Scott Hubbard

The Spiritual Power of Staying Put: Why Christians Are Slow to Leave

A friend recently asked whether I saw myself still living in Minneapolis five years from now. I had no compelling reason to say no: no alluring job prospects, no deep stirrings for change, no clear path from here to elsewhere. I had several significant reasons to say yes: we own a home here; our children were born here; I work and pastor here. Still, I hesitated.

Others in my generation probably resonate. Unlike our grandparents (or even our parents), we grew up breathing the air of transience. As young adults, we dwell in tents, not houses, always ready to pull up the stakes, often feeling we are on our way to somewhere that is not here. The idea of settling down for fifty years in the same neighborhood, job, or church can make our clothes feel scratchy. We move among our elders as tumbleweeds through redwoods.

No doubt, there are good and godly reasons to live lightly upon the earth, prepared for God to send us elsewhere. But I wonder how often we are blown less by the wind of the Spirit and more by the wind of our endlessly unsettled age. I wonder too how a renewed mind, rooted more deeply in God’s word, might discern the spiritual wisdom of staying put.

Tumbleweeds and Trees

As we consider what Scripture has to say to our more mobile age, we do well to remember that its books were not written to people who owned cars, who bought plane tickets, who crossed countries and continents with ease. Most ancient Jews and early Christians stayed put because they had to. That’s simply what (almost) everyone did.

We also do well to recognize that Scripture often holds in high regard those who do leave home. The word go marks two of the most momentous turning points in redemptive history: the calling of Abram and the sending of the church (Genesis 12:1; Matthew 28:19). We might also recall Moses, that cross-country prophet; Paul, the hither-and-thither missionary; or our Lord himself, who traveled from city to city to teach, heal, and usher in a new age.

Yet even still, we can’t escape God’s love for local places and the people who stay there. Moses uprooted Israel from Egypt, but only so he could plant them in Canaan (Psalm 80:8), where everyone might sit under his own vine and fig tree (Micah 4:4). Paul tumbled around the Mediterranean, but building and strengthening local churches was the labor of his life (Acts 14:23; 2 Timothy 2:2). And Jesus, as much as he moved through all Galilee and Judah, was still known as “Jesus of Nazareth” (Luke 4:34; 18:37; Acts 2:22; 3:6). The incarnate Son did not consider three decades in the same quiet town a waste of time.

“Lasting fruit usually comes from lasting presence.”

Moses could have kept Israel on a constant sojourn. Paul could have called every convert to come with him. Jesus could have left Nazareth long before thirty. But trees grow shade, bushes bear fruit, and vines become beautiful only after patient years of staying put. And so with us, lasting fruit usually comes from lasting presence.

Roots for Restless Souls

Perhaps the Bible’s most explicit teaching about staying and going appears in 1 Corinthians 7:17–24, where Paul three times counsels the Corinthian believers to remain where they are:

Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. (verse 17)

Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. (verse 20)

So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God. (verse 24)

Now, Paul wrote these words into a context quite different from our own. Some Corinthian believers, it seems, wondered if becoming a Christian necessitated a change in life status. Does Christian faithfulness require the uncircumcised to receive circumcision, or bondservants to seek freedom? Paul, while endorsing helpful life changes (1 Corinthians 7:21), nevertheless reassures the church that they can serve Jesus fruitfully wherever they’re found. So, three times he says, “Stay.”

Our own impulses toward moving or changing may come from different motives, but the principles Paul uses still apply. Consider, then, three steps the apostle might counsel us to take before uprooting from job, home, church, or other life situations.

1. Pay attention to providence.

In an individualistic society, we are prone to lean almost entirely on the subjective when making decisions. Do I like this job? Are we still happy in this home? Is this church still a good fit for me? Alongside these important subjective questions, however, Paul adds the objective fact of God’s providence: “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him” (1 Corinthians 7:17). We are who we are and where we are not by chance, but by the Lord’s assignment and calling. And therefore, factors beyond our feelings are at play.

John Calvin draws out the merciful purpose of God’s providence:

[God] knows with what great restlessness human nature flames, with what fickleness it is borne hither and thither, how its ambition longs to embrace various things at once. . . . Therefore each individual has his own kind of living assigned to him by the Lord as a sort of sentry post so that he may not heedlessly wander about throughout life. (Institutes, 3.10.6)

To be sure, the doctrine of providence, rightly grasped, does not produce passive, inert, immobile people who endure misery with a sigh of que sera sera. Calvin himself left his native France for Geneva. And Paul, after mentioning God’s assignment, still tells bondservants, “If you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity” (1 Corinthians 7:21). God in his providence not only plants us where we are, but sometimes opens pathways elsewhere.

Nevertheless, those who pay attention to providence will not be quick to abandon their present place, even under the sway of strong feeling. They will pray to the God of providence, and seek counsel from his people — so often the agents of his providence — wary all the while of their tendency to leave the Lord’s sentry posts for a life of heedless wandering.

2. See the potential in your present place.

Not only has God, in his providence, brought us to our present place, but he likely sees far more potential in it than we do. We may look at our life situation and see little more than a barren field, a fruitless tree, a dry and dusty Nazareth. But God sees more.

Surely, some of the bondservants in Corinth struggled to see potential in their present station. Theirs was not an enviable position. Yet Paul writes, “He who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ” (1 Corinthians 7:22). Paul is quite happy for bondservants to find freedom if they can (1 Corinthians 7:21). At the same time, he wants them to see that even bondservice can say something beautiful about Christ: Men may call me a servant, but in Christ, God calls me a son.

Our own situations are likely far better than a bondservant’s. Yet what potential in your present place might you have a hard time noticing? Living in an inner-city neighborhood brings some level of danger, but it also brings opportunity to give the gospel to the poor. A church in conflict may not feed your soul as another would, but it can also become ground zero for a new work of the Spirit, more beautiful than what came before. The mission field may seem like a waste of gifts once used, but it can also become soil for the seed of your fallen life, precious in God’s sight and poised for much fruit (John 12:24).

Who, if not Christians, will look upon the mustard seed of our present circumstances and see the coming tree (Matthew 13:31–32)? Who will recognize in the small stone a future mountain (Daniel 2:31–35), or the age of great things in the day of small (Zechariah 4:10)? Who will behold twelve common men as the beginning of a global movement (Matthew 16:18)? Who will stand upon an apparently godforsaken place and know that here, even here, Jesus holds all authority (Matthew 28:18)?

The humblest faith can transfigure the world, turning tumbleweeds into rooted trees, content to grow in the same ground for far longer than we thought possible.

3. Live where you are with God.

That kind of contentment, however, comes not only (and not mainly) from seeing the potential in our present place, but from seeing God in our present place. “So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God” (1 Corinthians 7:24). Don’t simply stay put; don’t merely remain. Wherever you are, live there with God.

“Don’t simply stay put; don’t merely remain. Wherever you are, live there with God.”

If you are in Christ, then you have already found your true and eternal Home, your best and final resting place. Another job may make better use of your skills, another city may better serve your family, another church may better profit from your presence — but no new job, city, or church can give you something better than the God who is already yours (1 Corinthians 3:22–23). Those who feel as much may still decide to leave their present place, yet they will do so as Abram left Ur, or Peter left Capernaum, or Paul left Antioch: not searching for contentment, but satisfied with God.

John Piper, preaching on Jesus’s encounter with the woman at the well, notes that “one of the evidences of not drinking deeply from Jesus is the instability of constantly moving from one thing to the next, seeking to fill the void.” Those who don’t have a well of living water within will seek some water without (John 4:13–14) — and when that spring dries up, on they go to the next relationship, the next job, the next hobby, the next car, the next home. But those who have drunk deeply from Jesus, those who live where they are with God, are free to stay and be satisfied.

Slow Decisions

If we take the time and spiritual energy to pay attention to providence, see the potential in our present place, and live where we are with God, we may still decide against staying put. We may discern that wisdom would have us lift these roots and plant them elsewhere. One of the defining marks of our process, however, will be that we decide slowly.

