The Injustice of Illness

This summer, I read a memoir about illness, a reflection on the loneliness and frustration of convalescence. A friend with chronic pain recommended it to me, and the author helped me to pause and peek inside the experience of injury or illness. With a crash of helpless feelings, it seems all plans go out the window, for who knows how long.

Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating considers how slow life became, how sickness seemed to remove her from the world. Her illness so suspended her life that she begrudgingly befriended a snail; eventually, by learning to move at her new pace, she found some peace and hope. In fact, from what seemed like a suspended reality, she discovered fresh insight into the rest of us spinning around her. She writes,

We are all hostages of time. We each have the same number of minutes and hours to live within a day, yet to me it didn’t feel equally doled out. My illness brought me such an abundance of time that time was nearly all I had. My friends had so little time that I often wished I could give them what time I could not use. It was perplexing how in losing health I had gained something so coveted but to so little purpose.

-Elisabeth Tova Bailey, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, kindle loc. 292

This swirling unreality caused me to ask, how could I have encouraged Tova Bailey? What do we know, as Christians, that meets us in that seemingly suspended place, the shock and frustration of chronic fatigue or pain?

I think primarily this:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

-Matthew 5:3-5

This “sermon introduction” from Jesus is not everything that I might rush to say: “I’m sure you’ll get better soon…I’m sure God has a plan in all this…I’m sure…” Then again, why am I so sure? Jesus doesn’t say anything here about soon or not soon, nor about bad things actually being good. Jesus doesn’t suggest to the poor that they will soon be like everyone else, nor to the mourning that they’re thinking about it all wrong, nor to the meek that everyone will soon be so impressed with their meekness that they’ll never have to be meek again.

Instead, Jesus makes a promise (one that still takes faith to receive, because we have not seen it come true). It’s not a mantra, teaching us to just see things differently. It’s a personal promise, which means that it’s as trustworthy as the promiser, that the promised gift will be in proportion to the promiser’s power. It’s not primarily about reframing the present; it’s about our hope for real, future change.

Sickness really isn’t fair. Sick people often don’t need proverbs or adages or insights from those of us who haven’t been sick. That’s why we can only pass on a promise–with the quiet voice of those still waiting in hope–from our Maker and King, the one, unlike any of us, who has gone through death itself, who has risen from the dead and turned back to soon raise us too, the Beginning and the End: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

As John tells us, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

Why Daniel Turns Down The Dom Pérignon

(Did I sleep in this fancy bed in a foreign land? Yes. Was that I wrong? I don’t think so. Did the picture make me laugh at myself after writing this blog post? Yes, so I couldn’t resist making it the photo, whatever that says)

Why does Daniel refuse the Babylonian king’s food? It was probably delicious, especially with the wine. It was free. In fact, it was pushed on Daniel; yet, he said “no.”

But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank. Therefore he asked the chief of the eunuchs to allow him not to defile himself. And God gave Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs, and the chief of the eunuchs said to Daniel, “I fear my lord the king, who assigned your food and your drink; for why should he see that you were in worse condition than the youth who are of your own age?”…Then Daniel said…”Test your servants for ten days; let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then let our appearance and the appearance of the youths who eat the king’s food be observed…So…he tested them for ten days. At the end of ten days it was seen that they were better in appearance and fatter in flesh than all the youths who ate the king’s food. So the steward took away their food and wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables.

-Daniel 1:8-16

Daniel, you’re a captive, now a eunuch, dragged off by force, and an exile in a foreign land. Do you  not know a good thing when you see it? At least you could have a decent dinner every once in a while.

Actually, that’s the thing–that’s precisely the thing–Daniel does know a good thing when he sees it. He has not forgotten what’s good, and he’s willing to sacrifice for it, push for it, stick to it, despite what others are doing. Daniel “resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food,” not only because of food laws, not only because it was probably sacrificed to idols, not only because he wanted to show his loyalty to YHWH, not only because he wanted to live a temperate life. Rather, he understood that God gave the food laws to protect them from idolatry to help them follow Him to help them live a good life, which was not only temperate, but guided by the commandments, assured by the promises, empowered by the Almighty, and many other things besides. Daniel saw that one path was right, pure, faithful, and good, so he took it.

