The book of Psalms contains more prayers than any other section of God’s Word. These prayers are in the form of inspired poems that God’s people sang and recited in expressing their faith: during worship, while traveling down the road, in their daily activities at home, and in every other kind of circumstance. They contain and project full emotions – all the way from exuberant joy to frantic despair.

From a biblical point of view, prayer may be defined as a believer’s communication with God. There are three main elements in prayer: (1) God, (2) the believer, and (3) the communication. If one of these components is missing, prayer cannot occur. Take away God, the believer, or communication and prayer becomes impossible. Why is this true? Without God no one listens; without the believer no one speaks; without communication nothing is said.

The second element in our definition of prayer is the believer. Prayer always involves a human source. God Himself ultimately gives us the ability to pray, but the human instrument still serves as the creaturely source of communication. Prayer emerges from the human mind and heart. We must take care to appreciate this gracious and remarkable gift. We talk to God and He listens.

Whatever a believer’s need may be, and however strong it may be, it can be fully expressed in prayer. It is why the psalmist prayed: “All my longings lie open before you, O Lord; my sighing is not hidden from you. My heart pounds, my strength fails me; even the light has gone from my eyes” (Psalm 38:9-10).

The third element of prayer is the communication. Many Christians design their prayers by using the anagram ACTS – “Adoration, Confession Thanksgiving, and Supplication.” Others design many of their prayers by using the anagram JOY– “Jesus first, Others second, and Yourself third.” These models for designing the content of prayer help many Christians to pray effectively – especially new believers – to balance all they want to include in their prayers.

The prayers found in the Psalms contain all kinds of expressions and patterns. And so can the prayers of twenty-first century Christians today. A mother who has given birth to a stillborn child may find it difficult to begin her prayer with adoration. She would probably need to express her grief and pain. Whatever the need or circumstance with which a believer is dealing, it can be and should be expressed freely and openly with God. Openness and honesty is always appropriate for any believer’s prayer.

The only prayer God cannot answer is one that has not been prayed. That is why He said to the prophet Jeremiah, “Am I only a God nearby, and not a God far away? Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him? Do not I fill heaven and earth?” (Jeremiah 23:23-24).

Remember this: God is only a prayer away. This thought is captured in these words by John Newton:

Behold the throne of grace!
The promise calls me near:
There Jesus shows a smiling face,
And waits to answer prayer.

Gerald Mann, in When the Bad Times Are Over for Good, tells the story of a hunting trip he had taken in eastern Alberta, Canada. When his group jumped into their truck to head out for the first day of their hunt they discovered that all the forward gears were broken. The guide said, “We’ll have to back up to the nearest town and get another vehicle.” The nearest town was 40 miles away.

They started down the narrow road backward at about 20 miles per hour until they came up behind a farmer pulling a trailer full of heifers. He was going about 10 miles per hour and had no rear view mirrors. This, of course, would have made the 40 miles by the hunters an exasperating experience. Finally they saw an opening to pass. The driver inched out into the oncoming lane and gunned it.

The farmer had been totally unaware that another vehicle was traveling behind him. Imagine his shock and surprise when he looked to his left and saw a truck passing him that was going backwards. It startled him so totally that he plowed into the snow bank on the side of the road. His trailer came unhitched from his truck, and the heifers he was carrying were scattered in all directions.

Fortunately, no one was hurt in the accident. The hunters helped the farmer get his heifers back into his trailer and they continued on their way – still traveling in reverse gear, of course. All of a sudden the road was a mass of red lights.

The hunters couldn’t think of a single thing they had done wrong. When they voiced that thought to the Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman, the officer said, “Oh yes, you did something wrong. We have a law in Canada that prohibits drivers from going forward down the road while driving in reverse gear!”

Going forward while driving backward must not be illegal in our country in some ways – because a lot of people try to do it – in government, in various organizations – and, yes, also in churches. Some are so satisfied with where they have been that they are not interested in where they should be going. They either do not have a forward gear or else they are not willing to use it. They spend their time backing up.

Any organization – church, civic club, business, school, industry, etc. – that spends its time and energy backing up, even in the best case scenario, has arrived at the point of mediocrity – and is rapidly heading in the direction of non-existence. This is especially true of lots of churches in our country today. They are not growing because they are not reaching their community with the message of the Christian gospel. They are satisfied to remain as they are.

They are like the hunters in Alberta, Canada described by Gerald Mann. They say they would like to go forward, but they are backing up. They are so wedded to their yesterdays and satisfied with their present that they cannot see the harvest all around them that is ready and waiting to be gathered.

Jesus said to His disciples, “Do not say, ‘Four months more and then the harvest’; I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, and even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together” (John 4:35-36).

