My Fig Tree

                                                                                            Marilyn Bennett

I did not plant the fig tree in my backyard, but every year I have seen an abundance of figs except for last year when not a single fig grew on my tree. This year figs are abundant again. I am not a fig tree expert, but I think I understand what David was saying about the “person who is like a tree planted by streams of water which yielded its fruit in season.”  

Blessed is the one

who does not walk in step with the wicked

or stand in the way that sinners take

or sit in the company of mockers,

but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,

and who meditates on his law day and night.

That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,

which yields its fruit in season

and whose leaf does not wither— whatever they do prospers.

Not so the wicked!

They are like chaff that the wind blows away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,

nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,

but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

When I memorized this psalm as a child, I thought it meant that I should stay away from the wicked, the sinner, or the mocker. Yes, I needed to be careful about the company I kept. This is common sense. Yet, I have observed that many of “the righteous” have become so separated from “the wicked” that we no longer know how to interact with them. Many of us have become disconnected from the very people God wants us to reach.

When Jesus commanded us to love God and our neighbor, he meant for us to go out and meet our neighbor. When those who live in Sun City say “our neighbors do not meet anymore,” I want to say, “What are you doing about that?” Have we lost our desire to love our neighbors? This is in direct opposition to what God has asked us to do.

Some of us are better at making friends than others. If you do not know what to say to your neighbor, write down a list of things you can ask. Ask them where they were born, where they were raised, where they went to high school, how they entered a career, or about their children. Ask them about their hobbies or how they like being retired. Ask about their favorite song, movie or book. Patiently listen to their story and acknowledge their feelings about serious issues. Be truly interested. Find ways to share what God has given to you or has done for you.

Instead of being upset no one has invited you to their house or out to lunch or for coffee, do the inviting yourself.

I was surprised when an atheist who knew I was a pastor invited me to join a group of atheists. Later she invited me to lunch to explain she was very upset about “those people” at “that church” who were mean to her because she was an atheist. I listened to her voice her beliefs and opinions even though she knew I did not agree with them. This opened the door. I was different than Christians she met at “that church.” I cared about her. She wanted to know me. Have you invited an atheist to lunch just to get to know them better? Though I found it scary, I kept up the relationship.

Two of my neighbors became widows around Christmas. I called or texted them to see how they were doing. I brought them food. I visited with them. I invited each of them to lunch. When the pandemic hit, we were back to communicating only by phone. A month ago I invited both of them to my patio. The next week we decided to bring our lunch. We enjoyed it so much we decided to meet every week. When we talk about God or difficult political or ethical topics we agree to not agree. We respect each other and we listen. I pray every day I will find ways to engage them, listen to them, and love them in Christ. We even named our time together. We call it “Wonderful Wednesday” and we have invited two more women to join us.

In the first Psalm, the righteous who delight in the law of the Lord are blessed with fruit.

The amount of fruit a tree produces is directly related to its source of water. The water to which the psalmist refers is delighting in God through his Word.

I pray you will prosper in the knowledge of God by reading and meditating on His Word and become fruitful ambassadors for Jesus Christ. As I wait for the delicious figs to fall, I pray for God’s fruit to fall from me as I love others with God’s help for His glory.


New Articles

I have written several articles this year. A few pastors have asked me if they could use them in their sermons. Please do. Type the title into the search engine. The article that has the links to Amazon to acquire The Little Church in the Big City, a unique Bible Study for churches of ALL SIZES in ALL PLACES entitled “Churches Rejoice!”

Other articles you might like to read are:

  • Orientation
  • 30 Reasons Attending Church Can Be Risky
  • Finding Jesus
  • The Perfectly Perplexing Puzzle
  • Why Ask Part One
  • Why Ask Part Two
  • Why Ask Part Three
  • Lessons for Leaders
  • A Mother’s Love
  • A Simple Thank You
  • Growing Your Church
  • Is Faith Delusional?
  • Male and Female
  • Mary’s Song
  • The Most Dangerous Sin in the Church
  • The Scandal of Self Identity
  • The Theology of Prayer
  • The Theology of Prayer 2
  • Thoughts and Prayers
  • What is Church?
  • Who is a Pastor?
  • Worthy Worship




Churches Rejoice! A Unique Bible Study

The Little Church in the Big City: A Small Church Approach for Big City Challenges is now available on!

The Little Church in the Big City: A Small Church Approach to Big City Challenges is a new Bible Study for ALL churches of ALL sizes in ALL places. This Bible Study has been endorsed by Rev. Don Ng, former President of ABC-USA and pastor of First Chinese Baptist Church of San Francisco, Rev. Steve Bils, Executive Minister of ABCCPC, Rev. Alfred Centeno, former Area Minister for the Hispanic Convencion, and Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Sr. pastor emeritus of Allen Temple in Oakland California and professor at the American Baptist Seminary of the West in Berkeley, California. Take a close look at this Bible Study and pass the word to others.

After 18 years of researching churches, I designed a unique Bible Study for churches that deals with 8 major challenges facing churches today. Each challenge takes 8-10 weeks. Each provides a way for your congregation to discuss important issues that face churches today such as indifference, betrayal, homosexuality, racism, immigration, pluralism, polarization, and ideology vs theology. Each of these will guide your church to fulfill the great commission and the two greatest commandments (love God and love your neighbor).

Buy the Introduction and Challenge 1 on Read them. Make an appointment with your pastor. Ask him or her to use this series in your church!

The Great Commission: Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

The Greatest Commandments: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:36-40).

This Bible Study uses a ‘small church approach’ to ‘big city’ challenges which will help you improve relationships both inside and outside of the church. By design, small groups nourish relationships. This curriculum allows and encourages outsiders to be in a group, thus, inviting them into the conversation. This book instructs pastors and leaders in how to set up this series in their church. Here is the link to get you started:

Challenge 1: Indifference
The Loving Way
Are you concerned about indifference in your church? Churches are in crisis today largely due to indifference and isolation. Pastors are afraid to share with other pastors that they are losing members. Denominational leaders are at a loss. Pastors are stymied, out of ideas, and overwhelmed. Many churches are struggling especially those who serve the least of these in the inner cities. Though some churches send mission groups to Mexico, Haiti, or Belize, rare are those who help churches in the inner city. When churches of all sizes in all places work together to advance the kingdom of God, they bring glory to God whereas indifference, apathy, complacency, and a lack of concern does not. Dr. Bennett has crafted a unique approach that will stimulate your congregation to confront indifference. Here is a link for Challenge 1:

Challenge 2: Betrayal
The Essential Way
Congregations rarely suspect members or leaders of betrayal but many who have been hurt by the church rarely attend. After Jesus’ crucifixion, all of the disciples either abandoned, doubted, or denied they knew him. Many feel abandoned by those they trusted. Many wrestle with doubts about their faith. Due to a decline in membership, many churches have been closing at an alarming rate. Dr. Bennett has crafted a unique approach that will stimulate your congregation to confront feelings of betrayal. Here is the link:

Challenge 3: Homosexuality
The Integral Way

Is your church confused about homosexuality? The recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to allow same sex marriage has disheartened many who believe homosexuality is an unhealthy lifestyle or a sin. Churches are divided on this issue. Liberal churches have become welcoming and affirming of homosexuals and many have ordained homosexual pastors. How are conservative evangelical churches confronting this issue? In fact, how is your church responding to heterosexual couples who decide to live together, bear or adopt children, buy a home, and continue to remain unmarried? Dr. Bennett has crafted a unique approach that will stimulate your congregation to respond to a difficult issue that is dividing families as well as churches. Here is the link:

