“Teach Me the Patience of Unanswered Prayer”

Prayer,Spirituality | Posted by: Editors

By Andrew Davis, Senior Pastor

“A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, ‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.’ Jesus did not answer a word” (Matt 15:22–23).

It can be severely trying and highly perplexing to us to cry out to Christ in prayer for something, and to have Him seemingly pass by without saying a word. Unanswered prayer is one of the hardest tests of faith. In the account cited above, a Canaanite woman followed Christ crying out for Him to heal her daughter. But Jesus did not answer a word. How striking is this! How shocking, really. Yet, how true also to our own experience. Most of our prayers go unanswered, at least at the moment we speak them. We get no “angel visitant, no opening skies,” and we rise from our prayer time with no sensory evidence that our prayers got any further than the ceiling when we uttered them. Faith alone enables us to walk away from the hour of prayer confident that God has heard.  Yet, we are urged to persist, to persevere, to “always pray, and never give up” (Luke 18:1). That means we are to keep asking until God answers! And how frequently does He makes us wait!

Richard Sibbes, 1577–1635

In 1639, the great Puritan pastor Richard Sibbes published a sermon entitled “A Breathing After God,” subtitled “A Christian’s Desire of God’s Presence.” In that message, which he based on the text “As a deer pants for the water, so my soul pants after you” (Ps 42:1), Sibbes took up the issue of why God makes us wait in prayer. He discerned five reasons:

1. God loves to hear the desires of His servants. God enjoys being pursued, being sued unto, because He knows it is for our good and His glory. If He were to give us what we want immediately, we would spend less time asking for it.

2. God desires to keep us in a perpetual humble subjection and dependence on Him. Our hearts are prone to independence and self-reliance. God yields to our requests little by little to keep us in humble dependence on Him. If God immediately granted to us anything we ask, we would grow pompous toward Him, forgetting who is the Master and who the servant!

3. God seeks to exercise all our spiritual graces, for a spirit of prayer is a spirit of the exercise of all grace. We cannot pray but that we exercise faith toward God, love for His church, sanctified wisdom to discern what are the best things to be prayed for, and the mortification of the fleshly desires that take us from God. All these graces grow stronger the longer we pray. Sibbes also said that the spirit of prayer itself is usually better in God’s sight than whatever we’re asking for!

4. God also would have us set an ever higher value on what we are asking for. The longer we ask for something the greater we desire it. God finds our desires too weak, and His delay in answering our prayers helps us value it properly and to be filled with incredible joy when it is finally granted.

5. God instructs us during the delay, so that we might better use what we are asking for when we get it. Without the delay, we would not have time or cause to think how the matter fits into God’s overall plan for the world. 

In 1854, George Croly wrote the classic hymn, “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart.” In the fourth stanza, he wrote, “Teach me to feel that Thou art always nigh; Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear. To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh, Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.” In our modern Baptist hymnal, some editor thought it would be best to change the final line to “Teach me the patience of unceasing prayer.” Croly’s original is far better! God has enrolled us in the school of unanswered prayer that we may grow in Christ. Do not murmur under this discipline, but pray all the more!

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On the Mortification of Sin: Practical Steps

Christian Living,Spirituality | Posted by: Editors

By Andrew Davis, Senior Pastor

I love to read the Puritans, and few books have had a more practical effect on my Christian life than John Owen’s little book, On the Mortification of Sin in Believers. That doesn’t mean that Owen is easy to read—he’s not. But his rich thought on the importance of Christians battling with their sin is worth the work it takes to understand his style.

We’re commanded in Scripture to holiness. “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Pet 1:16; Lev 11:44, 19:2). It should be our desire as Christians to grow in holiness, and for this reason, there are few battles more bitterly fought than the battle with indwelling sin. It is absolutely essential to our Christian joy and fruitfulness that we be about putting sin to death; and even more significantly, it is absolutely essential for us to put sin to death if we are going to glorify God in this life.

So, back to Owen. When I preached on Colossians 3:5–9 in 2007, I gave a list of twelve practical insights on the mortification of sin from Owen, and I have found that list to be helpful in my own life and the lives of others in our church body. Below is that list with a few brief comments:

1. Believe in Christ and repent of your sins. The fight against sin is a fight for Christians. Non-Christians can’t fight this battle, and trying to do so might cause one to misunderstand salvation—that salvation can someone be earned by works.

2. Determine to fight this vicious battle daily. Owen: “There is not a day but sin foils or is foiled, prevails or is prevailed upon; and it will be whilst we live in the world.”

3. Rely on the Holy Spirit, not your own ability or strength. It’s clear according to Romans 8:13 that it is only “by the Spirit” that we can put sin to death. The Spirit equips us for this battle, leads us to the battle, and empowers us to kill sin at the moment of temptation.

4. Be cross-centered. The cross has power to make the world look as spiritually dead as it really is. Sin cannot be killed all at one; rather it is crucified and bleeds to death over the remainder of your life. Fertile meditation on Christ’s blood shed on the cross has permanent sin-killing power.

