Joe Rigney

Submit Your Felt Reality to God

A number of years ago, a counselor friend of mine introduced a simple and accessible concept that he regularly uses in his practice. He calls it “felt reality.”

Reality is reality. It’s objective. It’s what’s actually happening. Felt reality is what’s happening from my vantage point. It’s reality framed by my own thoughts, assumptions, and emotions.

Reality and felt reality aren’t the same. Sometimes they align — what I think and feel fits with what is actually happening. Other times, my felt reality is out of accord with reality. In such cases, I might be believing lies, or framing reality wrongly, or overreacting. My perspective might be distorted by my emotions or my sinful desires or my own limitations.

Once my friend gave me the category, I found it to be incredibly fruitful in my own life and marriage and parenting and ministry. It gave me a way to speak about human experiences of reality — whether mine or another’s — without necessarily validating those experiences. In other words, it enabled me to acknowledge that I think and feel a certain way, without affirming that such thoughts or emotions were necessarily true or right or good.

“Getting felt reality on the table can be the first step in seeking to steward and shepherd our thoughts and emotions.”

Getting felt reality on the table can be the first step in seeking to steward and shepherd our thoughts and emotions so that they more fully align with God’s.

‘Cut Off from Your Sight’

Even more than that, the concept (though not the term) seems present in the Scriptures. Consider the Psalms. In the middle of Psalm 31, David pleads with God to deliver him from his distress. In doing so, he vividly describes what it’s like to be in the pit:

His eyes are wasted from grief. They’re heavy from crying; they feel like lead. He just wants to rest, but there is no rest (verse 9).
His soul is wasted. His body is wasted. There is a weariness that reaches to every part of David’s existence (verse 9).
His life is spent with sorrow and his years with sighing (verse 10). This is how it feels: “I’ve been here forever, and I’ll be here forever.”
His strength fails (and he knows he partially deserves it because of his sin), and his bones just waste away (verse 10).

David’s powerful emotional and physical responses are influenced by his perception of reality, of what’s going on around him:

His adversaries have made him a reproach to his neighbors. Everyone runs from him because they think his suffering is contagious (verse 11). “Don’t stand too close to David. Don’t let him breathe on you. You don’t want to catch what he’s got.”
He’s forgotten like the dead. People remember the dead — for a little bit. Then they’re forgotten. That’s how David feels. Dead and useless, like a broken vessel (verse 12). “What good am I?”
He hears the whispering of his enemies around him — terror on every side. The other shoe could drop at any minute. Every rock and tree is ominous. Every bit of news produces fear. The future is filled with the almost certain prospect of bad surprise (verse 13).

This is David’s felt reality, and he gives explicit voice to it in verse 22:

I had said in my alarm, “I am cut off from your sight.”

‘I Shall Never Be Moved’

But these aren’t the only feelings David has had. In the previous psalm, David describes different circumstances and therefore a different felt reality:

As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.” (Psalm 30:6)

Notice the contrast. On the one hand: “In my alarm, I said, ‘I’m cut off.’” On the other hand: “In my prosperity, I said, ‘I’ll never be moved.’” In terms of content, these felt realities are exact opposites. But at another level, they display the power of felt reality in the exact same way.

Both circumstances of alarm and circumstances of prosperity led David to wrongfully exalt his felt reality. In Psalm 31, when he was alarmed, when all the walls were closing in, his felt reality was “It’s over. I’m done. God has abandoned me.” In Psalm 30, when he was living the high life, when he prospered and everything he touched turned to gold, his felt reality was “I’ve made it. I’m immovable and unshakable. God will never test me.”

These are two very different places, but they showcase the same confusion of felt reality and actual reality. In both cases, David was so overwhelmed by his felt reality that he made what he felt into what is. But it wasn’t. Felt reality is not the same as reality.

Facing Our Felt Reality

How then can we face our felt reality? Granting that our feelings and perceptions can be out of accord with what is truly the case, what can we do?

First, we can recognize the crucial connection between our felt reality and our self-talk. David didn’t just feel; he expressed his feelings in speech. And his words reinforced his felt reality.

Words are powerful. What we say shapes the way we view ourselves and our circumstances. Our feelings often reveal our unstated assumptions, our hidden beliefs, and the unrecognized stories by which we make sense of our lives. And then our words give voice to these feelings and reshape or reinforce — for good or ill — who we are and how we see ourselves.

Second, we see the importance of bringing our felt reality to God. David doesn’t muzzle his feelings; he lays them before the Lord in prayer. Whether or not his felt reality corresponds to actual reality, he eventually brings all of it before God, in hope that God will act and speak to him in his prosperity and in his pain.

So too with us. It does no good to hide our felt reality from God. He sees it already. Our task is to unveil before him, to take off the silly mask that we wear and be as honest as we can be in his presence. And the category of felt reality really helps us here. We can both be honest and humble. We can say, “I feel this way” while also saying, “But I don’t know if my feelings are right. Search me, O God, and know my heart. Test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and then lead me in the way everlasting.”

“We not only can bring our felt reality to God, but we can submit our felt reality to the truth of God.”

Finally, bringing these together, we not only can bring our felt reality to God, but we can submit our felt reality to the truth of God. Recall again the two examples of felt reality from Psalms 30 and 31. “In my alarm, I said, ‘I’m cut off.’” “In my prosperity, I said, ‘I’ll never be moved.’”

Hear David’s words in Psalm 31:14, right after he describes his felt reality: “But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’” This is David submitting his felt reality to the truth of God. He brought his felt reality to God, and now he speaks to himself and reasserts the truth of who God is for him.

Speak Reality

With God’s help, we can learn to do the same. We can learn to be honest with God, to ask him to bring our hidden assumptions and unseen narratives to light.

In my alarm, I said, “I’m cut off from your sight.”
In my prosperity, “I’ll never be moved.”
In my grief, “God has forsaken me.”
In my pride, “I’m thankful that I’m not like other men.”
In my envy, “God doesn’t love me like he loves others.”
In my suffering, “No one understands what I’m going through.”
In my despair, “It will never end. It’s hopeless.”

These are the sorts of statements we make in the midst of our trials and our triumphs, out of our passions and our pain. Listen to them, and then bring those feelings and that speech to God, and learn to say something else.

