Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. Philippians 2:12-13
Each year on December 30, my wife and I celebrate the anniversary of our engagement in 1981, when I proposed marriage after dating her for six months. I was fearless in that moment, but had agonized for months leading up to that evening. I didn’t want to make a mistake. There was too much at stake.
Gail and I first met in August 1980 in the foyer of Lowrey Memorial Baptist Church in Blue Mountain, Mississippi. Following an evening church service as people were chatting in the aisles, a mutual friend introduced me to her and her parents. I remember the moment: she was a short, pretty blonde girl with a dimpled smile. I immediately liked her and we became friends. Just friends. It was the beginning of our sophomore year of college and I was engaged to marry someone else – one of Gail’s friends.
By the end of that semester, the engagement was over. It was a deeply disorienting and confusing time for me. I felt that I had made an irreparable mess of two lives. In the three years since trusting Christ to forgive my sins and change me, I saw nothing but failure. Powerful emotions clouded my thoughts and colored my decisions. I didn’t trust anything about me, and I didn’t know how to depend on Him to lead me. Yet.
Gail and I began meeting and talking together following the recent breakup. I had entered Blue Mountain College believing God was calling me to be a pastor. Since she was a little girl, Gail believed she was called to be a minister’s wife. We spent hours together, laughing and enjoying a very different kind of relationship than any I had known. It was centered on Christ and a shared sense of calling. We shared scriptures with one another. We encouraged each other. We prayed together.
She already knew what was coming. She had prayed and had several confirmations from the Lord that I was going to be her husband one day. She was sure. But I wasn’t.
It was all too soon and too fast for me. I was enjoying our sharing, but I still had no clue what I was doing. I was definitely infatuated with her. I thought she was beautiful. I knew she would always love me. But did I really love her? Did I even know what true love is? I didn’t want to make the same mistakes in another relationship. So I stopped everything that was happening with Gail. I broke it off. I stopped seeing her and tried to be “single” for a while.
She was hurt. She avoided me. And I didn’t blame her. It was my fault.
My “Single” Life
During the next five months, I continued to struggle relationally. It was an emotional roller coaster. But I studied hard. And with God’s grace, I was speaking regularly in churches scattered across north Mississippi.
As summer approached, I had to choose between two ministry job opportunities: a summer intern position at a nationally-recognized megachurch, or a summer youth pastor position in a small town. At the time I sensed that this was a turning point for me. This was an important decision and I wanted to do God’s will. I prayed. I sought counsel from my parents. I discussed it with my Bible professors. I never received a direct, intuitive word from God, but I did strongly sense He was directing me to the small town assignment based on my conversations with the “counselors” He had placed in my life.
So I went to work at First Baptist Church of Fulton, Mississippi, which also happened to be Gail’s hometown. We had barely spoken since our brief “dating” relationship had ended.
I had begun to greatly distrust my feelings – especially romantic feelings. I determined that any decision I would make in the future would be rooted in an objective, unclouded choice to do the will of God. So discerning and knowing His will in major life decisions became a paralyzing experience for me. I didn’t know what I was doing much of the time, but I knew this: I wanted to pursue His wisdom in all of my relationships with others.
A New Beginning
I loved being a youth pastor and I loved the students. As they came to me with questions about life and dating relationships, I found myself driven repeatedly to the scriptures and to my knees seeking the truth. Helping them grow was helping me to grow. I began studying what the Bible says about relationships between men and women. I uncovered a range of interactions in the text: family, friendship, engagement, and marriage.
In particular, I was seeing that marriage was not ultimately founded on romantic feelings, but on a promise. When I married, I realized I would be making a promise to be there for my wife for the rest of her life. That kind of love is a choice, not a feeling… and I drank that biblical understanding into my mind and heart like a thirsty man stepping out from a dark, deadly, and dry place.
Gail spent that summer serving as a children’s ministry intern at a church four hours away from Fulton. On her way home to see her family for a couple of days, she struggled over whether to make contact with me. The Lord spoke to her: “If there were any other classmates in Fulton for the summer serving a church in your hometown you would call them.” She called me. I dropped by to visit.
