Faith and Suffering

Romans 5:1-5

The famous American evangelist, Dwight L. Moody, told a story about a Christian woman who was always bright, cheerful, and optimistic, even though she was confined to her room because of an illness. This woman lived in an attic apartment on the fifth floor of an old, rundown hotel. A friend decided to visit her one day and brought along another woman, a person of great means, who was used to nice things in life.

Since there was no elevator, the two ladies began the long climb up to the fifth floor. When they reached the second floor, the well-to-do woman commented, “What a dark and filthy place.” Her friend replied, “It’s better, higher up.” When they arrived at the third floor landing, the remark was made, “Things look even worse here.” Again the reply, “It’s better, higher up.”

When they reached the attic level where they found the bedridden saint of God, she had a beautiful smile on her face radiating a joy that filled her heart. Although the room was clean and there were flowers on the windowsill, the wealthy visitor couldn’t contain herself about the stark surroundings and blurted out, “It must be very difficult for you to be here like this.” Without a moment’s hesitation, the homebound woman replied, “It will be better, higher up.”

She was in a valley, a tough stage of life, but she was not looking at her circumstances or the temporary things of this world. Her eyes of faith were fixed on the eternal. She had found the secret of true satisfaction and contentment. Where did this homebound woman get her strength? It was from Jesus. She knew and believed the Spirit of Jesus was always with her and within her, and she clung to the promises of God’s Word. Therefore, she was filled with hope, with courage, with peace, and with joy!

Have you ever had a time in your life journey where faith and suffering existed side-by-side? You’ve heard the saying, “This world is not our home.” For every believer in God – who has given us Jesus Christ and filled us with the Spirit – this resonates as profoundly true. We are only visiting this planet; this world is not our home. As Paul writes, “Our citizenship is in heaven.”

John Dunn, a well-known poet, once wrote, “No need to send to sea for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.” The beloved Psalm 23 says: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”

Yet faith in an all-powerful, all-loving God creates an expectation for God’s blessings to come to us, and when we endure times of suffering, it can create a faith crisis. We might wrongly begin to think about God like a lucky rabbit’s foot or a genie in a bottle. The truth is God can richly bless us. Even though in this broken world, we have suffering. In more than three decades of being a pastor in Christ’s church, I’ve never known a person or a family who hasn’t experienced both euphoric great joy, as well as times of deep sorrow; moments of accomplishment and tremendous victory, and periods of great struggle and disappointment.

Suffering for any of us, as human beings in this imperfect world, can be the result of our own careless choices. The cause-and-effect relationship of what we decide to do – how it determines an income into our future and impacts the people around us – is undeniable.

Sometimes our suffering comes only because life in this world is not always fair. We might suffer though innocent. We might experience natural disaster, be it an accident, or have the sinful deeds of other people affect us adversely. We might experience physical pain, illness, accidents that have a permanent effect. Some of us have lost loved ones and stood by an open grave. Worse yet, some have lost a precious little child when the potential was still so significant.

Others have gone through stormy relationships that never resolved. We lived in the dissonance and the fighting. Emotionally we might experience great depression or loneliness. Pain and suffering manifests itself in all kinds of ways. This is why we do well to understand the promise of Jesus in John 16:33 – “In this world, you will have trouble. But be of good cheer, for I have overcome this world.”

We begin to understand then, Job’s words in the 23rd chapter of his book: God, I don’t see you. I look forward, you’re not there. I turn around behind me, I don’t see you. I look to my left, I look to my right, I don’t see where you’re at work. But God knows the way, my way that I walk, and when God has tried me, I shall come forth as gold.

Job’s suffering was not a result of his foolish errors. Rather, Job was so righteous that satan told God Job was so good only because God had blessed him so much. So God gave satan permission to put Job through adversity to test him. First Job loses all his oxen and donkeys. Then he loses all his sheep, and then all his camels. Then Job loses all his children. Yet Job worships God. God says to satan, “See Job’s integrity, see the strength of his faith?”

Satan replies, “Yes, but if you let me touch his flesh, he will no longer praise you” So God gives Satan permission to test Job further. Job loses his health. He has boils all over his body. He itches, has worms, and his skin turns black. He has a constant fever. Job’s wife asks him, “Why don’t you curse God and die?” But Job, in that infamous line, says, “Though He slay me, yet will I praise Him” (Job 13:15).

