Till Sin Be Bitter: A 1-Sentence Prayer For Rebels We Love

Steak tastes sweet

“Till sin be bitter; Christ will not be sweet.” Thomas Watson, the Puritan, said that. I agree.

Make sin taste bitter and repentance taste sweet.

I texted that to girlfriends who love rebellious teens with me. We don’t always know how to pray. But that one sentence I pray often.

Because I know from experience that joy comes when we repent. God gives it with forgiveness when we confess. Repent, therefore, that times of refreshing may come.

Make sin taste bitter and repentance taste sweet.

I pray that simple prayer so real joy will come to the rebels I love. And if I revert to rebel ways, I hope my loved ones pray it for me. Because it is not healthy or right to think lightly of sin.

Listen to British preacher C.H. Spurgeon,

Too many think lightly of sin, and therefore think lightly of the Savior. He who has stood before his God, convicted and condemned, with the rope about his neck, is the man to weep for joy when he is pardoned, to hate evil which has been forgiven him, and to live to the honour of the Redeemer by whose blood he has been cleansed.

Make sin taste bitter and repentance taste sweet.

Remember J.I. Packer’s definition of repentance?

Repentance is turning from as much as you know of your sin, to give as much as you know of yourself to as much as you know of God.

So why don’t we all just repent? And confess and repent? And confess and repent?

But the Prodigal didn’t repent, he didn’t return, until his sin tasted bitter. Until he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

Make sin taste bitter and repentance taste sweet.

In Luke 15:17-18 we read,

But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.

We know how what happened then. A father runs and kisses and hugs. Servants prepare marbled steaks to celebrate.

But before the son ate the savory steak, the pig scraps tasted bitter.

Dear Heavenly Father, Make sin taste bitter and repentance taste sweet. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.

Psalm 32:5

Learn to Pray by Praying

Man wearing PRAY cap

I love to hear my friends pray. Hearing them pour out their hearts to God encourages me.

When Prayer Time Is Silent

Conversely, one of the biggest deflators I face as a small group leader is deafening sound of silence. Sometimes it’s like this: I pray. Others are invited to pray. But if the people all prayed, I heard not what they said.

Admittedly, sometimes it might be that I sucked all the air out of the room. I’m working to change that.

But sometimes the silence might have to do with comparing our prayers with others.

Admittedly, my prayers can be profuse, sprawling and verbose. I’m like that in most of my close relationships. I’m seldom terse—with my human friends and my God-man friend. One praise reminds me of a second, a third request of a fourth and it’s off to the races. I’m a mouse with a muffin, if I don’t rein me in.

But I love when my concise friends pray. I love when my casual friends pray and I love when my formal friends pray.

In short, I do love to hear the saints pray. And some of them are models.

Choose Models—But Choose Them Well

Theologian D.A. Carson says there is not one best way to pray. But prayer models can help us pray. In different, good ways.

Most of us can improve our praying by carefully, thoughtfully listening to others pray. This does not mean copying everything we hear. . . Not every good model provides us with exactly the same prescription for good praying, exactly the same balance. All of them pray with great seriousness; all of them use arguments and seek goals that are already portrayed in Scripture. Some of the seem to carry you with them into the very throne room of the Almighty; others are particularly faithful in intercession, despite the most difficult circumstances in life and ministry; still others are noteworthy because of the breadth of their vision. All are characterized by a wonderful mixture of contrition and boldness in prayer.

D.A. Carson, 8 Lessons from the School of Prayer

I am learning to pray. First from Bible pray-ers, then from my friends. Cathe ends prayers with Psalm 19:14, and Jen prays with touching spontaneity; Hannah with God’s character first, and Donna ever with gentle persistence. My friend Sarah prays in earnest for the lost.

But this post is not about how to pray. It’s just a simple call to pray—as only you can.

[Prayer] is the active exercise of a personal relationship, a kind of friendship, with the living God and his Son Jesus Christ

–J.I. Packer

No Recipe, Just Pray

Prayer is an active exercise of a personal relationship. Our friendships are dynamic. They change and grow. How I relate to my friend Jen isn’t the exact way my friend Lisa relates to Jen. There is uniqueness, and that is as God means it.

I start with the truism that each Christian’s prayer life, like every good marriage, has in it common factors about which one can generalize and also uniquenesses which not other Christian’s pray life will quite match. You are you, and I am I, and we must each find our own way with God, and there is no recipe for prayer that can work for us like a handyman’s do-it-yourself manual or cookery book, where the claim is that if you follow the instruction you can’t go wrong.

Praying is not like carpentry or cookery. It is the active exercise of a personal relationship, a kind of friendship, with the living God and his Son Jesus Christ, and the way it goes is more under divine control that under ours. Books on praying, like marriage manuals, are not to be treated with slavish superstition, as if perfection of technique is the answer to all difficulties; their purpose, rather, is to suggest things to try.