What Jesus, in essence, is saying is this: “No church will ever be able to go forward by backing up!” Is your church moving forward? Or is it backing up? It can’t do both simultaneously.

Just as athletes are recognized by their team insignia or badge, Christians are recognized by a God-given badge. At the close of His earthly ministry, Jesus said to His disciples, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another. All men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another” (John 13:34-35). It is when we lack love for others that we are most unlike Jesus.

The Apostle John may have been thinking of these words when he wrote, “This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of Satan are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; neither is anyone who does not love his brother” (I John 3:10).

It is important that what Christians believe be based on the truth found in God’s Word, but believing correct doctrine is not the badge of a believer – as important as believing the right things happens to be. Nor is it to have a high level of involvement in the ministry opportunities of his or her church. Every pastor thanks God for faithful workers without whom the church could not function efficiently. Even so, the fact remains that the best way to recognize believers is by their words and deeds that demonstrate love.

The early Christians took these instructions of Jesus seriously. Tertullian, one of the early Church Fathers, said that pagans commented again and again, “See how these Christians love each other!” Far too often today it can be accurately said of some churches, “See how these Christians argue, disagree, and fight with one another!”

About 125 A.D., a Greek philosopher named Aristides penned the following tribute to the Christians he knew: “They love one another. The widow’s needs are not ignored, and they rescue the orphan from those who would do him violence. He who has gives to him who has not, ungrudgingly and without boasting. If they find poverty in their midst, and they do not have spare food, they fast two or three days in order that the needy might be supplied with necessities.”

Wow! No wonder the Christians of the earliest two or three centuries made such an impact on their world. No wonder Josephus, the Jewish historian, referred to first century Christians as “those who are turning the world upside down.”

Of course, such a glowing description of Christians has not always been earned. In far too many instances today, arguments are a frequent occurrence rather than a rare exception. Arguments produce plenty of heat, but not much light. And usually the weaker the argument is the stronger are the words.

Little more than lip service is far too often given by professing Christians to the importance of loving one another. True, there are some believers in every church who are easily loved, and to be in their company is a blessing. But we all know a few Christians who, like porcupines, have many fine points – however they are the kind of points that can be painful if you get too close to them. This reminds me of an anonymous author’s poem encouraging church members to be positive rather than negative, constructive rather than destructive:

“A good thing to remember
And a better thing to do,
Is to work with the construction gang
And not with the wrecking crew.”

I read recently the story of a much divided congregation that was frequently the scene of strained relations. Different opinions were often expressed in strong and unkind ways at business meetings where committee reports are regularly given and decisions are made. Also, the church had fired the last three pastors who tried to lead the congregation in a positive direction.

When their current pastor saw that the church was unwilling to change its pattern of fighting one another and firing preachers, he knew that his days were also numbered. He wanted to get out of town before a posse formed. So, he applied for and received an appointment to serve as chaplain at the nearby state prison. Elated to be rid of another pastor they had grown to dislike, the church was packed on the Sunday he preached his farewell sermon. He chose as his text, “I go to prepare a place for you . . . that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:3).

His choice of a text included a not-so-subtle message that unless the church changed its ways, he could possibly have the opportunity of preaching to some of them again – at the state prison!

Victor Borge, the renowned pianist, once told a friend that he could tell time by his piano. The friend wasn’t convinced, so Borge proceeded to prove his point. He immediately began playing a resounding march. In only moments there was a noisy banging on the wall, and a loud voice in the next apartment screamed, “Stop that noise! Don’t you know it is 1:30 in the morning?”

Borge had his way of telling time by playing his piano, but he can’t stop time. Only God can do that. Time is like a rapidly flowing river in that once your craft is launched, there is no turning back and no stopping it. The craft of life in which we are riding is carried faster and faster through the turbulence of white water rapids. We would like to slow things down for a little while. But we can’t.

The entity called time is in some ways a strange thing. We do not realize how important it is until we have so little of it left. Scientists, philosophers, and theologians strive to understand it, yet even as they are pondering it, they are controlled by it. Like money, once time is spent, it is gone forever.

What would you do if you received a letter from your bank saying, “Every morning $1,440 will be deposited in your account, and that each evening whatever balance you have failed to use will be deleted”? You would, of course, spend it all – every penny of it, before the bank closed each day. Actually each of us has such a bank. It is called the bank of TIME.

God deposits each day 1,440 minutes into your account. When the day is over those minutes will be gone, never to return again. It would be great if they could, but that will not happen. Each day thereafter is opened with a fresh account of 1,440 possible minutes. At the end of the day they will have vanished into thin air. The minutes you have used wisely will continue to bless you and possibly others. The minutes you failed to use wisely will represent a needless loss. To use tomorrow’s minutes is impossible. Your clock is running.

