Light to Live By

"The unfolding of your words gives light ..." (Psalm 119:130a)

Category: Prayer (page 1 of 4)

Those Inner Conversations

More than once Moses warned the new generation poised to enter the Promised Land: “Do not say in your heart …” (Deuteronomy 9:4a).

God is concerned over the self-talk of His people. It is what we “say in [our] heart” that is of consequence.

It is worth pointing out the obvious—God knows we talk to ourselves! These inner conversations are of constant occurrence. In fact, they can’t be turned off, only redirected. And that only by the grace of God. We see this warning repeatedly throughout the Old Testament. There are a number of ways to go wrong in talking to yourself.

1) The danger of self-congratulation.Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you.” (Deuteronomy 9:4; cf. 8:17)

The Israelites faced a danger from the seductions of the peoples of the land. Of this God constantly warned them (see, for example, the disaster at Peor, Numb. 25:1-9). But the ideas of others, as dangerous as they were, were not the only or even primary danger facing the Israelites. It was the conversations going on within their own hearts that made them especially vulnerable.

It is when we begin talking to ourselves about ourselves and our circumstances that we are in the most danger of going astray.

We all have this kind of self-talk going on within our hearts all the time. We see and experience and try to understand—but are prone to interpret and talk to ourselves in self-affirming ways (“because of my righteousness”). This stream of thought forms a jet stream that powerfully circles planet self, threatening to pull everything else into its flow.

What we fail to see is that God sometimes blesses one (in this case, Israel) because he is disciplining another (here, the Canaanites). We must talk and walk humbly. The reasons “why” our lives are as they are is much bigger than our performance before God.

2) We may err in our inner conversations by self-exaltation. We may not elevate others or our accomplishments over God, but we may elevate our very selves: “Now therefore hear this, you lover of pleasures, who sit securely, who say in your heart, ‘I am, and there is no one besides me; I shall not sit as a widow or know the loss of children’ (Isaiah 47:8). “I am” – that name has already been taken (Exodus 3:14); its Owner says He’s not sharing (Isaiah 42:8).

Self-exaltation was literally the problem of the Edomites. They dwelt in the physically lofty heights of a God-given land. They thought their elevated position made them untouchable. Thus they were warned: “The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rock, in your lofty dwelling, who say in your heart, ‘Who will bring me down to the ground?’” (Obadiah 1:3).

God did with the Edomites what he does with all who exalt themselves within their own hearts: “he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts” (Luke 1:51).

3) We go astray when we engage in self-dependence. The self-talk can also lead us stray in the opposite direction: “If you say in your heart, ‘These nations are greater than I. How can I dispossess them?’” (Deuteronomy 7:17). Instead of elevating ourselves and denigrating others, we may overly exalt them in our eyes—making them even bigger than God. And with God out of the picture all we have left to depend upon is ourselves. That leads to fear, paralysis and despair.

4) We err when we talk ourselves into self-justification. The people of Jeremiah’s day denied their hardships arose from their responsibility: “And if you say in your heart, ‘Why have these things come upon me?’ it is for the greatness of your iniquity that your skirts are lifted up and you suffer violence” (Jeremiah 13:22). Ultimately, denial of responsibility is a denial of hope.

But not all self-talk is bad-talk. The Bible depicts the power of telling yourself the truth.

Take, for example, David as he prays Psalm 62. He begins his prayer so positively and confidently: “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation” (v.1).

But, as so often is the case, things get difficult. Our confidence wanes. Our faith wavers. Our prayers change. By the middle of the psalm David is still praying. In fact he is still on the same theme with which he opened, but he has transitioned from talking to God, to coaching himself: “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him” (v.5).

This telling-yourself-the-truth kind of self-talk is the application of faith to a wavering, struggling heart. We talk to ourselves this way because deep down we believe Jesus was right: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31b-32a).

We talk to ourselves as a hold out for Jesus’ rescue, Jesus’ deliverance, Jesus’ promised freedom.

When we keep this up God’s blessings of freedom become increasingly real in our lives. Perhaps we even come to the place, as Isaiah predicted the people of Israel would, where we have to start talking to ourselves about the compounding, stockpiling grace He is pouring into our lives: “The children of your bereavement will yet say in your ears: ‘The place is too narrow for me; make room for me to dwell in.’ Then you will say in your heart: ‘Who has borne me these? I was bereaved and barren, exiled and put away, but who has brought up these? Behold, I was left alone; from where have these come?’” (Isaiah 49:20).

Don’t stop talking to yourself. Just start telling yourself the truth. And then keep it up. Those with ears to hear might hear the sound of heaven’s applause. Those with eyes to see might detect life, freedom and grace standing just off in the distance, rising with a smile on their faces as the conversation begins.

A Prayer for the New Year

Almost every day this past year I’ve been praying a borrowed prayer. It is a prayer first prayed by a suffering man, a desperate man, a man utterly at the end of himself. It is a prayer first prayed by Jeremiah.

Most days this past year I’ve concluded my morning time of prayer with Jeremiah’s cry to God, because it has become my cry as well. Might this become your prayer as well?

 “I know, O LORD, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps. Correct me, O LORD, but in justice; not in your anger, lest you bring me to nothing.” (Jeremiah 10:23-24)

Jeremiah prays of something he knows and he asks for something he needs.

There is something each of us must know. I, you, we, must know that “the way of man is not in himself.” By “man” Jeremiah intends not only males, but “man” as in humanity, mankind. What Jeremiah prays applies to every one of us.

