Whose Will?

Do we trust God to do our will for our lives, or His will? Do we know what is good or wise better than He does?

The teenaged son of a good friend seems to be wasting away; not of cancer, AIDS, or drug addiction, but of an inability to keep down what he eats. The boy has seen the best specialists in the US, has had every reasonable medical test, and has tried a panoply of medications, procedures, exercises, and behavioral health interventions. Hundreds of people have prayed earnestly for his healing. Still, the food comes up and his weight goes down.

The middle-aged wife of our music minister was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma. She had surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and a variety of experimental therapies. Christians in churches across the country prayed for her healing, and hundreds of us joined hands in a prayer chain around her house. Nonetheless, in Jan 2017, this wonderful woman slipped the bounds of this earth and into glory.

God’s “failure” to heal these faithful followers, at least in the earthly sense, has strengthened the faith of some and weakened the faith of others. We pray for their healing out of a genuine love for them and their families and out of the realization that God commands us to pray. And yet when He does not grant our request, we are perplexed, and perhaps even angry. Why angry – because we expect to get what we want.

In modern America, we expect to get our own will. Burger King said “have it your way” and McDonald’s said “you deserve a break today.” Frank Sinatra crooned “I did it my way” and advertisers tell us “it’s all about you.” The internet can give us exactly the information we desire, and thousands of retailers will provide the clothes, food, toy, or experience of our dreams. Technology and wealth have made getting our own will easier than ever, and we have come to expect and even demand it. “What I want” has turned into “what I need” which has become “what I deserve” and finally “what you have to give me because it is my right.”

It was not always this way. People have always pursued their desires, but were less successful in achieving them, and less likely to think it their unalienable right. In the Psalms, David pleaded for his own will but often did not get it. Job protested that he deserved to be treated better than he was, but in the end still trusted in God (Job 13:15). Paul implored the Lord to take away his “thorn in the flesh”, a malady that caused pain, disability, and slowed his ministry, but was refused. In early American history, Mary Rowlandson had most of her family murdered and was captured by Indians, but she found comfort in the writings of Isaiah and the other prophets. Our ancestors pursued their desires with as much ardor as we do, perhaps more. But they had to give in, compromise, be satisfied, and be grateful because so much was so far out of their reach.

There is nothing wrong with asking God for what we want. Paul writes “Let your requests be made known unto God (Philippians 4:6)”. Our Lord loves us and wants us to bare our souls before Him. He wants honesty, just like a good father wants his children to speak frankly. But when the prayer is done, God wants us to trust in Him; not what we expect Him to do for us.

My family and I have been watching old episodes of the 1990s-television show “Early Edition.” The plot line involves a man whose morning newspaper shows what will happen that day rather than what happened the day before. The main character, Gary, feels compelled to use the information to do good for others. His friend Chuck wants to make use it to make a fortune, and his other friend, Marissa, agrees with Gary. Thus, Gary, Chuck, and Marissa run all over Chicago trying to stop plane crashes, bank robberies, and auto accidents; all while still unable to reveal the source of their information. My family and I discussed what we would do if we got the “Early Edition”. Would we make money, help others, or do both? What would that knowledge do to us?

After a little talking, we concluded that the point of the “Early Edition” is to do good where you are and with what you have. While we don’t know the future, God puts each of us in the right place to do good in our situation. He sends me to work in the clinic and hospital to serve the patients that He puts before me. A plane may crash, a bank may be robbed, and a car may crash, but preventing those disasters is not my task. My task is to take good care of my patients today. Each person has important daily work, even if we have trouble seeing it.

In His way, the Lord gives us His form of the Early Edition every day. Why then, do we still want to know the news 24 hours ahead like Gary does? Because then we can accomplish our goals, and not just His. We can make money, gratify our own desires, and impress people with our knowledge. Our will, not God’s, becomes paramount.

God is good. At almost every point in our lives He gives us what we need, and a lot of what we want. He provides food to nourish us, clothes to warm us, and shelter to protect us. He makes sun and rain to fall on the evil and the good (Matthew 5:45). In His grace, God gives us family and friends to walk through life, nature to enjoy, and meaningful work to do. Too often we ignore or at least take for granted most of these blessings, doing instead what the Eagles sang about in “Desperado”:

“It seems to me some fine things have been laid upon your table, but you always want the ones that you can’t get.”

It is right for Christian friends and family to pray earnestly for the young man noted above, just like it was right for us to pray for the woman. It is human to feel disappointed, or even angry, when God does not answer these prayers in the time or manner that we want. But it is not right to reject Him as a result.

God wants us to have faith in Him; not in what we expect Him to do for us. He commands us to trust and obey, regardless of the fact that the outcome will often be His will, not ours. The Lord wants us to believe Him, and often we don’t believe because we don’t want to. His outcomes are not necessarily what we want. God gives us so much, and He wants us to live our lives in gratitude. But when those times come when we don’t get what we want, or feel we need, despite our best and most holy efforts, we must ask ourselves…

Whose will?

Encountering God

When children are young, their world is little bigger than their neighborhood; their home, their school, their friends’ houses, and their church. When people reach young adulthood, their world expands, perhaps even to encompass the whole globe. Slowly though, muscles weaken and eyes get foggy. Women lose their ability to conceive, and hair grays. At those moments, pensive people begin to truly understand that though the world will not leave them, they will leave the world. While little children anchor themselves in their parents and young adults in career and family, the aged realize that these anchors will not hold.

Thoughtful people realize that no temporal anchor – job, family, wealth – will hold through the storms of old age and death. The only anchor that can hold the ship of a man’s life steady in these tempests is God’s Word, Jesus Christ (John 1:1). He is the Rock of Ages that can shelter our souls against the storm (Isaiah 26:4). We will find refuge only under His wings (Psalm 91:4).

But how can we know God? We must encounter Him. A lifetime of experiencing His faithfulness will enable us to trust Him for the next life. This article will describe how Christians can encounter God regularly.

Background

Matthew 5-7 highlights one of Jesus’ most famous sermons, the Sermon on the Mount. He begins chapter 5 with the Beatitudes (Blessed are the …), discusses the role of His followers in the world (salt and light), and ends with a discourse on what it means to be perfect in the eyes of the Father. In Chapter 7, the Lord warns His listeners to judge only as God Himself judges, encourages them to good actions, and concludes telling the crowd to build their lives on His teachings as a wise man would build his house upon a rock.

