Praying is Listening

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

This past year I realized that I'm really, really good at fooling myself into believing that I have intimacy with God. 

I've worked in ministry for the past 12 years and did "kingdom work" every single day. I spent hours pouring over God's Word and writing about my studies. I was involved with a really awesome small group that met weekly and to date hasn't even taken a single week off because we love living life with each other so much.

But as far as spiritual growth is concerned, all of these were fake indicators on my barometer. I was deceiving myself.

A little over a year ago, God humbled me. He taught me how to listen to his voice. I'm far from an "expert," mind you, and I'm still learning how to cultivate this every single day. But here's what I do know: actively listening to God has been the biggest factor for me for spiritual growth. Not studying God's Word, not working at a church, not living in community with other believers. Listening.

I used to think that prayer consisted of just me talking to God about my life and going through my list of concerns and anxieties. It might from time to time also include words of praise and thankfulness. And this is a very good start. Communicating like this is an important part of prayer, but it's missing something. It's only when we listen to God's voice that we can really cultivate intimacy with God.

The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard says it best:
As my prayer become more attentive and inward
I had less and less to say.
I finally became completely silent.
I started to listen
– which is even further removed from speaking.
I first thought that praying entailed speaking.
I then learnt that praying is hearing,
not merely being silent.
This is how it is.
To pray does not mean to listen to oneself speaking,
Prayer involves becoming silent,
And being silent,
And waiting until God is heard.
This listening thing sounds great, but here's the dilemma I face: I want to be close to God... but I also often resist it.

That's because prayer, especially when we spend time during prayer listening, is hard. It takes time, it's often discouraging and frustrating when we don't feel some sort of connection, it can illicit feelings of shame (particularly if we haven't prayed in a while), and let's be honest, it's just downright awkward.

It reveals just how much we might be fooling ourselves into believing that we have intimacy with God.

But the good news is that prayer is a learned practice. No one is automatically good at praying right when they become a believer; it takes discipline, perseverance, and humbleness.

Spending time listening to God requires that we deliberately create time and designate space to hear from him. This means keeping Sabbath, not just as one full day a week, but as a way of life every day. It means being okay with being uncomfortable. It means waiting in silence until God speaks.

And it's so, so worth it.

Next week I'll be sharing some basic practices I do when I pray. Go ahead and subscribe to the blog so you can be notified when it's published!

Revelation Rule #3: Know the Time Period

Thursday, September 20, 2018

(This post is part 4 of my 8 part series on interpreting Revelation faithfully. You can read the other posts in the series here.)

Rule #3: Revelation was written in the shadow of Rome’s imperial cult.

When we understand the time period, we can understand the circumstances under which John was writing the book of Revelation.

This idea isn't revolutionary. When someone you follow on Instagram makes a vague but political statement, you can probably discern what she is alluding to based upon what appeared in the newspaper that day. When your husband texts you with a quirky quote, you know its context because of the series you've been binging together on Netflix.

Similarly, John did not write from a vacuum. He wrote in a specific place during a specific time period. Piecing together what was happening, and specifically what John and his Christian audience perceived was happening, is where the challenge lies.

Here's what we do know: during the first century, the Roman emperors started declaring themselves divine, often assigning themselves the title “Son of God.” The early Christians were considered unpatriotic atheists because they refused to worship the Roman gods, instead declaring that the Jesus was the true Son of God. Refusing to honor the emperor was viewed as treason against the empire.

John was concerned that persecution would soon break out against the church. John himself was exiled on Patmos, a Roman penal colony, most likely for speaking out against the evils of Rome. It also appears that Antipas of Pergamum was killed for his faith (Rev. 2:13). It's unclear how much persecution occurred in the first century, but it does appear that it was sporadic and localized. One major moment in history was when Nero accused the Christians as being responsible for a fire in A.D. 64. Nevertheless, it's clear that John was anticipating a difficult time in the life of the Church. He was also concerned that the church would become complacent and bow to Rome’s imperial religion.

In Rule #2, we discussed how helpful it is to understand Revelation as a form of "resistance literature." Now that we have a feel for John's situation, we can better understand what John was persuading the early Christians to resist: Rome's imperial cult.

The book of Revelation is a critique, and sometimes a parody, of the Roman imperial cult. 

In Revelation, John calls out Rome's oppressive power and its very blasphemous claims. Rome claimed that she was chosen by the gods, her emperors were conduits of the gods' rule, and that all of her blessings were a result of the gods' favor. Temples, rituals, and images portraying these values were constructed all across the Roman Empire. Because Rome had successfully become the power she was through violence and enslavement (pax Romana), these means of power were sanctified as divine intervention. Moreover, the emperor was worthy of praise and allegiance. Simply put, Rome's imperial cult was an inflation of "God and country."

