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Struggling in Prayer

I’m not going to talk about “struggling in prayer” in the sense of “having a hard time praying.” Instead, I’m going to talk about struggling in prayer in a different light. Let’s turn to Colossians 4:12:

12Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.

I’m expecting someone to say to me right away, “Okay, I know Jesus, Peter, and Paul. But Epaphras? Who is he?” Let me answer.

Epaphras was the pastor of the church in Colosse. The apostle Paul described him as a “beloved fellow servant” and a “faithful minister of Christ on [the Colossians’] behalf” (Colossians 1:7). It was through him that the Colossians learned the Gospel (see vv. 5-7). He happened to be with Paul, since he was imprisoned with him (Philemon 1:23). No wonder the pastor of the Colossian church was greeting his own church.

always struggling on your behalf in his prayers

So what was he doing? He was struggling in prayer for his church. The word struggling is translated in Greek as agonizomai. It can mean “to enter a contest,” or “to contend in the gymnastic game,” or “to contend with adversaries” (fight). Now, no one enters a contest, or plays in the gymnastic games, or fights with his adversaries without experiencing pain. So the word struggle (agonizomai) gives us the idea of pain (I believe the word agony came from our Greek word here). We can find this word in Luke 13:24:

24“Strive [agonizomai] to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.

Of course, there is pain involved when one enters a narrow door, especially when he is fat.

We also see this word in 1 Corinthians 9:25 (NASB):

25Everyone who competes [agonizomai] in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.

Now an athlete is someone who goes through the pain of self-control. He goes through intense training and diet, which is normally painful. He must do it. Else, he isn’t an athlete.

So how did Epaphras pray for his church? Answer: With agonizing pain. (I believe this is in metaphorical terms. But if Epaphras is literally experiencing pain as he prayed, I will not doubt. At the first place, he was in chains).

I’m reminded of Jacob’s wrestling with God. It is interesting to note that the man touched his hip socket first (Genesis 32:25) before he said “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (v.26). So he was already in agony but did not let go. He struggled so that he’ll be blessed. Later we read that God did bless him (v.29).

But why was Epaphras struggling for his church in his prayers? The answer:

that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.

He’s praying for the maturity of his people, that they will be always be aligned in all the will of God. This only reveals that Epaphras loved his church. He will not go through the agony of praying for them if he did not love them at the first place.

At one point, Colossians 4:12 took a grip on me. Sure, I pray a lot, but only for my own needs. For my church? Not much! This revealed how much I love my church.

So I decided to struggle in praying for my church and for the individuals the consist it.

Let’s all learn from the example of Epaphras. Let’s struggle in praying for our church, that they “may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.”

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Ending Up Frustrated After Quiet Times

Sometimes, my quiet times leave me frustrated. During those times, I end up either not gaining any new knowledge about the Bible or God, or learning something new but couldn’t even remember it at other times of the day (so obviously, it did not have an impact on me). Should I call these quiet times failures? I hope you can relate with me (Actually, I’m experiencing these kinds of times lately).

Tim Challies offers a different perspective. I remembered a blog of his which he posted last year. I am thankful for it.

Date Nights and Devotions

In his blog Date Nights & Devotions, Challies likens devotional times to a date. He makes a reflection on his dates with his wife Aileen:

I think we’re good at dating. We both know that the main point of spending this kind of time together is to return home with a lot of new knowledge about one another. We like to head to a favorite restaurant and split a sandwich and an order of 4-cheese spinach dip. We just sit and talk. And when we head home we know we’ve had a good date if we’ve learned things about the other that we didn’t know before. If we haven’t learned anything new we know that our date hasn’t been so good and we swear that we’ll do better next time. Because this is the point of dating—to accumulate knowledge about the person you love.

But he proceeds with this:

I’m lying. Well, only partially. That is exactly how we date these days. But it’s not at all how we gauge the success of our dates. We know we’ve had a good date when we’ve enjoyed spending time together. We don’t need to learn anything new. We don’t need to gain facts. We just need to be together, enjoying one another’s presence. We can go shopping and sit in a bookstore and consider it a great date. We return home refreshed, renewed and loving one another more than when we set out. And that’s a great date. (Emphasis added)

He’s right. The point of dating is to enjoy spending time with another person. What’s the point if one had a better knowledge (or actually remembered a new knowledge) about the other person after a date, but didn’t really enjoy the time spent together?

Sure, having a new knowledge of another person is important. But it is not the final measure of success of dates.

