John Newton: The Rest of the Story
Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
We began this Grace Immersion with the story of John Newton’s composition of the lyrics to “Amazing Grace,” but that’s just one highlight of a truly colorful life. Here’s the rest of the story.
Newton was an only child beloved by his religiously devout mother. But when he was seven his mother died suddenly, leaving him in the care of his frequently absent seafaring father. He was allowed by his stepmother to run completely free, getting into all kinds of adolescent trouble.
Whenever he fell into temptation he’d feel horribly guilty, as if he was displeasing his dead mother. He’d vow to live up to her ideals. He’d turn to spiritual disciplines like rigorous prayer, reading religious literature only and studiously keeping spiritual diaries.
But at 17 he went on a months-long voyage as a sailor and soon took up smoking, swearing, and indulging every lust when in port. He’d still have pangs of guilt. Then on one of his ships he met the captain’s clerk, a man named Mitchell. He was an atheist playboy who told Newton, “Life… was for the taking. God is a phantom invented by killjoy religious types. We must eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die and pass into extinction.” (quoted in an article by Chris Armstrong for Christian History magazine)
Newton was delighted to escape the guilt and constraints of his mother’s religion. After this he delighted in “deconverting” Christians, as he called it, just as he had been “deconverted” himself.
He soon became involved in the slave trade. Somehow his independent spirit annoyed his first employer so much that Newton himself was put in chains and made a servant. A few of the slaves had pity on him, snuck in food, and smuggled out a series of desperate letters addressed to his father.
Two years later a ship sent by his father rescued him, but Newton continued sailing in the slave trade, mistreating the very people who had helped him earlier, and reaching depths of immorality that shocked even the older sailors. One night he narrowly escaped death by drowning after he fell overboard during an alcohol-fueled party, but he had apparently still not hit bottom. That came when his ship went through the famous storm. The vessel began to split apart. One sailor was washed overboard. Tied to the ship to prevent being washed away, Newton steered the ship through the night. All the while he reviewed his life. Finally he prayed that desperate prayer for God to save the ship and forgive him. As he was later to recall it, this was “the hour I first believed.”
And so the prodigal returned home. He still found it embarrassing to talk about faith, he could not yet bring himself to pray with anyone, and he even sailed his slave ship for a while longer. But a small seed began to grow.
Newton left slave trading and became a customs inspector, eventually deciding to leave the shipping industry entirely to be a pastor. But the religious leaders of his day were less than enthused about the idea. By this time he’d started speaking about his conversion at “religious societies” and church authorities were suspicious of this maverick with a rough past. After completing his education as a pastor, Newton had to endure seven years of flat refusal from several bishops to ordain him! Finally one let him pastor a church in the tiny town of Olney, a place with only 2,000 people.
While there he was made famous by his best-selling autobiography, coming clean about everything in his past and focusing on God’s amazing grace shown throughout his colorful life.
By 1800 no evangelical pastor in the world was more famous or more influential than John Newton. Yet Newton remained very humble, always aware of his past, calling himself “the old African blasphemer.”
At 82, he said, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things, that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.” I love that he focused on Christ, the grace-giver, not just grace as a concept. This is my hope for you.
As John Newton’s tombstone reads,
“John Newton, Clerk,
once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa,
was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,
preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed
to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.”
’Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.”
How does the phrase “his kindness leads you to repentance” summarize what you’ve learned about grace?
What motivates you about the life of John Newton?
Today sing or think through the lyrics of “Amazing Grace” as a prayer, reviewing what God’s done in your past and expecting great things, by His grace, in your future!
BONUS: Keep on going! Here is some more grace stories: bonus.pdf
Simply Amazed By Grace
As I write this, I’ve just returned to my room at Mount Hermon Christian Conference Center. I was one of the speakers at a family camp all week and tonight was the final night. As is the tradition here, we ended by singing and sharing testimonies around the campfire and then it was time for communion.
The way they do communion here is this: People stand in a single-file line to receive the elements. Two ministers are at the front, one holding the plate of wafers, and the other the cup. Each person, in turn, is told by the first pastor, “The body of Christ, broken for you,” and when that person takes the bread and dips it in the cup, the second minister tells them, “The blood of Christ, shed for you.”
