Show Mercy, Receive Mercy

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Honored are the merciful, 

for they shall receive mercy. 

(Matt 5:7)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Mercy highlights our tension with God because our flesh delights neither in practicing mercy nor in offering it. Rather than practice mercy, we prefer people to keep their promises and pay their bills; rather than ask for mercy, we prefer to pretend that we are sinless. Born in sin, mercy draws attention to our lack of holiness and our finitude, highlighting our tension with God.

Mercy is one of God’s signature character traits  (Wilkins 2004, 208; Guelich 1982, 88). It appears in the Golden Rule, in the Lord’s Prayer, and, most significantly, in a short list of God’s attributes given to Moses immediately after the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai:

The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. (Exod 34:4–7)

The Sinai context here is important because God exposes his character traits to Moses as a set of core values to be used to interpret the law correctly. Experienced lawmakers know that laws taken out of context can be misinterpreted and they frequently publish commentaries to assure proper interpretation. To interpret God’s character correctly, start by recognizing that God is merciful. God demonstrates his mercy in that Jesus willingly died on the cross to save us from our sins—our atonement through Christ confirms his divinity precisely because it exemplifies God’s mercy (1 Cor 15:3).

Mercy appears in many grammatical forms in scripture, but the adverbial form used in the Fifth Beatitude is used nowhere else. This form can be used to declare or be presented as a cause (Wallace 1996, 460–461). Merciful means “being concerned about people in their need, merciful, sympathetic, compassionate” (BDAG 2487) and is derrived from the same root as compassion. Mercy and forgiveness appear as two sides of the same coin (Guelich (1982, 88),  as we read:

Remember your mercy, O LORD, and your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O LORD! (Ps 25:6-7)

The Psalmist talks about mercy, love, and goodness, which together constitute forgiveness.

Jesus repeatedly talks about mercy, as when we read:

1. Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice (Hos 6:6). For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners. (Matt 9:13,12: 7).

2. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (Matt 23:23)

3. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you? (Matt 18:33)

Jesus clearly values mercy more than legal compliance or punishment. He also talks about mercy using other words or phrases, as in:

1. So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. (Matt 7:12)

2. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. (Matt 6:12)

In the first example of the Golden Rule, he uses the reciprocal form (do as you would have them do) also used in the Fifth Beatitude (give mercy, receive mercy) suggesting through parallel construction that a parallel concept is also being discussed (France 1985, 110).

The reciprocal form of the Fifth Beatitude makes a convincing case for mercy. Mercy is not earned by being merciful, but mercy suggests God’s presence and we are blessed when we offer it.

REFERENCES

Bauer, Walter (BDAG). 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. ed. de Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. <BibleWorks. v.9.>.

France, R.T. 1985. Matthew. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.

Guelich, Robert. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing.

Wilkins, Michael J. 2004. The NIV Application Commentary: Matthew. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Show Mercy, Receive Merc

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Preface to a Life in Tension

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Confessional Prayer

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By Stephen W.Hiemstra

Creator God,

We praise you for creating us in your image, complete in ourselves yet complementary with one another.

We confess that we have been too quick to sin, and too slow to forgive. Thank you for the gift of Your Son and Our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Forgive us; restore us; redeem us—teach us to imitate you so that we might grow more and more like you every day.

May we ever hunger and thirst for your righteous presence day by day.

Through the power of the Holy Spirit and in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Confessional Prayer

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Believer’s Prayer

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In Jesus Completeness is Restored

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“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen. 1:27 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Our tension with God, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, arises out of our incompleteness. We are created in God’s image, but only as a complement with our spouse, or future spouse, and then only incompletely. We remain separated from God by our unholiness and by our finitude. We yearn to complete our incompleteness; we yearn to be whole. We remain creatures of God’s creation. Yet, gardeners thrown out of the garden.

So we have reminders.

We are reminded by mere physical things: an empty stomach hungers; a dry mouth thirsts; our loneliness.

We are reminded by our limitations. We fail to keep our promises and to realize our potential.

We are reminded also by spiritual deficits. Our sin cuts us off both from our neighbors and from God. We fall short of the mark; we transgress boundaries; we fail to do the things that we should.

So we are thrown out of the garden.

Out of the garden, we feel shame and guilt.

Out of the garden, we cannot realize our destiny.

Out of the garden, completeness and holiness and fellowship with God are out of our reach.

So Jesus offers us a path back back to wholeness.

Back to restoration and healing.

Back to the garden and our destiny.

Back to our completeness and holiness and fellowship with our maker.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Matt. 5:6 ESV)

In Jesus Completeness is Restore

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Preface to a Life in Tension

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Prayer for an Identity in Christ

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By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Almighty Father,

You are the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, the one outside of time that created all things.

