The Secret to Prayer

If there’s one thing I want to be known as, it’s a man of prayer.

For years, I tried to discipline myself to pray. Prayer cards, prayer apps, prayer journals; I’ve experimented with (and discarded) all these methods.

My difficulty in cultivating a life of prayer confounded me since I’m disciplined in many areas of my life. I run or walk at the same time each morning, I read the Scriptures and take notes in the margins daily, I work a full-time job alongside a part-time job and teaching a weekly class at my church. But for all my discipline, I could not cultivate a praying life.

I am pleased to say that is changing. I am not pleased to say why.

Why I Haven’t Been a Man Who Prays

In his book A Praying Life, Paul E. Miller writes,

You don’t need self-discipline to pray continuously; you just need to be poor in spirit.

What does it mean to be “poor in spirit”? In three different prayers, the shepherd-boy turned king named David explains:

As for me, I am poor and needy,
but the Lord takes thought for me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
do not delay, O my God! (Psalm 40:17)

But I am poor and needy;
hasten to me, O God!
You are my help and my deliverer;
O Lord, do not delay! (Psalm 70:5)

For I am poor and needy,
and my heart is stricken within me. (Psalm 109:22)

After years of failing at prayer, I am realizing that my lack of prayer has nothing to do with my lack of discipline and has everything to do with my lack of neediness.

The truth is, I think I’m enough. I don’t think I need God to solve my problems. If I can’t figure out what to do with my life, I read some books. If I don’t know how to discipline my kids, I ask someone who seems to know how.

Where I turn when I’m in need reveals whom I truly believe in. Miller writes,

If you are not praying, then you are quietly confident that time, money, and talent are all you need in life.

He follows this statement by pointing out that if you live like time, money, and talent are all you need, “You’ll always be a little too tired, a little too busy.” And so I have been. For a long time. Like butter spread too thin, I have been covering just enough of my life to make it taste like I’m there.

Praying Because You Have to

But this is not how Jesus lived. If you look closely at Jesus’ life, you will find him on his knees in a desolate place before each major moment of his life, and as a matter of regular practice. Miller contrasts Jesus with the quietly self-confident person, saying,

But if, like Jesus, you realize you can’t do life on your own, then no matter how busy, no matter how tired you are, you will find the time to pray.

You see, Jesus and David prayed for the same reason: they needed to. They had to.

I didn’t pray because I thought I could do life on my own. I didn’t pray because I didn’t need to.

But now I do.

I’m not sure what exactly opened my eyes to how needy I am, but it must have been some combination of having four small children ages six and under and feeling the appropriate smallness of the impact I can have on the world and people around me.

I can’t make my children obey me. I can’t guarantee their safety. I can’t plan the next ten years. I can’t truly know what someone is thinking or feeling. I can’t control much of anything. Not really.

Learning to be Desperate

But I had to learn that desperation, like all of us. We are all born knowing we’re dependent on someone else for everything, then at some point, we grow up and think we’re self-reliant and self-sufficient. But sooner or later, life catches up in the form of a diagnosis or unemployment or a wayward child, and we realize all over again how helpless we truly are.

This realization doesn’t necessarily drive us to see our neediness, however. It can, and often does, begin a low period where we seek to control our circumstances until we can climb out of the pit we’re in. Sometimes we find our way out, sometimes we don’t.

But we would be better off to stay in the pit a bit longer and learn how desperate we truly are for outside help. This is one reason why God allows us to enter into prolonged periods of stress, pain, or anxiety. Miller reminds us that

Learned desperation is at the heart of a praying life.

When we learn how desperate we are for God, we draw near to him. When we learn that we’re constantly desperate for God, we stay near to him. In the same book, Miller writes,

The criteria for coming to Jesus is weariness. Come overwhelmed with life. Come with your wandering mind. Come messy.

A few weeks ago, I came to Jesus weary, overwhelmed, wandering–messy.

And then I started to pray. “A needy heart is a praying heart. Dependency is the heartbeat of prayer,” says Miller. He’s right.

The secret to prayer is not discipline or scheduling or recording prayer requests. The secret to prayer is needing it.

Now I come to Jesus and pray like I need him, because of course, I do.

The Beauty of God’s Wrath

God’s wrath is the most unpopular of his attributes, and understandably so. But if we stare at the gospel long enough, even God’s wrath seems beautiful.

