Paul's prayers and ours

Paul's prayer for the Colossian church struck me anew the other day.
We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. Colossians 1:9-12
Paul prayed for these believers to be filled with the knowledge of God, that they would bear fruit in every good work, be strengthened with all God's power for endurance and patience, and that they would be thankful.

I often pray, for myself or for others, for a problem free life. When there is a problem, God, take it away!

Last night as I prayed, I focused on that first clause. Fill us, fill our brothers with the knowledge of his will. I thought of several other things we all needed to be filled with the knowledge of. Fill us, God, with the knowledge of your presence with us. Fill us, God, with the knowledge of your grace. Fill us God with the knowledge of your holiness; that you are so totally and awesomely yourself, and invite us to know you and be like you.

Forty one years ago

I read some Scriptures.

First one: "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," This made sense to me, I knew I was imperfect, that I had no perfection inside I just needed to let out.

Second one: "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."
The guy pointing these out to me said that what we could earn by our efforts was only death, but God offered us salvation as a gift. I'm not sure I believed all that in that moment, I've understood it more over the years.

The third one: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock ; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me." The guy said this was the invitation, we needed to open the door of our lives and ask Jesus in. When he asked if I wanted to do that, I thought I could give this a try and see what happened. So I prayed to receive Christ, and felt an astonishing sense of peace for an hour or two. Then the emotion faded.

I've heard preaching that this verse really is not an appeal to nonbelievers to come to Christ for the first time, but an appeal to believers to keep on doing what they are supposed to do. That makes sense, because the message to the church in Laodicea (Rev 3:14-22) is that they are not nearly as good Christians as they think they are. The larger context is an appeal, "stop thinking you're so great, you've arrived. Come to me again, you need me as much as you ever did." The call to relationship to Jesus is true whether we've been Christians for years or never been Christians at all before.

Forty one years ago, I came for a relationship with Jesus. I still keep coming back for more.

The sufferings of Christ

Paul says an unusual thing in 2 Corinthians 1:4,5. "[God] comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows."
What does it mean that the sufferings of Christ overflow into our lives? Isn't faith our ticket to health and prosperity? Didn't Christ suffer so we wouldn't have to?

While it is true that Christ's sacrifice on the cross spares us from suffering the wrath of God, it is not God's will to spare us all suffering. Verse 4 makes it clear that when we are troubled, and are comforted by God, that should prepare us to comfort others. So the notion that faith should make us always successful, never experiencing any major ailments or disappointments doesn't come from the Scriptures. Peter tells us too that trials come to refine our faith, and that when they come, we should not be surprised as though something weird were happening. 1 Peter 1:6-71 Peter 4:12.

We all want a comfortable existence, and we know God has the power to give us one, so it is probably all too natural that we should hope and wish for comfort with no trials. But trials and suffering are something God has for us: to refine our faith, to encourage us to trust Him, as we experience His comfort in our trials, and to enable us to comfort others.

A couple of years ago I re-read Hinds Feet in High Places. In the allegory, Much-Afraid's two companions are Sorrow and Suffering, and the three go through many painful moments before Much Afraid gets her hinds feet. When I first read this in college, I remember hoping that I wouldn't be one of the few that had to learn character through sufferings. Because surely that only applied to a few people, right? Coming back to the book years later, while I have not suffered in any dramatic way (no chronic illnesses, no tragic bereavements), I have known lots of disappointments, and the message seems a lot more relevant to me.

Another thought -- we're often told, both implicitly and explicitly, to not focus on our own problems but to focus on the problems of others. Certainly good advice, but perhaps Paul would modify that slightly. We should present our problems to God -- not because they are worse than anything anyone else goes through, or more important than what others go through, but because when we do and receive comfort from God, we will be better equipped to comfort others. Perhaps to say "my troubles are nothing compared to so and so's heartaches" can come out of pride. I won't admit my weaknesses, I will minimize my weaknesses, and just care for others because I am OK -- might that be prideful, not godly?

Leaders, replace yourselves

I'm convinced a key aspect of Christian leadership is that it reproduces itself. Leadership is not innate but a gift given by God. If God calls and enables you to lead, He will also call and enable others. You are not irreplaceable.
I see this idea present in creation: God makes humanity in his image, we are made to be like him.
The Bible is full of stories of unlikely people called and sent by God.
Another place is one of the hardest to believe or understand promises Jesus ever made. "Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father." John 14:12. If anyone could think of himself as irreplaceable, it would be Jesus,  the Son of God. But he believes and promises that the same works he does, each of us can do because he has gone to the Father.
The principle appears again in Paul's counsel to Timothy. "And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others." (2 Timothy 2:2). Christian leaders should be watching out for people who can be gifted to become leaders, and encouraging and training them, encouraging them to lead.

This reminds me of my recently discovered missionary hero, George Leslie Mackay, who did focus on replacing himself as the leader of the Taiwanese churches he planted.

Is there no escape?