Challenge 4: Racism
The Incarnational Way

Does your church welcome people of another race? Often churches claim to be friendly and welcoming simply because they greet people at the door and offer a welcome packet or gift. Is this what Jesus had in mind when he said to love your neighbor? Most protestant churches in America are divided by race or ethnicity. Some do not even reflect the community where their church is located. Dr. Bennett has crafted a unique approach that will stimulate your congregation to commit to loving neighbors of different races and ethnicities. Here is the link:

Challenge 5: Immigrants
The Dynamic Way

How do your members feel about legal immigrants or refugees? God promised to bless all nations through Abraham and Jesus asked his disciples to go into all the world and share God’s good news to one and all. Immigrants are pouring into America. Some are Christians fleeing persecution. Many have ties to family and friends in their homeland. Churches in the inner city are perfectly located to reach “strangers in a foreign land.” Sadly, many newcomers are being harassed, bullied, and even killed. Unfortunately, many have discovered that the American city is a dangerous place to live and work. Dr. Bennett has crafted a unique approach that will stimulate your congregation to connect with immigrants and protect them. Here is the link:

Challenge 6: Pluralism
The Missional Way

Are you concerned about pluralism seeping into the church? In this new age of tolerance, many wonder if all faiths lead to God. God set boundaries of belief for his people. Does your church know those boundaries? Have you prepared your congregation to share God’s good news with their multi-ethnic and multi-faith neighbors? At Pentecost, God made a way for the early church to reach neighbors who spoke a different language. How are you actively and effectively sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with those of a different faith, with a different language, and from a different culture? Dr. Bennett has crafted a unique approach that will stimulate your congregation to care about those who believe differently. Here is the link:

Challenge 7: Polarization
The Relational Way

Is your church conservative or liberal? The last national presidential election highlighted America’s conservative/liberal divide. America continues to be hopelessly divided. Denominations are separating over conservative and liberal ideas. What are those ideas? Why are we divided? How can either side be obedient to Jesus who prayed to the father that his church be united as one body (John 17)? Is it possible with God’s help to listen to those who do not agree and love them? Is it possible to agree on the essentials yet collaborate with those who disagree otherwise? Dr. Bennett has crafted a unique approach that will stimulate your congregation to cooperate with those on the opposite side of the aisle.  Here is the link:

Challenge 8: Ideology/Theology
The Redemptive Way

How did Jesus accomplish what he proclaimed? Did he open a food bank? Did he start a non-profit? Did he send out requests for support? Did he open a hospital or a day care center? Did he ask for tax exempt status? Did he organize a protest march? This last challenge focuses on six questions your church should be able to answer in order to share the good news of Jesus Christ. 1) Who is God? 2) Who am I? 3) Why is there suffering in the world? 4) Why is there evil in the world? 5) Why do I need a Savior? 6) Why am I a Christian? Dr. Bennett has crafted a unique approach that will stimulate your congregation to restore God’s true purpose for your church. Here is the link:

Here is what the endorsers say:


“Unfiltered remarks by Dr. Bennett lead the users of this congregational resource to confront beliefs and perspectives to assist churches seeking for renewed purpose in challenging times. Dr. Bennett is unafraid to speak her mind shaped by her own personal experiences as a pastor and teacher. The book addresses some of the most troubling religious topics today: racism, immigration, pluralism, homosexuality and others. Extensive biblical references offer an opportunity for church groups to study and pray together.”

Rev. Dr. Donald Ng, Retired Pastor of First Chinese Baptist Church, San Francisco, CA; 2014-15 President of ABCUSA

“Too long we have waited for this must needed and well written Bible Study by Dr. Bennett. Her beautiful writing style keeps the eyes of the reader glued to the page without a dictionary close by. Readers will treasure the insights that are shared from her rich experiences as a small church pastor. The book also shares insights from interviews with small church pastors who reflect the diversity of race, class, gender, and denominational perspectives. She is courageous in addressing the explosive issues that are controversial today. With fairness and emotional maturity she calls each of us to practice the love ethic of Jesus. Her observations show interdisciplinary expertise in theology, history and sociological analysis. This book is informative, instructive, inspiring, and it has led me into deep introspection. Denominational (national and regional) executives and will discover this book as a needed tool to use for church planning. Seminarians will learn effective urban ministry from a proven and respected urban leader. May others be refreshed with spiritually enriching and thought stretching biblical lessons designed for personal devotional use and for public theology practice. This is book like new wine in the new wine skins of urban ministry.”

The Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Sr., Pastor Emeritus, Allen Temple Baptist Church, Oakland CA; Professor Emeritus, American Baptist Seminary of the West, Berkeley, CA

The Little Church in the Big City is an incredibly valuable resource to congregations seeking to think their way through some of our culture’s thorny issues. Dr. Bennett’s thoughtful and even-handed approach to issues includes both historical and contemporary summaries as well as clear presentations of the relevant biblical teachings that should inform our faith and actions. The beauty of her work is that one can randomly pick and choose from the material and still effectively utilize the sections dealing with issues of particular interest.

Rev. Steve Bils, Executive Minister, American Baptist Churches of the Central Pacific Coast, Portland CA.

“It was an honor and privilege to be asked to read Dr. Bennett’s books and comment on it. I was reluctant to accept at first due to my English limitation, (Spanish is my first language), but I’m please I did. The book is written in a way that is easy to understand by anyone who is eager to learn. It touches very deep on subjects affecting our society now-a-days’ and provokes prayerfully a deep reflection to search one’s own heart to fulfill God’s mission in love. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who is struggling to find God’s will in serving others with open arms. I pray this book will be translated into other languages for the benefit it will bring to the Christian world. I know it did me a lot of good. God bless Dr. Bennett, I deeply value her friendship. I pray this is the first of many to follow.”

Rev. Alfredo Centeno, Pastor of Iglesia Bautista Nuevo Horizonte, San José, CA; Former Area Minister of the Hispanic Convention of Churches; Former pastor of Primera Iglesio Bautisto Hispano, San Francisco, CA.

“Drawing on interviews with church members, pastors, and denominational executives, Dr. Bennett in The Little Church in the Big City presents a passionate case for the positive role that small congregations play in city neighborhoods. She combines in-depth analysis of some of the most controversial issues churches face, with detailed Scripture study, but also with plans on how congregations can move forward as Christians. Any church facing tensions over race, gay marriage, immigration, theology, and other critical issues will benefit from using her book as a manual for reconciliation.”

Rev. Gordon S. Grose, Ph.D., American Baptist pastor, pastoral counselor, author.

Growing Your Church

Christmas is a busy time for churches. Everyone is competing for attendance. However, after December, comes January. January is a time for reflection and often a time for regret. Attendance drops dramatically.

So how can you as a pastor change the dynamics in your church in such a powerful way that people will want to come back after the holidays?

The answer might surprise you.

In my 18 years of interviewing pastors and lay people, not once did anyone indicate that a simple ‘thank you’ grew the church. Instead, the experts indicated growth was due to programs, personnel, or worship style.

Yet the purpose of the incarnation, the purpose of Jesus coming to earth, was to be with us relationally, to save us from our sins, to bear our burdens, to love us unconditionally yet desire for us to change for the better. Does this encounter with Jesus Christ happen more often in large vibrant churches or in small relational churches?

People can be anonymous in a large mega church. Yes, there is a deliberate effort to make sure people are personally greeted and welcomed. And, there is a tendency in a small church to be isolated and unwelcoming. Yet, over time a small church is perfectly designed for developing deep, long lasting relationships.

Even though it’s more likely you will have a personal conversation from a pastor of a small church, are they appreciative? Not necessarily. In fact, one of the reasons church planters are successful initially is due to their appreciation of anyone and everyone who contributes.