I was the first minister tonight, the one with the bread, so every single person in line got to me first. I looked at each one in turn and said, “the body of Christ, broken for you.” I tried not to let it get impersonal so I attempted eye contact and if I saw a nametag I said their name: “Bill, this is the body of Christ, broken for you.”
And what blew me away, because I wasn’t expecting it, was the variety of reactions I saw. One by one they came, and one by one I watched.
“The body of Christ, broken for you.”
Some seemed impatient, rushing through the ritual. Some actually looked bored. Some seemed to be barely holding back laughter — maybe nervous, maybe mocking, maybe giddy with joy.
“The body of Christ, broken for you.”
Some had tears streaming down their faces. Some paused, closed their eyes, and whispered in prayer, “Thank you.” I don’t think they were thanking me. Others stared for a long time at the elements and seemed deep in thought before they partook.
“The body of Christ, broken for you.”
As time went on, more people were crying, and I mean actually sobbing: the back-of-the-line people. Maybe that’s because they had more time to think about it. But I think it had to do with the time it took them to get up and get in line. I think some of them were reluctant, maybe thinking they were unworthy, and then finally decided in a deeply personal cathartic moment that they would receive communion after all. And perhaps thinking of a specific sin that they had been seeing as an obstacle just a moment before, now they remembered it was washed away, and they cried.
As the line thinned I looked and saw an older disabled woman still seated in the last row, so the other pastor and I marched down the aisle to her with the elements and as she received them she was wide-eyed with gratitude. Then I saw a young man near her who had not come down the aisle and offered him communion but he firmly declined.
And I began to think, “I am having a God’s eye view of communion right here.”
He comes to each of us, the Lamb slain for us, one by one, and He sees not a mass of humanity but each face, each person, each soul, intimately. And just like at the cross — still 2,000 years later — some laugh, some weep, some look the other way.
So it is with grace, the word we use to describe the reason and the result of that sacrifice. You might think you’ve heard it all before. You might be bored, maybe impatient. But look at that old man in line behind you. You recognize him. The great intellectual, the Apostle of Grace, Paul.
Paul, who in his lifetime thought more about grace and taught more about grace than perhaps anyone else ever, yet he is sobbing and laughing as, at the end of eleven chapters of theology about grace in the book of Romans, he exclaims, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Romans 11:33)
Paul, who after three chapters of theology about grace in Ephesians says, ”I pray that you… may… grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ… that you may be filled to the full measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:17a, 18, 19b)
I hope you never feel like you have it all figured out. I hope you linger as you gaze at the price paid for you. Think of the love felt for you. Consider the sins washed from you. And become simply amazed by grace!
Here is my prayer for you: “I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, might have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how long and high and wide and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that you may be filled to the full measure of all the fullness of God”! (Ephesians 3:17–19)
Read Psalm 103:1–12
Bryan Chapell tells about his son Jordan in his book, In The Grip of Grace. Jordan is apparently one of those high-energy toddlers who is destined to be something like a stunt man in Hollywood. He is a risk-taking daredevil.
Yet Brian says one of his favorite snapshots of Jordan was taken inside a hotel room after a day of amusement park fun and sightseeing on a family vacation. In the picture, Jordan is sleeping in his mother’s arms.
To understand the significance of this picture, you have to understand… the kind of day we had before the picture was made. When the time finally arrives for him to rest after such a day, it is no easy task to settle Jordan down. But my son has a wonderful mother, and she has discovered the secret of calming him when things seem on the verge of pandemonium.
Kathy takes Jordan into her arms and tells him about his birth.
She says, “Oh, Jordan, when you were born we were so happy. You had red hair and looked just like your grandfather. Your father and I knew we would love you so much, and we knew nothing could ever take away our love for you. You used to talk to me with little baby sounds, and I would talk back to you even when I knew you didn’t understand, just to tell you how special you were to me and how much I loved you.
“Your eyes were so blue I almost never wanted you to sleep so I could keep looking at your beautiful eyes. Even when I got sick and had to go to the hospital right after you were born, I took you with me, because I never wanted to be away from you.”
