our plans apart from him, confident in our own ability to carry them out. God frustrates the plans of persons and nations and in doing so shatters our illusions. We thought we were more than we are, surely we were deluded. Truly, truly, he alone is God.

And this is a good thing. The firmness of his plans and sureness of his purposes.

Because it means that even when our best-laid plans are toppled, we are not left alone to be tossed to and fro by circumstances. And instead of a resigned shoulder shrug, “well, of mice and men,” we have resounding truth. God’s purpose stands. Our lives are not dependent on our own limited vision and meticulous planning. Nor are we ultimately at the whims of other people, sickness, traffic, and our own mistakes. Rather, our steps are determined by God who created and redeemed us.

Our God is mighty and there is none like him, dwelling in the high and lofty places. Yet in his mercy he bends his power to help us and sets his wisdom toward planning our lives. Now our loving Shepherd who willingly gave his life for us, tenderly leads his sheep along the paths laid out for us. And the good news is that though we may grumble at the frustration of our plans and the One who ordains interruptions, circumstances, limitations, he still is determined to do us good. He continually works all things for our knowledge and love of him, our Christlikeness and fruitfulness, our joy and his glory.

Thus, I am hoping to grow in receiving the interruptions that seem to mark my days as God-ordained invitations.

A mistake, something I overlooked that I feel like I shouldn’t have—

He is helping me to put to death the perfectionism which suffocates grace.

Tasks taking longer than expected—

He is challenging my lifeless idol of productivity. “Can you do what I do? Do you really have power? Can you give life?”

A fussy baby on my hip, a hungry 3-year old by my side, as I stand in a how-did-it-get-so-messy-again-already home—

He is making me more like Christ, and giving me a chance to choose to believe these words even as I type them.

Cries of “MOOOOMMM” from the other room—

He is nudging me on, giving a chance to join him as he works in the lives of others. (How often the interruptions come in the form of the precious little people living in my house who I profess to serve!)

A boy wanting to jump in leaves and be happy—

He is beckoning me to stop and rest, to not miss his gifts, and to trust the One who gives good gifts I did not even know to want.

Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand—

He is building my life. Bringing it to me day by day, moment by moment, interruption by interruption.

The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands. – Psalm 138:8

Motherhood & Family

God Who Pursues

(Reposted from Instagram)

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So much about parenting is hard. The sleepless nights, the pouring out, the not knowing what I’m doing. But the hardest thing is how little control I have over what matters most.

Jeff and my greatest hope for our children is that they’d know and walk with Christ. My greatest fear is that they won’t.

Will my children know God?

Sometimes this fear drives me to my knees. These are my best times, too few and far between, when I let desperation and helplessness usher me to God’s throne of grace.

Do my kids love Jesus?

Sometimes this fear becomes panic. Like a madwoman, I act as if I alone stand between my children and a future I fear is barreling toward them. My words come out forcefully, but not with God’s power.

Will he save them?

And sometimes, my fear leads me to wrong thoughts of God himself. I can’t know for sure whether my children will trust him. And his sovereignty starts looking more like fate than fatherhood, his election more like impersonal algorithm than love.

This week, I opened up the Scriptures and so did one my girls. In the same room, we read. I prayed. She highlighted. And when she shared later what she’d gleaned, I held back tears. God had spoken to her. She had insight that wasn’t from me. True thoughts of God from God himself. I caught a glimpse of God‘s pursuit of her heart and mind. And the fact that he is pursuing her apart from me.

Parents, God wants our children to know him more than we do. He is more committed to leading them in the truth than we are. He has chosen their times and places so that, seeking him, they would find him (Acts 17:26-27). He will not allow us to singlehandedly set the courses of their future because he loves them more than we ever could.

So let’s teach them his word. Let’s pray for them with tears. Let’s repent and live as examples of those being changed by the gospel. And let’s remember that we do all this because God first pursued us.

Because he chooses to pursue them them through us, we tread with holy fear.

Because he pursues them, we walk on solid ground.

Truth & Orthodoxy

If God Is In Control, Why Pray?

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When it comes to God’s sovereignty and prayer, it is enough for some people to know that 1. God is sovereign (in control) and 2. God commands us to pray. But there are others who struggle with seeing prayer as an Achilles heel for belief in God’s providence and sovereign control over all things.

In other words, they sincerely wrestle with the question,  If God is sovereign, why pray?

All of us, though we may not verbalize the question,  practically live out our implicit answers to this question in how we pray. I’ve seen this play out in my life and in teaching, both good and bad,  I’ve received through the years. If God is immobilized by my lack of prayers or constrained by their content, I will pray with feverish anxiety, maybe in fear of forgetting something important or asking for the wrong thing. If my prayers only change me, my intercession for others end up short and passionless, “Do what you will, you know what’s best, amen” with faithlessness masquerading as faith in God’s sovereignty.

The question of “Then, why pray?” came up in church during a class on God’s sovereignty a few weeks ago, so I thought I’d share a few points here. They’re brief but may be helpful for some wrestling with the seeming contradiction of God’s sovereign will and our supplications in prayer.

