I want to offer you a challenge. You too, women, but allow me speak to the men first. Beginning on March 1, I am going to begin a program I’m calling 31 Days of Purity. This is for all of us—for those who are young and those who are old, for those who are married and those who are single, for those who struggle mightily in the area of sexual sin and for those who may barely struggle at all. I would love it if you would commit with me to 31 Days of Purity—thirty-one days of considering what God’s Word says about sexual purity and thirty-one days of praying that God would help us fight sin and pursue holiness in this area.
Will you join me?
WHAT IF I DON’T STRUGGLE?
A little while ago I wrote an article titled When You’re at Your Best, Plan for Your Worst. My point there was that even if you have gained significant victory in this area, thank the Lord, but don’t stop battling. What I said there still applies:
There is a kind of weakness, a kind of vulnerability, that may come when we are convinced of our strength. It is when we are not being tempted, it is when we are standing strong in the Lord’s grace, that we ought to consider the times we will be weak and tempted and eager to sin. We need to assume such times will come and we need to use the moments of strength to put measures in place that will protect us when we are weak.
Also, even as you pray for yourself, you can partner with a friend who may not be experiencing the same victory. Encourage him along. There is every reason for you to join us, even if you are not struggling in this area.
WHAT ABOUT WOMEN?
Women, you can be involved too. I would love it if you would follow along, read what God’s Word says, and then pray for the men in your life: your husbands, your sons, your grandsons. What a blessing it would be to them if you will pray for them in an area in which Satan seems to be winning so many battles. Also, if you are struggling in the area of sexual purity, you’ll easily be able to adapt the devotionals and prayers to your own use.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Men, here’s how to get started.
First, pray about people who might join you in this challenge, and then ask them. I am convinced this time will be especially encouraging if you ask a friend or two to join you and if you make it a point to pray with and for one another.
Second, consider joining our 31 Days of Purity Facebook group. It is optional, but you will find it a good place to go for discussion and encouragement. (Note: that Facebook group is for men only; here is one for Women Supporting Men)
Finally, beginning on March 1, I will post a devotional every morning. I will be writing some of them, Mike Leake (with whom I am teaming on this challenge) will be writing some of them, and we have also asked a few friends (whom you may recognize) to help out from time-to-time. Each post will include a short section of the Bible, a couple of paragraphs of explanation or application, and a prayer. You can ponder the Scripture, read the devotional, and pray the prayer. Obviously this is no magic talisman that will ward off sin. However, since we believe in the power and authority of God’s Word and since we believe that God loves to hear and answer our prayers, why shouldn’t we expect that he will move powerfully in our lives?
It all begins right here on March 1. If you would like to begin thinking now about sexual purity, we’ve reduced the price on my book Sexual Detox, so it’s just $1.99 for the Kindle edition (I haven’t seen the price adjusted yet on Amazon, but it will change soon!). You can buy the ebook version direct from Cruciform right here, or the print version (just $5.49) right here.
One of the real privileges I’ve had over the past few years is experiencing and participating in worship services at quite a variety of churches. These churches have spanned a few different continents, at least four or five different countries, and a host of denominations and traditions. They have ranged from congregations with hundreds or even a thousand members all the way down to churches with just a handful of faithful Christians.
Yesterday I found myself reflecting on many of these churches and I realized something that surprised me: I am drawn toward a church that sings poorly and am a little suspicious of a church that sings really well. Let me explain.
A few years ago I worshiped at a church that had been established decades ago. This was quite a large congregation where three or four generations were worshiping together and where God’s Word had been faithfully proclaimed for many, many years. It was faithfully proclaimed the day I was there. The congregation has a distinct but unusual style of singing, one established many years in the past and carried on to our day.
These people know how to sing. They sing loudly. They sing skillfully. They sing beautifully. They sing in parts and with minimal instrumentation so that together they raise one voice to the Lord.
But one reason they sing so well is that there are very few among them who are new to the faith; there are very few among them who have not been raised to hear those songs week by week from their youngest days. By their own admission, they are poor evangelists and their church is not attractive to outsiders because it is so bound in a distinct culture foreign to those around them. They sing so well because they evangelize so poorly.
