About 1700 years ago, there was a great church leader who is now called Saint Basel. After the apostles of the New Testament, he is probably one of the greatest Christian men who ever lived. Wherever he went, he made a powerful impact upon the people he engaged. Someone once said of Basel, "His words were like thunder because his life was like lightning."
How would you like someone to say that about you? Or, to put it another way, how many times have you viewed the faith of another man or woman and said something similar about them?
You may know a lot of people who profess Christian faith, who talk the "Jesus talk" with ease, who claim they've moved far along in the journey, and yetand I don't want to sound judgmentalyou would probably agree with me that there are few people who seem miles deeper or broader or higher in their quality of faith. My phrase for them is they exhibit "extreme faith." The man or woman with extreme faith understands there is something deeper to faith than we've imagined.
You can assess people by the things about which they are curious. I ask people, "What are your top two or three curiosities in life? What are the things you are driven to know about or that you want to master?" For too many of us, our curiosities are lesser curiositiespractical, nothing-wrong-with-them, good curiositiesand not the best curiosities.
When I was a young man, trying to learn how to pastor a church, my interests were in subjects like management and administration and organizational dynamics. As I've gotten older, I've learned these lesser curiosities are not the things that build either a great church or a great Christian life. Extreme faith is built upon the greater curiosities, those themes that are deep, taking a lifetime to explore.
Moses can teach us how to pray with extreme faith.
In the Old Testament Book of Exodus, there is a story that concerns one of the greatest leaders of all time—Moses. He led the people of Israel out of 400 years of slavery in Egypt. When you read of Moses, you are reading about a man of extreme faith who spent his life exploring the greater curiosities.
Exodus 33:711 reads:
Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the "tent of meeting." Anyone inquiring of the Lord would go to the tent of meeting outside the camp. And whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people rose and stood at the entrances to their tents, watching Moses until he entered the tent. As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the Lord spoke with Moses. Whenever the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance to the tent, they all stood and worshiped, each at the entrance of his tent. The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.
You will hardly see any place in the Bible where intimacy with God is more expressively put than in that single sentence. It describes a man who had come to know God. At this point, Moses is probably in his 81st or 82nd year of life. Don't despair if you're young; it takes years to develop a relationship of this nature. Moses, through 80 years of success and failure, had finally reached this point.
But when a man or woman talks with God face to face, as friend does to friend, what do they talk about? Today, most prayers go, "Oh, Lord, make me healthy. Solve my problems. Increase my salary. Make me happy. Help me get along with my spouse or my girlfriend or my boyfriend. Make me six inches taller. Help me take off 40 pounds. Get me a better job." Is that what Moses prayed about?
One way to get an answer to that question is to discover the context of these conversations. What was going on at that time?
Moses had spent his first 40 years living in the Egyptian palace. A colossal failurea murderdrove him out of town to live in the desert for the next 40 years of his life. It was during those years that Moses finally learned to start listening to God, recognizing he must do things on God's terms. That's how extreme faith begins to develop.
In his 80th year, at the burning bush moment, God called Moses to lead the people out of Egypt. Now remember, God asked Moses to lead tens of thousands of people out of a place where they and their ancestors had lived for 400 years. He might as well have been asked to herd cats!
You'd think that these people would be glad to get out of Egypt"Moses, anything you say"but when multiple generations have lived as slaves, they become distrustful. They become skeptical and suspicious. They are people without a culture. They are tempted to resist authority and to complain and gripe at everything that happens.
Consider how Israel acted just after she had been set free from her Egyptian captors. When they got to the shore of the Red Sea and the Egyptian army began to pursue them, they turned against Moses and said, "You led us out here to die. Why didn't you leave us in Egypt? Life was better then."
When they later came into the desert, they complained the food was not in plentiful supply. Every time Moses turned around, these people were angry. They were the worst kind of people for someone to have to lead.
That's what brings us to Exodus 33:
Then the Lord said to Moses, "Leave this place, you and the people you brought up out of Egypt, and go up to the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, saying, 'I will give it to your descendants.' I will send an angel before you and drive out the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way."
