Look at him

I watched most of the Super Bowl this past Sunday night, and though the anticipated tight competition never panned out, it’s still entertaining. Watching some of the world’s greatest athletes compete on a huge stage is fun. These guys, to borrow an expression from another sport, are good—they’re big, fast, and strong. So, yeah, they’re entertaining.

What I don’t like is the showmanship. It happens at every level, but it always ramps up in the Super Bowl. A guy scores a touchdown, makes a big tackle, or gets an interception, and jumps up and faces the crowd. Look at me! Look at how good I am! Don’t you wish you were like me? The choreographed dance moves change, but the message doesn’t. Me. It’s about Me.

I wish I knew otherwise, but there’s probably not that much difference between my attitude and the one of the guy dancing in the end zone. His stage is much bigger than mine, so more people are watching, but the temptation he’s succumbing to knocks on my door too.

It probably knows where you live as well.

Of all the things Jesus talked about in his greatest sermon, he didn’t address anything as deeply or as thoroughly as he did this. I think he might mean it.

He did it with giving, he did it with praying, and now he does it with fasting.

And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:16-18).

The Pharisees were the football show-offs of their day, only their audience consisted of the adoring Jewish masses, and their stage was every street corner in Jerusalem. They strutted around and hoped everyone would notice how incredibly religious they were.

Me. It’s about Me. Look at how much I give. Look at how long I pray. Look at how strictly I fast.

Change the characters, their clothing, their city, and maybe what they’re doing, and you might end up at my house or yours, or maybe the church you attend or the one I call home.

The stage might be Facebook, a blog, a church bulletin, or a church pulpit, but the temptation’s there.

Me. Look at Me. Look at how much I give. Look at how many church services I attend. Look at how many verses I quote. Look at how committed I am. Can’t you tell how much I love Jesus?

The problem now is the same as it was then—it never has been and never will be about Me. It’s about Him, and only Him.

And when it’s about Me it’s not about Him, and God simply will not accept things I do—no matter how “religious” they are—when I do them for an audience other than Him.

Him. Look at Him. That’s a brief but quite accurate way of summing up the entire life of discipleship.

Lead us not into temptation

We all need prayer primers, I suppose. Most of us have prayed thousands of times, but we’re like the apostles—they came to Jesus and asked him how to pray, even though they’d been praying all their lives. They heard him pray and realized they were missing something.

Every time I study the Lord’s Prayer, as I have with you over the past couple of weeks, I remember again how much I need to sit at Jesus’ feet and let him teach me to pray. Something jumped out at me today that you can probably relate to: It’s easy to get into a rut so that our prayers become mechanistic and ritualistic.

I’ve noticed that the emphases of my prayers don’t always line up with what Jesus stressed. I pray hard for my family, as you do, I’m sure. And I pray for other here-and-now things—people’s health, their grief, jobs, struggles, relationships, and so on.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but Jesus calls us to reach higher. He includes one line about physical things in his prayer—“Give us this day our daily bread”—but the rest is about eternal, heavenly things.

At the end he says: “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13). That, I think, is crucial. Jesus ends his prayer by focusing on our relationship to sin and evil.

Here’s a thought—Jesus cares more about your holiness than he does your happiness. The two don’t exclude each other, but he emphasizes what makes us more like him than he does on what brings us the most immediate pleasure.

It’s easy to get confused about that. It’s easy for me to ask him to protect my daughter at college and take care of my wife and keep my sons safe while they’re driving. But then sometimes I don’t pray about my relationship to sin as much as I should.

In this single request about temptation, Jesus brings us back to the reason he came to earth—to deal with sin. He didn’t come to give us a good job or a problem-free life or lots of things.

He came to save us. And really, that ought to be center-stage in our prayers.

So today, as you pray, talk to God about sin. Ask him to give you the courage to resist the devil’s tricks. Ask for the Spirit to give you the wisdom to discern the evil around you and the desire to avoid it.

Here’s an interesting analogy: Remember when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness after he’d fasted 40 days? At the beginning of that story, Matthew tells us that “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (4:1).

The neat thing is, God led Jesus into temptation so he could lead you and me out of it. The question here isn’t if God is going to tempt you or if he will lead you into temptation (he won’t). The question is, Will we depend on him for that deliverance?