And then I think to another church I visited in the not-so-distant past. This is a church where the singing is, well, not quite as beautiful. Though there are some in the church who know the songs and who know how to sing a hymn or a contemporary worship song, there are many more who simply do not. As the music rises and falls, many of those voices fall and rise. As the songs progress, many in the church can do little more than mumble along and hope to hit at least a few of the notes.
These people do not know how to sing. Most of them sing quietly. They sing without a lot of skill. They depend upon instrumentation to help carry them. But the reason they sing so poorly is that there are so few among them who are mature in the faith; there are so few among them who have been raised to hear those songs week by week from their youngest days. This is a church where the gospel is being preached in the worship services and where the people are taking that gospel to those who live nearby. The gospel is doing its work, many are being saved, and they are coming to those Sunday services to pour out their praises to God. This church sings so poorly because they evangelize so well.
Many churches in this position will compensate—over-compensate—by cranking the volume to drown out the voices. But not this church. They know that the best and purest instrument of all is the human voice and they allow that instrument to dominate. And there is beauty in it, if you listen closely.
There are exceptions, of course. It is not a hard and fast rule. And yet I think there is something to it. We who have been Christians for many years are tempted to judge a church by the quality of its singing. But as I reflect on those two churches, and many like them, I wonder if we have it all backwards.
My children are growing up fast and, between you and me, they’re growing up a little bit faster than I had expected. My son is thirteen now, just a half school year away from being in high school. I sometimes find myself remembering when I was thirteen, and the kinds of things I awakened to and became interested in. Though I see now that I was only a kid, I was sure that I was all grown up. It’s disquieting at best. Meanwhile my oldest daughter is 11, going on 16. I love her to death, but she too is getting far too old for her own good. There are three kids in our home, but only one of them is still a child.
As my kids grow up, I find that I need to have important but uncomfortable discussions with them. They are unfortunate discussions, but the kind you’ve got to have in a world like ours.I suppose the only thing worse than having those discussions is not having them.
Some time ago we implemented a plan in our home to protect the kids from some of what lurks out there on the Internet. We removed Internet access from some devices, limited it on others, and applied filters that keep tabs on what we are doing online. It has been very smooth from a technological perspective, but a little less so on the interpersonal level.
Recently my son said, “Dad, you’re treating me like I’m addicted to pornography. But I haven’t ever seen it and don’t want to see it!” And he’s right, to some degree. If I’m not treating him like an addict, I am at least treating him like a pre-addict, someone who has the inclination, or who may well have it before long. In this way I think I understand him a little better than he understands himself. Of course our Internet plan is not designed only to protect the children from exposure to pornography, but that is still one of its major purposes.
But his exasperation and hurt feelings gave us opportunity to talk about one of the principles I have found helpful in my own life: "When you are at your best, plan for when you are at your worst." I see this as an application of 1 Corinthians 10:12-13: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
Right there, in the middle of this discussion about sexual immorality, the power of temptation and the promise in temptation, Paul gives a call to humility: “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” This is consistent with what he told the church in Rome: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Romans 12:3).
There is a kind of weakness, a kind of vulnerability, that may come when we are convinced of our strength. It is when we are not being tempted, it is when we are standing strong in the Lord’s grace, that we ought to consider the times we will be weak and tempted and eager to sin. We need to assume such times will come and we need to use the moments of strength to put measures in place that will protect us when we are weak. The wise nation builds its defenses in peace time, not once the enemy has invaded its borders; the wise homeowner buys insurance before the big catastrophe, not once the flood has already risen. The wise Christian fights sin even when sin seems distant and dormant.
I do not consider myself particularly prone to the temptation of pornography. I can sit at a computer early in the morning or late at night and not feel any pull to abuse the privilege. Not at this point. And yet, I explained to my son, I treat myself as one who is disposed to the temptation. I do this because I know my own proneness to sin and I do this because I have seen so many men shock themselves and their families by succumbing to the temptation. This is obviously Satan’s major point of attack on men today—old men and young men alike—and it would be folly to assume I’ll never face it. It would be folly not to prepare myself right now while I’m thinking straight. And it would be folly for my boy as well.
I have yet to meet the man who hasn’t been tempted at one time or another. And for this reason I have filtering software and accountability software and, even better, men who ask me good questions about my life. In the end, I explained, I am only holding my son to the standard I use for myself—the standard of a sinful man, wanting desperately to avoid a major fall, and all too aware that in those times I begin to lose my delight in God, I grow in my delight in sin. This, I hope, is the sober judgment the Lord calls us to.