Nestled between is chapter 6, beginning with an admonition against hypocrisy, a lesson on prayer, and a summary of trusting in God. Another look, however, reveals that Matthew 6 tells listeners (and in our case, readers) how to encounter God. Four things about experiencing the Lord are evident from verses 1-18:

  1. We must want to encounter Him.
  2. We must know how to encounter Him.
  3. We must engage our whole selves in encountering Him – physically, personally, and with others.

Keeping these three themes in mind, let us discover how to encounter the God of Creation, the Lover of Our Souls.

We must want to encounter Him.

By nature, man does not want to encounter the real God. We want to find power, knowledge, and beauty, but we are terrified by the blinding purity and the overwhelming holiness of the Lord of the Universe. Our finitude, our mortality, and our love of evil – though we don’t consider our private, favorite sins to be evil – make us afraid and ashamed in His presence. Being face to face with God is a little like being face to face with a deathless angel, a lender to whom we owe millions, and a policeman who has just caught us burning down a house.

Far from being a path to God, most of the religions of the world are attempts to escape the truth about ourselves and our Maker. We pretend that we can put God into our debt by doing good works, when actually every part of our moral nature is corrupt and we are incapable of good works; deeds that share the goodness of God. We pretend that our religious rituals and offerings can force God to act in accordance with our will when in truth our duty is to do His will. We act like we know what is best for ourselves and others, while in reality over the course of our lives, our desires change like the wind. If we finally realize these facts about our nature, we deny that a personal God exists and pretend that we can reach Enlightenment, attaining a state of bliss, by our own efforts.

Jesus described this problem in Matthew 6. The hypocrites (ὑποκριτής hypokritēs – pretender, false face) wanted to convince onlookers that they performed their “good deeds” for God and others, when they actually performed them to glorify themselves before man. They received what they sought – other people were impressed. We do the same thing, both with “religious” and with other actions:

  1. We make money to meet our physical needs, but beyond this we make money to glorify ourselves in the eyes of others (“keeping up with the Joneses”).
  2. We accomplish goals to make money and to do things that we consider “good” for ourselves and others. Often, however, we do so to feel better than our compatriots, to gain their approval, and to “earn ourselves a place in history.
  3. I sometimes make the same mistake. I have a New Testament in English, Spanish, German, French, Russian, and Arabic. Sometimes I read this New Testament to learn languages, not to discover God.

When Jesus says “thy Father will reward thee openly”, He was not talking about money, fame, or power on earth or even “jewels in your crown” in heaven. The Father is the Rewarder and He is also the Reward. God will give more of Himself to those who love and obey Him. To perform any act for any reason other than the glory, enjoyment, and love of God, and secondarily for the benefit of others, is to seek the glory of men. It is also to seek a reward other than the Rewarder. People who do these things do not really want to encounter God, and they will get their wish.

We must know how to encounter Him

Mystics, whether Hindus, Buddhists, Sufis, practitioners of Kabbalah, or others, often chant phrases over and over again. These chants do not need to make literary sense in any language, because the mystic hopes that the tone and rhythm will lead to an ecstatic experience; one that overwhelms the body with emotion and a sense of the numinous. The mind, and certainly not reason or logic, is often not involved beyond executing the chant. While there is nothing inherently wrong with chanting, Jesus taught that mere repetition of words does not avail to speak with God. Put another way, chanting, dancing, and other practices can be useful to worship, but vain repetition is not useful. The Lord taught a better way:

  1. Our Father – plural, as if praying in community to the powerful yet close and loving One with authority over us. Note that each member of the community is equal before Him.
  2. Which art in heaven – though He is close to us, He stands in authority over the whole universe.
  3. Hallowed by Thy name – a statement of how we must and will revere Him. It is “your name will be honored” rather than “I hope your name will be honored” or “will your name be honored?”
  4. Thy kingdom come – We want your authority, your protection, your sustenance, and your love upon us on this earth…
  5. Thy will be done – We want your will, not our own, to be done on earth…
  6. On earth as it is in heaven – Your kingdom and will are perfectly in place in heaven, we want them perfectly in place on earth, and they will be perfectly in place on earth.
  7. Give us this day our daily bread – Provide our material and spiritual needs today
  8. And forgive us our debts – We have failed to behave in accordance with your character, and therefore have become morally indebted to You.
  9. As we forgive our debtors – Others have sinned against us, and help us to forgive them as we have graciously been forgiven.
  10. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil – Protect us not from hardship but from sin.
  11. For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever – not found in many manuscripts, this refers to the overarching glory of God.

Note a few other things about encountering God. The use of plural at the onset suggests that many people are praying together. Jesus’ example showed Him praying alone but also praying with others. Therefore we must strive to encounter God both alone and in groups of other believers. We are to honor God, ask for spiritual and physical needs, and consider the desires of ourselves and others.

We must engage our whole selves in encountering Him

Many Christians have a devotional time of prayer and Bible reading but nothing else. This is good, but to most effectively encounter God, we must do more. Consider what Jesus is telling His disciples to do, and how each act corresponds to a spiritual discipline:

  1. Acknowledge God (worship and celebration)
  2. Give to others (service)
  3. Go alone into a closet, a secret place (solitude and secrecy)
  4. Be silent (silence)
  5. Pray (prayer and meditation)
  6. Let the Word of God inform your prayer (study)
  7. Fast (fasting)
  8. Confess and be forgiven (confession)
  9. Forgive (sacrifice and submission)

The Spiritual Disciplines are traditional practices that Christians since the 1st century have used to discover God. In Matthew 6, Jesus is not only warning His followers against hypocrisy and teaching them to pray, He is describing what believers need to do to encounter God to the fullest.

We have seen how encountering God involves a personal devotional time and also involves others. This passage also suggests a physical component to encountering the Lord. Silence and fasting are both physical. Body position, whether kneeling, lying prostrate, or standing with uplifted arms, is physical. Mystics, charismatics, and others chant, dance, and do other physical actions to better feel God’s presence.

How might this apply to the modern day?

A man gets up early and goes alone with his Bible into his prayer closet (silence, secrecy, and solitude).There he confesses his known sins, receives forgiveness, and forgives others (confession, sacrifice, and service). Once his heart is clean, the man reads the Bible silently and meditates on what he has read (Bible study and meditation). He worships God through the passage and through what He has done for him over the past day, week, month, or year (worship and celebration). The man has fasted since dinner last night, or perhaps even since lunch the day before.

