So in this series on Reclaiming Lost Children , we’ve seen that God wants all of our children – that He hasn’t given up on any of them – and we have seen that He doesn’t want us to give up on them either. Then we discussed four ways that we can work within the will of God to motivate people who’ve left so that they might return.
We saw, first of all, that when people feel alienated and alone that a sense of belonging will help them. And anything we can do to help them feel that is good. We saw, secondly, that when people feel like spiritual failures, that encouraging them to use their talents to help others will help that feeling to diminish and they’ll be encouraged. Thirdly, we saw that when people feel constricted and defiant, that encouraging autonomy will help them feel some spiritual power and encourage them to take action. Lastly, we saw that when people are distracted from God and self-centered, we can appeal to their altruism to motivate them in God’s direction.
We saw that all these things are built into our brain They just need to be stimulated. So all of these are powerful ways to help, because all these urges are just a part of us, and, if activated, then motivation takes place.
Then at the end of the last presentation we talked about the importance of listening to the stories of those who have left, because that’s how we learn what they need. That’s how we learn what we can do to help them.
Today I want to talk to you about a spiritual tool that’s more powerful by far than all these four put together, plus even this last one of listening. And I want to begin to explain this tool by telling you a true story.
A young person came to me some time ago for help. She was discouraged. She had some problems that had been troubling her for a long, long time. She was long weary with them. Have you ever been in that situation? Ever had a problem you just couldn’t rid of? And you wondered if you’d ever be able to overcome it? Well, she was there. And she was just sick to death of her problem. She was despairing of ever being able to get past the problems that she came to talk about. And when she was with me she recounted a long history of the things that she had done to try to overcome her problem. And I noted that while, she was talking to me, that, because of the types of problems that she had, very few people understood her. She’s quite different from most of us, I think. Her life had been one of isolation. And her struggle had been conducted alone, because she was so misunderstood.
While she was talking to me, she cried the whole time. She just wept constantly as she told me this long story, where she very carefully recounted everything that she had done to try to overcome her problem. And at the end she said, “I’ve tried everything I can think of and nothing has worked.” Now, this person had not left the church and she’d not given up on God. So, in that sense, her story doesn’t really fit the subject of this series, because we’re talking about people who have left. But, in one sense, her story has a lot to do with those who have left because her statement and her story convey the most profound sense of discouragement that I can recall. “I’ve tried everything I can think of and nothing has worked.” Can you hear it? Can you hear the desperation?
That’s the way a lot of people who have left have felt. They felt discouraged. And as I listened to her story, I have to confess, I was discouraged, too. I was discouraged with her in her discouragement. She’d been so thorough in her long effort to deal with her problems. It was really an amazing effor that she had made. All of her young adult life and through her high school years she had battled these problems. And she’d been so thorough in doing that that I couldn’t think of a single thing that she could try that she hadn’t already tried. All I could do was cry with her. Now I’ll have to say, as an aside…. And I should tell you that some months later we were talking about that talk we had and she told me that just knowing she could be understood by somebody was incredibly encouraging to her. I don’t know what part that played in what I’m about to tell you next – I think perhaps more of a minor part. I think the fact that I had nothing from my education or of myself – my own experience to offer her – led me to do what I did next. I asked her what I could do to help. She didn’t really have an answer. She’d tried everything. But finally she said, “Well, you can call me and talk to me.” So, I told her that I would call her every week. And then I added something to that. I said, “I’m also going to pray for you every day .” And so I did that. I called her just to check up on her – to see if she was okay and just to keep it in her mind that I cared enough about her to pray for her and was not forgetting to pray for her. And I should also mention that I didn’t live close to her, so the telephone was the only way I had to maintain any contact. I don’t call every one that I pray for every week, because they don’t all need it. And sometimes I can see them in person, but this one lived a long way off and needed me to do that and thought it would be helpful. So that’s what I did.
I’m going to tell you something else I did. I’ve never told her about this. In fact, I’ve never told anybody about it. But every day when I would pray for her, I would, in my mind’s eye, take her face in the palms of my hands and look into her eyes. I do that for all the women and the children in my life that I pray for. So I think she was in pretty good company. That’s my bias, though. What that does is it helps me to get in touch with them, and helps me to focus on what they need, and to think specifically about them. So I kept doing that. I would call her sometimes and she would be okay, and sometimes she would be in the depths of despair – was up and down. A few times when I called her she was crying when I called her. Sometimes she wouldn’t answer the phone because she was so discouraged. But I kept my promise – day in and day out, week by week, month by month. And you know, that part is not unlike the young woman I told you about in the first sermon I gave, who prayed for her friend every day until God called her friend back into the church. You remember that story about how this young woman said she became a prayer warrior for her friend. So, I think I actually learned from that young woman how to do that.
