Praying like Jacob

I stumbled across the following prayer from Genesis 32:9-12 last week, where Jacob is talking to God about a family reunion his is dreading with his older brother Esau. For those who don’t know, when the two brothers were younger, Jacob tricked Esau out of his birthright as a firstborn son. Later on, Jacob would then deceive his father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn. Leaving Esau out of pocket and furious.

Jacob fled, and started a new life, married and had kids, but knew that the time had come for him to come home.

Maybe we have something dreaded around the corner, whether its family or work-related. But we might find encouragement and guidance in the prayer of Jacob.

  • Recognition and Worship: Oh God of my father Abraham and Isaac. When we start we can remember who God is, that He is personal and intimate with us. He is also God over us. Too often we dive straight into petition, and our faith is weaker, because we do not first remember Who it is that we are speaking to. Somehow, faith arises in us when we recall Who God is.
  • Gratitude: I am unworthy of all the kindeness and faithfulness you have shown me. Similarly our faith increases when we recall God’s goodness to us. I was recently reading a Puritan Prayer which started similarly:
  • Plea/Petition: Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother.
  • Honesty: For I am afraid he will come and attack me and my children. I think we are often scared to be honest with God in our prayers. Honest about our doubts, our sins, our failings and actually our feelings. But God is big enough, and He delights that we can come to Him honestly. This is one of the reasons Christ died for us, so He could meet us where we are at.
  • Holding to the promise: But You have said “I will surely make you prosper”… There are so many promises in the bible we can hold to and present to God in prayer. May we find verses of promise in His Word that give us hope in prayer.

When in trouble…

Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray.

These are the simple words of James 5:13.

As Christians, it’s good to be aware of the various self-help strategies. But I think, oftentimes, God will let us be in a place where no amount of self-help will help. Where no amount of strategic thinking, leadership expertise, experience or teamwork will do. He brings us to this place, where we are exhausted of all our effort and intelligence and power…

…SO THAT, we can learn to rely on Him. So that our relationship with Him can go deeper, as we learn what it means to depend on Him.

I pleaded with Him to take it from me…THREE TIMES….but He said to me: My grace is sufficient for you, and my power is made perfect and complete in weakness. – 2 Corinthians 12

Prayer is NOT the posture of power, but it is the posture of dependence. It is NOT the promise of safety, rescue or even changed circumstances, but it is the promise of being heard, known, loved. It is NOT the invitation of self-reliance, but it is the invitation for God’s will to be done.

Jesus, moments before the cross, prayed “God, please let this cup pass from me”….”but not My will, but Yours be done”

Shadrach, Meesach and Abednego, moments before being thrown into a furnace declared: “Our God is able to save….but even if He doesn’t we will not bow”

Moses, upon hearing that God would leave him, pleaded: “unless You are with us, we will not leave this place”.

When in trouble, pray.

See also: 2 Chronicles 20. Ezekiel 37. Isaiah 37.

God the All

I am slowly working through some puritan prayers, this one impacts me on many levels.

Oh God, it is amazing that men can talk so much about man’s creatures power and goodness, when, if thou didn’t not hold us back every moment, we should be devils incarnate.

I know this to be true of myself, although I frequently forget it and tell myself I am a “good person” because of x, y, and z. No, the truth is God is kind to me that my sinful nature does not dominate me to the fullest extent it could. Thank you Jesus.

I know that thou are the author and finisher of faith, that the whole work of redemption is thine alone.

This is something I have been realising more and more recently. I actually don’t have the power, capacity or drive to be a better person, to be holy. I need to rely on Jesus to do this, I need to abide in Him. I need to receive His work of redemption and sanctification and formation, and I need to put to death by the spirit my fleshly attempts to earn redemption, sanctification and formation.

If thou bidst me to decide for myself in any affair, I would choose to refer all to thee, for thou art infinitely wise and cannot do amiss, as I am in danger of doing.

As I pray this, I ask for this particular perspective to permeate my conscious and sub-conscious mind. I long for the wisdom to surrender to Him who is Good, without fear or reservation.

Then prayer turns wholly into praise.