When his mother tells him about his birth in such loving terms, Jordan becomes all ears. He listens so intently that he settles right down.
This is the kind of loving care your Heavenly Father has for you! In fact, the Bible says:
He will delight in you with gladness. With His love, He will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs. Zephaniah 3:17b [NLT]
It’s interesting to me that most of the epistles in the New Testament start and end with the phrase, “grace and peace to you…” If you let your Father’s words of grace wash over you, you will find yourself secure and at peace.
Read these verses from Psalm 103 and allow yourself to be calmed by grace:
O my soul, bless God. From head to toe, I’ll bless his holy name!
O my soul, bless God,
don’t forget a single blessing!
He forgives your sins — every one.
He heals your diseases — every one.
He redeems you from hell — saves your life!
He crowns you with love and mercy — a paradise crown.
He wraps you in goodness — beauty eternal.
He renews your youth — you’re always young in his presence.
God makes everything come out right;
he puts victims back on their feet.
He showed Moses how he went about his work,
opened up his plans to all Israel.
God is sheer mercy and grace;
not easily angered, he’s rich in love.
He doesn’t endlessly nag and scold,
nor hold grudges forever.
He doesn’t treat us as our sins deserve,
nor pay us back in full for our wrongs.
As high as heaven is over the earth,
so strong is his love to those who fear him.
And as far as sunrise is from sunset,
he has separated us from our sins.
Psalm 103:1-12 [The Message]
Why does grace have a calming effect?
How has your study of grace calmed you?
Pray through Psalm 103:1–12 today, thanking God for these truths!
Grace in 3-D
Read Romans 5:17–20
Ever stare at one of those computerized 3–D posters that were all the rage a few years ago? They look like randomly colored pixels without any discernible pattern until you relax your eyes. Then a three–dimensional image snaps into focus! The one I stared at in the mall had a cool picture of a flying eagle, but it took a while for me to get the hang of seeing it — and I’m sure I looked completely goofy as I swayed back and forth in front of the store window, cross-eyed, trying hard to make some sense of what was right in front of me (very much like I appear every morning before my first cup of coffee). But I discovered that what seems disorganized and random eventually becomes amazing and majestic (I mean the poster, not me).
That’s what happens to the Bible when you relax and focus on grace. You start to see the whole book as one giant 3-D picture.
First God lavished His grace on us with a perfect world in Genesis 1. It’s all good. Then we humans spoiled it when we sinned. But God was gracious and promised a future redeemer, setting the plot into motion! Then we humans kept messing up — even though we were given God’s perfect law, thereby proving we can’t save ourselves, even with an owner’s manual.
Yet God was merciful and forgave the repentant, even coming to earth as the incarnate Son of God. Jesus could have spoken out against many evils in society, but His primary target was religious legalism, which clouds and perverts the message of God’s grace.
Then humans killed the Son of God. But God is stunningly gracious and in an amazing plot twist, turns even that tragedy into triumph: The death of Christ turns out to be the very way God had planned to pay the debt for all of our sins Himself. And the cross switches from a symbol of punishment and death to a symbol of grace and life. In fact the crucifixion and resurrection are a microcosm of the whole story: There is no tragedy, no sin, beyond redemption by God. Sin is trumped by grace again and again, in every life!
Then at the very end of the story, there’s a vision of the new heaven and new earth. Once again, God lavishes His grace on us with new life in a perfect sinless world. The circle is complete. And there’s one final invitation to receive grace:
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!…Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.” Revelation 22:17
See the 3-D picture yet? Maybe this will help your focus: I love The Message’s paraphrase of Romans 5:18, 20:
Here it is in a nutshell: Just as one person did it wrong and got us in all this trouble with sin and death, another person did it right and got us out of it… Grace, because God is putting everything together again through the Messiah, invites us into life — a life that goes on and on and on, world without end.
The Bible, in other words, paints a cohesive picture with each small story — and as your eyes see it coming into focus you’ll see God turning to you even as you stand looking at the picture, and inviting you to be part of His masterpiece, the picture He is painting for the whole universe to see, the portrait of His grace!