As we’ve been forgiven

I like forgiveness quite a bit, don’t you? I like for my wife to forgive me when I’ve been rude or unkind. I like for my kids to forgive my impatience. I like others to extend heaps of forgiveness to me when I need it. I especially like God’s forgiveness. As believers, we revel in the fact that God doesn’t hold sin against us . . . that he removes our sins from us “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12).

We like that.

But there’s a part of forgiveness that’s not as easy to enjoy. Jesus mentions it near the end of his model prayer: “and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). And to make sure we didn’t miss that little phrase, he adds this postscript: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (vv 14-15).

“Forgive us our debts”—we like that.

“. . . as we also have forgiven our debtors”—not so much.

I’m not sure why it’s so hard to forgive others, but it might be that withholding it gives us a little power over them. We can use it against them at some point—“Do you remember when you . . . ?”

Or maybe it’s that we think they don’t really deserve it. They might not be completely genuine in their repentance. Maybe they’ll do it again. They ought to get what they deserve.

But Jesus calls us to a higher road, of course. He asks us to forgive as we’ve been forgiven, which means that we can’t forgive only those who deserve it. Remember—we don’t deserve God’s forgiveness either.

It means we can’t be concerned about their getting properly punished, because we don’t get the punishment we deserve. And it means we can’t hold a grudge over their heads, because when the Lord forgives us, he never brings it up again.

Are you holding something against your spouse? Are you nursing a grudge against a friend? Do you have something against someone at church? Is your relationship with one of your kids strained?

Relationships are always complicated, but the first step you might take is to forgive, to let the past go, to drop the grudge. It probably won’t be the easiest part about your walk with Christ, but it’s crucial.

We forgive because we’ve been forgiven, and we forgive so that we will be forgiven.

Our daily bread

I don’t know what hunger is, not really. For me, hunger is a feeling I get about halfway between lunch and dinner—in other words, not real hunger. “I’m starving” is an exaggeration we use when we’ve gone maybe an hour longer than we want to without eating.

In Jesus’ world, food wasn’t as accessible as a walk to the vending machine or a short drive to the grocery store. They weren’t always sure what they were going to eat that day.

That’s why the Lord’s Prayer included this phrase (one we don’t often use): “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11).

The correct translation is probably, “Give us this day our bread for tomorrow,” but regardless, it says something we need to hear.

God is the one who gives. We tend to think that we earn what we get. I work hard, so I deserve this house, that money, this food. Not so, says Jesus. The food on our tables and the clothes on our backs come directly from God’s hand. When we forget that (and stop praying about it), we develop an entitlement attitude that produces ingratitude.

We don’t need to let thoughts of the future consume us. God, please provide enough food for us for the next twenty-four hours. I find myself praying about things way off in the future, but I think Jesus is urging us to be more present-focused in our prayers. What do you need today? How many of our problems are things that may or may not happen for weeks, months, or years? There’s nothing wrong with talking to God about something six months in the future, but we ought to focus on today. After all, God will be there tomorrow when you get there.

We should pray for the food we need, not the fortune we want. Have you heard of the prosperity gospel? It’s attracting millions of adherents by promising material blessings in the name of Jesus Christ. Have more faith, pray a little harder, and especially, give more money, and God will make you healthy, wealthy, and wise. Name it and claim it, we’re told. Problem is, the Bible doesn’t teach that, not by a long shot. God cares about your happiness, but he’s more interested in your holiness. And he’s not particularly concerned with providing all of us with late model sports cars and designer clothing. Pray for what you need, not what you want—sometimes in the affluent West, we have a hard time knowing the difference.

Has it been awhile since you asked God to provide you food for the day? If so, it’s probably because we’ve started assuming that it’s going to be there because it always has been.

If you’re like me, Jesus gives us a needed corrective.

Give us this day our daily bread.

Your kingdom come

One day things will be as they should be, but right now they’re not. Our ancestors Adam and Eve headed down a dead-end street, and we’ve been trying our best to follow them for quite a while now.

And we’re getting good at it—just look around you. Please don’t read hopelessness here—we know there’s a better future—but sometimes it helps to look around us so that we can look ahead more clearly.

Maybe that’s why Jesus put this in his famous prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

This hope is at the center of our prayer lives: we want things where we are to become more like they are where God is.

