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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.)?

Jesus Had to Go Through Temptations First

This was the short devotional talk I gave for the first general assembly of the Friday Night Light (FNL) group, the young singles ministry of Christ’s Commission Fellowship Makati (CCFM), of which I am proudly part of its core team. This happened last Wednesday. We will launch our weekly gathering next week, February 3, Friday. So please include us in your prayers.

I gave my commitment to the FNL team middle of December last year. It truly is an honor to be a part of the Lord’s work in Makati. But after I gave my commitment, temptations came too soon. I struggled with lustful thoughts, a struggle that is unusual to me. And I despaired each time I fell into the traps set by the devil.

I asked myself, Why do temptations keep on coming to me? And why were they too strong for me to overcome?

Then I realized something, saying: “Oh yeah, I just gave my devotion to the Lord’s vision and work among the young singles of the Makati church.”

By God’s providence, I remembered the story when Jesus was tempted by Satan. Let’s read Matthew 4:1-11.

What is really astonishing to me are the events that happened after the temptation of Jesus:

• Jesus began His ministry, preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17).
• He called Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, as well as James and John the sons of Zebedee, and made them fishers of men (4:18-22).
• He ministered in Galilee, “teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people” (4:23).
• He ministered to great crowds who “followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan” (4:25).
• He gave the longest recorded sermon, Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7).
• He cleansed a leper (8:1-4).
• He cast out spirits and healed all who were sick, including Peter’s mother-in-law (8:14-17).
• He healed two demon-possessed men in the country of Gadarenes (8:28-34).
• He healed a paralytic (9:1-8).
• He called Matthew the tax collector (9:9).
• He healed a woman “who had suffered from a discharge of blood for twelve years” and restored the life of a ruler’s daughter (9:18-26).
• He opened the eyes of two blind men (9:27-31).
• He healed a demon-possessed and mute man (9:32-34).
• And so on and so forth.

So what can we observe from these? Before doing any ministry, Jesus had to go through temptations first. I want to believe that the devil meant the temptations to stop Him in his mission and make Him look like a fraud. But God meant it to prove to the world that He is the Son of God, and as the Son of God He will redeem sinners like you and me. And when He overcame the temptations, He did ministry after ministry. He was never a fraud!

In my case, the devil wants to make me look like a fraud. He wants to say, “Enzo, you think you want to serve God? Guess what? You just fell into sin. You’re nothing but a fraud! You’re not really fit for the Lord’s work among the young singles of Makati. So get out from there!”

He wants to cast doubts on my calling. He wants me to abandon my mission. And ultimately, he wants me to disobey the God who gave me this ministry. He wants me to look like a fraud!

I don’t know about you. Maybe you are also facing the same situation. Or if you aren’t, just wait; it will soon come. But here’s my encouragement: Just as Jesus was steadfast and proved to the world that He is the Son of God by overcoming the temptations, and eventually did ministry after ministry, we must remain steadfast in the midst of temptations, overcoming them to become fruitful in our ministries.

By the way, I overcame the temptations I once had. This is because of God’s grace!

Fasting Week, Intercession, and Intimacy with God

On January 9-15, my church, Christ’s Commission Fellowship (CCF), went through a church-wide prayer and fasting. Corporate prayer and fasting have become an annual practice of my church for already four years.

There is no greater way to start the year than to dedicate a week for prayer and fasting, seeking the Lord and His will. As far as I know, my church is not alone on this matter (Victory Christian Fellowship (VCF), another evangelical megachurch here in the Philippines, also conducted their own fasting week. And I believe there are other evangelical churches doing the same). It’s such an encouraging thought to know that Filipino evangelicals are together on this.

Personally, the fasting week was somehow different than the previous ones. No, I’m not speaking negatively. Rather, I found the week more exciting than before. I was excited at the thought of lifting my personal petitions to the Lord, interceding for my friends (more on this in a while), and expecting Him, by faith, to do the amazing, even in the midst of an empty stomach.

True enough, He did the amazing. There are troubles I encountered along the way, but God was on time to answer my prayers.

Interceding for Friends

Like I said a while ago, I was excited to pray for, or intercede, for my friends. I prayed for lots of my friends and for their requests.

When I prayed for them, I can’t help but be reminded of Epaphras, the pastor of the Colossian church. We read Him praying for his church in 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.

Actually, he wasn’t just praying or interceding for his people. He was struggling (agonizomai) in praying for them. He went through that agonizing pain of praying for them. Why? Because he wants them to “stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.” This pastor of the church in Colosse must have really loved his people! (I’ll be blogging on Epaphras and his struggle in praying in the near future).

It was an honor to struggle in prayer for my friends, just as Epaphras struggled in prayer for the Colossian church. Besides from getting their prayer requests answered, may my friends stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.

Intimacy with God

This year, my church’s fasting week was themed Becoming Intimately Dependent on God. Obviously, the focus is on intimacy with God.

I’ll share my thoughts on this. While I was reviewing the prayer lists of my friends, I observed that almost all of them asked for intimacy with the Lord for this year. So what can I draw from this? This only means that intimacy with the Lord is but a normal thing for a Christian.