Psalm 75:6-8 says,

For not from the east or from the west
    and not from the wilderness comes lifting up,
but it is God who executes judgment,
    putting down one and lifting up another.
For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup
    with foaming wine, well mixed,
and he pours out from it,
    and all the wicked of the earth
    shall drain it down to the dregs.

That’s intense. And it should be. After all, the psalm is referring to the holy God of the universe who cannot tolerate sin, lest he ceases to be God. In that God’s hand, there is a cup of wrath from which the wicked will one day drink.

That sounds like terrible news until you turn right in your Bible and read this in the gospel of John:

When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his garments and divided them into four parts, one part for each soldier; also his tunic.

After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:23, 28-30)

Jesus thirsted on the cross; not just for water for his body, which I’m sure he did, but for the love of his Father.

The Father, whom he had known and loved and enjoyed for all of eternity up to that point, had always replied with grace.

But not this time.

Instead of grace, Jesus tasted justice. Just like the soldiers who shoved the sour wine to Jesus’ cotton-dry mouth, the Father thrust forward his foaming cup of wrath to the lips of his Son—but he didn’t make Jesus drink it.

***

Earlier, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus knew he would be presented with this cup. And it nearly killed him.

Knowing this moment would come, he fell to his knees in the garden and twice cried out in agony to his father: “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me” (Mark 14:36; Matthew 26:39-42). His sweat turned to blood at the terror of that foaming cup.

Yet, knowing full well the horrors to come, Jesus said, “Yet not what I will, but what you will,” and set his face towards Jerusalem, a Lamb going to the slaughter.

***

As his Father’s hand shoved forward the well-mixed cup of wrath, Jesus grabbed it, drained it down to the dregs, and said, “It is finished.”

After uttering those final words, Jesus gave up the ghost and was buried in a borrowed tomb for three days, and darkness descended on the land.

But on Sunday morning, the Son’s light flooded the earth as he raised himself from the dead, declaring that his life was not and never would be finished.

The beauty of God’s wrath is that we can escape it! Jesus drank the cup of wrath so that we wouldn’t have to.

Psalm 75 ends with these words:

But I will declare it forever;
I will sing praises to the God of Jacob.
All the horns of the wicked I will cut off,
but the horns of the righteous shall be lifted up. (Psalm 75:9-10)

The wrath our sin deserves has been satisfied by Jesus for those who believe that he is the risen Son of God who was crucified, died, buried, and raised to life according to the scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-5).

Those who believe receive Jesus’ righteousness and are lifted up as sons and daughters of the living God for all eternity.

I will declare it forever.

I will sing praises to the God of Jacob.

How to Find Hope in Suffering

You can’t think of anything to be thankful for. Your life feels like it’s not going anywhere. The walls seem to be crumbling around you. You wouldn’t say you’re depressed, but you’re pretty close. You feel numb to what’s going on around you.

To make things worse, you have this wracking sense of guilt because you think your faith requires you to be happy. You think your inability to handle suffering means you’re somehow inadequate.

I recently went through a season of anxiety and grief. There were days when I wanted nothing more than to stay in bed and hide from the responsibilities of life; days when I could hardly pay attention to my kids, listen to my wife, or complete the smallest of tasks. I felt like I was standing still, watching the world go on around you.

I got so tired of feeling this way that I searched the Bible for what God had to say about my state. Before long, he led me to (what was for me) an undiscovered gem in the middle of what seems like the most depressing book in all the Bible—Lamentations.

Finding hope in Lamentations

Most scholars think Lamentations was written by the prophet Jeremiah as the city of Jerusalem was being sacked by King Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian army. Lamentations captures the crushing moments when Jeremiah’s beloved city is being invaded, his people are being slaughtered and carried off into exile, and the temple was destroyed. The walls were, quite literally, crumbling around him.

In the midst of this scene, Jeremiah writes,

17 my soul is bereft of peace;
I have forgotten what happiness is;
18 so I say, “My endurance has perished;
so has my hope from the Lord.”

19 Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
the wormwood and the gall!
20 My soul continually remembers it
and is bowed down within me.
21 But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:

22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”

Lamentations 3:17-24 ESV

There are four truths in this passage that show us how to find hope in suffering.

