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.

When Rachel saw that she was bearing no children, a position of disgrace in the ancient world, she could not stand to lose this competition to her older sister. And so she gave her maidservant Bilhah to Jacob.

The fact that he would consent to the arrangement tells us all we need to know about his character. Today we have surrogate birth mothers, but even in our post-Christian culture they do not sleep with the father. Can you imagine a wife unable to bear children, giving her maid to her husband to be a mother for her? Or the husband agreeing to this arrangement? To say nothing of what it all does to Leah.

Rachel named the first son by this adulterous union Dan because “God has judged [vindicated] me, and has also heard my voice, and has given me a son” (Genesis 30:6; “Dan” means “he has vindicated”).

Bilhah conceived a second son whom Rachel named “Naphtali” because “With mighty wrestlings have I wrestled with my sister, and have prevailed” (v. 8; the name means “my struggle”). In other words, she is winning the procreation contest with her older sister.

But the battle isn’t over. Leah had stopped having children, so she continued the competition by giving her maidservant Zilpah to Jacob. Now Jacob has two wives and two concubines. She bore a son whom Leah named “Gad” because she was “Fortunate!” (v. 11; “Gad” means “good fortune”). Zilpah bore a second son whom Leah named Asher because “daughters will call me happy” (v. 13; “Asher” means “happy”). She continued to seek significance from children, whether they were hers or not.

All this time, Jacob apparently spent each night with Rachel, his favorite wife. So Leah, his first wife, bribed Rachel with some mandrakes, a kind of root which was thought to induce pregnancy (Gen 30:15). In return she purchased a night with her own husband, and became pregnant again.

She bore Jacob a fifth son, named Issachar because “God has given me my hire, because I gave my handmaid to my husband” (v. 18; “Issachar” sounds like the Hebrew for “reward”).

She then bore a sixth son, named Zebulun because “God has endowed me with a good dowry; now will my husband dwell with me” (v. 20; “Zebulun” probably means “honor”). She bore a daughter named Dinah as well (34:1). But apparently Jacob continued to sleep with Rachel each night.

As a result, finally Rachel bore a son whom she named Joseph, “saying, Yahweh add to me another son” (v. 24; “Joseph” means “may he add”). The poor child was named not for himself but for his mother’s wish that she might have another child after him! Imagine naming your child, “Hoping for another one.” Rachel had that other child, a birth which cost her life; she named him “Ben-oni” (Genesis 35:18; “Ben-oni” means “son of my trouble”), but Jacob changed his name to “Benjamin” (meaning “son of my right hand”). And with Benjamin’s birth and his mother’s death, Jacob’s family was complete.

Let’s add up the soap opera cast: one father, two wives, two concubines, 12 sons, and one daughter. No wonder the deceit, anger, competition, and jealousy we find in our story today. The apple did not fall far from this tree.


Fortunately, there’s a hero in this tragic tale: “Joseph, being seventeen years old.” The story of Joseph equals the story of Abraham in the number of chapters in Genesis (14 each), and exceeds it in length by 25 percent. And we have more spoken words of Joseph than any other Old Testament character.

Joseph may be the most complete type or foreshadowing of Jesus to be found in the entire Old Testament.

He was innocent and beloved by his father (v. 3).

He was sent by his father to see his brothers (v. 13).

His own family “hated him” out of jealousy (v. 4).

They threw him into a pit, in effect burying him.

Judah led the brothers to sell Joseph for 20 shekels of silver (v. 28); Judas would sell Jesus for 30 (Matthew 26:15).

He was imprisoned for a crime he did not commit.

He was jailed between two criminals.

He predicted the salvation of one and the death of the other.

His family thought him dead, when he was alive.

He saved his family and the entire nation as well.

From the pit to the prison to the palace: has anyone come from a worst family to a greater position? If God could do all that with Joseph, what can he do with you?

What part of your past most troubles you today? What have you done, or what has been done to you, which seems most to exempt you from the blessing of God? Where do you most need to make peace with your past today? Where have you been limiting what God wants to do with your life?

At age 17, C. S. Lewis told a Christian friend, “I believe in no religion. There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best.” When he was wounded in the trenches of World War I, he boasted that he “never sank so low as to pray.” God turned this atheist into the greatest defender of the faith in the 20th century.

John Newton was a slave trader who himself became a slave before he met Jesus. He wrote of that encounter, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”

The American Red Cross was gathering supplies for the suffering people of Africa. Inside one of the box sent to them was a letter. It said, “We have recently been converted, and want to help. We won’t ever need these again. Can you use them for something?” Inside the box were Ku Klux Klan sheets. The Red Cross tore them into strips and used them to bandage the wounds of Africans.