1. Prayer is more than just asking for things.

Worshippers of God praise him in prayer because adoration is a natural and fitting response to seeing his greatness. We pour out our hearts before him in prayer not because he does not know our minds, but because he is a refuge for his people and he comforts us as we lay our burdens before him. We confess our sins in prayer not to inform him of what we did while his back was turned, but to receive his cleansing forgiveness and power to change.

Prayer is more than just asking for things and it is relational, not transactional. Even as we present our requests before God, our supplications are not so much like placing an order for Amazon as much as it is approaching our Father. We come to him with the longings of our hearts, trusting in his goodness and wisdom, knowing his love and care. Those who believe that prayer is pointless if God is in control do not yet understand our communion with God in prayer.

2. Scripture affirms that our supplications are effective as God responds to them.

Prayer changes us as we commune with God, but does not only change us. Scripture is full of stories of God responding to his people’s requests. Israel’s mass exodus from slavery is preceded by,  “Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.” (Ex. 2:23-25) And the prophet Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal proved that, unlike false idols, Yahweh is the God who lives, hears and responds to his people. These are only two of innumerable Biblical examples.

In the New Testament, James says, “You do not have, because you do not ask.” (Ja. 4:2b) Paul urges supplications to be made for all people and asks the churches to pray for him (1 Tim. 2:1, Eph. 6:19, Col. 4:3.) And Jesus himself straightforwardly says, “Ask and you will receive.”

3. God’s sovereignty does not negate the meaningfulness of my prayers, but rather upholds their effectiveness.

Scripture overwhelming attests to God’s sovereignty, or providence.* At the same time, it also attests to the meaningfulness of my actions, including my prayers. The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way:

God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. (WCF 3:1-2)

When we think of God as merely an actor in a pre-existing world, then his sovereignty seems to negate the effectiveness of our prayers. But remember that everything that exists is continually held together by his command and that fabric of the universe would completely unravel if he did not uphold it (Heb. 1:3). Therefore, “second causes” or what we may think of as “means” make a difference not in competition with but because of God. Our actions have consequences in the world because God upholds it. Our prayers are effective because and only because God himself establishes their effectiveness.

4. God has sovereignly ordained means.

Also, in believing that God has ordained all things, Christians believe that he ordains means. For example, though we believe that God has chosen how many days we have on earth, we still eat (Ps. 139:16). We don’t throw up our hands and say, “Well if God wanted me to live, I would,” because we believe God has chosen to use physical sustenance to prolong our days. God has not only determined outcomes in history, but the means toward these outcomes.

When it comes to prayer then, as one of my professors put it, What if God has sovereignly ordained your prayers as a means toward accomplishing his will on earth? 

5. Ultimately, we pray not in spite of, but because we believe in God’s sovereignty.

R.C. Sproul has said, “If there is one single molecule in this universe running around loose, totally free of God’s sovereignty, then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled.” Similarly, rather than feeling demotivated to pray because we know God is sovereign, Christians can pray in faith because God is in control of all things.

Our God is able to direct the will of earthly kings, so we pray for leaders in our home, work, and nations. He can make dead hearts live, and so we plead for him to grant salvation to hardened hearts. He is able to break the power of sin in our lives, families, and churches, so we plead for more grace to overcome. And he has chosen to do all this and more through the prayers of his people to the praise of his glory.

Nothing is outside of our Sovereign King’s rule and thus nothing is impossible for him. What great confidence we have in Christ to approach the throne of grace to find mercy and grace to help us in our time of need.

* Kevin DeYoung writes in, The Good News We Almost Forgot:  “The Bible affirms human responsibility. But the Bible also affirms, much more massively and frequently than some imagine, God’s power and authority over all things. The nations are under God’s control (Pss. 2:1–4; 33:10), as is nature (Mark 4:41; Pss. 135:7; 147:18; 148:8), and animals (2 Kings 17:25; Dan. 6:22; Matt. 10:29). God is sovereign over Satan and evil spirits (Matt. 4:10; 2 Cor. 12:7–8; Mark 1:27). God uses wicked people for His plans-not just in a “bringing good out of evil” sort of way but in an active, intentional, “this was God’s plan from the get-go” sort of way (Job 12:16; John 19:11; Gen. 45:8; Luke 22:22; Acts 4:27–28). God hardens hearts (Ex. 14:17; Josh. 11:20; Rom. 9:18). God sends trouble and calamity (Judg. 9:23; 1 Sam. 1:5; 16:14; 2 Sam. 24:1; 1 Kings 22:20–23; Isa. 45:6–7; 53:10; Amos 3:6; Ruth 1:20; Eccl. 7:14). God even puts to death (1 Sam. 2:6, 25; 2 Sam. 12:15; 2 Chron. 10:4,14; Deut. 32:39). God does what He pleases and His purposes cannot be thwarted (Isa. 46:9–10; Dan. 4:34–35). In short, God guides all our steps and works all things after the counsel of His will (Prov. 16:33; 20:24; 21:2; Jer. 10:23; Ps. 139:16; Rom. 8:28; Eph. 1:11).”