How do we respond when our faith is under fire through suffering? Remember the verse from Paul, “We even rejoice in our suffering, for we know that in suffering God produces perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope. And hope does not disappoint, for the love of God is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).

Do you persevere when the going gets tough? The word perseverance is different from endurance. Endurance is when I hunker down under a winter blizzard and endure it until it blows over, then I come back out of my hovel. Perseverance suggests that I, in faith, keep moving forward with courage, despite the adversity. When we are in the midst of suffering, we need to pray for strength and courage. We need to pray for Jesus’ Spirit to be released into the context of our circumstances, then keep moving forward in faith believing God will help us and deliver us.

In those times of suffering, as we persevere, we can always make it our goal to seek to know God better. Somehow, in the midst of suffering, as we keep moving forward in faith, we begin to understand the privilege of intimacy with God in a profound way, deeper than ever before.

Perseverance eventually shapes our character, bringing us proven character. So, in our suffering, we should ask God to teach us and shape our character into the image of Christ, in the midst of our sin.

Steve Largent, a retired wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks football team, once said, “I’ve learned that God is always more interested in my character than my comfort. Pain can be used by God to transform us. The word origin of proven character refers to soldiers who have been to battle and proven to be champions. May I be, in times of great victory and adversity, God’s champion – proven in my character.”

The suffering and brokenness of this world also convinces me that God alone is my hope. This world truly is not my home, and I am not strong enough to face Him on my own. I am going to put my hope in God, and in the midst of even difficult moments and put it in the context of an eternal perspective. My present suffering will not last forever. In my hope, I remember that Jesus has marked me with the cross of Christ as His very own child. You and I, as baptized believers, bear an invisible tattoo upon our forehead and upon our heart that we belong to God. God said in Isaiah 49, “See, I have engraved you; I’ve inscribed you on the palm of my hand.” So my hope is in the truth that in faith, my life is in God’s hands.

God pours His love into me with the Holy Spirit. Psalm 139 says, “If I make my bed in hell, behold you are there. Even there your hand will lead me, and your right hand will lay hold of me. For even the darkness is not dark to you, O Lord.”

The cross of Jesus Christ is a wonderful symbol of the love of God, and the promise of the forgiveness of sins for all believers in Jesus’ name. The cross also clearly witnesses to me that no matter how dark the journey of life, God is right there with us, even in the midst of what we cannot understand. Even in the darkness, we can reach up our hand and clasp the hand of God. He holds me fast in my suffering.

James Bjorge, a gifted Lutheran preacher and author, in his book, Living Without Fear, wrote, “A 91-year-old man wrote a letter to my father many years ago with these lines penned with his feeble hand: ‘I realize my days are almost up. I look at the trees standing along the street, almost naked, barely a leaf left. I said to myself, ‘You are like them. There are not many leaves left, and then you’ll be laid away.’ I can’t get around anymore because of fainting spells I had in the past 20 years coming back. This poor, old temple held for a long time, but finally the lack of strength has laid me up. So here I am, set on the shelf, pushed back as far as will go.

“‘But don’t think I am alone. No. My heavenly Father, who was stood by me these 91 years, stands by me now. He is wonderful! Here I am today, rejoicing in the Lord. If I had 1,000 lives yet to live, I should hold onto my Savior’s hand all the more. Nothing is better in this world! So, friend, I will see you in the morning when the sun shall never set, and we shall see Him. And we shall be like Him. So, until then, keep looking up.’”

That 91-year-old Christian believer, in the midst of the realities of the suffering of this world, still held onto Easter hope. Job said, “When God has tried me, I shall come forth as gold.” But Job also said, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and when this life is over and my body is no more, then I shall see God.”

May God fill you with strong faith, and with hope, and with joy in His promises, His love, and His presence. Amen.

Pastor Lee Laaveg

What Jesus Says About Priorities

Matthew  6:19-33

What are your priorities in life? You might answer God, family, or work. There are a variety of answers. We all have priorities – those things that are most important to us. They matter to us. They inspire our behavior and inform our decision-making in life. Some priorities are good, some are not so good. Perhaps you’ve heard someone tell another person, Your priorities are getting way out of whack! It happens.

Imagine you have a freshman college student who is enjoying everything at school. It’s his first time away from home, and he’s making new friends. He is in a band and developing a very social life. He’s out every night of the week, but missing classes and not studying.

When he comes home for Christmas, his grades are terrible. What are you probably going to ask him? What are your priorities? A good education or just having a good time? You better get your head on straight!

