Praying Over the Music

A recent study of 3 million American drivers over 570 million trips found that the drivers used their cell phones during 88 out of 100 trips. Even in states where hand-held phone use by the driver is illegal, the study found that drivers still pulled out their phones regularly. On average, American drivers used their phones for 3.5 minutes of each hour—despite the sobering fact that just two seconds of distraction increases risk of collision by 20 times.

Much has been made of our modern state of perpetual distraction. The Atlantic declared that “Ignoring People for Phones Is the New Normal”, and CNN reported that the average American checks his phone 150 times every day. If you take a walk down any city sidewalk you will be surrounded by people who are texting, streaming music and video, navigating by GPS, and posting social media updates—all while commuting to work or school.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the church today accepts—and even intentionally engineers—distractions. If we always exercise with a playlist and await our restaurant meal with a video, we naturally expect sensory accompaniments to follow us to worship. And when it comes to the singular, quiet, unspectacular, and seemingly-sedentary activity of corporate prayer, we may reflexively seek something else to augment our experience.

I recently found myself at a gathering of fellow-Presbyterians where “Amazing Grace” played on repeat during the pastor’s public prayer. Every head was bowed and every eye closed, but my focus switched frenetically between the pastor’s words of supplication and John Newton’s familiar phrases. Diverted by the music, I failed to engage fully in the intercession, and, ultimately, I lost an opportunity to pray.

Just as distracted driving will pose imminent danger to our physical bodies, distracted prayer is a danger to our souls.

Supplementing corporate prayer with music reinforces untruths about the work of praying together. Like swiping our phones every six-and-a-half minutes because the tasks of the day don’t merit our full attention, familiar background tunes during congregational prayer declare that prayer is similarly unengaging: Prayer is mindless. Prayer is emotionless. Prayer is a spectator activity. Prayer is easy.

Except it isn’t.

The Apostle Paul presents a very different picture in his description of a prayer meeting attended by a saint named Epaphras. Paul writes, “Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant in Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis” (Col. 4:12-13).

The public prayers of Epaphras were an act of love, a persistent struggle, and hard work. Likewise, the members of the early church “devoted themselves to. . .the prayers” (Acts 2:42, emphasis added). The writer to the Hebrews admonishes the church: “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them” (Heb. 13:3). And Paul instructs the Corinthians that they ought to add their deliberate “Amen” to the prayers in worship (1 Cor. 14:16-17). Corporate prayer requires our whole attention and engages our whole person.

The Puritans were fond of saying, “Pray until you pray,” by which they meant that prayer is not a perfunctory ritual to be crossed off the list as soon as its outward motions are accomplished. Instead, prayer is real communication with the Father. We approach the throne with the concentrated persistence of the widow before the judge (Luke 18:1-8) or the men lowering their crippled friend through the roof to Jesus (Mark 2:1-5).

And when every member of the congregation joins the prayers “with one accord” (Acts 1:14), the church becomes an advancing army in a spiritual war (Eph. 6:16-18), an emergency room for the sick and sin-snared (James 5:14-16), and a support team for gospel success throughout the world (2 Cor. 1:11).

We must not be distracted.

“You are where your attention is,” Andrew Sullivan wrote last year for New York magazine. “If you’re watching a football game with your son while also texting a friend, you’re not fully with your child — and he knows it. Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance.”

So, too, in corporate prayer, we are where our attention is. To approach the throne of God in the company of His people demands our whole focus. In the intentional quiet—led only by a single voice accompanied by the “Amens” of the people—we can truly weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice (Rom. 12:15), and together delight in the promised near presence of Christ (Matt. 18:19-20).

So, brothers and sisters, let’s pray until we pray.

Megan Hill is the author of Praying Together: The Priority and Privilege of Prayer in Our Homes, Communities, and Churches. She lives in Massachusetts and is a member of West Springfield Covenant Community Church (PCA) where her husband serves as pastor.

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.

Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

A New Frame of Mind

As the lives of western Christians become more and more dominated by the content that is brought into their lives by various forms of media, we must ask the question, “With what do I fill my mind?” The Apostle Paul makes several pertinent points regarding this question in Romans 12:2, where he wrote: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God and what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Consider the following:

First, Paul mentions our minds, our thoughts and the processes of the mind. It is the “renewal of the mind” with which he is concerned. Proverbs 4:23 says, “Keep the heart will all vigilance for from it flow the springs of life.” In Prov.  4:26, we read, “ponder the path of your feet then all your ways will be sure.” Consider, think, meditate upon the paths before you. How will we do this without the right mental and spiritual equipment? Our Lord Jesus was concerned about our minds when He said, “You shall love the Lord your God with…all you mind” (Matt. 22:37). Your mind directs your actions–as our Lord says elsewhere: “Out of the fulness of the heart the mouth speaks” (Lk. 6:45). We must always consider that upon which we are setting our minds.