Charlotte Elliott asked a friend how she could become a Christian. He replied, “It is very simple. You have only to come to Jesus.” She said to him, “But I am a very great sinner, will he take me just as I am?” “Yes, he will take you just as you are, and in no other way.” She said, “If he will take me just as I am, then I will come.” She went home to her room, sat down at her desk and wrote the hymn, “Just as I am without one plea, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.”

Will you sing it today?

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.

“As men moved eastward,” out into the uninhabited world, “they found a plain in Shinar and settled there” (v. 2). This is the flatlands between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, in the heart of modern-day Iraq. The area was especially fertile in those days, so that grain harvests typically yielded 200- to 300-fold, and palm trees grew all over the land. They had no enemies as yet, and so did not need to settle in mountains where they could protect themselves. So this was a perfect location.

“They said to each other” (v. 3a), no exceptions or dissenters. “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly” (v. 3b), literally “burn them to a burning,” making them stronger than sun-baked bricks. They used “tar for mortar” (v. 3c), a kind of bitumen found throughout the region which literally glued the bricks together. Millions of these ancient bricks have been found; they are typically a foot square and two to three inches thick, and are perfect for building tall structures.

They had this purpose in mind: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves” (v. 4a). Today we still use their phrase “make a name for ourselves.” We already “have” a name, given by our parents. We “make” a name by our own efforts and success. In this way we seek to leave a legacy, a permanent mark on this world, lest we be “scattered over the face of the whole earth” (v. 4b).

Remains of their tower still exist. It was designed to be approximately 300 feet square at the base, with seven levels of decreasing size, and was intended to reach 290 to 300 feet in height. Think of a football field cubed, and you’ll have the idea. It was by far the largest building in the ancient world for generations.

But compared to the greatness of God it was so tiny that he had to “come down” to look at it (v. 5).

He knew that such pride would lead only to further rebellion and destruction, so he chose to “confuse their language” and defeat their plans (v. 7). And then he “scattered them from there over all the earth” (v. 8), the very thing they tried to prevent by their own egotistical actions.

He could have crushed them, destroyed them with fire, or devastated them with disease. This was an act of grace, to keep us from hurting ourselves further.

As a result, the place is called “Babel” (from which we get “Babylon”), an ironic word play. The Assyrians used the word for “gate of god”; the Hebrews used it for “confusion.” Whenever we try to build the former, the latter results.

Accept the cure

Finally, we consider the issue practically. How does our story help us with our problem? It suggests these clear steps.

First, refuse self-exaltation:

“Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil” (Pr 3:7).

“Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Pr 26:12).

“Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight” (Isaiah 5:21).

“The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know” (1 Cor. 8:2).

Know that everything which tempts you to self-exaltation is the sin of pride. As Oswald Chambers says, avoid anything which puts you in the position of superiority. You’re only building a Tower of Babel, and your plans will be defeated.

Second, see yourself as the valuable child of God: “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ…If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:26, 29). When you know your worth before God, you won’t be so motivated to seek it from us.

Bill Glass, the former NFL star and now prison ministry leader, says that the most common denominator behind bars is the absence of a father. We each need to know that our father loves us, that he likes us, and that he wants us. Your Father loves you, likes you, and wants you. Don’t measure yourself by the size of the towers you’re building, but the God who loves you.

Third, seek to glorify God in all you do. When we seek his glory, we cannot seek our own at the same time. J. I. Packer was right: it is impossible at the same time to convince you that I am a great preacher and that Jesus is a great Savior. Measure your success today by the degree to which other people think more of God because of you. Ask how you can glorify him with your abilities, gifts, resources, and accomplishments. How can you turn someone toward him this week?

Last, value humility as the path to God. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who know their need of God, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs” (Matthew 5:3; cf. NEB). Martin Luther was right: “God creates out of nothing. Therefore, until a man is nothing, God can make nothing out of him.” Ask God to help you stay humble before him, surrendered to his will, seeking his glory alone. Every day of his life, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones prayed the same prayer, “Lord, keep me from pride.” When last did you make this your prayer?


We’ve considered our subject theologically, biblically, and practically. Let’s close not with our heads but our hearts. In England I had the opportunity to stand in a number of elevated pulpits, as is the style on the Continent. I was reminded of the young preacher just out of seminary, climbing the steps to the pulpit for his first Sunday in his first church.