Anyway, I kept after it and I didn’t let go of it, and sometime later I had a chance to see her again – months later. When I had a chance to see her I could see that she was still very troubled, but not quite as despairing as she had been before. Then I had an opportunity to see her a few months after that and I noticed this time that there was a real difference. Her spiritual health, while it wasn’t complete, was beginning to blossom before my eyes. She still had some difficulties, but they were no longer consuming her. Her life was being given back to her as she, and those who loved her, struggled for it.
Now, remember, I had already admitted defeat. I had no clue what to do. I can’t take any credit. She asked me to take care of her and the only thing I could do was pray. You know, that’s saying something, because I work with suicidal teenagers all day long, and I’m supposed to really know what I’m doing – about how to help people. And yet, she had been so thorough in her efforts, I couldn’t give her anything concrete she could do. So all I could do was pray. And I think I learned something all over again from that experience that I very much needed to know.
Let’s go to Hebrews 7, and verse 25. What is it that I needed to learn all over again? I quoted this scripture previously in this series because it’s been on my mind.
Heb. 7:25 – Paul, here, is talking about Jesus Christ, and he says, Wherefore He is able also to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. God can easily do what we can never do. When we can’t think of what to do next, He doesn’t even have to think twice. He knows what to do. And we already know that He wants to save all of us. And we know, from this scripture, that He’s perfectly capable of doing that. So we can know that when we ask Him to do what He’s told us He’s already going to do – to rescue the ones that we love – of course, He is going to do that. He is going to do that – maybe not when we want Him to, maybe not the way we want Him to, and maybe not the first time we ask Him. But I know, from personal experience, that He does hear us and He does act based on what we do – what we do. Isn’t that just the most amazing thing to think about? That the God of the universe changes the course of His activities based on what we can ask Him about? We know He’s going to save them, but we want it now , don’t we? And sometimes He gives us that.
So, okay, the cat’s out of the bag now. The powerful spiritual implement that I’m talking about is intercessory prayer. It’s powerful because God listens and because He’s able “to save to the uttermost those who come to Him.”
There’s a parable in Luke, the 18 th chapter, beginning in verse 1.
Lk. 18:1 – It says, He – that’s Christ, again – spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart, saying, “There was, in a certain city, a judge who did not fear God, nor regard man.” Now there was a widow in that city, and she came to him, saying, “Get justice for me from my adversary.” And he would not for a while, but afterward, he said within himself, “Though I do not fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow troubles me, I will avenge her lest by her continual coming she weary me.” “I’m getting tired of her bugging me. She’s just an irritant.”
That’s really an interesting story Jesus told. We’re supposed be an irritant if we want to get what we want. We can’t be afraid of coming to God over and over again, and think that He’s going to blot us out because we’re irritating Him. This is a story Jesus gave us to tell us what to do ! So Jesus said, Hear what the unjust judge said. Shall God not avenge His own elect, who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?
Now it might seem like this doesn’t, at first glance, really apply. What vengeance are we seeking when we ask God to bring someone back? I’ve been thinking about that, and I really think that maybe we’re a bit naive. Who do we think it is that really is behind all of the discourgement and the lack of faith that we encounter? I seem to remember a parable where Jesus said that some of the seed He scatters is caught away by the devil. There is always a spiritual war being waged around the people of God. We do need at times to ask God to restrain the devil.
Now, I’m not superstitious. I don’t see the devil behind every bush. And he’s not like God, because he can’t be every place at once. He can only be one place at a time. So, he can’t be blamed for all the ridiculouly stupid things that we do, but when we see fierce and uncontrolled rage, when we see paralyzing anxiety and discouragment, when we see doubt and weakness, and when we see people alienated from each other, we can know that those things do not come from God. We can, at least, know that Satan has sown some seeds of his own, even though he may not be directly involved. He is the one who harasses us and bothers us and weakens us. And we need to be avenged of him. God promises that He will do that. He will do that for us.
Now, there’s another core aspect of this scripture. Jesus asked if He would find faith on the earth when He returns. That’s an interesting question, isn’t it? “Will I find faith on the earth? Will everybody have stopped praying by the time I come back? Will everyone have given up on asking me for the things that they need? Will they have given up on praying for the ones who’ve left? Will they no longer believe that I can do that?” Or will we allow God to bolster us as we pray for our children, and for all those who’ve left, and watch Him answer our prayers?