“I trust in you; you are my God. I’m not cut off.”
“I’m not unshakable.”
“You’ve not abandoned me.”
“Have mercy on me, a sinner.”
“You do love me.”
“You do understand.”
“This trial will end. There is hope.”

A Most Harmful Medicine

The new education merely conditions. Having removed all objective value and consideration from reality, they are “free” to shape and mold future generations into whatever they want. Having seized the reins of social conditioning, they will condition for their own purposes (wherever those happen to come from) and with little or no regard for the constraints of custom, tradition, truth, or goodness.

Many people know C.S. Lewis as the author and creator of Narnia. A slightly smaller group know him as a remarkably effective Christian apologist. An even smaller group appreciate him as a scholar of medieval and Renaissance literature. Fewer recognize him as a prophet of civilizational doom. But he was.
In a number of essays, in his lectures on The Abolition of Man, and then in his novel That Hideous Strength, Lewis clearly, patiently, and methodically identifies and warns his readers about an existential threat to Western civilization, and indeed to humanity as a whole.
This threat is a pernicious error that enables tyrannical power and totalitarianism. It’s a fatal superstition that slowly erodes and destroys a civilization. It’s a disease that can end our species and damn our souls. Lewis calls it “the poison of subjectivism.”
Doctrine of Objective Value
Until modern times, nearly all men believed that truth and goodness were objective realities and that human beings can apprehend them. Through reason, we examine and study and wonder at reality. When our thoughts correspond to the objective order of reality, we speak of truth. When our emotional reactions correspond to the objective order of reality, we speak of goodness.
Lewis refers to this as the doctrine of objective value, or, in shorter form, “the Tao.” The doctrine of objective value, Lewis writes, is
the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not. . . . And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it). (Abolition of Man, 18–19)
Poison of Subjectivism
The poison of subjectivism upends this ancient and humane way of viewing the world. Reason itself is debunked — or we might say today that reason is deconstructed. Instead of the human capacity to participate in the eternal Logos, reason is simply an epiphenomenon that accompanies certain chemical and electrical events in the cortex, which is itself the product of blind evolutionary processes. Put more simply, reason is simply an accidental and illusory brain secretion.
Under the influence of this poison, moral value judgments are simply projections of irrational emotions onto an indifferent cosmos. Truth and goodness are merely words we apply to our own subjective psychological states, states that we have been socially conditioned to have. And if we have been socially conditioned in one way, we might be socially conditioned in another.
Education Old and New
Lewis thus refers to the apostles of subjectivism as “conditioners” rather than teachers. Under the old vision of reality, the task of education was to “train in the pupil those responses which are themselves appropriate, whether anyone is making them or not, and in making which the very nature of man consists” (22). Teachers accomplished this through initiation; they invited students into the same experience of reality in which they lived.
The new education merely conditions. Having removed all objective value and consideration from reality, they are “free” to shape and mold future generations into whatever they want.
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A Most Harmful Medicine: How Subjectivism Poisons a Society

Many people know C.S. Lewis as the author and creator of Narnia. A slightly smaller group know him as a remarkably effective Christian apologist. An even smaller group appreciate him as a scholar of medieval and Renaissance literature. Fewer recognize him as a prophet of civilizational doom. But he was.

In a number of essays, in his lectures on The Abolition of Man, and then in his novel That Hideous Strength, Lewis clearly, patiently, and methodically identifies and warns his readers about an existential threat to Western civilization, and indeed to humanity as a whole.

This threat is a pernicious error that enables tyrannical power and totalitarianism. It’s a fatal superstition that slowly erodes and destroys a civilization. It’s a disease that can end our species and damn our souls. Lewis calls it “the poison of subjectivism.”

Doctrine of Objective Value

Until modern times, nearly all men believed that truth and goodness were objective realities and that human beings can apprehend them. Through reason, we examine and study and wonder at reality. When our thoughts correspond to the objective order of reality, we speak of truth. When our emotional reactions correspond to the objective order of reality, we speak of goodness.

Lewis refers to this as the doctrine of objective value, or, in shorter form, “the Tao.” The doctrine of objective value, Lewis writes, is

the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not. . . . And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it). (Abolition of Man, 18–19)

Poison of Subjectivism

The poison of subjectivism upends this ancient and humane way of viewing the world. Reason itself is debunked — or we might say today that reason is deconstructed. Instead of the human capacity to participate in the eternal Logos, reason is simply an epiphenomenon that accompanies certain chemical and electrical events in the cortex, which is itself the product of blind evolutionary processes. Put more simply, reason is simply an accidental and illusory brain secretion.

“Under the influence of this poison, moral value judgments are simply projections of irrational emotions.”

Under the influence of this poison, moral value judgments are simply projections of irrational emotions onto an indifferent cosmos. Truth and goodness are merely words we apply to our own subjective psychological states, states that we have been socially conditioned to have. And if we have been socially conditioned in one way, we might be socially conditioned in another.

Education Old and New

Lewis thus refers to the apostles of subjectivism as “conditioners” rather than teachers. Under the old vision of reality, the task of education was to “train in the pupil those responses which are themselves appropriate, whether anyone is making them or not, and in making which the very nature of man consists” (22). Teachers accomplished this through initiation; they invited students into the same experience of reality in which they lived.

The new education merely conditions. Having removed all objective value and consideration from reality, they are “free” to shape and mold future generations into whatever they want. Having seized the reins of social conditioning, they will condition for their own purposes (wherever those happen to come from) and with little or no regard for the constraints of custom, tradition, truth, or goodness. Lewis concisely describes the difference in the old and new education:

The old dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly; the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds — making them thus or thus for purposes of which the birds know nothing. In a word, the old was a kind of propagation — men transmitting manhood to men; the new is merely propaganda. (24)

How Subjectivism Conditions

Lewis shrewdly demonstrates the subtlety of conditioning in his fiction. In Orwell’s 1984, O’Brien forces Winston to confess that 2+2=5 under the threat of having his face eaten by rats. In Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, Mark Studdock is conditioned with both carrots and sticks, lures and threats. He is enticed chiefly by social pressure, as his conditioners work on his desire to be “on the inside,” his “lust for the Inner Ring.” Accordingly, they work on his fear of being left out, cast out, and ostracized. Social pressure, more so than direct threats of physical violence, are the tools of Lewis’s conditioners.