Have you taken the free gift of the water of life by receiving Christ?
How does it make you feel to see the story of grace traced throughout the Bible?
Thank God for His story of grace — one that He began writing thousands of years ago, and continues writing on your heart and life today! Pray about how you can play your part and keep telling the story to others!
It’s amazing to me now how I once thought of God as stingy.
I saw Him as a Zeus-like grandfather sitting on the clouds and only reluctantly releasing His blessings upon those He deemed worthy.
But when grace revolutionized my life, my perspective changed. I hope you see now that the Bible describes God as having limitless generosity, and that generosity is summed up in the word grace. It’s used 150 times in the New Testament to describe God’s favor bestowed on undeserving people — people like you and me!
The Bible says we’re saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8), and by grace we stand through life’s difficulties (Romans 5:2). Jesus is described as “full of grace” (John 1:14) and the one who gave us “grace upon grace” (John 1:16). Paul talked about God’s “abundant grace” (Romans 5:17), and “surpassing grace” (2 Corinthians 9:14). Peter called it “multifaceted” grace (1 Peter 4:10), the literal meaning of the Greek word poikilos.
The super-lavish nature of grace really comes home in Second Corinthians:
And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you may abound in every good work. 2 Corinthians 9:8
That one verse summarizes everything you need to know about the whole arc of grace: God provides it to begin with; and God continues to give all the grace you need at all times, so that you overflow with grace to others through your good works! You truly are immersed in grace!
Realizing the extravagant riches of God’s grace can motivate and uplift you every day!
The famous London preacher Charles Spurgeon rode home one night after a hard day’s work feeling exhausted and discouraged. Then he thought of the verse, “My grace is sufficient for you.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
He said that immediately into his mind came the picture of a tiny fish in the mighty Thames River, afraid of drinking too many pints of water lest the river be drained. Then Father Thames says to him, “Drink away, little fish. My stream is sufficient for you.”
Then he thought of himself as a tiny mouse in a massive grain silo in Joseph’s Egypt. And Joseph says to him, “Cheer up, little mouse. My granaries are sufficient for you.”
Finally he thought of a man exercising, dreading that his breathing will exhaust the oxygen in the atmosphere. But the Creator’s voice booms out of heaven, “Breathe away, oh man, and fill your lungs. My atmosphere is sufficient for you!” (Spurgeon story adapted from John MacArthur, Our Sufficiency in Christ)
I hope you let yourself breathe in, feast on, bathe in, the lavish riches of God’s grace that are poured out on you every minute! Grace is something in which you are meant to luxuriate!
What difference will it make in your life if you believe God is lavish with His grace?
Thank God for His lavish grace. Think of some specific ways He shows grace to you each day!
Read 2 Corinthians 12:7–10
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 2 Corinthians 12:9
My father-in-law, Paul Ettinger, was shot.
He’d been chairing a meeting of the homeowner’s association in his senior citizen neighborhood near Sun City, Arizona when a disgruntled former resident came in armed to the teeth and opened fire on the board members and everyone else in attendance.
Paul’s first indication that anything was out of the ordinary was when he saw bits of paper floating through the air in front of him. He thought, “Why is someone throwing confetti at a time like this?” Then he looked down and saw the neat, round hole right between his first and last names on the nameplate on the table. And then he traced the path of the bullet through the stack of papers in front of him — the source of the “confetti” — right into his chest. Then he fell over.
As he lay on the ground bleeding, Paul heard more shots and then shouts. He discovered later that a small elderly man who had been standing in the back of the room had taken a chance and rushed the gunman, remembering his high school football training to “hit ’em hard and hit ’em low!” As soon as the surprised gunman toppled over one of the other retirees in the room yelled, “Get him, boys!” By the time police arrived the murderer was trussed up with rope from the supply closet and yelling for mercy.
After my father-in-law recovered fully from his wounds I asked him what he felt and thought during that time. He told me, “I was not afraid at all, and that surprised me. I felt the presence of God. I knew I was going to be OK, no matter what happened.” My mother-in-law, June, echoed that statement. “I am normally such a worrier,” she remembered, “But I just felt the presence of God like a comforting blanket. I just knew He was with us and things would be all right.”
