Praying God’s Word
Well, Happy New Year, all of you here and all of you on livestream! It’s so good to have you, especially those who are battling illness, the Renewal ladies! We pray God’s blessing on you!
We are, as Tim mentioned, going to begin just a very short series today, and I want to begin by considering the tension that the Bible is very clear about and that is the tension between the mundane and the miraculous. The Christian life is a merging of the mundane and the mysterious or the miraculous. What do I mean by that? When Jesus taught, as we heard last year in our study of Mark, in Mark 4:26 regarding his kingdom he said,
“The Kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how.”
Now what is Jesus telling us there? In one sense, the Kingdom of God is so mundane, like a farmer who just gets up each morning and plows and plants and plows and plants and sleeps and rises … tedious, tiresome, mundane, methodical, very human. But yet, in another sense, the Kingdom of God is so mysterious because, like the farmer, the seed sprouts; he knows not how. What does he mean by that? Well, the farmer may not understand the science of germination or photosynthesis. And even if he does, even if he’s able to explain it, he can’t force it, produce it. He has no control over that. And so with the Kingdom of God, we are called to a daily, methodical, what often feels like mundane existence, and yet in the midst of that, God causes it to grow.
Paul used a similar illustration when he was talking about the hardships, the suffering of the Christian life. In 2 Timothy 2:6, he said,
“It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.”
And then he throws out at the end what feels like a throwaway sentence.
“Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.”
Do you see the tension there? “Think over what I say.” That’s a command, will to will. Engage your brain. God gave you a brain. He wants you to think with it. He wants you to work and sweat mentally. Do word studies. Learn the history. Go to seminary. Read good books. Wrestle with the text. “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.”
And some of you are thinking, “Wait a second. If he’s going to give me understanding in everything, why do I have to think over what he says? Just do it. Just give me understanding.” But do you see the tension? God grows us through the mundane and the mysterious, the miraculous. What feels very mundane — that we get up on a rainy Sunday morning, and we gather, and we open our Bibles, and we engage our brains, and we work hard to understand the text, and we take notes — this feels very methodical, very human, very mundane. And yet in the midst of that, God causes life to appear. And he alone can do that, and we can’t. No preacher, no church leader, no worship leader, no one can make that happen but God. God is the only one who can cause it to grow, to bring life, to turn the mundane into the miraculous.
And so in light of that, we want to take a couple of weeks now, this Sunday and next Sunday, as we begin what we call Formations, that is, like Tim said, a mini-series that will be sprinkled throughout this year. So, we’ve got our big series coming up at the end of the month that will take us through winter and spring, and then we’ve got other big series coming up later on in the year we’ll talk about. But sprinkled throughout the year, we will have some of these Formations, where we’ll take a week or two and talk about a spiritual discipleship skill, a formation skill. These practices that in one sense, can feel mundane, like fasting or feasting. Singing, solitude, working, resting are all spiritual formation skills that can feel very mundane. But yet in the midst of those, when we do them in the power of the Spirit, God works miracles through them.
So, for our first Formation skill, we’re going to talk about praying God’s Word. And I want to begin with seven reasons to pray God’s Word. And I know I don’t need to convince some of you. You already do it on a regular basis. But for others of you, this might be new, and you might wonder, “OK. I understand ‘study the Bible,’ and I understand ‘prayer,’ but you’re mixing those.” Yes, praying the Bible. Why?
Number one — It helps prevent distraction. For people like me … I was diagnosed ADD as a kid … praying the Bible is a really helpful skill. When my mind gets distracted, the next verse brings it back. It helps prevent distraction.
Number two — It reroutes prayer ruts, reroutes prayer ruts. What do I mean by that? Do you find yourself praying clichés? “Thank you for the day. Bless him real good. Give us traveling mercies (whatever those are). Bless the food and the hands that prepared it.” There’s nothing wrong with those prayers, and your prayers don’t need to be novel to be spiritual. However, some of us can fall into, and I’m speaking to myself, can fall into vain repetition, where we’re just speaking words, but we’re not really thinking about what we’re praying. When you pray the Bible, that helps reroute some of those prayer ruts so that you understand, Lord, I’m asking you for this, and this is why, because you told me to. I’m praying your Word.
Number three — Praying God’s Word builds confidence that we are praying God’s will. When we are praying the Spirit’s inspired words back to our Father in Jesus’s name, promises become provisions. Promises become provisions. God is highly motivated to do what he’s asked you to ask for. Are you following that? He’s telling you, like a parent training their child, “We’re going to go to these people’s homes, and you don’t say, ‘I hate the food, OK? You got that, kids? You say, ‘Thank you very much,’ or ‘No, thank you.’” This is what you say in this context. God has done the same thing with us. He’s taught us what to say to him because he’s highly motivated to do what he’s asked us to ask for.