I think about a lot of the young people I know who walk among us – who haven’t left us, but who are still trying to find their way into a deeper relationship with God. As I get to know more and more of them, I see that many of them really, really need help. Some of them are in crisis. Some of them have very serious doubts. That’s normal, I think, at that age. When people are young adults at that age, they have to revisit things that they’ve been taught and decide for themselves whether they’re really true. So to have doubts is not an abnormal thing. But sometimes those doubts become overwhelming, and sometimes the anxiety that comes with them becomes overwhelming. Some of them are afraid about what’s going to happen to them.
Who do you know that urgently needs God’s help? What young person? What young person do you know? What young person who has left the faith? Would it be your own children? Or your brother, or your sister? Or your friend, or the child of your friends? Whose face can you hold in the palm of your hands in prayer every day? Who can you love in God’s presence? That’s really all it takes, if we’ll think about it. God has given us a way that we can make a difference for the people we love. I’ve seen that. I’ve experienced that. How excellent is that when that happens? Sometimes we have to be patient.
As I revisited this story from my past, it caused me to think about a Biblical story I hadn’t read since the last time I read the Bible. As we get older we really need to read the Bible more often, because our memory fails us. It seemed to me like I hadn’t read this story in a decade, and yet when I checked, it had only been two years. Here’s the story. It’s in Genesis 32:24.
Gen. 32:24 – Then Jacob was left alone. And a Man – the word man is capitalized in the English translation, so actually that’s “ the Man” – that’s the Man – that’s God. That’s who he was wrestling with. …the Man wrestled with him until the breaking of day. Now when He saw that He did not prevail against him – He capitalized. So when God saw that He did not prevail against Jacob, He touch the socket of his hip. And the socket of Jacob’s hip was out of joint as he wrestled with Him. And God said, “Let me go, for the day breaks.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” So He said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” And He said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with man and have prevailed.”
There’s so much in this story that connects to my experience in praying for my young friend. It says that Jacob was left alone. When someone asks you for help and you don’t have any to give, that’s a pretty lonely feeling. I would pray, and then I would call her up, and she would be crying sometimes, and despairing, and it would feel like “a lot of good that’s doing.” Why isn’t God answering my prayer? So I felt like saying to God, “I don’t care how bad it gets, I’m not going to let go until you bless me.” Some mornings I would say, “It’s me. I’m back. Here’s the local irritant here to bug you one more time,” and hold that child’s face in the palms of my hands and love her before God, and ask Him to work a miracle. And you know, it says just as Jacob was about to get the upper hand, God played dirty with him and dislocated his hip. I mean, that was like all the stuff I had to do that tried to keep me from praying and calling like I promised. Some days it was just so hard. It was like it was just too much to do. But it says that Jacob eventually prevailed, and he got the blessing he wanted. How do you think he felt when that happened? Well, there’s another rendition of this – a recollection of this story. It’s in Hosea 12. And it adds something that we’re not told in the account in Genesis, so let’s turn over there and read that.
Hos. 12:2 – The LORD also brings a charge against Judah, and will punish Jacob according to his ways. According to his deeds He will recompense him. He took his brother by the heel in the womb, and in his strength he struggled with God. Yet he struggled with the angel and prevailed. He wept and sought favor from Him. So when he struggled with God and when he prevailed, he was so happy that he wept. He’d won! He won! He got what he wanted. And I would say that he probably felt pretty good and pretty powerful.
That’s really funny, isn’t it? Because God wanted to give him the blessing all along, didn’t He? That was the plan. But God has a way of doing things with us, doesn’t He? When God got through with Jacob, he felt like he fought this great battle – the battle of his life – and had prevailed. I can relate to it. I did nothing for my friend, really, except to pray. And I knew I was praying for what God was already going to do anyway, but it just bothered me to see to see her in so much pain, I wanted Him to help her now . So, when I finally was face to face with that young woman, and I realized that I was looking at real solid health and strength for, perhaps, the first time, I felt like I had prevailed. And I wept, too. I was so happy for her. Of course, being a guy, I didn’t let her know that, but I was so moved by….. There are still problems. We all have them, but she’s got her life back. And that’s such a good thing.