She said in all the chaos the only prayer she could think to pray was, “Jesus help us,” over and over. “And I knew He was hearing that simple prayer,” she told me. “It was almost a physical sense of His presence, as if He was right there next to me.”
What my mother- and father-in-law experienced was God’s sustaining grace. This is another peak in the panorama.
God promises you His presence, not a trouble-free existence. In fact He warns there will be trouble. Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). That’s a promise. You have His word on it.
Keep reading, though. Jesus then says, “But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
That implies that just as Christ received grace to help Him in His time of need, so will you! And just as Christ ultimately overcame the world through His resurrection, you will too — by the promise and power of God’s grace.
When and how have you experienced the sustaining grace of God in time of trouble?
Bring to God a tough time you are experiencing — and pray for someone you know going through a tough time too. Ask for God to richly bless with His sustaining grace!
The Panorama of God’s Grace
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights. James 1:17a
I’ve been talking mostly about saving grace and sanctifying grace, but as David Seamands says, that’s like going to the Alps and only seeing the Matterhorn. There’s so much more to inspire awe. I love his phrase “the panorama of God’s grace.” Let’s look at some of the other wonders of grace.
General GraceJames says in today’s verse, “every good and perfect gift is from above….” Everything true and beautiful and good in the world is a gift of God — it doesn’t have to be explicitly religious or biblical for you to enjoy it.
The wisest man who ever lived, Solomon, said to enjoy your food and drink and family (Ecclesiastes 9:7) because they are part of God’s favor.
The Bible says “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)
It doesn’t say religious things that are lovely and admirable, etc. It says whatever. This means that there are landscapes, stories, music, knowledge, sports, and many other excellent and praiseworthy things you can experience with a joyful heart. Some examples for me: Reading The Lord of the Rings. Running on cliffs overlooking the ocean. Hiking in a redwood forest. Use wisdom and discernment and learn to enjoy God’s general grace all around you all the time.
Christian musician Todd Agnew writes:
The goodness of God is found in a ray of sunshine in the middle of a day of rain. His gift of joy even reaches through our darkest pain. In short, every little bit of goodness in my life originated in the heart of my God. Every thing that made me smile. Every ounce of beauty that caught my eye. Every color, every giggle, every cloud, every shower, every touch, every taste came from Him. He is the source of all good things, the fount of every blessing, the giver of ten thousand charms.
Like John says, “from the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another.” (John 1:16)
This is an idea taught by respected Christians throughout history. Even the very strict theologian John Calvin taught that God’s general grace can be perceived through nature, as well as in “mechanical arts… liberal sciences… and even heathen philosophers and poets… all truth is from God, and if wicked men have said something true and just, we ought not to reject it, for it has come from God.”
Let’s look at some more peaks in the panorama:
If God allowed the consequences of human sin to run unchecked, we would probably have destroyed ourselves by now. Instead, because of His love and grace, He restrains some of the practice of sin (2 Thessalonians 2:7), withholds some of the consequences of sin (Psalm 103:10, Acts 17:30), and gives us the idea of government and law enforcement to suppress the human tendency to self-destruction (Romans 13:1–7).
As I write this, our city is still cleaning up its downtown area after a Saturday night riot left scores of businesses vandalized. Ever wonder why this doesn’t happen more often? I believe it’s due to restraining grace.
The parables Jesus told in Luke 15 show God as a seeker of the lost. Not only do we love Him because He first loved us; we seek Him because He first sought us. My friend Rigo Dicochea shared his journey to faith one day in church and said, “I remember researching information about other religions and finding that Christ found me rather than me finding Him. I don’t know if that makes sense, but… it just happened. He became my hope… my King.”
When you decide to turn to Him, you find that what you thought would be a long trek back is really just one step — because He’s been following you the whole time and is right there next to you! You turn around, and, whoa! there He is. As Paul tells the Athenians, “He is not far from each one of us.” (Acts 17:27)
The amazing thing to me about heaven is that even there, God’s grace continues. I mean, really, you’re already in heaven; how much better can it get?! As I mentioned earlier, because grace is an essential part of God’s character, even there, in the new heaven and new earth, in a perfect environment where we will want for nothing, He continues to give.
