A Soap Opera of the Soul

A Soap Opera of the Soul

Genesis 37:1-2

Dr. Jim Denison

“A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham: Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.

“David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife, Solomon the father of Rehoboam, Rehoboam the father of Abijah, Abijah the father of Asa, Asa the father of Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat the father of Jehoram, Jehoram the father of Uzziah, Uzziah the father of Jotham, Jotham the father of Ahaz, Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, Manasseh the father of Amon, Amon the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jeconiah and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon.

“After the exile to Babylon: Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel, Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, Abiud the father of Eliakim,

Eliakim the father of Azor, Azor the father of Zadok, Zadok the father of Akim,

Akim the father of Eliud, Eliud the father of Eleazar, Eleazar the father of Matthan,

Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ”(Matthew 1:1-16).

A strange way to start the New Testament, isn’t it. And remember some of the names in the list: Tamar, who had an affair with her father-in-law and bore Perez and Zerah; Rahab the prostitute; David and Bathsheba. Nine names are found nowhere else in Scripture. Failed families, flawed people, forgotten people. Yet Jesus, the only baby ever to choose his ancestors, chose each of them. Why not you?

We’re learning how to lead lives which God can bless. We’ve discovered foundational principles through our conversations in Genesis. Now we’ll study a story which brings them all to life. A man who faced every problem you and I can possibly experience today, and learned to be blessed by God through them all.

A man who was hated by his brothers, sold into slavery, falsely accused by his employer’s wife, thrown into prison, forgotten by friends, and rose to become ruler of the most powerful nation on earth. A man whose leadership saved the lives of millions, not the least of which was the very family which had rejected him. If Joseph could be blessed by God through all that, can’t he teach us how to be blessed by God today?

Today we’ll introduce the story, one of the most sordid soap operas in all of Scripture. If it were on television, even with today’s depraved morality, it couldn’t be shown on daytime TV. If God could bless this mess, trust me–he can bless yours today.

Parents you’d never choose

Our story begins: “Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren; and he was a lad with the sons of Bildah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives: and Joseph brought the evil report of them unto their father.” Who were “Bildah” and “Zilpah”? Why was Joseph tending sheep with them? What have we missed?

Had we read the story from Genesis 12 to here, we would have watched this sordid soap opera unfold.

Remember that Jacob’s parents were Isaac and Rebekah. Rebekah favored Jacob over his older brother Esau, and helped him steal his brother’s inheritance from their aged and blind father. He then had to run for his life, so his mother arranged for him to work for her brother, Laban.

Jacob fell in love with Laban’s daughter Rachel, and worked seven years to earn the right to marry her. On their wedding night, however, his father-in-law slipped the older sister Leah into the wedding tent instead. We’re not sure why Jacob didn’t notice the switch–perhaps he was drunk after the wedding feast, or she disguised her face. Either way, he woke up the next morning to discover that he had married the wrong sister! Conniving Laban gave him Rachel as well, in return for seven more years of hard labor.

Imagine being married to two sisters, one of whom you didn’t love. Imagine being that sister, married to a husband who didn’t love you. Imagine being the other sister, sharing your husband with your older sister. Now things get even more dysfunctional. Our text describes Joseph as “a lad with the sons of Bildah, and with the sons of Zilpah.” “A lad” probably points to his status as a servant or helper, since his age has already been clarified. “Bildah” and “Zilpah” pick up more of the soap opera.

Siblings you’d never want

Jacob’s first two children were by Leah, the older (and unwanted) sister of Rachel.

She named her first-born “Reuben,” “Because Yahweh has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me” (v. Genesis 29:32; “Reuben” sounds like “he has seen my misery”).

But his birth apparently did not fulfill his mother’s hopes for her marriage, so that her second son was named Simeon, “Because Yahweh has heard that I am hated, he has therefore given me this son also” (“Simeon” probably means “one who hears”).

Her third son was Levi, for “Now this time will my husband be joined unto me, because I have borne him three sons” (v. 34; “Levi” may come from the Hebrew for “attached”). But still Jacob loved Rachel more.

Her fourth child was Judah, “This time will I praise Yahweh” (v. 35; his name sounds like and may come from the Hebrew for “praise”). Again she was sure that a son would bring her marriage together. But none of the children could bridge the gap between Leah and Jacob, or give her life the joy her soul longed for.


