An Honest Approach to the Mystery of Suffering

Topical Scripture: Psalm 3

It’s been a hard week in the news. From a three-year-old boy attacked with acid to flooding victims on the East Coast to shootings in Canada to wildfires in Greece and bombings in Pakistan, the headlines have been painful.

When we learn of such unfairness, we want to ask how God can be all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, and yet allow this world to be the way it is. If I were God, infants would never be attacked; shootings and bombings would never occur; fires and floods would not happen. I’m sure you’d say the same thing.

Before we study this week’s psalm, let’s explore the issue we need it to address.

Hard answers to a hard question

I know the traditional theological responses: One, we live in a fallen world. In the Garden of Eden, storms didn’t rage, and wildfires didn’t kill people. Two, Satan is alive and well. As the Bible says, he comes to steal, kill, and destroy. Three, people can misuse their freedom. It’s not God’s fault if people choose to attack children and adults. Four, God suffers as we suffer and promises to give us all we need for the hard days. Five, he redeems for greater good all that he allows.

However, if you’re like me, there’s a “but” in the back of your mind. I understand all of that, but still—if I were God, it wouldn’t be like this. If God can still work miracles, why didn’t he on the East Coast and in Greece? If he’s more powerful than Satan, why does he let the devil steal, kill, and destroy?

I understand the importance of free will, but the Lord sometimes prevents the consequences of misused freedom, as when he freed Peter from Herod’s prison and Paul from his Philippian jail. He will help us through hard days, but we’d rather not face them at all. He will redeem what he allows, but we’d rather he not allow it.

Now consider another factor: It’s illogical for God to make a world in which there is human free will but no evil and suffering. If we don’t have evil as an option, how are we free to choose? If there are no consequences to wrong choices, did we really have a choice?

But that’s just what he will do for us in heaven. We will still be ourselves—even more fully ourselves than on earth. But in heaven, “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

If there, why not here?

Here’s the bottom line: I don’t know. I don’t know why we can have free will in a perfect paradise in heaven but not on earth. I don’t know why God sometimes intervenes miraculously but not always. I don’t know why three-year-olds get attacked and families die in fires and bystanders get shot.

I can choose to let the mystery of suffering drive me to atheism, concluding that there cannot be a biblical God in a universe like ours. But then I must account for all the good that makes no sense in such a godless world.

I must account for the astounding beauty and complexity of creation that so surpasses supposed evolutionary purposes. I must account for the goodness of people who sacrifice so unselfishly for each other. I must account for the basic human drive for morality that makes no sense apart from a Creator who bestowed this impulse.

And if there is no God, I must account for the overwhelming evidence for the truthfulness of Scripture, the existence of Jesus, his bodily resurrection, and the transformed lives of his followers. I must account for the billions of lives changed by his saving grace.

And I must admit that by definition, my finite, fallen mind cannot comprehend the nature and purposes of an infinite, perfect Deity. Just as a mathematician could not explain calculus to my four-year-old granddaughter (brilliant though she is!), a God as described in the Bible could not fully explain his ways to me.

I am left with a binary decision. Either choice requires a commitment that transcends the evidence. The universe is not so evil that its depravity proves God does not exist. It is not so good that its virtues prove he does.

So, it seems to me that our decision when facing the mystery of suffering is practical rather than theoretical. We can let suffering drive us further from God, or we can use it to draw us closer to him. Neither decision can be proven before it is chosen. It is as though we’re facing two roads and cannot know their destination until we travel on them.

Here’s why we should choose the road of faith.

Three steps to the grace of God

Psalm 3 is one of fourteen psalms linked to actual events in David’s life. As we will see, the setting of this psalm makes it especially relevant to this message.

Note the presence of three “Selah”s. This is a musical term instructing the worship leader and congregation to pause, reflect on what has just been said, and praise God as a result. We will use them to divide the psalm into three sections.

Tell God about your suffering

David begins: “O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising up against me” (v. 1). The setting explains his suffering.

Psalm 3 was composed by King David after his son Absalom staged a successful revolt against him. This was the greatest crisis of his life. The king was forced to flee Jerusalem, with no guarantee that he would return to his throne or even survive the night.

Things were so bad that Absalom’s armies were taunting David: “Many are saying of my soul, ‘There is no salvation for him in God’. Selah” (v. 2). Note the three-fold repetition of “many” in these two verses, emphasizing the danger of his situation.

Rather than allow this crisis to drive David from God, he used it to seek God. He turned to his Lord in honesty, describing the peril and grief of the moment.

Unless your son has rebelled against you and sought to kill you, you have not met circumstances like these. But Psalm 3 is in the Bible for all who face suffering and tragedy of any kind. Its beginning is God’s invitation to turn to him with our suffering in honesty and pain.

Not because we’re telling God what he doesn’t know, but because we’re admitting our need of his provision and power.

Turn to God in faith

In spite of his peril, David did not give up on his Lord: “But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head” (v. 3). “But you” is emphatic in the Hebrew.

Note the present tense. Despite all appearances, despite the dangers he faces and the peril of the moment, David chose to believe that God is a “shield about me” who bestows glory on him and lifts his head when it falls in discouragement.

How can this be so? “I cried aloud to the Lord, and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah” (v. 4). “His holy hill” refers to God’s presence prior to the building of the Jerusalem temple. It was from his high and holy presence that God heard his suffering child and answered him.

Our circumstances change nothing about God. Whatever he was before Absalom rebelled, our Lord is after his rebellion. If he was our shield yesterday, he is our shield today.