But as in other close relationships, so in prayer: you have to find out by trial and error what is right for you, and you learn to pray by praying. Some of us talk more, others less; some some are constantly vocal, others cultivate silence before God as their way of adoration. . . Yet we may all be praying as God means us to do. The only rules are, stay within biblical guidelines and within those guidelines, as John Chapman puts it, “pray as you can and don’t try to pray as you can’t.”

J.I. Packer, In My Path of Prayer, ed. David Hanes, p. 57

In a word: pray.

Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.

Colossians 4:2

When Your (Good) Plans Get Ruined

Couple romantic dinner plans

I had my plans. But here I was again as they fell apart, getting bent out of shape, buzzing like the bee,

That booms against the window-pane for hours

Thinking that the way to reach the laden flowers

My laden flowers? A few quiet hours alone with my man on Friday night. That was my plan.

How My Friday Night Plans Fell Through

6:15 pm– I plopped the groceries on the counter, set the oven and kicked off my shoes. I’d gone straight from work to fetch the boys and a friend, then to settle them in at the waterpark. Now came the sigh.

And the ringtone.

Mom, you have to come get us! Sam’s really sick. He’s just sitting here with his down and I don’t feel so good either.

Weary Mama rolled her eyes. Why don’t you get some fresh air and take it easy and we’ll come get you in 2 hours. Good-bye.

6:23 pm– Undeterred, I rubbed the salmon, poked the potatoes and set them baking. I was tearing greens when the phone rang again.

Hi Mom. He’s really sick. You need to come get us now. Please. 

This wasn’t my plan. I hadn’t even sat down. You can last an hour. Besides, $50 is a lot a money for one hour of fun. 

Hanging up sounds heartless, I know. But that son can be Chicken Little, and the caring adults were all around.

6:35 pm– Jim got home and the salmon was done and my phone dinged again. My sister, also at the waterpark,

Can I bring the boys home? Sam looks pretty sick.

Jim called back. I filled our plates, lit a candle and sat down.

And Why I’m Glad

I wasn’t glad. I was grumpy and mad and starved for a quiet dinner alone with Jim, who was calm on the phone as I sat stabbed at my salmon.

They’re on their way. Your sister’s bringing them home.

We were eating our last bites as in they walked in smiling. All better. Their friend Andy wanted to stay and play games. So we cleared the plates and set out Codenames. And in between obscure teen-ager clues, they introduced us to their music and soon Andy had Sam at the piano plunking out tunes.

I wasn’t so blind to miss those. Those answers to prayers I pray almost every day. That the boys would enjoy using the gifts they’ve been given, make and be good friends, and that we’d have more fun as a family.

Then this: Do you trust my plans are better than yours?  I ruined your plan to answer your prayers. I nixed your quiet night to give you this. 

Trust His Better Plans

It all boils down to trust issues, again. I need a consistent trust. I trust God to wake me each morning and bring me safely to heaven, but I can’t trust him with my dinner plans?

This is not to say we shouldn’t make plans. Only  that we should hold them loosely. James wrote, “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’” (James 4:15). So sit loose. As we make our plans for tonight remember that God may have different and better plans than ours.

My plans have come crashing down before. And I’m starting to understand that when, in infinite wisdom and matchless love, God ruins my plans, he’s really wanting me to trust him. Because, 

God knows infinitely more than we do, and can do infinitely more than we can — should we be surprised in the least when he has planned differently than we have? Plan on it. He has, and he will…Disruptions become welcome reminders that God is real, that he is almighty, and that his plans always prove wiser than ours. 

Marshall Segal, “Few Are the Plans of Many

The disruption of my Friday night was God’s kind reminder that he is wiser than me. If I’d have had my quiet night, I’d have missed His better plan.

 Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.

James 4:13-15

How Not to Be a Mule: Come, Unbridled

mule with bridle eating grass

Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you. Psalm 32:9

About Mules

A mule is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse. They’re said to be more hardy than horses and more intelligent than donkeys.

Still, being likened to a mule isn’t exactly a compliment.

My uncle owned a mule named Petey. Petey was both strong and headstrong. Life on the farm was good for Petey the Mule.

But one day, which happened to be manure hauling day, “Petey decided he no longer liked his ears touched. This caused problems putting on his halter and bridle,” Uncle John posted. “He developed some escape routes which included trying to run Farmer John over; thankfully this isn’t Farmer John’s first rodeo.”

Thankfully, God can relates to mules too. He’s familiar with beasts that charge and beasts that avoid.

But, biblically, what is it that makes mules so mulish?

Hint: It’s what our kids do when they refuse to come and confess that he stole the candy or broke the lamp or lost his Fitbit, again.

That is, they refuse to come to us until after they’re busted outright or the guilt gets so heavy they simply can’t bear it. That’s mulish.

And foolish.

About The Most Happy-Making Thing You Can Do

In Psalm 32, this is the behavior in view: Refusing to come and confess to the one who freely forgives.

Staying away from God when we sin is irrational-without understanding. Because confessing to the God who already knows and freely forgives is one of the most happy-making things we can ever do.

In fact, that’s how David begins Psalm 32, with a double-whammy description, and prescription, for happiness:

Happy is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

The way to be happy and blessed is to go and confess.