Sometimes, opportunities will come that call for quick decisions. But most of the time, we can take some weeks, months, or even years to linger where we are, living there with God, while we consider the benefits of staying or going. And if we feel we cannot take such time, we probably should slow down all the more. Quick decisions often show we want to move without thinking, praying, or hearing counsel that might contradict what we have already decided to do.

Just as men in midlife crisis should beware of buying boats, and those in spiritual darkness should hesitate to pronounce their own doom, so those who feel an urge to move, change, leave would do well to let time do its wise and patient work. If the move really is in line with heavenly wisdom, we have nothing to fear from slowness. And we have good reason to hope we will become more like trees firmly rooted, our branches rising and shade growing for the good of our present place, and any place God may plant us next.

Do the Will You Know: The First Step for Further Guidance

What is the will of God for your life? An air of mystery surrounds the question. God’s will can seem elusive, ambiguous, difficult to discern — a land without maps.

Is this the right job for me? Would God have us get married? Should our family move to the city or the suburbs? Is God leading me to full-time ministry?

Such questions send us searching for clarity — praying, thinking, pro-con listing, often second-guessing. What is your will, O God? And how do I find it? Depending on your charismatic convictions, you may do more: wait for impressions, read signs in your circumstances, lay out a fleece. I once flipped a coin.

We understandably agonize over such decisions. What job we take, whom we marry, where we live — these choices change the course of our lives. Yet because of their very importance, they also can distract us from the primary ways Scripture speaks of God’s will. Like hikers who pay more attention to each new fork in the path than to their compass, we can easily lose our basic sense of direction by fixating on one decision after the next.

Thank God, then, that in all our most difficult decisions, we have a compass:

Our Father in heaven,hallowed be your name.Your kingdom come,your will be done,     on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:9–10)

This familiar prayer may not offer the direction we long for — an unmistakable nudge, a whisper from heaven — but it does offer the direction we most need.

‘Your Will Be Done’

“Your will be done” is a prayer with levels and layers of meaning, a multiple-story petition.

On one level, we ask, “Your will be done on earth.” In the broadest sense, the prayer settles for nothing less than a transformed, transfigured earth — an earth where God’s revealed will is no longer ignored, neglected, or despised, but done with the same angelic zeal, the same seraphic joy, as his will is done “in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

On another level, we ask, “Your will be done — not mine.” Here we follow the example of our Lord Jesus, who not only taught us to pray these words, but prayed them himself: “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (Matthew 26:42). We who follow Christ will never come close to the agony of this moment; like Peter, James, and John, we ever remain on Gethsemane’s edge. But in our own anguished hours, “Your will be done” is likewise for us an opening of the hands, a bending of the knees, a bowing of the head to God’s painful yet perfect plans.

And then, on a third level, we ask, “Your will be done in me.” As wide as earth and as high as heaven, the prayer nevertheless turns back to us, bidding us to ask not only that God’s will would be done everywhere out there, but also everywhere in here — right now, today, in every part of my life.

Which returns us to our beginning question: What is God’s will for my life, and how do I walk in it? Beginning from the Sermon on the Mount and broadening from there, we might answer with two simple sentences: Do the will you know. Discern the will you don’t.

Do the will you know.

We’ll see in a moment that Scripture gives direction for discerning God’s will in unclear situations. But as we’ll also see, Scripture gives a fundamental prerequisite for such discernment: attentive obedience to what God has already revealed. Doing the will you know is necessary for discerning the will you don’t.

“Doing the will you know is necessary for discerning the will you don’t.”

And not only necessary, but far more important. Consider the words of Jesus in the chapter after the Lord’s Prayer: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Heaven hangs on doing the will of God. And the will of God here is no hidden key, no secret whisper. As Jesus says three verses later, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man . . .” (Matthew 7:24). In the most basic and crucial sense, the will of God is found in the words of God.

Imagine a man who, after hearing Jesus’s sermon, says to his friend, “That’s all well and good, but I still wish I knew God’s will for my life.” His friend would be right to respond, “Weren’t you listening? God just told you his will for your life! Embrace poverty of spirit, meekness, and peace. Let your light shine. Kill anger, lust, lying, and vengeance. Pray and give and fast in secret. Don’t worry; seek the kingdom. Enter the narrow door. Build your house on the rock. That’s God’s will for your life.”

How many of us, like this will-of-God seeker, wonder what job we should have while neglecting godly diligence in our present job? How many seek his will for whom to marry while not pursuing a biblical vision of singleness in the meantime? How many ask God where they should live while overlooking neighbor love and the local obedience Scripture so clearly prescribes?

Far better to know and obey this will, always available and ever clear, than to have the greatest situational insight and neglect this will. Or as the apostle Paul might say, if we discern the right decisions to make, and if we receive all impressions and leadings, and if we gain all guidance, so as to choose the right paths, but do not obey the plain words we already know, we are nothing (Matthew 7:21).

Discern the will you don’t.

At the same time, the very Scriptures that give us God’s clear will also tell us to seek his unclear will. “Try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord,” Paul tells the Ephesians (Ephesians 5:10). And then he writes in Romans,

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

And now we see why hearing and doing the will of God we know is the prerequisite to discerning the will of God we don’t. Right discernment depends not merely on a clear mind or an intelligent mind, but on a transformed mind — a mind, John Piper writes, “that is so shaped and so governed by the revealed will of God in the Bible, that we see and assess all relevant factors with the mind of Christ.”

We can see this discernment process at work even in the life of Jesus. In Luke 4, for example, Jesus decides to leave Capernaum to “preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well” (Luke 4:43). The decision was by no means a simple one: the people of Capernaum didn’t want Jesus to leave (Luke 4:42); neither did his disciples (Mark 1:36–37). But Jesus knew his Father willed for him to preach the gospel broadly (Luke 4:43). And so, after spending time in a desolate place (Luke 4:42), he applied the clear will of his Father to an unclear situation through patient, prayerful discernment.

Let the emphasis land on patient and prayerful. Discernment often will not come easily or quickly. Gathering the appropriate words God has spoken, understanding how they relate to our present situation, rightly weighing all relevant factors and friendly counsel, praying for wisdom all along the way, and obeying what you know in the meantime — this is no small task. But it is God’s normal method of guiding us through the hundreds of moments when we stand before two (or more) paths, none of which has a sign that reads, “Go this way.”

“In a world without maps, our best compass is an increasingly Christlike will, informed by an increasingly renewed mind.”

In a world without maps, our best compass is an increasingly Christlike will, informed by an increasingly renewed mind.

Led by the Spirit?

Some, at this point, will wish to say more — and understandably so. “What about the leading of the Spirit?” they might ask. “What about dreams and visions and impressions?” Three responses are in order.

First, at times, the Spirit does indeed lead his people in a more manifestly supernatural manner. In the life of Jesus, we might remember when “the Spirit . . . drove him out into the wilderness” after his baptism (Mark 1:12). Even more clearly, we might recall how God led Peter to Cornelius, and then led Paul and his team to Philippi, through visions (Acts 10:9–16; 16:9–10). And so he may sometimes lead us.

Nevertheless, these instances of striking guidance take place within the larger framework of doing and discerning. The Spirit came to Jesus in baptism (Mark 1:9–11), to Peter in prayer (Acts 10:9), to Paul on mission (Acts 16:6–8) — in other words, he met them in the midst of their present, intelligent obedience. Unless we too are willing to follow the Spirit’s more typical paths, we cannot expect him to lead us down unusual paths — nor can we assume we would recognize those paths or rightly walk them.

Second, such manifestations of the Spirit may prove dangerous if we rely on them too much. Those who say, “Lord, Lord,” in Matthew 7 did not lack powerful spiritual experiences; they did lack obedience to God’s clear will (Matthew 7:21–23). Ironically, some who are most eager for a spectacular method of finding God’s will can be most prone to neglecting the ordinary opportunities for pleasing God right in front of them.

And third, the renewed mind’s rigorous application of the Scriptures to unclear situations need not sidestep the Spirit’s ministry — not when done humbly, prayerfully, and God-dependently. In fact, as J.I. Packer writes, “The true way to honor the Holy Spirit as our guide is to honor the holy Scriptures through which he guides us” (Knowing God, 236). The Bible is no dead letter, but the living breath of the living Spirit. Those who listen well to Scripture listen to him.