We praise you for providing the bread of life and well-spring of everlasting life which is your son, Jesus Christ—our redeemer, the author of our faith, and our only true friend.

We thank you for simple things, like family, bread to eat, clean water to drink, work to do, and friends in Christ.

Through the power of your Holy Spirit, help us to share our physical and spiritual gifts with those around us—first our family, then our friends, and even those we do not know well so that your name would be praised among the nations.

Forgive us when we play the fool out of pride, not for you, but out of our own ignorance.

Humble us that we might become worthy servants of your church and not ourselves.Help us to find our identity in you— not in our friends, nor in our wealth nor in our accomplishments, but in you—so that if we play the fool, it is for you and you alone.

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Prayer for an Identity in Chris

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Believer’s Prayer

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Fools for Christ

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We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong.You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst,we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure. (1 Cor 4:10–12)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

What are you willing to suffer for? What is your passion? (Matt 6:21)

Apostle Paul’s passion was the Gospel and he lived the life of an itinerant evangelist. Paul never married nor had any children and, in spite of being highly educated, gave up a priestly or academic life. When Paul described himself as a fool for Christ (2 Cor 12:10–11), his Jewish parents probably agreed.

Imagine attending your thirtieth doctoral reunion and rising to address your fellow graduates, saying:

I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Cor 11:23–28)

Unlikely to have been church leaders, Paul’s classmates were more likely to have been synagogue leaders, high priests, government officials, and college professors. Unlike many of these, Paul hungered and thirsted for righteousness, treated his suffering like a resume, and refused a salary at one point to maintain the integrity of his Gospel message (1 Cor 9:4; 2 Cor 11:7). Like the one who sent him, Paul strived to live life righteously.

No doubt, Paul’s life of integrity also put him in tension with God. For example, God’s answer to his prayer over a thorn in the flesh—“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9)—likely caused Paul much anguish before he developed the serenity to boast about God’s object lesson.

Another such object lesson is the Eucharist which reminds us of Christ by focusing on objects of hunger (bread) and thirst (water/wine), much like several of Jesus’ miracles. Jesus’ first miracle was to turn water into wine (John 2:1–10) while others involved multiplying bread and fish (John 4:32, 6:11). The transformation of simple things like food and water into sacred objects must have perplexed the Greeks who looked down on the physical world (earth), but looked up to the spiritual world (heaven).

The sacraments and Jesus’ miracles point to a simple but important spiritual reality: “Man shall not live by bread alone.” (Luke 4:4; Deut 8:3) Just as a sacrament is an outward sign with an inward meaning, physical things and circumstances have both outward and inner meanings associated with them, which, for example, leads Paul to describe the body as the temple of God (1 Cor 6:19). If the physical body can become the temple of God and mere food and drink can be sacraments, then food and drink stand at an important boundary between the physical and spiritual realms where spiritual transformation can take place and God’s love can be expressed as care for the poor and hungry.

For example, God identifies himself directly with the poor and hungry in the final judgment, as we read: Then the righteous will answer him, saying, Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? (Matt 25:37) Here, attitude and actions regarding the poor and hungry directly identify Christ’s followers, modeled on the charity of Christ himself: “And he said to me, It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.” (Rev 21:6)If Jesus practices charity, then we should too because our charitable obligation depends, not on the good behavior of the recipients, but on our own identity in Christ:

if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Matt 5:43–46, Rom 12:20–21)

Our identity in Christ leads us, not to judge the sinful, but to help the needy, as we read: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17) Living in a wealthy nation, our charitable obligation—providing for the physical needs of those less fortunate—is bigger than most.

If the first sin of the Bible was to lust after a tree fruit (Gen 6), then the mark of the disciple would be to model Christ’s abundant provision (Rev 21:6) and to defeat the urge to sin.

Fools for Christ

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Preface to a Life in Tension

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Passion Prayer

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By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Good Shepherd,

We praise you for the gifts of Eden—fertile land, water and food, and the security of your presence.

Keep our hands busy; guard our minds; and give us hearts that yearn only for you.

Forgive us that we are not fit for Eden; that we are not satisfied with your gifts; that we have not valued your presence; that our hands have been idle, our minds set on physical things, and our hearts easily tempted by crass things.

Restore us—make us fit custodians of your garden.

Let our hearts yearn for your presence and our minds hunger and thirst for your righteousness, that all the days of our lives our hands may praise you with good works.

Through the power of the Holy Spirit and in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Passion  Prayer

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Believer’s Prayer

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Hunger and Thirst for God

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As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, 

O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. 

