Teen Challenge, a ministry to at-risk youth in New York City, was born from an unusual commitment to prayer. Its founder, David Wilkerson, sold his television set and spent his TV-watching time (two hours each night) praying. In the months that followed, he not only gained clarity about his new endeavor but he also learned about the balance between praising God and asking Him for help.
King Solomon’s temple dedication prayer shows this balance. Solomon began by highlighting God’s holiness and faithfulness. Then he gave God credit for the success of the project and emphasized God’s greatness, declaring, “The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” (v. 18).
After exalting God, Solomon asked Him to pay special attention to everything that happened inside the temple. He asked God to show mercy to the Israelites and to provide for them when they confessed their sin.
Immediately after Solomon’s prayer, “fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple” (7:1). This incredible response reminds us that the mighty One we praise and speak to when we pray is the same One who listens to and cares about our requests.
At the end of one school semester, my wife and I picked up our daughter from her school 100 kilometers (60 miles) away. On our way back home we detoured to a nearby beach resort for snacks. While enjoying our time there, we watched the boats at the seashore. Usually they are anchored to prevent them from drifting away, but I noticed one boat drifting unhindered among the others—slowly and steadily making its way out to sea.
As we drove home, I reflected on the timely caution given to believers in the book of Hebrews: "We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away" (Heb. 2:1). We have good reason to stay close. The author of Hebrews says that while the Mosaic law was reliable and needed to be obeyed, the message of the Son of God is far superior. Our salvation is “so great” in Jesus that He shouldn’t be ignored.
Drifting in our relationship with God is hardly noticeable at first; it happens gradually. However, spending time talking with Him in prayer and reading His Word, confessing our wrongs to Him, and interacting with other followers of Jesus can help us stay anchored in Him. As we connect with the Lord regularly, He will be faithful to sustain us, and we can avoid drifting away.
During my friend Myrna’s travels to another country, she visited a church for worship. She noticed that as people entered the sanctuary they immediately knelt and prayed, facing away from the front of the church. My friend learned that people in that church confessed their sin to God before they began the worship service.
This act of humility is a picture to me of what David said in Psalm 51: “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise” (v. 17). David was describing his own remorse and repentance for his sin of adultery with Bathsheba. Real sorrow for sin involves adopting God’s view of what we’ve done—seeing it as clearly wrong, disliking it, and not wanting it to continue.
When we are truly broken over our sin, God lovingly puts us back together. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). This forgiveness produces a fresh sense of openness with Him and is the ideal starting point for praise. After David repented, confessed, and was forgiven by God, he responded by saying, “Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise” (Ps. 51:15).
Humility is the right response to God’s holiness. And praise is our heart’s response to His forgiveness.
When I was growing up, one of my favorite books was Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. In one amusing passage, young Anne, by mistake, adds a skin medication instead of vanilla to the cake she is making. Afterward, she exclaims hopefully to her stern-faced guardian, Marilla, “Isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?”
I like that thought: tomorrow is a new day—a new day when we can start afresh. We all make mistakes. But when it comes to sin, God’s forgiveness is what enables us to start each morning with a clean slate. When we repent, He chooses to remember our sins no more (Jer. 31:34; Heb. 8:12).
Some of us have made wrong choices in our lives, but our past words and deeds need not define our future in God’s eyes. There is always a fresh start. When we ask for His forgiveness, we take a first step toward restoring our relationship with Him and with others. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
God’s compassion and faithfulness are new every morning (Lam. 3:23), so we can start afresh each day.
Long ago, before the invention of mirrors or polished surfaces, people rarely saw themselves. Puddles of water, streams, and rivers were one of the few ways they could see their own reflection. But mirrors changed that. And the invention of cameras took fascination with our looks to a whole new level. We now have lasting images of ourselves from any given time throughout our entire life. This is good for making scrapbooks and keeping family histories, but it can be detrimental to our spiritual well-being. The fun of seeing ourselves on camera can keep us focused on outward appearance and leave us with little interest in examining our inner selves.
Self-examination is crucial for a healthy spiritual life. God wants us to see ourselves so that we can be spared the consequences of sinful choices. This is so important that Scripture says we are not to participate in the Lord’s Supper without first examining ourselves (1 Cor. 11:28). The point of this self-examination is not only to make things right with God but also to make sure we are right with one another. The Lord’s Supper is a remembrance of Christ’s body, and we can’t celebrate it properly if we’re not living in harmony with other believers.
Seeing and confessing our sin promotes unity with others and a healthy relationship with God.
The St. Olaf Choir from Northfield, Minnesota, is renowned for making beautiful music. One reason for its excellence is the selection process. Applicants are chosen based not only on how well they sing but also on how they sound as part of the whole. Another reason is that all members agree to make the choir their first priority and commit to a rigorous rehearsal and performance schedule.
One of the things that intrigues me the most about this choir is what happens during rehearsals. Whenever members make a mistake, they raise their hand. Instead of trying to hide the blunder, they call attention to it! This allows the conductor to help each singer learn the difficult part, and it increases the likelihood of a flawless performance.
I think this is the kind of community Jesus was establishing when He told Nicodemus that God sent His Son into the world to save it, not condemn it (John 3:17). Shortly after this conversation, Jesus encountered a Samaritan woman at the public well. He made it easy for her to admit failure by promising her a better way of life where she could enjoy His forgiveness (John 4).
As members of Christ’s body on Earth, we should not fear admitting our wrongs but welcome it as an opportunity to together experience and rejoice in the forgiveness of God.
A pastor told this story on himself in his local newspaper. He was chatting with an older man to whom he had just been introduced. “So, you used to work for a utility company,” the pastor said, naming the organization. “Sure did,” the man responded. The pastor remarked that when he was a kid the cables from that company ran across his parents’ property. “Where did you live?” the man asked. When the pastor told him, the man said, “I remember that property. I had a tough time keeping the cable warning signs up. Kids were always shooting them down.” When the pastor’s face flushed with embarrassment, the man said, “You were one of the shooters, weren’t you?” And indeed he was.
One of the most difficult inner conflicts we have is our desire to be known versus our fear of being known. As beings created in the image of God we are made to be known—known by God and also by others. Yet due to our fallen nature, all of us have sins and weaknesses that we don’t want others to know about. We use the phrase “dark side” to refer to aspects of our lives that we keep hidden. And we use slogans like “put your best foot forward” to encourage others to show their best side.
While I was talking with a gifted pianist, she asked me if I played any musical instruments. When I responded, “I play the radio,” she laughed and asked if I had ever wanted to play any instrument. My embarrassed answer was, “I took piano lessons as a boy but gave it up.” Now, in my adult years, I regret not continuing with the piano. I love music and wish I could play today. That conversation was a fresh reminder to me that life is often constituted by the choices we make—and some of them produce regret.