Decisions from Our Knees

Lest we forget the obvious, “Your will be done” is a prayer, a request that God would do in us what we cannot do in ourselves. Apart from him, we cannot know the will he reveals, we cannot obey the will we know, and we certainly cannot discern the will we don’t know. And so, we bow our heads, lift our hands, and say, “Our Father in heaven, . . . your will be done” (Matthew 6:9–10). The best decision-making happens from a kneeling soul.

In all your decisions, then, don’t neglect to do the will you already know. Then, with that will clear in your mind and alive in your life, do the hard work of discerning, as best you can, what might please God most in your work, your relationships, your home. Weigh the factors; seek counsel; view the matter from several angles. And through it all, ask him again and again for his good, pleasing, and perfect will to be done in you.

Sin Is Never Inevitable: How to Escape Overwhelming Temptation

There seems to be no way out.

She knows such bitter, biting thoughts are wrong, shameful even, but her friend’s comment cut so deeply. Her mind keeps returning to the moment, reliving the wound. She tries, feebly, to turn her thoughts elsewhere, but the offense seems to surround her like a fog. And how do you fight a fog?

He too is well aware that he’s walking down a worthless path. He’s been here before — this thought, leading to that fantasy, producing these seemingly unconquerable desires. Maybe he could have escaped if he had turned around right away, but he feels he has gone too far now. He has plucked and felt the fruit; how can he not now taste it?

No way out. Who hasn’t felt the force of these words in the midst of bitterness, lust, or a thousand other temptations? And who hasn’t succumbed to their dark suggestion? If some lies have slain their thousands, this lie has slain its ten thousands.

Every Temptation Escapable

We are hardly the first to feel trapped, surrounded, hemmed in by the power of sin. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians suggests they felt the same.

To be fair, the Corinthians had more reason than most to see their temptations as especially intense. Few cities were as inhospitable to holiness as ancient Corinth. Boastful, lustful, idolatrous, vain, Corinthian sin walked every street and stood on every corner. Many in the church apparently felt pressed beyond their powers of endurance; they felt pushed down the hallway of temptation until the only door they could see read sin. There seemed to be no way out.

But there was. Paul, knowing the unique pressures they faced, boldly writes,

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)

Every temptation is escapable — small temptations and big temptations, daytime temptations and nighttime temptations, familiar temptations and foreign temptations, inward temptations and outward temptations. All along the hallway, God builds a doorway of escape — even right next to the doorway of sin. And though the door may become harder to enter the farther we travel down the hallway, it is always open for those who will turn the handle.

The bitter thought can be dispelled; the lustful desire denied. Sin is never inevitable.

Our Way Out

How, then, do we find and take the way of escape? How do we stop in the thick of a tempting thought and open the door God has given? On the one hand, simply believing, bone deep, that every temptation has an escape will take us a long way: those who assume there’s no door will hardly go looking for one; those who do may stir themselves up to search.

But we can also say more. In our passage, Paul offers four doors out of temptation — or, perhaps better, four parts of the one door always available: No temptation is unique. You’re more frail than you think. Escape may be hard. God won’t flee.

No temptation is unique.

Perhaps surprisingly, Paul frames his exhortation with four stories of sin and punishment from Exodus and Numbers (1 Corinthians 10:7–10). Israel’s idolatry, sexual immorality, testing of the Lord, and grumbling, along with the judgment God brought, “were written down for our instruction,” Paul says (1 Corinthians 10:11). Specifically, they were written down to keep us from sin (1 Corinthians 10:6).

How do such stories pave our way of escape? In at least two ways. First, they not only tell us, but show us, that the wages of sin really is death (Romans 6:23). “Twenty-three thousand fell in a single day”; “Some . . . were destroyed by serpents”; “Some . . . were destroyed by the Destroyer” (1 Corinthians 10:8–10). The judgments of God, rightly grasped, cannot help but sober those tempted to follow the same sinful path.

Second, such stories dismiss the lie that our temptations are somehow unique. Sin would have us feel that we live on a spiritual island. Others may struggle with doubt, but not this kind of doubt. Others may battle anger, but not anger this strong. Others may deal with discontentment, but they don’t have reasons like mine. To which Paul says, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man” (1 Corinthians 10:13). There is nothing new under sin.

Whatever pressure or pull we feel, saints past and present have felt the same. And God promises to all: there is a way out.

You’re more frail than you think.

Often, we advance farther and farther down temptation’s hallway because we think, at the start, that we won’t. The bitter thought comes, and instead of praying it to death, she indulges it, desperate to replay the scene just once or twice. The image enters his head, and rather than rising from bed or running away, he lingers, thinking he can handle it fine. How easily we wander near forbidden trees, forgetting that those who do so usually trip on the roots.

“One of our best escapes from temptation is a keen sense of our own frailty.”

One of our best escapes from temptation, then, is a keen sense of our own frailty. And so, Paul, after citing the four sins from Israel’s history, writes, “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). Take heed always, and especially when you think you don’t need to. For the surest way to fall is to presume that you won’t.

Of course, those who do begin down temptation’s hallway can still escape — even at sin’s very threshold. But the humble know that every step forward will make steps backward harder. So they take heed at the very start — asking for help, rehearsing promises, running to prayer, fearing delay.

Escape may be hard.

Beware of imagining, however, that the way of escape will feel easy to take, even at temptation’s start. It often won’t. We might have expected — we might have wished — Paul to write, “With the temptation [God] will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to escape it.” Instead, he writes, “. . . that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). Sometimes, taking the way of escape brings immediate relief; other times, it feels like patient, prolonged endurance.

We may find, with Jesus, that saying no to one temptation simply brings another, stronger temptation (Matthew 4:1–11). Or we may find, as God warned Cain, that sin is far more wild than tame, answering not to soft resistance but only to sustained force (Genesis 4:7). We may need to say no and keep saying it. We may need to renounce a thought and then wrench our minds away. We may need to physically kneel or audibly preach the truth to our distorted desires. In whatever case, we will need to endure.

John Owen offers a graphic picture of what resisting sin may require: “Let not that man think he makes any progress in holiness who walks not over the bellies of his lusts” (Works of John Owen, 6:14). Sometimes, taking God’s way of escape feels like trampling desires that don’t want to die.

God won’t flee.

Ultimately, our escape from temptation rests not on our endurance, our caution, or our familiarity with Scripture, but on God’s unfailing faithfulness. “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability” (1 Corinthians 10:13). The waves of temptation, however high or strong, have a God-decreed shoreline. So, rage and foam as they may, God has pledged his own faithfulness to this assurance: they will not overcome your God-given ability to endure.

“The waves of temptation, however high or strong, have a God-decreed shoreline.”

If we had no faithful God in heaven — if resisting sin rested on our own resources — we would rightly see temptation as beyond our ability to endure. We would rightly roll over and let ourselves be swept away, giving in to the inevitability of it all. But as long as God is faithful (always and forever), no temptation will be too strong, too alluring, too overpowering for his people to escape.

Paul’s assurance of God’s faithfulness recalls the letter’s opening, where he writes, “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9). If God has called you into the fellowship of his Son, he will keep you in the fellowship of his Son. However pleasurable, however powerful, however compelling temptation feels, Jesus ultimately will prove more so. His fellowship will out-satisfy the fellowship of sin and out-conquer the force of temptation. He himself will be our escape, and the one to whom we gladly run.

A Rest for Any Restlessness

One day soon, rest will be not only the stream of living water within, but the sea of living water without. We will walk through a world where rest rises from the soil and drops from the clouds. For the Lord of the Sabbath himself will reign in that land, bringing the seventh day back to an earth even better than Eden. He is the “ocean depth of happy rest,” as the hymn puts it, and forever his waves will wash over us.

