Life in Focus

Where following Jesus and Every Day Life Intersect


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Two Keys to Spiritual Growth

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Although the days are warm, there is a chill in the air each evening that hints at the approach of fall. I’m back in the routine of packing lunches daily and doing endless loads of stinky laundry. Wrangling schedules to accommodate sports practices and games for both my boys seems like an ongoing topic of conversation. But this year these tasks are bittersweet because next fall, one of our boys will be heading off to college.

I see my sons every day, but I still marvel at how they’ve grown and matured. They tower over me and are able to carry on witty, insightful conversations with ease (when they’re in the mood to talk). Their physical and intellectual growth has been happening incrementally all along, but suddenly it’s more noticeable. My husband and I certainly aren’t perfect parents, but consistently nurturing our boys throughout their childhood has produced some pretty amazing results.

I started thinking about this in spiritual terms, trying to pinpoint what the keys are to consistent growth in this unseen realm. Here’s what I came up with:

Regular Time Studying the Bible

It seems obvious, but consistently reading the Bible is a vital key to spiritual growth. Imagine if the doctors and nurses handed me my first born at the hospital and said: “Don’t forget to feed him every day.” It goes without saying, doesn’t it? Yet, there are many people who proclaim faith in Jesus that are spiritually starving themselves because they haven’t made time for this vital discipline.

Jesus explained our need for spiritual nutrients provided in God’s Word by quoting the Old Testament: “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4 NIV)

Few of us look at eating as an obligation. It’s crucial to consume food regularly for strength and energy. Yet for many of us, we see time in God’s Word as a chore, something we “should” do to be “good” Christians. Others of us view it as a treat to savor—the reward we get once all of the “important” things have been completed.   Yet studying the Bible is most effective when we do it daily. It renews our minds and helps us see things through God’s perspective instead of our own. It reminds us to root our identity in Christ and teaches us to live in a way that honors God and draws others to him.  It guides our decisions and gives us wisdom beyond anything we conjure up on our own.

If you are participating in a group Bible study this year, think of the homework as a tool to access God’s Word rather than a task to complete. Don’t view it as drudgery like you did when you were a kid in school. Try approaching it as an opportunity to be guided through the Bible in a way that will deepen your understanding and expand your faith. Incorporate your studies into your daily time with God and watch how your consistency leads to spiritual growth.

Regular Time in Prayer

Similar to studying the Bible, praying enables us to share our hearts with God. There are several elements that prayer includes: praising God for his attributes, confessing sins, thanking God for specific ways he has worked in our lives and asking him to help others and ourselves. Communicating with God about these things enables us to deepen our relationship with him. As we spend time in his presence, we show him he matters to us and we invite him to move on our behalf.

It’s just like the time my husband and I have spent with our kids over the years. Our relationships have grown and deepened because we’ve been around each other. We’ve been available to guide and encourage them through challenging circumstances because they know we are reliable. We’ve been there to cheer for them when things go well. They trust us and respect our advice (even though they don’t always like it or want to follow it).   We couldn’t have quality relationships with our boys without spending consistent time with them over the course of their lives. The same is true of our relationship with God.

Here is a simple prayer written by King David that you can use daily: “Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I entrust my life.” (Psalm 143:8, NIV)

Accept the Invitation

As we head into fall, will you embrace these keys to spiritual growth? Will you prioritize reading the Bible and praying daily as vital for your spiritual health instead of seeing them as obligations, luxuries or haphazard activities? If your answer is “yes,” remember the key is consistency. Like watching children mature, it will happen slowly. Some days will be harder than others. And sometimes your good intentions will be derailed. But if you strive for consistency, you will see the fruit of your efforts in time. And when you look back, you’ll be amazed at the growth that has occurred in you.

Click on the link and be inspired by Lauren Daigle’s song “First,” Make it your prayer this week.

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Responding to Evil and Violence

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Driving on a recent road trip, I couldn’t help noticing the many flags flying at half-mast in different towns we passed along the way. In the past few months it’s been hard to keep track of the numerous tragedies that have occurred in our nation and world. The senseless acts of violence and terrorism we’ve seen in places like Orlando, Dallas, Nice and Berlin have left us shocked and saddened. I can hardly fathom one awful situation before another is reported.