When Jeremiah speaks of “the way” he uses a word that shows up often in the Proverbs. Proverbs speaks variously of “the way” of the violent man (3:31), the wicked (4:14), the adulteress (7:25), the fool (12:15), the treacherous (13:15), the lazy (15:19), and so forth. But it also speaks of “the way” of good men (2:20), of wisdom, of uprightness (4:11), of life (6:23), and of understanding (9:6). All of these latter ways are simply individual lanes that make up “the way of the Lord” (10:29). It is “the way” we ought to go, “the way” we are morally obligated to proceed in, “the way” that makes for life, rather than death.

Jeremiah similarly speaks of “the way of the wicked” (12:1) and “the way of the nations” (10:2), in contrast to “the way of the Lord” (5:4, 5). He announces: “Thus says the LORD: Behold, I set before you the way of life and the way of death.” (21:8).

So “the way” that is not in me, is the way I should go. I can’t live before God as I ought.

Jeremiah prays on … “it is not in man who walks to direct his steps.”

Whereas the first line confesses the way I ought to go, this line emphasizes way I want to go. Every day, all day long, you and I are taking steps … the moments pass, things happen, words are spoken, encounters with others take place. Life just keeps moving! You and I can’t help but “walk” through this passage of time. But it is not in us to “direct” our “steps” aright while doing so. If I “direct [my] steps” … I’ll do it according to my desires, whims, wisdom. And if I do that, I will inevitably go astray! Again, Proverbs agrees: “There is a way which seems right to a man, But its end is the way of death” (16:25).

When it comes to the battle between what I ought to be and what I want to do, each of us must know and admit this: I can’t do this!

But there is more here than simply a reminder of what we must know. What I know ushers me to the necessity of what I must ask. There is something every one of us must request. We need this, desperately: “Correct me, O Lord”! This is the admission, “Lord, I’m going to mess this up if you don’t guide me!”

The word translated “correct” describes correction that is aimed at educating a person toward a better course. It is always motivated by love and is always an evidence of sonship (Prov. 3:11-12; cf. Heb. 12:5-6). A variety of methods may be involved, but it is never merely punitive, but always instructional. The goal is not merely to shape ethical behavior, but to capture the heart for the Lord (Prov. 1:7).

“Correct me, O Lord” is a dangerous prayer. Are you willing to pray it, regularly?

“Yes,” but I quickly add: “But be gentle with me, Lord!” Correct me … “but in justice; not in your anger, lest you bring me to nothing” (24b). I have to admit, this part of the prayer bothered me for a while. Even as I prayed this prayer over and over, this part just didn’t sit right with me. I wondered, “Why justice rather than grace or mercy or patience?” I would much prefer grace and mercy to “justice”!

But then I studied the word that is translated “justice.” It woodenly means “judgment,” but covers the entire gamut of governance. It is not merely a judicial word, but a relational word. So that the prayer actually means something like, “Rule me, Lord!” “Correct me as the one to whom I bow as my Sovereign, my King, my Lord … not simply as a Judge!”

I came to realize that this prayer enables me to humble myself and pray, as I so desperately need to, “Correct me, Lord, but gently, graciously, lovingly, strongly!” It is perhaps the most basic prayer of a disciple, a learner after Christ. It is my lifeline to Him who alone has all I need and who is all I really want.

Which is it?

Of late I have been memorizing and praying back to God the great prayer of Habakkuk 3:17-19. But during much of that time I’ve also had in my Bible a 3×5 card upon which I wrote, some time ago, the text of Genesis 32:26b. Recently, as I was praying back the former to God, I happened upon the card in my Bible. In an instant, seeing them side by side, I realized the contrast between the faith of Jacob and that of Habakkuk.

“I will not let you go unless you bless me.” (Genesis 32:26b). These are, of course, Jacob’s words while wrestling with “the angel” through the night. He says, “I’m not letting go of you, Lord, until you bless me.”

“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places. To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments” (Habakkuk 3:17-19). This is the prophet’s prayer of faith as he surrendered to God’s sovereignty over the nations and over his own life. This is Habakkuk saying, “I will not let you go even if you don’t bless me.”

See them side by side:

  • I will not let you go unless you bless me.
  • I will not let you go even if you don’t bless me.

So which one is it?

Or, is it both?

Yes, both.

For the blessing for which Jacob holds out is God’s own presence with him. And that of which Habakkuk will not let go, no matter his earthly state of blessedness, is the presence of God with him.

Bless me or bless me not, you, O Lord, are the one essential. You are the one thing I cannot live without. Amen.

Praying the Promises of God

When we pray back to God His own promises given us in the Bible, Spurgeon said, we are “holding God to his word.”

He further says, “My brother, if you have a divine promise, you need not plead it with an ‘if’ in it; you may plead with a certainty. If for the mercy which you are now asking, you have God’s solemnly pledged word, there will scarce be any room for the caution about submission to his will. You know his will: that will is the promise; plead it. Do not give him rest until he fulfil it. He meant to fulfil it, or else he would not have given it … when he speaks, he speaks because he means to act.” –C.H. Spurgeon (Order and Argument in Prayer, July 15, 1886)

Entering the Conversation

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.  . . . Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died– more than that, who was raised– who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” (Romans 8:26-27, 34)

“Think about it. God the Holy Spirit knows the real, foundational cries of our hearts, and He is in an ongoing conversation with God the Father, carrying our hearts’ cries to Him. At the same time, God the Son, Jesus, is also in a conversation with the Father about us, interceding for us.

When I put these truths together, I realize that the Trinity–Father, Son, Holy Spirit–is in an ongoing conversation about me and every other believer. When I go to Him in prayer, I am accepting an invitation to enter into a conversation that they were already having on my behalf! (Duane C. Miller, Survivor, p.121, emphasis added)

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