At the other end of the spectrum is the church that has a tradition of thanking people. Every year teachers can expect to be thanked on Teacher Appreciation Sunday or a Teacher Appreciation Banquet, but rarely is there a Janitor Appreciation Sunday or a Treasurer Appreciation Sunday. In fact, there are a lot of dedicated, loyal people who are never thanked in our churches; at least not officially, and yet they should be sincerely thanked.

Sadly, when something as simple as a ‘thank you’ becomes institutionalize rather than a spontaneous gesture from the heart, the act becomes meaningless. Is this what Jesus meant in his parable of the one leper in ten who came back to thank Jesus for healing him? Luke 17:1-19

Do we just not get it? Do we not realize how valuable a sincere and simple ‘thank you’ can be?

Why is appreciation important?

Appreciation means we have put our ego aside to honor another. This is why one of the Ten Commandments asks us to honor (i.e. be thankful, appreciative) of our father and mother. Appreciation is something we should learn early in life.

Appreciation means we hold another person worthy enough to give their contribution some thought. We elevate others higher than ourselves which is an excellent practice for a pastor, leader and lay person to follow.

Appreciation means we recognize we are not the Lone Ranger. Even he had Tonto. From the beginning, God revealed that no man can do life alone. Adam needed a helper. God went to great lengths to get Adam to realize that being alone with the animals was not a good thing. Even still, when the chips were down, Adam did not rescue his wife from the misguided advice of the serpent but stood by and watched.

Appreciation means we agree to be a community, a community that honors each other. The church Christ created included everyone: Jew or Gentile, etc. Americans have been taught to treasure the independent spirit. We forget people came to America in groups and survived as groups! To be banished from the group was and is punishment.

Appreciation is a way to practice submission not only to God by being thankful to God but also to each other. “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Ephesians‬ ‭5:21‬ ‭NIV‬‬

The early converts appreciated and supported the church: “You know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the Lord’s people. I urge you, brothers and sisters, to submit to such people and to everyone who joins in the work and labors at it.” I Corinthians‬ ‭16:15-16‬ ‭NIV‬

Jesus practiced submitting to the Father (John 17).. Paul appreciated those who worked diligently in his churches (Roman 16). We should practice what we preach.

Pastors, leaders, laity of all size churches: Start practicing the art of a simple ‘thank you’ and see how quickly you not only bless others but are blessed yourself!

‘The Little Church in the Big City’ A Small Church Approach to Big City Challenges

‘The Little Church in the Big City’ A Small Church Approach to Big City Challenges
by M.B. Bennett

“Patience is a virtue,” they say.

After 2 long years, ‘The Little Church in the Big City’ A Small Church Approach to Big City Challenges will finally be available for churches of all sizes. Most publishing companies are not equipped to publish curriculum, so I had to self-publish through Amazon. The curriculum should be available by the first of the year.

Why is this curriculum important for your church?

According to national leaders this curriculum “addresses some of the most troubling religious topics today: racism, immigration, pluralism, homosexuality and others.”

“Extensive biblical references offer an opportunity for church groups to study and pray together.”

“Too long we have waited for this must needed and well written work by Dr. Bennett. Her beautiful writing style keeps the eyes of the reader glued to the page.”

“Readers will treasure the insights that are shared from her rich experiences as a small church pastor.”

“With fairness and emotional maturity she calls each of us to practice the love ethic of Jesus.”

“May others be refreshed with spiritually enriching and thought stretching biblical lessons designed for personal devotional use and public theology practice.”

What is the purpose of this curriculum?

The purpose is to strengthen the spiritual core of churches of all sizes in all places, to increase the church’s ability to engage the culture in effective ways, to inspire the church to rethink their spiritual and missional purpose, to embolden the church to connect with neighbors who may think differently, to encourage people to practice effective communication, to urge people to apply their own skills for the well-being of their community, and to persuade the church to be in an ongoing relationship with another church. Check the first of the year to order a copy.

How can I help?

I will be announcing workshops for pastors and leaders who want to learn how to use this curriculum in their churches. Encourage your pastor and leaders to attend. Offer to pay their way.

The first workshop will be held in the San Francisco Bay Area. If you can host a workshop in your area, let me know via this blog and I will contact you directly.

The Theology of Prayer (Part 2)

Prayers reflect what we believe about God. What do you believe? How do you address God? What is your posture? What is your attitude? How do you approach God? What do you say when you pray?

Three kinds of prayers emerge in the early pages of Scripture distinguished by three different Hebrew words: Intercessory prayer (indicated by the Hebrew word “pa-lal”); Request (or petition) prayer (indicated by the Hebrew word “a-tara”); and, Conversational prayer (indicated by the Hebrew word “a-mar”). Prayers set down in Scripture help solidify and, thus, help us articulate our beliefs about God.

After studying Hannah’s prayer (I Samuel; 2:1-10), I concluded (1) Hannah prayed directly to God though she had access to a priest (2) At a time when a woman was not qualified to be a priest, Hannah’s prayer was recorded and re-recorded (3) Prophets, priests, and kings born after Hannah repeated her theology in their prayers and prophesies and sometimes used her exact words (see The Theology of Prayer Part 1).

No one is certain how much Hannah contributed to Samuel’s knowledge about God. Yet, her influence might have been more than scholars realize. Female influence continued into the Christian era (Matthew 1; Luke 1-2; Romans 16).

Why did Samuel record the fact that his mother hand delivered a handmade robe to him every year (I Samuel 2:18-21)? Perhaps Hannah not only provided a new robe but also provided additional education. Perhaps she wove theological instruction into the actual robe for Israel’s future priest and prophet. Paradoxically, Eli questioned Hannah’s integrity even though his own sons had no regard for the LORD (2:12, 22-25). In contrast, her son was eager to please the LORD (3:1-21).

In I Samuel 2:22-25, Eli explained that the purpose of a priestly prayer was to intercede for others before God. Why did Eli separate what God (Elohim) would do from what the LORD (Jehovah) would do, yet use the same verb (palal) to describe the action of each? This Hebrew verb (palal) means to mediate, arbitrate, help two divergent parties come to an agreement, or intercede. If one person sins against another, God may mediate (pa-lal) for the offender; but if anyone sins against the LORD, who will intercede (pa-lal) for them? (2:25 NIV). Eli says both God (Elohim) and the LORD (Yahweh) intercede (pa-lal). Though the NIV, ESV, and NASB use “mediator” and “intercessor” respectively, the King James Version translated Elohim and the verb pa-lal as: the judge shall judge him. The New Revised Standard Version used LORD for both Elohim and Yahweh: If one person sins against another, someone can intercede for the sinner with the LORD; but if someone sins against the LORD, who can make intercession? Regardless of how his words are translated, does Eli believe God is one in essence and two in persons?

The childhood story of Samuel is summarized with these words: And the boy Samuel continued to grow in stature and in favor with the LORD and with people (I Samuel 2:26). Luke described Jesus in a way that recalled the boyhood of the prophet Samuel: And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man (Luke 2:53). The first validated the wisdom and integrity of the bearer of God’s words, while the second validated the wisdom and integrity of the actual Word of God in the flesh (John 1:1-4).

Samuel recorded his conversation with God at a time when God seemed to be silent (I Samuel 3:1-14). The LORD called the young Samuel three times. Samuel assumed Eli was calling because Samuel did not yet know the LORD: The word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him (3:7). The LORD continued to speak to Samuel: The LORD was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the LORD. The LORD continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word (3:19-20).

Does God speak to you? You may read Scripture or hear a small still voice. You may dream or have a vision. You may be touched by a word of the LORD from another person or the word of the LORD in a song. Regardless of the way God reveals himself, Samuel’s childhood story shows the need to be ready and willing to listen constantly for that still small voice of God. In doing so, you pray without ceasing (I Thessalonians 5:17).