Listen to this news story out of Texas: It was a 99° September day in San Antonio when 10-month-old baby girl was accidentally locked inside a parked car by her aunt. Frantically the mother and aunt ran around the auto in near hysteria while a neighbor attempted to unlock the car with a clothes hanger. Soon the infant was turning purple and had foam on her mouth. It had become a life-or-death situation.

Suddenly a wrecker driver named Fred Arriola arrived on the scene. He grabbed a hammer and smashed the back window of the car to set the little girl free. Was he heralded a hero? He said, “The lady was mad at me because I broke the window! I just thought, ‘What’s more important, the baby or the window?’”

Sometimes our priorities get out of order, and a guy like Fred Arriola reminds us of what’s really important.

Well, today we find Jesus addressing the whole matter of priorities. He’s telling us that, as a follower of Christ, the central priority in life is God Himself. This reading leaves no doubt about the importance of putting God first.

Jesus again is telling us that we, as citizens of the kingdom of God, are to be different from the world around us. We have a different set of priorities. Some things matter more to us than to others.

God knows us well. He knows we have a tendency to become distracted or let different things take over in our lives, like money, possessions, achievements, and popularity.

Jesus is pointing out to us today that we have some important choices to make and to keep regarding priorities. For instance, we have two kinds of investments in life. One is lasting, and the other is temporary and corruptible. We can choose to store earthly treasures or heavenly treasurers. Earthly treasures are not like a savings account or insurance. Jesus is talking about the selfish pursuit of the accumulation of goods, hoarding and seeking security for oneself, trying to get it all. He’s talking about the attitude of the one with the most toys wins. Jesus says these are temporary things with no lasting value. You can’t take them with you.

However, heavenly treasures – investing in yourself and pursuing things that really do last – are things you can actually take with you. It is the development of Christlike character. Charity, witness, giving away resources to God’s causes, and making a difference in the name of Christ – these things, Jesus says, are things that last. No one can steal them away.

Then He makes this interesting statement. It’s a proverb of sorts: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Jesus is pointing out a fact of life: our interests follow our investments. For instance, if you invest in a certain stock, you will probably follow that stock to see how it’s doing. You’re interested.

When you invest in God and His cause, your focus will be on God. Jesus is talking common sense here. If you are interested in keeping your eye on God and developing a growing relationship with Him, then make investments in His cause and what He has blessed you with. Sometimes it takes a crisis to wake us up to this truth.

Bill Hybels tells a story. “Sudden loss often simplifies life. One man put it this way: When he suddenly found himself in a hospital bed, he wrote, ‘I came to realize I no longer really cared for what the world chases after, such as how much money I have in the bank, and how many cars are parked in the garage. As it says in the book of Ecclesiates, ‘Chasing after these things is like chasing the wind’ anyway. Suddenly the rat race became vanity to me, and I felt naked before God. If I died, I would take none of this stuff with me. Ultimately all that really mattered was my relationship with God, my relationship with family and friends. If it weren’t for the loss of my health, I would’ve wasted the rest of my life chasing achievements and acquiring transitory things.’” His crisis seemed to have served him well.

Jesus talks next about two conditions – having a healthy eye or an unhealthy eye. It compares a sighted person with a blind person. If you can see, you can navigate and walk safely in light, but if you’re blind and you’re walking in darkness, it’s not so positive an experience.

Certain writings in the Old Testament talk about fixing the eye and setting your heart on something in the same breath. You choose where to fix your eyes. If your vision becomes clouded by focusing on false gods like materialism and achievements, you lose your sense of values, your whole life is in darkness, and you can’t see where you’re going. You’re walking blind. Like the proverb says, “Without a vision, the people perish.” But if you have spiritual vision, if your spiritual perspective is correctly adjusted and fixed on serving God, then life is filled with purpose and drive. It throws light on everything we do. God loves to hear you sing, “Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart . . .”

Jesus says it all really boils down to the matter of who or what is going to run your life. You have to choose between two masters: God or mammon (wealth), the Almighty God or the almighty dollar. Jesus tells us it is impossible to serve them both.

He is not talking about the necessity of working two jobs like we do today in our own culture. Instead, He’s talking about the impossibility of being a devoted slave to two masters. The slave must decide which master he will serve. An old West African proverb says, “The man who tries to walk two roads will split his pants.”