Every weekday morning the man runs or lifts weights alone for exercise. Rather than listening to music, he uses the time to reflect on creation, the person of God, and to seek help with life’s’ troubles. The rhythm of his heart beat, breathing, and foot striking the ground capture his attention. The exertion of exercise hinders linear, logical thought and so he listens better to the world around, his body within, and the Lord above.

Every evening the man assembles his family for prayers. Using lists of family, friends, associates, local, national and global prayer needs, he assigns topics for each person in his family. They discuss the prayer issues as a group and then pray, each person sitting up or kneeling so no one falls asleep.

Conclusion

Life is hard; too hard to be anchored in people, things, or any other temporal creation. God the Son, Jesus Christ, anchors our souls in the stormy seas of existence, and He hides our hearts in the cleft of His rock. To anchor in Him, we must experience Him over and over again. We must want to encounter Him, know how to encounter Him, and encounter Him with our whole self; our bodies, our minds, and those around us. Only then will we anchor ourselves securely forevermore.

How ordinary people can contribute to extraordinary change

Ordinary people often feel powerless to improve our society, or even our lives. We can, and we do, but we can do it better. 

Last night after dinner my family and I were discussing some of the Middle East events of the day, and the picture was not pretty. Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria were capturing more territory, killing more people, and destroying mosques and other religious sites. Hamas and Hezbollah were launching rocket attacks on Israel, who was retaliating with air strikes, killing many. Syria remained embroiled in its civil war, and the “Arab Spring” of 2011, with all of its hopes of democracy, has turned sour. My daughter, visibly troubled, asked what our government was going to do about all of this mayhem. I answered that no matter how powerful, governments have limited ability to intervene. The American President Barack Obama, who some consider to be the most powerful man in the world, has four main elements of American national power that he can use to accomplish US goals in the world, which in this case is to restore peace and stability and promote democracy.

1. Diplomatic power – the ability to persuade other nations to think, speak and act in a way which furthers, or at least does not oppose, US interests.
2. Informational power – the ability to influence other nations via culture, mass media, research and development, intelligence, and cyber activities.
3. Military power – the ability to influence or compel other nations to act in accordance with American interests by physical force.
4. Economic power – the ability to influence other nations via providing or withholding money and other economic resources.

With respect to the Middle East, the US has diplomats working furiously to persuade all of the parties to the conflicts above to lay down their arms. America is using Voice of America, international cooperation agreements in science, arts, and hundreds of other areas, intelligence and cyber activities to encourage (and threaten) international players. The US military has fought in the region for the past 10 years, and America gives billions of dollars per year to all sides to influence them into peace. Nonetheless, lasting success is elusive.

Developing nations such as Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) have slowed their rapid growth and have major environmental and demographic struggles. Conflicts, such as that between Japan and China for the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands, and that between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, loom. Developed nations such as the Western democracies have difficulty doing much at all, domestically or internationally. America struggles to reform entitlement spending, taxes, and immigration, and falls deeper into debt. Europe languishes, with the South needing ever more money from the North and the European Area unemployment rate at nearly 12%. The very existence of the European Union as it is currently constituted is in doubt.

With this as context, we gathered for our nightly family devotions. After reading and discussing a chapter in Exodus, my son assigned each of us items for prayer from the book Operation World, a prayer guide for the nations. Almost every night for several years we have prayed through this book, learning about the work of God in the world and intervening before the Lord on behalf of the nations. It is one way that we regularly bless the world.

What can regular people like us do to bring glory to God and make the world better for all?

In the song Do Something, Matthew West reminds his listeners that Jesus is the head and Christians are the body of Christ. Therefore we need to act to spread His message and promote peace and justice on earth.

1. Glorify God at all times and in everything that you do.
2. Be excellent at whatever you do. It does little good for a plumber who is a Christian to pray and give money to important causes if he is dishonest in his business dealings or incompetent as a plumber. As 1 Corinthians 10:31 says, “Whatever you do, do all for the glory of God.”
3. Develop the character of God. If Christians were consistently people of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, the world would be a different place.
4. Pray for the peoples and the nations, and that justice and mercy will go hand in hand in every situation.
5. Read, study, ponder, and memorize the Bible every day.
6. Repair relationships with others; forgiving those that you should forgive and allotting more time to people than things.
7. Repent of your sins and confess them to God, and to others if you have wronged them.
8. Share your needs with others, encourage them to share theirs with you, and work together to meet those needs.
9. Study the issues and learn about them in detail; they are generally much more complicated than the media reports.
10. Give money, other resources, and time to your local church or a charity engaged in causes that God has called you to advance; those that you care about.
11. Vote.
12. Teach your children and those who follow you. Success without successors is failure.
13. Share your beliefs with others in your circle, and your church, community and elected leaders.
14. Boycott companies and countries that behave badly or support causes and people with which you disagree. Patronize and invest in their competitors
15. Do business with companies that express your values, such as small, local companies instead of big, sprawling ones.
16. Go to troubled areas yourself in conjunction with a group supporting good work there.
17. Do things yourself – cooking and eating together with your family at home, gardening, and other home projects make each family more independent. They also can save money by decreasing sales tax and fees paid.
18. Spend less money on yourself. Instead invest more in productive enterprises and donate more to worthwhile causes.
19. Consume less media, whether television, internet, social media, or whatever. Spend more time reading and thinking and less as a passive receiver of information.

Conclusion

Whether we look at military conflict, economic issues, or cultural trends, the world does not seem to be getting more stable. Governments are unable to make lasting, positive change. However, this has always been the case. It is not government but people who make the world better. Whether the people work in the government, work in the private sector, volunteer, or go to school, individuals make life better, or worse, for each of us.

Ultimately, it is God working through His people that makes our world better. Participating in His work requires faithfulness, sacrifice, and patience. Few changes happen quickly, and those that do often do not last. The path to lasting change in the world, in the church, and in our lives, is laid out in 2 Chronicles 7:14

“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 I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

President’s Day – Christians and the President

American Presidents are extraordinary, and they are ordinary. We should value, and can learn from, them all. 

This President’s Day, it is reasonable for Americans who follow Jesus to consider the President of the United States, the man and the office, and to commit ourselves to praying for him, for the rest of our government at every level, and for our nation.