1. Right knowledge of God leads to hope in God

Jeremiah starts out with some pretty dark language. He said, “my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is.” He has no peace in his life. At the deepest levels of who is in, in his soul, he has no peace—only anxiety and desperation. Which is why he has forgotten what happiness is. He simply can’t seem to find happiness with all the chaos going on around him.

He feels like he has lost hope in God’s promises. He has lost hope that God knows what he’s doing, that he’s just and righteous and good. He’s lost hope that God will one day turn his mourning into joy.

But verse 21 marks a turning point. Jeremiah turns from his disbelief in what’s happening around him, and instead reminds himself of what he knows about God: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.” Despite what he said before, he’s choosing to think something different. That “something different” is calling to mind what he knows to be true about God. And when he does that, he recovers his hope.

Pay attention to the order: first, Jeremiah reminds himself of what he knows to be true about God, then he recovers his hope.

So often, we want an action plan to follow, something to help us feel like we’re making progress. But the first step to finding hope in times of suffering isn’t an external action—it’s an internal one. Jeremiah stops his mental spiraling and forces himself to remember what he knows to be true about God.

The key to hoping in God in the midst of suffering is calling to mind the right knowledge of the Lord. And by “right,” I mean knowledge of the Lord that he has revealed to us, which we find in the Bible. When we call to mind the things about God which are actually true, then we find ourselves able to cling to hope when everything is falling apart around us. Right knowledge of God leads to hope in God.

2. God’s faithfulness encourages ours

After setting his sights on the right knowledge of God, Jeremiah starts listing off aspects of God’s character: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”

Jeremiah is reminding himself that God’s love is fixed and unwavering, not fair weather or half-hearted. When you’re in a dark pit of anxiety or depression, the knowledge that God’s love is fixed on you, that it’s not dependent on what you do or who you are, will drive you to hope in his deliverance.

Then, Jeremiah says God’s mercies never come to an end; that in fact, they’re new every morning. It is by his mercy that you’re breathing. It is by his mercy that you have a house, a job, clothes, food, and friends or family. It is by his mercy that the world keeps spinning and the sun doesn’t burn us up. No matter how terrible today is, God’s mercies start anew with the rising of the sun each day.

Next, Jeremiah reminds himself that God’s faithfulness is great. When we think deeply on God’s faithfulness to keep his promises—to never stop loving us, to redeem us no matter what we’ve done—it has the power to drive us to our knees in thanksgiving.

One of the great hymns of all time, “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” comes from this line. It’s chorus cries out,

“Great is Thy faithfulness!” “Great is Thy faithfulness!”
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided—
“Great is Thy faithfulness,” Lord, unto me!

All that we need, God has provided. Not all we want, but all we need.

Knowing that God’s love is never ceasing, that his mercies never come to an end, and that his faithfulness is great drove Jeremiah to declare, “The Lord is my portion”—that he is enough. He is all Jeremiah needs, all he wants, and with God alone he will be satisfied.

Since God is all he needs and since God is faithful to him, Jeremiah says, “therefore I will hope in him.” God’s faithfulness encouraged Jeremiah’s faithfulness, and it encourages ours as well.

3. Hope is developed through waiting

If you’re going through a season of suffering or some kind of trial, the last thing you want to do is wait. You want deliverance now. You want the suffering to stop and things to get better.

That’s exactly how I felt until I read these words from Jeremiah:

25 The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul who seeks him.
26 It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.
27 It is good for a man that he bear
the yoke in his youth.

28 Let him sit alone in silence
when it is laid on him;
29 let him put his mouth in the dust—
there may yet be hope;
30 let him give his cheek to the one who strikes,
and let him be filled with insults.

Lamentations 3:25-30 ESV

As soon as I read those words, I knew I had been going about my waiting wrong. I was complaining to my wife. I was moody all the time. I was hard to get along with.

That’s such a contrast to what Jeremiah says. First, he says that the Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the person who seeks him; that it is good for us to quietly endure the suffering we experience because it is through that endurance that God develops hope in us.

That doesn’t mean you can’t talk about your suffering with God (that’s what Jeremiah is doing here), and it doesn’t mean you don’t talk about it with your spouse or trusted friends or advisors. It means you don’t take the disposition of complaining and whining. It means you’re not woe-is-me about everything going on in your life.

But while we can’t control the emotions we feel, we can control our response to those emotions. We can choose to be miserable, or we can choose to find joy. We can choose to be frustrated with God and stop trusting that he knows what he’s doing, or we can choose look to God and trust his plans. We can choose to live in despair, or we can choose to live with hope.