In this, Lewis was remarkably prescient. Who among us can’t recognize the impression-shaping propaganda in social-media algorithms, in Twitter bans, in the cancellation of YouTube channels? What we hear and say daily, what we scroll past and click through, what we see and come to assume — all of these are meant to condition us by detaching us from the Straight, the True, the Good, even the Normal. Such conditioning is meant to aid the sinful human tendency to suppress the truth in unrighteousness.

Richard Hooker, the English Reformer and a hero of Lewis, once wrote of the destructive effect of ungodly customs.

Perverted and wicked customs — perhaps beginning with a few and spreading to the multitude, and then continuing for a long time — may be so strong that they smother the light of our natural understanding, because men refuse to make an effort to consider whether their customs are good or evil. (Divine Law and Human Nature, 43)

The poison of subjectivism removes the ordinary checks to such error and evil by denying that good and evil objectively exist at all. And yet, because we live in God’s world and not the world of our fevered imaginations, we can’t escape the pressure of the objective moral order, pressing upon us both from our conscience and from the Scriptures.

Our Cultural Insanity

The result, as Lewis again so ably highlights, is a kind of absurd tragi-comedy. It would be funny if it were not so sad. In Lewis’s memorable words, “In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful” (27).

As prophetic as Lewis was in his warnings, not even he seemed to have imagined the insanity that subjectivism would lead to. While he clearly saw that such poison would infect our sexuality, the most twisted form that he portrayed was the grotesque femininity of Fairy Hardcastle. But compared to the demented debauchery of the modern LGBTQ+ movement, Miss Hardcastle seems almost quaint.

What’s more, Lewis thought that the practical need for results in the hard sciences would limit the infection of subjectivism when it comes to research. But in the twenty-first century, we are witnessing technological and scientific advances employed in the service of subjectivism. Some of the latest “advances” in medicine are used not to heal, but to maim; not to restore the body to its proper function, but to mutilate the body and render it impotent or barren. In a literal fulfillment of Lewis’s warning, “We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

Readiness Is All

What then can be done to stave off civilizational doom, the end of our species, and the damnation of souls? Books could be written (and have been written) in answer to that question. But a simple answer runs like this: we can cultivate communities that, by the grace of God, love God and the objective order that he has made, and are ready to act in a world poisoned by subjectivism.

“We can cultivate communities that, by the grace of God, love God and the objective order that he has made.”

Such communities include churches where the good news of Jesus is faithfully proclaimed in word and deed, where refugees from the world are welcomed in the name of Jesus, and where apostles of the world are refuted by the word of God. These communities include families that glory in God’s goodness in manhood and womanhood, that seek to live fruitfully on God’s mission in the world, and that raise children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

These communities include schools that love the truth and do the good, that explain reality without explaining it away, that seek to form students into mature Christians who live with resilient joy in the midst of this broken world.

Such is the need, and the hour is late. But the readiness is all, and our God is still in heavens, and he does all that he pleases.

Invisible and Unmistakable: How Scripture Pictures the Holy Spirit

God is incomprehensible. This means that, while we can truly know him (because he reveals himself to us), we can never wrap our minds around him. He is infinite, eternal, and triune, and thus he reveals himself to us in ways that fit our capacities. As one theologian puts it, God speaks human to humans, and this makes true knowledge of God possible.

Even so, we still sometimes struggle to know God, and not just in the personal sense of knowledge, but in the basic what-are-we-even-talking-about sense. This is especially the case with our knowledge of the Holy Spirit.

When it comes to the Father, we have a concrete baseline from which to work. We all have earthly fathers (for good or for ill), and thus we have a starting place for engaging with God our heavenly Father. Likewise, when it comes to the Son, we have a concrete baseline in the incarnation. The Son was made man for us and for our salvation. The Gospels give us a magnificent picture of Jesus the Messiah, fully God and fully man, and this enables us to come to him.

“The fundamental work of the Holy Spirit in the new covenant is to point to and magnify Jesus.”

But the Spirit is elusive, even a bit abstract. Though we know and confess him as a divine “person,” we struggle to find a concrete baseline for understanding him. And at some level, this is by design. Jesus tells us that when the Holy Spirit comes, “he will glorify me” (John 16:14). In other words, the fundamental work of the Holy Spirit in the new covenant is to point to and magnify Jesus.

Nevertheless, Scripture does give us a number of images to help us better understand the person of the Holy Spirit.

Wind, Breath, Spirit

The Spirit’s very name (pneuma in Greek) links him to wind, breath, and spirit. Wind is moving air that has significant effects on the world while remaining invisible. In John 3, Jesus tells us that we must be born of the pneuma (John 3:5). He goes on to say that the pneuma blows where it wishes; we hear its sound but do not see where it comes from and where it goes (John 3:8). This suggests that we know the Spirit in the way we know the wind — by his effects.

“We know the Spirit in the way we know the wind — by his effects.”

Like wind, breath is invisible moving air — this time, air that animates a body. God breathes into Adam, and he becomes a living being (Genesis 2:7). In John 20:22, Jesus breathes on his disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Thus, we come to know the Spirit’s work by considering the way breath moves in and out and animates our physical bodies.

The word pneuma also refers to a person’s inner disposition or temper of mind. Jesus blesses those who are “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). Peter describes the character of a godly woman as “the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:4). We might think of our spirit as the invisible bent of our souls that shapes our visible actions.

River, Oil, Dove

Beyond these, the Bible provides a number of additional images to help us understand the Spirit and his work. In John 7, Jesus describes the Spirit as a river flowing from the lives of his followers.

Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:38–39)

We might link the river of John 7 to the river of the water of life described in Revelation 22, “flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, through the middle of the street of the city” (Revelation 22:1–2). The city is the New Jerusalem, the bride of Christ, the church of the living God. Thus, the Spirit is the river of living water flowing from Jesus to his people and from them out into the world for the healing of the nations. This is the river “whose streams make glad the city of God” (Psalm 46:4), the river of God’s delights and the fountain of life (Psalm 36:8–9).

Connecting the Spirit to the river of living water also calls to mind the notion that the Spirit is “poured out” upon his people (Acts 2:33; 10:45; Romans 5:5; Titus 3:6), that God’s people are “filled” with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18), and that we are baptized in the Spirit just as we are baptized in water (Mark 1:8; Acts 1:5; 1 Corinthians 12:13).

