It’s Your Choice

Since we have a Father God who knows what we need before we even ask Him . . .

“Pray, therefore, like this: ‘Our Father Who is in heaven, hallowed (kept holy) be Your name.’” Matthew 6:9 Amplified Version (AMP)

Just this first sentence of the sample prayer that Jesus shares is powerful. He then goes on to give us the entire prayer as an example of how a God-follower can actually converse with the Creator of the Universe.

That we CAN talk to God is unbelievable. But add to that the fact that He WANTS us to have an intimate relationship with Him and to be comfortable carrying on a conversation with the One all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful, all-creative, never-ending being who IS LOVE is enough to make my brain hurt.

And it humbles me. To the point that the only response I have is to offer Him all I’ve got. Which I then discover is nothing, because He owns everything I have. He’s given it all to me.

He gave me life. He gives me each breath. He provided a way for me to have eternal life through the death of His Son Jesus. He even gave me the faith to believe so I could experience that provision. And he gives me the praise I give Him as my response to His infinite love for me.

So what exactly can I give Him?

The only thing I find that I actually own is my will. My choices.

That’s how He created me. And you. I believe He gave every human being free will because He didn’t want a family of robots who HAD to love Him and do whatever He told them to do. He wants children who CHOOSE to love Him in response to His perfect love and to obey Him because we trust His infinite goodness.

Each individual gets to choose whether to love Him back or not. We get to choose whether to live our life for Him or not. We can choose to live for this world and all it has to offer us. Or we can choose to live our life focused on God and what He has planned for us . . . which is always GOOD. (Jeremiah 29:11)

Not good like chocolate cake and candy for every meal . . . which is what a child might think is good. But good like healthy food in healthy portions and regular exercise and sufficient sleep every night. That kind of good.

God knows exactly what you need in your life to become the person He created you to be, to fulfill the purpose He created you for, and to be ready to do the good works He has prepared for you to do. The way we become that person and fulfill that purpose and do those good works is to surrender our will to Him and follow His loving plan for our lives.

And that’s what this prayer is all about. Your choices. Your will.

It’s all you’ve got.

I’m Out of Control

In the previous two verses, Jesus talked about our motivation for praying.

In today’s two verses, He talks about the mechanics of praying.

Just as He did when He talked about motivation, Jesus again tells us what NOT to do. He says NOT to pray like the pagans. Specifically He says not to “keep on babbling.” The Amplified Version says “heap up phrases” and adds “multiply words, repeating the same ones over and over.”

He says the reason they did this was because they thought God would hear them if they kept talking.

The Amplified Version references the event on Mount Carmel where Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a prayer showdown. Baal’s followers prayed to him all day long, but to no avail. They didn’t shut up all day. And Baal never answered them. Ever.

I wonder why Jesus had to tell His followers not to babble. He wasn’t talking to pagans. The people He was talking to weren’t praying to an idol that couldn’t hear them. They were praying to Jehovah.

And yet He still felt they needed this instruction. Apparently they did.

Apparently we still do.

I love the way He gently reminds them (us) in verse 8 that “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

Yes.

Yes, He does.

But apparently I don’t always remember that. Because I have been known to babble when I pray. Especially when I’m in pain or someone I love is in pain and I KNOW there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s totally out of my control.

I wonder if that could be part of our problem. Control.

Being in pain or loving someone in pain and realizing you have absolutely no control over the situation can be agonizing.

And making the decision to let go—to give up all your attempts to control and manipulate the situation (and God!)—feels a lot like freefalling. Without a parachute. Knowing that if God doesn’t come through for you, the crash at the end of your descent will be catastrophic.

But that also sounds a lot like faith.

Could that possibly be the way God wants us to live life? Trusting Him to lead us. Trusting Him to protect us. Trusting Him to provide for us.

Trusting Him to know and do what’s best—for us and those we love. Even when things look and feel like they’re out of control?

Especially when things look like they’re out of control?