Awkward at first, we sat across from each other in her parents’ living room and talked about the things we had learned in the months since our brief relationship had ended. Being “single” was a good thing we decided. Then we began to talk easily and naturally together, in much the way we had in the beginning, but I was listening and watching her with fewer “clouds” in my mind. It was a new beginning.
We lost interest in being “single” as we gained a new interest in one another. We talked on the phone regularly. We wrote letters (an ancient form of “texting” for you younger souls). I made a couple of trips to see her, leaving after work, driving four hours, talking till midnight, driving back to Fulton, and grabbing a shower before going back into the office.
As we headed back to college for our junior year, we were dating exclusively. I continued my work as a youth pastor in Fulton on weekends. She would often travel with me. I stayed with a family in the church, while she stayed in her home. I grew to love her family. She grew to love mine.
But as the relationship progressed, I had a nagging set of questions that circled incessantly around in my mind. Is she the one? How are you going to know? When are you going to know? How is God going to make this clear to you?
This went on for six months. She had given up any hope that I was going to propose marriage anytime soon.
The Angels Stood
Just before noon on December 30, 1981, I was walking out of the mall in Tupelo when some of my kids from the church youth group saw me – they also saw the jewelry story bag I was carrying. They knew what I had in there. After they begged to see the engagement ring– and I showed it to them – I knew I couldn’t take Gail with me to church on that Wednesday night. The news would travel faster than my actual marriage proposal – even without the social media channels of today!
How did I get to the point of asking her to marry me?
I had spent months denying what I wanted, afraid to trust my heart. At the same time, God was shaping my desires, drawing me to want what He wanted. In my longing to do His will, He was re‑forming and re‑building my thoughts and my emotions. I was reading His Word and seeking counsel from professors and parents, but it was the words of an older married couple that God used to help me acquire a better and biblical understanding of the desires of my heart.
What if God is making His will for you known through the very means you are not paying attention to: your desires? In Philippians 2:13, Paul says that when God is at work inside you, He is creating new desires (to will) and the ability to carry out everything He wants (to do). He knows you want to please Him, now what is in your heart to do next?
And in that truth, I found peace and freedom. In this great turning point, I did not hear His voice as a flowing collection‑of‑thoughts, as I would hear Him sometimes years later. I was not drawn to a particular Bible verse that would serve as directional anchor point in the decision process. I was not struck with a confirmation in the midst of listening to a sermon or a Bible study.
I just knew that He had created this desire inside of me for Gail. I missed her when she was away from me. Not in a silly, emotionally dependent sort of way, but in the sense that part of me was now incomplete when she was away. The part called “us” – something mysterious and wonderful and that had His fingerprints all over it. Something that was not a fantasy, but a powerful reality that would carry my devotion to her through decades.
It was Him…
to choose her!
Gail and her parents had been away for a few days. We had not exchanged Christmas gifts, so my plan was to await their arrival, speak privately to her parents, and take her out to dinner. They were late coming in… I went out to their house and waited in their driveway… and waited… and waited. After the long uncertainty, and now knowing, I was living in a new world with a new future that I had not let myself imagine. I could hardly contain my excitement.
When they finally arrived, Gail went to her room to change clothes, and I asked her Dad and Mom for permission to marry their daughter. Martha looked at George and I think she breathed under her breath something like, “It’s about time.” George smiled and quietly asked me to step outside. I still remember the first time I met George. He intimidated me. With powerful shoulders and massive hands, the ex-Marine with the chiseled face was a little scary to me, but I grew to love him as a gentle, wise man, who loved his family and his God.
When we got outside and walked in silence, I was a little anxious. Then he began asking me some practical questions about our financial readiness to do this. He seemed satisfied. After a few minutes, he uttered one of the great lines in our family lore, “Well Don, if you marry her and take her away, you can’t bring her back. You understand?” He laughed. I agreed. It was a great moment.
At a seafood restaurant operating in an old Victorian era home, we were seated at a table near a fireplace. It was raining outside. As we waited for our meal to come, I gave her the Christmas gifts I had. Then I pulled out the ring box in my pocket.
I handed it to her and leaned over whispering in her ear, “Marry me.” So technically I never asked her to marry me… but she was stunned and thrilled. She nodded her head “yes” and she could barely speak.