Why Mulish Is Foolish

Which is exactly why the next two verses in Psalm 32 contrast this path to happiness:

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

Pity the fool, the mule, who does that- who stays silent and far away from the Master.

But mules do. They are silent, slow and stubborn. Mules need pressure applied to come to the master. They must be curbed with bit and bridle. That’s why God’s hand feels heavy on us sometimes, like Farmer John’s did on Petey the Mule that day.

I put pressure on you when you were sinning and neglecting me, our Master might explain, so that you’d come back to me. But I wish you’d just come freely. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.

Not Confessing Is Irrational

In case you missed it, avoiding the master is irrational. It is not acting in accord with the truth that repentance brings refreshment and confession clears the conscience. It is living as if estranged relationships and hidden sin are to be preferred over restored relationships and forgiveness. That is foolish. Mulish.

Like when son-who-shall-not-be-named confesses to eating my prized Dove Dark only after I show him the wrapper I found under his bed and not a moment before.

To be human rather than horse or mule, is to be rational. To be rational is to realize that we will be happier when our sin is confessed and covered by God.

And that when we cover it, he will not, but that when we uncover our sin before God, he will cover it (Psalm 32)

Life on the Farm

Mules live on farms. Here John Piper expands the image for us:

Maybe we should try to picture God’s people as a farmyard of all sorts of animals. God cares for his animals, he shows them where they need to go, and supplies a barn for their protection. But there is one beast on this farm that gives God an awful time, namely, the mule…

God likes to get his animals to the barn for food and shelter by simply calling them.

Or even with a look.

Steered With a Look, or a Bit?

Psalm 32:8 says, “I will counsel you with my eye upon you.”

My Mom says that I was disciplined with a look as a child. All it took was the look, and I’d usually come around. I’d curb my tongue or knock it off or change my tune.

If only the grown-up Abigail was always so sensitive to God’s eye.

But sometimes I’m a mule. Sometimes God has to put the bridle of suffering on me and drag me from danger. I completely agree with John Piper that,

A guilty conscience and all the agonies that go with it is a merciful gift to the unrepentant.

Piper continues the barnyard analogy, “So God gets in his pickup truck and goes out in the field, puts the bit and bridle in the mule’s mouth, hitches it to the truck, and drags him stiff-legged and snorting all the way into the barn.”

But we’d be better off and so much happier if we just came with a look or a call.

Repentance Brings Refreshment

But isn’t all this come and confess talk very gloomy? you ask.

C.S. Lewis answers that question like this,

It is not even, in the long run, very gloomy. A serious attempt to repent and to really know one’s own sin is in the long run a lightening and relieving process. Of course, there is bound to be a first dismay and often terror and later great pain, yet that is much less in the long run than the anguish of a mass of unrepented and unexamined sins, lurking in the background of our minds. It is the difference between the pain of a tooth about which you should go to the dentist, and the simple straight-forward pain which you know is getting less and less every moment when you have had the tooth out.

C.S. Lewis, “Miserable Offenders,” God in the Dock (Eerdmans, 1970) 120-121. 

I bear witness: confessing is happy-making. In the moment, it’s humbling and hard and it hurts. But, “‘Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free, ‘Tis a gift to come down to where we ought to be.”

Isn’t it?

In fact, isn’t being forgiven about the most lightening and relieving, soul-healing and refreshing gift a sinful soul can ever receive?

In Acts 3, Peter preached just that:Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins mat be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.

Repentance brings refreshment.

How Not to be a Mule

Sometimes it is the bit of affliction and the bridle of suffering that makes us come to him. Or, to borrow David’s words, to stay near him.

It is much to be deplored that we so often need to be severely chastened before we will obey. We ought to be as a feather in the wind, wafted readily in the breath of the Holy Spirit, but alas! we lie like motionless logs, and stir not with heaven itself in view. Those cutting bits of affliction show how hard mouthed we are, those bridles of infirmity manifest our headstrong and willful manners. We should not be treated like mules if there was not so much of the ass about us. If we will be fractious, we must expect to be kept in with a tight rein. Oh, for grace to obey the Lord willingly…

C.H. Spurgeon, Commentary on Psalm 32

We should not be treated like mules if there was not so much ass about us. Oh, for grace to obey the Lord willingly. Ouch. And amen.

Do you know this?

I mean, know it? I confess that I must re-learn that confession is good for the soul. Like when I sent that early morning apology text (there have been plenty of others since) and when I made a mule of myself on an Irish mountain. And this weekend when I marched up the steps away from a sister, and my mule snorts woke me up and turned me right back down to confess, “I’m sorry I was rude.”

In summary, not being a mule means staying near God without being forced. It means praying to God before his hand is heavy on you. It means confessing your sins to Him straightaway. Before you’re busted.

That is how NOT to be a mule.

And when I do come to him and confess, he will freely forgive. He will tenderly take my chin in his hand and lift my humbled head.

My unbridled, forgiven head.

You, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory and the lifter of my head.

Psalm 3:3