Because David prayed, God could answer. A doctor cannot serve a patient who will not seek her help.

Act in trust and courage

As a result, David testified, “I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me” (v. 5). Sleep was the most dangerous and vulnerable time in war, but after David prayed to God and claimed the fact that the Lord was his shield and protector, he “lay down and slept.” When he woke again the next morning, he discovered that the Lord had sustained him.

His experience of God’s provision in the present encouraged him to trust God with the future: “I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around” (v. 6). Now he could pray specifically, “Arise, O Lord! Save me, O my God!” (v. 7a).

He could claim his Lord’s omnipotence: “For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked” (v. 7b). God can do what David cannot do. But he can act only if David will ask.

David concluded: “Salvation belongs to the Lord; your blessing be on your people! Selah” (v. 8). Salvation “belongs” to God and thus comes only from him. If we will not turn to him, we cannot have what he alone possesses. But if we will use our suffering as a bridge of faith, we will find his “blessing” on the other side.


Who is your Absalom? What suffering are you facing today? Choose with David to turn to God in honesty and faith, and you will be able to act in faith and courage.

There are some lessons that can be learned only the hard way. One of them is that God provides in the depths of life’s greatest challenges.

And there are some decisions that can only be made in hard times. One of them is the choice to turn to God in honesty and faith. When we do, we discover that we can act in trust and courage.

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 and the invitation of God.

Dealing With Doubts

Topical Scripture: Mark 9:14-29

There is so much we don’t know about the COVID-19 pandemic.

We don’t know when cases in the US will peak or how long they will last afterwards. We don’t know if surviving a COVID-19 infection means we gain long-lasting immunity or if we can become re-infected. We don’t know if the virus will be affected by warmer temperatures in the spring and summer or, if it is, whether we will see a second onslaught of infections in the fall. We don’t know if measures to keep us from infecting each other will work. We don’t know if vaccine and therapy trials now underway will work.

At a time like this, it’s easy to wonder if prayer does much good. We pray for our leaders, for our healthcare providers, for our friends and families and ourselves. But if you’re like most of us, there’s an unstated, perhaps unadmitted doubt in the back of your mind—will my prayers really make any difference? They can fall into the “why not?” category: something that doesn’t cost us anything but a little time and might make a difference. But who really knows?

In my spring sermon series, we are following Jesus to Easter and watching him change lives along the way. Last week, we saw him save Peter from drowning on the stormy Sea of Galilee in response to the fisherman’s prayer, “Lord, save me!” (Matthew 14:30). The Greek is really just two words: “Lord, save!”

It’s the shortest prayer in the Bible, and one we can pray any time in any storm.

Today we’ll shift from the shortest prayer in Scripture to my favorite prayer in Scripture. It’s one that I’ve prayed many times over the years. It’s one that you may need to learn to pray in these hard days.

Before we learn it, let me ask you: What questions or doubts or struggles are most on your heart today? They may be about the coronavirus pandemic, but they may be about something else. One tragedy about disease epidemics is that other diseases don’t stop being diseases. People don’t stop having heart attacks and cancer and strokes. People don’t stop having car accidents and marital problems and financial fears.

So, name your fear, your doubt, your worry. Now, let’s learn how to pray my favorite prayer in response.

The plight of a desperate father

Our story follows Jesus’ transfiguration, when he, Peter, James, and John came down from the mountain to the people below. Here, “when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them” (Mark 9:14). These “scribes” were religious leaders, the authorities of the day.

When the crowd saw Jesus, they “were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him” (v. 15). With his usual compassion, he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” (v. 16).

A man in the crowd explained, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able” (vv. 17–18).

Imagine this man in our context, with a son with coronavirus. He has brought him to the doctors, but they cannot help him. His son is getting sicker, and he is getting more desperate.

Jesus said to this grieving father, “Bring him to me” (v. 19). The spirit then convulsed the boy, so that he fell on the ground, foaming at the mouth (v. 20). Jesus asked his father how long this had been happening; the father said, “From childhood” (v. 21). He added, “It has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him” (v. 22a).

Now comes the part we will focus upon today. The father added, “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (v. 22b). Jesus replied, “If you can! All things are possible for one who believes” (v. 23). Notice that he did not say, “All things are guaranteed,” but “all things are possible.” Our faith does not obligate God, as we will see shortly.

Here is the prayer I am recommending to us today: “Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!'” (v. 24).

Why doubts are normal

Doubts are a normal and expected part of the human experience. It is natural to doubt anything we cannot know with certainty. And the more urgently we need to know what we do not, the more deeply we will feel our doubts.

I can doubt that the universe is ninety-three billion light years in size as scientists currently estimate, but my doubts don’t affect my life unless I’m an astrophysicist. I can doubt that Brexit will move forward as planned in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, but my doubts don’t affect me unless I live in the UK or Europe or work in a field directly affected by them.

But if I doubt that God can protect me and my family from coronavirus or heal us if we are infected, my doubts become very real and very personal.

Faith in God is like faith in anyone else in that it is a relationship rather than a scientific experiment. All relationships require a commitment that transcends the evidence and becomes self-validating.

I cannot prove to you that I love my wife or that she loves me. You would have to experience our relationship to know its reality. You cannot prove you should take a job before you take it. You examine the evidence, of course, but then you step beyond the evidence into a commitment that validates itself.

It is the same with our Lord. There will always be dimensions of our relationship with him that transcend certainty and require faith. At such times, doubts are natural and normal.

What should we do with such doubts today?

One: Remember what we know about God.