 Revelation is an emphatic "no" to this ideology. In Revelation, John counters all of Rome's symbols with prophetic symbols. Ultimate allegiance belongs not to a false demi-god, but to the one true living God. Success comes not from military prowess, but from faithful, non-violent resistance and dependence upon the Lamb who was slain.

Do some of Rome's religious claims sound familiar? That's because we in the 21st Century live in kingdoms and nations, even democratic republican nations, that hold to similar, false, theopolitical claims. But I'm getting ahead of myself. More on that later in another rule!

The Gospel is Good News (Or Why Social Justice is Integral to the Gospel)

Monday, September 17, 2018

John MacArthur has had a lot to say about social justice this past month.

So have I.

John MacArthur is a big name in evangelical Christianity, known for his numerous books, Calvinist/Cessationist theology, and pastoral position at Grace Community Church. A few weeks ago, John MacArthur made some statements that undermined the church's involvement in issues of "social justice." Simply put, MacArthur contended that social justice is actually a threat to the church's mission of proclaiming the Gospel.

Since then, he's released a statement against social justice and has urged pastors and leaders to sign it. At the time that I write this, there have been over 8,000 people who have signed this statement.

There are so many things wrong with this statement: from matters of the inerrancy of Scripture, to the denial of social sin, to the separation of justice from the gospel, to the rejection of the term "gay Christian," to the role of women in leadership, to racism as a systemic evil (!) ... I have a hard time knowing even where to start.

Actually, I know where I want to start: "What they heck? Have they read any of the prophets AT ALL?"

But let's start with the core of the statement, through which many of MacArthur's other points come: the Gospel. Here's what he says:

The word "gospel" means "good news," but this doesn't sound like very much good news to me. This is an extremely narrow view of what the Gospel is and doesn't take into account all of Scripture's (both the OT and the NT) understanding of "salvation." Clearly McArthur and friends think that the only "good news" to be found is the forgiveness of our sins.

This puts God in a straight-jacket, because God's ultimate mission was never to just save our sins; God has the full redemption of the cosmos in his sight.

And this mission is not secondary to rescuing individuals from their individualized sin. The shalom of the entire world is not just "legitimate and important in [its] own right." It is the mission.

Very rarely do the prophets talk about the personal sins of God's people. Instead, they spend the vast majority of their critiques calling out social sin and demanding that God's people act justly and mercifully. This is because the prophets understood that collective sins were indicative of an entire community's individual sins. According to the prophets, the biggest enemy God's people faced was not Assyria or Egypt; it was their own social sin.

But perhaps we should make our case with evidence from the New Testament, because clearly MacArthur and friends do not think that the Gospel is in the Old Testament.

In Luke 4, Jesus stood before and entire synagogue and made the following claim from Isaiah 61:1-2:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
This passage makes up Luke's entire "thesis statement" for the rest of his gospel. Notice that nowhere does Jesus mention that he was sent to save people from their sin. Luke's gospel is a Gospel of social justice.

Yes, Jesus came to save you from your sins, but that's only the first step in his plan. God wants you to be part of his mission to redeem the entire world back to God's self.

The entire Biblical narrative points to this truth: God's plan was to "save" Abraham's family (then Israel, then the Church) so that they could be transformed through Yahweh's love and point the rest of the world to Yahweh.

John McArthur's definition of "gospel" is a very incomplete plan. It's never been about saving people so that they can all escape this world and go to "heaven."

When Scripture commands God's people to strive for justice, wholeness, and reconciliation, God's not giving suggestions. God's Gospel, the shalom of the entire world, demands that we as God's people actively advocate for racial reconciliation, justice for the poor, and the protection of the vulnerable. 

Social justice is not an option for the Church.

And that's good news.

Revelation Rule #2: Know the Genres

Thursday, September 13, 2018

(This post is part 3 of my 8 part series on interpreting Revelation faithfully. You can read the other posts in the series here.)

Rule #2: Revelation has three different genres, and each of these genres has its own set of rules.

When we know the rules, we know how to play. This is true for any game, whether it be Monopoly, Simon Says, or Call of Duty. It's also true for the book of Revelation.

Half of the battle in interpreting Revelation is understanding its genres and the subsequent rules that come with these genres. Just about every form of modern entertainment has a genre, including movies and books. A genre is a literary type that completely dictates the ways in which we should interpret the subject. We would interpret a fantasy novel very differently from how we would interpret a newspaper article. Each genre has its own set of rules, and in order to be immersed in a book or movie, we must let go of reality (to an extent) and accept the rules of the genre (even if they sometimes break logic).

For example, an action movie is not complete without a car chase. Car chases typically take place during the busiest part of rush hour and challenge the very laws of physics. We believe that James Bond’s vehicle can rush through a busy intersection without accumulating so much as a scratch, but we would not dare try the same feat as we travel to the grocery store to pick up some milk. This is because physically impossible feats are one of the "rules" of an action movie.

