I heard an interesting sermon, a few Sundays ago. I think it is worth a recap; if nothing else, it will help me to better establish the important points in my own mind.
The topic of the sermon was prayer, or perhaps more accurately intercession. We started by examining Hebrews 7:23-26, which focuses on Christ’s role as our go-between, mediating between us and God the Father:
|“Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Such a high priest meets our need … one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens.”|
I like the idea of being saved completely … no half-measures will do for me! Imagine if your salvation depended upon the priestly skills or character of Eli, Hophni, or Phineas? Even Aaron was a piece of work, leading the whole nation into idolatry while God was meeting with Moses only a few miles away. Or Samuel, who managed to serve without corruption yet somehow did not communicate that tradition to his sons.
We surveyed a number of other scriptures, including those which identify conditions for acceptable prayer:
“If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.” Psalm 66:18
This one is worrisome. I’ve been taught to understand the word ‘regard’ in this context as ‘cherish’ … the idea of accepting known sin in my life and doing nothing to correct or restrain it. The pastor spoke at some length on this topic, pointing out our tendency to excuse habitual sin and rationalize it, saying, “Well, that’s just the way I am.” Some of us think we can bargain with God, sort of a “I’ll obey most of your commandments in exchange for leniency in this one area” arrangement. Is God corruptible? Can He be bought so cheaply, or at all? Even if God did accept such bargains, I doubt He would look warmly our cheating Him so outrageously, since we know from elsewhere in scripture that even our best efforts are worthless in terms of living up to His standard of holiness.
Nearly all men struggle with lust, in one form or another. How many of us have rationalized our impure thoughts or sexual fantasies as being an integral part of our masculinity, breaking fidelity with our wives and our God on a frequent, if not daily, basis?
I was once involved in a Promise Keeper’s group that met each week at a local business. One of the questions which came up was this: “Is it wrong for me to look at a pretty woman in my workplace?”
We discussed this at considerable length. Finally, perhaps out of exhaustion, we came to a tentative conclusion:
- God created woman to be beautiful, and there is nothing wrong with appreciating that beauty
- God’s primary purpose for a woman’s beauty is to be appreciated by her husband
- While a man cannot reasonably live in this world without looking at a beautiful woman once, he certainly can and ought to control himself from taking a second look, unless the woman is his wife. For most men, the sin of lust (which Jesus equates with adultery, see Matthew 5:28) occurs between the first and second glances … a man is tempted and succumbs to the sinful desire to take a second look, with the intent of gratifying his lustful thoughts.
When I was in high school, I walked about a mile to and from school each day. One afternoon as I walked along, I passed two girls, glancing at them as I passed. One of them caught my eye, and I gave that girl a second, more lingering glance. As I moved ahead of them, the one girl said to her friend, “Hey Stephanie, he sure looked you up and down.” I blushed as I walked away, because she had correctly identified the appraising, intrusive intent of my gaze. I was embarrassed because I had moved beyond innocent appreciation into lust, and I had been caught in the act.
The scriptures talk about “making a covenant with our eyes” such that we keep our appreciative glances for our wives and avoid that sinful decision to take a second look at other women. Yet there are many who draw the line with a lot more wiggle-room. In my experience, few men can trust themselves in this area, whether it be the movies we watch or the books or magazines that we read.
Many people tolerate casual dishonesty in their lives, telling ‘white lies’ or habitually deceiving the people around them. Others permit themselves to lash out in anger at the people around them, or have a bitter, sarcastic tongue. Many women (and not a few men) indulge in gossip, concealing malicious talk behind a cloak of righteous concern and prayer. Still others routinely steal from their employer or the government, pretending that some kind of entitlement or past victimization permits this behavior. Can we cherish these kinds of sin and expect that God will hear our prayers?
This sermon made me reflect on my life and the various ‘idols’ I have erected. Some of the sins that we wink at include self-indulgence (in my case, a tendency to overeat), pride, laziness, short-temperedness and an unconcern for others. We tell ourselves that we are not perfect, and that surely God does not expect us to become flawless overnight. “I’m a work in progress,” we piously intone, implying that some or all of our sins can be ‘temporarily’ ignored. How many of us have become enslaved through habitual cherishing of sins of this kind, spending our years cut off from God’s grace?
And yet there are other reasons our prayers are ineffective:
“You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” James 4:2-3
We looked at the passages that talk about the way that the Holy Spirit translates for us and presents our requests in terms of the things that we really need.
“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.”