“The conclusion of a brief speech made by Gen. Garfield at a mass meeting in front of the Merchants’ Exchange in New York City, April 15, 1865, the day of President Lincoln’s death. The excited throng was demanding vengeance upon certain newspapers for utterances considered treasonable; two men lay dying in the street for exulting in assassination, and telegrams from Washington gave intimations of other probable victims of a general conspiracy. At this critical moment, a man known to but few stepped forward, and, beckoning to the crowd with a small flag, spoke these words in a clear and impressive voice:

‘Fellow-citizens,—Clouds and darkness are round about Him. His pavilion is dark waters and thick clouds of the skies. Justice and judgment are the establishment of his throne. Mercy and truth shall go before his face. God reigns, and the government at Washington still lives.’
The effect was instantaneous. The crowd listened, and became calm, and the meeting afterwards was quietly dissolved (http://www.bartleby.com/344/187.html).”

The Power of the President

The President of the United States is considered the most powerful man in the world; primarily because the United States is the most powerful nation in the world. He has command of a military of over 3,000,000 and influences a federal budget of nearly $4 trillion dollars. There are over 310 million Americans, almost 5% of the world’s population, and the US gross domestic product is over $15 trillion, over double that of China, who has the second biggest economy. For the brief time that he is in office, the man who is the President is the personification of America. His may be the most recognizable face on the planet, with people everywhere seeing his face on television, on the Internet, in magazines, and in a thousand other venues.

Within the United States, the power of the President is unequaled. He has what Theodore Roosevelt called a “bully pulpit”, the ability to be heard, but not necessarily agreed with, nationwide on any issue of his choosing. The president will always be more popular than Congress or the Supreme Court because, unless he is an idiot or a sadist, it is always easier to like and harder to dislike an individual than an organization. From 1975 to 2010, Congress’ job approval rating averaged about 35% (http://www.gallup.com/poll/145238/Congress-Job-Approval-Rating-Worst-Gallup-History.aspx) while the President’s, though much more variable, has most often been in the 40-50% range (http://www.gallup.com/poll/124922/Presidential-Approval-Center.aspx). The president has the power to unilaterally modify legislation through signing statements and Federal rulemaking, and can move the executive branch through executive orders. He can also decide to enforce certain laws and disregard others. Congress and the Supreme Court can do little except by consensus and the courts can decide on only what comes to them.

The Demands on the President

We have had good presidents and we have had poor presidents, but regardless of the qualities of the man the American people, and many others throughout the world, put great faith in him. Making the world safer in an age of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, encouraging the equitable distribution of scarce resources, protecting the Earth’s climate, and helping safeguard human rights for all is a nearly impossible task, but we expect our president to do all of these things. Simultaneously he needs to laugh when we laugh, cry when we cry, and grow angry when we are angry. Americans expect the president to inspire them when they are discouraged and point the way to a brighter future. It is a burden no man can fully bear, but the best among us can handle for a time.

No one who has never been president understands the diamond-crushing pressure, the microscopic scrutiny, the impossible expectations, and the gravity of the decisions inherent to the office. When Truman was sworn in as the 33rd president of the United States after the death of Franklin Roosevelt in Warm Springs, Georgia in April 1945, he famously asked Eleanor Roosevelt what he could do for her. Eleanor replied “Is there anything that we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now.”

The Limitations of the President

Though presidents have tremendous power and control an impressive array of resources, people, money and expertise, they are not able to do whatever they wish. The Founders specifically limited the power of the presidency to prevent tyranny. Government was and is limited, and the citizens of America have a vital interest in keeping it that way. This is because government is comprised of people, and we all have the same corrupt nature. James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers:

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

Unlike more autocratic nations, the United States has multiple centers of power which limit the president. Corporations and other organizations can and do vigorously oppose him at times. Citizens vote every four years to keep or replace the president, and the 22nd Amendment to the US Constitution ensures that no one can ever be president more than 10 years.

Putting Hope in the President

Too many people put too much hope in a president. For reasons good and bad, his power is always limited. Presidents and other political figures, no matter how good they are, will always disappoint. Presidential satisfaction levels are nearly always high when he first takes office, and drop off significantly thereafter. Presidents are men, and even the best, like Lincoln or Washington, sometimes failed. King David, one of the best leaders in history, failed spectacularly. And as noted in the introduction, presidents die. Through natural processes, accidents or the hands of others, the Great Equalizer strikes down even the most capable, the most likeable, and the most powerful.

What should Christians Do?

As Christians, we must pray for the president, both the office and the man. We must pray for Congress, the Supreme Court, and all of the other executives and legislative bodies that govern our land. Shortly before the 2012 Presidential Election, a woman in my church told me in passing that she was praying for the presidency, but not the president, with whom she vehemently disagreed. Though that opinion might sound good to some Christians, to whom Barack Obama’s policies are anathema, Jesus would have vehemently disagreed. He commanded His followers to “pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44).” The Apostle Paul wrote “Bless those who persecute you (Romans 12:14).” No U.S. President in history can compare to Herod or Nero.

Believers in Christ should be active in all aspects of life, including politics, to try to “form a more perfect union.” If governments at all levels in the United States are truly governments of the people, by the people and for the people, such governments are not our enemy. When they do wrong, however, the Church must oppose them, as Friedrich Martin Niemoller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer did against Hitler.

But we must never place our hope in a man or in any group of men. Psalms 146:3-4 reminds us “Put not your trust in princes, [nor] in the son of man, in whom [there is] no help. His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.” Though governments seem to have so much power, God still reigns (Psalm 2). When Pontius Pilate, the appointed governor of Judea in the Roman Empire, told Jesus that he had the power to free Him or condemn Him, Jesus replied “you would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above (John 19:11).”

James Garfield, on that somber day in April 1865, got it exactly right: “God reigns, and the government at Washington still lives.”

Magic, Science and Prayer

Last Sunday my family and I watched The Hobbit, the latest movie from the writings of the great fantasy author JRR Tolkien, which also includes the Lord of the Rings series. It was a good show, bringing the audience through sadness, excitement, laughter, and the whole range of emotions. During my time of prayer and meditation this morning I considered some of the differences between science, prayer, and magic, as it is portrayed in The Hobbit and the Harry Potter series,

Magic

Magic, as it is popularly portrayed, is a means of using unseen powers, usually along with a bit of a physical material, a gesture and an incantation, to accomplish a specific end. In The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings series, the wizards Gandalf and Saruman mutter incantations at their enemies, and sometimes at each other. Dumbledore, Voldemort, and the other wizards do the same in Harry Potter.  In the popular fantasy role playing game Dungeons and Dragons, the spell Darkvision, allowing the caster to see in the dark, requires him or her to speak a certain phrase, perform a specific gesture, and use a pinch of dried carrot to cast the spell. These fantasy writers and game designers didn’t invent these procedures for casting spells out of whole cloth. Instead, they studied the history of mythology and magic and wrote their works combining and sampling practices from throughout the world.