5. Understand what mortification is—and what it’s not. It is a habitual weakening of sin’s root, as how a victim dies on the cross—gradually, slowly losing power. It is a constant fighting against all indwelling sin with no rest—both offensive and defensive. Offensive by doing what most frustrates sin; defensive by preparing for sin’s sudden lunges at us. It is not to kill a particular sin completely, for that is impossible in this life. It is not to allow sin to conceal itself and then reappear in a different guise.

6. Resolve to fight sin on all fronts. Learn to hate sin—all sin, any sin, sin itself—as the vile virus of evil that it is. Learn to see sin in the light of the glory of God and what an affront it is to him.

7. Study the lusts that are attacking you: Learn to discern particularly dangerous lusts or sin habits that trouble you. Study how those sin habits gain control over you when they do, then ask God for help in doing battle.

8. Labor on your heart. Increase a sense of the shame you will feel on judgment day in giving Christ an account. Increase a sense of the vileness of sin and of its sheer ugliness. See it in light of eternity. Get a constant longing and breathing after freedom from this sin.

9. Crush sin early in the battle. Fight hard against the first risings of temptation in your heart.

10. Deal thoroughly with sin in confession and repentance. When the Spirit convicts you of sin, do you feel the pain and deal with the cause, or do you block it with painkillers? Don’t be too quick in confession. Pause and hear the Spirit speaking his grief into your spiritual ears.

11. Be filled with the Spirit and all of his graces. The Spirit fights sin mostly by making righteousness and holiness so beautifully attractive. The fruit of the Spirit flow from a heart filled with the Spirit. Be filled with the Spirit and sin will appear more and more repulsive to you.

12. Be optimistic in Christ: Owen: “Christ’s blood is the great sovereign remedy for sin-sick souls. Live in this and you will die a conqueror; yes, you will, through the good providence of God, live to see your lust dead at your feet!”

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Looking through the Lord’s Supper

Church,Spirituality | Posted by: Editors

By Nathan Finn, Elder

A couple of weeks ago, I preached a sermon at FBC Durham from 1 Corinthians 11:17–34. I titled my message “The Lord’s Supper and Gospel Unity,” which seems to me to reflect the main point of Paul’s teaching in the passage. The Lord’s Supper is an ongoing reminder that within the body of Christ, the divisions of the world have been done away with through the saving work of Jesus Christ.

In preparation for the sermon, I was reminded of a way of thinking about the Lord’s Supper that I’ve heard before on several occasions, though I never knew the source. It turns out that Michael Green probably first made the case for this approach in his commentary To Corinth with Love (Hodder & Stoughton, 1989), pp. 46–49. The idea is that the Lord’s Supper urges us to “look” in several directions.

1. We look back to the death of Christ
2. We look inward in self-examination
3. We look up in fellowship with God
4. We look around in fellowship with each other
5. We look forward to Christ’s return
6. We look outward to proclaim God’s word to others

I think this is a very helpful way of meditating on the meaning and purpose of the Lord’s Supper. I would add a seventh “direction” for unbelievers who might be present for a communion celebration. The Lord’s Supper calls upon them to look “Christ-ward” to the One whose perfect life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection is the only truly good news in a world of bad news.

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Reading the Bible for Spiritual Formation

Spirituality | Posted by: Editors

By Nathan Finn, Elder

Alister McGrath

Alister McGrath is perhaps the most well-known evangelical theologian in the world today. He is the author of dozens of books that range from constructive monographs to seminary textbooks to semi-scholarly biographies. Many folks don’t know that McGrath is also a scholar of Christian spirituality. His book Christian Spirituality: An Introduction (Blackwell, 1999) is one of the standard evangelical handbooks on spirituality.

I was recently reading an article by McGrath titled “Encountering Biblical Spirituality,” which is available through the Metamorpha Ministries website. After discussing the famous Westminster Shorter Catechism assertion that humanity’s “chief end” is to “glorify God and enjoy him for ever,” McGrath offers the following principles for going deeper in our faith through our personal devotional reading of the Bible:

1. When dealing with a biblical image, it is essential to pause and allow the passage to generate a mental picture. We have to enter into the world of that image. We need to project ourselves into the image, and become part of it, experiencing its richness and implications. Our faith stimulates our imaginations as well as our minds! One of the reasons why writers such as CS Lewis and George MacDonald enjoy such popularity is that they nourish both reason and imagination.

2. When dealing with a gospel story, we must enter into it, standing alongside those who witnessed the saviour of the world. We need to meditate on these gospel narratives as though they were happening in the present moment.

3. When dealing with a biblical idea or theme, it is not enough to understand it. It needs to be applied to our lives, so that it becomes a lived reality, rather than an abstract and lifeless notion. Christianity is not simply about ideas; it is about the transformation of spiritual reality. It needs to become real to us, instead of just rattling round inside our minds.

I think McGrath is very helpful on this point. You can read the whole article at the Metamporpha website.

My own practice is to (normally) work my way through the Scriptures every year according to some reading plan. There is a temptation, at least for me, to read for content and completion more than personal application and spiritual formation. McGrath’s principles seem like a helpful way to guard against these temptations. Another great suggestion comes from Don Whitney, who argues in many places for the practice of praying through the Scriptures we have just read in our devotions.

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Editor’s note: This article was originally posted on Nathan Finn’s personal website, nathanfinn.comImage credit.