prayers matter and often make the needed difference

We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He who rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to rescue us; on him we have set our hope that he will rescue us again, as you also join in helping us by your prayers, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.

2 Corinthians 1:8-11

I think we often underrate just how important prayer is. Both the prayers prayed for us as well as the prayers we pray for others. And I’m not just talking about prayers that feel inspired, which I think or at least I can say in my own experience seem relatively rare. I’m referring mainly to the prayers that we continue to pray, regularly for others, as well as during times of special need. Usually I feel little or no inspiration at all, and am simply plodding along, lifting the person up to God, and going on to the next person and persons.

I do know by experience the difference prayer can make when others are praying for me. I’ll send out an SOS asking for prayer, and often immediately feel and sense, as well as eventually see results.

Paul did this, and it was in the context of his apostolic service with those who served with him. The prayers of the church made a needed difference. Paul himself was dependent on the prayers of the believers, of the faithful. Certainly true of us as well.

That’s the way God has made it. God makes us interdependent, in a certain sense depending on each other. While our full dependence is on God, expressed in prayer for ourselves and for others. In and through Jesus.

how do we grow? trials

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

James 1:2-4

I recently heard a pastor say essentially that we don’t grow except through trials. I don’t know if that’s an overstatement. They have been in the ministry a good number of years and are older than many of us themselves, and I know they have far more wisdom through that pastoral experience and in their lives than I do. It seems to me we might mount an argument from passages like 2 Peter 1 to say that growth can occur apart from trials. But it does seem true to a significant extent as we consider our own lives and the lives of others. It’s so easy to drift, which results in actually diminishing in our spiritual life. We probably don’t just remain the same. We are probably growing or losing ground. Well, that’s some speculation.

But we’re clearly told here at the beginning of this letter how we’re to approach trials of any kind. That we’re to consider such as nothing but joy. That is not easy to swallow, but that is to be our mindset and attitude. It is sadly easier to wallow in fear, despair and grief. Instead we’re to approach each in an active faith, as well as passive in the correct sense, that of receiving from God. And we’re to look at life that way, all the problems and troubles we face, and again, whatever kind they might be. No exceptions.

I find this so helpful myself. There are many reasons left to ourselves to be down in the mouth and simply wanting to escape. But God wants us to meet all of life head on, but in full dependence on the Lord, along with interdependence on each other. But finding our way so that we can stand on our own, but only because of God, along with the help of others along the way. What God has for each one of us. In and through Jesus.

it takes a community

I myself feel confident about you, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able to instruct one another.

Romans 15:14

While this is pulling a passage out of context, nevertheless the main point Paul made from this verse is true: We in Christ are in this together, and we all need each other. And each and everyone of us has our part to play. It’s a matter of learning to discern together what the Spirit of Christ is saying to us, and what the Spirit is doing. This is not a lone ranger faith, but one in which we are dependent on God and interdependent on each other.

Other places make it clear that God gives leaders to help the body grow and who are responsible for oversight (Ephesians 4; Hebrews 13). But though they have their special role, they too are blessed by the give and take in the body of Christ, in community.

This needs to be emphasized in a culture in which the individual largely takes priority over community. That is a flaw. Each of us are valued as individuals in community. Yes, God values each of us individually, but we find our true life, even ourselves in community, along with others. We fit together as one, learning to settle into our God-given place, giving and receiving. In and through Jesus.

healthy spiritual eyesight in the present dimness

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.

1 Corinthians 13:12a

“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”

Matthew 6:22-23

I wish it were otherwise, but it seems that spiritual insight just isn’t as bright and clear here often enough to go enough beyond some creedal affirmation, which very well may be sincerely believed, but is too often not sufficiently felt. But when we are in those too rare times when we’re flooded with light as in the Presence of God, it seems like the other, sadly more normal experience is like a memory which we hope does not return. But alas, all too easily it does in this present existence.

Jesus makes the stark contrast between those whose eye is full of light and those whose eye is full of darkness. I think we would need to see this especially in the context of Jesus’ teaching in this Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere. And doing so, I also tend to think or at least wonder if what is referred to here is not so much the actual experience of either the light or darkness, but instead whether or not we’re committed and set to walk in the light of God in Jesus spelled out by our Lord, or whether we’re sidetracked elsewhere. The sidetrack may be due to our weakness, though it may simply be part of the spiritual battle we’re in, even sometimes a combination of the two.