Samuel continued to intercede for God’s people. Even when Israel followed after other gods, they begged Samuel, “Do not stop crying out to the LORD our God for us, that he may rescue us from the hand of the Philistines.” So Samuel took a suckling lamb and sacrificed it as a whole burnt offering to the LORD. He cried out to the LORD on Israel’s behalf, and the LORD answered him (I Samuel 7:8-9).

Samuel appointed his own sons as judges, but they did not follow the LORD. Instead, they accepted bribes and perverted justice (I Samuel 8:1-3). Samuel’s sons were corrupt like Eli’s sons. Were both fathers so wrapped up in ecclesiastical duties and responsibilities that they did not spend time with their own sons? Was each father is so certain about his own faith, he expected his sons to believe likewise?

Suddenly Samuel has a word from the LORD. Up until now, Israel was a theocracy ruled by God. Now Israel wanted a king to rule instead of God. Notice what God warns will happen if they chose a king:

Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the LORD will not answer you in that day” (I Samuel 8:10-19).

Samuel interceded for Israel the first time, because they turned from foreign gods to worship the LORD. Samuel interceded for them this time with a prediction that the LORD will not answer you in that day (I Samuel 2:18). Yet, the LORD submitted to their request: Listen to them and give them a king (8:22).

What kind of king would rule Israel? Saul was said to be head and shoulders above all others and handsome (I Samuel 9:2). These were typical attributes to look for in leaders of that day. A tall man could rally the soldiers during war because they could be seen above the rest. Being handsome meant they were a model of perfect manhood. Samuel heard God say that Saul would be ruler over Israel and deliver Israel from the Philistines (9:15). Years later, the people of Israel realized they had disobeyed by asking their God for a king (12:19). The Spirit of the LORD that came upon Saul when he became king (10:10; 11:6) now left Saul and an evil spirit from the LORD tortured Saul (16:14).

The demise of Saul and the rise of David had a godly purpose. God wanted his people to learn faithfulness as opposed to unfaithfulness; trust as opposed to distrust; and, belief as opposed to betrayal. When King David prayed, he compared the sovereignty of the LORD to his lowly position (2 Samuel 7:18-28). David declared God as the creator of all things (Psalm 8) or as omnipresent (Psalm 139). David became the one leader who perfected the art of prayer. His prayers were prolific and memorable (Psalms). One of his prayers was recorded by Samuel:

Then King David went in and sat before the LORD, and he said:
“Who am I, Sovereign LORD, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far? And as if this were not enough in your sight, Sovereign LORD, you have also spoken about the future of the house of your servant—and this decree, Sovereign LORD, is for a mere human! What more can David say to you? For you know your servant, Sovereign LORD. For the sake of your word and according to your will, you have done this great thing and made it known to your servant.”

“How great you are, Sovereign LORD! There is no one like you, and there is no God but you, as we have heard with our own ears. And who is like your people Israel—the one nation on earth that God went out to redeem as a people for himself, and to make a name for himself, and to perform great and awesome wonders by driving out nations and their gods from before your people, whom you redeemed from Egypt? You have established your people Israel as your very own forever, and you, LORD, have become their God.”

“And now, LORD God, keep forever the promise you have made concerning your servant and his house. Do as you promised, so that your name will be great forever. Then people will say, ‘The LORD Almighty is God over Israel!’ And the house of your servant David will be established in your sight.”

“LORD Almighty, God of Israel, you have revealed this to your servant, saying, ‘I will build a house for you. So your servant has found courage to pray this prayer to you. Sovereign LORD, you are God! Your covenant is trustworthy, and you have promised these good things to your servant. Now be pleased to bless the house of your servant, that it may continue forever in your sight; for you, Sovereign LORD, have spoken, and with your blessing the house of your servant will be blessed forever” (2 Samuel 7:18-29).

Today most people petition God when they are in need. Only a few practice intercessory prayer. Fewer still hear from God. Rare are the prayers like the ones by Hannah and David that teach others about God. When you pray, be faithful to the tradition that many have practice for millennium.

What is your understanding of God? How do you pray and why? Are your prayers only prayers of request or complaint or do your prayers indicate you have a relationship with God? Do you desire to love the God who loves you? A relationship requires conversation. If you do not pray, you are missing out on the most precious gift God gave to you, the ability to speak and listen to your creator.

The Theology of Prayer

Our prayers reflect our understanding of God. How do you pray? How do you address God? What is your posture? What is your attitude? How do you approach God? What do you say when you pray? Many Christians are not comfortable praying. We may feel comfortable reciting “Our Father who is in Heaven, hallowed be your name…” but few of us are comfortable with our own words.

What do our prayers tell us about God? In my recent study of the Old Testament, I learned five new things about prayer.

  1. Prayer was sometimes initiated by God. For example, God asked a pagan king to ask Abraham to pray for him (Genesis 20:6-7). Throughout the Bible God was identified as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob (Genesis 32:9; Exodus 3:6, 4:5; Matthew 22:32; Mark 12:26; Luke 20:37; Acts 3:13; 7:32). God appeared to these men as “God Almighty” (Genesis 6:3).
  2. Prayer was not always practiced by the righteous or favored ones. God had a longer conversation with Cain before and after he killed his brother than with Abel who was favored by God (Genesis 4:1-15). God had two long conversations with Abraham’s Egyptian female servant, Hagar (Genesis 16:1-13; 21:8-19), and none with Abraham’s revered wife, Sarah, the mother of nations (Genesis 17:16).
  3. God initiated prayer with pagan leaders, not godly leaders (Genesis 20:1-17).
  4. Women prayed directly to God in an era when women were not chosen to be priests and considered unclean (I Samuel 2:1-20)
  5. God sometimes initiated a conversation with a question rather than a command: “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9) “Why are you angry?” (Genesis 4:6) “Where is your brother?” (Genesis 4:9) “What have you done?” (Genesis 4:10).

Eventually three kinds of prayer emerged in the early pages of Scripture distinguished by three different Hebrew words: Intercessory prayer (indicated by the Hebrew word “pa-lal”);  A request or petition prayer (indicated by the Hebrew word “a-tara”); and,  conversational prayer (indicated by the Hebrew word “a-mar”).

Some prayers contain a combination. Abraham’s servant (Eliezer of Damascus Genesis 15:3) was given the task of finding a wife for Isaac. Abraham told him God would send his angel to help. After he arrived in Abraham’s home town, he saw women come to the well to draw water. He prayed (a-mar) or spoke a prayer which was also a request:

“LORD, God of my master Abraham, make me successful today, and show kindness to my master Abraham. See, I am standing beside this spring, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. May it be that when I say to a young woman, ‘Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and she says, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too’—let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac. By this I will know that you have shown kindness to my master” (Genesis 24:12-27; 28-61).

Isaac asked God to give Rebekah children; a prayer of request. Rebekah asked God a question which God answered: conversational prayer. After Isaac married Rebekah, he prayed (a-tara) or requested that she would have children and the LORD answered. During her pregnancy, she felt the babies jostle with each other within her. So she asked God directly, “Why is this happening to me?” The LORD began a conversation initiated by her question: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger” (Genesis 25:21-23).

Isaac and Rebekah had twins they named Esau and Jacob. After Jacob tricked Esau and his father, he fled in fear. After many years, Jacob decided to reconcile with his brother and he prayed (a-mar) or speaks this prayer:

“O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, LORD, you who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper.’ I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two camps. Save me, I pray (entreat, beg), from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. But you have said, ‘I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted’ (Genesis 32:9-12).

