Argue God to God (Psalm 31)

"In you, O LORD, do I take refuge; 
     let me never be put to shame; 
     in your righteousness deliver me! 
Incline your ear to me; 
     rescue me speedily! 
Be a rock of refuge for me, 
     a strong fortress to save me! 
For you are my rock and my fortress; 
     and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me..."

—Psalm 31:1–3

Before David prays “be a rock of refuge for me,” he confesses and declares “in you, O LORD, do I take refuge.” The prayers of the psalms, we may even say the prayers of the Bible, are full of confessions and declarations. Such declarations often verge on praise, and no doubt this one is an expression of praise, but on the face it, it is just a statement. A confession.

Such confessions and declarations in prayer are a way of thinking on God with God. This is how we should think on God—prayerfully. Say your prayers with confessions of truth, but also, say your confessions prayerfully. As John Owen put it this way:

“Meditate of [upon] God with God; that is, when we would undertake thoughts and meditations of God, his excellencies, his properties, his glory, his majesty, his love, his goodness, let it be done in a way of speaking unto God, in a deep humiliation and abasement of our souls before him. This will fix the mind, and draw it forth from one thing to another, to give glory unto God in a due manner, and affect the soul until it be brought into that holy admiration of God and delight in him which is acceptable unto him. My meaning is, that it be done in a way of prayer and praise,—speaking unto God.”

Because we don’t declare truth in our prayers, we petition lies in our prayers. Because we don’t confess truth, we pray lies. When you fill your prayers with more declarations and confessions of truth, you will petition your God better in those prayers. Such declarations have a way of pulling us out of our little kingdoms and reorienting our prayers around the kingdom of God.

What David first declares, he then pleas, and then he offers as the grounds for that plea what he has declared. “In you, O LORD, do I take refuge… Be a rock of refuge for me… for you are my rock and fortress” (Psalm 31:1, 2, 3; emphasis mine). Prayer is asking God to be for us what He has said He will be for us because He has said He will be that for us. In your prayers, argue God to God. I believe it was another Puritan author who said something like “God is fond of his own handwriting. Show it to Him.”

The Doctor: Have You Ever Really Prayed?

“Every preacher will, I am sure, agree that preaching is comparatively simple as compared with praying, because when one is preaching one is speaking to men, but when a man prays he is speaking to God. Many find it difficult to concentrate, others to know how to speak and how to form their petitions, and so on. The moment you take prayer seriously you begin to learn its profound character. Of course, those who ‘say their prayers’ mechanically are not aware of any difficulties; all seems so simple. They simply repeat the Lord’s Prayer and offer up a few petitions and they imagine that they have prayed. But such a person has not started praying. The moment you begin to face what really happens in prayer you find inevitably that it is the profoundest activity in which you have ever engaged. How little we have prayed, how little we know about prayer! It is not surprising that the disciples of our Lord turned to Him one day and said, ‘Lord, teach us to pray as John also taught his disciples’ (Luke 11 :i). But they were probably not only thinking at that moment of John and his disciples, they had been watching their Lord Himself and the way He repeatedly withdrew for prayer. I do not hesitate to assert that unless you have ever felt something of what those disciples felt, and offered that petition, it is certain that you have never prayed in your life. If you have never been aware of difficulties It is because you have never realized what prayer involves.” —D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, God’s Ultimate Purpose, (Baker Book House, 1979) pp. 326, 327

Tipping the Scales with Balance (Philippians 1:3–11)

“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:3–11).

If you want the scale of your life to be heavy on thankfulness, you shouldn’t think that petitions burden the scale on the opposite side. When we notice that our prayer life is fat on request and slim on thanks, we can easily become the guy who chases down his steroids with protein shakes and hits the gym twice every day. Sure, he’s bulked up, but that ain’t healthy. What thankfulness is to contentment, we shouldn’t think petition is to discontent. You can’t fix thanklessness with petition-lessness.

In Paul’s prayer not only are thanksgiving and petition mingled, they’re rooted in the same soil. So rather than being puzzled at this odd connection, we must realize that they are unstable compounds when isolated. These two go together like sodium and chloride. They also separate like them. Thankfulness, all alone, is very well as corrosive as chlorine. If your prayers only communicate contentment and no longing, perhaps it’s that you’re at home in this world and merely blessing God for it. We readily note the danger of prayers full nothing but petition. Thing is, if we try to correct it by beefing up on thanksgiving, we’ll find we’ve carried over the same root problem. Both the glutton and the body builder can have the same root sin. What we’re after is wholeness and balance. Perhaps then we should label one side of the scale “holiness” and the other “sinfulness.” If you want the scale tipped towards holiness, you need balance in your life. Not a balance between things such as godliness and ungodliness of course, but a balance of things that both go together on the holiness side of the scale, things like godly thankfulness and godly petition.