Now, I don’t mean to say that all Christians pursue intimacy with God. What I’m trying to say is that it is the normal thing to do. If we’re truly a Christian, we should love Him with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength, as the Great Commandment tells us (Mark 12:30). Admittedly, we most of the times fall short on this, right?

Also, I don’t mean to say that all of my friends are sincere about it (though I pray that they are true to it). It’s highly possible that since everybody is doing prayer and fasting, the “pursuit” of intimacy with the Lord could only be a hype for many. Then pretty soon, they abandon this desire, no matter how noble it is.

But we must desire intimacy with the Lord and be true to this desire. The psalmist David writes:

4One thing have I asked of the LORD, / that will I seek after: / that I may dwell in the house of the LORD / all the days of my life, / to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD / and to inquire in his temple. (Psalm 27:4)

David desired intimacy with God. He was truly a man with a resolve to passionately pursue an intimacy with God. May we become like him. (Read my blog Why Must We Be Intimate with God? for a related discussion).

When Letting Go Becomes the Easier Option

The phrase “Let go and let God” is common among Christians, or at least in my youth group. For most of them, they have experienced letting go of something they once have been desirous of, allowing God to work in their midst. And eventually, in His perfect time, God had blessed them with something that surpasses the very thing they had let go.

Letting go is actually a beautiful thing. I believe it’s biblical. I’m reminded of the story of Abraham, when God asked him to sacrifice his only son to Sarah, Isaac, whom he loved. And because he did not withhold his son, because he was willing to let him go, he was blessed with so much (see Genesis 22 for the whole story).

A Recent Realization

For many of us, we’ve been praying for something. It could be a material blessing. Or an admission to a premiere university. Or an employment to a desired company. Or a job promotion. Or a ministry. Or a future spouse. Or a restoration of a relationship. Or the salvation of a loved one. Or deliverance from sickness. Or the fulfillment of an ambition. So on and so forth.

However, we find our prayers not being answered by God. And almost undiscerningly, we say to ourselves, “I think I must let go of it.” It sounds noble and sacrificial of us. And it seems the right thing to do.

But is it really the right thing to do? Have we prayed enough, read the Bible enough, and even asked for godly counsel enough to discern the Lord’s will and make this decision? Or are we just letting go as a form of escape?

For most of us, letting go have become the easier option compared to its counterpart, holding on. I can attest to that. We’d rather enjoy the comfort of letting go than endure the pain of holding on. We’d rather stop praying than persevere on it.

Here’s what I realized: Letting go isn’t always the right thing to do. In fact, it could even be the wrong choice to make, especially when God wants us to hold on.

I’m not saying that letting go is a bad thing. I said a while ago that it is beautiful and even biblical. But I’m calling Christians to discern the Lord’s will, not resorting to letting go as the only option, as if it is the only noble, sacrificial, and right thing to do. I’m encouraging them that they hold on steadfastly, if that is the Lord’s will.

A Few Encouragements

Letting go, given it is the Lord’s will, is hard. The same is true for holding on. Before I end this blog, let me give you a few verses that I find helpful on holding on in prayer:

14Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD! (Psalm 27:14)

5Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. (Proverbs 3:5)

28And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)

My View on the Prayer of Acceptance

In one of the meetings I attended before, the people and I discussed if we should ask speakers to invite the crowd to pray the prayer of acceptance (or more known as the sinner’s prayer, if I’m not mistaken). We somehow had a passionate discussion about the prayer.

So what do I think of the prayer of acceptance? I’m going to give my perspective of it, and my practice whenever I speak.

I believe that there’s nothing wrong or sinful about asking people to pray this prayer after a message, especially when it’s an evangelistic one. I’ve seen some people who were truly converted, and their means to profess their faith was by saying the prayer. Even I myself invite a person to pray it after I have explained them the Gospel and have affirmed that he has truly understood and believed it.

But when I give a message, I don’t ask the people to pray the prayer. Why? Because I believe that the Gospel is meant to be fully and clearly understood first. And I simply don’t believe in saying, “Some of you have not yet accepted the Lord Jesus into your life. Now, I’m giving you an opportunity. Say this prayer with me.” without the hearer understanding the Gospel.

The Gospel is meant to be fully and clearly understood! The hearer must acknowledge that he is a sinner and is spiritually bankrupt (Romans 3:23, Matthew 5:3). He must understand that he is bound for hell because of his sins (Romans 6:23, Revelation 21:8). But Christ died for his sins and by placing his faith on Him, he can be forgiven (John 3:16, Ephesians 2:8-9). He is “the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through [Him]” (John 14:6).

Along with other wonderful ones, these are the great truths of the Gospel. Between the sermon and the prayer (and that’s an incredibly short time!), I can hardly find the preacher being able to clearly explain them, and I can hardly find the hearer having a good grasp of them. (Of course, let’s assume the sermon is non-evangelistic).

I’d rather sit down with them after the message, and clearly explain them the Gospel. Or leave the Gospel-sharing to the evangelism team.

But I’m leaving this matter to the speaker or preacher and the Spirit’s leading on him.

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