Praying in circles is fast becoming a thing in some Evangelical churches. People have been taught to draw circles around the things they want, or even to walk in circles around the things they are sure the Lord ought to grant them. In either case, they are to pray around those things and in that way to claim them for the Lord.
The inspiration, I suppose, is Mark Batterson and his book The Circle Maker (my review). Batterson bases his prayer technique on a story from the life of Honi Ha-Ma’agel, a Jewish scholar who lived in the first century B.C. Jewish history records him as being a miracle-worker in the tradition of Elijah and Elisha. Here is a brief account of his greatest miracle:
On one occasion when God did not send rain well into the winter (in the geographic regions of Israel, it rains mainly in the winter), he drew a circle in the dust, stood inside it, and informed God that he would not move until it rained. When it began to drizzle, Honi told God that he was not satisfied and expected more rain; it then began to pour. He explained that he wanted a calm rain, at which point the rain calmed to a normal rain.
Batterson explains, “The prayer that saved a generation was deemed one of the most significant prayers in the history of Israel. The circle he drew in the sand became a sacred symbol. And the legend of Honi the circle maker stands forever as a testament to the power of a single prayer to change the course of history.”
And it is from Honi that Batterson found the inspiration to begin praying in circles. In his book he describes many occasions in which he has prayed in circles and seen the Lord grant what he asked. The promise of his book is that it “will show you how to claim God-given promises, pursue God-sized dreams, and seize God-ordained opportunities. You’ll learn how to draw prayer circles around your family, your job, your problems, and your goals.”
I want to give you three reasons not to pray in circles in the manner Batterson prescribes.
What I consider most notable about Batterson’s approach to prayer is that it is extra-biblical. It is not drawn from the New Testament or the Old Testament but from the Talmud. To the Jew the Talmud is the authoritative, binding body of religious tradition; to the Christian it is nothing, no more binding and no more prescriptive than Encyclopedia Britannica. It may be of historical and academic interest, but it does not represent the voice of God to his people. When Batterson prays in circles, he begins with a tradition outside the Bible and then looks within the Scripture to build a shaky support structure.
Praying in circles is extra-biblical, derived from a source apart from Scripture. But that’s not all, it’s also patently un-biblical, finding no support in Scripture. It is entirely absent from God’s Word to us. The Bible is not lacking in explicit and implicit teaching when it comes to prayer. Jesus’ disciples asked Jesus as simply and clearly as they could: “Teach us to pray.” When Jesus taught his disciples, he said nothing about prayer circles; if anything, he said the opposite when he told them to pray privately and in a quiet place. When Paul wrote to the people he loved, he often told them how and what he was praying on their behalf, and he said nothing about prayer circles. Praying in circles is absent in any and every form.
Praying in circles is extra-biblical and un-biblical, but it is more than that: it is anti-biblical. It directly violates the principles of prayer. When Jesus teaches us to pray, he teaches us to approach God as a child approaches a father, not marching in circles around him, but simply asking with confidence and humility. To pray in circles is to elevate technique at the expense of the heart behind it. To pray in circles is to attempt to manipulate God by action rather than seeking God by communing with him in his Word and prayer. It is nearly indistinguishable from a name-it-and-claim-it kind of Christianity where the things we visualize and demand are the things God must and will give to us, if only we know how to bend his will to ours.
Praying in circles is simply the latest in a long list of techniques to exploit our deep-rooted dissatisfaction with our prayer lives.
Now listen! We need to pray big prayers and bold prayers. Through Christ Jesus we can approach God’s throne with boldness and confidence; we can be like that persistent widow who asks and asks until she receives. The Lord loves to hear us pray and loves to grant what we ask. But not if we attempt to manipulate him by technique.
The simple fact is, you will never be fully satisfied with your prayer life. You cannot be fully satisfied in it, because sin continues to separate you from the full and free communion you were made for. Until you are face-to-face with the Savior, you will always long for more because you were made for more. Prayer techniques come and go; prayer books come and go; our God remains the same, still willing to hear, still eager to listen, still thrilled to grant what we ask in Christ’s name.
(If you want to learn to pray better, consider one of these books.)