Processing these events can be overwhelming. Sometimes I want to turn off the news or walk away from the article I’m reading. When we haven’t been personally affected, it’s tempting not to think about the latest set of ugly circumstances, isn’t it? Sometimes our emotions become dulled from overexposure. It becomes too draining to keep hearing about another random shooting or terrorist attack. We can feel helpless and hopeless.   Seemingly, there is little we can we do. How can we change things in a world that seems increasingly violent and hateful with each passing month?

Wanting to answer this question for myself, I turned to the best source of wisdom I know: the Bible. As usual, the answers I found were clear, but not easy. Here are a few things we can do in the face of evil and violence:

Pray for Our Enemies

Jesus’ teaching on this topic isn’t easy to practice, but it is truth we need to apply to our lives: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:43-45, NIV)

When tragedies occur, we’re often prompted to pray for the victims and their families. What doesn’t come naturally is praying for the people who caused them. What would happen if instead of hating the evildoers and wanting vengeance, we prayed for God’s sovereignty and justice to prevail? How about praying that our enemies would be confronted with God’s power and authority and would have no choice but to submit to him? Or praying for their hearts to be softened and their souls to be saved? How about asking God to root the evil out of them and to replace it with his grace and love instead?

Repay Evil with Good

Our natural tendency when we’ve been wronged is to want to retaliate against the one who has hurt us. Yet Scripture urges us to resist this inclination and to surprise our enemies with kindness they don’t deserve:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17-21, NIV)

A commentary I consulted explains, “By feeding [our enemies] and giving them water to drink, believers heap up burning embers on their heads. This figure seems to mean that the enemy will blush with shame or remorse at such unexpected kindness.” (Wycliffe Bible Commentary, page 1220)

We can’t always do this with perpetrators of evil and violence in the wider world, but we can practice it on a smaller scale in our personal lives. When someone wrongs you, try responding with an act of kindness and see what happens. (If the Bible says it’s a good idea, it’s probably worth trying).

Take Personal Responsibility to Promote Good

 Followers of Jesus are called to live in a way that honors God and blesses others. Our behaviors and attitudes impact our spheres of influence for better or for worse. The interactions we have with others can make them feel bitter and hateful or loved and valued. Let’s commit to being people who make our little corners of the world positive and encouraging. Here are a few ways we can do that:

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:29-32, NIV)

Put simply, biting sarcasm, cynicism, bitterness and gossip do not bring peace into our surroundings. We impact the world around us by what we say and how we treat others. Think about how your actions and attitudes make others feel. Pray and ask God to remove the hurtful ones and to replace them with qualities that build others up. Pray that he increases the positive things you are already doing and saying.

Let’s strive to show a world bent on violence, hate and revenge that doing things God’s way is a better option. The darker the world becomes, the more opportunity we have to let the light of Christ’s love shine through us.

Christy Nockels’ song “By Our Love” urges believers to show the world God’s love. Click on the link and let the words inspire you today.

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Praying God’s Will for Your Circumstances- What Love Is Week 5

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Waking up in the dim morning light, I listened to the rain pelting our tent. It was the last day of our church’s mission trip to Mexico and the first day I’d overslept. My muscles were sore from three days of manual labor and my head foggy from not sleeping well. The sunny weather that started the week had given way to grey cloud cover that eventually turned to a steady rain. I groaned inwardly but tried to be positive as I prepared to wake the six teenage girls in my tent.

Before climbing out of my sleeping bag I prayed silently, asking God to give me strength. Later, I realized my prayer fit perfectly with what I’d been learning in First John. “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.” (1 John 5:14-15, NIV)

I could have focused on our circumstances and prayed for the rain to stop. Instead, I focused on our hearts, praying for things God promises in his Word. I knew he would give us strength, because I’d been assured of it in Paul’s writings: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13, NIV)

I also knew that to make it through the day our group of 275 students and adult leaders had to remain positive and encouraging. We needed to work in unity and to look beyond the wet day of physical labor that awaited us. It was vital to keep the right perspective as we slopped through the mud to finish building fourteen houses for impoverished families. We couldn’t control our circumstances, but we could control our attitudes about them.