Then Challies writes (and this is convicting):

But isn’t it funny that when it comes to personal devotions, when it comes to our relationship to the Lord, we change the rules. We judge the success of our time with the Lord by what we get out of it, by what we remember, by what we’ve learned. We consider our devotions a success when we learn some new fact about God or about the Bible. We admire those who have great biblical knowledge or a great memory for the facts of what they’ve read. We get discouraged and want to give up when we feel like we have learned nothing through that day’s devotions. (Emphasis added)

This is definitely true of me. I believe many can relate to this as well.

Actually Spending Time with God, and Enjoying the Moment

Let me excerpt from Challies’ blog one more time:

But what if we are missing the point? What if the point of devotions is less about learning about God and more about spending time with God? What if it’s less about Bible study and more about building relational intimacy? What would change about our devotions if instead of trying to learn about God, we focused instead on spending time with God, time spent hearing from him through his Word and speaking to him through prayer? If this is the case it doesn’t much matter what we remember at the end of it because the joy has been in the moment, the value has been in the time spent together. The joy of dating isn’t in the aftermath but in the moment. And I think the same can be true with our devotions. (Emphasis added)

Now, I’m trying something else for a change. In recent times, I just read through a portion of the Bible. And if I can’t get any new fact from it, I just let it go. My personal Bible study will compensate for any knowledge I didn’t acquire during my quiet times.

So lately in my quiet times, I’ve been spending more time talking to God, lifting Him my desires and concerns, and listening to Him, rather than trying to squeeze out the Scripture (in a short time), which sucks all my energy and leaves me frustrated.

I can say that I’m actually spending time with God, and enjoying my moment with Him.

Loving God: The Primary Agenda of Life

This is my first message for Friday Night Light (FNL), the young singles ministry of Christ’s Commission Fellowship (CCF) Makati. I gave this last Friday, the second fellowship gathering of FNL (I praise God for His faithfulness and goodness to the FNL team). I preached on the topic of loving God (Mark 12:28-30). Anyway…

Wrong Notions on Loving God

Before we move to our text, allow me to dismantle some of the wrong notions on loving God. Let me give you three:

1. Church service or religious activities do not necessarily mean loving God. Jesus once warned that not everyone who says to Him, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 7:21). In fact, some people were even prophesying in His name, driving out demons in His name, and doing mighty works in His name (v.22). These were amazing things they were doing. Yet they didn’t really know Him, or love Him. And how can we say so? Because Jesus responded saying, “I never knew you!” Ouch!

Many of you don’t know this: I used to song-lead for my former church, just a small community church. I was a youth volunteer back then. Now, you have to understand the culture in smaller churches. Volunteers are usually scarce due to its size. So when the leadership saw that a member is available and can serve (and he has the guts to face a crowd if the ministry is at the frontlines), he will be asked to render his service. So there were no more auditions and, unfortunately, no more heart-checks.

So there I was, serving in my youth ministry and singing my lungs out. But I do it because I love the spotlight. I wasn’t really serving God; I was serving me. I sing not because of my love for God, but because of my love for me.

Indeed, serving in the church or doing religious stuff does not necessarily mean loving God.

2. Reading the Bible does not necessarily mean loving God. The religious leaders in the time of Jesus searched the Scriptures, believing that in them they have eternal life (John 5:39). Yet they refuse to come to Him that they may have life (v.40). Jesus told them, “you do not have the love of God within you” (v.42).

3. Loving others does not necessarily mean loving God. Many people love others without any reference to God, or to love for God. We call this philanthropy.

Brief Background

Let’s go to our text. Here’s a brief background. We know that Jesus wasn’t in good terms with the religious leaders. They tried to trap him in His words. The Pharisees asked Him about paying taxes to Caesar, but He answered them convincingly, silencing them (see Mark 12:13-17). The Sadducees, who don’t believe in resurrection, asked Him about resurrection. Again, He answered convincingly. Just like the Pharisees, the Sadducees they were quiet (see vv.18-27).

Loving God as the Primary Agenda of Life

So we go to verse 28:

28And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?”

Now a scribe (teacher of the law [NIV1984]) is someone who is a professional interpreter of the law. If he is a professional on this matter, then he should know the answer to his question. He should know better, right? So something is fishy with this guy.

It seems that the scribe sounded innocent in asking. But as a Pharisee, he asked Jesus to also test Him (see Matthew 22:34-36). And the test? Jesus must answer the question “Which commandment is the most important of all?”