Crown the Right King

Crown the Right King

Genesis 11:1-9

Dr. Jim Denison

We’re replacing our church’s outdated phone system these days, an event which reminds me of a story. The major was promoted to colonel and received a fancy new office. As he entered it for the first time, sitting in the nice new chair, a knock came at the door. He said, “Come in,” then quickly picked up the telephone as a corporal walked in.

“Just a minute,” the colonel said to the corporal. “I have to finish this telephone call.” Then the colonel began speaking into the mouthpiece: “Sorry about the interruption, General. Yes, sir, I will take care of that. Yes, I’ll call the President after I finish talking with you, General.”

The colonel ceremoniously put the telephone down, turned to the corporal, and said, “What can I do for you?” The corporal replied, “Well, colonel, I just came in to connect your telephone.”

Pride is the genesis of all our sins. “You will be as God” is the first temptation in human history (Genesis 3:5), and the heart of all the others. We build our Towers of Babel that we might “make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4).

But the opposite results. Pride turned Adam and Eve against each other. Cain felt himself inferior to his brother, so he murdered him. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery for the same reason. The religious and secular authorities crucified Jesus out of jealousy for their own power and status. Whenever we try to supplant God, we end up scattering ourselves over the earth.

What was your last problem with someone? Was pride in the middle of it? In what way do you feel isolated, alienated, “scattered” from those you care about? Mother Teresa said the greatest epidemic of our Western culture is not AIDS or leprosy but loneliness. Today we’ll find its cure.

Diagnose the problem

But first we must be clear about the problem theologically. The Scriptures use several words for “pride.” At their heart, they all mean “to be lifted up.” Pride is good when it lifts up God, when we glorify him and tell him that we are proud to be his children. Pride is good when it lifts up others, when we tell our children that we are proud of them.

Pride is sin when it lifts us up, when we exalt ourselves over God and others. When we put our personal agendas ahead of loving God and our neighbor; when we live to impress people with ourselves more than with God; when we define success by popularity and possessions more than by obedience to God and service to others, we build our own Tower today. If I am teaching this message to impress you with myself, I’m laying bricks for my own Babel.

Why is such self-exaltation and self-promotion such a sin?

It supplants God: “Pharaoh said, ‘Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2).

It causes us to hurt others, to make them a means to our end: “In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises” (Psalm 10:2); “Pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence” (Ps. 73:6). When we come first, everyone else comes second and is a means to our end.

It hurts us: “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom” (Proverbs 11:2); “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Pr. 16:18). Self-reliance always leads to failure, for we are failed human beings.

And so it leads to the judgment of God, at Babel and in Dallas: “Haughty eyes and a proud heart, the lamp of the wicked, are sin!” (Pr. 21:4).

Why do we put ourselves before God and others?

The “will to power” is the basic drive in human nature. We all want to be God, to be “president of the universe” (Claypool).

Pride and power are the expectations of our culture. How does our society define success? Performance, achievement, drive, initiative. The “self-made man.” When last was a truly humble person elevated as a role model for our youth? We are to be driven, perfectionistic, prideful, or we are not a success.

Most of all, pride covers our perceived inadequacies. We know our failures and weaknesses. Rather than admit them, we compensate for them. We act in prideful ways, to convince others that we are what we pretend to be.

Who is susceptible?

Religious leaders: “The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector'” (Luke 18:11).

Religious people: Job is described at the beginning of the story as “blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil” (Job 1:1). Yet he later claimed, “I am pure and without sin; I am clean and free from guilt” (Job 33:9). If it happened to Job, it can happen to us.

Followers of Jesus: Paul chastised the Corinthian Christians, “Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you” (1 Corinthians 4:18).

Churches: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Revelation 3:17).

Anyone who believes that he or she is not.

Study the disease

Next we come at the issue biblically. What do we do with this alienating, isolating impulse which has created an epidemic of loneliness in our world? Let’s walk through our story together.

Our text begins, “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech” (v. 1a). We are now six generations from Noah; as many as 30,000 people are alive on the earth. They have “one lip” and “one speech” so far, as we might expect.