And could that possibly be the reason He sometimes allows us to be in those situations—to give us another opportunity to learn to trust Him more?

When we pray about those situations, we don’t need to repeat ourselves. God already knows . . . everything. Including how we feel about how He’s responding. That doesn’t mean He doesn’t want us to tell Him what’s on our hearts and how we feel about it. I just don’t think He wants us begging or babbling—acting as if He either doesn’t hear us or doesn’t care. Like the pagans and their gods.

God hears us and He cares. More than we know.

We can trust God to do His job—which is to take care of us on our journey of becoming more and more like Him and bringing His kingdom to earth.

And if we do that, our prayers will be full of faith. And they’ll sound a lot like the model prayer He shares next.

I’m gonna shut up now before I start repeating myself.

And everyone said, “Amen.”

Application Questions:

  • When was the last time I babbled while praying?
  • What issue am I praying about that I would like to be able to control?
  • What is it about God’s response that makes me wonder if He either doesn’t hear me or doesn’t care about my problem?
  • How have I seen God work in a similar situation?
  • How well am I doing my job—of trusting God to take care of me and those I love?

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Matthew 6:7-8 New International Version (NIV)

“And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

Prayer Jeopardy

Jesus teaches about prayer in Matthew 6:5-15.

 

The first couple of verses (5-6) are about our motivation for prayer. He gives an example of the wrong way to pray and then he gives instructions on the right way to pray.

 

Jesus illustrates the wrong way to pray by telling how “hypocrites” prayed. I assume He calls them hypocrites because of the way they were praying—pretending to have a close relationship with God when what they really wanted was the admiration of men.

 

These religious people would find the most public place available—the local synagogue or a street corner—and they would stand there and pray. I don’t know if they prayed aloud or if they piously closed their eyes and prayed silently. It really doesn’t matter because their purpose for praying was to be seen by the people around them.

 

Jesus says that is the wrong motivation. He also says they received their full reward by praying like that. They were after people’s attention and admiration and possibly to upgrade their religious reputation, and that’s the reward they received.

 

But that was all. God apparently doesn’t reward that kind of prayer.

 

Next Jesus gives us some instructions on the right way to pray.

 

I love what the Amplified Bible says—“. . . go into your [most] private room” and close the door. This is such a polar opposite of where the hypocrites prayed – in the most public arena they could find. This description suggests a very intimate relationship and conversation.

 

Then He says to pray to your invisible Father – which makes me wonder who the hypocrites were praying to. Or if it even registered as a prayer at all in God’s opinion.

 

Jesus says if you pray to God like this—in secret, where no one else sees you—your Father in Heaven sees you and will reward you.

 

Let’s see . . . Man’s Approval and Attention or Rewards from God. I’ll take Rewards from God for $200, Alex.

 

 

Application Questions:

 

– What is my overall motivation for prayer: my reputation with people or my relationship with God?

 

– When did I last pray like a hypocrite—saying something to impress the people listening?

 

– What was my reward?

 

– Where is my private place to pray?

 

– How often to I go there?

 

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Matthew 6:5-6 Amplified Bible (AMP)

 

Also when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by people. Truly I tell you, they have their reward in full already.

But when you pray, go into your [most] private room, and, closing the door, pray to your Father, Who is in secret; and your Father, Who sees in secret, will reward you in the open.

Prayer Motivations

Here’s a blog post about prayer that I wrote a few years ago. It ‘fits’ what Jesus says in Matthew 6:5-6, so I thought I’d share it again.

 

My pastor read an interesting verse in our service last night. I Corinthians 4:20. It says “. . . the kingdom of God is not a matter of TALK but of POWER.” The verse fit perfectly with his sermon . . . which was the third in a series entitled “The Kingdom.” The sermon was based on Matthew 11 and was (obviously) about God’s power.