She told me later she had given up hope that a proposal would come that Christmas. But she kept praying and trusting God to speak to me. She had always known, almost from the first time we met.
It was the moment when the angels stood and looked down on two college students who met in a little Baptist church one evening… and the mighty ones peered over the bannisters of heaven and said, “It’s happening! The two greatest lovers who will ever live… they’re meeting for the first time.” Or something like that.
So now my 54-year old self is telling my 20-year old self that it didn’t have to be that hard. Unfortunately, my 54-year old self was not around to offer that advice to the 20-year old self!
So if you identify with the 20-year old in this story, I hope you saw some of these things:
- He was dissatisfied with the way he had been living.
- He was fearful of missing the life God had in mind for him.
- He was persistent in his human efforts to know God’s will.
- He discovered that knowing God grew out of studying His Word.
- He discovered God was ordering conversations and circumstances to bring the 20-year old closer to Him.
- He discovered God’s activity in his own soul.
- He discerned what God wanted Him to do next.
Tonight, Gail and I will go out and celebrate our proposal anniversary again. Not only does the evening mark the beginning of our walk together, but it was a turning point in my journey to hear, understand, and know the heart of God.
[Author’s Note: This post was originally published December 30, 2015 at DonPucik.com and migrated to EquippingSaints.com]
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus included prayer as a priority topic for His disciples. Emphasizing that our most intimate interactions with God should be done secretly (Matthew 6:4, 6, 18), Jesus pauses to give shape and form to our personal prayer time. In the space of a few verses historically known as the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus outlines a series of petitions so we would know what we should be asking for. In the second petition, Jesus taught us to pray for the kingdom to come. Why? Because Kingdom Praying…
- Focuses on a King. Jesus began His ministry preaching this message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). The kingdom was the central message of Jesus and the early disciples, mentioned over 85 times in the gospels. The kingdom is not a place where God rules. The kingdom is not the church or a collection of churches. Properly understood, the kingdom refers to the active rule or reign of God—His Majesty in action. A kingdom requires a King! As I pray, I am speaking with a King who rules. I must repent and completely turn away from all other rulers and whole-hearted allegiances in my life—He is my King!
- Longs for the King to Rule. I am asking for something to change on earth so that my circumstances reflect more of heaven, where God’s rule is absolute. In heaven, there is no sin or sickness. There is no corruption. Everything is right and as it should be. When I ask for His will to be done on earth, I am asking for God to enter into my circumstances and exert His power. A kingdom that needs to “come” means it is not automatically here. This world and my circumstances do not reflect the rule of God—I need Him to come!
- Enters into an Ancient War. In verse 13, Jesus teaches us to ask the Father to deliver us from the evil one. A kingdom that is not already “here” implies that there is an opposing kingdom at work. This was the worldview of Jesus. Jesus calls the devil the “ruler of this world” (John 12:31, 14:30, and 16:11). When a person becomes a Christian through faith in Christ, God rescues that person from the enemy’s rule, and places him or her into the kingdom of God (Colossians 1:13). Asking for God’s rule on earth, we enter into an ancient conflict for souls.
- Understands the Assignment. Jesus teaches us to ask for His kingdom to come and for His will to be done on earth. This means it is not being done now. Here lies an awesome truth: in a world that desperately needs God to come and act, the King has chosen to link His activity to the obedient intercessor. If I do not pray, will the kingdom come? God wants to act, but if I do not ask… will He still act? Will He still come and show Himself strong in the midst of my circumstances?
Jesus was teaching us how to approach and talk to our Father in heaven (Matthew 6:9). I live in a broken universe that is at war with God. Every day I need His presence as I walk in this evil age (Galatians 1:4). Jesus explains that the Father is ready to exit the world I cannot see (Heaven) and come rule in the world that I do see (Earth). Will I ask Him to come?
I walked into the drafty motel room on a cold Saturday afternoon, pushing the door closed with my foot and setting my bags down on the thin, worn carpet. Surveying the room in the dim light, there were two double beds with a nightstand, a small round table and chair, and a long bureau with a TV sitting on top. Nothing unusual, but a little more drab than usual… think early sixties “Bates Motel” decor and you’ll have the picture. Traveling over 40,000 miles a year in Arkansas, I spend several nights each month on the road. The year is 2006.