What “admirable, noble, excellent, praiseworthy” examples of God’s general grace do you love to enjoy?
Why is it important to remind yourself that God gives you good gifts to enjoy?
Today, spend some time drinking in the grace of God through His general gifts of beauty and truth. While you do, praise Him for His grace through this!
Approaching God with Confidence
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. Hebrews 4:15–16
Many mornings right around 5 a.m., our cat Oreo meows loudly for her breakfast. She has decided that she does not like the stale cat food in her bowl; she wants new food, fresh from the box! For some unfathomable reason, I, the only person in the family who is regularly annoyed by our cat, am also the only one who ever hears our cat.
So around 5:01 I yank open our bedroom door, lurch out in an attempt at menace, catch Oreo’s gaze with an angry bloodshot stare from underneath my alarming shock of morning Einstein hair, then make loud mewling noises that I sincerely hope sound to her like cat curses. I do all this with the kind of humorless intensity found only in someone awakened from a sound sleep. At 5:02 she sees me, arches her back, rockets up the stairs, and shoots through the cat door to safety in the garage. And then I go back to bed fuming. This happens every day.
When I next see Oreo I know what will happen: She will slink away from me, apparently embarrassed of her daily offense, or afraid of what I might do to her — or both (either way I’m sort of OK with it). It’s incredible: She crawls around in something approximating guilt and fear every morning, yet with each new day she yields to the temptation again. Sound like someone you know?
Ever feel like God’s going, “Not again!” after you fall? Ever feel like you don’t dare come to Him in repentance because you fear what He’ll do to you? Ever worry He’ll be as crazily offended as I am when the cat awakens me from a sound sleep?
Bryan Chapell tells the story of a pastor’s daughter who brought home a teddy bear made of chocolate from school. The next day the girl’s mother caught her three-year-old son chomping down his sister’s bear. The boy backed against the wall like a cornered criminal, sobbing his confession with telltale chocolate stains all over his mouth and hands. His Mom told him that, despite all his tears, he would still have to tell his sister what he had done when she got home from school that day.
That afternoon was torture for the little boy as with each passing minute he wondered how his sister would react. Finally she walked in. He ran to her as the dam of his guilt burst out in tears of confession. He cried, “Sally, I am SO SORRY I ate your teddy bear!!”
I’m glad that his sister was always looking for a way to love her little brother. She took him in his arms, kissed him, and said, “It’s okay, Johnny, I will love you forever and always.” Though he was still crying, the little boy began to giggle. He was still crying from shame, yet at the same time he began laughing for joy.
What a great picture of grace. When I see how serious my sin is, I’m broken to the point that I cry tears of grief. But I don’t need to be afraid of God! When I realize God says, “I will love you forever and always” and reaches down and in compassion embraces me, I cry tears of joy.
I love today’s verse from Hebrews 4:16. It means that even when you fall, you can approach God’s very throne — which the writer calls “the throne of grace” — with confidence because you know you will find mercy and grace to help you in your time of need!
As Dean Merrill puts it, “The good news to those who have made a major mistake in their lives is this: It’s okay to run to your Father.”
When you fall, do you slink around in fear and remorse, or do you approach the throne of grace with confidence?
Why would God want us to know we can come to His throne with confidence, instead of slinking around in fear and guilt?
With confidence today, approach the throne of grace, knowing you will receive mercy and grace to help you, and tell God what you need.
Read Matthew 6:5–15
And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Matthew 6:7–8
When I was living with a performance-oriented mindset nothing was more contaminated than my prayer life. I figured if I prayed longer, earlier, more earnestly, with more spiritual words, then I’d please God more and get more positive answers! On my knees? Even better. Flat on my face? How spiritual of me!
Reminds me of the old joke: Two boys staying with their grandma kneel beside their beds one night to pray. First the older son prays briefly about how much he’d enjoyed the day. Then the younger son starts, but he prays much louder than his brother, practically screaming as he requests a long list of bikes and toys. When he’s finally finished the older brother asks him, “Why were you praying so loud? God’s not deaf!” and the younger one answers, “Yeah, but grandma is!”