Though most of Genesis was about the life of Jacob and his twelve sons, God spoke to people inside and outside their family in dreams and visions (Genesis 31:11; 37:5; 40:1-23; 41:1-40; 46:1-4) rather than in conversational prayer. After many years, Jacob’s family became slaves under a new Pharaoh. After 400 years of captivity, God spoke directly to Moses in the burning bush and revealed his name and his character. After gaining his trust, God asked Moses to lead his people out of Egypt. Each time the Pharaoh refused to let the people go, God sent a plague. So the Pharaoh, a pagan, asked Moses and Aaron to pray (a-tara) to the LORD. Pharaoh, who was considered a god, asked Moses to pray to the LORD, Moses’ God (Genesis 8:28). Moses allows the Pharaoh to set the time.

Moses replied, ‘I leave to you the honor of setting the time for me to pray (a-tara) for you and your officials and your people that you and your houses may be rid of the frogs, except for those that remain in the Nile.’

‘Tomorrow.’ Pharaoh said.

Moses replied, ‘It will be as you say, so that you may know there is no one like the LORD our God’ (Exodus 8:9-10).

Pharaoh asked Moses to pray against the flies (Exodus 8:28-32); against the hail (Exodus 9:27-30); and against the locusts (Exodus 10:16-20). Each time, Pharaoh admits his sin and begs Moses to pray for him and each time he reneged on his promise to let them go.

After the Israelites left Egypt, they wondered in the wilderness for 40 years. During that time, they complained about their hardships and the fire of the LORD burned among them. When they cried out to Moses, Moses prayed (pa-lal), interceding for his people, and the fire died down (Numbers 11:1-3). When the Israelites spoke against God and against Moses claiming they had no bread or water, God sent venomous snakes to bite the people and many of them died. After they admitted they sinned when they spoke against the LORD and against Moses, they asked Moses to pray (pa-lal) or intercede to the LORD which he did (Numbers 21:1-9).

“What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray (call) to him?” (Deuteronomy 4:7).

Moses described how and why he prayed:

“When I looked, I saw that you had sinned against the LORD your God; you had made for yourselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. You had turned aside quickly from the way that the LORD had commanded you. So I took the two tablets and threw them out of my hands, breaking them to pieces before your eyes. Then once again I fell prostrate before the LORD for forty days and forty nights; I ate no bread and drank no water, because of all the sin you had committed, doing what was evil in the LORD’s sight and so arousing his anger. I feared the anger and wrath of the LORD, for he was angry enough with you to destroy you. But again the LORD listened to me. And the LORD was angry enough with Aaron to destroy him, but at that time I prayed (pa-lal) for Aaron too. Also I took that sinful thing of yours, the calf you had made, and burned it in the fire. Then I crushed it and ground it to powder as fine as dust and threw the dust into a stream that flowed down the mountain” (Deuteronomy 9:16-21).

After the Israelites settled in their new land promised to them by God, an angel of the LORD appeared to a woman (Judges 13:3). She told her husband a “man of God” said she would become pregnant. Her husband prayed (a-tar) to the LORD to let the “man of God” appear again which he did. The term “angel of the LORD” appeared many times during this account (Judges 13:13, 15, 16, 17, 18, 21). The angel said his name was beyond understanding (Judges 13:18) which is probably why the couple sees the angel as a man rather than a spirit. When the husband realized he had actually seen the angel of the LORD, he feared they will die because they had seen GOD (Elohim, the supreme God of the Universe). His wife reassured him they would live. Their baby was raised a Nazarite, but Samson was not so pure. Yet, Samson prayed (qu-ra: summon):

“Sovereign LORD, remember me. Please, God, strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes” (Judges 16:28).

Hannah’s prayers surpassed them all. She was the wife of Elkanah who had two wives. Peninnah had children. Hannah had none. Though Hannah was loved by her husband, her inability to have children caused her great distress. In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the LORD, weeping bitterly. However her attitude is not bitter nor prideful. She does not expect God to do her bidding. In her deep anguish, she makes a vow:

“LORD Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the LORD for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head” (I Samuel 1:12-13).

After making a vow, she kept praying silently in her heart. If she was silent, who wrote her prayer on the pages of Scripture? (I Samuel 1:10-13)? If her prayer was not heard by anyone but God, did she pen the words herself or did she recite the prayer later to her son, Samuel?

As we read Hannah’s prayer, we discover she is a theologically astute woman. She wrote this psalm before David was even born. This is her psalm, her tribute to the LORD she knows quite well:

“My heart rejoices in the LORD; in the LORD my horn is lifted high.
My mouth boasts over my enemies, for I delight in your deliverance.
There is no one holy like the LORD; there is no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.
Do not keep talking so proudly or let your mouth speak such arrogance,
for the LORD is a God who knows, and by him deeds are weighed.
The bows of the warriors are broken, but those who stumbled are armed with strength.
Those who were full hire themselves out for food, but those who were hungry are hungry no more.
She who was barren has borne seven children, but she who has had many sons pines away.
The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up.
The LORD sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts.
He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor.
For the foundations of the earth are the LORD’s; on them he has set the world.
He will guard the feet of his faithful servants, but the wicked will be silenced in the place of darkness.
It is not by strength that one prevails; those who oppose the LORD will be broken.
The Most High will thunder from heaven; the LORD will judge the ends of the earth.
He will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed.” (I Samuel 2:1-10)

What does Hannah know about God? She knows the LORD delivers (I Samuel 2:1). She also knows the LORD is holy and strong like no other (I Samuel 2:2).

Hannah is familiar with the song of Moses: “Who among the gods is like you, LORD? Who is like you— majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?” (I Samuel 2:3). “Who among the gods is like you, LORD? Who is like you— majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?” (Exodus 15:11).

Many years later, David uses Hannah’s words in his song to the LORD. Hannah wrote: “There is no one holy like the LORD; there is no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God” (I Samuel 2:2). Later, David wrote: “The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation” (2 Samuel 22:2-3). David described the indescribable God with the same metaphor: “For who is God besides the LORD? And who is the Rock except our God?” (2 Samuel 22:32).

Hannah also says the LORD is “a God who knows” (I Samuel 2:3) echoing the words of Joshua “The Mighty One, God, the LORD! The Mighty One, God, the LORD! He knows!” (Joshua 22:22).

King Solomon agrees with Hannah that “by him our deeds are weighed” (I Samuel 2:3b). Solomon wrote: “All a person’s ways seem pure to them, but motives are weighed by the LORD” (Proverbs 16:2).

King David uses her very words: “The bows of the warriors are broken, but those who stumbled are armed with strength” (I Samuel 2:4). David later wrote: “But their swords will pierce their own hearts, and their bows will be broken” (Psalm 37:15).

God reveals himself to Hannah in a very personal way, a way only a woman would know: “Those who were full hire themselves out for food, but those who were hungry are hungry no more. She who was barren has borne seven children, but she who has had many sons pines away” (I Samuel 2:5).

Hannah also believes the LORD has resurrection power! “The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up” (I Samuel 2:6a).

Hannah’s understanding of God is stated over and over again in Scripture and affirmed by Jesus Christ in his Sermon on the Mount. Hannah prays: “The LORD sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts. He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor” (I Samuel 2:6b-8).

King David repeated her words and promoted “the miraculous God” who is able to give barren woman children: “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes, with the princes of his people. He settles the childless woman in her home as a happy mother of children. Praise the LORD” (Psalm 113:7-9).

Hannah is the first to claim “For the foundations of the earth are the LORD’s; on them he has set the world” (I Samuel 2:8b) though first stated by God who asks Job, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” (Job 38:4).