If you could capture in a word what it feels like to live as a fallen human, far from Eden, what might you say? Sorrowful, perhaps, or broken. Frustrating. Dark. There’s no one right answer. But one of the most profound appears in the famous opening lines of Augustine’s Confessions: restless. “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (1.1.1).
Deep in the human soul, a spirit of restlessness runs like an underground river: often unseen, often unrecognized, often denied, yet rumbling beneath so much of what we say, dream, and do.
We easily mistake the bone-deep gnaw for something more superficial. We need a few days off, we think — or a better work-life balance, or a new job or apartment, or more recognition from our peers, or more understanding from our spouse. The advertising industry taps into the ache and offers a thousand ways to dam the restless flow: new experiences, new places, new things. Sometimes we buy it.
These are whispers, snatches, songs in the wind: echoes of the thing we want, but not the thing itself. They may bring a measure of rest to mind or body (for a time), but they can no more dam the river than a stick can stop the Niagara. We long for something deeper.
We want a rest that lasts beyond certain times (nights, weekends) and extends beyond certain places (bed, vacation spots). We want a rest that leads us like a pillar of fire and follows us like the goodness and mercy of God. We want a rest that wells up from within like living water. We want an unending Sabbath of the soul.
Our Aching Restlessness
But why the ache? Why the inner gnaw? Why the endless running restlessness?
In the beginning, God weaved rest into the fabric of his unfallen world. Soul deep and heaven high, rest filled Eden’s very air. For God, after working for six days, crowned creation with the seventh: “On the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day” (Genesis 2:2). “It is finished,” God said, and all creation enjoyed his rest.
But the garden is long gone now. And between us and Eden’s rest stand cherubim holding a flaming sword (Genesis 3:24). When Adam and Eve left Eden’s gates, they left not only a place, but a whole posture of soul. They left the restful garden and entered a world without the seventh day.
Outside God’s presence, our little attempts at rest — our sleep-ins and successes, our days off and entertainments, our life balances and purchases — are so many seeds planted in granite. We sow and dig and water, but the soil of our souls can’t hold the seeds; we look for rest and reap restlessness.
Exiled from Eden, we need the God of the garden to once again become our God; we need the Lord of rest to be our Lord and Rest.
Weekly Whisper
Hope eventually came in the form of a commandment. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” God told an Israel freshly redeemed from Egypt, that land of anti-Eden restlessness.
Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. . . . For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. (Exodus 20:8–11)
Read More
Related Posts:

Mercies at Midnight: Seeking God Through Sleeplessness

A good night’s sleep, like so many of God’s gifts, is one of those ordinary glories you don’t quite appreciate until it’s gone. As a fracture shows the worth of working bones, and a bout with the flu teaches the value of health, so sleeplessness has a way of turning a normal night’s rest into a land of gold.

A recent season of mysterious sleeplessness made me wonder how I had taken such a precious gift for granted. It also gave me a sense of what many deal with — for one reason or another — for far longer than a season. The low-grade dread of nighttime. The rising anxiety when sleep does not come. The toss, turn, bathroom break, book, pillow flip, toss, turn. The slow procession of silent hours. The fear of another exhausted day. The dull burn behind the eyes come morning.

On such nights, or in such seasons, Psalm 127:2 can feel less like a warm sentiment and more like a blessing beyond reach — or even (in our desperation) a taunt. “He gives to his beloved sleep,” Solomon says. So how do we respond when he takes from his beloved sleep?

Psalms in the Night

We might start by considering what else the Psalms have to say. Psalm 127:2 may be the book’s most familiar line about sleep, but it is not the only line: nighttime testimonies are scattered through these 150 songs like so many stars. And surprisingly — especially for the weary among us — the psalmists often found something in sleeplessness worth singing about.

True, nighttime could bring weeping (Psalm 30:5), lonely ruminating (Psalm 77:1–2), tired moaning (Psalm 6:6), or a sense of God-forsakenness (Psalm 22:1–2). But the same hours could also bring a song in the night (Psalm 42:8; 149:5), a word from above (Psalm 16:7), and a sense of the steadfast love of the Lord (Psalm 8:3–4; 136:9).

By faith, the psalmists discovered that sleeplessness could become a sanctuary adorned with the glory and goodness of God (Psalm 119:55, 62), and that no hour was too early (Psalm 119:147) or too late (Psalm 119:148) to pray and praise and meditate. Whereas I often experience sleeplessness as famine, they could taste it as feast (Psalm 63:5–6).

Nighttime was no dead, blank space to these saints of old — a time when, functionally, God was absent. God was near in these “watches of the night” (Psalm 63:6; Psalm 119:148), there to be sung to, prayed to, remembered, loved.

Midnight Means of Grace

We need not imagine, of course, that David, Asaph, and the others relished sleeplessness itself. The psalmists were not superhumans; they, like us, needed about seven or eight hours of sleep a night to function well. Surely, then, they would encourage the sleepless to ask for rest from the God who gives it (and to seek that rest using reasonable natural means).

But suppose we have prayed and done what we can to get the sleep our body needs, yet we still find ourselves staring holes in the bedroom ceiling. What can we do? How might we follow the psalmists beyond the misery of sleeplessness and into the comfort of a God-filled night?

1. Declare God’s sovereignty over nighttime.

Yours also the night. (Psalm 74:16)

Left to myself, I do not naturally treat nighttime as a God-filled land; I am more prone to treat it as a God-forsaken one. How quickly my thoughts can turn over the past day’s events, and how hesitatingly they can turn to him. How quickly I can attach my hopes to a sleeping pill or some other remedy, and how slowly to “the God of my life” (Psalm 42:8). How reflexively I can see sleeplessness as mere menace, and how reluctantly as somehow God’s servant (Psalm 119:91).

Yet how differently the psalmists saw nighttime. Good Bible readers that they were, they knew that night, no less than day, was God’s creation, with moon and stars testifying to his power even over the deepest darkness (Psalm 104:20; 136:7–9). They remembered too how the same God who led his people by cloud during the day led them by fire at night (Psalm 78:14; 105:39). And so, they saw his glory in black skies just as they did in blue (Psalm 19:2), they confessed night to be bright as day to him (Psalm 139:12), and they hailed him as King over darkness. “Yours is the day, yours also the night,” they sang (Psalm 74:16). Midnight belongs to the Lord.

“The watches of the night may lie outside my control; they do not lie outside God’s.”

The confession may be basic, but it has a way of fitting unwanted wakefulness within a larger Godward frame. The watches of the night may lie outside my control; they do not lie outside God’s. His sovereignty rules my sleeplessness. So instead of merely enduring the nighttime hours, I can begin to trace his hand in the dark.

2. Search your heart.

I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. (Psalm 16:7)

We should beware of over-spiritualizing sleeplessness. Often, our inability to sleep says more about our technology habits or our exercise routines than our souls. Still, we also should beware of under-spiritualizing sleeplessness — and in our secular age, this may be the more common danger. We would do well, then, to at least consider (alongside wise friends) what God might be saying in our restlessness.

It may be, for example, that sleeplessness comes from God’s heavy hand, sent to search out unconfessed sin. When King David “kept silent” about his sin, he writes, “Day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer” (Psalm 32:4). The distress eventually brought David to his knees, where he confessed his hidden sin and received the forgiveness God was so willing to give (Psalm 32:5). God took David’s sleep for the sake of his soul.

Other nights, we may search our hearts and find not guilt but needed wisdom. Such was David’s experience in another psalm: “I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me” (Psalm 16:7). The word instructs, often translated discipline, “has a purposeful firmness,” Derek Kidner writes, “as of schooling one to face hard facts” (Psalms 1–72, 102). So may our wakeful hearts instruct us, if we let them — perhaps impressing upon us the need for some difficult conversation, or the ways we are beginning to drift in our devotion to God, or the helpfulness of a course correction in work or family life. The heart’s quiet counsel is often drowned by daytime noise; in the silence of night, however, its voice may be heard.

In the book of Esther, the plot hinges on a providential sleepless night (Esther 6:1). Our lives are likely not caught up in the drama of nations — but might there be more happening in our own sleeplessness than we assume?

3. Meditate on God’s word and works.

My soul will be satisfied . . . when I remember you upon my bed. (Psalm 63:5–6)

If we had to name one bridge between us and the psalmists’ experience — if there were one key that opened the door of night, one word that transfigured the darkness — meditation would be it. By meditation, the tears of Psalm 42:3 become the steadfast love and song of Psalm 42:8. By meditation, the night watches in Psalm 119 become a time not of dread but of anticipation (Psalm 119:148). And by meditation, David’s sleepless soul is satisfied.