The truth is, we all serve something. Something governs and determines our priorities. God commands exclusive rights to your devotion. Jesus is not saying money is evil in itself. Money is meant to be used, not served; God is meant to be served, not used.

How can we know if we are being mastered by our money or by our possessions? We need ask ourselves a couple questions. The first one would be, What did I do to get the money? What did I sacrifice on the altar of prosperity? The second question is, What am I doing with my money? Is the cause of God in the world better off because I’ve been entrusted with money, or is God only getting my spare change? Those two questions will help you know if you are being mastered by your possessions.

In summary, Jesus tells us we have two preoccupations in life: our body (security) or God’s kingdom. “Therefore, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on.” Don’t let those matters take over your life.

Then Jesus reasons about these sorts of worries. First of all, He says it’s illogical. Life is more than food and clothing. The God who gave you life will give you what you need.

Worrying over those things is also senseless. Look at the birds! God takes care of them, and you’re so much more valuable than birds.

This kind of worry is useless. It won’t add a single moment to your life.

It’s faithless. Look at the flowers of the field – God takes care them, O you of little faith.

It’s also godless. It shows we are little more than the pagans worrying over what we’re going to eat, what we’re going to drink, what we’re going to wear.

Finally, it denies our family ties. The God we trust, you see, is our heavenly Father. He will do no less for us than a good earthly father would do for his children.

At the heart of the universe is Divine love, the love of our heavenly Father. It really comes down to placing your trust in God. Jesus says He knows what you need. Trust in Him.

If you have to be preoccupied, concerned, and worried about anything as God’s citizens, then why not be preoccupied with the big things that really do matter, like God’s name being hallowed in this world, His kingdom coming, and His will being done. Be concerned about bringing God’s kingdom to the world where you are and doing the right things in your network of relationships. Let this be your preoccupation.

The statement He gives us then – so strive first for the kingdom of God and His righteousness – is the bottom line for priorities. It’s the summary statement. God’s cause – number one in your life – and His righteousness (living the kind of life that brings Him pleasure). This life is one of loving others and seeking their highest good, doing the right thing for God.

So there you have it. Honestly, I know it all sounds a little bit crazy to people of this world. If you to choose to live with these kind of priorities, I would caution you to be prepared to be treated as more or less eccentric or a little crazy. Christ’s words seem to reach right into our everyday priorities, into our pocketbooks. So why do it? Why choose these priorities He has laid out for us, this way of life?

First of all, it’s smart. This is Jesus talking, the One who died for you on a cross and rose again to rescue you and give you eternal life. Obviously, He has your best interests at heart.

Note also His words of assurance here. “And all these things shall be added unto you.” When you commit yourself to God, He commits Himself to you. When what really matters to you is that God’s name be hallowed, His kingdom comes, and His will be done, God will take care of your needs.

Now you know, from the lips of Jesus the Son of God, the priorities for living. So the only question left is, What now? These words are really an appeal to take action, take a step of faith. Jesus calls you to choose God’s priorities for your life, to commit your life to serving God with your everything: your treasures, your vision, your service. Strive to live a life of serving and trusting Him. When you do that, you will have chosen wisely.

I came across a wonderful illustration regarding this truth in a book by Dr. Haddon Robinson. In the game of Monopoly, players buy land and collect money. When one player has enough money and at least one monopoly of properties, he or she can buy houses and hotels and collect rent on them. Eventually a player receives enough rental money through land and building holdings to bankrupt the other players, thus ending the game.

Parker Brothers, the makers of Monopoly, take for granted one final instruction: when the game is over, put all the pieces back in the box.

People who live for the present, who spend their strength on what cannot last, are like children who play Monopoly as though it were reality. In the end, we all get put in the box, and we are gone.

What matters is what remains when the game on earth is over. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

 

What Jesus Says About Authentic Prayer

Matthew  6:7-13

It has been said the greatest tragedy of life is not unanswered prayer, but unoffered prayer. How true! Prayer is one of the most important things a citizen of the kingdom of God can be doing, because it is our lifeline to God, our source of strength. It is our guidance along the way. You can’t help but notice, as you read through the Gospels, that Jesus was always praying – before the day started and even when the day ended. Yet many of us struggle with fitting prayer into our lives. Perhaps because we are not sure how to pray. Maybe we’ve been disappointed by prayer. Maybe we have the wrong idea about prayer.

I came across this letter from a child.

Dear God,

I’d like these things: a new bicycle, a #3 chemistry set, a dog, a movie camera, and a first-baseman’s glove. If I can’t have them all, I would like to have most of them.