We serve church leaders and pastors. The Arkansas Baptist State Convention is composed of dozens of men and women who are truly passionate about helping churches fulfill their mission to spread the powerful, life-changing truth about Jesus. Based in Little Rock, we go in-person to train, speak, and encourage Christians in over 1,500 churches. We do it out of a sense of divine calling.
But we still get tempted to do things we shouldn’t. I do, anyway.
It was in that particular motel that God spoke to me about the temptation to watch things on television where no one else could see what I might be doing… except Him. As I stood there looking at the room, He brought to mind how many times I had been tempted before. How I would often call my wife as an escape, exposing the temptation by telling her about it. It worked. By uncovering instead of hiding a temptation, I found that I didn’t “want to” anymore (Ephesians 5:11, 1 Peter 5:9, James 4:7). The “attraction” and “pull” of the sin dissipated and became more manageable. Jesus did that when He was tempted (Matthew 4:3-4). He became adversarial and so should I. But this moment was different.
“You don’t know what has gone on here in the past, but I do. And they haven’t left.” The thoughts that formed in my mind were His thoughts. He was showing me something I needed to understand. God speaks in many different ways in the Bible, and He does speak and He speaks clearly still, whether…
- through prayer (an ongoing inner conversation between Him and me),
- through the Scriptures (an awareness that the text I am reading is something He is speaking to me),
- through the church (those moments when through a believing friend, a pastor’s sermon, or a small group discussion I realize He is speaking), or
- through circumstances (reaching a conclusion that God is guiding through my experiences).
Frozen in place, standing in the middle of that motel room, I began to understand that I had been experiencing a pattern of temptation that was more intense in some places than in others. Hundreds of people had stayed in that room before me. Hundreds of nights. Hundreds of temptations. It was a place where a husband had cheated on his wife; where a woman had degraded herself; where a young man had tried to drown his troubles in alcohol or drugs; and where a child had been abused. I don’t know the details. I do know that in some hotels, I experienced much more temptation than in others. It was happening there.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am culpable for my response to temptation. In fact, I cannot be tempted unless some part of me “wants” to do it. James writes, “But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed” (James 1:14). Nevertheless, there is an ancient, intelligent, and unseen personality at work behind many of our temptations: Jesus teaches us to pray against the temptation offered by the “evil one” (Matthew 6:13). Sometimes demons take up residence in people. They can also hang out in hotel rooms.
Interestingly, when Jesus cast the demons out of the Gadarene man, the evil ones “begged Him earnestly that He would not send them out of the country” (Mark 5:10). They liked that place. They wanted to stay in that geographical region. And for whatever reason, they were attached to that motel room I was in, exacerbating the away-from-home temptations of every man and woman who stayed there, night after night, and year after year.
In Ephesians 4:26-27, Paul writes “Be angry, and do not sin: do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil.” The Greek word simply translated “place” can refer to someone’s territory or a dwelling, but in some contexts it can also describe a sanctuary or a holy place. Paul is teaching that strong, out-of-control emotions (like anger) can create a point-of-entry for the devil into a person’s life. If I fail to process my emotions and hurts before the Lord, letting Him into my hurts, and exercising forgiveness, then I am allowing myself to be unduly and persistently influenced by a demon… seriously. To give in to sin is an invitation to the enemy to come and “camp out” in my life. I knew this, standing there in the middle of that motel room.
So, I didn’t call my wife that night. I called on Him. I prayed, “Lord, I don’t know what’s gone on in this place before I got here. But I do know I am being tempted to use this place as a hideout for my own sin… and I don’t want that. So Lord, I want this to be holy ground. I want to be alone here with You. I want this room to be a place where–at any time–You can speak to me without interference from the enemy. Just You and me, and nobody else.”
And everything changed. The demons had a bad night. I had time alone with Him. The dreary room had become a sacred space… and so did my heart.
[Author’s Note: This post was originally published January 19, 2013 at DonPucik.com and later migrated to EquippingSaints.com]
Twenty-five years later, the experience remains vivid. The Lord still whispers the lyrics of that time across my heart, “this is My church”. Church as He intends it to be. It was an ordinary church retreat, until He touched us with His presence. Five hours later, we were closer to each other. We were closer to Him. He had come. It was only a small taste of what happens in the presence of God. Why do we need revival? Because we need Him!