But the verse also fit perfectly with what God has been talking to me about recently. I’ve been in the book of Matthew for the past 18 months. (That’s not so bad. I spent 5 1/2 YEARS in Psalms before that. What can I say? I’m analytical!) And every time I turn around (so to speak), Jesus is verbally going at it with the religious leaders. (And it seems to me that Jesus is usually the instigator!)

What I keep seeing in this book is that these ‘religious’ people REALLY get under Jesus’ skin. He calls them out for what they are (according to Him: hypocrites, snakes, white-washed tombs, etc.) and He doesn’t cut them any slack.

Today I was reading in Matthew 15 where Jesus is explaining that breaking a rule (eating with unwashed hands, according to the religious leaders of His day) is not what makes you unclean (unholy, not right with God). He says that we’re unclean based on our heart . . . the hidden us . . . the us no one can see except God. And He says that what is in our hidden heart (thoughts, attitudes, prejudices, etc.) will become evident on the outside. Our outward actions will eventually reveal our inward heart. (That’s my simplistic interpretation, anyway.)

So I started thinking about application for me today. The ‘religious’ rules are different now. In my world, we’re not so much concerned with the ritual of washing our hands before we eat (not for religion’s sake anyway . . . maybe for our health!). But what if I see someone bowing their head in public before they begin their meal? Do I automatically judge them as righteous? Close to God? Good Christian people? Okay, so what if someone doesn’t bow their head and pray? Do I assume they’re unrighteous? Estranged from God? Ungrateful?

And what about me? When I bow my head before a meal is it: (1) so that those around me will think of me as ‘religious,’ right with God, a good Christian; (2) so that God will see me and remember how ‘good’ I’ve been and how grateful I am and add another gold star beside my name; (3) because it’s the ‘right’ thing to do as a Christian to set a good Christian example? Or is it (4) an automatic response at this particular instant in time of a grateful heart that’s been carrying on a silent conversation with its Creator all day long?

There have been multiple times when I’ve done each one of these. And there are those times when I don’t do any of them . . . I just start eating!!! But I think what God has been trying to tell me (again!) through my recent study of Matthew, is that anything other than number four puts me in the ‘religious’ category in His book . . . . . . and based on Jesus’ run-ins in Matthew, that’s not a good place to be.

There’s a fine (and INVISIBLE) line between DOING ‘good’ things (RELIGIOUS!) and BEING ‘good’ (REAL!) from the heart out.

And I think the more REAL I am, the less RELIGIOUS TALKing I’ll do and the more of God’s POWER will be evident in the way I live my life.

Mindless Eating

It’s been about four years since I totally changed the way I eat. Prior to that I had done yo-yo dieting for a good portion of my life. The way I eat now is very satisfying and I rarely have cravings.

Another benefit is I no longer do mindless eating.

For those of you who have never struggled with this phenomenon, let me explain what it looks like.

For me it mainly had to do with chocolate. I would occasionally open a new package of Oreos after lunch, and before I knew it, half of them had disappeared! Sometimes the entire package would be gone before dinner.

The sad thing was I wouldn’t remember eating them. I would just sit there reading a book or watching TV,  mindlessly devouring one cookie at the time. For hours. Occasionally I would look at the package and be shocked at how many times my hand must have reached in there and pulled out another Oreo that somehow made its way to my mouth and into my digestive tract.

It was an amazing feat. Too bad I didn’t have a cell phone with a video camera back then. I could have made a fortune on YouTube.

Something about today’s passage reminds me of this phenomenon.

Matthew 6 starts out with a warning. Jesus tells us to be careful what our motives are for doing good deeds (practicing our righteousness). He says that if we do them in front of other people, in order to be seen by those people, that’s all the reward we’ll get. God won’t reward us for them.

Then he applies the warning to three of the ways we practice our righteousness. The first one is giving to the needy.