Head held high, notes and Bible in hand, he was proud and dignified. But he tripped on the last step, Bible and notes flying. He tried to shuffle them back into order, but he was too embarrassed to think. He tried to preach his sermon, but stammered and stuttered. Finally he quit, shoved his disheveled notes into his Bible, and descended the steps, head down.

An elderly woman on the first pew said to him, “Young man, if you’d gone up the steps the way you came down, you’d have gone down the way you went up.”

C. S. Lewis, as usual, says it better than I can:

“Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.

“If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed” (Mere Christianity 114).

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.

Two years later, Pharaoh had his own dreams, which none of his advisers could understand. The cupbearer finally remembered Joseph and recommended him to Pharaoh, who had him freed from his prison cell and brought to the palace. Joseph interpreted the dreams to predict seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. He was put in charge of the entire land, to prepare for the famine to come.

And so his brothers and his father made their way to Egypt, to get food he had stored. And so his brothers bowed before him. 20 years passed from the time “Joseph had a dream” to the time when it was fulfilled. And none of it by him.

Where do you suppose Joseph got his dream? Does God have a dream for you?

Does God have a dream for you?

The Jews were enslaved in Babylon, 900 miles from their homeland. Their temple was destroyed, their cities in ruins. Yet God could say, “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord; plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). At the time, no one could see an end to the Babylonian Empire. But in just a few years, Cyrus and his Persians destroyed Babylon and fulfilled the dream of God.

Paul and his shipmates were lost at sea; “When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest lay on us, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned” (Acts 27:20). Then, “Since they had been without food for a long time, Paul stood up among them and said…‘I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For this very night there stood before me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, “Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar. And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you”’” (vs. 21, 22-24). At the time, no one could see an end to the storm or hope for their lives. But the next morning they found Malta and fulfilled the dream of God.

John was exiled on the ancient Alcatraz called Patmos. He had no hope of seeing his beloved church again. But then “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day; and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet” (Revelation 1:10). At the time, he could see no way of continuing his ministry for his Lord. But then Jesus appeared to him, and gave him the Revelation.

God has a dream for your life. He has a purpose, a vision, a direction which will give you significance and hope. He has a dream which he will bless. You may be enslaved in Egypt, or shipwrecked on Malta, or imprisoned on Patmos. You may see nothing in your life and world which causes you to have a dream.

But that’s just the point. God’s dream is not defined by how your brothers view you or your culture defines you. It’s not dependent on anything you can see or understand in human terms, or it’s not God’s dream. It’s God restoring a little bit of Eden. It’s a dream of ruling the world when you’re about to be thrown into a cistern. It’s a dream which God alone can give and God alone can fulfill. My friend John Haggai insists that we “attempt something for God so great that it is doomed to fail unless God be in it.” That’s God’s dream.


As we continue to walk with Joseph, we’ll learn how to make that dream a reality. This is a five-part sermon. In coming weeks we’ll discover how to have the faith, courage, discernment, and plan to fulfill the dream God blesses. For now, let me encourage you to believe that Joseph’s story includes you. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are, how healthy or prosperous you are or aren’t. If God gave you another day of life, there’s a reason. There’s a purpose. He has a dream for you, “plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

This week, would you ask God to help you know his dream for you? Would you make time to let him answer that question? Would you start right now?

Here’s our key verse for the Joseph series: “The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him” (2 Chronicles 16:9). He’s looking for someone to bless, someone to whom he can give his dream. He’s looking at you right now. Are you looking at him?

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.

Peter didn’t want to obey what he heard God say (vs. 14-15). Finally he did (vs. 20-21). Then came the result: “God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean” (v. 28). He had to surrender to what he heard.

If I am to listen to God, I must first decide to do what he says. His word and will are not negotiable for me. The God of the universe is not willing for his voice to be an option.

Joyce Huggett, whose book The Joy of Listening to God has helped me greatly, says, “The secret of true prayer is to place oneself utterly and completely at the disposal of God’s Spirit.”

And she quotes Thomas Merton, one of the best-known monks of this century: “The deepest prayer at its nub is a perpetual surrender to God.”

To hear God speak, I must surrender not only my will but also my sin. The more time I spend with God, the more I see my sins for what they are, and the more I must confess them to him.

A man walking to church at night was splashed with mud by a passing bus. In the dark he said, “It’s not too bad.” He came closer to a streetlight and said, “I need to brush this off.” He stood under the streetlight and said, “I must go home and change clothes.”