Just before this chapter, Moses had returned from Mount Sinai and found the people dancing like pagans around a fire. His brother, Aaron, had said: We thought you weren't coming back, so we've been dancing and worshiping this calf.
God was angry.
We don't like to think of God being angry, but God has righteous anger when people turn against him and flaunt his grace. So God says: I promised you the land, but I'm not going with you.
Here's where the man of extreme faith begins to weigh in. As Moses hears these words, he goes to the tent of meeting. He begins to pray for three thingsthree things that show the greater curiosities, three things that ought to be foundational pillars in your life of prayer. These are the things men and women who grow deep in Christian faith pray about.
Moses said to the Lord, "You have been telling me, 'Lead these people,' but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, 'I know you by name, and you have found favor with me.' If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people."
We should pray, "Teach me your ways."
The key phrase in these two verses is the first of the greater curiosities. Here is Moses, a man of extreme faith, saying to God: "Teach me your ways." What does that mean?
First of all, you are asking God to teach you about his culture. Moses had spent 40 years in the Egyptian culture and 40 years in the desert with shepherds, Arameans, and nomads. Now he's being asked by God to lead a group of people into a new way of life. Through his prayer, Moses is saying: I don't know enough, God. I need to get insight into your culturehow you do things, what your expectations are, what kind of people you want us to be. So, Lord, if you want me to lead these people, teach me your ways.
This prayer drives men and women to the Word of God as students because it says, "I've been immersed for the totality of my life in the ways of the world. Though not all those ways are evil or bad, I now want to absorb God's ways. I am going to reflect the character of God in my own character. I am going to absorb as much as heaven will reveal to me about its ways."
I received an e-mail from a friend who is on his way to extreme faith. In the last year, he has experienced a few setbacks, and they've done a job on him. I think his e-mail illustrates what's going on in Moses' prayer: "God has been busy working on me. I've uncovered some strongholds in my life that have to be dealt with. I have always felt I learned about God and his ways by how he changed my circumstances. I approach my relationship with him like a rock and a stream. But God has decided it's time for me to go on to Christianity 201, which is that he wants my heart to change, not the circumstances."
That is a remarkable insight, because most of us have prayer lives in which we're asking God to alter the circumstances. This man is saying it's not the circumstances that are to change; it's his heart that's to change. That's what Moses is trying to say: Lord, I've come after 82 years of life to understand that I must know your ways.
If you pray like that every day, you'll have a new depth to your life as you concentrate on absorbing the culture of heaven. Maybe this is part of what Jesus was saying in the Lord's Prayer: "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." In other words: I want to know your ways, Lord. I want to bring them on earth as they are explored and acted out in heaven.
We should pray, "Guarantee to me your presence."
The Lord says in verse 14, "My Presence will go with you." Here's a change! God said earlier (in verse three), "I will not go with you." Now, in verse 14, he apparently likes Moses' attitude. It's as if he says: I've changed my mind. My Presence will go with you.
Moses then says: If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?
The key idea in this part of the prayer is "guarantee to me your presence." Moses is saying: I'm not going to do this alone. I want to know you are where I can call upon you.
Moses says: I'm not going on this journey unless your presence is guaranteed.
Presence implies guidance. Presence implies help. Presence implies companionship.
When my daughter, Christy, was a child, she went through a liturgy each night before she went to bed. Along the baseboard of her bed, were 17 stuffed animals. The animal in the number one position got to sleep with her. The next morning, it was put in the number 17 position and had to work its way up again. Christy was sensitive about this. More than once, I tried to slip animal 12 or 15 to the front of the line. She always caught me, saying, "No, Daddynumber one would feel bad if he lost his turn."
The second thing in the liturgy was that the sheets and blankets had to be pulled up to her chin. Then the window shade had to be pulled to six inches above the sill, no further away and no closer. After prayers, as I went out the door, I had to shut the door to a space of about four inches, so ambient light from the hallway could come in.
Then there was a final exchange, exactly the same each night. As I slipped out the door, I would hear her say, "Daddy, where will you be?"
"Well, honey," I would reply, "I'll be with mom in the kitchen or in the living room or down in my study."