Right, pure, faithful, and good sound like a lot of adjectives to line up for one choice over another. Put that way, it seems like a no-brainer. Yet, go back to the decision about the king’s food and wine, and if any of us were in that situation, the right/pure/faithful/good would seem pretty evenly matched with what everyone else is doing, what sounds awful nice, the path of least resistance, what feels like finally getting thrown a bone. I doubt I’d have lived up to Daniel’s example, because I do love food, often too nice of food, often too much of that food, especially when I’m feeling sorry for myself. Sometimes we are the no-brainers.

So, what’s the bottom line? Are expensive things inherently wrong? No: As 1 Corinthians tells us, “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful…For ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof,'” and as Ecclesiastes says, “For everything there is a season…a time to keep, and a time to cast away.” The bottom line is, we often assume that it’s time for something because everyone else is choosing that something, when in reality it’s time to say “no” to that something so that we can say “yes” to another. That something is often a nice thing, which is what makes it hard.

However, God gives us hope, despite ourselves. While the “works of the flesh” include “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry…envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these,” the fruit of the Spirit includes “peace, patience…[and] self control” (Galatians 5). As Paul says several verses earlier, “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh,” which means that if you are fighting against the flesh, you can know that God Himself is with you, in your corner, on your side, at your right hand.

“For the one who sows to his own flesh,” it says, “will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”

As Our Understanding Of God Changes, Our God Does Not

There is a larger-than-a-blog-post sized debate about this in some circles, whether God “changes.” People theorize about this in different ways, using different kinds of logic; I think that if all we want to do is theorize about this, we should ponder Biblical declarations such as:

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

-James 1:17

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

-Hebrews 13:8

However, this is more than a theoretical problem; it’s a personal one. Most of us can remember times in the past when we wanted, needed, expected, or understood God to be different than we do now. While some of these memories could embarrass us, highlighting our impulsiveness and shortsightedness (or is that just me?), some can also trouble us, suggesting that God may not be as unchanging as we thought. While we don’t expect to “master” God like some subject in school, we still hope to know Him well enough to trust in His faithfulness.

Here’s where I think Ezekiel’s experience can encourage us. Consider this vision from the end of his book:

Then he led me to the gate, the gate facing east. And behold, the glory of the God of Israel was coming from the east. And the sound of his coming was like the sound of many waters, and the earth shone with his glory. And the vision I saw was just like the vision that I had seen when he came to destroy the city, and just like the vision that I had seen by the Chebar canal. And I fell on my face. As the glory of the Lord entered the temple by the gate facing east, the Spirit lifted me up and brought me into the inner court; and behold, the glory of the Lord filled the temple.

-Ezekiel 43:1-5

This vision is “just like” that vision, despite the fact that in that vision God had come to destroy and in this vision God is coming to fill the temple with His glory. Ezekiel felt differently about God then and now. He thought different things about God then and now. Yet, God had not changed. The same God–beyond description, with cherubim like wheels and brilliance like jewels and a throne and a voice like thunder–came to do different things because their circumstances had changed, their needs had changed, the time had changed. Yet, God had not changed.

God may do one thing one day and another thing another. Yet, God has not changed. God always arrives as the paragon of wisdom, love, justice, and might, and always acts out of that unchanging nature.

Who am I to declare this as a dinky little human on a dinky little blog? Certainly not one who can tell God what He should or must do. I am only one trying to listen for what God has chosen to do, what God has chosen to reveal, what God has chosen to promise, and if He has chosen to be the God in whom there is no shadow due to change, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, who is now and always the pinnacle of grace and truth as revealed in Jesus Christ, then I’m here to hear it, repeat it, and live like it’s so.

Just Wait For This Cheer

Well, the Seahawks lost this weekend, and I’ll admit that depressed my Monday morning mood more than it should have. The more complicated our world seems, the more cathartic a last-minute touchdown can be, that moment of jumping off the couch, throwing our fists in the air, using our voices to respond more simply and viscerally than we do all week. That didn’t happen this time because of a fumble, and the cheers we didn’t get to cheer felt so close that they’re hard to let go.

Perhaps you’re not a football fan. Perhaps when you think of wholehearted, instinctive cheering you don’t think of a big man in small pants crossing a white line painted on some grass. That’s fine. Nonetheless, can you summon that feeling of elation that goes with a leap and a yell? Perhaps you felt it when your friend was given an award or your candidate got elected or your test went better than you thought or your favorite band announced a tour stop. Regardless, the point is: Though that cheer has faded, we will cheer again–louder, longer, and for something that lasts.