Yours truly,

Eric

PS. I know there is no Santa Claus.

Some of us have our struggles with prayer.

Today we’re going to let the expert – Jesus, our Master – teach us – His apprentices – about authentic prayer, which our heavenly Father loves.

First of all, we notice Jesus is emphasizing the importance of prayer. He says when you are praying, not if you are praying. He assumes we will be people of prayer as His followers. Prayer is vital.

Jesus tells us not to be mechanical with our prayer time like the pagans. They use all kinds of empty words and phrases in hopes of getting the gods’ attention. It’s kind of treating God like a genie. Rub the lamp, say the right formula, and you’ll get what you want.

Prayer isn’t a way to manipulate or impress God to get Him to do something for you. It is a time to commune with Him, to develop a relationship. Let your words be sincere, thoughtful, and from the heart. You don’t have to pester God to get His attention. You don’t have to gravel or flail yourself. You don’t have to bite your lip or groan and moan in order to show God you really mean business. If one of my kids ever called me and said, Daddy, please, please, please, I beg of you. I plead with you to listen to my need, I’d say, Timeout! I don’t like the underlying assumption here. You don’t have to go through all those gymnastics. I love you. Nothing is more important to me than you. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than meeting your needs.

So we come to God with a thoughtful attitude.

Jesus then gives us a framework for our prayer time with God. He says, “Pray then in this way.” You and I know the prayer as the Lord’s Prayer. Some have pointed out in the past that it would be better to call it the disciples’ prayer, since it asks for forgiveness, and Jesus never sinned. It really doesn’t matter what you call it.

Some question if we should say it in rote, or use it as a framework. I say either way. We can say it as a whole if we’re not doing it thoughtlessly, on automatic pilot. Jesus also seems to have given it to us to use as a framework, a pattern in our own prayer. When we approach God, He tells us to “Pray then in this way . . .” So let’s look at the petitions Jesus gives us.

Our Father . . . As you approach God in prayer, do so with a certain attitude. Say, “Father!” It seems to intimate ultimate love. Martin Luther picks up on this in his Small Catechism. “What God means is pray to Him with complete confidence, just as children speak to their loving father.”

In heaven. He’s not talking about a location or a zip code, but God’s status. He is the sovereign Majesty of God with ultimate power over this world. He is able to do all things. So, with this opening, we approach God with confidence and reverence.

Then we talk to God about His person. Hallowed be your name. We are expressing our concern for God’s name, His character. Of course, God’s personal name is already hallowed, which means holy. But in praying, Hallowed be Your name, we’re asking that He be honored. Our desire is for Him to be reverenced above all things and to be worshiped by yourself and by the world around you.

You might take time here to talk about His character qualities, to think about the things that deserve praise from His creation, His faithfulness, His wisdom, His power, His grace, kindness, love and justice. The list can go on and on.

After you’ve talked to the Father about His person and His name, talk about His program. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth . . . Remember, when Jesus began His ministry, He proclaimed God’s kingdom was at hand. This was His Good News. He was talking about God’s rule and governance over this world, about taking over and changing lives. He has a plan to bring all people into His kingdom and restore His broken world.

As followers of Jesus, we know someday we will see this world’s culmination. Jesus promised He would reappear one day. In this petition, we are reminded again that history is His story – God’s story. We are moving toward the day when we will see Jesus in all His power and majesty, when every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus is Lord. There will be a new heaven and a new earth where people will love God above all things and one another as God originally intended. We look forward to that great day. We pray for it to come sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, we also pray it might come and take over in our personal lives and in the lives of those in our church, our community, and our small part of the world. His program includes His will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

As it is in heaven is an interesting phrase. Scripture gives us a few glimpses of heaven. The picture is of angels in heaven ready to do God’s bidding, His perfect obedience. We pray God’s perfect will may be carried out in our world as well. Where there is hate, may there be love. Where there is brokenness, may there be healing. Where there is darkness, may there be the light of the gospel.

I pray for God’s will to be done in my life as an individual. I need to remind myself that God doesn’t exist to do to my will. His will is to be carried out my life. As Jesus said in the Garden of Gethsemane before He was taken to the cross, “Not my will, Father, but Thy will be done.” His will is to be done in our lives, our businesses, our homes, and our relationships. His rule and His will for us is what’s best for us. This is the program.