It was our sixth day away from home and our fourth day of work. Tempers could easily have flared as people were worn down from working hard and being away from the comforts of home. And yet, instead of grumbling about the less-than-ideal conditions, the group rallied to make the best of it and to support one another. This, too, was God’s will and exemplified Paul’s writings in Colossians:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Colossians 3:12-14, NIV)

I thanked God as I worked with my team carrying buckets of cement, sand and water to hand-mix stucco for the exterior walls. They smiled and sang, encouraging each other and making jokes to keep the mood light, despite the continued rainfall and the challenging conditions. Again, I realized God’s will was clearly evident in their behavior as I thought of another verse: Do everything without grumbling or arguing.” (Philippians 2:14, NIV)

As the afternoon wore on, most groups in the neighborhood were putting the final touches on their houses. However, one group was scrambling to finish due to a week full of unexpected setbacks. Since my team was finished, I walked over and joined with people from other build teams to lend them a hand. Tension hung in the air as we worked to finish the house. Ankle-deep mud and cramped workspaces made it difficult to move without falling. Dogs and playing children ran through the site, creating an even more chaotic environment. I knew the team leaders were feeling anxious about finishing the house by the end of the day so I prayed God would bring a spirit of peace to them and to the site. Later I realized I’d known to pray for peace because I’d read it many times before: Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7, NIV)

By the time the buses arrived, every house was finished. More importantly, the build teams had maintained positive attitudes and willing spirits throughout the day. We’d kept our eyes on showing God’s love to the homeowners and to one another.

Climbing onto buses at the end of the day we were wet, sore, and tired, but filled with joy. We had given our circumstances to God and had prayed for his will to be done. The end result was that fourteen families had solid homes to shelter them and 275 students and adult volunteers experienced the power of being used by God to accomplish his will.

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That rainy day in Mexico will stand out as the most memorable one of the week for me. I saw the power of praying God’s will and recognized that prayer isn’t about removing obstacles or increasing our comfort, but about aligning with God’s plans

Do you want a confident prayer life? Make it a priority to know God’s will by studying his Word. Then stand back and be amazed as he answers.

Click on the link to enjoy Hillsong United’s song “Hosanna.” Make the lyrics your prayer today.

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Foreigners to Faith- Women of the Word Part 7

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Sitting on the edge of the couch, she perched the large Bible on her knees. She’d broken the seal on the shrink-wrap moments earlier and was examining the sturdy leather cover and the gold-edged pages. Looking up with a sheepish grin she explained, “Buying this was one of the most awkward things I’ve ever done. I felt like an Eskimo shopping at a bikini store.” The group laughed as she continued, “No, seriously. I was sure someone in the Christian bookstore was going to say I had no business buying this Bible and that I didn’t really belong there.”

It was the first week of a new Bible study I’d started with a friend. Ten women sat clutching cups of coffee as they nestled into the couch and introduced themselves. Some were exploring faith for the first time, others had grown up in the church but had never really understood the Bible. All of them agreed to join my friend and I as we led them on a twelve-week “experiment” to explore the Bible together and discuss questions about the Christian faith. They were earnest seekers and most of them had one thing in common: they felt like strangers and outsiders to the world of faith.

Our twelve weeks of study flew by and they all agreed things were just starting to make sense. They were unanimous in their desire to continue. When the first year came to an end, they clamored for more, returning the next fall eager to continue learning and growing. As time passed, they moved from being strangers to God and His Word to being earnest believers in the midst of life transformation. Most had never realized just how inclusive God is and how much He wants authentic relationships with the people He lovingly created.  They were excited to share their newfound knowledge and wanted to expand our group to include other seekers.