Revelation paints this picture of standing before God’s throne:

Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out,

For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready;
it was granted her to clothe herself
with fine linen, bright and pure”

-Revelation 19:6-8

Think not only of the roar of 60,000 fans but also the shout of the world’s waterfalls the crash of all the heavens’ thunder. The sound in my mind comes from the victorious ending of my 12-year-old-boy favorite movie, Star Wars: Episode I (with foreign horns lifting up the cheer), and, yes, the image comes from the triumphant entry of the emperor in my 17-year-old-boy favorite movie, Gladiator. Yet, those memories are only the barest sketch of the cheer we’ll really take up.

Someday, when it all comes clear and it’s all set right, when we can see what God has planned, done, and accomplished, we will cheer the visceral, whole-, and simple-hearted cheer of a cosmic comeback victory. That cheer being better doesn’t mean we should hold back our jubilation for the great and small things that make us cheer today. Rather, we should cheer and not forget that the new cheer will exponentially exceed it all when we cry, “Hallelujah! There’s no longer any doubt that YHWH reigns! The people of God, who seemed so done at so many points, have been clothed with fine linen, bright and pure, and the marriage of the Lamb has come!”

“Death, Thou Shalt Die”

We’re preparing to go home for a funeral in a couple weeks, and I think that when we arrive, it will finally hit me that my grandma has died. I’ve been sad, but I think I’ll feel a whole new set of emotions when I arrive where she should have been and she’s not there.

In the last couple months, which have been, to put it baldly, a season of death for our family, I’ve clung to these words from John Donne:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
My Bible reading this morning reminded me that Donne is not here hopelessly grasping for solace in the face of an unfaceable reality. No, he is holding onto a trustworthy promise from God’s very word. “One short sleep past, we wake eternally // and death shall be no more; Death thou shalt die” indeed, not because we wish for it but rather because God has promised it. As John describes the scene in his revelation from Jesus Christ:
And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.
-Revelation 20:13-14

The Worthiness of Wandering

Many of the main characters in the Biblical story, including Jesus, live in various types of “homelessness.” Consider:

But to the tribe of Levi Moses gave no inheritance; the Lord God of Israel is their inheritance, just as he said to them.

-Joshua 13:33

Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. And a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

-Matthew 8:18-20

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

-Hebrews 11:13-16

In each of these cases, obedience leads some of God’s people to wander far from home. The responsibility God gives them comes into direct conflict with the comfort and security others have built up, and in each case, the Levites, Jesus, Abraham, Sarah and all the heroes of Hebrews 11 choose God’s call.

We should learn to care about the type of homelessness that forces one to sleep on a park bench, but we should also learn to think theologically about these other kinds of homelessness and wandering.

The Levites don’t inherit a territory because of the ministry to which they have been called. Similarly, many pastors eventually leave the parsonage with no equity; many social workers choose little money to serve those with little money and never buy a home. Jesus has nowhere to call his home, because he has places to go. Likewise, numerous Christians accept homesickness, endless visa applications, culture shock, and language classes to go where God has directed them to serve (whether with a missions agency or with a housecleaning business). Abraham and Sarah moved when God called, not knowing where they would end up or why it had to be there, like so many today who move for work or school or to take care of family, knowing only that they’re trying to be faithful, not where it will lead. Those at the end of the chapter chose hardship over faithlessness, perhaps sacrificing the comfortable-looking lives of their colleagues to avoid the ungodly paths that could have gotten them there.

Comfort and security are some of the most exalted gods in the American Olympus, but many of the most faithful people in the Bible–such as the Levites, Abraham, Sarah, and most of all Jesus–call us to question their worth. Comfort and security are delightful gifts, but they make merciless gods; they can demand endless sacrifices from their devotees and often withhold the satisfaction they promised.

We have, on the other hand, this offer from the true God, who is “not ashamed to be called our God.” He is, in fact, the very God who came as Jesus Christ, who Himself chose to wander that we might have a home. In this time between the ages, when we have received King Jesus but are yet to enjoy His full and total reign, faithfulness will sometimes mean wandering; fruitfulness will sometimes require homelessness. Yet, in all this, God goes with us. Whatever “home” we sacrifice, we do so knowing there is a better home, stored up in heaven for us, and that this God we’ve followed into risk, scarcity, and the ends of the earth will bring it hither when He Himself arrives.