When shall I come and appear before God? 

My tears have been my food day and night, 

while they say to me all the day long, 

Where is your God? (Ps 42:1–3)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The great irony of faith is that we approach God out of our poverty, not our riches. The riches of Babylon and Egypt flowed from their abundance of water and irrigation systems, while the poverty of Israel blew in with the dust storms from its deserts. Yet, Egypt and Babylon are known for their idolatry and sin, while Israel is known for its law and prophets (Card 2005, 16). What do the Books of the Law and the Prophets say about satisfying the hunger and thirst for righteousness?

The Books of the Law

Hungering and thirsting were not part of God’s original plan, which we know because food and water were abundant in the Garden of Eden, as we read:

And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. (Gen 2:8-10)

In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve lived in direct communion with God and righteousness was a fruit of that communion, which broke down when Adam and Eve sinned (Gen 3:23). When we mourn our sin and the loss of our communion with God, we hunger and thirst for the righteousness, which is a metaphor for the blessings and tangible fruit of that communion.

Restoration of this communion was a goal of the Mosaic covenant, as suggested in Deuteronomy:

And if you will indeed obey my commandments that I command you today, to love the LORD your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil. And he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you shall eat and be full. (Deut 11:13–15)

Obeying the commandments involves loving and serving God, who will respond by sending rain in its season granting you a full harvest and an abundant life for you and yours. By contrast, reluctant service to God will result in servitude, hunger, thirst and deprivation:

Because you did not serve the LORD your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the LORD will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness, and lacking everything. And he will put a yoke of iron on your neck until he has destroyed you. (Deut 28:47–48)

Destruction follows from disobedience—under the law one literally reaps what one sows in respect to one’s relationship with God. In fact, God’s judgment follows from hungering and thirsting for mere physical things, even things like the law (Exod 17:3).

This is, in fact, the basis for the curse for not accepting the new covenant in Christ. Paul writes: “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.” (Rom 1:28) To be given over to one’s passions is a curse and it leads to self-destruction because both the mind and the heart are corrupted by sin.

The Books of the Prophets

In the Law, one reaps what one sows; in the Prophets, the wise are clever and the foolish are ignorant of the ways of the world, as we read:

If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink, for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you. (Prov 25:21–22)

This reward follows for respecting worldly wisdom, because God created both heaven and earth—all knowledge is God’s knowledge (Prov 1:7; 2 Chr 1:10–13). So the wise leave the door open for enemies to become friends by treating their enemies humanly, feeding them and offering them drink, as Jesus teaches (Matt 5:44–45).

Feeding and drinking find metaphorical uses in the Prophets, as we read: “And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.” (Jer 3:15) Jesus himself is this good shepherd (John 10:11–16), but this hunger is relieved metaphorically through “knowledge and understanding” rather than through physical consumption. Likewise, mere consumption is not the point when Isaiah alludes to abundant water and food, evoking the image of a return to Eden:

Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. (Isa 55:1–2)

Isaiah offers spiritual water and food which, like their physical counterparts in Eden, were abundantly provided. He infers (as does the Fourth Beatitude) that by hungering and thirsting for righteousness, God will smile on our efforts and heaven will not be far off (Rev 22:17).

References

Card, Michael. 2005. A Sacred Sorrow Experience Guide: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Hunger and Thirst for God

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Preface to a Life in Tension

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Petition to Grow Faith

Life_in_Tension_revision_front_20200101By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Precious Lord,

In our finitude, our sin, our brokenness, we yearn for your righteousness, oh God.

As the hungry grasp for bread and as the thirsty cry for water, we search for your justice where no other will do and no other can be found.

Your Holy scriptures remind us that you are ever-near, always vigilant, and forever compassionate.

Through the desert of our emotions and in the wilderness of our minds, bind our wounds, relieve our pains, and forgive our sins.

Through the power of your Holy Spirit, grow our faith even as our strength fails us.

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Petition to Grow Faith

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Believer’s Prayer

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Passionately Pursue the Kingdom of Heaven

Life_in_Tension_revision_front_20200101Honored are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. (Matt 5:6)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Fourth Beatitude taps into deep physical and spiritual needs expressed in the words: “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Hunger means both “to feel the pangs of lack of food, hunger, be hungry” and to “desire something—strongly, hunger for something” while thirst means both “to have a desire for liquid, be thirsty, suffer from thirst” and “to have a strong desire to attain some goal, thirst, i.e. long for something” (BDAG 2051). Righteousness means the “quality or state of juridical correctness with focus on redemptive action, righteousness” (BDAG 2004.2) that we hunger and thirst for in a sinful world.