Because of Monday’s holiday, Martin Luther King, Jr., has been in the news this week. His greatest strength was his ability to look at things as they were and envision how they ought to be. The catchiest part of his most famous speech echoes that vision: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

He knew—and all clear-thinking people knew—that 1960s America wasn’t as it was supposed to be. King and others helped our country recognize this, and they pointed us to a better future. I think most would agree that we’ve taken steps toward realizing King’s dream, though there’s still work to do.

His insight—the ability to see the world for what it was and lead others to a brighter future—is invaluable, and Jesus points us to that kind of conviction.

In heaven there’s no racism or ethnocentrism, so there shouldn’t be any here.

There’s no disregard for the sanctity of life there, and there shouldn’t be any here.

There’s no violence, no child molestation, no dishonesty, no gossip, no pride, no selfishness, and there shouldn’t be any here.

But seeing the need doesn’t make it so, of course, so where do we start?

I think we start where Jesus suggested—at God’s throne. Today in your prayer time, talk to God about the inequities in this world. Reflect with him about the awful things sin is doing in the lives of so many.

And then ask him to conform the world to his will. Ask him to change sinners. Ask him to change you.

Pray that more people will submit to Jesus as King and that his kingdom will be more fully realized in all of us. Ask him to make our world more like his world.

And then spend the rest of your day submitting to God as he uses you to make it that way.

Our Abba Father

When you think of God, what comes to mind? Is he stern or tender? Intolerant or forgiving? Demanding or patient? Distant or close by?

The way we look at God has been shaped by different factors, including the kind of Dad we had and how we learned about God early in life. If we grew up in a church that liked to talk about God’s judgment but rarely his grace, we might view God as an unrelenting, impossible-to-please taskmaster. If our church environment emphasized his mercy but never his holiness, we may think of him more as a permissive, grandfather-like figure.

So which is he? Loving or demanding? Merciful or holy?

Well, yes, of course. He’s both.

At the beginning of his most famous prayer, Jesus shows us that a one-sided picture of God is incomplete. Here are the well-known words: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name (Matthew 6:9).

The word Jesus used to address God here was probably Abba, because we know he used this word to talk to God elsewhere (cf. Mark 14:36). Calling God Abba was unheard of in the first-century world because it was so intimate. God was too distant and holy for Jews to speak to him in such a familiar way. That word was reserved for the family—a little child used it to talk to his Daddy.

Paul would later remind us that as God’s adopted children we cry out, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15). Don’t underestimate the significance of our being able to call our Creator our Abba Father.

But intimacy without awe is imperfect too, so Jesus balances Abba with these words: “in heaven, hallowed be your name.” God is also majestic and sovereign and perfectly unique.

God is right here beside us, so we speak to him intimately.

But he’s also our Father in heaven whose name is hallowed, so we address him reverently.

We might get off-center with either of these. Speaking to God flippantly and irreverently—or using his name profanely—means we don’t really understand who he is: a holy, sovereign, majestic God who reigns over the universe he created.

But speaking to God with language that suggests he is some distant Potentate who isn’t particularly interested in what we mere human beings might want means that we don’t really understand how accessible he is to us . . . how much he wants to commune with us. He doesn’t just rule the earth—he actually became one of us, something we don’t need to forget. The incarnation changed everything about how we talk to him.

So in your prayers today, talk to God frankly and openly. Like a Dad who listens to his child, God loves to hear your voice.

But speak to him with respect and awe. Isn’t it amazing that the One who spoke this world into existence and sustains it with his power truly cares about what you say?

It ought both to thrill and humble us to speak to our Abba, our Father, our Redeemer, our God.

Our Abba in heaven, hallowed be your name . . .

A few thoughts for those who struggle in prayer (which is all of us)

If you’ve ever started to pray, then you’ve struggled with prayer.

What do I say? How long should I pray? Is God even listening? What if I do it wrong?

I struggle as well, and I’ve got my own questions, but here are a few things I know:

  1. His answers don’t depend on the length of my prayers;
  2. He cares not at all for how good my prayers sound; and
  3. He’s not waiting on me to tell him what I need so he can make the right decision.

Here’s Jesus:

And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him (Matthew 6:7-8).

We’ve all fidgeted in our pews when some good Christian delivered a sermon disguised as a prayer, wondering how in the world somebody could pray for that long. And we’ve been tempted to judge someone’s motivation when he seemed a little too concerned about sounding eloquent as he prayed.