After we’ve talked to the Father about His person and His program, we talk to the Father about our needs and God’s provision for us. How tempting it is to turn it around in our prayer time, thinking and acting like God exists for our needs, our person, our kingdoms, and our wills to be done. Jesus teaches us otherwise.

Give us this day our daily bread. Notice the pronoun change, we move from your to our. We are expressing our dependence and trust in God alone. He is the giver of all we need for life in this world – daily bread, the necessities for each day. Jesus is not talking about daily cake or daily steak (luxuries) but our needs for the day.

After asking for provision, we address our spiritual need. We ask for His pardon. Forgive us our debts . . . When Jesus uses the word debt, He is talking about our sinfulness, our debt before God. All of us stand as debtors before God for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God with our thoughts, our words, and our actions. Sometimes even our lack of actions. We are sinners in need of forgiveness. So we turn to the Lord saying, Lord, we need your forgiveness. We pray this petition with confidence, for we know Jesus has died to pay for our sins.

But notice what Jesus tacks onto this: . . . As we forgive our debtors. Lord, help me to forgive as You have forgiven me.

An ancient theologian of the early church, Augustine, labeled this request for forgiveness “the terrible petition,” because if we harbor an unforgiving spirit while we pray to be forgiven, we are actually asking God to not forgive us. At the end of the prayer, Jesus in fact goes on to enumerate on the importance of forgiving those have sinned against you.

After we talk about our provision and our pardon, we ask God for protection from the evil one. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. A spiritual battle is happening here. We acknowledge that we are under attack by the evil one, Satan. He is a defeated enemy. However, until Jesus reappears, we are in the midst of mop-up operations. The devil is prowling around like a lion, seeking to destroy us and keep us from walking with God. Father, protect me, we pray. Don’t let me fall into temptation.

These last three petitions talk about our needs – provision, pardon, and protection. They are prayed with the attitude of absolute dependence and are a reminder of our human vulnerabilities, our frailties, how much we need God.

John Stott, a great biblical theologian, said, “Dependence is a fundamental attitude for all of us, when we say the Lord’s Prayer. We are expressing our dependence upon God in every area of our lives. It’s no wonder AA meetings always end with the Lord’s Prayer. If anyone knows what it means to be dependent upon God to get through the day, it’s the addict. He needs God’s mercy and grace.”

We sometimes think we are quite independent, but then we are reminded of our humanity and our dependence on God, such as during an illness. I think of a friend of mine named Bill who has chronic fatigue syndrome. He lives every day in absolute pain. Some days he can’t even get out of bed to go to the bathroom. He says, “I have to focus on God and just say, ‘God, the next moment is yours. Help me.’” He’s learned absolute dependence on God to simply walk across the room, to live with pain.

A few years ago, a book came out by a fellow named Doug Coupland. It is written for generation Xers. The book is called, “Life After God. What Life is Like Without God.” Listen to what he writes at the very end: “Now here is my secret. I tell you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is I need God. I’m sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I seem no longer capable of kindness; to help me to love, as I seem beyond being able to love. I need God.” God created us with a design, and our design is that we be dependent on Him.

This is how you pray, Jesus said. Praying like this led the early Church to eventually add a doxology. It’s a song of praise and trust. For Thine is the kingdom, power, and glory, forever and ever. Amen. We are talking about God’s preeminence. We learn from experience that His is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. He is supreme, He is able, and He is above all things and over all things. As we pray this prayer, we are confident in its truth.

Jesus’ prayer class is over for now. The question is, What will you do with what He has taught you today? When I go off to a conference, attend all those wonderful seminars, and take notes, I can be guilty of sometimes putting my notebook on the shelf when I get back home, only to be forgotten. What a shame.

Is this what we are going to do with this lesson – just put it on the shelf? Jesus would have us take the next step. Find a quiet place, make an appointment with the Father, approach Him thoughtfully like a confident child approaches a loving father, and commence in prayer using this pattern as you turn humbly, dependently, and confidently to your Father who loves you.

Pastor Steve Kramer

What Jesus Says: How Not to Be Religious

Matthew 6:1-7, 16-18

A new attorney had just opened up his office. On his first day of practice, he saw the outer door opening as he was settling in, and he thought, Oh, good. A new client! I have to impress him. So he picked up his telephone and said to the imaginary person on the other end of the line, “No, I’m very sorry. I can’t take your case – not even for $1,000. I’m just too busy.” Then he replaced the receiver and looked up at the person in the doorway. “And now, what can I do for you?” he asked briskly.