God Has Dream for You

God Has a Dream for You

Genesis 37:3-11

Dr. Jim Denison

William Ernest Henley was born in Gloucester, England, in 1849, and was crippled since childhood. His most famous poem captures the spirit which drove him past his challenges:

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the Pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate;

I am the captain of my soul.

Henley captures the spirit of our age. We can do anything if we try harder, get up earlier, stay up later, work longer hours, pay the price. God helps those who help themselves; fortune smiles on hard work; luck is the residue of design; and so on.

Has that been your experience? Have you found no obstacle insurmountable, no problem impossible? Or are you like the rest of us—discouraged by struggles which won’t go away, weighted down with burdens you can’t unload, followed into worship today by worries which tug at your soul all morning long?

“Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more” (Genesis 37:3). Do you have a dream today?

Do you have a dream?

We live in a world which is hard on dreams. 2,000 dead in Iraq, and the number is climbing. Another hurricane in Florida, the earthquake in Pakistan, spreading bird flu, the AIDS epidemic. A Supreme Court nominee withdrawn as political tensions escalate. We live in a state that has to vote whether or not a marriage is a man and a woman. Others have already decided that it’s not.

The pessimist Martin Heidegger seems right most days: you’re an actor on a stage, with no script, director, or audience. Courage is to face life as it is. I don’t look around and see much purpose to our world. Wars and rumors of war; nations rise and fall; we cure polio and face AIDS; we get the Internet and internet pornography. Nothing seems to change much. When Joseph has a dream, you can count on his brothers to quash it. Some of us don’t believe much in dreams.

Others of us used to have a dream for our lives, but now we’re not so sure. Maybe you thought you had a great vision or empowering purpose for your life, but things haven’t worked out the way you thought they would. Life has discouraged you, thrown you into a cistern and sold you to the Ishmaelites. People you thought would understand, don’t. Things you thought would have happened by now, haven’t.

So you’ve pretty well given up on such idealism, and you’ve settled for making the best of life as you’ve found it. You’re getting along from day to day, task to task. Your life has ups and downs, joys and sorrows. But there’s no overarching vision or inspiring purpose. You wouldn’t say you have a dream this morning. Or that life really offers such. Dreams are for 17-year-old shepherd boys. But you’re past all that now.

If you don’t have a dream for your life, or have given up on one, I have a word from God for you today.

Where did Joseph get his dream?

“Joseph had a dream,” the Bible says. Not, he “discovered” a dream or he “defined” a dream, but he “had” a dream. Passive. Something he received. Something given to him from somewhere else.

What was his dream? “Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and stood upright. And behold, your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf” (v. 7).

In the ancient world, people didn’t bow to acknowledge applause or indicate passing respect. “Bowing down” was a sign of great veneration and submission. Standing before the Lord, “Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence” (Josh. 5:14). The Psalmist calls, “Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker” (Psalm 95:6). Joseph dreamed that his brothers would do that before him one day.

Then he had a second dream: “Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me” (Genesis 37:9). In Joseph’s world, the heavenly bodies represented rulers. In this case, the sun was his father; the moon, his mother; the eleven stars, his other brothers. And all of them would bow down in submission before him.

What audacity! What egotism and pride! In the ancient world it just wasn’t done, the parents and older brothers bowing down before the younger. Except that everything Joseph dreamed came to pass:

“Joseph was the governor of the land, the one who sold grain to all its people. So when Joseph’s brothers arrived, they bowed down to him with their faces to the ground” (Genesis 42:6).

“They bowed low to pay him honor” (Genesis 43:28).

After his father’s death, “His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. ‘We are your slaves,’ they said” (Genesis 50:18).

Joseph must have developed a remarkable strategic plan to bring his dreams to pass. Listen to it:

He was thrown in a cistern, a dry hole dug to catch rainwater, by his brothers. He was then sold as a slave to a passing band of Ishmaelites from the east. They in turn took him to Egypt, where they sold him as a slave to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard (Genesis 37:36).

Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him. When he refused, she accused him of assaulting her and he was thrown into prison. There he met two men who had their own dreams. God gave him the ability to interpret their dreams; one was restored to his position as Pharaoh’s cupbearer, and the other executed, both as Joseph had predicted. The cupbearer promptly forgot about Joseph.