Second Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to this world.” It is easy for a Christian to think like an unbeliever. This is contrary to the believer’s new identity in Christ and status before God. It is equally contrary to the work that is being done in him or her by the Holy Spirit. Paul again writes in Romans 8:5, For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of flesh.” The flesh is code for worldly things, the sinful nature, the thoughts, words and actions that once dominated the Christian–things which dominate the believer no longer. The sad reality is that a Christian can all too easily dedicate an hour to loving God with his or her mind each week, while, for the other 164 hours of the week, living and thinking like an unbeliever. We can easily fill our minds with the filth of the world, and even with that which is not inherently sinful (for example, we can easily allow our consumption of social media to fuel the idol of self by encouraging us to constantly be checking how many followers we have and how many likes we receive).

Third, Paul explains that to be conformed to this world is to have a “mind set on destruction.” In Romans 8:6-7, Paul writes, “For to set the mind on the flesh is death… For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God.” What could be clearer? If we fill our minds with the stuff of this world, we are not setting them on what “is above…where Christ is” (Col. 3:1). Moreover, the mind set on the flesh will, in time, love the flesh. It will be at enmity with God. Such a mind will produce a life of godlessness, unrighteousness, sexual immorality and self-seeking, precisely because that is what the world does–it teaches us to love and to look out for ourselves.

Paul commands us to pursue a renewed rather than a fleshly mind. God calls us to “be transformed by the renewing of the mind.” The renewed mind is not the end itself; rather, it is the instrument by which we are sanctified in thought, and enabled to live a Christ-like life. Transformation is a reality for the believer. Some are so worried about transforming the world or their culture they have not given sufficient consideration to the transformation of their own minds. Perhaps this is why so much Christian “transformation” is nothing other than the world presented in Christian clothing.

A truly transformed mind is one at enmity with the fallen world: “Do not be conformed…but be transformed.” A transformed mind is a mind that is saturated by Scripture, able to discern between right and wrong–as well as between right and nearly right. Such a mind is filled with biblical principles which always yields biblical peace and practice.

So, we turn back to the question, “With what do I fill my mind?” To properly asnwer it, we need to examine ourselves as to whether we are filling our minds with the world or with the word. If our mental diet consists predominantly of the world and its allurements, don’t be surprised when we start thinking and living like the world. The effects, no doubt, will be devastating. If, however, we allow the word of God to shape our minds, even when devastating providences accompany our lives, we will be standing safely on good and holy ground.

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.

Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

The Tempted One

What does it mean to you that Jesus faced temptation? The fact that Jesus experienced temptations is important for our salvation as well as for our own daily battles with temptation. The writer of Hebrews captured the significance of this vital aspect of Christ’s ministry when he wrote: “For we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Consider all that the Scriptures teach us about this:

In the Wilderness

In Matthew 4, after He was baptized by the Spirit and honored by the Father, Jesus was led by the Spirit to the wilderness where He faced off with Satan. What a drastic change to go from a baptism to temptation! For forty days Jesus was without food and water. Satan found Him there and tempted Him to sin.

Matthew records three specific temptations Jesus endured. First, Satan tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread so that He could eat. Jesus responded, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (vs. 4). Satan tempted Jesus a second time by telling Him to throw Himself from the top of the temple. Quoting Psalm 91, Satan said that the angels would catch Him. Jesus responded, “Again it is written: ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (vs. 7). And last, Satan tempted Jesus by offering Him the kingdoms of the world if He would only bow down and worship him. Jesus said, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve’” (vs. 10).

Each time Satan tempted Him, Jesus responded by countering Satan with God’s Word. Many of us in reading this passage might deduce that it teaches us to counter temptation with God’s Word. While it is true that we should defeat lies with the truth (Ephesians 6:16), there is more in this passage than simply copying how Jesus responded to Satan.