4. Hope is grounded in eternity

Jeremiah chose to hope in God, and to do so quietly and patiently. Then he wrote these words:

31 For the Lord will not
cast off forever,
32 but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
33 for he does not afflict from his heart
or grieve the children of men.

Lamentations 3:31-33 ESV

Though we are grieved today, that grief will not last forever because he is a compassionate God, and great is his faithfulness. He has set his sights on loving you, and his love is abundant. God does not set his sights on harming you, but loving you.

You may be in a time of great distress, but God wants to forge in you a hope that can’t be taken by anything life can throw at you. He wants to develop on you a hope outside this world.

He will not leave us to suffer forever, though he may for a while longer. Jeremiah wasn’t delivered right away. In fact, it got worse for him. He was put into a pit, put into stocks, then he was taken against his will to a foreign country. Tradition has it that he was stoned to death by his fellow countrymen who were tired of hearing his pronouncements of judgment.

So was Jeremiah’s hope misplaced? Was he a fool to find hope in the midst of suffering that never let up?

No, because Jeremiah’s hope was grounded in eternity. He knew that this life is not all there is. He knew he would one day enjoy eternity with God, free from all the trials and suffering he faced while on earth. This is critical to understand if you’re going to find hope in your suffering.

Ultimately, our hope in Christ is grounded in knowing we’ll spend eternity with Christ. Our hope cannot be rooted in anything of this world. Everything in this world can and will be taken from us, so nothing in this world is capable of bringing us hope.

Whatever you’re suffering through right now is difficult. It may be hard. It may be stressful. It may be debilitating. But if your hope is simply in your situation changing, then you will never find peace.

Jeremiah found peace because he knew his hope was in something outside the control of everything in this world. No man, no empire, no disease, no sickness could take it from him. That’s why he said, “he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love.” And the fullest expression of that compassion is found in the sacrificial life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

The fact that Jesus lived a sinless life, died a sacrificial death, was resurrected from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of God is proof that God is overflowing with steadfast love and compassion. And he has poured it out on you and me.

May the right knowledge of God lead you to hope in God. May his faithfulness encourage yours. May hope be developed in your waiting. And may that hope be grounded in eternity.

Why Funerals Are Better Than Weddings

In some of the oddest-sounding sections of the Bible, Solomon writes, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart” (Eccles. 7:2).

Yes, Solomon said it is better to go to a funeral than a wedding. Why? Because the house of mourning is the end of all mankind—it’s where each of us is headed—and those who recognize this fact will reflect on how they spend their days.

Read the rest of my article at Gospel-Centered Discipleship.

Five Steps for Assessing and Applying Technology

Since the dawn of man, life has continued to increase in complexity at a more rapid pace. Each societal, cultural, and technological change requires wisdom for how to navigate the new, more complex world. Complexity requires wisdom.

We used to have decades, or even centuries, to develop a base of wisdom through living and thinking deeply. But that world no longer exists.

Remarking on this in the preface to his book The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch writes, “the pace of technological change has surpassed anyone’s capacity to develop enough wisdom to handle it.” His point is that technological change is coming much faster than we’re able to develop wisdom about how to assess and apply it to our lives.

Fortunately, believers like Crouch, John Dyer, Tony Reinke, and Albert Borgmann, among others, have laid the groundwork for us to begin developing wisdom about the technology we’re surrounded by.

Based on my survey of Christian and secular literature on the topic of technology and how it’s affecting us, I suggest five steps for assessing and applying it to our lives, which can be summarized with the acrostic LEDER:

  1. Learn broadly
  2. Evaluate biblically
  3. Discuss communally
  4. Engage skeptically
  5. Revisit regularly

I’ll walk through each of these in more detail below.

Step 1: Learn broadly

When beginning to think through any form or application of technology, the first step is to learn broadly. To learn broadly about a subject is to study it generally and widely. This means Christians should be well-informed about new and old forms of technology.

Learning broadly can help keep us from jumping to incorrect conclusions or beginning with false assumptions. For instance, many Christians make assumptions about technology because of their personal views. When they do this, they make uninformed decisions that are either isolationist (no tech at all) or overly accepting (no tech is bad)—neither of which is healthy.

What, then, should Christians be aware of when learning broadly about a form of technology?