Let me give you an example. Every morning when I pray the Lord’s Prayer, at times I find myself praying it as thanksgiving, just naturally, because when you’re praying what God told you to pray, it’s as if he’s already done what you’re asking him to do. Our Father in heaven, thank you that today you’re going to hallow your name, not my name, your name. Today your kingdom is coming to Taylors, to my life. Give me eyes to see that your will, which is already being done in heaven, is going to be done in Greenville today, and you’re going to give me everything I need. Give us our daily bread. Forgive us our debts. Thank you, Jesus, that you have washed away every debt, and there are many that could be pressing down on me now, but you have washed them all away through Christ as I forgive my debtor. And Lord, thank you that you’re going to lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from evil, for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.
And so what begins as praying the Bible ends as a praise session because God is highly motivated to do what he’s asked you to ask him to do. Does that make sense? It builds confidence.
Number four — It helps offset our personality extremes. What do I mean by that? Well, some of us talk too much. So, when you pray the Bible, it forces you … In order to pray the Bible, you first have to what? Read the Bible. Listen. Listen first, and then speak. So, for those of us who talk too much, it slows us down and puts us in a place where we’re listening first.
Some of us don’t talk enough. We don’t have words. We get alone with God, and we’re just frozen. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to pray good prayers like that person at church that sounds so spiritual. I don’t know what to say. And so praying the Bible gives you words to pray. So, do you see what it does? It takes the too-talkative and it quiets us, helps us listen. It helps the not-talkative-enough to have words when we’re frozen and don’t know what to say.
Number five — It gives us words also when we are in shock. This summer, when we received the news of my wife Karen’s cancer diagnosis, and I began reading the stats online, which you should never do, the survival stats. It can take your breath away. And so, there are times where you wonder, “Lord, I don’t even know, I don’t even know what to say.” And I found myself praying Psalm 73:26 over and over again:
“My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
In a quick read, you miss it, but as you begin soaking on this promise, for example, you realize, OK, my flesh and my heart will fail. There are times when that’s going to happen. Even someone like Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, eventually grew old and died, right? So, we’re going to fail. But what if God is the strength of my heart, and God is my portion forever? The solidity and confidence that brings as you pray to your Father, that we can’t lose in this! And I know that doesn’t answer all our questions, but it sends us in a trajectory that is very different than our hearts tend toward.
Number six — It exposes blind spots, exposes blind spots. When we pray the Bible, and this is similar to number two, rerouting prayer ruts, but it’s deeper. Praying the Bible helps protect us from what Matt was talking about last week at the end of his message: a reactive Christianity. Often in our lives, we look around at our culture or maybe your experience, your experience growing up, and we see certain parts of evangelicalism that we’re concerned about or hurt by. And so we run from that as far as we can, and we end up falling off a cliff on the other side. For example, if you grew up in a legalistic home, you can say, “I don’t want anything to do with that, that law stuff, and I’m going to run the other way. I’m going to be all about love.” And then you end up becoming an antinomian. You didn’t know that. Anti-, nomos = law, someone who sees no role for the beauty of the law and its proper place, no role for God’s truth and how vital it is that we see his heart and delight in what he delights in.
So, praying the Bible, and I mean the whole Bible, gives us a protection from reacting to one thing and running to the other extreme to such an extent that we fall off the cliff, and then our kids grow up and do the opposite. And you get this flying back and forth and missing the heart of God. I challenge you sometime, if you haven’t done this in a while, to pray through the Ten Commandments with gospel eyes. It is a humbling and exhilarating experience. Praying the Bible exposes blind spots and protects us from reactive Christianity.
Number seven — and this is the big one, the one that it all heads toward — It increases our love for God. As I just mentioned, many today pit truth against love: “You people are Bible people. I’m all about love.” Jesus would not understand that kind of dichotomy between truth and love. For example, he said in John 14:23, answering one of his disciples,
“If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.”
To pit love against truth is like a husband saying, “You know, honey, I love you, but I just hate listening to you. I don’t care what you say. Your words don’t matter.” Anybody knows that love doesn’t think that way. And so, Jesus is saying the same thing. You can’t pit truth and love against each other. Praying God’s Word is saying to God, “God, I delight in your Word. I value you. I love you. I want to hear what you have to say for me. Your way is the right way. My way will lead the wrong way if I don’t hear from you!” Praying God’s Word increases our experience of the presence of God and the love of God.
So, let’s practice with Psalm 1. Let’s do a quick overview of Psalm 1, and then we’ll talk about some practical steps in how to pray God’s Word, and then we’ll do it. Psalm 1 is the first Psalm (hence the name Psalm 1) in the largest book in the Bible on worship. So, if you miss Psalm 1, you’re going to misunderstand the book of Psalms, which is the largest book in the Bible on worship. It sets the trajectory of our worship. Psalm 1 is all about deep-rooted happiness, deep-rooted happiness, enduring happiness. And this is so vital today as depression is on the rise for adults and young people.