Why this question? Let me explain. We have to understand that the Jews had accumulated hundreds of laws. Some of their leaders tried to distinguish the major ones from the minor ones, while others taught that they were all equal and making distinctions was dangerous. So this could place Jesus into a dilemma, and his answer could spark controversy among different groups. (But we have such a wise God in Jesus. His answer summarizes all of the law, for on it “depend all the Law and the Prophets” [Matthew 22:40]).

29Jesus answered, “The most important is…

Let’s stop right here and put our attention on the words “most important,” or “foremost” (NASB). In Greek, it’s just one word. It’s translated as protos. It means first, or chief, or principal. We see this in other verses like Matthew 6:33:

33But seek first [protos] the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

This verse does not say that we do the seeking first, and then God will take care of the concerns of life. But it does say that we make it the chief, principal, or primary agenda of our life, while God takes care of the peripheral things of life.

We also see this in Revelation 2:4, where Jesus rebuked the Ephesian church:

4‘But I have this against you, that you have left your first [protos] love. (NASB)

The church in Ephesus did not left their first love, in the sense that it came before the second love, or the third love, and so on. It simply means that they have left their primary love. I hope you now have an idea of what protos means.

So let’s go back to the verse. What Jesus will say next is of primary importance. It’s protos. Here it is:

29Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’

That’s it! Loving God is of primary importance. It is the protos of our lives! And how must we love God? We must love Him

• With all our heart. It represents our identity, the core of our being.
• With all our soul. It has something to do with emotions.
• With all our mind. It has something to do with our will.
• With all our strength. This refers to our physical energy.

Notice this. The verse does not just say “love the Lord your God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.” Rather, it says “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” This simply emphasizes that our love for God should be a whole-hearted love!

So what can we say from what we have discussed so far? Remember this: We must make loving God (whole-heartedly) the primary agenda of our lives.

I’m reminded of the first question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which asks:

What is the chief end of man?

And it answers:

Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

That is man’s chief end, or man’s chief purpose. I sincerely believe it. But we can’t glorify God and enjoy Him forever unless we love Him. That’s why it makes perfect sense that we make loving God the primary agenda of our lives. So I ask you this: Is loving God the primary agenda of your life? The protos of your life? Or is loving yourself the primary agenda of your life?

Once again: We must make loving God the primary agenda of our lives.

Putting It in Practical Terms

You now say, “Okay, I understand that loving God should be the primary agenda for every Christian. But how do I practice it?”

A while ago, I dismantled some wrong notions about loving God. Sure, church service or religious activities do not necessarily mean loving God. And reading the Bible does not necessarily mean loving Him. And loving others does not necessarily mean loving Him.

But loving God necessarily means serving Him (e.g. Joshua 24:15, Matthew 4:10). And loving Him necessarily means reading the Bible, and let me add, obeying it (e.g. John 14:15,21,23). And loving Him necessarily means loving others (e.g. 1 John 4:7-12). These are good starting point to love God.

As we make loving God the primary agenda of our lives, let’s serve Him and His church, read and obey His Word, and love others.

Discussion Questions

1. What wrong notions about loving God do you have in mind?
2. What can you say is the primary agenda of your life?
3. What do you need to develop or improve in terms of your love for God (serving God, reading and obeying His Word, loving others, etc.)?

A Recent Experience and Works-Based Salvation

When I was in the office for my internship (an academic requirement), I borrowed a correction tape from one of my co-workers. Careless, I used it until the tape got jammed inside. So thinking it can be fixed, I opened the contraption and tried to solve the problem, winding and rewinding the tape inside. But as long as I’m trying to fix it, the problem gets worse than before.

Fearing that my co-worker will catch me fixing her broken correction device, I resolved to go somewhere else. So I ended up in the comfort room, in one of the cubicles. And there I was, fixing with all my might what I have broken. I thought of confessing to my co-worker and face the consequences, but I quickly shrugged off that idea. I said to myself, “I can still fix this!”

At one point, I was nearing to a solution. But when I was about to, the problem again rose and became worse than before. The contraption was almost in a hopeless state. And by now, I’ve been working on it for lots of minutes (I didn’t notice the time anymore, but I’m sure it was long).

Finally, I gave up. I decided to tell my co-employee and face the consequences. So I mustered all the strength and courage I have and confessed to her. After frightening me with the possible consequences, she let go of it. There was relief at last.

Immediately, I thought of salvation. What if salvation is works-based, like me trying to fix what I can’t really fix at all? And end up not fixing anything at all?