So do we all.

Chuck Swindoll has a helpful book entitled Intimacy with the Almighty. In it he quotes a Puritan prayer which captures our struggle.

When you would guide me I control myself.

When you would be sovereign I rule myself.

When you would take care of me I suffice myself.

When I should depend on your providings I supply myself.

When I should submit to your providence I follow my will.

When I should study, honour, trust you, I serve myself;

I fault and correct your laws to suit myself.

Lord, it is my chief design to bring my heart back to You.

And so it must be, if I would hear the Spirit of God.

Listen to his Spirit

So I believe that God will speak to me; I am silent before him; and I surrender myself to him. Now, last, I must choose to listen to his Spirit. Whatever he wants to say, however he wishes to say it. I choose to listen.

How does God’s Spirit speak to those who choose to listen?

He speaks to us, of course, in his word. But listening to God’s word is not the same thing as studying it or preaching from it. When I listen to God’s word, I seek only God’s meaning for me. Not for you, or for anyone else–only for me. When God speaks through his word to a listening heart, he speaks specifically to that heart and none other.

Perhaps the best way to listen to God’s word is to take a short passage, five to ten verses, and spend time with them in God’s presence. Seek to live in this text. If it’s an event, join it. Identify with the people in the story. In our case, seek to become Cornelius, or Peter, or perhaps one of these servants. See the story through their eyes, feel it with their emotions.

Pay special attention to words or phrases which speak to you personally. In our text, for instance, this phrase caught my eye: the Spirit said to Peter, “Do not hesitate.” When God speaks I am not to hesitate but respond, immediately. That speaks to me regarding some decisions I must make this week.

When something in God’s word especially strikes you, stop there. Write it down. Listen to his word, feel his presence, for you are with Jesus. He is speaking from his word to your heart, feeding your soul.

This is one way God speaks to those who will listen.

He speaks to us through his world as well. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Ps. 19:1). When you’re alone with God, look around. See his nature, his creation. See the artist in his painting, the poet in his words. Meet with God in his creation and ask him to speak through his world to your soul. And he will.

And God speaks to us through our worship. If you and I would enter God’s presence expecting to hear from him today, in silence and surrender, we would hear his Spirit. He wants to speak through the words of our hymns and choruses, through the prayers we hear and pray, through the music sung and played, through my words as they carry his word.

Worship is not only our time to speak to God. Here God would speak, powerfully, to us.

So imagine Jesus present to you, wherever you are. Imagine him in the pew or chair beside you. It may help you to sit at a table and imagine Jesus in the chair across from you. Imagine him beside you, because he is.

I often tell at funerals the story of the invalid who struggled with prayer, so his pastor told him to put an empty chair beside his bed and pray to Jesus as though he were in the chair. The night he died, his daughter found him, with his hand in the chair.


When will be the next time you pull up a chair for God? When will you get silent before him, surrender to him, and listen to him? Listen for his help with a problem? For his will? For his comfort, or forgiveness, or hope?

Before you leave this morning, make that appointment. For the sake of your soul.

Imagine holding a leaf in your hand, its web of life-giving veins clearly visible. In like manner, the poet invites God to course through his life:

I sense your drive

To flow through me

Into the smallest blood vessels

Because you want to be my heartblood

In all the passages of my life

And you want to become visible in the leaves

And the fruit that I bear.

Spread out in me

Press forward, penetrate, pierce and flow

Even if, at times,

I want to repeal this invitation

Being afraid of your ways in me.

Circulate in me

Change and renew

Because I know

That only your Spirit

Brings real life and fruit.

I echo that prayer. Spread out in me, Lord Jesus, until I see you face to face. Amen.

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.

Third, be cleansed from all that hinders the Holy Spirit. I can connect my drill to a socket and still have no power, if the plug is corroded. The plug must be clean for the power to flow. In the very same way, we are seeking the power of the Holy Spirit, and he cannot fill and control a dirty vessel. He cannot give his power with a dirty plug. We must be clean first.

2 Chronicles 7:14 is clear: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” If we confess, God will forgive. If we are clean, God will move in power.

Are you willing to be cleansed from everything which hinders the Holy Spirit in your life? Then take a moment for a moral inventory. Write on the back of your outline anything which is hindering the Spirit in your life. If you’re not sure, ask him and he’ll show you. Confess these sins specifically to God, and claim his cleansing. Cleanse the “plug” and you will know the power.

Last, ask him to control and empower your life. The drill doesn’t have to do this, for it has no will. But we do. And we must ask the Spirit to control and empower us, before he will.