Magic as seen in games, books and movies is exciting and powerful. It lets the caster do what few others can, defies the laws of nature, and brings with it great power, fame and wealth. In Harry Potter, only wizards can practice magic; non wizards, known as “Muggles”, are excluded. In a modern form of “noblesse oblige” (the obligation of nobility), the wizards are supposed to protect the muggles, who are not as powerful as they are.  Magic can be done for good and for evil, as its only moral filter is whatever moral filter the caster brings with him. Magic is inherently self-focused; the power of the magic may not reside in the user (as with “The Force” in Star Wars) but the power to use the magic does reside in the user, and she uses it for her own purposes. Though mistakes occur, the magician is portrayed as having essentially complete control over what the magic will do. The biggest problem with “magic” in the real world is that it doesn’t work, at least not to control physical phenomena. Priests in Egypt, druids in England, and shamans in North America tried for centuries to discover the words that controlled the Nile flooding, the materials that reliably calmed the seas, and the dances that brought rain, but they failed. Modern users of “magick” such as Wiccans or other pagans generally claim that it primarily affects oneself, not the outside world.

Science

Science, as it has been practiced for the past four centuries, does not provide merely the illusion of excitement and power; it is exciting and powerful. Science does not oppose the laws of nature but uses them to the advantage of the scientist and the society that supports him. Science does not focus on the words and gestures of the individual scientist but rather on using proper materials in proper proportions at proper times and in proper ways to achieve great effects. One of the greatest scientific advances in human history, gunpowder, is composed of sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate (saltpeter). Mixed in proper amounts, each ground to a fine powder, and lighted in a controlled manner, gunpowder revolutionized warfare and destroyed social structures, such as feudalism in Europe, and empires, such as the Mamelukes in Egypt, throughout the world. Gunpowder is even present in the Lord of the Rings, though it is portrayed as magic rather than science.

Unlike magic, science is available to the many; not limited to the few. The practice of magic in most of history was limited to those born to it, but there are no inherent genetic, racial, social, or economic limitations to who can learn science and wield its power. Science can be used for good or for evil, and like magic its only moral filter is the moral filter that the user, and her society, applies. Mistakes occur in science, but the user has reliable control over its effects.  Science can be self focused, because though the power of science lies outside the scientist, the ability to use that power lies within him, and he uses it to advance his own agenda. Science works. Engineers in Egypt figured out how to control the Nile, scientists in England discovered how to avoid rough seas, and farmers in North America devised how to irrigate croplands.

Prayer

Prayer, defined popularly as asking God for something, has been practiced since the dawn of time. Some skeptics may consider prayer to be a form of magic, specifically divination, which is an attempt to gain insight into a question or situation with the aid of the supernatural. As such, they might suggest that everything mentioned in the paragraphs about magic applies to prayer as well.

A Christian would more likely define prayer as encountering God and experiencing His glory, whether or not the person praying asked for anything. Prayer involves consciously acknowledging the magnificence of the Creator, asking forgiveness of sins, intentional and unintentional, and asking God to make the petitioner less inclined to sin. Prayer frequently includes giving thanks for what the Lord has done for the person praying, and concludes with a set of new or repeat requests.  Any or all of these elements may occur in any given prayer. Common prayer practices, such as closing eyes, folding hands, standing up, kneeling, or whatever else, are merely cultural in the Christian tradition. There is no required gesture or body position in Christian prayer, nor is there a specified verbal (script or incantation) or material component. Prayer is not the same as spell casting. Prayer is available to anyone at anytime in any place and for any reason.

Prayer is different from magic and science in other ways. Christian prayer is not focused on the person praying; it is focused on the person of God. While it is tempting to use prayer as another way to advance one’s self interest, the Bible is clear that humans were created to know God, serve Him, love Him, glorify Him and enjoy Him forever. Prayer has a moral filter independent of the one praying. First, the one praying places himself under the authority of God. God uses the Christian to accomplish His purposes rather than the Christian using God to accomplish his. Second, when the believer asks God for something, the Lord applies His moral filter to the request, and will not grant a request which is evil. The power of prayer lies in God, not in man, and the one praying does not have reliable control over its effects.

Some believe that prayer does not work. Others argue that prayer works, but since man has no reliable control over its effects, it is a waste of time. Why then should Christians pray?

  1. In the Bible, God commands His people to pray.
  2. God is truly glorified, our sins are really forgiven, and others are honestly blessed.
  3. By coming into the presence of God, the person praying becomes more like God. The power and peace of God dispel the weakness and frustration of man. The clarity of the mind of God overcomes the confusion in the mind of man, and the love in the heart of God melts the hatred in the heart of man.
  4. We are reminded of the glory of the Lord, the seriousness of our sin, the generosity of His gifts to us, and the power of God to meet our needs. His glory makes us humble, His forgiveness and provision make us grateful, and His power gives us comfort throughout the trials that we and others face.
  5. Prayer, like meditation, has positive physiologic benefits including lowering blood pressure and decreasing inflammatory chemicals in the body. This contributes to better health in the one praying.
  6. The Lord never intended prayer to be used as a sole intervention. Prayer for others must be accompanied by acts of service to them, done with selflessness and joy. It must also be accompanied by Bible study to learn the truths of God and His universe, which allows for wise interventions. Spiritual disciplines are maximally effective to change the life of a man, of others, and of the world when used in combination.
  7. God may change what He does in response to the prayers of man (Genesis 18:20-33, Isaiah 38:1-5).
  8. We are a good example to others.

How does Christian prayer actually work?

Since God provides the power in prayer, the man who wants to pray effectively must know God. This begins with Christian salvation (justification), but it includes knowing Him intimately through the Bible, through worship, through personal experience, through Christian service, and through other people. No one who neglects any of these areas can have consistent power in prayer.

Psalm 66:18 teaches that if man regards sin in his heart, the Lord will not hear him. Therefore God will not hear a prayer (except a prayer for salvation) from a person who has unconfessed sin. Prayers can also be hindered by poor interpersonal relations (Matthew 3:23, 1 Peter 3:7).  The man who wants effective prayers must not have unrepented sin and must have done all he can to be at peace with others (Romans 12:18).