Jesus might tell us not to be discouraged when we’re struggling in the shadows and even darkness in our experience. But that we’re instead to be looking to him, “the light of the world” (John 8:12). Intent on listening well and soaking in his teaching in the commitment to follow him along with others to the very end. In and through Jesus.

in praise of being lowly (and my change in my main Bible translation)

Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.

James 1:9-11; NRSV

At first when reading this from the NRSV, I disliked the rendering “lowly.” I preferred the NIV‘s “the believer in humble circumstances” which after all, I’m quite used to. And a side note here: I am switching for the time being anyhow, to the NRSV as my own main translation. All of my opinions are gathered from experts. And I especially appreciate discernment formed within community. The NIV is great at what it does, both accurate and clear, good English basically accessible to all. The NRSV seems to be very good at what it does. But not good English and that’s because it gives us more exactly the way it was said, maybe the more precise meaning without trying to put it into the way we might say it today like the NIV attempts to do and I think does quite well. The NIV has been my main Bible the vast majority of my years (now decades) as a Christian. So I do grieve over the change, though I still always can and will at times refer to it. The NIV and especially the 2011 revision (in part from the TNIV, which used to be my favorite) is quite good. This seems to me to be a good take on a few current Bible translations: Choosing a Bible Translation.  We surely have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to English Bible translations. But now back to the main point of this post.

Lowly at first came across to me poorly, like an outcast within different cultures. It’s not necessarily more accurate than “in humble circumstances,” or the way the CEB translates it, “Brothers and sisters who are poor…” Maybe the last two more precisely catch what the issue is: those in need compared to those who have more than enough. But lowly also captures something of the twist James makes, that such are raised up or exalted. It is interesting how many of the poor have faith, whereas many of the rich struggle with faith, or so it seems. We see this in life, and it’s noted on the pages of Scripture, our Lord himself making that clear. So lowly here probably does mean those who struggle in this life, either not having enough, or just scraping through to make it day after day.

I like the term “lowly” because it seems to me that this can be a benefit for those of us who for one reason or another, probably a number of reasons are not well set compared to others. When compared with the rest of the world, like someone wisely said, those of us living here, at least the vast majority of us have won the lottery. So it’s relative of course. But the sense of being lowly is surely a blessing. It speaks of dependence on God, healthy interdependence in a give and take relationship with others, and the realization that all is a gift from God. In and through Jesus.

“in acceptance lies peace”

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:7b-10

It is not fun to live in weakness. Ask someone who suffers migraines, or some other physical pain. Or those who suffer from depression or whatever other malady.

One of Amy Carmichael’s poems I think provides some wisdom, entitled, “In Acceptance Lieth Peace.” That is what Paul had to do. Naturally he asked the Lord, even pleaded with him to remove the thorn in the flesh, even a messenger of Satan to torment him. Who wants to live in torment?

But God taught him a deeper lesson. Unfortunately for many of us who probably live with something far less than what Paul experienced, we can easily give in to despair. Or just plain refusing to accept the difficulty we experience, whether inwardly or outwardly.

Instead we need discernment from God to accept what we can’t change ourselves. I have found over and over again in my life, when I finally accept the brutal rough patch, God’s comfort and peace, yes God’s help comes.

I like the fact that the door seems so wide open as to what the weakness might be. We’re not talking about actual sins, though in the weakness the temptation to sin in one way or another is certainly present. We have to learn to embrace our weakness, and weaknesses which surround that. For example my weakness might make me want to isolate so as not to be exposed when God instead wants me to learn a healthy interdependence with others. And above all, a new dependence on him. In and through Jesus.

James’s ending note: community life

Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

James 5

James certainly talks about relationships in the community of faith in his letter. But community life is saved for last, perhaps because that’s where James’s heart is as a pastor.

It’s not like the community of believers are to take the place of God. As James notes, anyone in trouble should pray and those who are happy should sing songs of praise to God. All of this is dependent on God. There’s a dependence on God and from that, an interdependence on each other. God made us for him, and for each other. We can help each other as we receive help from God, or with the help we receive from God.