This father said to Jesus, “I believe” (v. 24a). The Greek word is pisteuo, meaning to trust in, to have confidence in, to rely upon. His faith was not merely intellectual but personal. He had enough faith to bring his suffering son to Jesus’ disciples in the hope that they could help. Even though they had been unable to heal his son, he had enough faith to turn to their master now.

When we face what we don’t know, let’s remember what we do.

Nothing about this boy’s suffering or the coronavirus pandemic changes anything about the nature of God. He is as powerful today as when he created the universe. He is as omniscient today as when he led his people into the Promised Land.

He hears our prayers as fully today as when he heard the Christians praying for Peter in prison and freed the apostle from Herod. He loves us as much today as when he sent his Son to die for us at Calvary.

What have you experienced about God in the past that is relevant today? What prayers has he answered? What needs has he met? What sins has he forgiven? In what way can you say, “I believe”?

Two: Trust God with what we don’t know.

The second part of the father’s prayer is one that may surprise many believers: “Help my unbelief!” (v. 24b). “Unbelief” translates apistia, the opposite of pisteuo. Just as an “atheist” is one who denies theism, so this man’s “unbelief” contradicted his belief.

When we have such doubts, we may think God won’t hear us or help us. But the opposite is true.

Remember Thomas, the disciple who did not meet the risen Christ along with the other apostles and said, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (John 20:25). When the risen Christ met with them again the next week, Thomas was in their midst.

Did Jesus criticize Thomas for his doubts? Did he condemn or judge him? “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (v. 27). Thomas responded, “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28). And according to early tradition, he took the gospel as far east as India.

Thomas was not the only apostle to harbor doubts about the resurrection. In Matthew 28, we read that “the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted” (vv. 16–17).

Did Jesus reject them? Did he expel them from his movement? To the contrary, he commissioned them to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (v. 19). And they did.

The preeminent example of doubting faith is that of our Lord who cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, quoting Psalm 22:1). Of course, we know that Jesus was “without sin” in every dimension of his life (Hebrews 4:15). And we know that his Father met him in his doubts, so that Jesus would soon say, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

Like Thomas and the other apostles and our Savior, we can bring our doubts to God. We can tell him where we are struggling and ask for his help. If we don’t have faith, we can ask for faith. We can pray, “Lord, give me the faith to have faith.”

And we can know that he hears us in grace. In our text, Jesus then cast out the demon and healed the boy (Mark 8:25–27). He answered his father’s doubts with a demonstration of his power and love.

He will do the same for us in whatever way is best for us.


This text does not promise that when we bring God our doubts, he will always meet them as we want him to. Our Lord healed this boy on this day, but he did not heal Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” as the apostle prayed he would (2 Corinthians 12:7–8). To the contrary, God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9a).

And Paul could say as a result, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (v. 9b). And he could add, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (v. 10).

It’s been said that God sometimes calms the storm, but he sometimes lets the storm rage and calms his child.

What’s important today is that we know we can bring God our doubts in these days and know that he hears us and loves us. We can trust that he will give us what we ask or whatever is best. We may not understand his answer on this side of heaven, but we will one day (1 Corinthians 13:12).

And we can know that we are loved.

One of my favorite movie lines of all time is in The Count of Monte Cristo. Edmond Dontes has been unfairly imprisoned. He meets a priest who is suffering the same. At one point the priest says to him, “Here is your final lesson—do not commit the crime for which you now serve the sentence. God said, ‘Vengeance is mine.'”

Edmond responds, “I don’t believe in God.”

The priest replies, “It doesn’t matter. He believes in you.”

Does God Still Do Miracles?

Topical Scripture: Acts 9:36–43

You’ve made it to Spring. Not officially, of course—the first day of spring is March 20, which is when the sun crosses our equator (the Vernal Equinox) and the day contains twelve hours of sunlight and twelve hours of darkness.

But most of us think of March as the first month of Spring. You may not know that all is not goodness and light with this month. It is named for Mars, the Roman god of war. Wars in Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen all started in March.

Not all March military events are planned. On March 1, 2007, a detachment of Swiss infantrymen got lost on a training mission and accidentally invaded neighboring Liechtenstein, a country approximately the size of McKinney, Texas. Its 37,000 residents were not aware that they had been invaded. Since they have no army, they chose not to retaliate.

Wars are just one symptom of our fallen planet. A zookeeper in Florida was training a rhinoceros named Archie when it struck her with its horn, sending her to the hospital. In worse news, a woman in South Carolina was wrestling with her dogs in her front yard when they attacked and killed her.

The world reminds us every day that we live in a fallen world. Where do you need God to intervene in your life? What miracle do you need from him? It could be physical, financial, emotional, or relational.

Does he still do miracles? If so, how do we pray for them? What should we do when he doesn’t do what we want him to do?

These are pressing, practical questions we’ll ask Peter this week.

A miraculous story

Our story begins in Joppa, which has been called the oldest seaport in the world. A suburb of Tel Aviv today, it is still a popular tourist attraction. Jonah sailed from here to Tarshish to avoid God’s call to Nineveh (Jonah 1:3). Logs for building the temple were sailed to this port before being transported to Solomon in Jerusalem.

A disciple named Tabitha lived there. Her name is Aramaic and means “gazelle”; Luke translates her name into the Greek Dorcas, a hint that his reader(s) did not understand Aramaic and thus may have been Gentiles and/or Romans (cf. the dedication to “Theophilus,” perhaps a Roman official, Luke 1:3, Acts 1:1).

Her mercy ministry was widely known and received, so that her untimely death was mourned by all. The disciples heard that Peter was nearby in Lydda and summoned him to come urgently (Jewish custom gave those living outside Jerusalem only three days to bury the corpse).