Now, why does God do that to us? Why does He make us wrestle with Him to get what He already plans to give us? A lot of us tend to just sit back and think, “Well, He’s going to give it to me anyway. Why bother? It’s all going to happen, so why do I need to do that?” To answer that question, I had to take a hard look at what happened as a result of this experience I had. One of the things that I know for sure, is that the bond between me and that young woman is lot closer than it was when she first came to talk to me. You can’t pray for somebody everyday, and hold their face in your hands, and love them before God and not feel close to them. The fact that I called her every week confirmed to her that I hadn’t given up, and that I was still on the job and that I was checking in with her, made her feel closer to me, too.
But you know, it’s not just that. It’s that we’re forever tied together in something that was very powerful, and something very good, that neither one of us had any control over – that we were helpless. She’s my little sister in Jesus Christ. That’s always going to be the way it is.
I told this story from my own perspective, but there were other people who also were doing the same thing for her at the same time I was. I was not alone. Neither was she. And all of us have come to the same conclusion, recently, about her – that she’s better. And so we’re all so happy together for her. We’ve all become closer, because we’re united in the love that we have for our little sister. And that’s a really, really great feeling to have.
But there’s even more to it than that actually. I think about the father in the parable – the father of the lost son who was always looking out at the road with his son’s face in the palm of his hands, hoping to catch a glimpse of him returning home – not knowing if he would ever see him again. But he was the first one to see him, because he was the one that was looking – his son’s face in his mind’s eye, hoping to catch a glimpse of him returning home.
Now, I’m going to give you an example – and this is a really bad example – but I’m going to give it to you anyway. During the Iraq war, while the army was advancing toward Bahgdad, I saw a report by one of those imbedded reporters – you know, those guys – the ones that went with the troops as they advanced from Kuwait up to Bahgdad. And he was interviewing a young African-American soldier. This guy was sitting there with his flap jacket. He’s got his helmet on. And he’s hanging on the handles of the machine gun in some kind of armored vehicle. The guy’s kind of up on it with this microphone in his face talking to him. The reporter was asking him about the advance that they had made. I think it was the biggest advance in the history of warfare, where they covered 120 miles in a couple of days. And he was asking him if he had any heavy action. And he said, “No, not really.” They had advanced rapidly without encountering too much resistance. He said, “Sometimes we encounter the enemy, but they usually run. Once in awhile they shoot at us, and when they do, we have something for them.” That’s what he said! Of course, that was probably one of the biggest understatements of the war, because what he meant was, “When they shoot at us, we unleash living hell on them!”, because the fire power of the US Army is unparalleled in the history of warfare.
We’re told in 2 Corinthians 10 that the weapons of our warfare are mighty in God, aren’t we? What I’ve learned from this whole thing is, when I encounter a young person who is deeply mired in fear, or anxiety, or doubt, or anger, I do not have to be afraid for them, because I have something for them. It’s not living hell. It’s living hell for the devil! It’s going to be good for them. It’s as good for them as it is bad for the devil.
So I feel closer to the young woman I prayed for. I feel closer to the people that were with me in that – praying with me for her – and I feel closer to all the other young adults that I know that need help, because I know God will help them. Sometimes they don’t even necessarily feel close to me, but I can still hold their faces in the palms of my hands in prayer. And I know God will send someting really good their way. And that’s a really great feeling.
There’s even more than that! Not only did I wrestle with God and won, or even that He let me win, or that it’s so nice to know that you have pull with The Man, or even the love and gratitude that I feel toward God helping my friend – how humbling that is to know that we can’t do anything of ourselves, but all we have to do is ask God, and hang with it, and He’s going to answer our prayers – but there’s something much, much more important than that. I talked a little bit about it in the sixth presentation. I made the statement that the most important thing we learn about God, we can learn easiest when we’re babies. And that is that we learn to trust our mothers. Well, God has built the system in our brain so that we can attach to our mothers and to our fathers. There’s been a lot of debate about what is it that the mother does that causes the baby to attach to the mother? We used to think that it had to do with feeding the baby, changing the baby and providing all the things that the baby needs – picking the baby up before it cries, so it doesn’t cry a lot. They’ve discovered that there are some babies who really weren’t that well taken care of by their mothers who are still very securely attached to them, believe it or not. So, it’s not all that stuff that we used to think that causes that attachment. What is it?
What they’ve discovered is, it’s the way that the mother attunes herself to the baby’s mental state. And that happens in tiny interactions, all through the day, between the mother and the baby – where the baby senses that she is really understood by the mother – that the mother is on the same page with the baby mentally. That’s what it’s all about. See, because babies – infants – don’t even have words. So this is all pre-verbal. It all has to do with mind-state. And when the baby feels that the mother is on the same page she is, then that’s what makes the baby feel that she will be taken care of, and that she’s worth being taken care of. Isn’t that interesting? The mother does not have to look into the babies eyes for thirty minutes at a time for this to happen. There’s just tiny little interactions that might take less than a second. But several of them – many of them – throughout the day – that they become one state of mind.