Will you do this today? In prayer, simply ask the Spirit to take control of your life, your mind, your time, your abilities. Surrender your will to him. Promise to obey him wherever he leads you. And believe that he has. Nowhere does the Bible describe how it “feels” to be empowered by the Holy Spirit. Some of your class members will feel something unusual; others will not. I seldom do. The proof is in the results, not the feeling. So step out in faith, believing that the Spirit has empowered you, for he has.

And do this daily. The literal Greek is, “Be continually being filled.” Whenever sin corrodes your relationship with him, confess it and claim cleansing. Then reconnect with the Spirit. Stay in communion with him all through the day–stay “plugged in.”

As you do, remember that God empowers us according to his purpose for us. The Holy Spirit never empowered a Christian in the Book of Acts except to make him or her a more effective witness. If we are not willing to share Christ, we will not have the power of the Spirit. If we are, we will.


Dwight Moody preached to over one hundred million souls in his ministry. He founded what became Moody Bible College, and was widely considered one of the godliest men in America. His prayers have been recorded and published; his passion for the lost was legendary. And yet Moody often said of his own soul, “I am a leaky bucket, and I need to be refilled daily.” If he needed this, so do I. Do you?

Does God still move? Can we experience the “Book of Acts” power of the Spirit today? Can come of us be the next Paul, Barnabas, Peter, Lydia? The answer is up to us, isn’t it?

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.

His timing may not be ours. He might right now be working to answer your prayer, but you cannot yet see that work. You’re needing a new job, and have prayed for one. Today God is engineering circumstances in such a way that a person is being promoted to the home office of her corporation. Then someone in her office will be moved into her position. Then that person’s job will be yours. It is going to take another two months for that process to become obvious to you, though God is working on the issue right now. You just don’t know it.

And God loves us too much to give us what we ask for, unless it is for our good. When one of our boys was very small, he watched me use a razor blade to scrape paint from a window and wanted to play with this shiny new toy. He was incensed that I refused.

Here we come to one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith. When we prayed for something God did not grant, we can know that it was best that he acted as he did. Even when we do not understand why. The person did not get well. The house burned down; the divorce became final; the car wreck happened. It’s not a question of timing, for the worst has already occurred. And we do not understand why God did not grant us our prayer.

A very dear friend in our congregation suffered from cancer for many months. I prayed every day for her healing. When she died, I was deeply distraught. Her healing would have brought such glory to God and good to her family. I didn’t understand, and still don’t.

Dr. E. K. Bailey was the Senior Pastor of Concord Missionary Baptist Church here in Dallas, and one of the finest ministers of the gospel I have ever known. Our friendship was priceless to my soul. His preaching at Park Cities will be remembered always. Several times, God healed my dear friend of cancer. Then he did not. I still don’t understand why.

I must assume that it was not best for them to be healed. They are both with the Father in glory, in a paradise we cannot begin to imagine. One second on the other side of death, they were glad they were in glory. In the providence of God, their contribution to his Kingdom on earth must have been completed, their reward prepared, their eternity made ready. Even though I don’t understand or like it.

That’s the faith assumption I must make when God does not grant what I ask–he is doing something even better. Though my finite, fallen mind cannot begin to imagine how that could be so, I must trust his love and compassion enough to accept it by faith. Not until I became a father did I understand some of the things my father said and did. Not until we are in glory will we understand completely our Father’s will and ways (1 Corinthians 13:12).

What about free will?

Now let’s complicate matters even further. We have been thinking thus far about situations where God did not give us what we asked for, and trying to trust that he did something even better. But are there times when his will is frustrated by our own? When he wants to answer our prayer, but human freedom prevents him?

The question moves us into the arena of sovereignty/free will, one of the most debated and divisive subjects in Christian theology today. We’ll not go there except as the issue touches on a theology of prayer. Some theologians argue that God’s sovereign will is not subject to ours, that human freedom can never frustrate or defeat the divine plan. They would not agree that misused free will could be a factor in God’s answers to our prayers. He will do what is best, however humans react to him.

However, it seems to me that in at least one area, God’s will is limited by ours. 2 Peter 3:9 states, “God is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” 1 Timothy 2:4 promises that God “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” Some believe God has chosen the “elect” who will be in heaven and those who will be in hell, and that human freedom is not determinative of eternal destiny. They must interpret these two passages as relating only to the “elect.” But the verses seem in their context to speak to all of humanity, never mentioning the “elect.” It seems clear that God wants every one of his children to be with him in eternity.