Peter found the deceased girl and her mourners “upstairs” (v. 39), the typical “upper room” used by families as a kind of den. The apostle had been present each time Jesus raised the dead (Matthew 9:25, Luke 7:11–17, John 11:1–44), so he knew that his Lord possessed such power. Unlike Jesus, he knelt and prayed, making clear the fact that this miracle would come from God or it would not come at all. “Prayed” translates the Greek aorist tense, indicating a one-time action.

He then called the girl by name, an indication that he believed God intended to raise her. And he did.

The result of this physical miracle was an even more important spiritual miracle: “many people believed in the Lord” (v. 42). As in Lydda earlier (v. 35), this is always God’s ultimate purpose in healing our bodies. They will die again, but souls which turn to him in response to such grace will live forever in his paradise.

If Jesus can raise the dead, what can’t he do? Think back to all the ways the Lord has revealed his powerful grace to you. He gave you physical life, then spiritual salvation. He has given you health, the freedoms we enjoy, and a wonderful church family. When we remember all he has done, we will more readily trust him for all he will do. When we see his power, we can trust his providence.

Are miracles plausible today?

As C. S. Lewis observed, the man who denies the sunrise does not harm the sun—he only proves himself foolish. What can we learn about our culture from its views of the miraculous? And about ourselves?

Mad at miracles

Most dictionaries consider a “miracle” to be an event or action which apparently contradicts scientific laws as we understand them. Sometimes we experience a miracle of coincidence, where highly improbable but not impossible events occur (a friend calls you unexpectedly, just when you most needed to hear from her). Other miracles are actual violation of physical laws (a friend calls you on a telephone which is disconnected).

Both kinds occurred often in the biblical record. Moses, Joshua, Samson, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Peter, and Paul all experienced and initiated them. And Jesus’ miracles were crucial to his ministry. They validated his Messiahship (Matthew 11:4–5), showed that he was from God (John 5:36; 14:11), and were intended to lead to saving faith (John 20:30–31).

Yet miracles themselves may not convince those who witness them (cf. John 15:24; Luke 16:31). At issue is our worldview. As J. S. Mill said in 1843, “If we do not already believe in supernatural agencies, no miracle can prove to us their existence.” Either we didn’t see what we thought we saw, or there’s another explanation than the miraculous. Many have taken such skeptical positions.

Benedict Spinoza (died 1677) argued that it is impossible for natural laws to be changed. If an event appears to be a miracle, this is only because we have not yet found the natural explanation. Isaac Newton agreed that time and space have an absolute fixed character, so that miracles by definition are impossible.

David Hume added that we cannot prove any cause and effect, much less the cause of so-called miracles. He believed that we should test all reported events in the light of our personal experience. If you have not experienced the miraculous, you cannot trust the testimony of another to its veracity.

Ernst Troelsch, the famous historian, took Hume’s position a step further: no writer of history should include a reported experience which does not occur today. If people no longer walk on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus didn’t, either. Karl Marx added the conviction that miracles are supernaturalistic wishes, nothing more.

You may be surprised to find that some Christians are likewise skeptical of the miraculous, though for different reasons. Some believe that miracles ended with the early church. Others maintain that miracles no longer occur, as the need for them in establishing revelation is now past.

The logic of the miraculous

Are there answers to the above skeptics? Absolutely. Most critics decide that the miraculous is by definition impossible, though they have no empirical or rational reasons to do so. Many point to their own lack of experience with miracles as reason to debunk the category itself. But could a man living in a warm climate believe in ice? Should we trust the experience of a person who denies that such experience is possible?

Science works with probability, not absolute logical proof. Those who seek incontrovertible evidence for the miraculous demand a standard they could not fulfill with their own truth claims. For instance, when experimenters measure light in one way, they determine that it travels as waves; measured in other ways, it appears to travel as particles. Both cannot be true, but neither can be disproved or proved. Niels Bohr called this phenomenon the “principle of complementarity.” Aristotle would call it a contradiction.

Newton saw the universe as a machine incapable of behavior outside the parameters of natural laws. After Einstein, this analytical era in science has come to an end. We now know that to observe or measure something is to alter it. Predictability is less possible, and antisupernaturalistic presuppositions are less defensible. Even Einstein stated, “I think of the comprehensibility of the world as a miracle.”

It all comes to worldview. If God created and designed the universe, he possesses the freedom to alter it as he wishes. He may act according to “laws” we discern within its operations, or he may not. What is a miracle to us is not to him. The laptop on which I am writing these words obeys none of the laws within which my father’s manual typewriter operated. But its “miraculous” abilities are nonetheless obvious.


When you need a miracle, what should you do?

One: Ask God.

In this case, Peter “knelt down and prayed” (v. 40). He did not assume that God could not or would not answer his prayer. He knelt, showing that the answer would come not from him, but from God.

Two: Expect God to answer your prayer.

Peter turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, arise.” He believed that God had heard him and would do what he asked God to do. In this case, the Lord did.

Three: Trust him to do what is best.

Here, it was best for him to raise Dorcas back to life, since “it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord” (v. 42). Since Joppa was such a significant seaport, this story could quickly travel all over the world.

However, this was not best for Dorcas. She had to come from heaven back to earth, from God’s perfect paradise to our fallen planet. Then she had to do her dying all over again. She was a missionary by the call and purpose of God.

At other times, God does not heal as we ask. When Paul pled three times with God to remove his “thorn in the flesh,” the Lord responded: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9a). Paul learned: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (v. 9b). His ability to live with his “thorn” was a greater miracle than if God had removed it.