In the same way, in order to understand the book of Revelation, we must recognize the unique genre “rules” that govern its interpretation. Now here's where it gets tricky. Revelation actually has three different genres (letter, prophecy, and apocalyptic lit). We could spend an entire series talking about each one, but for now we'll tackle the most misunderstood one: apocalyptic literature.

Apocalyptic writings are usually thought of as containing truth that is hidden, but really the opposite is true. By definition, "apocalypse" means an "unveiling" or "uncovering" of truth. It's not about keeping something a secret; it's about revealing truth.

Apocalyptic writing is actually a really old Jewish literary form that only appear in times of crisis. We consistently see this literary genre pop up every time God's people are oppressed or terrorized. This genre critiques those people and systems that are expressly anti-God and envisions a time when God will intervene to defeat evil.

Contrary to popular belief, apocalypses don't foresee the end of the world; they foresee the end of evil.

Often this end of evil entails the renewal of the world, whereby God will right all the wrongs and restore everything to the way he intended it to be. This end of evil is foreseen in the present age, the future age, or sometimes both.

This message of critique and hope is packaged in art and poetry. Apocalyptic literature does not follow the rules of logic and science. Its rules are artistic expression, thoughtful symbolism, and experiential immersion. Oppression of any kind causes art to flourish as an expression of resistance, and the book of Revelation is no exception. 

Take, for instance, the Bethlehem walls that surround Palestine. They are filled to the brim with artistic words and images that both critique and give hope to occupants and those passing by. 

Think of the book of Revelation as this form of passionate art. Think of Revelation as poetry that protests the anti-God powers and systems of John's day.

Think of the book of Revelation as a form of "resistance literature."

But what, exactly, was John resisting? We'll tackle that next in our third rule.

For now, tell me about your favorite genre. What are its rules? How does understanding those rules help you interpret a movie/book/song?

Revelation Rule #1: Revelation Cannot Mean What it Never Meant to Mean

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

(This post is part 2 of my 8 part series on interpreting Revelation faithfully. You can read the first post in the series here.)

Rule #1: Revelation cannot mean what it was never meant to mean.

First, let me apologize to all of you who are part of the grammar police brigade about the double negative in this rule. I couldn't figure out how to word this any other way. I accept my citation and fine. Feel free to suggest other wording options so as to save me from grammatical embarrassment in the future.

Now that that's out of the way, I'm going to let you in on a secret: This first rule is actually the bedrock of all responsible Biblical interpretation.

In other words, this rule doesn't just apply to Revelation; it applies to every single book of the Bible. Once you've mastered this rule, you're well on your way to becoming a Bible expert. Feasts will be held in your honor. Someone might even compose a sonnet to commemorate your brilliancy. 


In order to faithfully interpret Revelation’s message, we must first understand that the book was written by someone in the first century for people in the first century. John’s message meant something to the early church and their immediate context.

During the time that Revelation was written, the Roman emperors started to declare themselves as gods. This was extremely problematic for a people group whose most basic tenet of faith was "Jesus is Lord." This statement was political, because by declaring that Jesus was Lord, they were insinuating that Caesar was not. Research indicates that this divergence from the Roman imperial cult may have caused some localized persecution, although the extent of this persecution is unclear and contested among scholars. Nevertheless, the early Christians were fearful of Rome’s imperial rule. Whether persecution was already a reality, they feared that it was at least imminent. 

John wouldn’t write to these first century Christians and say, “Sorry you’re terrified, but here is a strange message given to me from God that won’t have any significance until someone from the 21st century decodes it.” 

This would not have been a message of hope, comfort, or challenge to the early believers. In fact, if you were a Christian who was worried about reaping repercussions from disassociating yourself from the Roman system, you would probably want to punch John in the kidney. Assuming that Revelation only has meaning to those who live centuries later is a gross injustice to the text.

When we read Revelation, we should not impose our own time period upon it. Yes, as part of God's inspired Word it does speak to our present situations; however, Revelation cannot mean what the original author and audience could not have understood. In other words, Revelation cannot mean that the anti-Christ (a term which actually doesn't even appear in Revelation) is a recent president of the United States or that the Beast is the European Union. The first century Christians would have understand neither of these, nor would they have been relevant to their situation.

Interpreted responsibly, Revelation warns us against the evils of civic idolatry and the unjust systems that exist today. It encourages us to persevere in our worship of the one true God, even unto death. Revelation emphasizes God's sovereignty over human history and the Christian belief that God will intervene and make this world right again.

These are all in line with John's original message. And when we interpret this book carefully and faithfully, Revelation is a wealth of theological insight for the church past, present, and future.

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