Tuesday, July 31, 2012

What should we pray for and how should we do it?

This entry isn’t for the prayer specialist.  I thought it might be helpful for those who have never done a synthetic study of prayer in the New Testament.

The New Testament has several different words for prayer, each nuancing various meanings (e.g., intercession or thanksgiving).  Yet, I’m not interested in talking about every instance of prayer in the New Testament right now.  Of course, prayer is most certainly not about asking God for a bunch of stuff. In fact, communion with God doesn't have to involve one question at all. Remember when you used to court your spouse or romantic interest? We didn't sit around asking for stuff all the time. The other person's presence and approval was paramount, not having the person do something for us. Simultaneously, however, there are time when we are encouraged to approach God the Father as a God who wants to give us Himself. And giving Himself will involve doing certain things for us. So, for this post, I am only interested in asking the question: “Are there certain things we should not ask God for or certain things we should be asking?”

James, the brother of Jesus, wrote to his fellow sisters and brothers in Christ and said, “You do not have, because you do not ask [God in prayer]. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (4:2c-3, ESV)

I don’t intend for the following list to be exhaustive, but it gives us a good skeleton of a possible answer to this question.  First, we need to remember that prayer, in essence, just means having a conversation with God.  Our goal is to converse with Him.  And all conversations involve numerous aspects: talking, listening, praising, critiquing, loving, etc.  So it is with God and humans.  We ought to think that God is our loving Father who wants to hear from us and speak with us.  For some people, and perhaps you’re one, your parent(s) set an awful example of what a loving parental figure is.  I am deeply sympathetic.  However, I encourage you: please give God a chance.  Read the Bible and see what kind of God He is.

Secondly, whatever the New Testament says, it should always be compared to the ministry of Jesus so that we don’t take a verse out of theological context.  Of course there’s more to it than that, but I hope you’ll grant me mercy at this point for now.

Sometimes, I tell my kids, “Don’t even ask me.  Don’t even bring it up.”  It might involve a toy or certain treat that we’ve already discussed or the request might be so unethical that I won’t even entertain the idea.  The same is true for God.

Do not ask God to be involved in
  • Your sinful passions (Ja 4:3).  This can involve passion “of the flesh” or any type of passion (anything that involves competition, whether it’s sports or job advancement)
  • Other people’s downfall or destruction. This is clearly un-Christian.
Then, there are other things that we can ask for, just knowing they are not God’s chief concern. What’s so sad is that the following three things are what I hear Christians ask for the most throughout all my life (including myself!):
  • Physical healing (Ja 5:14-16).  Yes, James says to ask for healing if/when we need it.  Yet, we must never forget that Jesus and the early apostles did not have an entire ministry of healing.  Jesus was not chiefly interested in healing all the sick or demon-possessed or wounded.  He did heal sometimes, yes.  But, it was clearly not His chief concern.  Jesus was well-aware that we, while in this body, will get sick and die.  We can ask God for physical healing and sometimes He does grant it.  Just know that for most of the time, His answer will be no.
  • Physical safety (but see 2 Tim 3:12).  Paul seems to imply this at different times when he says in passing that he prayed that God would allow him to make it to different places in Asia Minor during his missionary tours.  Yet, again, we must remember that our physical safety is simply not near the top of God’s concerns.  People do get hurt, raped, and wounded every day.  Of course God grieves over the evil we do to each other, and the suffering caused by natural disasters.  On top of that, we are guaranteed suffering when we act like Jesus’ disciples.  But again, while in this body, we will get sick and die.  The ultimate physical safety will come in the world to come.
  • General success; things “going well” (3 Jn 1:2).  Of course God is interested in the success of those things He orchestrates.  The key here is to ask for God to make something successful as long as it’s what God wants.  Just because we really want something to go well doesn’t mean that God does.
Notice how financial gain didn’t even make that list?  I heard Joel Osteen say on his program one Sunday that God wants every person to own their own home. This is mere nonsense. It’s such a shame that the billions of people who will never have access to a house, and the hundreds of millions (if not billions) of people who live in apartments, are consistently missing out on this "God-ordained promise" to his creatures.  I can’t recall where this was in the Bible.

What about the manner we should speak to God?