“Nothing, really,” was the reply. “I’m just here to connect your telephone.” Oops!

We laugh at a story like that because we love to see showoffs get humbled. No one appreciates a person who is constantly looking for attention or trying to impress others, including God. This is what Jesus is telling His disciples in today’s passage. He counsels them to not be religious showoffs.

Listen to the opening statement again. “Beware,” which means take caution. A warning sign. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them, for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

The word “piety” is talking about your spiritual practices, your devotional life, whether it is worship or prayer. The word used here means righteousness in the Greek, which is appropriate. In the first part of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5, Jesus is talking to His disciples about exercising a moral and ethical righteousness as citizens of the kingdom of God, which is different from the world’s standards.

Now we see Jesus talking about religious righteousness – piety. He tells them, Don’t be religious showoffs, putting on a performance to impress other people. He actually picks out three important practices of the Jewish faith: giving alms (such as charitable giving), praying, and fasting.

Regarding alms, Jesus says, “So whenever you give alms, do not sound the trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so they may be praised by others.” Notice, first of all, Jesus says whenever you give, not if you give. It sounds to me like He expects His followers to be generous givers, helping the poor. He says, Don’t be like the hypocrites. The word “hypocrite” means literally means an actor, a spiritual pretender of sorts. Don’t be like those actors. They blow their own horn for everyone to see and praise as they give gifts of mercy. They are showing off, looking for the applause of others.

We shouldn’t be too hard on those hypocrites, because we also like to blow our own horn a little bit now and then. We like to see our names listed with things we’ve financially supported or have people recognize us for something good we have done for someone else. We like to be recognized for our charitable work. My college magazine even ranks its big donors in each publication.

When it comes to praying, Jesus says, Don’t be like the hypocrites. They love to stand on the street corners or in the synagogue to be seen by others. The Jews, you see, were big on prayer. They had set times of the day for prayers: 9:00 a.m., noon, and 3:00 p.m. When they got out of bed and when they went to bed, they would pray the great Shema, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, strength, and mind.”

If a Jewish person wanted to pick up a reputation for being holy and pious, a person of prayer, they would go down to the marketplace to the steps of the synagogue, and when the hour strikes, start praying. As they raised their arms, a great audience would see them perform.

Behind this kind of piety lurk pride and ego. What we are really wanting is the applause of others around us and for people to say, Look how devout he is. I wish I had that kind of discipline in my life.

We know from other parts of the Gospel that Jesus was actually describing the Pharisees when He talked about the hypocrites. They were the “super religious” men of His day. They constantly challenged Jesus, and Jesus constantly prodded them about their hypocrisy.

This kind of phariseeism can still be found in the Christian church today as religious practices are put to work. Some people go to church to perhaps gain a reputation in the community for being a good person, a religious person. I’ve heard people boast about how much time they devote to their devotional life and studying God’s word. We even see politicians do this on television. They show up at church in order to gain votes.

Oh, and by the way, Jesus said, Don’t be like the pagans, either, who heap one empty phrase upon another and pray these long, drawn out prayers in hopes of somehow moving the gods to do their will. That may impress people but it isn’t for you. Don’t go looking for reviews, such as what an eloquent prayer person you are! What a prayer warrior you are! You have such a way with words. I wish I could pray like that. Jesus said it is not the way to worship God.

Finally, Jesus touches on the subject of fasting – going without food for a period of time – which was a spiritual practice then and still is today. “Whenever you fast, do not look dismal like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting.” It’s almost a comical description here of the sour looks on these hypocrites’ faces. They made it into a theater and could really put on a show. They made a point of looking as miserable as they could with a sour look on their faces, unbathed, unkept hair, ashes poured down over their faces. They would just let themselves go, and you couldn’t miss them.

Mondays and Thursdays were routine fasting days for the Pharisees. On those days, they would put on a performance for their own benefit. In regard to these types, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, they (these hypocritical givers, and prayers, and fasters) have received their reward,” (which is people’s applause and admiration, getting attention). There is no reward for them from your Father in heaven. Why? Because, the attitude of the heart is all important here. Their motivation is all wrong. They’re doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. They are doing it for self-glorification. Life with God is not about your glory but God’s glory.