Again King Solomon restated Hannah’s words, “He will guard the feet of his faithful servants, but the wicked will be silenced in the place of darkness” (I Samuel 2:9). Solomon wrote: “For he guards the course of the just and protects the way of his faithful ones” (Proverbs 2:8).

Hannah was inspired by God’s power: “It is not by strength that one prevails; those who oppose the LORD will be broken” (I Samuel 2:9b-10a).

King David used Hannah’s words to describe God: “The Most High will thunder from heaven; the LORD will judge the ends of the Earth” (I Samuel 2:10b). He wrote: “The LORD thundered from heaven; the voice of the Most High resounded” (Psalm 18:13). David expands on her theology stating God is the Most High judge who dispenses true justice to an unjust world: “Let all creation rejoice before the LORD, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness” (Psalm 96:13). David believed along with Hannah that the perfect One overrides imperfect justice missed by flawed human beings: “Let them sing before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity” (Psalm 98:9).

Most importantly, Hannah prophesies about the future King of Israel before there were any kings: “He will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed” (I Samuel 2:10b).

Hannah did not intercede for anyone. She did not request anything from God. She did not have a conversation with God. Instead, her prayer was a theological masterpiece.

Hannah may have prayed silently at Shiloh, but her prayer continues to teach people about God. The prayer she uttered over 3000 years ago was written down. Because her prayer was written down, it has been read in worship services throughout the world. Her public pronouncement is unparalleled in Scripture. The words that were inspired by the God she knew, taught future kings and inspired them to repeat her very words.

Today most people petition God when they are in need. Only a few practice intercessory prayer. Fewer still hear from God in conversation. Rare is the prayer that teaches others about God. So when we pray, let us be faithful to the tradition that has been practice for millennium. Prayer reminds us that God wants a relationship with us. Jesus reminded us that we are to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind and your neighbor as yourself.”

What is your understanding of God? How do you pray and why? Are your prayers only prayers of request or complaint or do you seek to have a relationship with God? Do you desire to love the God who loves you? A relationship requires conversation. If you do not pray, you are missing out on the most precious gift God gave to humankind.

Lessons for Leaders

Today leaders have a credibility and integrity problem partially exacerbated by the news cycle and partly by the continued unethical behavior of these same leaders. If one were to take a poll in your church, how would the political leaders of today rate on the ethical scale of lying, adultery, and giving false testimony?

The ease of dismissing the Ten Commandments is not due to a lack of knowledge of those commands, but to a sense of privilege than enables these unethical leaders to dismiss even the most basic and universal ethical behavior in themselves. Unethical behavior by leaders is as old as time. Historical records, written and oral, throughout the world document that people of note have been either extremely corrupt or extremely good. Sadly, corrupt leaders like Hitler, Genghis Khan, Nero, and Mao Zedon seem to garnish more press even in ancient times and still do.

In biblical history, most leaders did not have a good reputation. Abraham lied to authorities about his wife, twice. Jacob deceived his own father and tricked his brother out of his inheritance. Joseph had his brother incarcerated. Moses murdered a man in cold blood. Even though the first king of Israel reigned 42 years (I Samuel 13:1), God rejected him after the first year of his reign (I Samuel 15:26, 35). Saul was chosen by his people because he was “as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel and he was a head taller than anyone else” (1 Samuel 9:2). God’s requirement for a good leader was obedience.

The popular biblical saying, “to obey is better than sacrifice” was first stated by God to Saul (I Samuel 15:22). God’s advice was repeated by many well-known leaders (Psalm 40:6-8; 51:16; Proverbs 21:3; Isaiah 1:11-15; Jeremiah 7:22; Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:25; Micah 6:6-8). A teacher of the law added this condition to Jesus’ answer to which Jesus agreed (Mark 12:28-34). Only one person who came from the line of David fulfilled the requirement for obedience and sacrifice (Hebrews 10:10; I Peter 2:24).

David became well known for lying, coveting his neighbor’s wife, committing adultery, giving false testimony, and having the husband of his pregnant mistress murdered. Obedience was not in his character nor is it in ours.

David started well. The first king failed miserably, so God had Samuel anoint David, a young shepherd boy (I Samuel 16:11-14) who later served King Saul incognito (I Samuel 16:15-22) until Goliath threatened the entire country. Though King Saul offered great wealth, his daughter in marriage, and exemption from taxes, no one dared confront Goliath (I Samuel 17:25). David did not care about these things. David only cared about the reputation of Almighty God. After killing Goliath, the young David became so famous that women composed songs in his honor (I Samuel 18:7; 21:11; 29:5; 2 Samuel 18:3). King Saul became so jealous of David, he wanted him dead. God had other plans.

God told David he would make his name great, like the names of the greatest men on earth (2 Samuel 7:9) and that the Messiah would come from his line (2 Samuel 7:12-16). In fact, the bond between the Messiah and God would be like father and son (2 Samuel 7:14; Psalm 2:7; 89:26; Jeremiah 3:19; Matthew 3:17; John 1:49; 2 Corinthians 6:18; Hebrews 1:5). God promised David, “My love will never be taken away from him as I took it away from Saul whom I removed before you. Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:15-16). Jesus came from the lineage of David, “This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). Proof that God made David’s name great again.

Did God know that David would commit a grievous sin? Yes. Did God know David’s heart? Yes. God knows each of us intimately from the time we were conceived. God knew David and David knew God knew him.

You have searched me, LORD,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, LORD, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain (Psalm 139:1-6)

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be (Psalm 139:13-16).

David’s sin is well-known today. David committed adultery with a married woman then had her husband murdered when he discovered she was with child. Not only did David commit a grievous sin, he recognized his sin and begged God for mercy in Psalm 51.

First, David asks for God’s mercy on the basis of God’s character not his own.

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.

Second, David acknowledge his sin was a sin against God.

For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;

Third, David recognized God’s right to judge him for he was without excuse.

so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
you taught me wisdom in that secret place.

Fourth, David believed God would wipe his slate clean.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.

Fifth, David asked God to fortify him to withstand future temptations

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

Sixth, in return, David promised to teach others the ways of God

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
so that sinners will turn back to you.
Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
you who are God my Savior,
and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.

Seventh, David promised to praise God in his brokenness.

Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.

Herein lies the difference. David’s repentant attitude is unlike leaders who have a smirk on their face when confronted by reporters after being convicted of severe crimes. Sin separates us from God, but some do not care. Their hearts are hardened.

In contrast, all of the songs written by David are steeped in humility before an Almighty God. David begs God for mercy rarely for his people or his enemies but for himself (Psalm 4:1; 6:2, 9; 9:13; 25:6; 26:11; 27:7; 28:2, 6; 30:8, 10; 31:22; 40:11; 41:4; 66:1; 57:1; 59:5; 60:16; 77:9; 86:3, 6, 16; 116:1; 119:132; 130:2; 140:6; 142:1; 143:1).

The Hebrew word for mercy is hanan means to be gracious, kind, and compassionate. The One who is merciful and just requires his children to be merciful and just (Micah 6:8; Hosea 6:6; Zechariah 7:9-10; Matthew 9:13; 23:23; Mark 12:33 Luke 11:42). According to these texts, an authentic relationship with God rests on the integrity of our character not on offerings. The latter must be grounded in the former.

Forgiveness comes with a price. In order to forgive, we must lay down our desire for justice which is not easy. Retribution and revenge lie deep within us. In order for one to offer mercy to one who has done us harm, we must take up our cross, lay down our pride, and give up our right to justice. Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13).

Jesus did not mean that there were some who were righteous for “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Instead, Jesus is referring to those who think they are better than others. the ones who think they are righteous or those who think they are good. Yet, compared to God, no one is righteous. Atheists love saying they are good without God to which I reply, “Are you good enough?” In their eyes, they think they are good enough. This is pride. In God’s eyes, they are not. In Romans 3:9-18, Paul quotes the well-known leaders in the Hebrew Scriptures to prove his point.