“No!” says life. “You can't get away!”
“Yes,” says God. “I am with you. Even in the darkest moments, even in the dark that goes on and on, I am with you. And the light is coming!”

A missionary hero

I've been inspired learning about the history of 19th century Canadian missionary George Leslie Mackay. Mackay went to Taiwan in 1874, settled in the north of the island (where there were no other missionaries), and in almost thirty years of ministry saw many local churches started. He appointed local leaders for the local churches, rather than choose to lead them himself. Although sent by the Canadian Presbyterian Mission, he refused to establish formal Presbyterian government in the Taiwanese churches, saying this would be an accretion from another culture. (There is an irony here, his insistence that local believers ought to be free to organize their churches as they felt led is actually a vibrant example of the core Presbyterian idea that churches should be led by elected elders).

One biography concludes with this inspiring quote:
Possessing an authoritarian temperament, as his critics correctly charged, he exercised his power to carve out for the native Christians a degree of autonomy and freedom perhaps unparalleled among China missions of his day. That he is still lionized in Taiwan by Christians and non-Christians alike, long after most other Victorian missionaries have been forgotten or deconstructed, testifies to the enduring bonds that mutual affection and respect can forge between people of sharply different cultures.
"Authoritarian temperament" is probably a good academic way of saying he was a stubborn old coot, but if so, he was stubborn about good things -- to preach the Word, to adapt to the local culture and to believe God could guide and equip the local converts without importing church policies and structures from his Canadian culture.

Is it OK to complain to God?

Maybe it is.

I noticed in Habakkuk 2:1, Habakkuk says he will stand on the watchtower, to see how God will answer his complaint. Most English translations say "complaint" here, although a few (NASB and King James) say "what I shall answer when I am reproved."
There are several mentions of complaint poured out to God n the Psalms, Psalm 55:2, 64:1, 102 (in the title, before verse 1), 142:2.

But weren't the Israelites punished for complaining to God in the wilderness? Numbers 14:2 says the whole community "grumbled against Moses and Aaron," and in 14:27-30 God says he has heard their grumbling and they will all die in the desert, none of them (except Caleb and Joshua) will enter the promised land. The King James says they "murmured against Moses and Aaron," and my Logos word search says this Hebrew word means "murmuring," and the lexicon defines it as "a complaint uttered in a low and indistinct tone."

So what is the difference? Here's my theory. When you grumble or murmur, you are mostly talkng to yourself, or to your close friends. The Israelites were saying to themselves "this won't end well. We are doomed!"
Habakkuk and the Psalmist don't murmur to themselves, they bring their complaints to God. They maintain relationship with God, while the Israelites were giving up on God.

So presenting complaints to God because you're staying in relationship, admitting what you are feeling to God, is OK. Grumbling or murmuring to yourself out of the attitude that this relationship with God has obviously not worked, and you are getting out as soon as you can, is a lack of faith.

So present your complaints to God. I think God appreciates our honesty. David and Jesus prayed "why have you forsaken me," do we really think we can be more spiritual than they were?

But I don't think we should just complain to God. We're also supposed to thank him, worship him and confess our sins.

Habakkuk's story

A man of God prayed for God to heal the nation. God said he had a plan: things will get a lot worse before they get better. The man cries "how is that a solution?" God says "trust me." Then the man gets a fresh glimpse of God in his majesty, he says "I trust you, whatever you choose to do."

The story step by step:
Habakkuk the prophet cries out to God because the nation of Israel is corrupt, and God is not answering his prayers. "How long must I call for help, but you do not listen. ... the law is paralyzed and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous."

God answers that he has a plan -- the Babylonians will rise up and conquer Israel. "I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling places not their own."

Habakkuk then asks, "You have chosen them to punish us, but why? Why are you silent when the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves." I think Habakkuk is thinking "we're bad, but those Babylonians are worse. Why use them to punish us."

God replies to write down the revelation and hang onto it, you may have to wait a long while but it will come true. Justice will come upon those who do evil. The Babylonians will be judged in turn.

Habakkuk then prays for God to show himself. "I have heard of your fame, renew your deeds in our time." Do again the great things we read about that happened in the past.

God then shows himself to Habakkuk in a vision. "His glory covered the heavens and his praise filled the earth. His splendor was like the sunrise; rays flashed from his hand, where his power was hidden." One part sounds like Armageddon. "You came out to deliver your people, to save your anointed one. You crushed the leader of the land of wickedness, you stripped him from head to foot."

Habakkuk, now having seen God's greatness, responds that whatever God chooses  to do is OK.  "I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us. Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior."

Those last words, to rejoice even if everything goes wrong, are sometimes quoted in isolation, as a challenge to be thankful even in hardship. While that is a good principle, I think it short-circuits the point of the story. The point is Habakkuk sought God, and when he saw God, when he understood who God was, he was able to be content even when everything goes wrong. We should seek the same kind of knowledge and experience of God, so that God produces in us the same kind of faith Habakkuk had.