A dear friend of mine in Midland was dying from breast cancer. Our entire congregation prayed fervently for God to heal her. I have witnessed other such miracles—people healed of cancer, heart disease, and other terminal illnesses. But God did not heal my friend physically.

Instead, he gave her the grace to withstand her suffering with such grace and joy that she marked every person who knew her. She glorified God far more by her faith than she would have by her healing. And then the Lord healed her eternally when he took her to paradise.

Pray for a miracle and trust your Father for what is best. This is the invitation of God.

How to Move the World

Topical Scripture: Acts 12:1–5

Archimedes, who died in 212 BC, was the first scientist to recognize the power of the lever. He once famously said, “Give me a place to stand and rest my lever, and I can move the Earth.” We will learn today how to use that lever.

Oswald Chambers noted: “Prayer does not fit us for the greater work; prayer is the greater work.

Billy Graham added: “In the morning, prayer is the key that opens to us the treasures of God’s mercies and blessings; in the evening, it is the key that shuts us up under His protection and safeguard.”

Prayer is the lever which can move the world. Here’s how the lever works.

Hold a prayer meeting (vv. 1–4)

As Acts 12 opens, it is the early part of AD 44 and we find the infant Christian church in yet another crisis. King Herod, grandson of the Herod of Jesus’ birth, is ruler of the Jews. And he wants to placate and please them. Thus, he beheads James, one of their leaders. Then he arrests Peter, the chief of the apostles, intending to kill him as soon as the Feast of Unleavened Bread passes. Jews by the tens of thousands will be in Jerusalem. Herod won’t miss this chance to impress his subjects.

So, he seizes Peter and turns him over to four squads of four guards each (v. 4). He’s probably heard of Peter’s earlier escape at the hands of the angel (Acts 5:18–21) and wants to avoid a repeat fiasco. The apostle was likely imprisoned in the fortress Antonia, northwest of the temple area, where Paul would later be confined as well (Acts 21:31–23:32).

Four soldiers are with him at all times—two chained to his body, and two to guard the door. Not to mention the soldiers stationed at the main door to the fortress or others patrolling the area. This is the highest security Rome can muster.

What does the church do? Organize a mob and storm the prison? Circulate a petition to get the names of leading Christians in Jerusalem to request Peter’s release? Take a collection to bribe Herod for his freedom?

They hold a prayer meeting.

Could anything be more ridiculous and fruitless? Imagine praying for a man so securely incarcerated, so near execution. Suppose a family and friends kept vigil outside Huntsville, while their loved one was being readied for execution, praying for him to escape. How would we view their prayers?

Here’s a better question: how would God?

Where are you in jail this week? Where is someone you love? Have you prayed yet? Have you asked others to join you? Have you held a prayer meeting? Will you?

Pray as they prayed (v. 5)

Suppose you call fellow believers to join you in intercession. What now? Let’s make the example of our text the model we follow: “Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him” (v. 5). R. A. Torrey’s classic The Power of Prayer and the Prayer of Power contains an investigation of this verse which we will follow in our study.

Pray together

Luke notes that “the church” was earnestly praying for Peter. By now the followers of Jesus number more than five thousand men, not counting women and children (Acts 4:4). They were scattered across the larger area (Acts 8:1), but news of Peter’s impending execution would travel quickly across the region. Luke is careful to note that the house to which Peter would go following his release was “where many people had gathered and were praying” (v. 12). But this was not “the church” in total. All who knew Jesus were calling on him, together.

Imagine having five thousand families praying for you. Jesus promised great power in response to such unity: “If two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:19–20).

Two horses working alone can do the work of two. But two horses pulling together can do the work of forty working alone. There is more power in praying together than the world knows. With this lever we can indeed move the earth.

With whom will you pray this week?

Pray with intensity

They were “earnestly praying” for Peter, as should we. The Greek is in the continuous tense; they were still praying in the morning when Peter escaped and came to them. Thus, they prayed all night. “Earnestly” pictures a runner straining for the finish line. There is work in intercessory prayer, hard labor.

Paul informed the Colossians of one who was engaged in such work on their behalf: “Epaphras . . . is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. I vouch for him that he is working hard for you” (Colossians 4:12–13). Jesus himself furnishes our best example: “Being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44).

For whom will you pray with intensity this week?

Pray to God

It seems redundant that Luke would write, “the church was earnestly praying to God for him” (emphasis mine). To whom else would they be praying? Actually, the options are several.

We can pray to impress each other with our eloquent words or pious faith. When you lead in public prayer, isn’t it hard not to pray to the people instead of to God?

We can pray to ourselves in a kind of meditation or contemplation. We can allow our minds to wander and daydream so that we are not praying at all. Shakespeare makes one of his characters lament, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below; words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

Or we can pray “to God.” We can enter the presence of the Lord Almighty. We can find ourselves kneeling before the throne of the God of the universe, the Creator of all that exists. We know when we are praying to God and when we are praying about him; when we are connected with him, our spirit is one with his spirit. Here is true power—not in our prayer, but in the One to whom we pray.

Will you connect with God this week?

Pray specifically

Again, it seems redundant for Luke to write, “the church was earnestly praying to God for him” (emphasis mine). For what other purpose would they be together? Again, the options are several.

We can meet to be seen meeting. We can meet to “get something out of the service.” We can meet to pray generically (“Lord, heal all the hurting and save all the lost, and forgive all our sins”). Or we can pray specifically.