Humanity has been deceived, believing that people can fix what really can’t be fixed. We are sinners (Romans 3:23) and in need of “fixing.” We can’t “fix” our sin problem on our own, for “our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isaiah 64:6). Or “filthy rags” (NIV1984). And Ephesians 2:8-9 tells us:

8For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

We can’t be saved by our own works, because obviously, it can’t fix what really can’t be fixed on our own. By now, I realize the horror brought by works-based salvation, when one tries to fix what really can’t be fixed.

When I decided to own up to my sin of breaking the correction tape and confess to my co-worker and ask for her forgiveness, it brought me relief. Likewise, when people acknowledge their sins before God and ask for His forgiveness, rather than “fixing” their sin problem on their own, it gives them everlasting peace. That’s why I embrace and love salvation by grace through faith.

I regret that I broke my co-worker’s correction tape. But I’m thankful that I learned a lesson about salvation. It makes me rejoice over the truth that salvation is by grace through faith, and not by works.

Professionals and the Church

I wrote three blogs on professionals and the church since last Friday. I compiled them here, so don’t forget to check them out. Enjoy reading!

1. Professionals, I Salute You
2. What Churches Can Do for Professionals
3. What Professionals Can Do for Churches

What Professionals Can Do for Churches

Last Monday, I posted the blog What Churches Can Do for Professionals. I suggested 3 things churches can do for their professionals. Churches can help them by teaching them to be excellent at work, reminding them of their reward from Jesus, and challenging them to be missional-minded in their offices. Now, it’s the other way around. I’ll be sharing what professionals can do for their churches.

Again, I’m not claiming expertise on this subject matter. But here are a few suggestions:

1. Serve in ministries that cater to professionals. Professionals are in the best position to serve their fellow professionals. They can help fellow professionals on their spiritual walk and even coach them in their careers, both in the professional and witnessing levels. There’s a megaton of lessons and experiences from these professionals, including how to be a salt and light in the workplace, and it need not be wasted.

2. Support your church financially. I don’t mean to ruin their budget. But I want them to consider giving financial support to their pastors, church staff, and missionaries. Some of them are being paid highly, or are already in managerial and executive roles. They have been blessed with a high (or increasing) salary so that they can be a blessing to others, especially to their churches. “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35), and doing so is partnership in the Gospel (see Philippians 1:5).

3. Help your church establish presence in the workplace. Since they have access to their offices, they are in the best position to witness to unbelieving officemates, influence their superiors, and impact their organizations by establishing Bible study or fellowship groups, helping their churches penetrate to their workplace. In my church, there is an office ministry that caters to professionals. They are made up of laymen and women from different organizations, who are partnering with my church to establish a presence in their workplace.

What Churches Can Do for Professionals

In my blog Professionals, I Salute You, I expressed my deep admiration for professionals. Their ability to endure work for 8 hours, with all the stress and the discipline, deserves much respect. In this blog, I’d like to share what churches and ministries can do for their professionals.

Now, I’m not claiming that I am an expert in this field. So I’d appreciate if you send your comments and suggestions. Or if you are a professional and is ministering in the workplace, I’d also appreciate if you share your experience. (I also realized that I’m already a part of a ministry team that caters to young singles. Most of them are young urban professionals, or more known as yuppies. So it is absolutely vital that I come in touch of their needs, as well as what our ministry can do about it).

Let me suggest the following:

1. Teach them to work excellently. We want them to work not because their bosses’ eye is on them, or because they want to win the favor of their superiors, but with “sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord” (see Colossians 3:22; also NIV1984). More importantly, we want them to be excellent on whatever they do, working with all their heart, or working as if they are giving their lives on their work, “as for the Lord and not for men” (v.23). (See my blog Working With All Your Heart for a related discussion).

2. Encourage them that the Lord Jesus will reward them. Now, not all of them are properly compensated. They may be giving so much (of course, working excellently) for their companies, but receive little in return. Some are even experiencing unreasonable bosses. But they shall be comforted by this truth: That “the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward” (v.24). Someday, they will be rewarded by the Lord Jesus, whom they ultimately serve (v.24).

3. Exhort them to be missional-minded. The Bible commands every believer, including professionals, to make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). The corporate world is ripe for the harvest. Professionals must then learn to engage in evangelistic conversations with their co-workers, invite them to their churches, and even begin Bible study or fellowship groups in their companies. If they happen to have believing bosses, they can be strategic by collaborating with them and make workplace ministry a reality.

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