And then this final comment: "Daddy, don't go to sleep until I'm asleep."
What was she saying? "I want to know about your presence. I want to know that if the night gets scary, if I hear a noise or have a bad dream, you will hear my voice."
That's what Moses is saying in this part of his prayer. While most of us in this room may not be afraid of the dark, we have our own bag of fears. Whether it's losing jobs or losing health or not being loved or not overcoming depression or all the issues that create crisis in human experience, we, too, are crying out for the Lord's guaranteed presence.
We should pray, "Show me your glory."
A man of extreme faith prays a third prayer. It comes in verse 18: "Now show me your glory."
And the Lord said to Moses, "I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion."
This is a powerful third prayer. The word "glory" is a religious word we don't often use. It sums up the worth and power of a person or an organization or a nation. When the president wants to impress some two-bit dictator in another part of the world, a fleet of jets will swoop down on the dictator's palace, and the sonic boom expresses the glory of the United States. When the CEO of a Fortune 500 company goes to Wall Street to impress the stock people with the glory of his or her company, he or she pulls out the figures and shows the assets, the business plans, and anything else that displays the glory of the organization.
How does God reveal his glory to Moses? God says: I'll tell you what my name is. I will reveal something to you of my moral character. Here's my glory, Moses: I am abounding in steadfast love, slow to anger, and forgiving of wickedness and sin. I am not capricious, vindictive, or unresponsive. I am a God whose character is impeccable and absolutely dependable.
So you're Moses and you're asked to take a recalcitrant group of people across a desert to the Promised Land, and you don't know whether you've got it in you. The moment calls for the development of extreme faith.
Can you do it on the kind of prayers most of us pray? Probably not. But if your prayers become studded with prayers like "teach me your ways," "guarantee to me your presence," and "show me your glory," your faith is going to enlarge.
In the seventh and eighth centuries, Christianity virtually died in Europe. The only place where Christianity was of any influence was in Ireland, where Irish monks preached the faith. These Irish monks did some interesting things to express their extreme faith. Many of them would get into little boats and put out into the sea, trusting that wherever the current led them was where God wanted them to go. Many of them perished, but those who landed on the shores of the European continent preached the gospel. Today, you can still find great monasteries that were founded by Irish monks in that period of time. In fact, an Irish monk founded the monastery where Saint Francis of Assisi experienced his conversion.
One of the greatest Irish monks was a man now known as Saint Brendan. Before he embarked upon the seas, he is said to have prayed this prayer:
"Shall I abandon, O King of mysteries, the soft comforts of home? Shall I turn my back on my native land and my face toward the sea? Shall I put myself wholly at the mercy of God, without silver, without a horse, without fame and honor? Shall I throw myself wholly upon the King of kings without a sword and shield, without food and drink, without a bed to lie on? Shall I say farewell to my beautiful land, placing myself under Christ's yoke? Shall I pour out my heart to him, confessing my manifold sins and begging forgiveness, tears streaming down my face? Shall I leave the prints of my knees on the sandy beach, a record of my final prayer in my native land? Shall I then suffer every kind of wound that the seas inflict? Shall I take my tiny boat across the wide sparkling ocean? O King of the glorified heaven, shall I go of my own choice upon the sea? O Christ, will you help me on the wild waves?"
You and I may not be as articulate as Saint Brendan, but more than a few of us are right where he once was. We're on the beach. We've done Christianity 101. We've had a prayer life that depended upon changing circumstances. God is now saying, "I want to take you deeper."
Some of us are saying, "I want to go deeper; I want to be a person of extreme faith; where do I start?"
You start where Moses started. On his own beach, as he faced God with incredible challenges in front of him, he prayed a powerful threefold prayer:
"Lord, teach me your ways."
"Lord, guarantee to me your presence."
"Lord, show me the revelation of your power and your glory."
Those are the greater curiosities. Those are the curiosities of a man or woman who wants to develop extreme faith.
Gordon MacDonald is chancellor of Denver Seminary and editor-at-large for Leadership Journal. He is author of numerous books, including Going Deep: Becoming A Person of Influence.