Beyond water, the Scriptures connect the Holy Spirit to the anointing oil used to consecrate priests and kings in the Old Testament. David receives the Spirit when Samuel anoints him with oil in 1 Samuel 16:12–13. Both Isaiah and Peter in the book of Acts pick up this connection in their descriptions of the Messiah.

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,     because the Lord has anointed meto bring good news to the poor. (Isaiah 61:1)

God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. (Acts 10:38)

Finally, the Bible links the Spirit to imagery of the bird, especially a dove. The Spirit “hovers” like a bird over the waters at creation (Genesis 1:2). And most prominently, the Spirit descends on Jesus “like a dove” at his baptism (Matthew 3:16; John 1:32–33).

God on the Move

If we begin to draw these images together, we see the importance of movement in the descriptions of the Spirit. The Spirit blows like the wind, breathes like air in and out of the lungs, flows like water from a fountain, hovers and descends like a bird. Some images (wind, breath, and spirit) signify both the invisibility of the Spirit and the unmistakable evidence of his presence.

Even more than that, if we examine these images in detail, we see a repeated connection to God’s life, love, pleasure, and delight. The streams of God’s river make glad the city of God (Psalm 46:4). The love of God is “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5). When the servant of the Lord is anointed with God’s Spirit, he gives “the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit” (Isaiah 61:3).

This is no surprise since the Spirit is closely tied to God’s love throughout the Bible. Consider 1 John 4. There we learn that “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and that to abide in love is to abide in God and to have God abide in us (4:12; 4:16). And we know that we abide in him and he abides in us “by the Spirit he has given us” (4:13; 4:18). It’s almost as though God abiding, love abiding, and the Spirit abiding are different ways of expressing the same reality.

Psalm 36:7–9 brings together God’s steadfast love with the imagery of a bird who provides shelter, the fatness of God’s house (connected to oil), and a river and fountain.

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!     The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.They feast on the abundance of your house,     and you give them drink from the river of your delights.For with you is the fountain of life;     in your light do we see light.

Spirit of the Groom — and Bride

All of these reach their climax in the baptism of Jesus. Here we have the incarnate Son of God at a river flowing with water. He is baptized in that water, and as he emerges, the Spirit descends upon him like a dove in what other passages call an anointing. And then God the Father speaks with his breath, bringing all of the imagery together with clear and unambiguous words: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (Matthew 3:16–17).

In truth, the baptism of Jesus is the beginning of the climax. The Spirit-inspired Scriptures turn our eyes to the incarnate Christ. This Spirit then leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tested, and then propels him back into Israel to announce the arrival of God’s kingdom. God’s Spirit empowers Jesus for his ministry and strengthens him as he walks the Calvary Road. This River is so potent that it flows uphill, as Jesus climbs Golgotha with a cross on his back. And the Spirit blows through the empty tomb so that Jesus, the second Adam, becomes the life-giving Spirit.

Now, the same Spirit is poured out on God’s people, flowing into our lives with God’s love and joy, and out of our lives in fruitful service to others, all while giving us voice so that the Spirit and the bride, God’s Dove and Christ’s beloved, say to their heavenly Groom, “Come!”

Kneeling Among Lions

We too can approach God’s throne with confidence because we know it is a throne of grace. Whatever chastisement and discipline he brings, mercy reigns in the heart of God. He will by no means clear the guilty, but he loves to forgive those who turn to him in humble faith.
Tucked away in the book of Daniel, sandwiched between stories about fiery furnaces and lions on the one hand, and visions of statues, beasts, and rising kings on the other, is an extended prayer with a shockingly immediate answer.
Daniel 9 contains an extended, earnest, and heartfelt prayer by the prophet. And before he even says “Amen,” the angel Gabriel is standing before him, ready to give insight and understanding to the broken-hearted prophet. What did Daniel pray that caused God to immediately dispatch an angel with an answer? And can Daniel’s prayer instruct us today in how to pray?
Plot Against Prayer
Daniel’s prayer is a dated prayer. “In the first year of Darius the son of Ahasuerus” (Daniel 9:1). And the particular timing mentioned draws attention to one of the most famous stories in the Bible. At the end of Daniel 5, Darius the Mede conquers the Chaldeans and dethrones Belshazzar. In chapter 6, he appoints 120 local rulers as governors over his kingdom, with high officials overseeing them. Daniel is one of these high officials. Indeed, he is distinguished above all of the high officials because of the excellent spirit (or is it Spirit?) residing in him (Daniel 6:1–3).
Darius plans to elevate Daniel over all the other officials, provoking them to jealousy. They then plot to find fault with Daniel in hopes of bringing him down. After examining his life, they conclude, “We shall not find any ground for complaint against this Daniel unless we find it in connection with the law of his God” (Daniel 6:5).
Soon enough, they do find a ground for complaint against Daniel — his habits of prayer. Daniel’s custom is to pray three times per day with an open window facing Jerusalem. The jealous officials manipulate Darius into passing an irrevocable decree against praying to anyone except the king (Daniel 6:6–9). And Daniel’s defiance of this decree famously lands him in the lions’ den (Daniel 6:10–16).
What is the relevance for the prayer of Daniel 9? It’s likely that Daniel 9 is the sort of prayer that Daniel was praying with that famous window open. What’s more, if we’re attentive to the whole Scriptures, we can better understand why Daniel was praying with a window open facing Jerusalem.
Solomon, Jeremiah, and Daniel
In 1 Kings 8, Solomon is dedicating the temple of the Lord. As he nears the end of his prayer, he contemplates the possibility (and even likelihood) that the people of Israel will sin grievously against God. When they do, God will, in fulfillment of the warnings of Deuteronomy, give them over to their enemies so that Israel will be carried captive into a foreign land.
Nevertheless, God will remain faithful to his promises and his people, even as he sends them into exile. In Solomon’s request, notice the specific direction his exiled people ought to pray:
Yet if they turn their heart in the land to which they have been carried captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captors, saying, “We have sinned and have acted perversely and wickedly,” if they repent with all their heart and with all their soul in the land of their enemies, who carried them captive, and pray to you toward their land, which you gave to their fathers, the city that you have chosen, and the house that I have built for your name, then hear in heaven your dwelling place their prayer and their plea, and maintain their cause and forgive your people who have sinned against you, and all their transgressions that they have committed against you, and grant them compassion in the sight of those who carried them captive, that they may have compassion on them (for they are your people, and your heritage, which you brought out of Egypt, from the midst of the iron furnace). (1 Kings 8:47–51)
Solomon specifically mentions repenting and praying from exile toward Israel, toward Jerusalem. Thus, Daniel’s actions make perfect sense. He is following Solomon’s instructions in hope that God will have compassion and restore his people.
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I Have No Good Apart from You: Prayer of the Satisfied Heart

I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” (Psalm 16:2)

In Psalm 16, David is taking refuge in God. Taking refuge includes David’s prayer for God to keep him. In other words, the prayer “preserve me” (Psalm 16:1) is itself a taking refuge in God. But David doesn’t simply ask God to keep him. He also speaks and declares truth to God. He exults in Yahweh his refuge (Psalm 16:2).