Rather than thanksgiving or petition rooted in self, what we need are thanksgiving and petition rooted in the gospel of Christ. What Paul gives thanks for is, upon examination, what Paul petitions for. Paul’s joyful gratitude is rooted in the good work God has done in the Philippians and the gospel partnership that is the result. His petition for them to abound in love with knowledge is essentially a prayer that God will continue to do this good work, a good work Paul has already said he is certain of.

When you want to tip the scales with thankfulness, what you need isn’t less sodium and more chloride. What you need is more salt. Look to Christ. Anchor your prayers in the gospel. Then you will see reasons not only to give thanks; you will long for more.

Lamentation and Mediation (Jeremiah 15:1–21)

“Then the LORD said to me, ‘Though Moses and Samuel stood before me, yet my heart would not turn toward this people. Send them out of my sight, and let them go!’ ” —Jeremiah 15:1

In Jeremiah 14 Judah laments twice and she laments well, insofar as the words themselves go. That her cries are duplicitous, with YHWH being near her lips, but far from her heart, is made plain by Yahweh’s replies, the most stinging of which comes chapter 15. In chapter 14 God says he will not hear Judah’s cries and Jeremiah is commanded not to pray for them. Now, he says that even should Moses or Samuel intercede, He would not turn toward his people.

When the people sinned by worshipping the golden calf, Moses pled for them so that YHWH relented of the disaster that he had spoken (Exodus 32:14). Also, when Israel balks at taking the promised land, expressing her desire to return to Egypt, YHWH tells Moses he will strike them and make a nation out of Moses. Moses pleads that God have mercy for the sake of his name and covenant. Yahweh pardons.

Regarding Samuel, when Israel is in the land but harassed by the Philistines, the people confess their sin and ask that Samuel intercede for them they they might be delivered. Samuel prayed. The Philistines were defeated. When the people sin by asking for a king, again they ask Samuel to act as mediator. He prays and they are promised grace.

Psalm 99:6 says, “Moses and Aaron were among his priests, Samuel also was among those who called upon his name. They called to the LORD, and he answered them.” But now, Judah’s sin is so great and God’s long-suffering has been so extended, it matters not what they say, nor Jeremiah. No, even should Moses or Samuel intercede for them, His heart would not turn toward this people.

Following this, Jeremiah laments two times himself and each time he receives a rebuke mixed with grace. In v. 19 the prophet who has so often declared “return” is told to return himself, and promised that should he do so, he will be restored.

In these two chapters we have two laments. The first is met with a reply that there is no hope for redemption; the second, holds out hope for restoration. And the irony is this, if you only listen to the laments, Judah’s, which sounds good, is rejected, while Jeremiah’s, which sounds bad at times, is heard. What makes the difference? We might say that whereas Judah’s prayers sounded good, her heart was false, and though Jeremiah’s prayers sounded bad at times, his heart was true. Or, we could demonstrate how Judah had continually hardened her heart to the word of the Lord, whereas Jeremiah, though sinful, consistently showed a tenderness toward it. Further, we might reflect how this book shows that judgment was determined for this generation of Judah just as grace was determined for Jeremiah. But behind all this, we might say that whereas Judah didn’t have a prayer, Jeremiah did.

For the elect, a mediating High Priest and Sacrifice is given. As their Priest He bears their names on His heart and as their Sacrifice He bore their wounds in His body. You cannot pray well enough. Foremost, it matters not how you pay, but Who prays for you. If Christ is not your mediator, you do not have a prayer. If matters not who you are or who you might have in your corner if you have not Jesus. The mediation of Moses and Samuel were only a shadow. The Son who cast them has risen. “There is one mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ” (1 Timothy 2:5).

A Drink from Brooks: Don’t Despise Less as Nothing for Envy of More

“Now, let no Christian say, that he has no communion with God in closet-prayer, because he has not such a full, such a choice, such a sweet, such a sensible, and such a constant communion with God in closet-prayer—as such and such saints have had, or as such and such saints now have; for all saints do not alike enjoy communion with God in their closets: some have more, some have less; some have a higher degree, others a lower; some are enrapt up in the third heaven, when others are but enrapt up in the clouds. What man is there so childish and babyish as to argue thus, that he has no wisdom, because he has not the wisdom of Solomon; or, that he has no strength, because he has not the strength of Samson; or, that he has no life, because he has not the swiftness of Ahimaaz; or, that he has no estate, because he has not the riches of Dives? And yet so childish and babyish many weak Christians are, as to argue thus: namely, that they have no communion with God in their closets, because they have not such high, such comfortable, and such constant communion with God in their closets, as such and such saints have had, or as such and such saints now have! Whereas they should seriously consider, that though some saints have a great communion with God—yet other saints have but a small communion with God; and though some Christians have a strong communion with God—yet other Christians have but a weak communion with God; and though some Christians have a very close and near communion with God—yet other Christians have but a more remote communion with God; and though some of God’s servants have a daily, constant, and uninterrupted communion with God—yet others of his servants have but a more transient and inconstant communion with God.” —Thomas Brooks, The Privy Key of Heaven

Pour Out because Poured In

overflowing-glass-3-1259014.jpg“Prayer is nothing but the turning of a man’s inside outward before the Lord. The very soul of prayer lies in the pouring out of a man’s soul into the bosom of God. Prayer is nothing but the breathing that out before the Lord that was first breathed into us by the Spirit of the Lord. Prayer is nothing but a choice, a free, a sweet, and familiar intercourse of the soul with God. Certainly, it is a great work of the Spirit to help the saints to pray: Gal. 4:6, ‘Because you are sons. God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.’ God hath no still-born children.” —Thomas Brooks, The Privy Key of Heaven

Asking for Directions (Psalm 28)

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Because they do not regard the works of the LORD
or the work of his hands,
he will tear them down and build them up no more.