When my mantra in life becomes “He must increase, I must decrease”, all that is left for me is to adore and bless Him.

Prayer Projects

I’ve been taking a free course at Biola Learn , on Spiritual Formation and the temptations of moralism. It’s part of God’s recent dealings with me to dismantle unhealthy patterns of relating to Him, and to replace them with a more grace filled, spirit empowered, cross-entered faith.

Anyway, as part of the course there are these assignments called “Prayer Projects”. You are instructed to find a quiet place and pray through particular issues over a set period of time. It’s a practice that is surprisingly new to me….

But I love it!!!

You’re given a bunch of topics to pray through systematically, and encouraged to spend extended time in God’s presence processing the material.

Because the lecturers expected ‘Prayer Projects’ to be new to most of the participants, they gave us some fantastic Q&A guidelines. Here is one of the Questions with an Answer that I found particularly insightful. I’m sharing because I think it helps address the many feelings of guilt and obstacles to spending long times with God in prayer.

Enjoy!

What might I experience during my Prayer Project?

At the outset, it is important that the Spirit governs the encounter in prayer, and as such each experience will vary. That said, here are some common occurrences that happen during Prayer Projects and how you might respond to them:

Consolation/Joy – This is when you experience a deep sense of joy, of being loved, of being at peace in the presence of God. This is a real gift from the Lord – cherish it! No guidance is necessary for this – the Lord will direct your heart.

Distraction – So very common for all of us in prayer. We start to pray about one topic but find our hearts and minds wandering elsewhere. This is an opportunity to ask the Lord what He wants to do with that thought. You don’t have to try to resist it. Rather, mention it to the Lord in your prayer. (Example: “Lord, I find my mind wandering to ____. What would You want me to do with this?”) Then see how He responds. In general, it is worth staying with the original prayer topic unless you experience a strong sense that you should pursue this new thought.

Fatigue – You might feel tired in prayer, even to the point of falling asleep. If this happens, and you realize that you have been asleep, pay attention to the feelings that arise in your heart as you awake. Talk with God about those feelings, whether they be gratitude at the gift of rest or anxiety about having fallen asleep on Him. This is your honest experience in prayer, and even this can become a topic for conversation with God.

Guilt, Shame, Anxiety – You may experience guilt, shame, or anxiety over what you’re praying about. This is particularly so if you’re praying about something that has been hidden in your heart, something you may not have talked about before. What is most important to remember during these times is that you are completely loved by God just as you are, regardless of whether you feel that or not. The temptation is to hide our guilt and shame and pretend it doesn’t exist. Or we might panic before God and try desperately to get Him to reassure us that we’re okay. You are encouraged instead to name your feelings to God. If you’re feeling guilty, ashamed, or anxious, tell God exactly that. Trust that if He has brought those feelings up, then He wants to meet you in them. He is using them not to condemn you, but to draw closer to you.

Despair/Darkness – You may have times when you feel like God is distant, like your prayer life is dark. Or you may be tempted to despair, to think that God is not listening to you or is not even present. You may feel so overwhelmed by your spiritual failure that you think that your situation is hopeless. These can be very hard and painful times in prayer. If you are able, continue to pray. Name what you’re feeling to God. Tell Him about the darkness and distance and despair.

Note: You might reach a point where the darkness feels too overwhelming for you and that it feels too difficult to go on in prayer. If you reach this point, then pull back. You may stop your prayer at this point. Find a passage of Scripture instead, especially one reminding you of the love of God (e.g., Psalm 139:1-18, Romans 5 or 8) and read it for the remainder of the prayer time. Please also contact a trusted spiritual advisor, such as your pastor, small group leader, or mentor and tell him or her what you are experiencing. Allow this person to offer you more specific encouragement and guidance for your situation.