Apparently when Jesus was on the earth, the religious leaders had a habit of announcing their good deeds so everyone could see them. Some would even have a musician blow a trumpet to get everyone’s attention when they were about to give a coin to a beggar. They wanted their acts of charity to be enjoyed by everyone. It didn’t matter where they were, on the street or in the synagogue, they wanted to be sure everybody saw who they were and noticed how incredibly generous they were being to the people who unfortunately were not so fortunate as them.

Kinda makes you want to throw up, doesn’t it.

I don’t know anyone today who blows trumpets to announce their donations, but there are other ways of getting people’s attention that are just as obvious.

It’s difficult—if not impossible—to give without at least one person knowing about it. Even if you make a donation online when no one else is around, someone who works at the charitable organization has a record of your donation and will be sure you get a receipt.

But Jesus is talking about your motivation for giving—not necessarily the anonymity of your gift.

WHY are you giving?

– Are you giving to make yourself look (and feel) good and generous?

– Are you giving so your good deeds might detract other people (and yourself . . . and possibly even God) from some not-so-good deeds you’ve done?

– Are you giving to make yourself look and feel like you’re pleasing to God? (Psst . . . you already are.)

If so, I think Jesus would say the same thing to you today . . . you have your reward. You look and feel good and generous. You’ve detracted the attention from your other deeds. And you look and feel like you’re pleasing God.

Jesus says in Matthew 6:3-4 that the kind of giving to the needy that God rewards is done in secret. And it’s the way he describes “in secret” that reminds me of the way I used to eat Oreos.

Jesus says you give “in secret” by not letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing. That sounds an awful lot like mindless eating.

I think this means that your giving is so automatic you don’t even realize you’re doing it.

You see a homeless person at an intersection and you automatically pull out your wallet and give him cash. Or grab your extra bottle of water and hand it to her. Or pull the fast food gift card out of the glove compartment and bless them with a meal.

Or you see a neatly dressed man standing on a corner with a placard announcing he’s been laid off and has three children to feed. Your heart aches for him and his family and, without thinking, you drive to the nearest ATM, take out some cash and go back and hand it to him while his eyes fill up with tears.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with planned giving. Or regular giving. Those are an important part of our faith walk. And I believe God blesses us for those gifts—when our motivation is right.

But I think God is just crazy about mindless giving! Those times when our hearts are pierced by the need we see in someone and our automatic selfless response is to share with them what He has blessed us with. I think that kind of heart motivation grabs His attention. And gets us rewarded.

It’s not something we can plan and it’s not something we want to control. Heck, our left hand won’t even know what our right hand is doing! And we want to keep it that way.

Like me mindlessly eating a whole bag of Oreos. Only much better. For everyone involved.

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Matthew 6:1-4 English Standard Version (ESV)

“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.

“Thus, 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.

Murder, Adultery, Divorce . . . Oh My!

Jesus talks about some pretty heavy topics in the remainder of Matthew 5.

 

When Jesus started talking about murder, I have a feeling most members of his audience thought . . . “Whew! I’m innocent of this one.”

 

But unfortunately, for them and us, Jesus didn’t stop with just the act of murder. He also talked about anger and insulting language and grouped them in with the act of murder.

 

So Jesus starts off talking about murder—the final outcome. But then He went deeper–back to the anger that eventually resulted in the murder. And then He went even deeper–back to the insulting language that possibly ignited the entire situation.

 

It’s like He’s peeling back the layers of an onion until he finally gets to the heart of the matter.

 

And that’s what He wants to show us–the HEART of the matter.

 

 

 

I attended a conference at my church a couple of weeks ago and heard some excellent messages. During the first message, one statement that really grabbed my attention was that God is not focused on our BEHAVIOR. He’s focused on our position in Christ. Hang in there with me.

 

The speaker went on to say that in order to live the life we were created to live, we have to live it focused on the same thing . . . who we are in Christ–who He is and what He’s done for us and what He’s given us and where He’s positioned us. The speaker said that when our life’s focus is this truth–that we are a son or daughter of God–who loves us without measure no matter what–and when that kind of thinking permeates our thoughts, THEN our behavior will begin to change to match who we know we are.