A Perfect Savior

First, Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness should remind us of Adam and Eve’s encounter with Satan in the Garden. There too, Satan twisted God’s Word (Genesis 3:1). But unlike Adam, Jesus remained faithful and obedient to God. By resisting Satan’s temptation, Jesus became what Paul called the second or last Adam. (1 Corinthians 15:45). Jesus fulfilled what Adam could not do, “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19). Adam failed as our representative in the Garden, bringing sin into the world. Jesus, by His perfect life lived for us, makes us acceptable to God once again.

Second, this passage should remind us of another time in history. The verses Jesus quoted to Satan were from the book of Deuteronomy. The forty days he spent in the wilderness remind us of Israel’s forty years in the wilderness. During those years, they grumbled and complained. They were ungrateful and forgetful of all God had done. Even after He rescued them from slavery and brought them through the sea, they doubted He would provide food and water for them. When Moses met with God on Mt. Sinai, the Israelite’s crafted an idol and worshipped it. Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness shows us that He is the greater prophet God promised Moses, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him” (Deuteronomy 18:18). Unlike God’s chosen people, Israel, Jesus perfectly obeyed God.

What this passage in Matthew 4 teaches us is that Jesus is the perfect sacrifice for our sins. Because He was tempted and did not sin, He could take our place and bear our sins for us. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). He is Second Adam, the One who made a way for us back into God’s presence. He is the true Israel, the One who fulfilled what Israel could not.

A Helper Amid the Flood

What about our own temptations? Like our parents before us, we are quick to eat the fruit Satan offers because we desire to be queens and kings of our own kingdom. Just like Israel, we also wander in our own wildernesses, doing our fair share of grumbling and complaining. We wonder why we have no provisions and start to think life would be better back in Egypt. We also seek after substitute gods we think will meet our needs. As sinners, we give into temptations time and time again.

That’s why Matthew 4 is so important. Jesus faced temptation for us. He perfectly obeyed in all things. When he was weakened by hunger, he subsisted by the strength of the Father’s Word. Because we are in Christ, because we are united to Him by faith, His victory over temptation is our victory. God looks at us and sees not our failures but Christ’s perfection. What amazing news for those of us who can barely crawl, much less stand against up against our temptations!

Not only that, but Jesus is our help and hope in all our temptations. “Because He Himself suffered when He was tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18). As Martin Luther wrote, “A mighty fortress is our God, A bulwark never failing; Our helper He, amid the flood Of mortal ills prevailing: For still our ancient foe Doth seek to work us woe; His craft and power are great, And, armed with cruel hate, On earth is not his equal.” Satan is our ancient foe; he continues to tempt and deceive. But Jesus is our help and hope. He is our strength and shield. He has given us all the resources we need to stand firm, including the Word, prayer, and the Spirit who lives within us.

When we face temptation, we never do so apart from Christ. We are united to Him; He is our righteousness. He has defeated sin, death, and Satan. There is nothing and no one who can separate us from Him, not even our own weak flesh. May we stand before temptation with this truth as our shield.

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.

Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

Giving and Receiving Commendation

Criticism is far and away one of the most difficult features of life in this fallen world. Two things in particular complicate the practice of giving and receiving criticism. Pride revolts when others point out areas of our lives in which change may be needed; and, many who raise criticisms are themselves hypercritical individuals–often overstating or misstating their assessment about an aspect of another’s life. Accordingly, the subject of giving and receiving criticism must be approached with the utmost care. While considerably less burdensome to the mind, the subject of giving and receiving commendation is an equally challenging part of life. Like its counterpart, criticism, commendation interacts with pride and is easily misstated or misapplied. Thankfully, we are not left to our own reasoning capacity to sift through all of the attendant difficulties. As with every other important part of our lives, Scripture has much to teach us about how to give and receive commendation. 

1. We must not praise ourselves. Commendation is meant to be an external act of kindness. God does not permit us to praise ourselves. This ought to be self-evident, but our propensity to do otherwise shows that it is not. For this reason, the Proverbs tell us, “Let another praise you and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips” (Prov. 27:2). 