I thought about this precious group of women with a smile as I read the story of Ruth recently. Scripture tells us she, too, began as a foreigner–an outsider who wanted to belong. Her faith in God and devotion to her Jewish mother-in-law prompted her to leave her homeland and travel to Bethlehem after the death of their husbands. Forsaking her family and culture, Ruth told Naomi, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16b, NIV) We don’t know what drew her to the God of the Israelites, but her devotion was sincere and she remained true to her word.

Despite her dedication to her mother-in-law and God, the Jews probably didn’t welcome Ruth warmly when she arrived in Bethlehem. After years of being admonished to remain “set apart,” they could have been wary about accepting Naomi’s foreign daughter-in-law into their community. The people had been taught not to intermarry with foreigners to prevent tainting their faith with pagan depravity and idol worship. However, this viewpoint may have caused them to view outsiders with condescension, suspicion or fear. Although she had accepted the God of Israel, Ruth’s status as a foreigner kept her on the fringes of the community.

In spite of her marginalized position, Ruth had to mix with others to provide for Naomi and herself. With few prospects for employment, she did the only thing a reputable, poor, widow could do: she gleaned in the fields. Every day she walked behind hired hands to collect leftover grain. It was exhausting and potentially dangerous work for a lone woman with no protector, but it was the only option she had if she wanted to eat.

Through her hard work, humble spirit and dedication to Naomi, Ruth began to gain favor with Boaz, the owner of the fields where she worked. He said, “You left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the LORD, the God of Israel under whose wings you have come to take refuge.” (Ruth 2:11b-12, NIV)

The praise Boaz gave to Ruth was not based on her bloodline or her country of origin, but upon her heart and her character. This was the first step toward a new chapter in her life story. Eventually she went from being an outsider to marrying Boaz and being welcomed into the community. She was grafted into the most esteemed family tree among the Israelites. It grew from Abraham and would be in full bloom with the birth of Jesus, the Messiah.

Boaz saw Ruth’s heart because God saw her heart. Scripture confirms: “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7b, NIV)

Perhaps their story could inspire us to consider the “foreigners to faith” in our midst every day. There are people all around us on the fringe looking for a place to belong and be loved. Like Ruth, they might be willing to risk venturing onto “foreign soil” to discover God and His Word. But they need observant and sensitive people like Boaz to notice. Are we praying, asking God to open our eyes and lead us to them?

“Through him we received both the generous gift of his life and the urgent task of passing it on to others who receive it by entering into obedient trust in Jesus.” (Romans 1:5, The Message)

Maybe you already know how exciting it is to lead someone to the hope found in Jesus. Or maybe you’ve never considered how you could be used for God’s redemptive work in the life of a “foreigner to faith.” Wouldn’t it be amazing to hear them share their story and to know you were part of it? Click on the link and imagine the impact God could make through you as you listen to “My Story” by Big Daddy Weave.

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What’s Your Prayer Strategy?

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I just finished the last page of my prayer journal a few days ago. The first time I wrote in one from cover to cover was during my freshman year in college. Since then I’ve filled countless blank books with a variety of prayers. My attic has a large plastic bin filled with them. I’m not picky about how they look– some are beautifully covered with fabric or leather; others are castaway composition books from my kids’ backpacks. Most have papers folded inside with prayer requests from different people or groups I’m involved with.

As I’ve grown in my faith and knowledge of Scripture, my prayers have changed and matured over the years.   These days I pray a lot less about fixing circumstances and a lot more about seeing God’s will be done. I’ve also grown more strategic and less reactionary in my prayers.

Strategic prayers envision the ways God can move in a given situation and then invite Him to do it. Praying this way involves studying Scripture to learn the will of God and then aligning your prayers with it.

The first time I learned about praying strategically was in college when I got involved in a campus ministry. My Bible study leaders encouraged me to pray, inviting God to use me in the lives of others around me. The answer I received from Him felt daunting, but clear. The people I’d have the most opportunity to impact were the girls in the sorority I’d recently pledged. Before joining it, I’d prayed fervently that God would place me in the house where He wanted me. I envisioned Him leading me to a house that had a small but mighty group of Christians who would show me how to be a light in the darkness.  After pledging, I quickly discovered I was the only person actively pursuing God in a house of 160 girls. To say I was intimidated to shine for Jesus among them would be an understatement–especially considering I was a lowly freshman with no clout. I was disheartened and confused.  However, through the encouragement of several godly mentors, I started praying that the Lord would give me courage and move in the hearts of girls in the house.