  • To realize the value of ONE YEAR, ask a student who failed a grade in school.
  • To realize the value of ONE MONTH, ask a mother whose baby died four weeks after being born.
  • To realize the value of ONE HOUR, ask the wife who is waiting for her husband to arrive from Iraq after a long deployment when she has just learned his plane is running an hour late.
  • To realize the value of ONE MINUTE, ask the person who just missed his flight.
  • To realize the value of ONE SECOND ask the basketball player whose team lost the championship because the shot he made came one second late.
  • To realize the value of ONE MILLISECOND, ask the person who won the silver medal in the Olympics.

There is no better time to focus on the value of time and the most productive way to use it than at the beginning of each New Year. Let us all treasure every minute of every hour that we are given, for it is a precious gift from God. It is the surest way that you and I will be able to both glorify God and bless others.

Why is this true? Hours and flowers soon fade away. 

Albert Einstein in 1934 was listed as Public Enemy Number One by the Nazis in Germany. Realizing what this meant, he came to the United States and settled in Princeton University. Among the many stories that grew up around his name, one deals with the time he was scheduled as the guest speaker at a banquet for Distinguished Americans.

When he was called upon to speak, he rose slowly amid generous applause, moved to the speaker’s podium, and said quietly, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry, but I have nothing to say.” He paused, while surprise held the audience in a grip of silence, and then added, “But when I do, I will come back!” Six months later he returned to Princeton and made an important speech.

God did the very same thing. With the oracle given to the prophet Malachi, He closed the Old Testament canon. In effect He said, “I have nothing more to say at this time, but when I do I will come back!” And that is precisely what He did. After a silence of some 450 years, He spoke by sending an angel to say to a group of shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks one night, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).

The writer of the book of Hebrews expressed what happened that very special night in this way: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many and in various ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, and through whom He made the universe” (Hebrews 1:1-2). And what did God say that He had not said before?

He offered forgiveness for our sins without money and without price. In saying that I am not implying that the Old Testament has nothing to say about forgiveness, for it does. The words in Micah 7:18-19 provide only one example. But that forgiveness was conditional upon meeting the requirements of the law, or dependent for its actualization upon something that would happen in the future. Then Christ came, and with the coming of Christ God offers forgiveness for sin, in the here and now, without money and without price.

That is the one thing above all others that we need to know as we journey through life. Is there forgiveness for our sins? Will there be a welcome at the end of the day? Does life have meaning? Is there life beyond the grave? And if there is, can we be assured of God’s love and favor?

God’s answer to these questions is His Son, Jesus Christ. There is life beyond the grave. Jesus said to Martha, sister of Mary and Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25).

We generally associate Christmas with life and laughter, joy and celebration, fun and fellowship, the singing of carols and the giving of gifts. It is good that we do these things, but they are only possible and have meaning because Jesus Christ came into the world to conquer death, to break the power of Satan, and to open the kingdom of heaven to all believers.

We must never forget that the baby in Bethlehem’s manger whom we adore during the Christmas season grew up to become the Savior and Lord of all who believe in Him. Yes, 450 years after Malachi’s prophecy, God came back and said something extremely important. Some refuse to listen. Others listen casually and indifferently. It is my prayer that you will hear Him and respond to the love He offers.

Babe Ruth, a legend in baseball history, was once asked about the people who had influenced his life. He responded by saying, “Most of them were not famous. Few people likely ever heard of them.” He then continued, “I knew an old minister once whose hair was white and whose face shone. I have written my name on thousands of baseballs in my life; he wrote his name on other people’s hearts. How I envy him! He was not trying to please himself and win the plaudits of the world. So, fame never came to him. I am listed as a famous home run hitter. Yet, beside that humble minister who was so good and wise, I never got to first base.”

Babe Ruth is in baseball’s Hall of Fame; an elderly minister was in his Hall of Heroes. When I read Babe Ruth’s statement I began to think about the names I would place in my own Hall of Heroes. What names would you nominate to be in your Hall of Heroes? Few of them would probably be recognized by the world as either great or famous. They would likely be individuals whose singular ambition was to honor God by serving others – and you are one of the people whose lives they touched.

In my own Hall of Heroes, first of all, I nominate my maternal grandfather, John W. Lee. He was a grocer and postmaster in a small town in the state of Georgia. He was a dedicated Christian, a deacon in his church, a thoughtful neighbor, and a friend of all who knew him. When his children and grandchildren got together at Christmas for the annual family feast the entire family would gather around an old pump organ following lunch and sing. He often prayed that God would call one of his sons to be a minister. God answered his prayer by calling me, another of his grandsons, and one great-grandson to become Christian ministers.