2. We must not seek our own praise. Just as Jesus said that looking with lustful intent is tantamount to adultery, so fishing for praise is coextensive to self-adulation. Our flesh loves praise and commendation. We must guard against being desirous of the praises of others. The Scriptures give us an exceedingly straightforward approach to praise–namely, we are to hold the praise of man with the least amount of significance possible and the praise that is from God in the highest possible esteem. The Apostle Paul emphasized this in Romans 2, where he explained that the true people of God are those whose “praise is not from man but from God” (Rom. 2:29). Jesus exemplified this principle for us in His responses to praise during His earthly ministry. If anyone was deserving of praise it was the sinless Son of God incarnate. Men often praised the Savior for His mighty works and words. However, he never welcomed the misused praise of men. When the rich, young, ruler commended Jesus for being a “good teacher,” Jesus didn’t welcome his commendation. Instead, Jesus said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but One, that is, God.” Jesus was not denying His own divine nature; rather, He was helping this man see that he thought more highly of men than he ought to think–and, specifically, that he thought more highly of himself than he ought to think. It would do us good to come to terms with the fact that most praise, while well-intentioned, is usually misplaced or misapplied by men to men. By nature, we love the praise of men because it feeds our pride. Jesus summarized the great problem that sinful men have with seeking praise from men rather than from God when He told the unbelieving Jews, “I do not receive glory from people…you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:41, 44). 

3. We must guard against all forms of flattery. The Scriptures have much to say about the danger of flattery and why we are to view so much of the praise of men as exceedingly fickle. Job’s wise young friend, Elihu, warned about the danger of flattery when he said, “Let me not, I pray, show partiality to anyone; Nor let me flatter any man” (Job 32:21). Likewise, the Psalmist explained that one of the marks of the depravity of men is that “they flatter with their tongues” (Ps. 5:9). and “speak idly everyone with his neighbor; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak” (Ps. 12:2). The immoral woman of Proverbs is said to have a “flattering tongue” (Prov. 7:5) with which she seduces her prey (7:21). Solomon charges us not to “associate with one who flatters with his lips” (20:19) because “a flattering mouth works ruin” (26:28). The Apostle Paul insisted that many flase teachers are marked by “smooth words and flattering speech” with which they seek to “deceive the hearts of the simple” (Rom. 2:18). These are ample reasons why we should be exceedingly cautious about giving praise to men and receiving praise from men. 

4. We must learn to honor others in the Lord. While there are enormous dangers that accompany the giving of praise to men and the receiving of praise from men, the Scriptures do not teach that all praise is inappropriate or sinful. Surely, it is fitting to give honor to those who serve the Lord diligently and faithfully in the church. The Apostle Paul referred to “the brother who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel” (2 Cor. 8:18). Both John Chrysostom and John Calvin believed that Paul was referring to Barnabas when he made this commendation. Of the praise of Barnabas, Chrysostom wrote:

“Let us see on what score he eulogizes this man…First, praising him from his preaching; that he not only preached, but also as he ought, and with the befitting earnestness. For he said not, ‘he preaches and proclaims the Gospel,’ but, ‘whose praise is in the Gospel.’ And that he may not seem to flatter him, he brings not one or two or three men, but whole Churches to testify to him, saying, ‘through all the churches.’ Then he makes him respected also from the judgment of those that had chosen him. And this too is no light matter. Therefore after saying, ‘Whose praise in the Gospel is spread through all the churches,’ he added, Ver. 19. ‘And not only so.’ What is, ‘and not only so?’ ‘Not only on this account,’ he says, ‘is respect due to him, that he is approved as a preacher and is praised by all.’ ‘But he was also appointed by the churches along with us.’

Calvin offered a similar explanation when he noted:

“[Paul] honors with a signal commendation, that he had conducted himself as to the gospel in a praiseworthy manner, that is, he had earned applause by promoting the gospel. For, although Barnabas gave place to Paul in the department of speaking, yet in acting they both concurred. He adds farther, that he had received praise, not from one individual, or even from one Church merely, but from all the Churches. To this general testimony he subjoins a particular one, that is suitable to the subject in hand — that he had been chosen for this department by the concurrence of the Churches. Now it was likely, that this honor would not have been conferred upon him, had he not been long before known to be qualified for it.”

Surely, this is an example of how we are to give appropriate praise to men. This is what it means to “give honor to whom honor is due” in a sanctified and God-honoring sense. 

We are all guilty of having given unjust praise to men and having received unjust praise from men. We have all sought our own glory far too often. None of us have adequately sought the glory of the only true God. This is why we need the Savior to cleanse us with His blood from our propensity to praise ourselves, seek the glory of men and flatter others for sinful gain. When we are humbled at the foot of the cross by a glimpse of what Jesus did to purchase our praises, we learn to rightly direct our praise to the true and living God, to give Him the glory due to His name, to love just interactions with men and to honor our brethren who, by His grace, labor diligently for His name’s sake. 

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.

Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.