God is at work in the world, and since prayer is focused on Him and not on man, the praying person must ask God what He is doing in the situation at hand. Then the person of prayer must ask God what He wants him or her to do about it. If the prayer does not fit in His plan, it will not be granted. Does this mean that we should ask God what we think He wants instead of what we actually desire? Absolutely not! More than the most loving Father, God wants us to be honest with Him (Philippians 4:6) and He wants to give us everything that we ask. He will only deny us that which will hurt us or hurt others. Our poor understanding, not His lack of grace, is the problem.  Even if God does not grant our petition, He will give us peace throughout it (Philippians 4:7)

As a wizard recites a spell with a specific purpose, and as a scientist uses materials for a specific result, so the prayer warrior asks God for a specific outcome.  The scientist seeks a measurable outcome and so should the saint. Once the man of prayer specifies his request, he expects to receive what he has asked, just as the skilled magician or scientist expects his craft to be effective. If someone asks about it, the person of prayer boldly tells others of his request and his expectation that God will honor it.

Sometimes we ask the Lord for something different than what we actually want or need, and are disappointed when He does not grant our petition. One young boy prayed that the rain would stop so he could go with his family to watch a baseball game. The rain did not stop, but the father managed to get dry seats under an overhang in the sparsely filled ballpark. God may not have answered the boy’s specific prayer, but did He not grant his real request? How often do we pray, not knowing what we really want or need, not receive our request, and feel disappointed? How often does God grant our desire, only to have us not notice because He didn’t answer as we expected?

The Lord provides a moral filter for prayer. If someone humiliates us at work and we ask God to break his legs, we should not be surprised if God does not grant our desire. He is not evil and will never aid or abet any evil desire. Man does evil, but the Lord is never a party.

Imagine a man kneeling in prayer. He is a genuine follower of Jesus Christ and knows God intimately. He is faithful in prayer, Bible study, worship, service, and the other spiritual disciplines, and has good relationships with those around him. There is a challenging situation at work and he has searched the Scriptures to see what might help resolve it. During this prayer time the man has confessed his sins, and given God glory. As a result, He has quieted the anxieties and distractions of this man’s busy world. The prayer warrior has sincerely thanked God for His generous provision, and it is time to ask the Lord for help at work.

Our praying man will ask God what He is doing in the situation, for nothing happens, good or bad, that God does not use for the greater good and for His glory. Sometimes it takes a long time, and the Lord may refer him back to the Bible or to someone else for guidance. Eventually God will reveal the part of His plan that His saint needs to know and what he needs to do. In obedience the man on his knees will pray what the Lord commands, and when the prayer is done the man will obey

Like wisps of smoke from the smoldering fire the specific, God-inspired prayers of the righteous man will rise as a fragrance to the Lord. The prayers from other saints on the same issue will likewise rise to heaven. God will harmonize the prayers, helping the petitioners to ask for what they want in the right way, and transform the wisps of smoke into a raging fire of godly power.  Then prayers become effective, as the prayers of Elijah were in the days of Ahab (James 5:16-18).

Prayer works in other ways as well. Praying for someone often reveals ways that the one praying can help the one prayed for. While I prayed for a would-be missionary to get to the mission field, the Lord revealed to me some ways that he could raise money. I was able to help link someone else to a job. Just telling someone that you are praying for them can encourage them. Praying about an issue can bring mental clarity to that issue. Many times while praying for my patients I have had an insight that has led to a better diagnosis or treatment. The medical effects of prayer are well documented and positive.  A network of people praying for each other multiplies these good effects. Unlike science, which is focused on the physical world, prayer impacts the physical world primarily through the spiritual world. This is not to say that God does not impact the physical world directly as a result of prayer. He does. However, God primarily uses ordinary means to accomplish His extraordinary ends.

Conclusion

Magic may be exciting and powerful in books, games or movies but in reality the magic described there is fiction. Science is powerful but not moral, and sometimes does more harm than good. Prayer, communion with the One God, Creator and Lord of the Universe, is the most powerful thing of all. However it does not work like anything else because its object is not to serve us, but to serve Him. Christians must learn and live the power of prayer, because the troubles that we face in our individual lives and in the world are far too great to address with our poor powers alone. The dominion and glory of the Risen Lord alone provides our hope.

Fasting in the Bible

“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

“This world can no longer be left to mere diplomats, politicians and business leaders. They have done the best they could, no doubt. But this is an age for spiritual heroes – a time for men and women to be heroic in faith and in spiritual character and power.” Dallas Willard

Einstein spoke of thought, and diplomats, politicians and business leaders are generally intelligent people. But Willard wrote of thought and far more, because mere thought is not enough to rescue mankind from himself. In The Spirit of the Disciplines – Understanding How God Changes Lives, he was speaking of the sorry state in which we find the world today and how restoration can only be found in spiritual renewal. His book is a powerful survey of practices of world-changing Christians throughout history. Richard Foster writing in the Christian classic Celebration of Discipline – the Path to Spiritual Growth, also discussed these practices. The lists of spiritual disciplines are as follows:

Willard Foster
Disciplines of Abstinence Disciplines of Engagement The Inward Disciplines The Outward Disciplines The Corporate Disciplines
Solitude Study Meditation Simplicity Confession
Silence Worship Prayer Solitude Worship
Fasting Celebration Fasting Submission Guidance
Frugality Service Study Service Celebration
Chastity Prayer
Secrecy Fellowship
Sacrifice Confession
Submission

Many, and some would argue all, of these disciplines are not confined to Christians. Plato, Socrates and Aristotle fasted as did Zoroaster and Confucius. Muslims and Jews and many others pray. The difference between the Christian practice of these spiritual disciplines and the practices of the same actions by non-believers is the presence and activity of the Spirit of God within believers (John 16:5-15).

Due to the abuse of spiritual disciplines in the Middle Ages, often associated with groups such as the Flagellants, the use of such practices declined after the Reformation. There is no example in the Bible of self-torment as a route to personal holiness and service to the Lord. When Bible personalities denied themselves, for example, when Ezekiel was told to lie on his side for 390 days (Ezekiel 4:4-8), it was always to advance the work of God.
In Corinthians, Paul wrote “The kingdom of God does not consist in words, but in power.” Nonetheless, sometimes it seems like there is little power in the Church today. Believers who transform cultures like St. Paul, Saint Boniface, John Knox, and George Whitfield seem to be people of the past. Against the onslaught of postmodern thought and the march of secularism, the church, at least in the West, seems vulnerable.