Remember That God Has No Pleasure In the Death of Anyone

Dissimilar people can think themselves into surprisingly similar beliefs about God’s stance toward punishment and consequences, gradually accepting a concept of a god who relishes pouring out wrath.

For example, some people reject the idea of a god because they assume a god must like to see people get their just desserts, and they find that god impossible. Others accept the idea of that god but hate him, hoping to distance themselves from a vengeful deity. On the flip side of the coin, some theists (indeed, some Christians) consider God’s wrath so philosophically defensible and their own righteousness so demonstrable that they are either untroubled by or even hungry for sinners to get what they deserve. I confess to my shame that at times I’ve been various versions of the latter.

However, whatever theological theses we might be able to think ourselves into, any who try to follow the God revealed in Jesus Christ as attested in the Scriptures must stop and consider what those very Scriptures say about God’s appetite for vengeance. Consider Ezekiel 18, a passage that has underscored (at length) that righteousness leads to life but sin leads to death. It ends this way:

Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.

-Ezekiel 18:30-32

Yes, God is forthright about judgment here, but He is eager for repentance, a new heart, a new spirit, life for former rebels. “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone,” He says. Hundreds of years later, 1 Timothy again assures us of God’s desire for repentance and life:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

-1 Timothy 2:1-4

Perhaps we expected something different from God. Perhaps we’re still unsure how this compassionate declaration aligns with other things we’ve believed. Yet, before we ignorantly entertain the idea that the god is some kind of glutton for punishing, we should hear what God has to say for Himself: “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone…I desire all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.”

Therefore, “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit,” and “Make supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings for all people…as is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.”

What To Make Of Godless Wealth

We saw an excellent movie this weekend, not one to take your kids to if you’re trying to keep them away from foul language, but one worth considering if you’re open to a reminder about how foul the rat race can be. The film was Equity, directed by Meera Menon, and it delves into the world of investment banking, looking at a handful of characters who live a slick but slippery life.

Today’s Bible reading in Jude reminded me of those characters this morning. Now, not all investment bankers are bad people; some certainly exhibit godly character and do godly work. However, as in any high-powered industry, you’re likely to find a number of people who think little of God, step over others, and go to extremes to get what they want. As Jude puts it:

Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones…These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds, fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever…These are grumblers, malcontents, following their own sinful desires; they are loud-mouthed boasters, showing favoritism to gain advantage.

-Jude 8, 12, 13, 16

Despite the judgment that the passage suggests, I admit there were moments in the movie when I did think, “It must be nice to order 18-year-old scotch like it’s water, to get driven from place to place, to have high ceilings and original art on the walls.”

However, Jude reminds us that others’ shiny lives shouldn’t fool us into thinking that there’s a better way than following God. In fact, he says this shouldn’t surprise us, overshadow what we have that’s better than wealth, or lessen our desire for others to find it too. He says,

But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.

-Jude 17-23

We must learn to look at shiny lives and ask, “Are they really happy, content, and filled with joy?” This is a debatable claim, but I believe that they only can be if they know and abide in their Creator and Savior (a shiny life itself, after all, does not disqualify anyone from this). If they have this true joy and we want it, we need to learn from their faith, not their wealth. On the other hand, if all they have is wealth, we need not envy their wealth. Rather, we must learn to pity their lack of anything else, especially the mercy of God.

After all, we’re not naturally better or smarter or more enlightened; we’re simply those who wait on the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ. We too must have mercy on those who doubt, hoping to snatch them from the fire, while rejecting all trust in wealth, that we might grow and enjoy life-giving trust in the God who raises the dead.

So We Can Argue For Truth, But Do We Walk In It?

“What is truth?” Pilate asked Jesus 2,000 years ago. The tone of the conversation suggests that he wasn’t just asking who Jesus truly was; he was asking if the word “truly” means anything at all. This question has become a primetime intellectual bout over the last couple centuries, with relativists saying things like “We never come to pure ‘facts'” (Nietzsche) and apologists rebutting “this proposition is not logical.  In fact, it is self-refuting” (CARM). One problem is, both sides make rigorous philosophical arguments (though I ultimately side with the latter position). Another problem is, intellectual sparring about truth in the universe can distract us from the God’s intended role for truth in our lives.