My second nominee would be my seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Ruth McClelland. Teaching was for her a calling, not just an opportunity to bring home a paycheck. She taught her pupils more than “reading, writing, and arithmetic” – manners, for example. The first fifteen minutes of every school day was devoted to memorizing Bible verses that began with every letter of the alphabet and end with prayer. No Bible verse begins with the letter “x”, so she selected Luke 13:3 – “Except you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Beginning the day in this way was not politically incorrect or illegal in those days. Judges did not interpret the “separation of church and state” to mean “separation of God and state.” Thank God for dedicated teachers.

My third nominee would be an elderly couple, Joe Perry and Susie Dominy, members of my first pastorate when I was attending Mercer University. Every Sunday night after the evening worship service we would drive fifty miles back to Mercer with vegetables, eggs, milk, etc. they had given us. This helped tremendously because my weekly salary in the early 1950’s was the enormous sum of $35 per week.

The fourth nominee for my Hall of Heroes is really at the top of my list – and it is my wife, Jessie. No minister ever had a more faithful or supportive wife. She was as committed to what God called me to do as I have tried to be. The job of being a minister and wife requires a willingness to do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, and in a way that both glorifies God and meets the spiritual need of individuals. She gave her spiritual gifts freely with both skill and dedication as a teacher of God’s Word.

After almost 65 years of service by my side serving six churches as pastor and wife, and then ten more churches as interim pastor and wife, she went home to be with the Lord on April 5, 2016. I have the joy of knowing that our story has not ended. At a time of God’s own choosing it will continue in “the city not made by hands, eternal, in the heavens” the city that John, in the book of Revelation, calls “the New Jerusalem.”

Omnipotence is a word you aren’t likely to use all that much in everyday conversation. It is a word that can only be applied to God. Question: What does the awe-inspiring word omnipotence mean? Answer: God is all powerful. He can do anything. He can heal all diseases. He can eradicate all crime and stop the abuse of every innocent victim. He can make tornadoes and hurricanes nonexistent. He can extinguish wars and squash injustice. He can bring harmony within families everywhere, feed every person who is hungry, alleviate all problems, stop all physical pain, cure diseases, and even eliminate death.

Yes, God can do these miraculous things! Does He always do them? No! The logical question we then ask is: “Why doesn’t He?” The answer lies in another word that only applies to God – sovereignty. God is a sovereign God. If that for which we pray is selfish in nature (see James 4:3), or is not in keeping with His will, or is not in keeping with His character, He will not do it.

If God wants to deliver the prophet Daniel from the salivating jaws of the hungry lions, or let James be decapitated, or give Peter an angelic escort out of prison, or permit thousands of Christians to be martyred in Roman coliseums, or allow His only Son, Jesus, to suffer the cruel death of crucifixion to satisfy His justice in providing redemption, He will. Whether God answers our prayers in precisely the way we ask or in a different way that He chooses, His answer, whatever it is, will both glorify Him and be in our best long-term interest.

Annie Kate Powell, a dear lady in Warsaw, North Carolina during the 1960’s, understood this. She contracted polio when she was very young. Both she and her family prayed that she might not become an invalid. Her brother, his wife, and their daughter were Christian missionaries in Nigeria. Surely God would answer their prayer and deliver her from becoming an invalid. It didn’t happen! She became an invalid!

Annie Kate might have succumbed to the icy grip of self-pity, or yielded to the whisper of suicide. She chose instead to bear witness to the love of God from her sickbed. She lived well into her eighties. No one ever had a brighter smile. Few people, if any, have ever given a more radiant witness of God’s love.

How easy it is to believe that God doesn’t love us, or that He has no power to heal, if our prayers are not answered in the exactly the way we ask. Prayer is one of God’s greatest gifts to believers. But how many of us would be much worse off than we are if God had given us everything for which we prayed? Since we know that God loves us, we can trust Him to answer our prayers in a way that brings glory to His name. If God existed only to meet our needs in the way and on the schedule we prescribe for Him, we would be His master and He would be our servant. Prayer has never worked that way. It still doesn’t. It never will.

One of the great Bible verses dealing with prayer is found in Matthew 7:7 – “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Yes, God answers every prayer we pray. Sometimes He says “Yes;” sometimes He says “No;” and sometimes He says, “Not now.” The daily goal of every Christian should be to submit to God’s sovereignty, for this keeps us in the position of being humble servants who are always available to serve Him in any way He chooses.

Any approach other than that of yielding to God’s sovereignty leaves us high and dry. Whether we drown in a pool of rationalized self-pity or become unrealistic in demanding that God serve us at our bidding, we can be assured that God knows our needs. He is working all things out in a way that will accomplish His purpose and meet our need.