Listening To Your Father’s Voice

Listening to your Father’s voice:

How to meditate on the word and world of God

Dr. Jim Denison

Psalm 19

A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine reports that talking on the phone while driving is nearly as dangerous as driving drunk. The study found that using a cell phone increases the risk of an accident fourfold, the same as driving while intoxicated. It doesn’t seem to matter if the phone is hands-free or hand-held. I guess this gives the AT&T slogan, “Reach out and touch someone,” new meaning.

The study did report one safety benefit. Nearly 40% of those surveyed used their phones to call 911 after they crashed.

Wouldn’t it be great to call an even higher power? To call God, whenever you crash, with whatever you need? To ask him anything, and hear his response? To be able to listen to God?

The fact is, there’s nothing our souls need more. The best way to feed our spiritual lives is to listen to God. But that’s something Baptists are just not very good at. The fact is, in most of our churches, it’s not in the catalog. We don’t know much about caring for our souls.

So let’s see if we can learn to feed our souls by listening to God. If you and I will make four simple decisions today, we will hear from God this week.

Believe that God still speaks

First we must decide that God will speak to us. That we can hear his voice. That it’s really true–the God of the universe actually wants to talk to us.

He spoke clearly to Simon Peter (Acts 10).

Peter’s issue was whether Gentiles could become Christians. And so Peter sees “unclean” animals, meat forbidden to his Jewish diet, and hears God say, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” Just then, “unclean” Gentiles arrive, and “the Spirit said to him, ‘Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them” (vs. 19-20).

And so Peter obeys the Spirit’s voice. He preaches to Cornelius and the Gentiles, and they are saved. Gentiles are welcomed into God’s family. We still are.

In a very real sense, we Gentiles are in the church today because God spoke.

Over and over in the Bible, God asks his people to listen to him.

•Isaiah 55:2-3: “Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live.”

•Jeremiah 7:2: “Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the Lord.”

•All through Revelation God calls his people to listen to him. Jesus says, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (2.7). He says it to every church he addresses (2:11; 2:17; 2:29; 3:6; 3:13; 3:22).

Well over 300 times in the Bible, God calls his people to hear his word. The Lord is a God who speaks.

Does he still speak to us today?

Have you ever prayed about a problem and had a clear sense of what you should do? Have you read the Bible and found exactly the answer you needed, as though it were written for you? Have you heard a sermon and said to yourself, “He preached that to me”? Have you taken a walk and felt especially close to God? Has a friend called at just the time you needed to hear from someone? Have you heard a song and it truly lifted your spirit?

Then God has spoken to your soul. Please believe that he still speaks. That he wants to speak to us, today.

Be silent before him

Then why don’t we hear him more often? For the simple reason that we don’t usually make the other three decisions. After I decide that God still speaks, next I must be silent before him.

Peter had to go up on the roof, away from the noise of the house. In that silence, he could hear the Spirit speak (v. 9). To hear God I, too, must be silent before him. And that’s not easy.

We don’t live quiet lives. Our work weeks are longer than ever before. I read this week that the supposedly workaholic Germans only work 37 hours a week and take five-week vacations. Not us.

And it takes precious time to be silent before God. Pour water into a bowl, and it splashes and swirls. Only when you set the bowl down and let it sit, does the water become still. So with our souls.

Our souls need a time and a place to be quiet with our Father. To do nothing except sit in his presence, as a child who crawls up into his father’s lap and just sits. Not to work, or read, or study. Just to sit with God.

Recently I read the simple story of an elderly peasant who had formed the habit of slipping into a certain church at a certain time every day. There, day by day, he would sit and, apparently, do nothing. The parish priest observed this regular, silent visitor. One day, unable to contain his curiosity any longer, he asked the old man why he came to the church alone, day in, day out. Why waste his time in this way?

The old man looked at the priest and with a loving twinkle in his eye said, “I look at him. He looks at me. And we tell each other that we love each other.”

Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still and know that I am God.” I’d say it this way: “Be still and you will know that I am God.”

How long has it been since you were still before God?

Choose to surrender

So I believe that God wants to speak to me, and I make time to listen to him. Now the third simple decision: I must move from silence to surrender.