We cannot think well about technology without understanding its purpose, use, values, and tradeoffs. If understood, these four areas will give one a broad enough knowledge of the subject, leaving them well-informed to make decisions. (For more on these four areas, read this.)

In his seminal book Technology and the Contemporary Life, Albert Borgmann, a Catholic philosopher doing great thinking on the subject, suggests that instead of living our lives according to the values of new technology, people should determine their values first and attempt to use their tools in service of those values.

This should be what Christians are after—to use technology in the service of their values. But to do so, we will have to learn broadly about the tools and devices of our day.

After you’ve learned broadly about technology, step two is to then biblically evaluate a specific form or application.

Step 2: Evaluate biblically

As believers in the God of the Bible, Christians must submit all of their thinking and behavior to that described in the Bible. This means returning again and again to the Scriptures to see what Christian doctrine teaches us about our identity and values.

The Bible has much to say about who Christians are supposed to be and what is supposed to mark them, from compassion for the poor to those who hold marriage to be sacred, and much, much more.

God is not silent on his values, either. Most notably, he handed down Ten Commandments written in stone to reflect their never-changing nature (Exodus 20). So while the Bible is seemingly silent on virtual reality or artificial intelligence, it is not silent on values, morality, and identity.

Technology brings with it its own morals and values that have the power to shape our identity. The Christian’s job is to see where there are areas of overlap or incongruence with their biblical worldview, then act accordingly.

John Dyer sums this up well:

“Our task as believers is to work against the tendencies built into our devices, and to in effect become a predator of the media in the ecosystem of our lives. . . . Christians who live God-honoring lives in the digital world are those who can discern the tendencies built into all technology and then decide when those tendencies are in line with godly values, and then those tendencies are damaging to the soul.”

Step 3: Discuss communally

God’s people were never meant to exist alone. They were always meant to live in a loving, sacrificial, and social community. When it comes to evaluating technology, that community can be a source of wisdom, insight, and discernment that proves valuable to a Christ-follower seeking to live faithfully in the digital age.

This can take the form of simple conversations with one’s small group or fellow believers, more formal conversations with pastors or denominational leaders, or trial and error within the context of one’s own family.

Technology is too complicated and its implications too broad to try and come to conclusions on our own. God’s people must consult the best of familial, ecclesial, denominational, and historical wisdom to help them navigate technological considerations. (John Dyer has rounded up a helpful list of resources on technology. His site Don’t Eat the Fruit is also worth following.)

Step 4: Engage skeptically

Once you’ve learned broadly about a technology, evaluated it biblically, and discussed it within your community, you should have the information needed to determine how, when, and how often you will engage with it. But regardless what conclusion you arrive at, it would be wise to engage the technology skeptically.

The reason for skepticism is because technology’s values are usually opposed to Christian values. While this does not always have to be the case, the reality is that humanity is sinful. Dyer explains,

“What the Scriptures call our ‘flesh’ is that part of us that is always bent towards self, at the expense of others and the exclusion of God. Our flesh, then, will always gravitate towards technology that favors the individual over the group.”

Just as Jesus did not entrust himself to men because he knew what was in their hearts (John 2:24), Christians should not entrust themselves to technology because they know its natural bent. We should engage it skeptically, asking questions along the way about how it affects us, including how it affects our family, community, and society.

This doesn’t mean we can’t find true joy in using technology but that we should be wise and realistic about its uses and effects.

Step 5: Revisit regularly

If steps one through four above were followed, you would have entered into (or continued) a relationship with a specific technology skeptically, questioning its use along the way. Such questioning should be revisited regularly.

Once you’ve adopted a technology, you have ample experience to reflect on its positive and negative effects. For example, you can reflect on how it has affected you emotionally, mentally, relationally, physically, and spiritually.

One way to help sort out a technology’s effect is by limiting or abstaining from the use of it for a time. Removal of the device or tool will highlight the value assigned to it. A healthy way to start is by building a practice of Sabbath into your life, resting from work and technology.

If you follow the five steps of LEDER (learn broadly, evaluate biblically, discuss communally, engage skeptically, and revisit regularly), you will no longer be driven and tossed in the wind by the powers-that-be in Silicon Valley.

As people of the Word, Christians should be LEDERs when it comes to discussing, innovating, and engaging with technology. But unless we do so with wisdom, we’re bound to create idols which work against our values.