Revival is essential. Revival is the restoration of God’s presence to His people. In Exodus 33, God threatened to remove His presence from His people. Understanding that there is no real life apart from God’s presence, Moses pleaded for God to return to His people. In verse 15, Moses said, “If Your Presence does not go with us, do not bring us up from here.” God’s presence is essential. We need Him, and we were never intended to do life or church without Him.
Revival is also experiential. In other words, when God is present, life is different. In Acts 3:19, Peter said, “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” Peter understood that the presence of God alone could refresh and renew the hearts of His people.
Why do we need God’s Presence?
- We need Him if we are ever going to recover a biblical sense of fear and awe. In Revelation 1:17, John fell on his face in the presence of God. He simply could not stand. More than a physical response, the bowing of our bodies reflects the yielding of our hearts to His rule in our lives. When God is present, our lives are reoriented around Him and not ourselves.
- We need Him if we are going to do real battle with sin in our lives. In Isaiah 6:1-5, the prophet had a life-defining encounter with the holy presence of God. The result was that he became intensely aware of his own sinfulness. Like raising the lights in a darkened room, God’s holiness will highlight all the impurities in our lives. Isaiah wanted to deal with the sin in his life and so will we!
- We need Him if our land is going to be healed. In 2 Chronicles 7:14, God says that if His people are repentant, then He will “heal their land.” Our land is suffering. Secularists are forecasting the loss of U.S. economic and military influence around the world. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, floods… from natural disasters to national debt, it seems clear our nation is in trouble. Not only has infertility doubled in the U.S. since 1992, the World Health Organization believes the infertility will be the third most serious disease of the twenty-first century, following cancer and cardiovascular disorders. Is God getting our attention? This was similar to what the people of Israel were experiencing in the days of Haggai the prophet: “You have sown much, and bring in little; you eat, but do not have enough; you drink, but you are not filled with drink; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and he who earns wages, earns wages to put into a bag with holes.” (Haggai 1:6)
- We need Him if we are going to love the world the way He does. In Luke 9:36-38, Jesus has compassion on the masses of people without God. He feels something that is visceral, engaging all the emotions in a desire to release others from spiritual darkness and disorientation. When He is present among us, our hearts will come into alignment with His heart.
- We need Him if we are going to answer the heart cry of our generation. All around us, people have questions about God. Who is He? What is He like? Can He forgive me? Can He help me? They are interested in talking to someone who really knows God, but studies indicate that they are not looking to churches for those answers. They are not moving away from an interest in God, as much as they are running away from the institutional church. They have questions about God and a real hunger for spiritual reality, and they want those answers from people they know and trust.
- We need Him if we are going to recover the hearts of students and young adults. Recently, I was talking to a young couple I met in a coffee shop, asking them to share their thoughts about God and church. He was a second-year law student; she was a nurse. Although they had been raised in evangelical churches, they understood very little about God or the gospel message. They had not been discipled by parents or the church to walk with God. Youth are “graduating” from church at the same time they graduate from high school. Last November, Barna Research reported that almost 60 percent of young people age 15 to 29 have left active involvement in a church. Only God’s presence can turn this around.
- We need Him if we are going to see more people giving their lives to Christ, trusting Him for salvation. In the presence of God, lives are changed and resistance to the gospel melts away. However, today we are seeing the fewest number of people coming to Christ since the 1950s. In 2010, Southern Baptists baptized 332,321, the lowest number in sixty years. Baptisms in Southern Baptist churches have been in decline for over a decade.
- We need Him if we are going to impact our nation for Christ. During the First Great Awakening, 20 percent of the colonial population came to Christ and joined churches. Today, less than 20 percent regularly attend church. Discussed at length in his book The American Church in Crisis (Zondervan, 2009), David Olson conducted research showing that only 17.5 percent of the population attends church on any given weekend in America. In their book Comeback Churches (B&H Publishing, 2007), Mike Dodson and Ed Stetzer explain that less than 5 percent of churches are experiencing significant conversion growth—most churches are simply reshuffling existing members. Although Southern Baptists boast having more than 16 million members, only one-third will attend church this coming Sunday. One observer concluded that the church has become nothing more than a symbolic place for “hatching, matching, and dispatching” (i.e., baby dedications, weddings, and funerals).