The last phrase of verse 2 is packed with deep theological truth and precious fuel for worship. So, what does David mean when he says, “I have no good apart from you”?

God is the source of all goodness.

Every good that is good comes from the God who is Good. God is the maker and sustainer of all created goods. Thus, in Genesis 1, he creates and then appraises his work: “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

“Every good that is good comes from the God who is Good.”

Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109), the brilliant medieval theologian, saw in this truth compelling evidence for God’s existence. He noted that everyone agrees there is a great variety of goods in the world. There are physical goods, intellectual goods, relational goods. This is a basic fact of reality. From this fact, Anselm asks, “What makes all of the good things good?” And he concludes that the good things are not independently good. They are not good by themselves. Rather, there must be some ultimate good that makes all the other things good.

In other words, Anselm reasoned there must be a supreme good that is the source of all other goodness. In doing so, he was following in the footsteps of David in Psalm 16. David confesses that there is a Supreme Good that makes all other goods good. And Yahweh is this Supreme Good. Or, as David prays elsewhere, God is my “exceeding joy” — literally, “the joy of joys” (Psalm 43:4). David knows his refuge is the foundational joy on which all other joys are built.

God’s goodness is unique.

All created goods are finite, temporal, and changing. But God is infinite, eternal, and unchanging. The apostle James celebrates this fact: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).

Created goods cast shadows. As good as they are, they are not infinite goods. They are limited, and they fade. But God has no shadow, and he does not change. His goodness is without boundary or limit. His is an absolute and essential goodness.

God is goodness itself.

God’s perfections aren’t just qualities that he happens to have. They are essential to him. They are our human descriptions of his being, his essence, his nature, his very God-ness. This is what it means for God to be holy. His attributes are utterly perfect and wholly distinct from the derivative, dependent attributes of his creatures.

We call a man righteous because he meets the standard of righteousness. We call a man wise because he conforms to the pattern of wisdom. But God is the standard. He is the pattern. He is not merely righteous; he is righteousness itself. He is not merely wise; he is wisdom itself. He is not merely strong; he is strength itself. And he is not merely good; he is goodness itself. Or again, the Lord is not merely righteous, wise, strong, and good. He is the Righteous, the Wise, the Strong, and the Good.

This is what it means for God to be God, for God to be Yahweh, I Am Who I Am. This is why Jesus can say, “No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18). He is the fountain of all goodness, the source and origin of all pleasure and joy. He is infinite, eternal, unchanging, inexhaustible, self-sufficient and all-sufficient, without limit or diminishment.

God has no need of my goodness.

Because God is the source of all goodness, my goodness does not benefit God in any way. He is above all need and all improvement. As Paul says, “God . . . does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:24–25).

“The Lord is all-sufficient, and it is because he is all-sufficient that he can be sufficient for me.”

David in this psalm revels in the fact that he has nothing to offer God but his poverty, his weakness, his need. He has no gift to give to God that he might be repaid. The Lord is all-sufficient, and it is because he is all-sufficient that he can be sufficient for me. It is because he has no needs that he can meet mine. It is because he is the Supreme Good that I can take refuge in him.

Drops and the Ocean

Finally, don’t miss the fact that these weighty theological truths are deeply personal for David. David doesn’t merely confess that Yahweh is the Lord; he says, “You are my Lord.” What wonders are embedded in that little possessive pronoun. The infinite and eternal fountain of goodness somehow, some way belongs to me. In his infinite all-sufficiency, he condescends and allows me to call him “mine.” My Lord, my Master, my King.

And this means that God is not merely the ultimate and supreme Good. He is my Good. And for him to be my highest good is for him to be my greatest pleasure. My ultimate well-being and happiness are found in him and him alone. Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) expressed this glorious truth as well as anyone else in his sermon “The True Christian’s Life a Journey Towards Heaven”:

God is the highest good of the reasonable creature. The enjoyment of him is our proper happiness, and is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here: better than fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of any or all earthly friends. These are but shadows; but God is the substance. These are but scattered beams; but God is the sun. These are but streams; but God is the fountain. These are but drops; but God is the ocean. (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 17:437–38)

Kneeling Among Lions: Learning to Pray Like Daniel

Tucked away in the book of Daniel, sandwiched between stories about fiery furnaces and lions on the one hand, and visions of statues, beasts, and rising kings on the other, is an extended prayer with a shockingly immediate answer.

Daniel 9 contains an extended, earnest, and heartfelt prayer by the prophet. And before he even says “Amen,” the angel Gabriel is standing before him, ready to give insight and understanding to the broken-hearted prophet. What did Daniel pray that caused God to immediately dispatch an angel with an answer? And can Daniel’s prayer instruct us today in how to pray?

Plot Against Prayer

Daniel’s prayer is a dated prayer. “In the first year of Darius the son of Ahasuerus” (Daniel 9:1). And the particular timing mentioned draws attention to one of the most famous stories in the Bible. At the end of Daniel 5, Darius the Mede conquers the Chaldeans and dethrones Belshazzar. In chapter 6, he appoints 120 local rulers as governors over his kingdom, with high officials overseeing them. Daniel is one of these high officials. Indeed, he is distinguished above all of the high officials because of the excellent spirit (or is it Spirit?) residing in him (Daniel 6:1–3).

Darius plans to elevate Daniel over all the other officials, provoking them to jealousy. They then plot to find fault with Daniel in hopes of bringing him down. After examining his life, they conclude, “We shall not find any ground for complaint against this Daniel unless we find it in connection with the law of his God” (Daniel 6:5).

Soon enough, they do find a ground for complaint against Daniel — his habits of prayer. Daniel’s custom is to pray three times per day with an open window facing Jerusalem. The jealous officials manipulate Darius into passing an irrevocable decree against praying to anyone except the king (Daniel 6:6–9). And Daniel’s defiance of this decree famously lands him in the lions’ den (Daniel 6:10–16).