When someone in the community is sick, they’re to call on the leaders of the church to pray over them, anointing them with olive oil as a symbol of healing. And the leaders are to pray over them, and the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well, and their sins will be forgiven. This implies any needed confession of sin by the one sick. But includes those not aware of any such need for confession, except for acknowledgment of the everyday sins and weaknesses we all carry, which might be affecting us more than we realize. I think of James’s warning against judging each other, and how the Lord judges such. And all his words against loose, careless speech, particularly as described in James 3, straight from the pit of hell. The healing in the context seems to be more or less connected with confession of sin, though not necessarily so.

And then there’s the word of encouragement concerning our prayers, probably especially encouraging the elders who pray, but also anyone else in the community of faith. Elijah is seen as extraordinary, including his prayers and God’s answers, but as James notes, he was just an ordinary human being with the same passions and struggles as the rest of us. If God answered his prayers, God will answer ours. Being righteous in James is more the character of righteousness we receive and mature in, than the standing which especially Paul talks about along with its character. We are always in need of God’s forgiving, cleansing grace, but we are not to excuse ourselves and our sins, and then expect to be heard by God in prayer. But when we are confessing, and doing our best to be obedient people, growing in grace, then our prayers will matter much.

And then the closing word on rescuing the one who is wandering from the truth in the error of their own way. Nothing less than saving their souls from death is at stake here. The community is not to let them go, but to try to bring them back in. And what’s implied here is that we as individuals our involved. One of us from within the community can make the difference as we step in and reach out to help the sinner in need repent. This takes much grace, but we are called to this for each other.

Deb and I are part of an evangelical mega church in which is emphasized the row (weekend worship service), the circle (small group), and the chair (personal devotions). We plugged into a small group early on, and it’s been as great a blessing as all the rest. People can receive some of what James refers to in the weekend gathering, and especially so in smaller churches. But a small group of say eight to twelve people, committed to each other in love and prayer, can make the needed world of difference.

What James calls us to at the close of his letter. What we need, and what the world needs to see from us together. In and through Jesus.

dependency on teachers

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. As a result, many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.

Acts 17:11-12

As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him.

1 John 2:27

As it is well said, it’s better to teach a person how to fish than make them dependent on someone who fishes for them. The best teachers in the church are those who help the listeners grow up into maturity in the faith through the gospel, and be not only students of the word, but lovers of God and people. Of course that love rooted in the gospel which is the expression of God’s love to us and to the world in and through Jesus.

Poor teaching and teachers make people dependent on them and their books. The older I get, the less I take notes. I used to be a big note taker. At the same time though, the older I get, the more I appreciate teachers who make one think, and challenge their faith in ways which build us up toward being more like Jesus, and knowing God better. In the ways of faith and love.

The passages quoted above tell us to keep searching the scriptures, and that means all of them, the Old Testament as well. And to trust the Holy Spirit to help us right now, today, and in the long haul as well.

We need understanding for life, which scripture is meant to give us. Life in community in Jesus, and for others for whom Jesus died, which means everyone.

But again Jesus makes himself and God’s good news and will known by his Spirit, using teachers, but not dependent on any one of them.

dependence on God and the peace that follows

You will keep in perfect peace
    those whose minds are steadfast,
    because they trust in you.
Trust in the LORD forever,
    for the LORD, the LORD himself, is the Rock eternal.

Isaiah 26:3; NIV

You will keep the mind that is dependent on you
in perfect peace,
for it is trusting in you.
Trust in the LORD forever,
because in the LORD, the LORD himself, is an everlasting rock!

Isaiah 26:3; CSB

You keep completely safe the people who maintain their faith,
for they trust in you.
Trust in the LORD from this time forward,
even in Yah, the LORD, an enduring protector!

Isaiah 26:3; NET Bible

The NET Bible note on one key difference in the translation we’re focusing on here (see the entire note for explanation of why the nation is in view rather than individuals):

In this context שָׁלוֹם (shalom, “peace”), which is repeated for emphasis, likely refers to national security, not emotional or psychological composure (see vv. 1-2).

We are blessed today with reasonably priced Bible tools on line. My guess is that the Logos Bible software is as good as they come, but I haven’t looked into it. Yet it’s amazing what we have at our fingertips that is completely free (the first level of Logos is free as well). I use Bible Gateway, and sometimes the NET Bible with its substantial extensive notes.