As it is written:

“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one” (Psalm 14:1-3; 53:1-3; Ecclesiastes 7:20).
“Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit” (Psalm 5:9).
“The poison of vipers is on their lips” (Psalm 140:3)
“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness” (Psalm 10:7)
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery mark their ways,
and the way of peace they do not know” (Isaiah 59:7-8).
“There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Psalm 36:1)

The bad news is that everyone is under the power of sin (Romans 3:9), but the good news is that “all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).

None of us deserve God’s mercy. All of us deserve God’s wrath. Only by agreeing to submit to the authority of God in our lives, can we truly understand what it means to be truly forgiven and redeemed by the blood of the Holy Lamb of God. We were bought with a price paid for by Almighty God (Matthew 20:28; Acts 20:28; I Corinthians 6:20; 7:23).

All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:3-9).

There was nothing King David could do to pay God for what he had done. He lied, coveted his neighbor’s wife, committed adultery, gave false testimony, and was responsible for the murder of Uriah. Obedience was not in his character. Yet he mustered up the courage to ask God to forgive him. He accepted his pitiful state not as a victim but as a broken vessel.

Therein lies the first step for all leaders: confess your sin and ask God to forgive you. Strangely, those of us who have done this do not always feel forgiven at that moment. We may have to humble ourselves before God quite a few times.Confession is not easy to do and the realization that we have been forgiven is not easy to accept. We may believe God has forgiven us in our mind, but not in our being. Jesus told a parable of the man who was forgiven of a large debt but could not forgive a debtor of a smallest of debts. For that he was condemned. Why? Because he did not truly believe in the forgiveness of God. Our ability to forgive others is directly related to our belief that we have been forgiven.

This second step for all leaders is: believe God has forgiven you but never forget God has forgiven you. None of David’s fame, money, or deeds could make up for what he had done. David was a hero. Women sang songs about his heroism. He was adored. He was believed. He was protected by insiders who knew the truth, yet in his deepest part David knew his spirit was not right with God. David believed God had forgiven him and yet never forgot that God had forgiven him. The juxtaposition of this paradox is predicated on living a life knowing that even if we have great power, we are not God. We cannot know all things. We cannot be all places. We cannot exhibit all power. But we can be merciful.

Therefore, the third step for all leaders is: extend mercy to others as God has extended mercy to you. Often the very ones who resist admitting their crimes, are quick to judge others for an unintended infraction. Unjustified harshness is a result of unconfessed sin. Guilt lies hidden deep in the heart of the unrepentant. Sadly, the ones who rarely recognize their own guilt, are quick to recognize guilt in others. This is why Jesus said, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15). As God bearers, we are to showcase God’s attributes, especially the attribute of forgiveness. Those who think they cannot be forgiven, have no hope.

I pray that those in places of leadership who have a credibility and integrity problem will fall on their knees before Almighty God, repent, and turn from their wicked ways (2 Chronicles 7:14). So should we all.

Why Ask? Part Three

In the last post, I asked how you felt about the five questions recently posted by Forbes. I wondered if the questions they proposed would be useful for Christians. In this post, I will critique each of these questions then offer a way to reframe them to reflect our love for God and one another. As we examine each question, decide if the question they offer is based on love.

1. “What was the best part about your day?” Why do I feel like my mother is asking me “How was school today?” Though I would have agreed to answer this question for the benefit of the company, deep inside I probably would have resented the intrusion. In addition, I would be asked this question at the end of the day when I would be tired. So the writer for corporate suggested asking at the beginning of the day, “What are you most looking forward to about your day?” Is this before or after I had my cup of coffee?

Though this question could be based on love, timing, tone of voice, and the health of the relationship matter. I would reframe this question: “How has God blessed you today?” but only if I was asking based on love. I would NOT ask that question if that person recently lost a loved one or experienced a catastrophic event in their life! In those cases, I would ask: “How can I pray for you?” and later ask, “How has God strengthened you in this time of grief?” or “How did God help you through this time of stress?”

Ask your congregation or small group to brainstorm a list of questions to ask other Christians. Practice asking each other these questions and ask how people felt being asked. In this way, each person will find the best questions that will honor Christ. Though practice can seem stilted, practice helps us be more at ease. Practice is like learning to ride a bike with training wheels. Eventually, we will be able to ride everywhere without them. In addition, being together, sharing, brainstorming, interacting all contribute to building more loving relationships.

One of the quirks about congregational life today compared to fifty years ago is that most people attend church one hour on Sunday morning then go home. Churches do not offer time or opportunities for meaningful interaction between members or visitors.

What are some alternative ‘first’ questions we can ask each other that would show genuine concern? When is the best time to ask? How do I ask? Sometimes we do not know we sound judgmental or uncaring. Practicing with each other and listening to feedback improves our ability to love.

2. “What work is most exciting you this week?” The writer for Forbes said this question was designed to help team members listen and identify colleagues’ strengths and passions; align those two things with your work; and expect an increase in productivity and engagement. The writer thought this question would reveal the small ideas and accomplishments that might not make it into a bi-weekly check in, but are worth celebrating.

Identifying each other’s strengths and passions is always helpful. Feedback is necessary to keep us honest before the Lord. However, we need to ask if our motivation be to increase productivity or mirror the attributes of God such as being compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness?

As the body of Christ, we are expected to rejoice in the success of others. Sadly, as sinners we can harbor resentment. Many times, I have heard pastors either exaggerate their success or resent the success of others. Neither advances the kingdom of God.

Jesus spoke of our unity in his prayer to the Father (John 17). Jesus did not intend for his churches to be in competition with each other. Each church is to be guided by the Holy Spirit and not the latest marketing techniques. Not every church attracts wealthy people who give in abundance so the church or ministry can afford glossy mailings or high end auctions. Success in the kingdom of God is a different than success in the corporate world. A successful church is not one that grows in number or outreach, but one that loves as Christ loves!

How might this question be reframed to reflect our love for God and for each other? Might we ask: “What has God called you to do this week for the sake of the kingdom?”

3. “What new ideas are giving you energy today?” The writer for Forbes states, “Though similar to question 2, the third question differs in that it targets opportunities for innovation. As a leader, you can welcome the half-baked ideas and emerging thoughts that are beginning to tickle your team member’s minds. Find ways to build in the areas of these new ideas and you’ll find a short cut to the traditional research and development process.”

Like the others, this question focuses on one’s own ideas rather than seeking God’s will. The questions seem to indicate that only what you think matters. The questions do not reference any outside source or authority. Christians rely on the authority of God’s Word. So how does Scripture inform the way we interact with each other and the reason why we interact?

Paul and his team encouraged the disciples to remain true to the faith (Acts 14:22). A member of my family who was a Christian criticized others but never encouraged. How do we encourage? When do we encourage? How can our questions contain encouraging words?

My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:2-3).

How would you include these words by Paul to encourage other Christians?

For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words (I Thessalonians 4:14-18).

But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing (I Thessalonians 5:8-11).

May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word (2 Thessalonians 2:16-17).

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction (2 Timothy 4:1-2).

I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people (Philemon 6-7).

See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness (Hebrews 3:12-13).

4. Tell me one thing you learned today that really inspired you (not a question). The writer in Forbes stated that the most rewarding leadership development often occurs through two channels: crisis situations or self-reflection. Do you agree? What do you consider the most important way to grow spiritually? Sharing insights that inspire helps extend learning.