The theme of hungering and thirsting—deep need and abundant provision—runs throughout in John’s Gospel. Jesus first reveals himself to a couple of newlyweds in danger of being stigmatized for their poverty, lacking sufficient wine to meet community hospitality standards. Our insufficiencies are contrasted with God’s super-abundant provision—of wine (John 2:1–11), bread (John 6:5–14), and fish (John 21:3–13)—that displays God’s trademark generosity.

God’s generosity is remembered in the Festival of Booths (John 7:2) that commemorates Israel’s desert wanderings after leaving Egypt (Lev 23:34-43), when Jesus says:

Jesus said to them, I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. (John 6:35)

The bread here refers to manna and the water refers to God’s miraculous gift of water at Meribah (Exod 17:1–17).

Reminding temple worshippers of God, Jesus stood up and cried out:

If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water. (John 7:37-39)

The symbolism of water and bread both point to God’s abundant and everlasting provision that we commemorate in the sacraments of baptism and communion.

More generally, to “hunger and thirst for righteousness” speaks of suffering, where basic human needs are withheld or remain absent, as in songs of lament in the Book of Psalms. There we read: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps 22:1) and “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?” (Ps 89:46). It is ironic that God reveals himself most clearly in the deserts of life (Exod 7:16; Card 2005, 16).

Modern atheism feeds from this painful stream. Modern atheists question God’s provision and goodness. They argue that if God is all powerful and all good, then the existence of suffering and evil suggests that God is either not all powerful or not good or not both—he does not exist.  In contrast, Jesus testifies that those who passionately seek righteousness will be satisfied. The Greek word here for satisfy means “to experience inward satisfaction in something or be satisfied” (BDAG 7954). Far from deserting us, in life Jesus suffered alongside of us, on the cross paid our penalty for sin, and in resurrection became our guarantor. “While some continue to argue that Auschwitz disproves the existence of God, many more would argue that it demonstrates the depths to which humanity, unrestrained by any thought or fear of God, will sink.” (McGrath 2004, 184).

In our deserts of suffering and need, Jesus gives us permission to pray for the simplest needs in life. He says: “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matt 6:11), displaying God concern for us just like when God clothed Adam and Eve, even as he expelled them from the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:21). Even in judgment God’s eye is on care for his people: The righteous are separated from the wicked by their attitude about and care for those in need (Matt 25:31–46).

Brueggemann (2009, 31) contrasts the YHWH economy with Pharaoh’s economy providing insight into the Ten Commandments. In the YHWH economy, those who keep the Sabbath need not dishonor mother and father, kill, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, or covet. In other words, do detestable things for the sake of money. In the unending race to pursue wealth of Pharaoh’s economy we are pushed individually and collectively daily to neglect or break these commandments.

Our needs will be met and expectations exceeded, we are reminded in the Fourth Beatitude and later in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus says:

Therefore do not be anxious, saying, What shall we eat? or What shall we drink? or What shall we wear? For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matt 6:31–33)

Listen to the phrase—”seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness”—do you hear an echo of the First Commandment? (Exod 20:3) God’s righteousness on earth is embedded even in the invitation to share God’s peace.

References

Bauer, Walter (BDAG). 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. ed. de Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. <BibleWorks. v.9.>

Brueggemann, Walter. 2014. Sabbath as Resistance: Saying NO to the Culture of Now. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Card, Michael. 2005. A Sacred Sorrow Experience Guide:  Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament. Colorado Springs:  NavPress.

McGrath, Alister. 2004. The Twilight of Atheism. New York: DoubleDay.

Passionately Pursue the Kingdom of Heaven

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Preface to a Life in Tension

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Meek Leadership Prayer

Life_in_Tension_revision_front_20200101By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Almighty Father,

We give thanks for the gift of faith and the call into ministry that reaches out to our families, friends, and beyond.

Guard our hearts in times of weakness, hardship, and temptation.

Keep our minds sharp so that we can offer you our praise with clarity, coherence, and dedication, not tainted by vain desires, cultural confusion, or subtle idolatries.

Grant us a spirit of meekness, a spirit of humility seated deeply in our character—not loosely held, superficially worn, or overshadowed by cherished sins.

Place in us hearts eager to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, and gentleness.

Give us the assurance of your providence so we can offer sacrificial hospitality to those around us.

In the face of suffering, make your Holy Spirit especially visible so that we would not fail in our ministry due to temptations to be relevant, powerful, or spectacular in the eyes of those in our care.

In the strong name of Jesus Christ, your Son and our Savior. Amen.

Meek Leadership Prayer

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Believer’s Prayer

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