What is the relevance for the prayer of Daniel 9? It’s likely that Daniel 9 is the sort of prayer that Daniel was praying with that famous window open. What’s more, if we’re attentive to the whole Scriptures, we can better understand why Daniel was praying with a window open facing Jerusalem.

Solomon, Jeremiah, and Daniel

In 1 Kings 8, Solomon is dedicating the temple of the Lord. As he nears the end of his prayer, he contemplates the possibility (and even likelihood) that the people of Israel will sin grievously against God. When they do, God will, in fulfillment of the warnings of Deuteronomy, give them over to their enemies so that Israel will be carried captive into a foreign land.

Nevertheless, God will remain faithful to his promises and his people, even as he sends them into exile. In Solomon’s request, notice the specific direction his exiled people ought to pray:

Yet if they turn their heart in the land to which they have been carried captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captors, saying, “We have sinned and have acted perversely and wickedly,” if they repent with all their heart and with all their soul in the land of their enemies, who carried them captive, and pray to you toward their land, which you gave to their fathers, the city that you have chosen, and the house that I have built for your name, then hear in heaven your dwelling place their prayer and their plea, and maintain their cause and forgive your people who have sinned against you, and all their transgressions that they have committed against you, and grant them compassion in the sight of those who carried them captive, that they may have compassion on them (for they are your people, and your heritage, which you brought out of Egypt, from the midst of the iron furnace). (1 Kings 8:47–51)

Solomon specifically mentions repenting and praying from exile toward Israel, toward Jerusalem. Thus, Daniel’s actions make perfect sense. He is following Solomon’s instructions in hope that God will have compassion and restore his people.

Beyond Solomon’s dedication, the immediate cause of Daniel’s prayer is Jeremiah’s prophecy concerning the seventy weeks. Recorded in Jeremiah 25, the prophet rebukes Israel for her stubbornness and promises God’s judgment through Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, who will lay waste to Israel. Babylon will be triumphant for seventy years, after which God will bring judgment upon them for their own sins. Daniel has this prophecy in mind when he offers his own prayer of repentance (Daniel 9:2).

Lessons from Daniel’s Prayer

These particulars matter. Daniel offered this prayer at a specific moment in redemptive history, under the covenant that God made with Moses, during the time when Jerusalem was the center of the spiritual universe. Today we are in a different redemptive era, under the new covenant, when the heavenly Jerusalem is the center of the universe.

Nonetheless, there are truths that span the covenants. Despite our differences in time, redemptive era, location, and circumstances, Daniel’s prayer was still “written for our instruction, that . . . we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). So how does Daniel’s prayer give us hope?

Confess Clearly

First, Daniel says “Amen” to God’s judgment. Daniel’s prayer is fundamentally a prayer of confession and repentance. Again and again, Daniel acknowledges the sin of God’s people. “We have sinned. We have done wrong. We have acted wickedly. We have rebelled. We have turned aside from your commandments. We have not listened to your prophets. We have committed treachery. We have not obeyed your voice.” Twenty times, Daniel acknowledges that Israel has sinned. You will look in vain for any rationalizations in this prayer. Daniel is not asking God to excuse Israel’s sin; he is asking God to forgive Israel’s sin. And forgiveness begins with saying “Amen” to God’s judgment.

“Daniel teaches us to mince no words in confession, to use no euphemisms, to soft-pedal no transgressions.”

And this instructs us. We all are prone to justify and rationalize our sin, to ask God to excuse us for what we’ve done, rather than asking him to forgive us for what we’ve done. But Daniel teaches us to mince no words in confession, to use no euphemisms, to soft-pedal no transgressions; indeed, the great variety of terms for sin and wickedness in his prayer teaches us to labor to be clear before God about the precise ways that we have fallen short of his standards.

Remember Specifically

Second, Daniel remembers God’s word and God’s works. In confessing, Daniel directly quotes Deuteronomy 7:9, and frames his prayer by Israel’s failure to obey the law of Moses (Daniel 9:11). In punishing Israel, God is simply confirming the oaths and curses he laid down in Deuteronomy 28. Even more than that, Daniel remembers the great works of God, especially the exodus, when God brought his people out of Egypt with a mighty hand (Daniel 9:15).

“God is pleased with Bible-shaped and Scripture-saturated prayers.”

This too instructs us. God is pleased with Bible-shaped and Scripture-saturated prayers. It is good and right for us to orient our confession, our repentance, and our supplications in light of God’s laws, his promises, and his warnings. By using Scripture to frame our own prayers, we approach God in a way that he has established, with words that he has inspired, and thus we have greater confidence that he will hear and answer.

Plead Confidently

Third, Daniel pleads for God’s mercy. Even as he says “Amen” to the judgment of God, Daniel appeals to Yahweh’s mercy and forgiveness (Daniel 9:9). Daniel knows that judgment is not God’s final word. And thus, he asks for God to again shine his face on his sanctuary (Daniel 9:17), and to turn aside his anger that has cast his people into exile. In doing so, Daniel demonstrates his deep faith in Yahweh’s fundamental character toward his people: he is a God compassionate and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (Exodus 34:6–7).

We too can approach God’s throne with confidence because we know it is a throne of grace. Whatever chastisement and discipline he brings, mercy reigns in the heart of God. He will by no means clear the guilty, but he loves to forgive those who turn to him in humble faith.

Unifying Thread

Finally, what ties these elements together is God’s righteousness — his unswerving commitment to uphold the glory of his name. Underneath Daniel’s “Amen” to God’s judgment, underneath Daniel’s remembrance of God’s word and works, and underneath Daniel’s appeal to God’s mercy is Daniel’s sure faith that God is uppermost in God’s affections. To the Lord belongs righteousness, and therefore he has punished his people (Daniel 9:7). His judgment is a fulfillment of his commitment to his word; he will not overlook transgressions against his law (Daniel 9:11–12). He is righteous to bring this judgment.

But more than that, he is righteous in showing mercy. Daniel appeals to God’s love for his name. God made a name for himself in delivering Israel from Egypt (Daniel 9:15). And now, Daniel roots his plea for mercy in God’s righteousness (Daniel 9:16). Israel has become a byword; the nations mock at the once-great nation and the once-great city of Jerusalem. But this nation and this city are called by the name of Yahweh. And therefore, Daniel’s final plea is not based on Israel’s righteousness, but on God’s name.