In 2 Corinthians 7, Paul wrote about three specific events that should have caused him to be downhearted. First, he had to convince the Corinthian church he had not wronged anyone, corrupted anyone, nor exploited anyone (7:2-4). Then he turned his words of conviction into encouragement. Are you having problems in your church? Is there division? Is a member or the pastor being accused unjustly? How can you encourage each other during difficult times?

Second, Paul disclosed that he and his team experienced harassment and persecution at every turn when they arrived in Macedonia. He said they experienced conflicts on the outside and fears within (7:5-7). What type of conflict has your church experienced? What kinds of fears? Did you lose a pastor under unseen circumstances? Was your church reputation attacked? Did your church burn down? Did your church split over differences? Did someone attempt a hostile takeover? How did Titus encourage Paul? How can you encourage each other?

Third, Paul divulged that he caused them sorrow when he accused one of their members of doing wrong (7:8-13a). He may have been referring to the first letter he wrote to the Corinthians or a letter that has not yet been discovered. Though he acknowledged he caused them sorrow, he does not regret what he wrote. Why was he happy that he caused them sorrow? What good came out of their pain?

And lastly, Paul sent Titus to help the church follow Paul’s instructions. Titus came to Paul with a positive report. Paul was encouraged when he saw Titus was refreshed by the Corinthian church. (7:13b-16). Was your church ever examined by an expert in church management? Did you followed these instructions willingly? How could you encourage each other during these times of spiritual growth?

Encourage people to tell their stories of how God turned a difficult time into one of joy.

5. “What is one thing we could do right now to make this (day, project, or event) even better?” Urgency and accountability is critical to growth. How might we reflect on what God has called us to do? Must we always be doing our work better? What increases productivity in the Christian life? How might we change our routine to better represent Jesus Christ? What could we be doing that we are not doing? What should we stop doing and why?

In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul gave several reasons why Christians are together as a church. What are his four reasons in verse 1?

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion (Philippians 2:1).

What did Paul say would make his joy complete in verses 2-5?

Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

What mindset of Jesus should we consider?

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name…

Why should we consider the mindset of Christ?

…that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:1-11).

Per Paul’s instructions, ask: “What can I do to honor the mindset of Jesus Christ?”

In conclusion, the questions we decide to ask other Christians, visitors to our church, or unbelievers should reflect the attributes of God: compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness. Basically, our questions should encourage others. Encouragement is an act of love.

Why Ask? Part Two

In the previous article, I proposed that when we ask the right questions in the right way, we mirror God’s relational attributes (compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness). Loving God and each other is the foundation of the church.

In the pages of Holy Scripture, we are constantly confronted with dialogue that consists of asking and answering questions. Some questions are rhetorical. The question itself provides the answer. Some questions are meant to mislead. For example, the very first question is posed by a strange serpent-like creature: “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1). The serpent intends to deceive in stark contrast to the One who aims to protect. A few verses later, God asks “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:18). In this question, we discover God cares about us. Love is a choice God gives humankind. The more we practice loving others, the more we show others the true character of God.

People ask questions for different reasons. In High School, one of my friends asked me questions all the time. I assumed she wanted to know what I thought. Then I realized she asked questions first so I would not be able to ask questions of her. She thought if I really knew her, I would not like her. As we got older, she began to trust me with answers. At work, a colleague asked questions for the purpose of creating a culture of distrust. Neither of these methods reflect the love of God.

Many do not ask questions. Do we not ask questions because we don’t care or because we don’t know how? Do we not ask because we do not want to make others feel uncomfortable or because asking makes us feel uncomfortable?

As Christians, we are asked to follow the command of Jesus Christ to love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your soul and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37). The first part God gave to Moses to give to his people as they wandered in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 6:5). The second part God gave to Moses to give to his people before settling in the Promised Land (Leviticus 18:19). Love is not limited by time or place.

Christianity is different from all other religions because Christians believe God desires a personal relationship with all people. God cares for us and wants us to care for each other. Our motivation to ask caring questions should stem from a desire to honor God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God he Father through him (Colossians 3:12).

The recent article, “Five Questions You Can Ask Instead of ‘How Are You?’” intrigued me. What did the corporate world advise their people to do and why?

“Last week, we introduced a series of posts that will offer ideas for how to build energy, shape the future, and create high-performing teams.”

Does your church use this kind of language? Is their motivation born of love? Does your church have your best interest at heart? Today many leaders are focusing on the success of their church which does not honor God.

In the previous post by Forbes, we read: “Those two behaviors (asking questions and being more positive than negative) drive high performing teams. They affirm team members’ contributions, make knowledge sharing possible, build strong relational connections, and ultimately generate performance success.” Churches certainly want to do the same though not for the same reason and not for the same outcome.

They state that in these (success driven) teams, three principles are at play:

1. Positive questions promote learning and engagement. Questions invite others to participate, share their thoughts and contribute their solutions. Caution: in order for your questions to generate engagement and action, they need to be genuine attempts to learn and search for new possibilities. Questions with pre-determine answers or questions designed to show up your colleagues will generate resistance and resentment.

2. Positive questions shape the future.

3. Positive questions inspire energy and action. Positive questions lead to positive images which lead to positive action. Note: These principles are adapted from the Appreciative Inquiry process.

We certainly should frame our questions in a positive way. Asking “How are you?” or “How has God been good to you?” is better than asking, “Are you still feeling badly?” Even the tone we use matters. Our tone should match our concern.

Most of us learned to ask questions from our parents: “How are you feeling?” “What are you doing?” “How was school today?” “What did you learn?” “Did you clean your room?” “Did you do your homework?” Their questions spurred us to think about what we are doing or remind us to do what we were supposed to do. Hopefully you knew your parents asked because they loved you.

Like most teenagers, sometimes we resent questions. Teenagers view questions as an intrusion into their privacy or as a way to make them do something they do not want to do like clean their room. Adults resent questions for the same reason.

Teenagers ask “Why” to show their independence. Young children ask “Why?” because they are naturally inquisitive. “Are we there yet?” is a question asked by those who have not developed a sense of time. We show this same independent spirit and impatience when God does not answer our prayers right away.

Learning to ask positive questions to motivate ourselves and others can be intimidating. Learning how to love others when we barely love ourselves is daunting. Today’s culture streamline advertisements to appeal to our selfishness. Yet, selfishness is the opposite of love. Jesus said the greatest love is giving up our life for another (John 15:13). Sometimes we find it difficult to give up even a moment of our time but love is worth the try.

How do we frame questions to show we care? Framing a question is not easy. Though I try to form appropriate questions in my relationship with my husband, my children, and my friends, I am not always successful. Love sometimes means being willing to be misunderstood. Love is worth the try.

The writer of the article in Forbes wondered why we invariably ask, “How are you?” when we really do not want to know. We expect the answer along with the same question which we reply in similar fashion: “Fine.” In our culture, this is a greeting. We would be surprised if the other person answered honestly: “I just found out I have cancer” or “I had a fight with my wife.” In fact, if a person answered in a different way,  many would turn away. Only someone who truly cares would stay and listen. Love is worth the try.

In the Forbes article, corporate suggested their teams ask these five questions:
1. What was the best part about your day?
2. What work is most exciting you this week?
3. What new ideas are giving you energy today?
4. Tell me one thing you learned today that really inspired you (not a question)
5. What is one thing we could do right now to make this (day, project, or event) even better?

How do you feel about these questions? How would you feel about the person who asked them? Do these questions encourage a loving relationship? Try forming five questions a Christian should ask another Christian, an additional five to ask a visitor, and five to ask an unbeliever. Love is worth the try.

Next time, I will dissect these five questions suggested by Forbes and suggest ways of asking questions motivated by the love of God: Why Ask? Part Three