Verse 1 begins, “Blessed … Blessed is the man, the woman.” Blessed means persistently happy. That’s what I mean with the “deep-rooted happiness.” This is not being giddy. It’s not walking around with a silly smile on our faces. It doesn’t mean we don’t go through sad times or hard times, but it does mean through tears and through smiles, through pandemics and through political upheaval, the blessing he’s talking about here is not environmentally dependent. It’s not circumstantially driven. Psalm 1 paints a striking contrast between the blessed and the unblessed.
So, what is the difference between the blessed and the unblessed? Three differences — number one — different source, verses 1 and 2. The blessed have a happiness that is not flowing from human opinions, but God’s Word. Notice in verse 1, the blessed don’t walk, stand, sit in line with ungodly opinions, including my own. I’m in that, right? You’re in that. I don’t want to spend 2022 believing the lies in my own head. But his delight, verse 2, his pleasure is in the instruction, the direction of the Lord. God’s Word shapes our thinking and our living. We are, if we’re blessed, verse 2, meditating day and night in this delight, his Word.
Now, this can be confusing to some, because it doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy the food you’re eating, the friends you’re hanging out with, the work you’re accomplishing unless you’re quoting a Bible verse at the same time. That’s not what he means by “meditating day and night.” It means that God’s Word is the lens through which you look at all of life and interpret all those experiences. You can’t eat food, enjoy friends, accomplish work without doing it through the eyes of the One who made you for himself and the One who speaks clearly in his Word as to why he’s called you to do what he’s calling you to do, whether you’re eating or drinking or doing whatever you do to the glory of God. So, the blessed one understands the source of happiness is not transient human opinions, including his own, but God’s Word.
Number two — different upkeep. Verses 3-4, for the blessed’s happiness makes him like a tree, deeply rooted in sustainable nutrients, food and water. And the best way to understand the difference here, the upkeep difference, is verse 3 and verse 4 are in contrast: the tree and the chaff. The tree has these deep roots into sources of life-sustaining water, food — stabilizing, delighting. The chaff, what is chaff? That’s just the straw-like, light remnants after corn has been threshed. You know, it’s easily blown by every wind. It’s light. It feels free. I’m free to do whatever I want to do. I can blow this way, and I can blow that way. It’s not connected. But in the end, when hard times come, it has no root system. It is blown away by every wind, and ultimately, in judgment it will not stand. It has no sustainable source of joy. It has a different upkeep.
And then third — a different future. Verses 5-6, for the blessed, happiness is rooted in a covenant relationship with God. Now I know that’s a mouthful. The word “covenant” is simply an agreement, but it’s a binding agreement that is stronger and more personal than contract. It is a binding relationship, and you’ll see a glimpse of that in verse 6,
“For the Lord knows the way of the righteous.”
That word “knows” is a very strong word in Hebrew, “yada.” It was used in Genesis 4:1, “Adam knew Eve.” And it doesn’t mean he got her phone number. It’s much stronger than that. And same with Exodus 2:25, God knew his people’s suffering in Egypt. It doesn’t just mean “Oh, I have a people in Egypt.” It means he knows, he loves, and he acts on behalf of because he is in covenant relationship with, binding, steadfast love. This is what Jesus is referring to in Matthew 7:23, when people are flaunting, “Hey, I’ve done this in your name, and I’ve done this in your name,” as if our activities can produce a relationship, and he looks at them and he says, “Depart from me. I never [what?] knew you.” He doesn’t mean “I didn’t know your address.” “I didn’t know you. I wasn’t in covenant relationship with you.”
So, the blessed person is the one who knows that being known by God is more important than anything else about me. It’s more significant than what I’ve done or what’s been done to me. Being known by God is the difference of life and death. Look at verses 5-6,
“Therefore, the wicked will not stand [there’s no relational roots] in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way the wicked will perish.”
If we had time, we could march right through Psalm 2, and they seem to be connected because there’s an inclusio — bookends. Verse 1, “Blessed is the man.” Verse 12 of chapter two ends … Chapter 1 begins with “blessed.” Chapter 2:12 ends with “blessed.” And he’s talking specifically about the Anointed One, the King, the Son, who, the New Testament makes very clear, is referring to Jesus Christ in multiple references. Look at 2:12,
“Blessed are all who take refuge in him,”
talking about Jesus. So, the point of Psalm 1 is not, “Hey, you, if you don’t read your Bible enough this year, you’re going to perish.” No, it’s not a threat like that. The point of Psalm 1 is, deep-rooted happiness will only be found in one place, one person, Jesus Christ.