Everything changes when God comes among us! Let us pray that He will revive each of our hearts with Himself, transforming our nation as we are transformed as His people.
“Lord… am I getting this right? I am about to speak to a group of people and you are changing the message?”
On May 22, 2011, I was driving to Monticello, Arkansas to speak in the morning services at First Baptist Church, where I had been serving as interim pastor for over a year. Each week, I prepared sermon notes, a fill-in-the-blank listening guide for the bulletin, and an accompanying slide presentation. I usually emailed the handout to the church office by Thursday. Enjoying the creative exercise, I prepared the slides on Saturday morning. All week long, I reflected on what I could use as a creative element to help “burn in” the truth of God’s Word – something to make it memorable. Hours are involved.
Where is God in the process? I normally pray about what I am going to preach. I listen for His direction and usually feel a sense of “oughtness” as I set a course for the preaching schedule. It is common for me to drive around the church property on Sunday mornings. Call it “prayer driving,” but I am typically asking the Lord to come, to drive away every wrong spirit and distraction, and to draw everyone to the church that needs to be there on that day.
Consequently, during that particular morning drive last May, I felt good about my readiness for the day. Until the thoughts came about 80 miles from Monticello. The thoughts I knew I didn’t initiate. Thoughts I recognized as coming from Him. Thoughts about a different message to be shared that morning.
I love creativity, but divine spontaneity is a little scary. The message came quickly and clearly. I grabbed a notepad and set it on the armrest. Scribbling while keeping my eyes on the road, I jotted down an outline about the final judgment of God described in Revelation 20:11-15. I gave it the title Six Reasons to Keep the End in Mind. God used it… He spoke to His people that day.
Sometimes His guidance comes that way—as thoughts that He brings to mind. Walking with God requires me to be prepared to listen to Him when He speaks and in the different ways He speaks.
One of the defining characteristics of the earliest Christ-followers in the book of Acts was their readiness to change course when the Holy Spirit spoke.
- Acts 8:29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and join this chariot.”
- Acts 10:19 While Peter was reflecting on the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you.”
- Acts 13:2 While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”
- Acts 16:6-7 They passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia; and after they came to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them.
The Lord gives clear and specific guidance to His people. My need for that kind of direction continues today. More than dutiful obedience, this way of walking with God captures the essence of my relationship to Him: I am dependent on Him for everything.
In the absence of such “unexpected direction,” I have a mind and I have the God-breathed direction of the Bible. Those precious resources are a primary and sufficient mechanism for receiving direction from God. There are other times, however, when He is clearly speaking to me in a way that supersedes my logic and reason, without contradicting the written Word of God.
I believe we must learn to recognize and become sensitive to His voice whenever and wherever He speaks.
[Author’s Note: This post was originally published March 11, 2012 at DonPucik.com and migrated to EquippingSaints.com]
In 1984, Gail and I were serving in Southern California as missionaries with the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board (HMB). Living in a small apartment in West Hollywood, we were working alongside veteran missionaries Bob and Glenda Tremaine, nurturing the small First Baptist Church of Beverly Hills congregation, and laying the groundwork for new churches to be planted in the greater Los Angeles area.
In so many ways, Bob became a “father” in the Lord for me. His walk with God had been shaped by years of ministry and church planting experiences in New Mexico, New England, and south Florida. By the time we had started working together, the Tremaines had planted over thirty churches. They knew God, loved God, and walked with God. When Bob told me that the Lord was going to do something… that’s what happened. Over and over again, we saw God at work. Bob taught me to bring everything to the Lord in prayer… even routine business and ministry decisions.
We were doing ministry on the border between two cities. West Hollywood was truly a mosaic of cultures and lifestyles, composed of high density housing in the form of apartments and condominiums. Beverly Hills was a secure enclave of wealthy financiers, physicians, attorneys, media executives, and a few celebrities. Each Sunday, the persons attending our worship services reflected a variety of occupations: accountants and actors, waiters and writers, maids and millionaires. How could our little church develop a presence in our community?