My daily Bible reading brought me to 3 John today, and I was struck by the constant appeal to truth in this short, ancient, Church letter:

The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth.

-3 John 1

I rejoiced greatly when the brothers came and testified to your truth, as indeed you are walking in the truth.

-3 John 3

I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.

-3 John 4

We ought to support people like these [brothers and sisters, strangers who have gone out for the sake of the name], that we may be fellow workers for the truth.

-3 John 8

Demetrius has received a good testimony from everyone, and from the truth itself. We also add our testimony, and you know that our testimony is true.

-3 John 12

This constant appeal to “the truth” should make us stop and consider who we truly are–not just who we appear to be, would like to be, are known to be, or expect to be. When we strip away all the pretense, all the politeness, all the posturing and playing of games, do we walk in the truth? Do our kind words flow from true love? Do our Christian actions flow from what’s true about God and the world? Do our opinions of one another flow from what’s true about us, personally and theologically? Do we tell the truth, and are we building communities tied together by truth telling and trustworthiness?

While we do labor as “fellow workers for the truth” (that is, while we do want to refute the untruth in others’ beliefs and opinions), we should also pause and find and root out the untruth in our own lives. In what ways have we convinced others–convinced ourselves–that we are different (better) than we truly are? It is time to remember the truth about God and God’s world, to recognize the truth about ourselves, and to choose, to strive for a true transformation, for who we truly are to start fitting who God truly is.

“I have no greater joy,” John says, “than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” Oh, what joy–for him and for us and even for God–if John’s distant descendants in the faith could be found to walk in that same truth today, the truth that God is the only Creator and Judge, that Jesus the Messiah has come in the flesh, that the Spirit dwells in us, that we can walk in the truth, work for the truth, and receive a good testimony from the Truth Himself.

How To Get What You Pray For

Since childhood, verses like these have caused me to scratch my head. They make such bold promises about receiving what we pray for, promises that almost seem to describe a different world than the one in which I live. Consider:

Delight yourself in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.

-Psalm 37:4

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

-Matthew 7:7-11

You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.

-James 4:2b-3

Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.

-1 John 3:21-22

There you have it, from the Psalms, Jesus’ lips, an early epistle, a late epistle: “He will give you the desires of your heart,” “Everyone who asks receives,” “You do not have, because you do not ask,” “whatever we ask we receive from him.” This might cause you to ask (as it has caused me to ask), Did I miss a step? How can get what I pray for?

To start, let’s go back to these same verses. Note the guidance that each of them gives: “Delight yourself in the Lord,” “Seek [Him?],” “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions,” “keep his commandments and do what pleases him.”

Now, we could read these and conclude: “Aha! So these are the membership fees for this special prayer-answering club. Like Costco. ‘Keeping God’s commandments and doing what pleases him’ is costly, after all.” However, this reading misses the point. The offer is not that if we give God A (e.g., lip service), He will give us B (e.g., cash money).

Rather, one could say that if we learn to live for A (i.e., God’s desires), we will learn to pray for A (i.e., God’s desires), and God will delight to give us A (i.e., God’s desires), and we will delight to receive it. The directions in these verses, taken together, understood in light of the character of God, seem to suggest that we will learn about answered prayer when we learn to pray for different things.

If we’ve misunderstood from the beginning, that can seem like a bit of a bait-and-switch. However, if we’re willing to listen and understand this other offer, we’ll see that it’s a better one. The Matthew 7 passage expresses this better offer: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask of him!” This God is like a Father, who wants to give us what’s best, and it must frustrate Him when we continually pray for something else.

Yet, as James says, “He gives more grace,” God works in us, in Paul’s words, “both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” That is, God Himself can help us to “keep his commandments and do what pleases him,” by renewing our hearts to be pleased by what’s precious and not worthless, not fickle but enduring. As God gives us new and better desires like His, we will ask for less and less “to spend on our own passions”; we will ask more and more for what’s already addressed to us (God’s desires for us), seeking for Him who delights to be found (God Himself).

“Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” It’s not that if we do our part and like God, He’ll do His part and give us stuff. Rather, God does His part: He gives us new and better desires (His desires), and when we ask Him for our new desires, He delights to fulfill our new longings, not only for His provision but also for His abiding and all-transforming presence in our midst.