Yet we know that many are lost: “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15). Many will use their free will to refuse God’s offer of grace. And he has chosen to limit himself to their freedom. He created us to worship him; worship requires a choice; God will not violate that freedom. His sovereign decision to enable our free will causes him to honor that freedom.

If this is true, we have at least one area where human freedom limits the perfect will of God. Is this possible in other areas as well, specifically with regard to prayer? Could it be that a reason God has not answered a prayer as you asked it is because someone is refusing to cooperate?

God wanted you to have a particular job, but the person who was to hire you misused his freedom to hire his brother-in-law instead. God intended to lead your daughter to a particular Christian young man at college, but she refused to follow the Lord’s guidance. You prayed for God to use your life; he intended for you a deeply fulfilling ministry to children in your church; but you refused his leadership. Then you wonder why he hasn’t answered your prayer.

I have not resolved this issue fully in my own mind. If God is sovereign, his “good, pleasing and perfect will” must be done (Romans 12:2). If God intends us to have freedom of choice, he must honor the decisions we make even when they are counter to his perfect will. It seems to me that resolving this conflict in either direction creates a greater problem than we solve. If God’s will controls our own, our mistakes and sins are ultimately his fault (violating James 1:13-15). If our will controls God’s, he cannot fulfill his purposes for his creation (violating Jesus’ claim that “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” Matthew 28:18).

So I am ready to accept both sides of the paradox. God is three and one; Jesus is fully God and fully man; and Scripture is divinely inspired and humanly written. In the same way, God will accomplish his perfect will without violating my freedom. There are times when we are like Joseph, sold into slavery by our brothers’ misused free will. At the end of the story we will be able to say to them, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20). His love prevails.

How to pray

We are to pray with urgency.

Charles Spurgeon, the greatest of all Baptist preachers, warned us: “He who prays without fervency does not pray at all. We cannot commune with God, who is a consuming fire, if there is no fire in our prayers.” Maltbie Babcock agreed: “Our prayers must mean something to us if they are to mean anything to God.”

Hear Spurgeon again: “The sacred promises, though in themselves most sure and precious, are of no avail for the comfort and sustenance of the soul unless you grasp them by faith, plead them in prayer, expect them by hope, and receive them with gratitude.” He added, “Do not reckon you have prayed unless you have pleaded, for pleading is the very marrow of prayer.”

We are to pray urgently and continually. Jesus’ words are in the present tense: pray and keep on praying. Our Lord prayed before light, after dark, all night long, continually. His word commands the same of us: “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5.17).

George Mueller, the great minister and man of faith, prayed patiently for five personal friends who did not know the Lord. After five years, one came to Christ. In ten more years, two more were saved. After 25 years, the fourth friend came to Christ. He kept praying for the last friend for 52 years, then died. The fifth friend came to know Jesus a few months afterward. Keep praying.

How do we pray with continual urgency?

Begin. Make an appointment to meet with God. I read this week about a man who put on his calendar each day, 7-7:30, prayer. But he kept missing it. Then he changed it to say 7-7:30, God. That’s a harder meeting to neglect.

In Jesus’ name: “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” (John 14:13-14). Do you believe that you deserve to be heard, or do you pray on the basis of Jesus’ death for you?

According to God’s will: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us–whatever we ask–we know that we have what we asked of him” (1 John 5:14-15). He will give us what we ask, or something better.

For God’s glory: “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father” (Jn. 14:13). Do you seek your glory or his?

With a clean heart: “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened; but God has surely listened and heard my prayer” (Psalm 66:18-19).

If God seems silent, check yourself by these biblical standards. But know that your Father wants to hear you even more than you want to be heard. And pray. Let nothing stop you. Do it today.


Now, where does this subject come home to you? Do you pray much at all? Continually? With urgency? Is there a need you’ve abandoned, a request on which you’ve given up? A place in your life where God seems silent?

Perhaps this man’s experience will help. An anonymous Confederate soldier wrote,

“I asked God for strength that I might achieve; I was made weak, that I might learn to serve. I asked for health, that I might do great things; I was given infirmity, that I might do better things. I asked for wealth, that I might be happy; I was given poverty, that I might be wise. I asked for power, that I might earn the praise of men; I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.

I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life; I was given life, that I might enjoy all things. I got nothing I asked for, but all I hoped for. Despite myself, my prayers were answered. And I am, among all men, most richly blessed.”

So can we be. This is the promise of God.