In the early eighties, the use of direct mail by churches was a new idea. Affectionately known as “junk mail” today, direct mail campaigns seemed to be helping businesses and organizations get the word out. Bob asked me to develop a pilot project, experimenting with direct mail as an outreach tool for the church. The HMB also embraced the project, putting in $2,000 to the budget. I went to work.
Our church budget had a few hundred dollars to spare. Based on the available funds, I prepared a proposal that involved using our state-of-the-art copier to produce black-and-white brochures. I went to school on direct mail campaigns, attending seminars and contacting the best direct mail vendors in L.A. for current pricing. My plan was to do a single mailing to all of the addresses in the zip codes associated with West Hollywood and Beverly Hills. I vividly recall the meeting with Bob where I shared my best ideas.
“You’re going about this in the wrong way,” he said. I was stunned and a little indignant, but I listened. “You are pursuing a plan based on your budget. But if you had all the money you needed, what would you do then? Determine the very best approach first, then come back to me with what it will cost to do it right.”
Okay. So I went back to my office and started over. What would it take to really test the value of direct mail as an outreach tool? Well… I needed color brochures if I was mailing to the upscale residences around us. I needed to mail it more than once. I needed to experiment with repeat mailings and different frequencies. My budget swelled to several thousand dollars. I felt sure Bob would choke when he saw the new number. He didn’t. He didn’t even blink.
“Good work,” he said. “Now, let’s take this to the Lord and see what He wants to do. Too many times we limit God by focusing on our resources alone. It’s much better to expand the idea to the limits of your imagination, then let God hem you in to what He wants to do. His provision will determine the scope of this project.” So we prayed.
Within two weeks, God had provided all of the funding we needed… for the entire project. Everything.
I was basing my plan on the current, visible supply of resources: the money the church had in the bank. I did not consider God’s resources or what He wanted to do with the project. Asking me to “push out the walls” and think about what I could do with unlimited resources, Bob helped me discover that God was willing to do more than I was planning!
Since then I’ve learned that many times there is a gap between what I’m thinking and what God is thinking. He is often prepared to do more than I am expecting. Today, when I pray about something, I keep this in mind: God has a will and a plan. Rather than superimpose my expectations on a situation, it is better for me to try and understand what God wants to do — and then ask Him to do that. Centuries ago, the apostle John understood this when he wrote:
Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him. (1 John 5:14–15).
Prayer is not about me getting what I want. Prayer is about getting what God wants (which is much, much better). I know this raises lots of questions, especially when I don’t like my circumstances or when I have needs that are not going away. I can still trust Him. He does not abandon me. He is still listening. He is still working.
Walking with God is seeking His will every day. As each new question and decision arises, ask, “Lord, how do you want me to respond to this?” Then wait… he will answer you.
Learning to pray and trust God in daily life propels you out of the rank-and-file world of just being religious.
[Author’s Note: This post was originally published March 7, 2012 at DonPucik.com and migrated to EquippingSaints.com]
“He often withdrew to deserted places and prayed.” (Luke 5:16 HCSB)
Several years ago I served a church in a bivocational ministry. Working 50 hours per week in an environmental consulting firm, I lived for the additional 20 hours I spent doing outreach leadership and visitation in the church. Very quickly I learned how fast the “inner well” could run dry.
I was irritable at home and impatient at work. Something had to change.
One day I took off a few hours early and went to an empty Sunday School classroom at the church. Taking only my Bible and journal along, I sat and read and prayed and wept as the Lord refreshed and redirected my heart.
The personal retreat has since become a life habit embraced and carried out every 3-4 months (in fact, it’s time to do it again soon). Getting away for 1-3 days alone with the Lord clears my mind and renews my vision for what He wants me to be doing at home and in ministry. I always return with a handful of adjustments to make in my life.
Sometimes I have to go ask forgiveness from someone or work on a specific relationship. At other times I need to make spaces in my schedule for a new habit he wants me to develop or a new activity He wants me to engage in. The directions are always practical and concrete.
A study of the life of Christ reveals a rhythm of public advances and private retreats that enabled the Lord to walk closely and consistently in step with His Father. If Jesus Christ my Lord had to retreat for prayer and quiet hours with the Father, how can I expect to get by doing less?
Be like Jesus… get away and get alone once in awhile!