My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,
and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips,
when I remember you upon my bed,
and meditate upon you in the watches of the night. (Psalm 63:5–6)

Of course, as most know, meditation does not come easily, and especially at midnight. Simply survey the string of disciplined I will statements in Psalm 77:11–12 to sense the kind of resolution required. We instinctively meditate on our current troubles and tomorrow’s tasks, but how do we learn to “meditate upon you” (Psalm 63:6)?

We can take some cues from the psalmists’ own practice. Asaph, for one, fastened his mind on “the deeds of the Lord, . . . your wonders of old” (Psalm 77:11). Can you tell yourself the story of the exodus, or walk through the wonders of Holy Week? The author of Psalm 119 meditated on “your name” and “your promise” (Psalm 119:55, 148). Can you turn over the phrases of Exodus 34:6–7, or ponder Jesus’s sevenfold “I am” (John 6:35; 8:12; 10:7, 11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1)? Can you rehearse some marvelous memorized promise, receiving each word as if from God himself? David, meanwhile, remembered how “you have been my help” (Psalm 63:7). Can you recall the answered prayers and interventions of days’ or years’ past, assuring yourself that the God who helped you then will help you now and tomorrow?

One friend of mine, psalmist-like, decides before he lies down what he will meditate on should the night find him awake. Such planning — and pre-bedtime praying — may help us respond to sleeplessness as Asaph did: “Let me remember my song in the night; let me meditate in my heart” (Psalm 77:6).

Return, O My Soul, to Your Rest

We might go on to describe the many ways the psalmists speak to God after meditating upon God — how they declare his faithfulness (Psalm 92:2), praise his righteousness (Psalm 119:62), sing his goodness (Psalm 63:7), and cry for his help (Psalm 119:147). Such responses illustrate the truth of Henry Scougal’s line that “to be able to converse in an instant with him whom their souls love transforms the darkest prison or wildest desert [or most restless night!], making them not only bearable but almost delightful” (The Life of God in the Soul of Man, 81). The suggestions given may suffice for a start.

“The mercies of the Lord, new every morning, are strong enough to last through midnight.”

Though I cannot claim to have reached the heights of a Psalm 63 or Psalm 119, I long to be a pupil of these sleepless saints. Even as I pray for the rest my body so badly needs, I long to say with the psalmist, “Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you” (Psalm 116:7). I long for sleeplessness to become a sanctuary, my pillow a place of prayer and praise.

Such saints can testify that the mercies of the Lord, new every morning, are strong enough to last through midnight.

How to Keep Praying

Just because our prayers begin with “Our Father” and end with “in Jesus’s name” doesn’t mean all the words in the middle flow easily. Sometimes, even those awake to the wonder of prayer face discouraging difficulties: internal struggle, outward resistance, perhaps even a sense of divine silence. And while such difficulties can reflect something wrong within — a heart overgrown with worldly cares (Luke 8:14) or hiding unconfessed sin (Psalm 66:18) — Jesus’s teaching on prayer is striking for its realism.

Most mornings, it seems, I forget how to pray. Or I at least seem to forget what prayer really is — what’s really happening in these quiet moments before an open Bible and a hearing God. I may stumble through my thanksgivings and petitions, but apart from some daily remembering, my prayers, like hapless pilgrims in a Bunyan allegory, tend to fall into the slough of distraction, or get locked in the castle of discouragement, or fall asleep on the enchanted ground.
In his book on prayer, Tim Keller writes of the need to “take ourselves in hand and wake ourselves up to the magnitude of what is going to happen” as we pray (Prayer, 127). Before unthinkingly mumbling “Heavenly Father” or “Lord,” pause, take your soul in hand, and remember the wonder of prayer.
And one of the best ways we can remember is by listening to what Jesus himself says about prayer. So much of our Lord’s teaching on prayer is designed to help us “always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). In the Gospels, Jesus comes to pray-ers like us — discouraged, distracted, willing in spirit but weak in flesh — and he gives us a heart to pray. Of the many reminders we could mention, consider four representative lessons.
1. We come to a Father.
Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven . . .” (Matthew 6:9)
Michael Reeves notes how prone we can be to treat prayer “as an abstract activity, a ‘thing to do,’” rather than remembering “the one to whom [we’re] praying” (Enjoy Your Prayer Life, 30). Prayer easily becomes impersonal: “to pray” is to run down a list of names, sit or kneel in such and such place for so long, drive in the old familiar ruts of phrases said ten thousand times. But most fundamentally, prayer is not an abstract activity or a habit or even a spiritual discipline; prayer is a personal response to a personal God — a God whom Jesus told us to call Father.
The wonder of this word often escapes us; it would not have escaped the disciples. They had never called God Father before, except in the broadest sense (Exodus 4:22–23; Hosea 11:1). To address God as “our Father in heaven,” to mimic Jesus’s own affectionate “Abba” — this was astoundingly, wonderfully new. When those who trust in Jesus come to pray, we come to a Father.
And what a Father he is. He knows our inmost thought and need, yet still he loves to hear us unburden our souls before him (Matthew 6:8, 32). His ear always open, his eye always upon us, he turns our ordinary rooms and closets into sanctuaries of communion (Matthew 6:6). He’s the archetype and fountain of all fatherly generosity, distributing good gifts with both hands (Matthew 7:9–11).
But perhaps the most heart-awakening words Jesus spoke about the Father are those in John 16:27: “The Father himself loves you.” “Here is something to say to ourselves every day,” Sinclair Ferguson writes of these five words. “They are simple words, but life-changing, peace-giving, poise-creating” — and, we might add, prayer-inspiring (Lessons from the Upper Room, 174).
2. Jesus perfects our prayers.
Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. (John 16:23)
Throughout his ministry, Jesus showed supreme patience with requests that others would have silenced. When the crowds hushed the blind and shouting Bartimaeus, Jesus called him over (Mark 10:47–49).
Read More
Related Posts:

A Rest for Any Restlessness

If you could capture in a word what it feels like to live as a fallen human, far from Eden, what might you say? Sorrowful, perhaps, or broken. Frustrating. Dark. There’s no one right answer. But one of the most profound appears in the famous opening lines of Augustine’s Confessions: restless. “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (1.1.1).

Deep in the human soul, a spirit of restlessness runs like an underground river: often unseen, often unrecognized, often denied, yet rumbling beneath so much of what we say, dream, and do.

We easily mistake the bone-deep gnaw for something more superficial. We need a few days off, we think — or a better work-life balance, or a new job or apartment, or more recognition from our peers, or more understanding from our spouse. The advertising industry taps into the ache and offers a thousand ways to dam the restless flow: new experiences, new places, new things. Sometimes we buy it.

These are whispers, snatches, songs in the wind: echoes of the thing we want, but not the thing itself. They may bring a measure of rest to mind or body (for a time), but they can no more dam the river than a stick can stop the Niagara. We long for something deeper.

We want a rest that lasts beyond certain times (nights, weekends) and extends beyond certain places (bed, vacation spots). We want a rest that leads us like a pillar of fire and follows us like the goodness and mercy of God. We want a rest that wells up from within like living water. We want an unending Sabbath of the soul.

Our Aching Restlessness

But why the ache? Why the inner gnaw? Why the endless running restlessness?

In the beginning, God weaved rest into the fabric of his unfallen world. Soul deep and heaven high, rest filled Eden’s very air. For God, after working for six days, crowned creation with the seventh: “On the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day” (Genesis 2:2). “It is finished,” God said, and all creation enjoyed his rest.

But the garden is long gone now. And between us and Eden’s rest stand cherubim holding a flaming sword (Genesis 3:24). When Adam and Eve left Eden’s gates, they left not only a place, but a whole posture of soul. They left the restful garden and entered a world without the seventh day.

Outside God’s presence, our little attempts at rest — our sleep-ins and successes, our days off and entertainments, our life balances and purchases — are so many seeds planted in granite. We sow and dig and water, but the soil of our souls can’t hold the seeds; we look for rest and reap restlessness.

Exiled from Eden, we need the God of the garden to once again become our God; we need the Lord of rest to be our Lord and Rest.