My prayers weren’t answered overnight. There were many hard and lonely moments during my college years, but I stuck to my prayer strategy and found encouragement from a few scattered Christian friends who were doing the same for their fraternities and sororities. Ultimately, we saw God move in the hearts and lives of many students who were part of a system typically known more for celebrating sin than pursuing righteousness. By my senior year I was leading a Bible study that was consistently attended by 10 girls in my house. I was also part of a thriving ministry with Christians in other fraternities and sororities that focused on sharing the gospel with the Greek system at large.

Since then, I’ve learned the value of praying strategically about many areas of my life. My journals are filled with prayers asking God to impact my marriage, my children, and my community. My husband and I pray for our finances and the stewardship of the resources God has given us. We pray He would lead us to the people He wants to impact through us. And we pray to be equipped for serving well and engaging in spiritual battle.

Recently I saw “War Room,” a movie that beautifully illustrates the idea of praying strategically.   It emphasizes the value of making time to be intentional with your prayers in the same way you would be strategic with other goals in your life. The way characters in the movie are transformed is not exaggerated for dramatic effect. I know it’s real, because I’ve seen it in my life and in the lives of many people around me. If you haven’t gone to see it yet, put it at the top of your “to do” list.

In the meantime, start thinking about your prayer strategy for the next 4-6 months. Take some time to think about the people and places in your life where you would like to see God work. Write your goals down and return to the list daily to pray. Keep track of the ways God answers prayers and be sure to thank Him. Then, ask Him to show you what new strategy He’s prompting you to add. Get a journal or write lists and verses on paper and tape them in your closet like the characters in “War Room.” The logistics of your prayer strategy don’t really matter– the important part is that you have one.

“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14, NIV)

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Trusting God with the Impossible

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My mind has been swimming in words for the past week. For six days straight I’ve had books spread over my desk as I’ve been writing curriculum for a Bible study on the women in Jesus’ genealogy. Delving deeply into their lives, I’ve discovered connections I’d never noticed before.   For starters, Abraham’s wife, Sarah, and Jesus’ mother, Mary, have something pretty spectacular in common.

You might remember Sarah, from Genesis. At the age of sixty-five she agrees to leave the only home she’s ever known to follow God’s command and move hundreds of miles with Abraham to Canaan. Scripture tells us Sarah is barren. In spite of this, God promises Abraham he will father a great nation one day. After waiting ten years, Sarah begins to lose hope and decides to take matters into her own hands. Following a common practice for her time period, she suggests that Abraham conceive a child with her maid, Hagar. Although the union does produce a son, God makes it clear that the child, Ishmael, is not the one who will fulfill His promise.

Finally, when Sarah is eighty-nine and Abraham is ninety-nine, the LORD tells them the time has come for her to conceive. Sarah will bear a child at the age of ninety. When she laughs at the absurdity of the news, God says to Abraham:

Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.” (Genesis 18:14, NIV)

Sure enough, a year later, Sarah gives birth to Isaac, the child promised by God twenty-five years earlier.

In the New Testament, the story of Jesus’ birth shows another version of God doing the impossible. This time, His chosen instrument is not a ninety-year old woman but a young girl, barely in her teens. When an angel named Gabriel visits Mary proclaiming she will be the mother of the Messiah, she asks: “How will this be since I am a virgin?”

Gabriel tells her the child will be conceived by the Holy Spirit and ends his proclamation declaring: “For nothing is impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37, NIV)

I’ve been thinking about these two passages all week.   God asks the rhetorical question in the Old Testament: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” and Gabriel answers it in the New Testament: “Nothing is impossible with God.”