Ultimately, Christians need have no fear of the future because Jesus Christ is the Lord of the future and His church will prevail (Matthew 16:13-20). However, the world desperately needs men and women with the power that only the Holy Spirit provides. The spiritual disciplines can help ordinary people gain such spiritual power and be used extraordinarily by the Lord. This paper describes the discipline of fasting.

Fasting, or really denying ourselves anything, is nearly unheard of in the modern world. Why would anyone deny themselves of anything if they don’t have to? If we are the center of the universe, why restrain anything? Among people who riot at the very mention of austerity, demand their “rights” even at the expense of the lives of others, and who spend themselves into debt oblivion, self denial is not only inexplicable but perhaps even evil.
Nonetheless, we are not the center of the universe, and we must remind ourselves of this fact while coming into better communion with the One who is. Fasting is a good place to start.

Fasting in the Old Testament

Fasting is one of these disciplines and was important part of service to God in the Old Testament. The following table summarizes information about fasting in the Old Testament.

Topic Citation Notes

The Command to Fast

The Day of Atonement (10th day of 7th month) Leviticus 16:29-31, 23:26-32, Numbers 29:7 The phrase translated “humble your souls” in the NASB and “afflict your souls” in the KJV uses the phrase ענה `anah נפש nephesh.  The idea is to bow yourself down and deny yourself of normal things, such as happens when you fast.
National repentance Jeremiah 36:4-8 Jeremiah commanded the people to hear the Law and fast for repentance of sin.

Length of Fasts

One day Judges 20:26, 1 Samuel 14:24, 2 Samuel 1:12, 3:35 Sunrise to sunset (like Muslims do at Ramadan)
One night Daniel 6:18 King Darius ate nothing while Daniel was in the lions’ den.
Three days Esther 4:16
Seven days 1 Samuel 31:13, 1 Chronicles 10:122 Samuel 12:16-18 The death of Saul and his sons, also David’s fasting for his sick newborn.
Forty days Exodus 34:28 Deuteronomy 9:9 Moses and Elijah

What is Fasting?

Partial Daniel 10:2-3 Daniel restricting certain types of food and drink to seek the Lord.
Normal Abstaining from all food but drinking water
Absolute Jonah 3:5-10Esther 4:6Deuteronomy 9:9

1 Kings 19:8

No food or water.  This is physiologically impossible for more than three days.  Such 40 day, absolute fasts as Moses and (and maybe Elijah) did must have been miracles.

Prayer and Fasting for Forgiveness

One man for himself 1 Kings 21:17-29 Even the weak King Ahab, incited by his evil wife Jezebel, humbled himself before God and received a blessing.
One man for the sins of others Deuteronomy 9:15-18 When Moses saw the Israelites worshipping the golden calf, he denied himself, humbled himself, as he interceded for them before God.
One man for the sins of others Daniel 9:3-5 Daniel humbled himself and confessed the sins of His people.
A city for itself Jonah 3:4-10 Ninevah prayed and fasted for forgiveness at the preaching of Jonah
People for themselves Nehemiah 9:1-3 After the wall of Jerusalem was rebuilt, the Feast of Tabernacles was reinstituted.  As part of the ceremony, the Law was read and the people repented of their sin.
To avert God’s judgment Joel 1:14, 2:12- 15 Humble yourselves to return to the Lord.

Fasting in the Old Testament (continued)

Topic Citation Notes

Prayer and Fasting for Victory in War

Civil War in Israel Judges 20:26 The tribe of Benjamin was defeating the other tribes in war.  The others humbled themselves in fasting and prayer and the Lord answered, destroying Benjamin for their sin regarding the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19).
Battle of Mizpah 1 Samuel 7:6 The Philistines were threatening Israel at Mizpah.  The people were terrified so they prayed and fasted, confessing their sins.  God gave them a great victory.
Judah against Moab/Ammon 1 Chronicles 20:1-25 Moab and Ammon invaded Judah and King Jehoshaphat proclaimed a nationwide fast to seek the Lord.

Prayer and Fasting to Mourn the Death of Others

The Death of Saul and Jonathan 1 Samuel 31:132 Samuel 1:12 1 Chronicles 10:12 David, his followers, and the people of Jabesh Gilead mourned the deaths.

Prayer and Fasting for the Healing of Others

The illness of David’s son 2 Samuel 12:16-23 The child of David’s adultery was perishing and David sought the Lord for his life.
Interceding for others’ health Psalm 35:11-13 David prayed and fasted for the healing of his enemies

Prayer and Fasting for Help

Journeys Ezra 8:21 Ezra proclaimed a fast for all of the people traveling with him back to Judah after the Exile in Babylon
Homeland Nehemiah 1:4 Nehemiah fasted and prayed several days to mourn his destroyed homeland and get guidance on what to do about it.
Deliverance Esther 4:3 The Persian king had decreed the extermination of the Jews.  They fasted to be saved.
Personal protection Esther 4:16 Esther, her maidens, and Mordecai and the Jews in Susa prayed that Esther would be favorably received by the king.
Personal protection Psalm 69:10Psalm 109:24 David humbled himself with fasting to be delivered from his adversaries.

Prayer and Fasting to Commemorate Important Events

Siege of Jerusalem 2 Kings 25:1 The 10th day of the 10th month – the beginning of the final siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians.
Fall of Jerusalem 2 Kings 25:3-4 The 9th day of the 4th month – the fall of Jerusalem to the armies of Babylon.
Political assassination 2 Kings 25:23-25Jeremiah 41:1-3 The 2nd day of the 7th month – the assassination of Gedeliah
Jeremiah 52:12-13 The 10th day of the 5th month – the burning of the Temple.
Feast of Purim Esther 9:31 The 14th day of the 12th month – the deliverance from the destruction planned by Haman.

Limitations of Prayer and Fasting

Prayer Psalm 66:18 God will not hear a prayer from a heart that hides sin.
Fasting Isaiah 58:1-12 Fasting with injustice and an unrighteous heart has no good effect.
Ceremonial fasting Zechariah 7:1-14 The ceremonial fasts that the Hebrews instituted were not of God but of themselves.  The Lord wants righteousness, not empty ceremony (Psalm 51:16-17).