Weekly Whisper

Hope eventually came in the form of a commandment. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” God told an Israel freshly redeemed from Egypt, that land of anti-Eden restlessness.

Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. . . . For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. (Exodus 20:8–11)

From then on, every seventh day became a witness to Eden’s lost world. And a whisper of what might be again.

Yet it was only ever a whisper. For the week’s seventh day was not the seventh day; however much rest the Sabbath offered, it could not stop the river of human restlessness. The Sinai and wilderness generation, for all the Sabbaths they experienced, did not enter God’s true rest (Psalm 95:11; Hebrews 4:2). Later generations too easily profaned the Sabbath day — working, planning profits, calling the day a duty rather than a delight (Isaiah 58:13–14; Ezekiel 20:13–24; Amos 8:5). And in time, Israel’s leaders would lay burdens on the people too heavy for any Sabbath to lift (Matthew 23:4; Mark 2:27).

And so, the Sabbath was a pointer, a prophecy, a partial melody filled with promise. As Israel’s animal sacrifices foretold the Lamb of God, and as the temple anticipated the Word made flesh, and as every king and priest shadowed the outline of the Messiah, so the weekly Sabbath spoke of a rest far greater than Saturday — and of a Lord from whose heart it would flow.

Lord of the Sabbath

Of course, a spiritually attentive Israelite always knew that soul-deep rest came not from the Sabbath itself, but from the Sabbath’s Lord. The day was “a Sabbath to the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:9), “a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord” (Exodus 31:15), a time to hear God say again, “I, the Lord, sanctify you” (Exodus 31:13). Sabbath rest was a stream in time; God himself was the fountain.

“Follow the stream of the Sabbath and what you find is not a day, but a Lord.”

Audacious, then, were those simple words of the Lord Jesus, spoken to the Pharisees in a Galilean grain field: “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8). Follow the stream of the Sabbath, Pharisees: walk its banks along the centuries — past Sinai, past Egypt, past even the creation week — and what you find is not a day, but a Lord. A Lord now standing in the grain field.

Lest we miss the meaning and magnitude of these words, Matthew tells us that the Sabbath confrontation happened “at that time” — that is, just after Jesus spoke these famous words:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:28–29)

Note well that Jesus does not say he will point us toward the rest we long for, or even lead us there himself: he says he will give it to us. As Lord of the Sabbath, the deepest rest lies in his possession — in his gentle Sabbath heart. No longer, then, would the weary and heavy laden look to a day to find rest, but to a person. He is our living, breathing, saving Seventh Day.

Seventh Day for Your Soul

Whatever kind of restlessness runs through your soul; whatever desperate river rumbles beneath your dream of days off, or your grasping for career advancement, or your social-media obsessions; whatever Edenic ache you carry within, Jesus’s invitation holds: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

“Jesus holds a rest for every kind of restlessness, a Sabbath calm for every care, a seventh day for every soul.”

Do you long for righteousness? He has already won it (Romans 3:26). Do you yearn for an identity? He calls you his own (Hebrews 2:11). Is success what you seek? He shares his victory (1 Corinthians 15:57). Do worries keep you awake? His shoulders can carry them (1 Peter 5:7). Do you lack others’ favor? You still have his (Romans 8:31). Do you feel trapped in the life you have? He is a world always new (John 21:25). Jesus holds a rest for every kind of restlessness, a Sabbath calm for every care, a seventh day for every soul.

So how can we find our rest in him? We can begin by learning to call our longings for rest by their real names. When we begin to feel our familiar restlessness — as insecurity rises, or an impulse to buy something itches, or a desire to escape consumes us — we can say that what we really want is not praise, not possessions, not a change of job or city, and not even rest in the abstract, but Jesus, our Sabbath Lord. For ultimately, to say “I long for rest” means “I long for Christ.”

Ocean Depth of Happy Rest

Of course, the rest we know now in Jesus is only a foretaste of the greater rest to come. The Puritan Christopher Love once wrote, “Here in this world, joy . . . entereth into you, but in the world to come you shall enter into joy” (The Genius of Puritanism, 106). So too with rest: here in this world, rest enters into us, but in the world to come, we will enter into rest.

One day soon, rest will be not only the stream of living water within, but the sea of living water without. We will walk through a world where rest rises from the soil and drops from the clouds. For the Lord of the Sabbath himself will reign in that land, bringing the seventh day back to an earth even better than Eden. He is the “ocean depth of happy rest,” as the hymn puts it, and forever his waves will wash over us.

How to Keep Praying: Four Lessons from the Master

Most mornings, it seems, I forget how to pray. Or I at least seem to forget what prayer really is — what’s really happening in these quiet moments before an open Bible and a hearing God. I may stumble through my thanksgivings and petitions, but apart from some daily remembering, my prayers, like hapless pilgrims in a Bunyan allegory, tend to fall into the slough of distraction, or get locked in the castle of discouragement, or fall asleep on the enchanted ground.

In his book on prayer, Tim Keller writes of the need to “take ourselves in hand and wake ourselves up to the magnitude of what is going to happen” as we pray (Prayer, 127). Before unthinkingly mumbling “Heavenly Father” or “Lord,” pause, take your soul in hand, and remember the wonder of prayer.

And one of the best ways we can remember is by listening to what Jesus himself says about prayer. So much of our Lord’s teaching on prayer is designed to help us “always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). In the Gospels, Jesus comes to pray-ers like us — discouraged, distracted, willing in spirit but weak in flesh — and he gives us a heart to pray. Of the many reminders we could mention, consider four representative lessons.

1. We come to a Father.

Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven . . .” (Matthew 6:9)

Michael Reeves notes how prone we can be to treat prayer “as an abstract activity, a ‘thing to do,’” rather than remembering “the one to whom [we’re] praying” (Enjoy Your Prayer Life, 30). Prayer easily becomes impersonal: “to pray” is to run down a list of names, sit or kneel in such and such place for so long, drive in the old familiar ruts of phrases said ten thousand times. But most fundamentally, prayer is not an abstract activity or a habit or even a spiritual discipline; prayer is a personal response to a personal God — a God whom Jesus told us to call Father.

The wonder of this word often escapes us; it would not have escaped the disciples. They had never called God Father before, except in the broadest sense (Exodus 4:22–23; Hosea 11:1). To address God as “our Father in heaven,” to mimic Jesus’s own affectionate “Abba” — this was astoundingly, wonderfully new. When those who trust in Jesus come to pray, we come to a Father.

“Our Father knows our inmost thought and need, yet still he loves to hear us unburden our souls before him.”

And what a Father he is. He knows our inmost thought and need, yet still he loves to hear us unburden our souls before him (Matthew 6:8, 32). His ear always open, his eye always upon us, he turns our ordinary rooms and closets into sanctuaries of communion (Matthew 6:6). He’s the archetype and fountain of all fatherly generosity, distributing good gifts with both hands (Matthew 7:9–11).

But perhaps the most heart-awakening words Jesus spoke about the Father are those in John 16:27: “The Father himself loves you.” “Here is something to say to ourselves every day,” Sinclair Ferguson writes of these five words. “They are simple words, but life-changing, peace-giving, poise-creating” — and, we might add, prayer-inspiring (Lessons from the Upper Room, 174).

2. Jesus perfects our prayers.

Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. (John 16:23)

Throughout his ministry, Jesus showed supreme patience with requests that others would have silenced. When the crowds hushed the blind and shouting Bartimaeus, Jesus called him over (Mark 10:47–49). When the disciples sought to send the Canaanite mother away, Jesus drew out her heart and healed her daughter (Matthew 15:21–28). When the desperate father cried, “If you can do anything . . .” Jesus rebuked his unbelief but still restored his boy (Mark 9:22–27). He took uncouth requests, he took imperfect, even halfway unbelieving prayers, and he passed them through the refining fires of his own loving heart.

And so he still does. Three times in the upper room, he told his disciples to pray “in my name” (John 14:13–14; 15:16; 16:23–24, 26). In my name: here is Jacob’s ladder, lifting our words to heaven; the key that opens wide our Father’s home; the robe that adorns our naked requests; the name of the King’s own Son, sealed with his blood and signed with his own resurrected hand.