Throughout the pages of Scripture, we see examples that show these words are true. But sometimes we forget that the stories in the Bible are real situations that happened to real people. We boil down the spectacular into cute children’s stories and forget that God really did (and does) amazing things all the time.

The same God who did impossible things in the Old and New Testaments is living and active today. When I forget this, I waste time worrying. For example, if I truly believe God has called me to write the Bible study I mentioned earlier, then why do I still lie awake at night fretting I won’t finish it by the deadline? Or, if I truly believe God changed a Christian-hater like Saul into one of His greatest evangelists, then why do I struggle to imagine Him softening the hearts of certain people I know who need Him desperately?

Reading these stories reminds me that God accomplishes His will in His timing according to His plans, not mine. I can try to manipulate circumstances like Sarah did, but I will never accomplish His purposes without Him.

How about you? Does something seem impossible in your life right now? Are you willing to consider whether it is what God wants for you or not? This might sound scary, but take a risk and ask God to align your will with His. Sometimes He’ll answer your prayer in the way you envision, but often He has a different, better plan. Many times He changes our characters or attitudes instead of our circumstances.

Jesus says, “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (John 14:14, NIV)

Many of us use the phrase, “In Jesus name” in our prayers because it’s what He instructed us to do. In fact, Jesus says it six different times in the gospel of John alone. Although we may view this as a nice phrase to wrap up our prayers, it’s really meant as an acknowledgement of two things:

1) The only reason we can have a relationship with the Creator of the Universe is because His son paid the penalty for our sin by dying on the cross. We can approach God only because we’ve been washed in the blood of Christ.

2) We want to see His will accomplished, not ours. We affirm that the things we are asking for in prayer align with what Jesus would want for us.  Our wills are inconsequential.

So, think back to your “impossible” thing. Is it something that would please God?  Or are you trying to convince Him that your will is really the best plan?  Does it align with His Word? If you’re not sure, study the Bible, pray and ask Him to make it clear. Understanding God’s will allows you to pray with wild abandon and to celebrate that nothing is impossible for Him.

Click on the link to hear the upbeat encouragement of “Impossible” by Building 429.


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Proactive Prayer

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Baring its sharp teeth, the dog growled menacingly as it stood poised to attack. Fear had gripped my friend and me as we walked past it each day on our way home from elementary school.   Usually we would reassure one another by pointing out the long metal chain that was stretched taut as the dog strained against it. However, on this particular day, my stomach lurched as we noticed the chain was slack. The snarling dog had finally succeeded in breaking free. Before we had time to react, it lunged for my friend, pinning her to the ground. Panicked, my seven-year-old mind cycled through the options: Should I try to pull the dog off? No, I wasn’t strong enough and we’d probably both get hurt. Should I knock on someone’s door for help? No, I wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers. Should I run to get my friend’s mom? Her house was several blocks away, but it seemed like the only sensible option. Beginning to cry, I stumbled down the street before stopping abruptly to turn back. How could I leave her like this? “God, please help!” I cried out in desperation. Shocked, I watched as the dog stepped away from my friend and calmly walked back into its yard, dragging the broken chain behind it.

My cry for help had unleashed the power of heaven on a quiet suburban street that day. As a first grader, I knew little about theology or the Bible, but I knew God loved me. I’d been reassured that Jesus was always with me because I’d invited Him into my heart. Difficult situations often lead us to seek God. I guess I experienced it first on that on that spring day at age seven.

The story of the dog attack stayed with me through the years and left me in awe of God’s power. I knew He was there for me and could help me in times of desperation and trials. However, it was not until much later that I understood prayer isn’t just something to engage reactively when we are in the midst of hard situations. God also invites us to look ahead and pray proactively about things yet to unfold. Proactive prayers anticipate future situations, both good and bad. They help to prepare us and invite God to intervene in advance.