 

 

 

So in these examples that Jesus shares in Matthew 5, I believe He’s saying: I’m not focused on your outward behavior.

 

Is murder wrong? Yes! Does God hate murder? Yes!

 

But I believe Jesus is saying that since it’s not just the FINAL OUTCOME that’s wrong, that’s not where the remedy is needed. The ‘wrong’ starts long before the murder takes place. It even starts before the anger begins.

 

It goes all the way back to how you talk to someone or talk about someone. The words you use to describe them. Possibly the insults you sling in response to THEIR bad behavior.

 

And your words are chosen by what you think about other people.

 

And what you think about yourself.

 

I think the audience had probably started squirming by now. Because even though they probably hadn’t literally murdered anyone, their insulting language (even if not spoken aloud) and the resulting anger had moved them a long way down the path.

 

Jesus went on to use the same layer-removal treatment on several other popular laws: adultery, divorce, oaths, retribution, and even the Old Testament adage to love your neighbors and hate your enemies.

 

In every situation, He dug down to the heart of the matter.

 

Because He’s not focused on the final outward expression of our thoughts and beliefs and attitudes. He’s focused on their origination.

 

And He knows that if we’ll stop focusing on trying to do certain things and not do certain things . . . and instead focus our thoughts on who He is, what He’s done for us, the fact that He’s given us everything we need to live the life He created us to live, and the fact that we are His child and He loves us unconditionally and without measure . . . the outward expressions of our lives (our behavior) will begin to line up with our belief system.

 

So what does your behavior say about what you believe? Does it line up with who God says you are? With what He’s done for you? With where He’s placed you in Christ?

 

If not, a shift in your focus may be just what’s needed.

Go Figure

Matthew 5:17-20 Living Bible (TLB)

17 “Don’t misunderstand why I have come—it isn’t to cancel the laws of Moses and the warnings of the prophets. No, I came to fulfill them and to make them all come true. 18 With all the earnestness I have I say: Every law in the Book will continue until its purpose is achieved. 19 And so if anyone breaks the least commandment and teaches others to, he shall be the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But those who teach God’s laws and obey them shall be great in the Kingdom of Heaven.

20 “But I warn you—unless your goodness is greater than that of the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders, you can’t get into the Kingdom of Heaven at all!

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Today’s passage talks about Jesus fulfilling the Law and the Prophets.

I love how the Living Bible says that He didn’t come to cancel anything but to “make them all come true.”

I once read that the odds of one man fulfilling just 8 of the prophecies about the Messiah could be demonstrated by this visual:

Take silver dollars and cover the state of Texas two feet deep. One of the silver dollars has a big “X” on it. Blindfold a man in Texas and ask him to walk as long as he wants to walk in whatever directions he wants to go and then to pick up one silver dollar.

The odds of him picking up the one silver dollar with an “X” on it are the same odds of any man fulfilling just 8 of the many Old Testament prophecies pointing to the Messiah.

And yet Jesus fulfilled all of them. He made “them all come true.”

He also fulfilled the Law.

The Law was given to mankind to show us that there is no way we can ever be good enough to be ‘right with God.’ Galatians 3:21 says, “For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law.” Jesus came and showed us what real ‘right standing with God’ looks like and in the process followed the Law perfectly.

But Jesus also warns us in this passage that living life focused on the Law is not what God is looking for. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were doing that and Jesus tells us that our righteousness has to be better than theirs or we can forget about entering the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus didn’t live His life focused on the Law. He lived it focused on an intimate relationship with His Father. Numerous times He said that He only did what He saw His heavenly Father doing. And He only said what He heard His heavenly Father saying.

And by doing that, He kept the Law perfectly.

The Pharisees lived their lives focused on keeping the Law and ended up living in opposition to God. In fact, they killed Jesus–who was following the Father’s Law perfectly.

Go figure.