For more information please visit: Biola Learn: https://www.biola.edu/learn/catalog

How to Study the Bible

For the last few years, actually for almost a decade (man I’m getting old!) I’ve adopted a Bible reading approach which has been fantastic. It’s called Bible Read Through. The idea is you read through a book of the Bible each week, taking notes of anything you like and then exchange your three favourite points with a friend. (I’m sure I’ve outlined it a lot better somewhere else, but here is a video for using this method in your Church)

Anyway, that’s not the point of this post! Over the last few weeks, I’ve felt like God has been pushing me to study the Bible with less speed and more “chewing”. I have a good overview of what the Bible is about, what goes on in the stories, passages and songs, but now I feel that God wants me to actually study it – in depth.

This is all relatively new to me: A Bible-guzzling junkie, to actually pause, soak and chew on Scripture.

Since I’m not a half-hearted creature, probably an ‘Enthusiast’ on the enneagram model, I did some research! And got myself a baseline understanding of how to study the Bible. I’m all set up with my tools and have set myself high expectations for what’s going to happen along the way.

Start as you mean to go on….that’s what I heard anyway!

How am I going to do this? I feel like I have a big task ahead, so I wanted to share the ground-rules I got for myself. Maybe they will encourage others who want to join me on the journey:

1) Prayer… In that ‘Life Arts’ bag is my prayer journal. I don’t really want to study the Bible to get cleverer. Believe it or not, I’m not a very bright guy. I find it tough reading academic work, and am easily persuaded by most politicians about most policies etc. It’s the way God made me. But luckily, the Bible promises that it will ‘make wise the simple’ (that’s me!). I’m praying through this, because more than being cleverer, I actually want to be transformed. I want to hear God speak, and let it soak into my soul. I want to be ‘conformed to His image’ (Rom 8:29, 2 Cor 3:18). I want to radiate Christ in my workplace, in my friendships and in my family, more and more please! So I’m praying through each passage and reading, asking God to apply His truth to my heart.

2) Study aids. I got myself an ESV study Bible (partly, because I’ve mainly ever stuck to NIV in all my Bible reading, and also because I hear a lot of clever evangelicals (aka: John Piper and Wayne Grudem) go on about it being a good translation…). I’m also using a semi-commentary: The Bible Speaks, because a really dear and respected friend of mine looks up to Derek Tidball, and I hear he’s involved in the books. It’s not a ‘real commentary’ (by it’s own admission) it’s more about application…so it’s my kind of commentary.

3) Note-taking. That little black notebook, is my tool for recording things that stand out to me along the way. Like I said, I’m not super-clever, and so using pen and paper help me to process. It also helps me remember! I got a super-fine ball point pen to use to fit all my notes in a tiny book.

4) A slow, slow pace. I’m still doing my Bible Read Through, to get the Bible in me every day. But I’m taking this Study slowly, and thoroughly, slow and steady. There is no deadline for completion. I’m going one page at a time. It’s going to take some getting used to, and some major adjusting. But I intend to read each passage several times, coupled with the notes in the Study Bible and the actual “non-commentary”, along with prayer and note-taking. I don’t have enough time or money to make this a full-time job. And I really don’t want to become an anti-social recluse studying the Bible, I believe the Word of God is to help us live life in all it’s fullness. Saying that, I do intend to spend a good hour or so each day with this task. It will override a lot of my other reading endeavours.

5) A heart to teach. I spoke to my wife about this a few times, I have a massive heart to pass on what I’m learning. (Probably a symptom of working with the Navigators for so long). But even from a young age, I have always enjoyed sharing what God is teaching me, I guess I can’t help it. So I am taking notes, and consolidating my learning by turning it into resources for sharing. That’s where this blog is coming in. It will be the platform I use to regurgitate what God is teaching me.

6) Coffee. You can’t see it in the photo, but I have a lovely coffee contraption. It cooks coffee on the hob over half an hour at a time. And honestly it’s the best coffee I’ve ever had in my life.

Finally, here are my top 3 expectations, already eluded to above:

1) More like Jesus…I want to resemble Him more. I really want to carry His likeness into my workplace, friendships and family. Not only is this the best way to ‘bless’ people, it is the best way to communicate the good news to those I care about.

2) Heart Transformation… There is so much sin in my heart and my actions, it’s pretty difficult to hide it all…I want to invite God to minister to me and heal me, grow me, challenge and sharpen me on this journey.