So, as Charles Spurgeon writes,

The Lord Jesus Christ is always ready to take the most imperfect prayer and perfect it for us. If our prayers had to go up to heaven as they are, they would never succeed; but they find a friend on the way, and therefore they prosper.

“In Christ, our imperfect prayers gain a heavenly hearing.”

Because the Father loves his Son, and because he loves to honor the worth of his Son’s work (John 14:13), he also loves to hear and answer prayers shaped by the words of his Son (John 15:7) and sent in the name of his Son. In Christ, our imperfect prayers gain a heavenly hearing.

3. Struggle and resistance are normal.

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. (Luke 11:9)

Just because our prayers begin with “Our Father” and end with “in Jesus’s name” doesn’t mean all the words in the middle flow easily. Sometimes, even those awake to the wonder of prayer face discouraging difficulties: internal struggle, outward resistance, perhaps even a sense of divine silence. And while such difficulties can reflect something wrong within — a heart overgrown with worldly cares (Luke 8:14) or hiding unconfessed sin (Psalm 66:18) — Jesus’s teaching on prayer is striking for its realism.

“Ask, and it will be given to you” may sound straightforward enough on the surface: a simple cause followed by a sure effect. But in fact, these words follow Jesus’s story of a man who receives bread from his friend only “because of his impudence” — because the stubborn fellow wouldn’t go away (Luke 11:8). Sometimes, Jesus would have us know, prayer feels like asking and receiving no answer, like seeking and finding nothing, like knocking on the door of a friend who won’t open — until holy “impudence” prevails (Luke 11:9).

George Müller, the caretaker of orphans who told of far more answered prayers than most, learned from Jesus’s teaching,

Whilst I firmly believe that He will give me, in His own time, every shilling which I need [for the orphan houses]; yet I also know, that He delights in being earnestly entreated, and that He takes pleasure in the continuance in prayer, and in the importuning Him. (Answers to Prayer, 29)

God delights to be earnestly entreated (see also Matthew 9:37–38), even for gifts he loves to give. Often, then, struggle and resistance and unanswered prayers are no signs of something wrong, but invitations to press on, and every morning to take fresh heart to ask and seek again.

4. Persistence will bring an answer.

Everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. (Luke 11:10)

If you survey Jesus’s teaching on prayer, you will nowhere find him counseling us to expect little in prayer; you will frequently find him challenging us to expect much. No one who persists in asking the Father goes unanswered; no one who keeps seeking fails to find; no one who knocks and knocks at mercy’s door will be left outside forever (Luke 11:10). In God’s time, persistence will bring an answer.

Sometimes, of course, we do not receive the answer we hope for — our Father knows when the “fish” we want would really bite like a serpent (Luke 11:11). Other times, “in God’s time” feels far longer than “in my time,” as the persistent widow discovered in “her continual coming” (Luke 18:5). And sometimes, the answer arrives even after we’ve given up asking, as the old Zechariah apparently had lost hope for a son (Luke 1:13, 18). Either way, if an answer to some longed-for request has not yet come, and if we do not yet discern that God’s answer is no (as, for example, Paul did with his thorn, 2 Corinthians 12:8–9), then Jesus invites us to keep asking.

Müller, telling the story of how he once prayed for years for a particular piece of land, writes, “Hundreds of times I had with a prayerful eye looked on this land, yea, as it were, bedewed it with my prayers” (33). His prayers covered that field like so many dew drops, falling hundreds of times across the years. I wonder if we can likewise claim that we bedew the matters we long for most — not giving up, not growing disillusioned, but humbly and faithfully asking God again.

Jesus would have us do so. For we come to a Father. Our Savior perfects our prayers. Struggle and resistance are normal. And persistence will bring an answer.

Screen Sabbaths

Taking disciplined time away from screens may not be the only way to live in the digital world without being conformed to it, but it is one good way. Over time, the gravitational pull of our phones may grow weaker, and we may find ourselves drawn into a different, far better orbit: the bright, life-giving sun of God himself.

A few years ago, a group of cognitive and behavioral psychologists took five hundred college students, split them into three groups, and gave them two tests. The groups were alike in every way except one: the placement of their phones. The first group had their phones screen-down on the table; the second had their phones in their pockets; the third didn’t have their phones at all. You probably can see where this is going.
Though the phones of all three groups were on silent, and though few students said they felt distracted by their phones, the test scores followed an inverse relationship to the nearness of the device. On average, the closer the phone, the lower the grade. Nicholas Carr, who discusses this study in the 2020 afterword to his book The Shallows, summarizes the psychologists’ troubling conclusion:

Smartphones have become so tied up in our lives that, even when we’re not peering or pawing at them, they tug at our attention, diverting precious cognitive resources. Just suppressing the desire to check a phone, which we do routinely and subconsciously throughout the day, can debilitate our thinking. (230)

The finding — corroborated by similar studies — gives clear expression to the vague sense many feel: our phones shape us not only, perhaps not even mainly, by the content they deliver to us, but also by the mere presence of something so pleasing, so undemanding, so endlessly interesting. Smartphones, though small, exert a (subconscious) gravitational pull on our attention, drawing our thoughts and feelings into their orbit, even when their screens are dark.
Which means, if Christians are going to heed the summons of Romans 12:2 in a smartphone age — “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” — we will need to do more than resist the false content on our phones. We will need to resist the false gravitational presence our phones so subtly exert upon us.
And to that end, we might find help from an ancient practice: Sabbath.
Our Intimate Companion
Before considering what the Sabbath might mean for our screens, take fresh stock of where we are. The smartphone entered the world in 2007; by 2011, most of us had one. Now, just over a decade later, most of us have a hard time remembering life without one. Screens have become ubiquitous, seemingly inescapable — digital Alexanders who conquered our consciousness overnight.
For many, our phones are the first face we see in the morning, the last at night, and by far the most frequent in between. We have become a sea of bent heads and sore thumbs, adept at navigating sidewalks and store aisles with our peripheral vision. Phones have become so thoroughly embedded with mind and body that many feel phantom vibrations and find their hand repeatedly twitching, unbidden, toward the pocket. As of two years ago, the average American spends at least half his waking hours on a screen (The Shallows, 227).
Where shall we go from this digital spirit? Or where shall we flee from its presence? If we ascend to heaven, airplanes offer WiFi. If we make our bed in darkness, something buzzes on the nightstand. If we take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there 5G coverage will keep us within reach.
The stupendous prevalence of our phones may not be a problem if we knew a screen-saturated existence improved our quality of life and helped us follow Jesus more faithfully. Unfortunately, we have many reasons to think it doesn’t.
Digitized, Dehumanized
The irony has not escaped me that I am currently staring at a screen, and so (most likely) are you. Lest I saw off the branch I’m sitting on, let it be said: Our phones and other screens are gifts to thank God for. So much good can be done by them and through them. The need of the hour is not to shoot these wild stallions dead, but to tame them and harness their power.
But oh how they need taming. Jean Twenge, in her carefully researched book iGen, includes a graph that shows how much certain screen activities (like gaming, texting, and social networking) and certain nonscreen activities (like exercising, reading, and spending time with friends) contribute to teens’ happiness. She writes,

The results could not be clearer: teens who spend more time on screen activities…are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time on nonscreen activities . . . are more likely to be happy. There’s not a single exception: all screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness. (77–78)

And as with happiness, so with other categories of mental health: “More screen time causes more anxiety, depression, loneliness, and less emotional connection” (112).
Read More
Related Posts:

Screen Sabbaths: A Modest Proposal for a Digital World

A few years ago, a group of cognitive and behavioral psychologists took five hundred college students, split them into three groups, and gave them two tests. The groups were alike in every way except one: the placement of their phones. The first group had their phones screen-down on the table; the second had their phones in their pockets; the third didn’t have their phones at all. You probably can see where this is going.