Putting all of this together on this well known verse of scripture, it seems that what is probably spoken of here is the shalom which includes all human flourishing. Yes, safety from enemies, in the note above, “national security,” but contrary to that note, “emotional” and “psychological composure,” as well. The Hebrew Bible context of shalom is a fulfillment of what a people, including individuals were created to be: blessed to be a blessing. So that actually both the NET Bible rendering, along with the more traditional understanding of that passage are likely apt together. Although the same word can have different meaning depending on its context.

A key help for me is from the CSB rendering which brings out the need for dependence on God. Add to that this insight from John N. Oswalt in the first volume of his outstanding Isaiah commentary:

To experience the security of God’s city one thing is required: a fixed disposition of trust. This is the opposite of James’s “double-minded man” (Jas. 1:6-8) or Jesus’ servant of two masters (Matt. 6:24). This person has cast himself upon God without any reservation. To trust one’s ability partly and God partly is the surest prescription for insecurity and anxiety (8:11-22; 57:19-21). That person will never know the wholeness (shalom) which having all his or her commitments in one place may mean. This is not to say that we denigrate or deny God-given abilities. But it is to say that we refuse to believe the lie that we are independent and have in ourselves the keys to ultimate success in life. The person who…steadfastly looks to God can know an inner oneness which makes possible a confident outlook on the darkest scene. For our mortality, short-sightedness, and weakness, we receive in exchange God’s immortality, omniscience, and omnipotence. That is security.

So the crux of the matter of entering into and holding on to a faith which lives in this peace is a complete dependence on God. Of course not denying our own abilities, but not depending on them, either. Our very thoughts as well as actions are to be dependent on God, and not on ourselves, or anyone else. That’s of course not to say that God won’t use other’s thoughts, maybe even our own seemingly, to direct us. The point that must not be lost by us is that we need to commit ourselves to a dependence on God which is fixed, regardless of how we feel and the circumstances we are going through. It involves a commitment which is to help us to a fixed disposition in which we live.

One of my go to passages again comes to mind:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:6-7

That is one concrete way we can deal with the inevitable problems and troubling thoughts that will come our way. And we’re to cast what burdens we have on the Lord.

For me, again, the bottom line is dependence. If I depend on God, I won’t be depending at all on myself. If there’s even a little dependence on me, then my dependence on God for all intents and purposes is null and void, empty.  And in all of this as God’s people, when we consider the Isaiah 26 passage along with the rest of the Bible, we’re all in this together, so that somehow there is an interdependency among us all. One indication in Galatians 6 where we’re told to carry each other’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.

And so if I am troubled over something, that’s a sure sign that I need to hand what troubles me over to God, to relinquish any thought that I might somehow be able to figure out and fix the problem. Of course, I may factor into God’s answer. But my part and set disposition should be to trust it entirely into God’s hands and therefore to simply do nothing, to let it go. Until I get a sense of what God might want me to do.

Something I continue to aspire to and work on so as to confirm and grow in the change into which I’ve recently entered. In and through Jesus.

one of my go-to books and passages to help me when I feel either on edge, or overwhelmed

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

2 Corinthians 12

Life can seem overwhelming to me much of the time. People around me may not know it from simply watching or interacting with me, but if they get to know me well at all, they’ll realize that I feel pressure about this and that. Challenges are of course a part of life. Some people don’t seem to struggle any with ill feelings, but I’m not one of them.

2 Corinthians starts out with Paul acknowledging despair for good reasons, even to the point of giving up on life entirely. But with the helpful twist that he felt the sentence of death in himself, so that he might no longer trust in himself, but in God, who raises the dead, and who would deliver them from any deadly peril which faced them. The letter ends with the same theme, highlighting Paul’s own weakness, and then that of our Lord’s in his crucifixion.

I find it most helpful again and again and again, world without end, to accept the difficulties, and hard places. To simply accept them, period. Not radical in understanding, but radical in meaning, indeed. But for the same reason spelled out by Paul in the passage above (click the link to read it all): to help us be more completely dependent on God. I would like to add from other places in scripture, also more interdependent on each other, for that is the way God would have it. Even in 2 Corinthians, Paul is working with others, so that it’s a team. We do well to share our struggles, or what we might call over-burdens with each other for needed empathy, possible counsel, and prayer. At the same time learning to carry our own load better, while casting on the Lord the things which weigh us down. Above all, as 2 Corinthians makes clear, and especially this passage, we need to learn to accept and even come to delight in our weaknesses, in order that we might experience the Lord’s help and strengthening.

Something I can easily forget, but which I need to remember more.