And then I’ve heard some new Christians whom we haven’t corrupted yet who pray some child-like prayers that I’m pretty sure get in God’s heart more than mine. They don’t know enough to ask the Lord to guide, guard, and direct us, but it seems like they’re talking to God like a little child with her daddy.

Please don’t get the impression that you can learn to pray by following a few rules—prayer doesn’t work that way—but here are some things that Jesus seems to be telling us.

Avoid the cliché-filled prayer. Jesus says not to use “empty phrases,” which is what a cliché is. Whatever we do repeatedly risks becoming meaningless. You can probably do your morning, get-ready-for-the-day routine without thinking about each step because you’ve done it a thousand times. Unfortunately, the same thing happens to our prayers. I’ve gotten to the end of a fairly lengthy prayer and realized I wasn’t thinking at all about what I said. So here’s a thought: slow down, and think about every word that you say.

Relax. God’s not looking for perfection. He doesn’t have his checklist out like a college professor making sure you meet all of his requirements. A good place to start is just to make sure you’re speaking to God from your heart . . . that you’re being honest with him. He already knows you were mean to the kids this morning, so why not talk to him about it? The anger you’ve got in your heart? He knew about that before he even created you, so don’t try to hide it from him. Just talk to him.

Pray a really short prayer, or a really long one—it doesn’t matter. Some of your prayers will last about fifteen seconds as you walk the sidewalk to your front door in the evening. Others might last as long it takes you to fall asleep, or as long as the drive is to work or the grocery store. And then you’ll have some that are like the ones Jesus prayed when he went off into the wilderness—a time of uninterrupted, focused communion with the Lord. But whatever you do, don’t worry about the length. Pray from your heart . . . God hears the ten-second prayer just like he hears the thirty-minute one.

My daughter’s in college now, and not once have I been disappointed to see her name and number pop up on my phone. I just like to hear her voice.

I suspect that’s something like what God thinks when we whisper his name in prayer.

A problem for religious folks

I don’t know of anything Jesus castigated more harshly than he did the sin of hypocrisy. You may remember the “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” lecture that he gave—his audience had no doubts about how he felt about the way they were living. He called them “blind guides,” “blind fools,” “whitewashed tombs,” “serpents,” and “brood of vipers,” among other things.

No, Jesus didn’t like hypocrisy, not even a little.

Still doesn’t. One of the worst things about it is that it happens to religious people—those who believe in God and who, in some sense, want to follow him.

I’m religious, aren’t you? You go to church, right? You like to pray and read your Bible and do religious kinds of things.

That’s why we of all people ought to listen closely to this, because he’s talking about bad places that religious folks like us can get sucked into.

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:5-6).

I like public worship, and I think it ought to be important to every Christian. But like other good things, Satan will do everything he can to use it to hurt us. One of his favorite tactics is to get us to forget the real reason we’re doing what we’re doing.

If you’ve ever led a public prayer or preached a sermon or taught a Bible class, you know the temptation. I wonder what people thought about that prayer? Did it sound okay? Did it sound spiritual enough? Man, I hope they liked that sermon.

Pretty soon it’s about me and not him.

I think that’s why God likes private devotion more than public praise. It’s a lot easier to be real with God when it’s just me, my closet, and him. There’s no one to impress there.

No one’s going to critique (or like) my sermon, no one’s going to be blown away by the eloquence (or stumbling) of my prayer, no one’s evaluating how well I’m doing whatever religious act I’m doing.

Just me and the Lord, and he doesn’t need me to show off.

That’s why everyone needs a private place to commune with the Lord. Yours might be the cab of your car on your way to work, or maybe a secluded park bench where you hide on your lunch break.

Or maybe your place is ridiculously hard to create because you’ve got a toddler or two who follow you everywhere you go.

Here’s the thing, though: our public worship is probably not going to go much higher than our private devotion, which I think is what the Lord’s getting at here.

When there’s no intimacy between us and the Lord on Saturday, the public stuff on Sunday might slide over into something we don’t want it to be—something like going through the motions just to put on appearances.

And Jesus, as we noted, doesn’t want that at all.

Look at me!