3) Inform my Life’s purpose (the explicit one and the implicit one). My life purpose: to be a man after God’s own heart, then to lead, labour, inspire and encourage others to be the same, is beautifully worded (if I do say so myself)…but I don’t always live by it. Through reading God’s word, I’m expecting to become a man of greater integrity when it comes to my Life’s purpose.

Please pray for me.

To Him alone be the glory!

First Draft Done!!!

Sorry everyone for my inconsistent posting. I have an excuse, a valid one this time. Honest. A couple of years back I felt an urge to write a book. Me being me, a lot of focus was put on the planning side of it. However over the last few months, basically since 2020 I started hammering out a steady pace of daily typing and flexing out my plan. Last month I took a week off work to focus just on writing. And yesterday, 24thJune 2020, 80,243 words later, I finished the first draft!

It summarizes, most of what I’ve learnt about my faith and discipleship since being a teenager, so has been a long time in the making – even sub-consciously. The journey from here is much more outside of my hands, so I should be able to write blog posts a little more frequently. (Plus I have a lot of ‘draft’ material I can upload if I’m stuck for ideas!)

For those interested and who want to be praying blessings over my efforts. I would be most appreciative! As far as I can see, or know, the next steps are:

1)     Look through the first draft, clean it up, make sure the sentences make sense, double check I’m not repeating myself, cull the blatantly bad bits, give nutrition to the good bits etc etc. Then I’ll have a “second draft”. [My personal deadline for this process is 10th July– Pray for me please]

2) Then I’m sending it to one or two friends who are SUPER-SMART/have written things I know and like. I’m already sending out feelers now for possible people.

3) While these amazing friends read and edit, look for heresies and grammatical failings, I’m getting in touch with a few friends and friends of friends who have published books already. Trying to network, further edit my ideas, and give me advice about publishing etc.

3.5) I’ll also be using this time to begin putting together a series of seminars, teaching on the content in the book. The power-points, extra reading material and handouts at least.

4) Once all this is done, I’ll start approaching publishers. I think this has to be done through a third party, who will store a copy of my book proposal and let mainstream publishers look it over and weigh it up against the risks of signing a new author.

I’m sure it won’t be as clear cut, but that’s the journey I’m likely going to be on over the next few months. Please do pray, I have a feeling, I’ve not yet reached the halfway mark. 😀

P.s. I was so proud and chuffed to have finished a first draft, I paid to have it bound. Here’s a picture of me basking in the various chemicals associated with pride and achievement:

I get to do this everyday!

One of my favourite things to do as a Christian is to get time alone with God. For some reason, I don’t think a lot of people who “love Jesus”, love spending much alone time with Him. There’s probably a lot a play with this, and there are times I lose sight of the great benefits of deliberately carving time into my day to abide in His presence without distractions.

But I’m having great times meeting God these last few weeks. That’s for sure, its keeping me focused and joyful in the midst of the UK lockdown. I wanted to share the routine I go through, partly because I’ll end up looking back on this post later down the line with fond memories. And partly because I think it might encourage other people to spend time with Jimg_0918esus.

I put on the coffee, I have one of those fancy hob-cooking coffee machines, I actually bought this to have “special coffee” with God. So I only make coffee in the hob-cooker when it’s me settling down to meet with my King and maker. (Kind of like going somewhere nice for a date!)…

Then I sit down in my special chair, with my special coffee and read my Bible. (Very lucky to have one of these, heard about a boy who had to pray and fast for weeks in order to get one in China during cultural revolution.) Sometimes I might find my mind wandering, so I’ll have to stop and ask God to help me focus. It’s usually early in the morning, and despite the coffee, it can take me a while to get in the zone. I want to hear what God is going to say to me.

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As I read I’m underlining, and making little notes in the margins. I’ll transfer these into my notebook when I’m finished reading. But I find I lose track of what I’m reading if I’m stopping frequently to make notes.

Then, when I’ve finished the readings. I move over to my desk, pull out my journal and switch on the Inner Room app I’ve got on my iPod. And pray through some of my prayer points. I love this app, because it stops you half way though and tells you to “Now, listen to God’s voice”…pen down and listen. I make a couple of notes afterwards, if I feel Him say something I want to remember.