We ask God to “be with us” when he already promised he would be (Matthew 28:20). We ask him to “bless us” when we wouldn’t know what that meant if he did. If we would pray specifically, telling God our actual need and asking him for particular answers, he would know how to answer us. And we would know when he did.

This is how God wants us to pray: together, with intensity, to our Father, specifically. This lever will move the world.

Expect God to answer (vv. 6–19)

The night before Peter was to be executed, he was asleep between two soldiers (v. 6), an indication of the peace of his soul. Then suddenly God’s angel came, and everything changed. He woke Peter up, removed his shackles, led him out of prison past two sets of guards, and set him free.

Then Peter knew that God had indeed spared his life. He went immediately to the prayer meeting at the home of John Mark’s mother. Because the early church was so large, they had to meet in many homes. This was apparently the house church with whom Peter worshipped. He knew they had been praying for him, so he went to show them the answer to their intercession.

And then, in one of the humorous ironies of God’s word, they couldn’t believe it was really him. The servant girl was so excited at hearing his voice that she left him exposed on the street while she told the rest of the crowd. Imagine you’re standing by the locked door, with Roman guards probably by now scouring the streets in pursuit. Your faith is still being tested, this time by your friends.

Meanwhile, the church couldn’t believe the girl’s testimony (v. 15). Here is proof that fallen people can still pray in power. Their faith was less than it should have been, as ours usually is. Is your typical response to a miraculous answered prayer one of calm expectation or shocked surprise? Finally, they came to the door, let Peter inside, and praised God together.

When you pray as these people prayed, expect God to move as God moved. This lever opens prison bars, sets prisoners free, and moves the world.


Christians hold in our hearts the lever which can move the world. Will you use it this week?

I am convinced that every believer needs a personal prayer ministry and notebook. Develop a list of lost and unchurched people and pray for them by name. Make a list of other people for whom you will pray daily. List other less urgent needs for each day of the week. Write down your requests, and document God’s answers. When I began keeping such a notebook, my prayer life was revolutionized.

Pray personally, and collectively. When coals stay together, they stay lit. When they are separated, they grow cold. We need each other.

A few years ago, a group of missionaries were camping at night on a hillside. Bands of robbers were common in the area. The missionaries were carrying money, and feared attack. After praying, they finally went to sleep.

Months later, the leader of one of the robber bands was brought to the mission hospital for treatment. While there, he asked the missionaries if they still had the soldiers who guarded them that night. “We intended to rob you,” he admitted, “but were afraid of the twenty-seven soldiers.” When the story got back to the church supporting these missionaries, someone remembered, “We had a prayer meeting that night, and there were twenty-seven of us present.”

How many are here today?

I Am the True Vine

Topical Scripture: John 6:35

You and I live in a culture that separates Sunday from Monday and religion from the “real world.” We learned this heresy from the ancient Greeks, who had transactional relationships with their gods.

They offered their gods what their deities wanted in order to get what they wanted. But these were mean, capricious gods. You didn’t want a personal, intimate relationship with them. You made offerings to placate them, then went on your way.

The Romans adopted this approach to religion. When Christianity spread into the larger Roman world, many of its followers adopted the same mindset.

They eventually invented the concept of “clergy,” separating the religions leaders from everyone else. Then they constructed buildings so the clergy would have a place to work while everyone else watched. Then they developed a monastic mindset that measures spirituality by time spent in the building.

All the while, the “real world” outside the church recognized none of these values. You had to go along to get along. You had to make a living to make a life. So, you went to church on Sunday to please God, hoping he would bless you on Monday.

None of this is what Jesus intended for his followers. In our last “I Am,” he offers a metaphor that explodes our Western separation of the “spiritual” and the “secular.” Let’s see what he taught and why it matters so much to our souls today.

How do we become part of the vine?

Our text is part of Maundy Thursday and Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse” with his disciples. The “I am” he states is simple and profound: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener” (v. 1). “I am” is emphatic in the Greek. The definite article, “the true vine,” shows that he is the one and only. But how is he a “vine”?

Our Lord and his disciples have probably turned off the road and into one of the temple courts for a while. Here they’ve come face to face with one of the most beautiful and powerful symbols in all Israel: the vine of grapes. A large vine of pure gold, fixed to the gate of the Temple itself.

The “vine” was Israel’s image of herself. She put it on her coins and used it constantly. As America’s image is the eagle, and Russia’s is the bear, so Israel’s was the vine. Over and over again in the Old Testament, this symbol was used for their nation.

However, the Old Testament also makes clear that Israel’s vine had degenerated. Her vineyard has run wild; her grapes are sour and bitter. The psalmist complained: “Your vine is cut down, it is burned with fire” (Psalm 80:16). Jeremiah quotes the Lord: “How did you turn against me into a corrupt, wild vine?” (Jeremiah 2:21; cf. Isaiah 5:7).

On the other hand, Jesus is the “true,” authentic and correct vine. Israel is the false and corrupted vine; Jesus is the true and right vine. Being “attached” to their temple or our church is not enough. Being an adherent of their religion or ours is not enough. We must be connected to the “true” vine, the only One who is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). No other vine will do.

When we trust in Christ as Savior and Lord, we become his. We “shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16); we are “a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17); we “shall never perish,” for no one can take us out of Jesus’ hand (John 10:28). All this happens when we make Jesus our Lord.

To what vine are you attached today?

What is spiritual fruit?

It’s not enough to be in the vine—we are also supposed to bear fruit: “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (v. 8). If we bear “fruit,” we are his true disciples. If we do not, we are not.