[Okay, so why did I drop off the devotional-writing map for two months, you ask? Well, I have some excuses, but none of them are very good. Truth is, I used the “I don’t have time to write today” excuse to myself, though I think that was just a different way of saying “I’m not going to make it a priority today.” Regardless, I hope you’ll forgive my little hiatus and join with me as we try to get closer to Jesus in 2014. I plan to write what I hope will be encouraging reflections on life and Scripture as we walk through this year together. It’s a little late, but happy new year! I look forward to sharing with you. To God be the glory. –Chuck]

Anonymous giving is fun, isn’t it? You write a note or send a gift to someone who needs it, but you don’t sign your name because you don’t want the person to feel obligated to return the favor. You just want to encourage, or maybe help.

But be honest—have you ever hoped that maybe the person would find out it was you?

Or maybe it wasn’t like that at all. Maybe it was about just normal Christian living—giving to the church, cooking a meal for a grieving family, or whatever—and you had the fleeting thought, “I wonder if anyone in this church knows how much I do to serve other people?”

Then you probably got rid of the thought as quickly as it came, because you knew what Jesus taught here:

. . . when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:2-4).

Truth is, Jesus is responding to a real struggle for many of us. He might be exaggerating when he talks about people blowing a trumpet, but not by much. Some people want everyone to know how generous they are, or how much time they give, or how many people they serve.

We’ve got to fight against that urge, but it’s kind of hard in our look-at-me world, isn’t it? A benefactor donates money to a hospital and then looks forward to watching his television interview. A politician points to his generosity as evidence that he’s truly compassionate . . . and he’d love to have your vote, of course. Watch the guy who scores a touchdown in one of the NFL playoff games this weekend—he’ll probably show off a few new dance moves in the end zone (“Look at me! Put me on ESPN!”).

Christians walk a different path, though, or we try to. We give to people and try to deflect any attention to the Savior we serve. We recognize our indebtedness to the one who gave himself for us, so we point people to him. We hope he’ll get all the glory, because he’s the only one who truly deserves it.

A few weeks ago scores of people in our church family donated dozens of hours of time, hundreds of food items, and who knows how many articles of clothing so that people in our community might have clothes to keep them warm this winter and food to keep them and their families full.

Why? To get their names in the church bulletin? To get a shout-out from the church pulpit?

I don’t think so. I think they did it so that God would get the glory and that maybe a few people would learn to call on Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

But they’ve got a reward coming, of course, as Jesus says. And that reward is infinitely more fulfilling than the fleeting praise of people here.

But what will people think?

It’s scary to admit how much we do to impress others—what John Ortberg calls “Impression Management.”

We shake our heads at the pressure teenagers are under to act a certain way to be accepted—or at least not rejected or made fun of—by their peers. But I’m not sure we ever get past that; it just changes forms. Why do we wear what we wear? It’s not mere comfort and warmth . . . we choose them to make an impression.

What people think of us influences what we drive, where we live (and how it’s decorated), how we talk and walk, everything. We keep it to ourselves, but we want to shape what people think of us: we’re smart, savvy, pretty, stylish, athletic, successful, well-read, funny, kind, or whatever. Impression management.

It even affects what we do religiously. There’s pressure at church—pressure to talk and dress and act a certain way so that we fit in, so other religious people know we’re part of the Christian “in” crowd. It shouldn’t be there, but it is, and always has been. Jesus warns us about it here:

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven (6:1).

Everybody at the front of the church building feels the pressure, of course. The preacher wants people to like his sermon, and the song and prayer leaders want to impress with their leading. But it’s happening in the pew as well. Ever found yourself wondering—just for a second—if anyone noticed how beautifully you were harmonizing in that last song? Ever hoped that people might find out how much you give to the church? (They might be impressed)

Have you ever gone to a church event because you were afraid of what people would think if you didn’t?

Ever picked out a dress for church and hoped that people noticed it?

Ever cooked a meal for someone and hoped word got out?

We probably need to hear these words from Jesus again. What we do religiously needs to be motivated by gratitude for what God has done for us, not to make people think we’re good or holy or righteous.

It’s amazing how quickly spiritual things can become self-centered, isn’t it? In fact, religion becomes negative when it stops being about God and starts being about us.

This would be a good prayer theme for today.

Lord, help me to obey you because of you. Help me to follow Jesus because of Jesus. Help me not to be merely religious, but to be you-centered. Create in me a heart that is concerned about what you think but doesn’t obsess over what others think.