Do you remember that we’re made in the image of God? That we’re a lot like God in some ways? Well, we saw last time that God always feels a sense of belonging, didn’t we? And when we feel a sense of belonging as well, we’re actually in the same state of mind He’s in. When we feel like we belong to Him, then we’re in that state of mind. There’s an atonement that’s taking place between us and God when that’s happening. So you see, the same process is activated to draw close to God, and attach to God, that is used when we’re infants. To me, that’s just the most amazing thing. It’s the same process that’s going on. We’re made in God’s image, and He’s created the same process in us to attach to our mothers that we use to attach to Him.
When you take the face of another person in the palms of your hands in your mind, and you let God see how you feel – when you show Him how much you love them in prayer – that you’re feeling just like God feels toward that person. Because He loves all of us. And when we do that – when we have those little moments in time when we do that…. I had a lot to pray about, so I didn’t spend a lot of time with this young woman’s face in my mind’s eye – it was just there – and then I said what I had to say. But those states are what God, I think, is after in us. He wants us to learn to become like Him. And when we do what He says, we do become like Him. You see, He’s fixed it so that we have to do it over and over and over – just like the mother with the baby – every day. That’s why we can’t just go and ask one time, and He says, “Yes, I was going to do that anyway.” He makes us keep asking and asking and asking, because He wants us to get in that state that He’s in more and more and more. The attachment that baby builds in just little tiny interactions form an attachment, and it has to be repeated over and over. And once that happens, then that lasts all the baby’s life. That attachment style that the baby has becomes her way of attaching to other people all the rest of her life.
So Hebrews 7, and verse 25, says…I’m going to go back and read that again to you, because there’s a part that we left off.
Heb. 7:25 – Therefore, He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. See, Jesus is able to save us, because He is always able to make intercession for us. He is constantly making interecession for us before God. When we become intercessors, when we go to God for someone else, we’re learning to play His role and be like Him, aren’t we? It’s the wrestling – the over and over again – praying every day for somebody that we care about – that puts us in God’s state of mind. We’re building a habit. We’re building a style.
Now, we’ve talked about praying for the people we love. That’s easy enough. God tells us to pray for the ones we don’t. We’re supposed to pray for our enemies. Why do you think He tells us to do that? Well, if somebody does something terrible to you, and you take their face in the palms of your hands in prayer, and ask God to help them because you know He loves them – that’s why we do it – and guess what? After a bit, you will, too. After a bit you will to. Paul said, “Great is the mystery of godliness.” That’s true. And yet, you know, I don’t think it’s as mysterious to me as it used to be. I can see what God is doing. He has revealed it to us.
It’s kind of sad to me, because from my past background in church, there’s always been an effort to help people. But the way we’ve kind of tried to do it is by devising programs and systems and rules that go along with all the programs and systems to help people. We’ve always tried to program help for people. But, you know, those things really aren’t necessary. Jesus didn’t start a single program – didn’t start a single one. All we have to do is just help the people that God sends to us. We don’t have to help everybody – just the ones He sends us. And sometimes we can’t even help all of them. Sometimes people don’t want us to help them. Or sometimes they don’t know they need help, but we can still pray for them. And we can still love them. And that’s all that we have to do. There’s plenty of other people to help. So, we just have to do what’s been given to us. It’s so great, because the results of doing that simple thing that I was told to do, caused me to end up closer to everybody involved and to God – caused me to end up closer to everyone and to God. Doesn’t that tell us something? Doesn’t it tell us what’s most important to God? Doesn’t tell us what the law is all about? And what the church is all about?
I’d like to wrap up this series, as we think about that necessary state of mind that we need to play our role with God, by reading a story from the Bible – or at least quoting it. It’s in Mark 12, and verse 28. We’ve mentioned this earlier, too, but I think it’s where we need to go.
Mk. 12:28 – It says in verse 28, Then one of the scribes came and he asked, “Which is the first commandment of all?” And Jesus said, “The Lord is One. You shall love the Lord your God and you shall love others as you do yourself.” And so this scribe added to what Jesus said. Here’s a guy adding to what Jesus said. And to love him with all your heart, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices – and also more than all the programs, and all the systems, and all the rules that we make up to help people. And when Jesus saw that this man understood, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”