The apostle Paul knew this. Throughout his writings, he repeatedly asked for prayer.   We see this in both letters to the church at Thessalonica:

“Brothers and sisters, pray for us.” (1 Thessalonians 5:25, NIV)

“As for other matters, brothers and sisters, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored, just as it was with you.” (2 Thessalonians 3:1, NIV)

If I’m honest, I’ll admit that Paul’s requests for prayer are so frequent I don’t usually notice them. Until recently, I’d skim over his opening and closing comments so I could focus on the meat of his teaching. However, I now recognize the vital role prayer played in his ministry.   The message of the gospel spread through the Roman Empire not because of Paul’s skills or efforts but because of God’s power unleashed through prayer. Beth Moore explains it this way: “Not one inspired writer of the New Testament letters had more to say about prayer. He did not sit smugly back, presuming that Jesus would fulfill His purpose through him with little proactive effort on his part. He pressed in and prayed hard. To Paul, prayer was part of the necessary means even to a divinely foreordained end.” (Children of the Day, p. 192)

Praying proactively is about receiving what God has promised in His Word. It claims what He’s already said is ours for the taking. This kind of prayer isn’t about asking God to do what we want–it’s meant to make our perspectives line up with His. I’ll give you a few examples to clarify. Afterwards you can share your own in the comments at the bottom of this post.

The Desires of Our Hearts

Psalm 37:4 makes this promise: “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (NIV) I used to read this and not see how the first phrase informed the second. I thought something like this: Sure, I delight in God, so why doesn’t He give me this thing I want? Now I understand that when we take delight in the Lord, it means we are aligning our hearts with His. The desires of our hearts are also the desires of His heart. We know His heart by studying His Word. For example, we know that He values families and that He wants us to tell our children about Him so that they can love Him and know Him: “These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7, NIV)

My desires for my children have changed over time as my understanding of God has grown. Instead of praying only about their circumstances, I pray more about their hearts. I pray they will value God’s Word and long for a deeper relationship with Him. I pray they will have teachable hearts and be open to the ways the Lord wants to work in and through their lives. I pray that they will delight in Jesus as I delight in Him. I pray they will become men of integrity and character. That is the desire of my heart. Of course I want them to have healthy relationships and a good education. I want them to launch and become successful adults, but I believe the most important thing I can pray is that they will love God and value His Word. God’s Word assures me He wants the same for them.

Fulfilling His Call

Paul was called to share the gospel among the gentiles. He asked for prayer that the message would “spread rapidly and be honored” (2 Thessalonians 3:6, NIV). As followers of Jesus, we are all called to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19, NIV). Each of us has a part to play in sharing the gospel with others, whether or not we have the gift of evangelism. If this sounds daunting, remember that we do this through the power of the Spirit, not our own abilities. When we ask the Lord to identify people He wants to love through us, He will answer that prayer. Our job is to abide in Him and take action when He reveals someone who is ready to hear the good news. Second Peter 3:9 assures us that God doesn’t want anyone to perish, so we can pray with confidence knowing that asking for help us share His love is the very thing He wants us to do.

Changing Our Hearts, Not Just Our Circumstances

Without a doubt, the default mode of most people is to pray about their circumstances. The situations we face every day shape our attitudes, our relationships and our actions. It’s tempting to pray and ask God to fix or change difficult and frustrating situations. While this isn’t a bad thing to pray, it’s overlooking the fact that our circumstances have much to teach us. I think that’s Paul’s point when he says “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, NIV) Instead of praying for our circumstances and waiting to see if/when/ how God is going to work in them, we can try changing our perspectives with these simple prayers:

“God, show me what you want me to learn through this.”

“God, refine my character.”

“God, reveal yourself to me.”

“God, help me to show your love, mercy and grace to others who are going through this hard thing with me.”

“God, be glorified in this situation and reveal how You are using it for good.” (See Romans 8:28)

“Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.” (Psalm 139:23, NIV)

Praying proactively requires us to step outside our current circumstances and to have an eternal perspective. It also means we need to study the Bible so that we can know God’s will and pray for His kingdom to spread on earth. His power is within reach, but we get to decide whether or not we want to receive it.

Praying opens the floodgates of Heaven, enabling us to access God’s glory and power. For more inspiration, click on the link to hear Meredith Andrews’ song “Open Up the Heavens.”