So, if you want to be blown around this year, like chaff, like straw in a gust of wind, that option is available. But Psalms is pleading with you: there is a better way. As coach Lou Holtz … I think it was him who said this (sounds like a coach) …
“Wanna be happy for an hour? Eat a steak. Wanna be happy for a day? Play golf. Wanna be happy for a week? Go on a cruise. Wanna be happy for a lifetime? Put your faith in Jesus Christ.”
That’s a deep-rooted happiness.
So, let’s practice. How do I start? If you haven’t prayed through God’s Word, here are some practical steps. Number one — I would encourage you to start with a psalm simply because …. You can pray anywhere in the Bible obviously, pray any passage … but Psalms were written for this purpose. So pick a psalm. We’re going to pick Psalm 1 today. Read through the psalm several times. And then begin praying through the psalm. How do you do that? Well, talk to God about what he’s saying. And as you do that, you can give thanks, intercede for others, ask for help, express awe. Let God’s Word catapult your thoughts and words to God. Delight in God’s presence. And if nothing comes to your mind … There are some mornings I’m praying through the Bible, and it’s just nothing there because I’m tired, I’ve got an attitude, or whatever it is. So, keep reading over and over again. That’s why I would encourage you to start with a passage that’s fairly short, like Psalm 1; so you can just keep marinating in that passage until the Spirit highlights something. And sometimes you’ll end up reading a large section, sometimes you’ll lock in on and pray for about one phrase that you’ll stay in.
Here are some helpful tips, and some of these came as our staff did this. It came from them. Journal your conversation with God. A lot of people find that super helpful. It helps bridle your thoughts. It also helps you return back to the prayers that God put on your heart to pray.
Number two — Paraphrase what you believe God is saying. And this can be really helpful with Psalms. If you, some of you, grew up memorizing psalms like Psalm 1. So, you can read it over and it’s just like empty words bouncing off your brain. They are way too familiar. So, when you’re praying that passage, you can say, “God, what I think you’re saying here is this.” And you paraphrase it, and then you go back and you look at the text … “Well, no, that’s not exactly it. Are you saying …?” And you have a conversation working to rephrase a passage that may be familiar to you, but it’s not settling into your heart. You’re just repeating words. So, paraphrase can help.
Third — Do the action of the verse, if appropriate. If it’s talking about bowing down, get down on your face. If it’s talking about raising your hands, raise your hands. Another one that helps me is copy the passage so you can mark it up. And I know we can’t do that this morning, but I’m very visually oriented. So, many times I’ll print out the passage I’m praying through, and I’m marking up all the connections, talking to God about them as they pop. And I don’t want to mark my Bible that much yet. And so copying it, marking it up can help.
Don’t let — And this is big! Please everyone hear this! — Don’t let the part you don’t understand keep you from praying the part you do. If you have a brain like mine, my mind goes right for the questions. Well, what does this mean? And why does he say it this way? And what about this and this and this and this and this? And I can spend my whole time asking questions, and there is a place for that. I love exploring those kinds of questions. But there’s also a time to say, “Lord, what do I know here?” And I would encourage you to do that in a moment when we take time to pray. “Lord, what is clear here? And I’m going to focus on that, and I want to talk to you about that part because I do understand the heart of what you’re saying here, even if I don’t understand every aspect.”
And then finally — Chuck the “pretty prayer” syndrome. Many of us are paralyzed from praying, and especially in public. And I don’t mean just groups this big, but even in our life group, we feel uncomfortable praying because we don’t pray pretty. God doesn’t care about pretty prayers. He wants us to share our hearts, to talk with him. So, talk to him. That’s it. If you hear nothing else … What does it mean “praying the Bible”? Talk to him about what he says, and it can be a life-transforming experience.
So, we want to do this. And so, I know for some of you, especially if you’re new to the church, I know it can feel a little uncomfortable because you’re like, “Wait a second. I came here to watch something, not do something.” No, no, no. Sorry! Worship is a participatory action. And so, we’re just going to take some time right now. I’d encourage you to open your Bible — if you don’t have a Bible, there are Bibles in the back seats around you — to Psalm 1 if you don’t already have it in front of you. And if you have never done this and you feel squeamish doing it, just tell God that: “God, I don’t know what I’m doing. So, help me know what to do and what to say.” And I would encourage you: just keep reading Psalm 1 over and over and over again until — and ask the Spirit to speak to you from his Word — until you begin to hear. Wow, Lord, you want me to hear this!
And so, we’ll spend some time doing that individually, and then I’ll come back up, and there may be a couple of you who, based on what the Spirit is saying to you from his Word, would feel led to pray for all of us a part of Psalm 1 for 2022. So, this is a great way to start out our year! Let’s start individually praying, and may God give us understanding.