That’s exciting, hearing from God. Over the last few weeks, I’ve found the praying time get shorter and the listening time get longer. Because I kind of already know what I’m praying about, and some of the things on my list – I’ve prayed for over and over again. So listening is the exciting part. The last few days, I’ve felt like I’ve got my ‘daily marching orders’ and God’s given me specific tasks for the day ahead.

Then I enter the day. Filled with God’s word, with a soul that has been heard, and ears that have listened for their Maker’s voice. He leads me.

I get to do this every day, for free, and so do you. And I reckon, you probably want to do it too. So what’s stopping you?

How Can I Improve?

Occasionally God interrupts my morning quiet time routine. These are exciting times and more often than not, I love to engage with Him in this. Today He presented a near-forgotten memory to my mind and asked me to ‘wrestle’ with Him over it. Bible down and prayer begins.

When I was a teenager and up till the age of 21, I used to ask this question very frequently: “How can I improve?”. I’d ask it after I’d lead a youth group session for my Church. I’d ask it after leading worship or preaching. I’d ask  it of my mentor whenever I’d lead a Bible study for the student group. I loved asking the question, and the feedback was so helpful and usually gave me insight for things I could actually improve.

Then one day, after a weekend away with new people, I asked it of my travel companions on the journey home…. I can remember what happened next, and it still makes me squirm!

There was a pretty long awkward silence, and one of my new-friends said ‘Paul, no offence, but that sounds like a pretty insecure question.’

I was mortified and backpaddled and defended and “clarified” myself and said lots of things to cover-up and refine the question I had asked so that it meant something different. But it was too late. I was exposed.

At the very least I was exposed to myself.

So I stopped asking the question. Completely. I stopped asking, because obviously I’m not an insecure person, I don’t need to ask this anymore. 

Four and half years later, God interrupts my Bible reading to flash this all in my mind again and asks me to deal with it with Him. My good Father reaches out to teach me and conform me even more into the Man after His heart who walks with His character and likeness.

Here’s what I learned.

  1. There were (at least) two motives behind my asking that question. I wanted to learn, I wanted to improve and I wanted to grow. I knew that it was right to give God my best and I wanted to, I wanted to be teachable and wanted to improve. I was fortunate to spend a lot of time around mentors and leaders who invested in me, and could offer wisdom, insights and expertise and I was eager to extract as much as possible from them. But there was another motive at work: I wanted approval,  I wanted acceptance, I wanted to be seen a certain way. Obviously, I wanted the person I was asking to turn round and say “Improve?! Impossible, you did a fantastic job, better than me in fact, you are an amazing speaker/worship-leader/group discussion facilitator etc etc…” . I wanted this kind of approval. But not only this type… – In some twisted and “insecure” way I wanted the approval of being seen as a “self-aware” guy, who could take criticism (who even asked for it!), who was seeking to learn and grow.
  2.  There is an appropriate way to react when your motives are exposed, and I didn’t cotton on. My reaction was to stop asking the question “how can I improve?”, obviously with muddy-motives let’s stop all-together. Instead I think there is an alternative way to respond.
      • Thank God for using other people to expose hidden motives and areas of growth. Don’t lash out or, what I did, hide away. But thank God that He was using other people to sharpen.
      • Then face and evaluate the motives exposed. (They are probably there if you’re tempted to lash out or deny it strongly!) It might be that you need to repent from them. It might be that God wants to work on that area in your life right then and there, let Him speak truth into your life.
      • Then strive to move forward. This may look different depending on what the motives were. I once heard someone say “Your motives will never be completely pure, so don’t necessarily let them make the final decision” (take that with a pinch of salt). Striving to move forward will either look like:
        1.  Ditch the activity
        2.  Continue with the activity, but ask God to challenge and refine you so that the motive is cleared.

In my situation, I’ve decided that I will start asking the question again at appropriate times when I actually want to learn. But ask God to keep checking my heart and asking Him to bring healing to the insecurities.