So, what is this spiritual fruit? How do we bear it? What happens to us if we don’t?

The vines of Israel, then and now, grow two types of branches. One bears fruit—the other does not. Those which do not bear fruit are immediately cut off, so they won’t burden those which do. Those which do bear fruit are pruned—cut back, disciplined as it were—so they will bear more fruit. This occurs each year in December and January.

Jesus’ point is clear: some branches bear fruit, while others do not. How do we know which we are? Here is the “fruit” God inspects.

One: Our lives glorify God. “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit” (v. 8a). Jesus told us to “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). When last did someone praise God because of you?

Two: We have the joy of Jesus. “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (v. 11). When we are properly related to the vine, we bear the “fruit of the Spirit,” including “joy” (Galatians 5:22). We have joy which no circumstances can give or steal. How much joy is in your heart today?

Three: We reproduce spiritually, bearing “fruit that will last” (v. 16). A tree reproduces by bearing fruit—so does a disciple. We are to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). We are to tell what we know, to give what we have. God measures the faith we possess by the degree to which we share it.

How do we bear spiritual fruit?

So, what do we do to bear such fruit? How can we be attached to the vine so that our lives glorify God, bring us joy, and bring others to him? Let’s learn Jesus’ imperatives, as they build one on the other.

First, admit that we need the vine: “apart from me you can do nothing” (v. 5). Not something, but “nothing.” No matter our stock portfolio or educational achievements, or title or status.

When we moved to Midland many years ago, I was sent out to the front yard to clear off all the vines that had grown up on the walls of the house. I thought they looked just fine, but the landscape artist who lived inside disagreed. So, being the hired help, out I went.

I pulled at ivy and vines for hours, to little effect. Then a thought occurred to me: it would be easier to cut them off at the roots, then come back later. I did—a week later they were all dead. I didn’t have to pull them off the brick—I could brush them off. They had turned to dust. The branches couldn’t abide without the vine.

Admit that you need the vine, that you’ll shrivel up and die without staying connected to Jesus every day. “Abide” in him, choose to stay connected with Jesus every day, to “remain in me” (v. 2). A branch without the vine is Christianity without Christ. A branch in the vine climbs and grows to the sky.

Second, pray continually: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you” (v. 7).

How much do you pray? How often? Prayer is how we connect with the vine. We are never taller than when we are on our knees. We are never stronger than when we are surrendered to God in prayer.

Third, obey his word: “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love” (v. 10).

Is there an area of disobedience in your life? Do you need to confess gossip, slander, anger, lust, laziness, pride? Are you giving the tithe to the Lord? Are you using your spiritual gifts fully in evangelism and ministry?

Last, love his people: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (v. 12). How did he love us? Unconditionally, absolutely, no matter how we treated him. Our Master says it again: “This is my command: Love one another” (v. 17).

You may not have the human ability to love all those God loves. There may be people in your family, community, or church whose words or actions have hurt you. You may find it difficult if not impossible to forgive. But your Father will help you. If you will abide in him, his Spirit will give you the grace to give others. He will lift the burden of your pain, heal the wounds of your betrayal, calm the fears of your frustration. He will love his people through you.


Your culture wants you to separate soul and body, Sunday and Monday. Your Lord wants you to abide continually in his presence in dependence, prayer, and obedience.

The choice is yours. But know this: the only way you and I will impact our lost world is by abiding in Jesus. The only way we can speak words that change lives is if he speaks through us. The only way we can love those who do not love us or our Lord is with his love.

But when we abide in him, he works in us and through us. And the world cannot be the same.

Many years ago, my church in Midland, Texas invited a retired Baptist missionary to Vietnam to speak to our annual missions banquet. He told a story I’ll never forget.

It had been a difficult day. People were not responsive to his work; churches were struggling; his car had broken down and he had to ride around town in a beat-up taxi. The heat was oppressive. He got home that evening to discover that a thief had stolen all his family’s furniture and belongings, leaving only their sofa in the middle of the living room.

The missionary collapsed on that couch in total frustration and prayed, “God, I can’t do it any longer. I don’t love these people. You have to get me out of here. I don’t love the Vietnamese anymore.” He sat for hours on that couch, praying and crying, angry and bitter. Around 2:00 in the morning, the Lord spoke to his heart and said, “You’re not here because you love the Vietnamese. You’re here because I love the Vietnamese.”

If you abide in the vine this week, someone will see your Father’s love in yours. This is the promise, and the invitation, of God.

The Power of Persistent Prayer

Topical Scripture: Luke 11:5-13

2020 has been a year like no other in living memory.

It started as 1973, with the impeachment proceedings. Then it became 1918 with the coronavirus pandemic. It added 2008 (and maybe 1929) with the recession. Then it added 1968 with racial issues. None of the last three will end any time soon, and we can add the election this fall.

Psychologists distinguish between acute stress, something we experience in the face of immediate but short-term challenges, and chronic stress, which is ongoing and debilitating. Of the two, chronic stress can especially lead to depression and other physical and psychological challenges.

Today we’re beginning a series on hope for hard times, turning each week to Jesus’ timeless parables for the wisdom and encouragement we need. On this Father’s Day, we’ll begin with the power of persistent prayer. We’ll see how this power unlocks the door to God’s strength, encouragement, and hope. And we’ll see why it is especially valuable for fathers in our culture.

Before we study Scripture together, let me ask you to make this personal. Where do you most need persistence in your life? What in your past, present, or future is most on your heart this morning?

Name the reason you need the power of persistent prayer. Now let’s learn how to experience it from the Father who loves us all.