Taking Refuge in Him

Taking refuge in him:

How to surrender each day to God’s authority

Dr. Jim Denison

Psalm 2

A man was running down an airport terminal, late for his flight because he’d forgotten his wristwatch. Desperate to know the time, he stopped a traveler walking up the terminal hall while carrying two large suitcases. He asked the man if he had the time. The traveler set down his suitcases, looked at his wrist, and said, “Let’s see. It’s exactly 2:38 P.M. The barometric pressure is falling, and we’re expecting rain tonight. But it’s sunny in London, while the clouds over Singapore are increasing at this hour.”

The first man was astonished: “Your watch tells you all of that?” “Yes,” the traveler said, “I invented it myself, and there’s nothing else like it.” The first man said, “I must have that watch. I’ll pay you $500 for it, cash.” The traveler refused, and started to pick up his luggage. “No, wait–a thousand dollars.” The man shook his head. “Five thousand dollars.” The traveler still refused. “Ten thousand dollars, cash, on the spot.” The man put down his suitcases, thought it over, and agreed.

The new owner paid the money, took the watch with glee, strapped it to his wrist, and started to run off. But the traveler stopped him with a smile as he picked up the two large suitcases and said, “Wait–you forgot the batteries.”

Do you ever feel that way? Working for Jesus in your own power and motivation? We all experience times of spiritual frustration and weakness. But we’re not supposed to carry our own batteries. God has given Christians all the power we need to fulfill his purpose for our lives.

How can you experience the power of God each day? How can you lead your class to do the same?

Experience Pentecost

Jesus had told his followers to “stay in the city [of Jerusalem] until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). And so they stayed in Jerusalem, at risk to themselves. Here they “joined together constantly in prayer” (Acts 1:14). And so they were “all together in one place” (Acts 2:1) on the day of Pentecost.

What happened next? A sound like a violent wind filled the house where they were meeting (2:2). “Tongues of fire” were visible, resting on each believer (v. 3). The believers were “filled with the Holy Spirit” and began to speak “in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (v. 4). These phrases mean that the first Christians yielded themselves to the Spirit’s control, and began to speak in languages known to the crowds gathered in Jerusalem but previously unknown to themselves.

And so they began sharing their faith personally (vs. 7-11). Peter preached the Pentecost sermon, and 3,000 came to faith in Christ (v. 41).

What does Pentecost mean to us today? The Holy Spirit began to indwell Christians at Pentecost, and continues this ministry today. He empowers the followers of Jesus to fulfill his missions and ministry mandate. In fact, he empowers us for just this purpose (Acts 1:8).

Surrender to the Spirit today

How can we experience the Spirit as these first believers did? Ephesians 5:18 is our key: “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.” Let’s walk through this verse, step by step, and experience it in our lives this week.

First, receive the Holy Spirit in salvation. This verse is to believers, and it assumes that we have already asked Jesus to forgive our sins and be our Lord. When we do, the Holy Spirit moves into our lives (cf. Ro. 8:9). Have you made this decision? Have your class members?

Second, decide that you need his power. Not just his salvation, but his power. A carpenter knows that a drill needs power. Do we know that our church, our lives need power as well?

To be “filled” by the Spirit means to be under his control. Just as someone drunk with wine is “under the influence,” so a Christian is to be “under the influence” of the Holy Spirit. The first Christians needed this power, and they knew it. They were 120, charged with taking Christ to a hostile nation of 4,000,000 and an ungodly Empire of 25,000,000. This meant that each Christian had to win more than 30,000 just in Israel to fulfill God’s purpose for them.

But Jesus had promised them his help: “I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Lk. 24:49). So they stayed in Jerusalem, at the risk of their own lives, until they received the power they needed.

You and I need this same power today. Listen to Zechariah 4:6: “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.” This verse should convict us every time we hear it: “The Kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power” (1 Cor. 4:20). Do we have all the power we should? All that we need?

God will not do for us what we try to do for ourselves. If we are comfortable and complacent with our spiritual lives, our witness, our ministry in this city and world, then we will not know the power of God’s Spirit. When we do things in our own strength, we are much like a drill which can do little good on its own without electrical power. Some of us like the credit, we don’t like being dependent on others, we’re convinced we can do it ourselves. But we cannot.

This step is the hardest for most of us, and essential: we must admit that we need him. That we need him as desperately as these first Christians did. Only then can he move in power in our lives. So I ask you, are we winning enough people to Jesus? Are you? Do you want the Spirit to have control of your life? To empower you? Make this decision right now. If you do, you can proceed to the next step.