Though the phones of all three groups were on silent, and though few students said they felt distracted by their phones, the test scores followed an inverse relationship to the nearness of the device. On average, the closer the phone, the lower the grade. Nicholas Carr, who discusses this study in the 2020 afterword to his book The Shallows, summarizes the psychologists’ troubling conclusion:

Smartphones have become so tied up in our lives that, even when we’re not peering or pawing at them, they tug at our attention, diverting precious cognitive resources. Just suppressing the desire to check a phone, which we do routinely and subconsciously throughout the day, can debilitate our thinking. (230)

The finding — corroborated by similar studies — gives clear expression to the vague sense many feel: our phones shape us not only, perhaps not even mainly, by the content they deliver to us, but also by the mere presence of something so pleasing, so undemanding, so endlessly interesting. Smartphones, though small, exert a (subconscious) gravitational pull on our attention, drawing our thoughts and feelings into their orbit, even when their screens are dark.

“Smartphones, though small, exert a gravitational pull on our attention, even when their screens are dark.”

Which means, if Christians are going to heed the summons of Romans 12:2 in a smartphone age — “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” — we will need to do more than resist the false content on our phones. We will need to resist the false gravitational presence our phones so subtly exert upon us.

And to that end, we might find help from an ancient practice: Sabbath.

Our Intimate Companion

Before considering what the Sabbath might mean for our screens, take fresh stock of where we are. The smartphone entered the world in 2007; by 2011, most of us had one. Now, just over a decade later, most of us have a hard time remembering life without one. Screens have become ubiquitous, seemingly inescapable — digital Alexanders who conquered our consciousness overnight.

For many, our phones are the first face we see in the morning, the last at night, and by far the most frequent in between. We have become a sea of bent heads and sore thumbs, adept at navigating sidewalks and store aisles with our peripheral vision. Phones have become so thoroughly embedded with mind and body that many feel phantom vibrations and find their hand repeatedly twitching, unbidden, toward the pocket. As of two years ago, the average American spends at least half his waking hours on a screen (The Shallows, 227).

Where shall we go from this digital spirit? Or where shall we flee from its presence? If we ascend to heaven, airplanes offer WiFi. If we make our bed in darkness, something buzzes on the nightstand. If we take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there 5G coverage will keep us within reach.

The stupendous prevalence of our phones may not be a problem if we knew a screen-saturated existence improved our quality of life and helped us follow Jesus more faithfully. Unfortunately, we have many reasons to think it doesn’t.

Digitized, Dehumanized

The irony has not escaped me that I am currently staring at a screen, and so (most likely) are you. Lest I saw off the branch I’m sitting on, let it be said: Our phones and other screens are gifts to thank God for. So much good can be done by them and through them. The need of the hour is not to shoot these wild stallions dead, but to tame them and harness their power.

But oh how they need taming. Jean Twenge, in her carefully researched book iGen, includes a graph that shows how much certain screen activities (like gaming, texting, and social networking) and certain nonscreen activities (like exercising, reading, and spending time with friends) contribute to teens’ happiness. She writes,

The results could not be clearer: teens who spend more time on screen activities . . . are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time on nonscreen activities . . . are more likely to be happy. There’s not a single exception: all screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness. (77–78)

And as with happiness, so with other categories of mental health: “More screen time causes more anxiety, depression, loneliness, and less emotional connection” (112).

“Though phones may serve our discipleship to Jesus in some ways, they can do so at great cost.”

As Christians, can we not testify to a similar correlation between screens and the spiritual life? Though phones may serve our discipleship to Jesus in some ways (such as by giving us easy access to Scripture and Bible-study tools), they can do so at great cost. Rather than help us meditate, they often interrupt, draw our attention elsewhere, and cultivate habits of cursory reading. Rather than help us pray, they often fill the blank spaces of our days. Rather than help us evangelize, they often cast our gaze downward as we walk past our neighbors.

Those with a robust biblical anthropology look on unsurprised at our phones’ detrimental effects. Are we not social creatures, made for a fellowship that goes deeper than pen and ink, screen and key (2 John 12)? Are we not embodied creatures, made to feast upon God’s world with all five senses (Genesis 2:7; Psalm 104)? Are we not intellectual creatures, made to think deeply and not just on the surface of things (2 Timothy 2:7)? And are we not, first and foremost, Godward creatures, made to live coram Deo (Colossians 3:17) and not coram smartphone?

Perhaps, in such a digital world as ours, some Christians can protect and grow their social, embodied, intellectual, Godward nature apart from taking some extreme countermeasures. To me, that effort feels like trying to sleep with the lights on: possible, but harder than it needs to be.

Screen Sabbaths

Enter the Sabbath. From the exodus onward, Israel’s Sabbath served as a weekly reminder of Reality. And not just a reminder of Reality (as if the Sabbath were merely a mental exercise), but a felt sense of it. God revealed himself as Israel’s restful Creator (Exodus 20:11) and rest-giving Redeemer (Deuteronomy 5:15). But given how deeply they had been shaped by work-obsessed Egypt, and given the bent of their own hearts toward restlessness, they needed a practice that would work their confession down into the nerves and sinews of the soul.

And so, God gave them the Sabbath, a day that shifted the gravitational center away from Egypt with its restless Pharaoh and toward Reality with its restful God, trading a seven-day workweek for God’s own six-and-one pattern (Genesis 2:1–3). As such, the Sabbath takes its place alongside Israel’s festivals and feasts, the psalmist’s day-and-night meditation (Psalm 1:1–2), Daniel’s kneeling prayer (Daniel 6:10), and Jesus’s morning solitude (Mark 1:35; Luke 5:16) as a practice of disciplined resistance against the atmospheric influence of the world.

Now, how might we apply the Sabbath principle to our screen-addled, digitally saturated selves? The proposal is neither complicated nor novel: in order to resist the tug of your digital devices and live as a more present follower of Jesus, take a break from screens one day a week. Whether for a full 24 hours or for some other protected time, turn off the phone, close the computer, and plunge yourself into God’s created world, embodied and attentive to the people and places nearby. Call it a screen Sabbath.

The idea may sound extreme or impractical in a world where screens mediate so much of life. (No texts, emails, directions, podcasts, or camera?) Consider, however, not simply what you might lose on such a day, but also all you might gain.

Life off the Grid

What might happen if, for one day a week, you silenced the hum and darkened the glow of every device? If you knew you would hear no ding and feel no vibration? If every impulse to text, check, or divert were thwarted by an empty pocket? What might happen on such a day?

You might pull aside the curtains to a different glow, watching as the sun begins his morning run (Psalm 19:5). You might hear again voices so often drowned in the digital buzz: a cardinal singing from fencepost to branch, a hidden chorus of crickets, the meow of a neighbor’s stretching cat. Instead of drifting bodiless through the digital ether, you might dig your hands into the dirt or pound the paths of your allotted dwelling place (Acts 17:26).

Or maybe you would see your gruff neighbor, or the impatient parent at the park, as more than a two-dimensional stick figure, and instead begin to imagine the hopes and fears beating in their breast. Maybe such seeing would lead to speaking, and speaking to befriending, and befriending to praying and witnessing. Later, you might sit across the table from spouse, friend, or child and find the kind of undistracted inner quiet that plays host to quick hearing, slow speech (James 1:19).

Or you might discover new patience for Bible reading and prayer. Instead of glancing over the surface of a passage, maybe you would carefully turn over some of its stones, meditating like the blessed man and finding yourself blessed (Psalm 1:1–3). You might slow down as you respond to God’s words, perhaps for the first time in a long time laying your cares before him one by one (1 Peter 5:6–7). You might feel an exhale of the soul.

And when the time comes to turn the phone back on, you might find that you have carried some of this seventh-day rest with you.

Spirit of the Seventh Day

We should be wary of idealism, of course. A day without screens is still a day in a fallen world, a day when our flesh refuses to rest and we sometimes find, to our dismay, our attention scattered and our devotion to God shallow. Surely in ancient Israel the godly sometimes left the Sabbath day still restless. Over time, however, the weekly Sabbath did something to those who received it by faith: it slowly recalibrated them toward God-centered Reality, sending the restful spirit of the seventh day into the following six.

And so might a screen Sabbath. Taking disciplined time away from screens may not be the only way to live in the digital world without being conformed to it, but it is one good way. Over time, the gravitational pull of our phones may grow weaker, and we may find ourselves drawn into a different, far better orbit: the bright, life-giving sun of God himself.

Scroll to top