Now therefore, O our God, listen to the prayer of your servant and to his pleas for mercy, and for your own sake, O Lord, make your face to shine upon your sanctuary, which is desolate. O my God, incline your ear and hear. Open your eyes and see our desolations, and the city that is called by your name. For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy. O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act. Delay not, for your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people are called by your name. (Daniel 9:17–19)

So too for us. When we approach God, we do not come based on our righteousness. How could we? Instead, we beg God to act on our behalf for his own sake. Indeed, as those who live under God’s new covenant, we appeal to him in the name of his Son Jesus. We plead for God to hear and forgive and pay attention and act on our behalf because we are called by the name of his Son, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with his blood-bought people.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves: Questioning How We Frame Reality

Let’s talk about framing. Not framing as in home construction, but framing as in the way we perceive reality. Framing refers to how we see things. In particular, it refers to the fact that, as human beings, we don’t merely see things; we see things as. If you see a bear, you don’t just see a bear. You see the bear as dangerous. When you see a sunset, you don’t just see the sunset; you see the sunset as beautiful. That’s what I mean by framing. We see things as.

And not just sight, but our other senses as well. We hear the buzzing of a fly as annoying. We hear the laughter of a child as delightful. We smell the aroma of cookies as pleasant. We taste and see that honey is good. Framing, then, has to do with the immediate and snap judgments we make about reality and its relation to us.

Changing Lenses

Our framing is not static. The child’s laughter that is delightful at one moment is a nuisance when you’re trying to get work done. The laughter is the same; the framing — your snap judgment — is different.

“Framing has to do with the immediate and snap judgments that we make about reality and its relation to us.”

Let’s take another step. We’re always framing, and it’s good that we are. It’s what keeps us alive. Our snap judgments lead to snap reactions. The framing bear-as-dangerous is why you jump in the car and drive away when you see one. The speed of our snap judgments engages our snap reactions almost automatically. In fact, we might say that our snap judgments and snap reactions are not in our immediate control (though, as we’ll see, they are shaped over time by our choices and experiences).

As humans — with souls and bodies, hearts and minds, intellects and wills — our snap judgments are often incredibly complex. They don’t merely involve simple and straightforward judgments about dangerous bears and delightful laughter. Behind our framing lies a complex web of imagination, memory, narrative-framing, embodied experience, and our present expectations, desires, and fears. In short, because we are human, why we see things as we do is a complicated question.

More than simply being human, our fallibility and sinfulness complicate our framing. Because we are fallible, our framing can be mistaken. We might mistake a garden hose for a snake and unnecessarily panic. And because we are sinful, our snap reactions following our snap judgments are not always good. Your spouse makes an observation; you make a snap judgment — comment-as-insult — and you react with your own insulting comment, and the situation escalates. You see the two places you could go wrong: Was your snap judgment correct? And was your snap reaction appropriate?

Our Chosen Stories

We can think of many other examples. Was that question from your coworker simply a request for information? Or was it a subtle shot at your ignorance? Your friends go out one night and don’t invite you. Did they simply forget or intentionally leave you out? Snap judgment, snap reaction.

And now we can see how our framing — and the snap reactions that flow from it — sets us on a path.

They didn’t invite me. They intentionally left me out. They don’t want to be around me. They’ve rejected me as their friend. I’ll show them.

With every judgment, we add a corresponding reaction, which together make the frame sturdier. Our experience and our choices, our memories and our imaginations, the stories we tell ourselves and the things that happen to us — all of these work together to shape and reshape our framing.

Notice How You Frame

What then should we do?

First, we ought to be curious about our own framing. I reacted because I made a snap judgment. Why did I make that judgment? And was that an appropriate reaction? Growing in self-awareness is crucial if we are to frame the world rightly. Our reactions are tied to our framing, and both often reveal subtle assumptions that we may not even be fully aware of.
C.S. Lewis describes just this sort of dynamic in The Screwtape Letters.

Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury. And the sense of injury depends on the feeling that a legitimate claim has been denied. The more claims on life, therefore, that your patient can be induced to make, the more often he will feel injured and, as a result, ill-tempered. (111)

Note the snap reactions: anger and ill-temper. Note that what produces them is a snap judgment: misfortune conceived as injury. That’s the framing: hardship as violation of a claim. What assumption is revealed by this snap judgment and snap reaction? Screwtape continues.

Now you will have noticed that nothing throws him into a passion so easily as to find a tract of time which he reckoned on having at his own disposal unexpectedly taken from him. It is the unexpected visitor (when he looked forward to a quiet evening), or the friend’s talkative wife (turning up when he looked forward to a tête-à-tête with the friend), that throw him out of gear.

Now he is not yet so uncharitable or slothful that these small demands on his courtesy are in themselves too much for it. They anger him because he regards his time as his own and feels that it is being stolen. You must therefore zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption “My time is my own.” (111–12)

There is the assumption, the pattern, beneath the snap judgment — “My time is my own.” Curiosity about our reaction leads us to awareness of our judgment and the revealing of our (false) assumption. Thus, reframing our view of our time becomes essential in shaping us in a more humble and godly way.

Notice How Others Frame

Second, be curious about the framing of others. My spouse or child or friend reacted strongly because they made a snap judgment about me. Why did they do so? Does their snap judgment fit a real pattern I display? And rather than escalating the situation with my own snap reaction, how can I love them through it?

Again, Lewis describes how important such self-reflection is in our closest relationships. Listen to Screwtape’s strategy for provoking our snap judgments and snap reactions in our domestic lives.

When two humans have lived together for many years it usually happens that each has tones of voice and expressions of face which are almost unendurably irritating to the other. Work on that. Bring fully into the consciousness of your patient that particular lift of his mother’s eyebrows which he learned to dislike in the nursery, and let him think how much he dislikes it.

Let him assume that she knows how annoying it is and does it to annoy — if you know your job he will not notice the immense improbability of the assumption. And, of course, never let him suspect that he has tones and looks which similarly annoy her. As he cannot see or hear himself, this is easily managed. (13)

Again, note the way that our reactions and judgments reveal improbable assumptions. Our awareness of such facts allows us to be curious and compassionate toward our family and friends and, Lord willing, love them more wisely.

