Oh my gosh, do you realize what time it is? Christmas is coming. Granted, this Christmas will definitely be different than any Christmas that any of us have experienced, our first pandemic one. But it’s coming. Yet, you know. Christians have kind of a weird way of getting ready.
Out there in the world, people are putting up their Christmas trees, buying stuff to put under them, setting up lights around the house, stuff like that. And of course, Christians do that stuff. That’s part of the fun of the holiday. But none of this stuff is likely going to change your life, in any permanent way, not even the gifts under the tree. Maybe someone got a gift at Christmas and it inspired them to be a photographer or writer or whatever. But as much as I loved the gifts I got at Christmas, especially as a kid, none of them changed my life.
But here, in this worship season, that’s how we get ready. That’s how we get ready for Christmas. In this season we call Advent, Christians look for what needs to change in us. We look for changes that will last, that will grow, long after lights get put away and presents gather dust. That type of change doesn’t come easy. But when it does, it changes everything.
And over the coming weeks, we’re going to look at four prayers that God gives that bring about change, that open us to new ways to see ourselves, to see our world and our place in it. And if you take these prayers seriously, they will change you. Not only will they change you, but bit by bit as they work in you they will change your world.
And today, we start by looking at one of the toughest changes anyone can make, getting honest about what’s happening in your own head. The preacher, Bill Coffin once said. Hell is truth seen too late. To face that hell, you don’t have to die, though you may want to. And if you’re at all like me, almost always you see the truth too late, not because someone was lying to you. No, you see it too late because you were lying to yourself. But by the time you faced that truth, well, the damage had been done, to you, to others, damage you couldn’t really undo. So, how do you see the truth before it’s too late, before it crushes you or others? How do you see the truth instead in ways that free you, that change you, that enable you to become the person you yearn to be? In this prayer, God shows you the way. Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.
Psalm 139:23-24 -
Test me and know my thoughts
See if there is any hurtful way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting
In this simple prayer, one that you could memorize pretty easily (in fact, do that – it’s powerful to carry this prayer in your mind), God is giving you one of the things that everyone needs more of. In fact, the more you have the focus of this prayer, the freer and more fulfilled your life becomes. And what is the focus? Knowing You. In this prayer, God is telling you, the more you know you, the more you’ll know me.
But before you can go deep in knowing you, you need to understand why knowing you is so hard. The prophet Jeremiah was telling it true when he said these words. “The heart is devious above all else: it is perverse – who can understand it.” And come on, you know that’s true. Have you ever zipped by a highway exit you knew you needed to take, and didn’t even realize it for like miles? What were you thinking? Or have you ever said to yourself? “I gotta remember to pick that up.” And then five minutes later you forgot completely.
Then of course, later when you do remember, usually too late, you say to yourself. “What was I thinking?” And that’s the point. You don’t really know what you were thinking. Heck, the folk singer, Christine Lavin, has been singing a hilarious song with that title for decades. And she has to change the song constantly. Why? She’s always discovering new ways her mind deceives her into doing stupid stuff. Now, if your mind just messed up a highway exit or forgot a few things, it probably wouldn’t be all that terrible.
But our minds fool us in deeper, more devastating ways than that. So how do you get free of that? This prayer points you to the first step. For, if you say this prayer, do you see what you’re saying? You’re saying. I need help. I can’t do this alone. And that’s what everyone needs to realize. As much as we’d like to think differently, too much of our own thinking, we can’t even see until we have someone or even something that helps us see. What do I mean?
For years, researchers recommended all these techniques for people to lose weight, exercise, strict diets, regular counseling, changing their routines. Guess what? None of it, in the end, worked. But in 2009 the National Institutes of Health discovered what did. They asked 1600 seriously overweight folks to do just one thing, and only do it one day a week. Just one day, they asked them. Write everything you ate that day. Now it took a little bit of time, but folks started doing it. Before long, a lot of them were doing it every day. And as they did, they saw patterns, times they were likely to snack. Knowing that, they put an apple on their desk around that time. That way, they’d eat that instead of something not so healthy. Some began planning their meals ahead of time. And at the end of the study, those who had kept the food logs had lost twice as much weight as those who hadn’t (cited in The Power of Habit. That’s a 100% difference! But do you see how it happened?