The LORD is the strength of his people;
he is the saving refuge of his anointed. —Psalm 28:4, 8

In examining the 27th psalm one discovers that the steering wheel can be on the right side of the car. Though it may feel awkward, right isn’t wrong. The saint’s faith can drive from confidence to lament without the car being in reverse or turning around and going back over ground we though we’d gained.

But now, in the 28th Psalm, the wheel is back on the left. In the 27th Psalm we drive from confidence to lament then back to a brief conclusion of confidence.  Now, in the 28th, we drive from lament to confidence then back to a brief conclusion of lament. Overall, in the 27th we drive from confidence to lament; in the 28th, from lament to confidence.

Though we “feel” more comfortable driving this direction, we often don’t know how to get there. How does one get from lament to confidence? Often lament takes a hard right into despair or a sharp left into self-reliance. If we fail to reach the proper destination, the reason is as simple as our failure to use the map. This psalm is both a map and it points to the map. It both is the Word of God and it points to the Word of God.

There are two declarations of truth the psalm that serve as transition points: the first from petition to praise, the second from praise to petition. In the first (v. 5), David declares with confidence the destruction of the wicked; in the second (v. 8), he declares the salvation of God’s people and His anointed. How is it that David is confident of these things? Because God has spoken.

Both David’s lament and His laud are guided by the Word; the Word by which God gives faith. We often don’t make the transition from lament to laud because our conscience rightly testifies against us that we cannot. When our lament is an expression of “Your kingdom come!” laud will follow. I’m afraid our prayers are not concerned with God’s kingdom come, but our comfort and fun. When we cry out in prayer, it isn’t so much in longing  for God’s kingdom to come as sobbing that our kingdom has gone.

The answer to this is repentance, and that means humbly asking for directions. You don’t naturally know how to steer your prayers. Yes, you need the Spirit, but the Spirit speaks through the Word. You’re not a prophet. Pull over and talk to one. David is a good one to start with.

Pray to God as God (Colossians 1:9–14)

As we turn from Paul’s thanksgiving (1:3–8) to his supplication (1:9–14) we might do so thankfully anticipating a conviction reprieve. “Paul’s thankfulness was convicting, but now he’s asking for stuff. This should be lighter on the heart. I’m good at asking for stuff.”

After the thanksgiving section we feel as though we ask too much and say thanks too little. Upon reading Paul’s petition, we’re jolted, seeing that it’s not that we ask too much, but too little, like a mortally wounded soldier begging a master surgeon for a bandage. Both our thanksgiving and petitions prove shallow. We ask for idols, when there is God to be had.

The deeper conviction in contrasting our prayers with Paul’s isn’t found in what Paul does, but why he does it. Paul’s prayers are God-centered. Our thankfulness and petitions are often small because they’re focused on small reference point. Draw a circle three meters in circumference around our feet. This is our bubble of thanksgiving. This is our sphere of petition.

The way to rectify our prayer problems isn’t found in simply doubling down on effort. This is likely nothing more than another expression of self-centeredness. Begin with God. Here is a simple principle to radicalize your prayer life, pray to God, as God. How’s that? Before you speak to Him, hear Him speak through His Word concerning who He is and what He has done. “There is a direct correlation,” John Piper writes, “between not knowing Jesus well, and not asking much from Him.”

Change the reference point. Both our thanksgiving and our petitions should be God-sized. We can never do either too much. We may do them sinfully quite frequently, but never excessively.

Thou art coming to a King,
Large petitions with thee bring;
For His grace and power are such,
None can ever ask too much;
None can ever ask too much.

—John Newton

The Penning Pastor: The Offense of Small Prayers

From “Ask What I Shall Give Thee”

Thou art coming to a King,
Large petitions with thee bring;
For his grace and pow’r are such,
None can ever ask too much.

—John Newton, Works

The Penning Pastor: How Often Should I Pray

From a letter concerning family worship:

Indeed, a person who lives in the exercise of faith and love, and who finds by experience that it is good for him to draw nigh to God, will not want to be told how often he must pray, any more than how often he must converse with an earthly friend. Those whom we love, we love to be much with. Love is the best casuist, and either resolves or prevents a thousand scruples and questions, which may perplex those who only serve God from principles of restraint and fear. —John Newton