Jesus is telling us this is how not to be religious. But then He goes on and says there is an alternative. It is the kingdom-of-God way to exercise your religious righteousness as you give alms and pray and fast. You play for an audience all right, but it’s an audience of One. God is the only One who matters. Do these things to please Him, out of love for all He has done for you.

Look at what He has done for us at the cross. He gave His Son, Jesus, to die and pay for our sins. He loved us first. So when it comes to giving, we have a different attitude. We give with a different motive in the kingdom – not with a motive to impress others with our generosity. We give quietly, secretively. We do good things not looking for anybody to notice it happening.

Jesus tells us to not even let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. No self-congratulations or patting yourself on the back thinking Boy, am I a good guy! Your giving is for God’s eyes alone, to please Him, to show love, and to participate with Him in caring for the poor as you share the blessings He has poured into your life.

He says, This is how My followers pray. “Go into your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is waiting to welcome you.” Pray with pure motives, communing with your Father with the attitude that you just want to spend time with your Father. No sideway glances at who might be watching. It’s just you and God. No concern about sounding religious enough before others. It’s just you and God in conversation, you expressing your love, your worship, and your trust toward Him.

I love the story about Bill Moyer, a Baptist minister who also happened to be Lyndon B. Johnson’s press secretary. When he was asked to offer the mealtime prayer one day, he began by praying quietly. President Johnson became irritated and interrupted him. “Pray louder!” he said. The press secretary looked up and replied, “I’m sorry, sir, but I wasn’t addressing you.”

Jesus is not opposed to public prayer. He prayed in public. However, He is opposed to using prayer to make an impression upon others and get applause for self.

How do kingdom people fast? Jesus says we are to do it quietly and secretly. Instead of looking like a mess, clean yourself up. Put some oil in your hair and comb it. Wash your face, wear a smile, and look good so your fasting in secret may be seen by your Father in heaven.

We don’t talk much about fasting these days. Yet we know Jesus fasted 40 days in the wilderness, He talked of when His disciples should fast, and Paul and others in the early Church fasted. Fasting has to do with penitence and humbling ourselves before God in prayer as we seek God’s direction or blessings. It’s also a self-discipline to increase self-control over our own bodies and learn to rely on God to keep us going.

Fasting for some is a means to share with the hungry as you identify with them as well as to give away the cost of the meals you skipped to feed others. The important thing to remember about fasting is this it is done for God’s eyes only.

I found a great story written by Kevin Miller. He says, “A friend of mine named Joe was an executive who did a lot of business traveling. One day, when Joe was on a flight, he commented to himself, ‘I can’t believe this flight crew. They are the most attentive, responsive flight crew I’ve ever seen!’

“Toward the end of the flight, he stopped one of the flight crew members and said, ‘Excuse me. I don’t mean to bother you, but I fly a lot, and I’ve never seen a flight crew like this. You are the most engaged, enthusiastic, service-oriented flight crew I’ve ever seen!’

“The female flight attendant got a little smile on her face as she bent down and whispered to Joe, ‘Thank you sir, but for that you can thank the woman seated back there in row 12B.’ She paused, nodded her head slightly toward the back and continued. ‘You see, sir, the woman in seat 12B is a head supervisor for all the flight attendants for our airline, and she’s on our flight.’”

When we really know God is in our midst – He is on our flight – He has a profound way of changing the way we do things. We do good work for His eyes.

Jesus tells us this kind of piety has its rewards. “Your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.” Jesus is not talking about salvation, which is a free gift. He’s not talking about earthly rewards as a prosperity gospel preacher might tell you.

Instead, Jesus is talking about something like the reward of discovering the joy of giving to meet the needs of others and teaming up with God to make a difference. The reward of experiencing the truth of God’s statement that it really is more blessed to give than to receive. He’s talking about the reward of prayer being a blessed assurance of God’s presence, communing with Him, growing closer to Him, getting direction from Him, and sensing His nearness in your life. A friendship.

In regard to fasting, perhaps the reward is the fruit of the Holy Spirit giving you more self-control as you learn to turn to God and draw strength from Him. You gain vision for God’s direction in your life.

Don’t be a religious show off as a kingdom person. Play for an audience of One. Which spectator matters to you the most – other people or your heavenly Father? We must choose our audience carefully, because religion is not a performance. It is faithfulness to a person, our God who has loved us in Christ. Devotion is not acted out for display and applause. It is our private obedience meant for viewing by our Father in heaven. In fact, in our giving and praying and fasting, we are to be in our Majesty’s secret service. We play for an audience of One.