Be Transformed by Scripture

Third, mind the patterns that shape your framing. Paul says it clearly in Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world.” In other words, don’t frame reality the way that the world frames reality. Its pattern is not to be our pattern. Instead, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” This is why we read the Scriptures and seek God in prayer and worship with God’s people — so that our minds can be renewed and we frame reality the way God does.

“Don’t frame reality the way that the world frames reality.”

Finally, marvel at the amazing reframing that God has worked in us in our view of Christ. At one time, our frame was darkened and blind. We saw Christ as a stumbling block and foolishness. Christ-as-ugly, Christ-as-dull, Christ-as-trivial — that was our frame.

But then, the God who said “Let light shine out of darkness” shone in our hearts (2 Corinthians 4:6). He called us from darkness to light and reframed Jesus for us. Now we see Christ as the power of God and the wisdom of God. Through the miracle of the new birth, we see Jesus differently. Christ-as-glorious. Jesus-as-worthy. This is the frame of frames, the pattern that transforms us from one degree of glory to another.

Walk the War Before You

Walking by the Spirit refers to our daily conduct, rooted in our union with Christ in his death and resurrection and empowered by the Spirit who redirects our desires to godly fruitfulness. The Spirit is the animating power in our lives, shaping our daily decisions as we wake up in the midst of the spiritual war. Paul’s call is for us to daily take up arms in the battle, to encourage and gratify our spiritual desires, and to keep in step with the Spirit because we belong to Jesus.

Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. –Galatians 5:16–17
In seminary, this passage reshaped my vision of the Christian life. At one level, the passage is simple. It contains an exhortation (“walk by the Spirit”), a promise (“and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh”), and an explanation or rationale (the conflict described in verse 17). But as we meditate on this passage, we discover that it also offers a threefold vision for the Christian life as a whole.
Acknowledge the War Within
First, Paul insists that the starting point for the Christian life is recognizing the war between the flesh and the Spirit.
I say “starting point” because of the logic of verses 16 and 17. In seminary, I was taught that one way to clarify the logic of a passage like this is to read the verses in reverse order while keeping the logical relationship intact. In other words, turn an “A, because B” argument into a “B, therefore A” argument. “I eat, because I am hungry” becomes “I am hungry, therefore I eat.”
When we do that, the passage looks like this:
(Verse 17) The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. (Verse 16) Therefore (that’s the logical connection) walk by the Spirit, and you will certainly not gratify the desires of the flesh.
As Christians, we wake up every day in the midst of a war. Fleshly desires pull us in one direction; the desires of the Spirit pull us in the other. The status quo is a frustrated stalemate in which we are kept from doing what we want to do. Spiritual desires frustrate fleshly desires, and fleshly desires frustrate spiritual desires.
Starting with this recognition means we can be realistic about the difficulty of the war. The frustration we feel in the face of the passions of the flesh is real, and Paul encourages us to be honest about it. That’s where we begin as Christians.
Staggering Promise of Not
But according to Paul, we don’t have to stay there, because, second, we have a new destination. We don’t have to surrender. We can live a life in which we absolutely don’t gratify the desires of the flesh. This is a staggering promise. The “not” in verse 16 is intensified in the original Greek; it’s what’s called an emphatic negation. Paul essentially says, “If you walk by the Spirit, you will absolutely and certainly not gratify the desires of the flesh.”
Now, it’s important to be clear about what Paul is and isn’t promising. He’s not saying that our fleshly desires disappear altogether. Instead, he promises that we will not gratify or complete those desires. In other words, the desires may still be present and still at war with our spiritual desires, but now, as we walk by the Spirit, we won’t indulge them.
The basic idea is that all desires have a direction, a destination, a trajectory. They incline us towards some perceived good, some object that we believe will satisfy. In short, desires want to take us somewhere.
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Lord, Deliver Me from Me

The prayer of Psalm 16:1 is a prayer of faith, since I am no longer attempting to reason about God in his absence but addressing him as Father in his presence. And through such awakenings and interruptions, God answers my prayer. He keeps me, because I seek refuge in him.

Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge. –Psalm 16:1
This verse has become the most common prayer that I pray. I pray it both for its simplicity and its profundity. The logic of the prayer is that of a child’s: “Save me for no other reason than that I’m in danger and I’ve run to you for help.” “Keep me because I seek safety and protection in you.” Not, “Keep me because of my past or future faithfulness.” Not, “Preserve me because I’m useful or because I’m worthy.” Just, “Preserve me, because I’m frightened and I’m here and my eyes are looking to you.”
The childlike spirit of the request is reflected in Thomas Ken’s “Evening Hymn.”
All praise to thee, my God, this nightFor all the blessing of the light.Keep me, O keep me, King of kingsBeneath thine own almighty wings.
But the prayers of a child are not necessarily childish prayers. Often there is a depth and weight to such prayers which make them fitting for Christians of all ages. Meditate with me on the depth of this simple prayer.
Preserve Me from What?
King David’s prayer implies perils we must seek refuge from. There are threats, dangers, hostile forces, challenges. And there are. In the world. In the church. In your life and mine.
The psalm does not specify the dangers. But we can imagine. The dangers could be external. Enemies who plot and scheme and set traps. Wicked men who lie in wait and pursue the innocent. Liars and slanderers who utter false things against us. Disease and sickness which lay us low. The loss of wealth or job or other forms of earthly security.
All of these (and more) could be in the mind of the psalmist. More importantly, the absence of specificity allows us to fill in the gap, to supply our own dangers and threats and challenges so that David’s prayer becomes our own.
Seeking Refuge
In the face of the danger (whatever dangers we face), the response is the same: we seek refuge in God. The notion of “taking refuge” is a common one in Scripture. It means to find shelter and protection and safety in something. When the scorching sun beats down on us, we take refuge in the shade of a tree. When the icy winds and snowstorms threaten, we take refuge in a warm house.
The image often connotes a pursuer (Psalm 7:2; 17:7). If a man accidentally kills another, for example, he flees to a city of refuge in order to be kept from the avenger of blood. Or the city of Zion, founded by Yahweh, is a refuge for the afflicted of his people (Isaiah 14:32). If someone shoots an arrow at us, we take refuge behind a shield.
A refuge belongs to a cluster of biblical terms that identify places of sanctuary and strength. Psalm 18 stacks such terms one after another. “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Psalm 18:2).
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