These folks just started noticing what was actually happening inside them, inside their minds when it came to food. And just doing that led to change, huge change. As someone who uses a food log, let me tell you. It works. But do you see the point? They couldn’t do it alone. They needed that notebook to bring their thinking out, to bring the truth out where they could see it.
Now imagine if just a notebook could do that, what this prayer could do? Almost all the words of the psalm before these verses talk about how intimately God knows you. But how do you get a hold of that knowledge God has? Is there a God notebook you can look at? Kind of.
Hundreds of years ago, a Spanish Christian, Ignatius of Loyola, created a sort of God notebook. He called it the Examen. The religious order he began, the Jesuits, uses the practice to this day. But anyone can use it. It’s super simple. All you do is review your day and ask two questions. What today gave me life? What today took life away? Just asking those two simple questions works like that notebook. It brings out the truth where you can see it.
When I started doing this, I can’t tell you the number of times I was doing something that I thought gave me life. Then reviewing my day, I realized. No, not at all. It took life away. And I realized. I’ve gotta stop doing that. But doing that review is what enabled God to help me see.
I love the way the writer Pete Greig describes it. He calls it the Four Rs – Review, Rejoice (that was awesome), Repent (oh, that wasn’t awesome at all) and then Reboot (how can I do it differently tomorrow). And as you do it, those four Rs change you. God helps you search and know your heart. And God leads you to discover more deeply the hurtful ways within you.
Last Sunday, I talked about the dark days I faced a month or so ago. But I didn’t tell you what led to them, what made those days dark. What was it? I faced the loss of my false gods. What do I mean? You don’t know in your life what your false gods are until you face losing them. Because when you do, that’s how you know. Their loss freaks you out, leads you to dark days.
So, what were my false gods? Well, I had become way too invested in having my son’s love. Now, sure I want my son’s love. But if I want that love too much, it places a burden on him he can’t bear. And with him so far away, I feared the loss of that love so much, it started to wreck me. But I didn’t carry just that false god. This pandemic has put strain on our church, strain we’ll get through, but a month ago I was a bit scared we might not. And I realized. That failure, remote as it was, it scared me way too much. It had become a false god.
Those gods were hurting me. I had to let them go. But until those dark days tested me, I didn’t even realize I had them. I had those hurtful ways inside me and didn’t even know it. But do you know what else I discovered in those dark days. I rediscovered what was real, what was true. I discovered in a deeper way than before just how much God loved me.
Centuries ago, a Christian thinker named John Calvin, made a stunning observation. He observed. The more you know yourself, the more you know God and vice versa. The more you know God, the more you know yourself too. Now what he meant by that doesn’t sound all that awesome at first. Basically, Calvin meant that the more you know God, the more you see all the lies you tell yourself. And when you see all those lies, well, you want to know God more to help you come to the truth. Then as you know God more, well, God helps you discover more lies. Then you go, gosh, I gotta know God even more. And this just keeps going on and on. After all, remember what Jeremiah said. That heart is devious. It’s tricky. Who can understand it?
Well, God can. But here’s the deeper point. God sees all the lies, all the lies we tell ourselves, how they mess us up and yet God loves us still. In fact, God yearns for you to see the lies, so that you can know that truth; so, you can know more deeply that God does truly, infinitely, unconditionally love you. Not believing that is the lie that lies behind every lie we tell ourselves. We fear God doesn’t love us like that. So, we look elsewhere for the comfort, for the security, for the love that only God can provide. We look for love in all the wrong places. But as God shows you how wrong those places are, the lies you tell yourself, God brings you closer to the truth, to how completely, how totally, how unshakably God is for you, how much he loves you. And the cross shows you that truth like nothing else, a God who even as you kill him prays for you. And as you come to know that beautiful truth, God is leading you further into the way everlasting. In fact, that way everlasting points to the description of heaven I love the most.