Well, I was praying as if I had to break through God’s deafness or inattention.
I honestly think I got this idea from the parable of the unjust judge in Luke 18:2–5. The Bible says Jesus told this story so His disciples would “pray and not give up” (v. 1). But I wrongly interpreted it to mean that God is like the judge: not really interested in my problems, but if I pester Him enough He’ll hear me. So I spent hours on my knees. I thought I might, as Bill Hybels puts it, “wear Him down and wrench a blessing from His tightly closed fist.”
But a parable is not an allegory, where every single element means something else. Instead it’s more like a joke — a story with a punch line, only in the case of the parables it’s a punchy truth. The truth here is that if even an unjust judge will respond to a politically unimportant person’s repeated request, then how much more does your loving Heavenly Father hear you.
But you are not like the widow, and God is not like the judge. First of all, you are not poor and abandoned like the widow — you are the beloved child of God and a co-heir with Christ! Second, God is not like the judge at all — He’s not crooked or uncaring or indisposed, but righteous and loving and always available.
This is the misconception behind legalistic prayer that Jesus corrects in Matthew 6. You are not heard “because of your many words.”
So how should you pray? The Lord’s Prayer that follows is a great model of prayer that really is saying grace.
First, it’s short. About 50 words. That implies total confidence that God is listening. No babbling to impress God here.
Second, it starts with the words Our Father. Never forget you’re a child praying to a Father who couldn’t love you more than He does right now.
Third, it’s a prayer of surrender. Thy will be done. It’s not all about you.
Fourth, your needs are expressed simply: Give us this day our daily bread. No begging or bargaining. Why do that with a gracious God?
And fifth, it reminds you to give grace like you desire grace: Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.
Nothing will revitalize and relax your prayer life more than really saying grace! And in prayer and meditation, instead of endless requests, you’ll spend more time in contemplation of the really moving wonder of God’s grace! That starts tomorrow!
How would you summarize what Jesus teaches about prayer in Matthew 6?
How can you avoid the trap of performance-oriented prayers?
Try the Lord’s Prayer model today: First pray the very words of that prayer, with meaning. Then use it as a pattern for a prayer in your own words — express adoration, surrender, gratitude for grace, and request strength to be gracious to others.
Grace To Disagree
Read Romans 14:1–10
Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. Romans 14:4
Someone called our church office last week wanting to know our “official position” on a non-essential issue. You’d be surprised how often I’m asked for our “position.” I’m asked by people in the church, people visiting the church (who presumably want to be reassured that they are among fellow enlightened beings), members of the media… in fact I’d say I’m asked about our stand on non-essential issues more than I’m ever asked about our stand on the essentials of the faith!
Well-known pastor and author Chuck Swindoll says he’s deluged with these requests. Why? As one woman wrote him, “How are we to know what to decide on this issue if Chuck doesn’t tell us!?”
I’m glad it’s his policy not to make official pronouncements on such things. Of course many other pastors are only too delighted to oblige! But you will never mature as long as you have to get your opinions on everything from some leader.
In Romans 14, Paul explains how to get along by grace without all the uniformity enforced by legalism:
The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him… One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind… So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. (vs. 3, 5, 22)
His big idea? “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.” In other words, focus on the essentials, not the controversies. Why not be about the “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” instead of the latest litmus test issue?
As C. S. Lewis said, “When all is said (and truly said) about the divisions of Christendom, there remains, by God’s mercy, an enormous common ground.”
Read the gospels and the epistles carefully: What is the one issue that Jesus and Paul are willing to press? In a word, it’s grace. They seem to raise their voices only when the legalists encroach on the gospel. They are silent on so many of the issues that were important to the religious people of the day.
Three keys to gracefully disagreeing:
I know it’s not always easy, but make grace the message people see in your actions toward other people, as well as the cornerstone of your doctrine.
Why do you think it’s sometimes hard for church people to agree to disagree on non-essential issues?
What surprises you about Romans 14?
Ask God to help you discern between essentials and non-essentials. Ask Him to help you extend grace to others, especially on the non-essentials.