Fasting was not to be done simply for its own sake, but in accordance with prayer and the other spiritual disciplines to accomplish some important work in obedience to God. Prayer usually accompanied fasting as did the offering of sacrifices as taught in the Law of Moses.

Fasting in the New Testament

Fasting is less prominent in the New Testament but was still an important part of the spiritual practices of people such as Anna the Prophetess and the Apostle Paul. Even more, Jesus fasted.

Fasting was not to be done simply for its own sake, but in accordance with prayer and the other spiritual disciplines to accomplish some important work in obedience to God.  Prayer usually accompanied fasting as did the offering of sacrifices as taught in the Law of Moses.

Fasting in the New Testament

Fasting is less prominent in the New Testament but was still an important part of the spiritual practices of people such as Anna the Prophetess and the Apostle Paul.  Even more, Jesus fasted.

Topic Citation Notes
To become closer to the Father Matthew 4:1-9Luke 4:1-2 Jesus had no sin of which to repent and at this point no earthly enemies from which to be delivered.  This fasting was to prepare Him at the beginning of His earthly ministry.
To please the Father Matthew 6:16-18 Fasting humbly before the Lord and not to impress others pleases God and helps us to know Him better.
Done at the right time Luke 5:33-35 Jesus’ followers were to fast but only at the right time for the right reasons.
Fasting enhances the power of prayer Matthew 17:14-21Mark 9:14-29 Verse 21 in the Matthew passage is not found in some of the earliest and best manuscripts, but given all of the evidence, fasting probably enhances the effectiveness of prayer.
Seeking guidance on a call to missions Acts 13:1-3 The church at Antioch fasted and prayed to decide whom to send out as missionaries.
Seeking guidance on a call for elders Acts 14:21-23 The churches in the province of Galatia prayed and fasted for guidance from God on whom to appoint as elders for the churches.
Seeking to grow closer to God as a couple 1 Corinthians 7:5 Prayer and fasting are suggested while abstaining from marital relations.
Seeking a life close to the Lord Luke 2:36-38 Anna the prophetess made a life of seeking God in prayer and fasting

Having done a brief survey of fasting in the Bible, we realize that God’s people fasted to grow closer to Him through repentance of their sins. Once the relationship was restored, they fasted to gain some special blessing such as healing of the sick, protection from enemies or victory in war. They also fasted to remind themselves of past failures so that they would avoid such failures in the future.

Conclusion

God has called His people to put Him first in their lives, which is only logical since after all, He is God and therefore first in the universe. New thought is not enough to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and bring justice to the oppressed. New thought will not overcome selfish hearts and vengeful minds. As man accepts the reality that God is the center of existence, not him, he will begin to align himself with reality, rather than the fantasy that man is the measure of all things.

Christians do not engage in the spiritual disciplines to gain the power to change the world. Rather, they engage in the spiritual disciplines to know and love their Creator more. In so doing, however, they will gain knowledge of what is right and the power to do it. The world will be better. Einstein was right but incomplete. Willard is right and complete. Men and women filled with the Spirit and exhibiting the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), gained by the work of the Spirit through the faithful practice of the spiritual disciplines, including fasting, will change the world.

Asking for a Sign from the Lord in Prayer

“Fleece praying”, praying for God to provide a specific sign to confirm what He is commanding a person to do, is based on the story of Gideon, around 1100 BC (Judges 6:36-40).  The story does not condemn Gideon for asking for such a sign but Gideon’s request for a second sign was accompanied by a phrase, “do not let Thine anger burn against me”, that suggested that the Lord might be displeased with him.  The modern Christian must ask himself, “Is this what I should do in my prayers to the Lord, or not?”  We will examine the Bible to discover the answer to that question.

Deuteronomy 6:16 warned the Israelites “not to put the Lord their God to the test (נסה nacah – to test, put to the test, prove), as you tested Him at Massah.”  The story Moses referred to when writing this verse is found in Exodus 17.  The people of Israel, having repeatedly seen God work mighty miracles to save them from Pharaoh and provide them food and water, grumbled against Him when they camped, at His command, at Rephidim, a place without water.  They opposed their divinely appointed leader, Moses, and grumbled that he was going to kill them all through his negligence.  Moses commanded them not to test (נסה nacah) the Lord.

Isaiah 7 provides another instance where the question of “testing the Lord” comes up.  King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah of Israel had invaded Judah to force King Ahaz to join their alliance against Assyria.  The prophet Isaiah told Ahaz to trust God to deliver Judah and even to ask Him for a sign (אות ‘owth – omen, miracle) to confirm what Isaiah was telling Ahaz to do.  Ahaz disobeyed the prophet, replying “I will not ask, nor will I test (נסה nacah) the Lord.”  As sanctimonious as that sounds, Isaiah then told Ahaz that he was testing the patience of God and promised that he would receive a sign from the Lord anyway.

We next see the issue come up during the temptation of Jesus (ἐκπειράζω ekpeirazō – to put to proof God’s character and power).  Speaking in Greek, Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy 6:16.

Repeatedly throughout the Lord’s ministry, the Jewish leaders sought signs from Him to support His claims.  In John 6, Jesus fed the 5,000, a spectacular miracle.  Nonetheless, immediately afterward the Jewish leaders asked for a sign (σημεῖον sēmeion – portent, miracle) to prove His claim (John 6:30-31). In Matthew 12:39, Jesus rebuked the scribes and Pharisees for seeking signs (σημεῖον sēmeion), but then promised the greatest sign of all, His resurrection.  All told, one wonders at their amazing refusal to believe, because throughout His earthly ministry He provided hundreds of signs.  How like the Israelites at Massah!  How like all of us today!

From this series of passages, we can reach important conclusions about whether or not “fleece praying” is appropriate for Christians today.  First, there is a difference between “testing” God to confirm His will and “testing” Him in rebellion and lack of faith when He has spoken or acted.  The former is what Gideon did; once God responded, he obeyed.  It is also what Isaiah told Ahaz to request.  The latter is what the Israelites at Massah did.  Therefore, the biblical record suggests that “fleece praying” is good, not bad, and should be encouraged in every age.  Every believer should pray specifically and expect God to answer and if they are unsure about the Lord’s will they should ask for a sign.  This is not lack of faith but lack of clarity.  Once God answers, however, they must obey.  Failure to believe and obey when God has clearly spoken and acted, as we have seen throughout the Bible and into modern day, becomes נסה nacah, testing the Lord.