One very basic principle of prayer hit me right between the eyes: prayer is about submitting my self to God’s will, not constraining or inducing God to give me special treatment. It may be that you have already grappled with this, but I find myself continually surprised and re-surprised (to coin an awkward word) by my negative reaction to this truth. When it comes down to it, I suspect that God is ready and willing to deny me the comforts I crave but rather may choose to allow me to suffer, if through that suffering He can mold me to His purposes. According to Hebrews 2:10, and 5:8-9, God used suffering to ‘make’ (or perhaps reveal) Jesus’ perfection. When I pray, many of my prayers are suggestions to God about how to make my life more pleasant; strange to think that the Holy Spirit may actually stand in opposition to some of these prayers.
I can just imagine the conversation among the Trinity, please excuse the liberties taken with the awesome majesty of God, no blasphemy intended:
Father: “So, I see that Tim is praying again. What do you think he really needs?”
Spirit: “Well, he’s asking for more money again, and he wants to be protected from the consequences of some bad decisions he made, but I think it would be best if we let him build some much-needed patience. Also, he continually struggles with pride and self-sufficiency, and it seems to get worse every time we give him a higher salary. He pretty much just wants to be allowed to sit back and take it easy for the next 50 years or so. We want him to rely on us, rather than taking pride in his own ability to earn a wage. I think it best that we teach him to be a better steward of what he already has. I don’t think he is making very good progress in terms of compassion for others … we need to soften up his heart a little. As to his tendency toward laziness … I think we love him too much to spoil him.”
Jesus: “You better believe it! I died for that rascal, and I won’t be satisfied until he enjoys life the way we intended, in its full abundance. Ever since he was redeemed, we’ve been looking for opportunities to help Tim realize what an awesome gift he has been given, with the Spirit as his Comforter. Tim’s not getting any younger, and every day is full of potential for Our power to fill him and mold him. I want him so full of the Spirit that he barely notices when he dies and takes up residence here!”
Father: “Well, as I always say, bad things are excellent opportunities for Our creative power. I have some other really great gifts I’d like to give him … let’s creatively disguise and repackage some of them and draw Tim to Us by building his faith and character. I can’t wait to see Tim’s face when he realizes that We’ve been acting in his best interest in spite of the hardship in his life. (Of course, that is just a figure of speech, since I can wait, and technically I’ve already seen the future, but you get the idea.)”
Spirit: “Sounds like Tim is nearly finished praying … he doesn’t take long, you know. For a guy who is so long-winded in his blog, it is strange that he can’t manage to pray for more than a few minutes at a time. I’ll provide him with a sense of Our peace, and I’ll call his attention to some of the passages that Paul wrote about being joyful in adversity.”
Jesus: “Now there’s a guy who knew about trials and tribulations.”
Father: “Not anymore! Hey, Paul, we’re talking about you again! Stop dunking John-Mark in Our river … he’s already been baptized!”
Again, please know that no disrespect or blasphemy is intended in my invention of this conversation between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
At the core of my problem with prayer is a basic unwillingness to suffer for the cause of Christ. Although He laid down His life for me, I am considerably less ready to lay down my life for Him, especially if it might bring me discomfort or inconvenience. In such a case, how can I pray for God to glorify His Son in me?
There is no doubt that God wants me to have and enjoy every good thing. The problem is that most of the things on my list (happiness, wealth & possessions, health, leisure, power, sensual gratification, comfort) don’t make His top-ten list. Indeed, there is a close correspondence between those things I desire (at least in the extreme) and the list in I John 2:16-17:
“For everything in the world … the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does … comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.”
We see that the good things that God wants for me are more lasting and valuable than the things that I want … but, like a young child, I prefer a lollipop right now to ownership of a city tomorrow..
So do we rush off and become monks, whipping our bodies and living on roots & berries (and Nutella, that well-known monastic staple) in some quest to deny the flesh? If God so wills it, then yes. But God seems to call us to submit our desires to Him, yet grants us considerable pleasure and comfort in the gifts of His hand. Often he permits us to have the lollipop today, even though it may delay our inheritance of the city; yet we must be wary of granting too much power and importance to the desires of the flesh.
Prayer, then, takes courage. No wonder many people prefer only to pray for others … who can pray for themselves, other than something like “Thy will be done”?
What does it look like, to be a person who trusts God and submits their desires to His will?
- such a person tithes and gives sacrificially above that 10%
- they habitually subordinate themselves to the needs of others … when you call them for help, they respond
- they do not put the gratification of their body ahead of the well-being of others
- they will tend to give freely of their time to God’s work
- they do not seek to puff themselves up
- they keep a tight rein on their tongue
- they don’t mind looking foolish for God
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” I Corinthians 13:4-7
Sound familiar? I guess it should be no surprise that with God, everything comes back to love. If we truly love God, we’ll be able to trust Him with our lives, putting our will below His, and loving Him enough to suffer if necessary. I guess there is one prayer that I need to be praying, “Lord, please give me a heart that loves you more.”