Waiting in Expectation

Waiting in expectation:

How to pray with power

Dr. Jim Denison

Psalm 5

Prayer and Psalm 5

Why pray?

If God knows what we are going to ask, why ask? If he already knows what he is going to do, why pray? If my prayer causes God to do some good thing he was not going to do until I prayed, what does this say about the character of God? Why does he sometimes heal when we pray and sometimes not? Why pray?

The first answer to the question is the one children don’t like to hear: because our Father says so. Because Scripture tells us to pray.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was explicit: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). Ask, seek, knock–each is an imperative, not a suggestion. Each is God’s demand of us.

A second reason to pray: time with God changes us. When we are in the presence of God, his Spirit transforms us. Prayer is the way the Carpenter shapes and molds the wood of our lives. He must touch us to change us. In prayer we do not talk about him, but to him. We do not study him, we are with him. And then our time in prayer makes us more like his Son, which is his purpose for our lives (Romans 8:29).

Frederick Buechner said that we are to pray continually “not, one assumes, because you have to beat a path to God’s door before he’ll open it, but because until you beat the path maybe there’s no way of getting to your door.”

Blaise Pascal believed that “All the troubles of life come upon us because we refuse to sit quietly for a while each day in our rooms.” Gordon MacDonald adds: “I have begun to see that worship and intercession are far more the business of aligning myself with God’s purposes than asking him to align with mine.”

Oswald Chambers taught, “Prayer is the way the life of God is nourished. We look upon prayer as a means of getting things for ourselves; the Bible’s idea of prayer is that we may get to know God himself.”

We pray because God tells us to. Why does he want us to pray? Because then he can shape and mold us, preparing us for eternity and using us on earth. Prayer is the hand of God on our souls.

A third reason: prayer positions us to receive what God’s grace wants to give. You could not read these words unless you were close enough to your computer or page to be able to see them. Sitting in front of your computer screen does not mean that you deserve these words, good or bad. Just that you can receive them.

In the same way, there is much God wants to give us but cannot until we are willing to receive his grace. We have not because we ask not (James 4:2). He wanted to guide me in writing this essay, but could not speak effectively to me unless I was ready to listen. He wants to guide you through the rest of this day, but cannot unless you are willing to follow. Time in prayer connects your Spirit with his, so you can hear his voice and follow his will.

A fourth reason: because our Father always hears us. Jesus promised: ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened. No exceptions. God has an “open door” policy with the universe. Billions of people pray in thousands of languages, all at the same time, and God hears each one. You included.

Jesus followed his promise with a parable (vs. 9-11). Stones along the Sea of Galilee were small limestone balls, in appearance much like the bread of the day. Fish-like snakes grew in the Sea; they were without scales and thus forbidden to the Jews as food (Leviticus 11:12). Now, if you were a father in those days and your hungry child asked for bread, would you trick him with a stone? If he asked for a fish, would you give him a snake? Of course not. And compared to God, we are “evil.” Our perfect Father who is love always hears us. This is the promise of God.

When we pray

“Hearing” and “answering” may not be the same thing. We often say that God hasn’t heard our prayers if he has not yet granted our request in the way we asked it. But a father hears the child’s request which he must refuse just as he hears the request he can grant.

Here’s a one-sentence theology of prayer: when we pray, God always gives us what we ask for or something better. He always hears us, and always grants our request in the way that is for his glory and our good. He is not capricious, arbitrary, or deaf. He is a Father who is excited every time one of his children calls him. Every time.

The Greeks told a story about Aurora, the goddess of the dawn, who fell in love with Tithonus a mortal youth. Zeus offered her any gift she might choose for her mortal lover. She naturally chose that Tithonus might live forever; but she had forgotten to ask that he might remain forever young. And so Tithonus grew older and older and older, and could never die, and the gift became a curse.

Our Father is no Zeus. He loves us so much he watched his Son die in our place, on our cross, for our sins. Do you know anyone who loves you enough to send their child to die for you? One did.

There are times when God does not grant what we ask, or when we ask it. Why?

The simple fact is that a loving Father cannot give us everything we ask in the way we ask for it. A farmer prays for rain; a baseball fan prays for sunshine that same day, for that same county. Both sides prayed for victory in the Civil War.