A rude neighbor

Today we’ll study one of Jesus’ most misunderstood parables. The problem is not the setting of the parable itself, for it was one of the most common of his time.

The first man in the story has a problem, much more of a crisis in Jesus’ day than in ours. A traveler has come to his home at midnight—not at all uncommon, since most people traveled at night to avoid the day’s heat. This man was supposed to bake enough bread for anyone who might come to his home that night, for this was a basic requirement of hospitality in their culture.

To have someone come to your home and have nothing to feed them is for us an inconvenience; for them it was a very major failure. If you were to invite the family over for Easter dinner, then forgot and had them all arrive but had nothing to feed them, you’d have this man’s situation.

So he goes to his neighbor at midnight for help. This neighbor has baked enough bread; that isn’t the problem. But his door is locked, something never done in the ancient Near East unless a family had gone to sleep and did not want to be awakened. A locked door was their “Do Not Disturb” sign, never violated.

The reason was simple. Common homes in Jesus’ day were one room, with one window and a door. The first two-thirds of the room was a dirt floor where the animals slept for the night. The back one-third was a raised wooden platform with a charcoal stove around which the entire family slept. For this man to get up at midnight he must awaken his family and then his animals just to get to the door.

All this to give the man what he was required by social custom to have anyway. If your family came for that Easter dinner and you were unprepared, so you went to your neighbor and asked her to give you the meal she prepared for her guests, you might anticipate her reaction.

In Jesus’ story, the neighbor gets up despite all this—the rudeness, the inconvenience, the breach of social custom—because of the man’s “impudence.” The Greek word means “shameless refusal to quit.” He simply will not go away until the man gives him what he wants. And so he does.

So Jesus concludes: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (v. 9). The Greek could be translated literally, “ask and keep on asking, seek and keep on seeking, knock and keep on knocking.” Practice persistence with God.

A loving father

Now, what does Jesus’ parable mean for us? First, let’s dismiss what it doesn’t mean.

Jesus is not teaching that we can wear God out if we ask for something enough. That God is the man inside the house asleep, but if we come and bang on his door loud enough and long enough, he will give us what we want. Even if he doesn’t want to, if we keep asking, eventually we’ll receive what we want.

Unfortunately, I’ve heard that very theology preached: if you have enough faith, God will give you whatever you ask for. Whether you want to be healed, or be wealthy, or anything at all, just ask in enough faith and it’s yours.

That is absolutely not the point here. Jesus is using a very common rabbinic teaching technique known in the Hebrew as the qal wahomer. Literally, “from the lesser to the greater.” Applied here, the point is this: if a neighbor at midnight would give you what you ask if you ask him, how much more will God answer our requests when we bring them to him.

They must be in his will, for his purposes and glory. This is no guarantee that enough faith will ever obligate God. It is a promise that if this man would hear his neighbor, how much more does God wish to do the same.

You see the qal wahomer again in verse 13: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Why persistent prayer is so powerful

How does Jesus’ story relate to our need for persistent prayer on this Father’s Day?

Let’s admit that persistence in prayer is difficult for our fallen culture. Many in our secularized society are convinced that the spiritual is superstitious fiction. To them, praying to God is like praying to Zeus. If it makes you feel better, go ahead. But don’t persist in your prayers as though they make any real difference.

Our materialistic culture is also convinced that the material is what matters. Seeing is believing. You cannot see beyond the immediate, so why would you persist in doing something that doesn’t bring immediate results? If God doesn’t answer your prayer now, why keep praying it?

In the face of such skepticism, why do what Jesus teaches us to do? Because persistent prayer positions us to experience God’s best.

Praying to God does not inform him of our need or change his character. Rather, it positions us to receive what his grace intends to give.

Persistent prayer does something else as well: it keeps us connected to God so his Spirit can mold us into the image of Christ. When we pray, the Holy Spirit is able to work in our lives in ways he cannot otherwise. The more we pray, continuing to trust our problems and needs to the Lord, the more he makes us the people he intends us to be and empowers us for the challenges we face.

This power is especially relevant for fathers in our culture. A ministry focused on encouraging fathers ran a survey asking them to identify their greatest challenges. On the list were these issues:

  • Work and home life balance
  • Creating time to love my wife and kids as they need to be loved
  • Spending biblical time with my kids when I’m exhausted
  • Connecting with my teenagers
  • Staying motivated when I’m tired
  • Being a godly example to my wife and kids
  • Being a consistent example and not losing my temper
  • Being the leader my family desires, needs, and deserves

Jesus would tell fathers to take their challenges to their Father. He knows our wives and children better than we ever will. His Spirit stands ready to equip us, empower us, and encourage us.

So, pick your greatest challenge as a father. Name it before your Father. Continue to pray about it, knowing that persistent prayer connects you with his power and wisdom. Know that as you knock, the door will be opened, by the grace of God.

If you’re not a father, you can do the same today. Your Father is waiting to hear from you with all his omnipotent strength and omniscient wisdom. Unlike the man in Jesus’ parable, he is awake and waiting on you.


I walk in our Dallas neighborhood early each morning. This week, I came across a yard sign that impressed me greatly. It proclaimed: “Hope is alive. Jesus is alive!” The first is true because the second is true.

There is hope for our past because Jesus died for us (Romans 5:8) and then rose from our grave. There is hope for our present because the living Christ is praying for us right now (Romans 8:34). There is hope for our future because Jesus will come for us one day and is building our home in paradise right now (John 14:1–3).

Hope is alive because Jesus is alive. Why do you need to practice persistent prayer to him today?

It is always too soon to give up on God.