Do talk with God
  • Without any desire to be seen as pious (Matt 6:5).  Ever heard people who seem to be really, really aware that people were listening? What a waste of energy.  Do we really think that people can make a difference in what we’re asking for?  So, we just can’t forget: we’re speaking and listening to God.  He is our audience; we are His.
  • Without formulas: be concise and sincere (Matt 6:7).  Again, we don’t have to pray for the missionaries at every prayer.  Say what you mean and mean what you say.  He already knows your mind, so just tell Him. You’ll see how good it feels to confess something to Him and you’ll see how rewarding it is. “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner,” seemed just enough words to work for at least one guy that Jesus praised.
  • Like you’re talking with a loving, caring, Father (Matt 6:9), not as if He is a stranger.  Even when we are the most broken, immediately after we’ve sinned, He welcomes us home.  Act like it.  Confess, repent, and receive His love.  ”Well . . . uh . . . God . . . haha . . . it’s been a long time . . . and uh . . . Fathereth . . . . in Heaveneth . . .  hallowed be They nameth . . . on higheth . . .”  Who talks like this to someone they know and love? Do we really think that God only understands Elizabethan English?
  • In the Holy Spirit (Jude 1:20; Rom 8:26). We ask the Spirit to speak through us so that all of our mind/heart is known.
Do ask God:
  • To forgive your sins (Matt 5:12; acts 8:22) and other’s sins (1 Sam 7:5). Ever wonder why you don’t feel close to a person you love? It’s almost always because there is something unresolved between you two. Wonder why you don’t feel close to God? It’s probably because of sin.
  • For daily–not monthly or yearly or for retirement–needs to be met (Matt 6:11).
  • For wisdom (Ja 1:5).
    • to know how to avoid temptation (Mk 14:38; Matt 6:13) and
    • to know what is right and the courage to do it (2 Cor 13:7; 2 Thess 1:11-12)
  • For God’s will to be known and done through His creatures (Matt 6:10; Mk 14:36; Col 1:9).
  • For all the fruit of the Spirit—anything that causes you to develop virtues (Gal 5:22).
  • For comfort (2 Cor 1:3-4) , joy and peace (Rom 15:13; 1 Cor 14:33).
  • For God to do for your enemies and those who persecute you, exactly what you’re asking for Him to do for you (Lk 6:28). Did this last one stun you a little bit?  It did me!  ”And God, whatever I just asked you for, ditto that for my worst enemies.”  Until we can pray such a prayer we have no idea what the mind of Christ is (1 Cor 2:16; Phil 2:5).
In general, God is much more interesting in shaping you into a particular kind of person with particular virtues than He is with anything else.  This is precisely why He can take any evil done to us and any bad news we hear and any suffering we experience and work it out in the end.  We are His raw material to shape and to mold.

That’s all for now.  Perhaps we’ll close with a model prayer (and that’s what this is, a model, an example of the kinds of prayers we should be giving):

(My translation)
Our Father who is in Heaven,
Your name be holy, Your Kingdom come,
Your will be done on Earth as it is Heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive our sins
as much as we have forgiven those
who have sinned against us.
And do not bring us into testing,
but rescue us from evil.

For the Kingdom,

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Not moods, but God

Having faith in God is just that, not having faith in my moods about God.

I’ve seen it all of my life, both in my own introspective reflections and in the spiritual habits of others. There seems to be a common sentiment among the “average” Christian that faith can be judged by the amount of emotional fervor I feel in the moment.

I’ve seen it in two major areas of Christian life: (1) prayer/devotional life and (2) worship. I think the average person (especially the young person) thinks that in order for our prayer to “matter” to God or to us, we need to conjure a certain emotion. We need to grunt. We need to squint. We need to cry. We need to say, “Thank you, Jesus,” every other phrase. We need to hurt on the inside somehow. When we read the Bible, we need to want to read the Bible or feel sincere when we do it. But, this is all wrong.

Of course we should be honest when we pray, read the Bible, and worship. To do otherwise is to be lying or disingenuous, which is a sin. Of course we are emotional creatures. We will feel strong emotions when we come into the presence of the divine. I’m not here, in any way, advocating a form of Stoic removal from emotion.

But I want to really, really encourage you right now: your emotional state, or mood, is not the goal, method, or purpose of faith. God is.

You see what we do? The millisecond that I attempt to conjure an emotion or mood while I’m praying, reading the Bible, or worshiping, I’ve moved from focusing on God to focusing on myself. And here’s the first problem: I’m not the focus. I’m not the point. And here’s the second problem: my moods change. If my faith is in the least bit placed on my moods about God, then my faith is only as strong as my emotional state. So, when we don’t feel God’s presence, our faith is devoid of a foundation and we will lose it.

C. S. Lewis has helped me here the most. I find myself re-reading his texts over and over again. He has been my pastor and mentor for at least fifteen years. I think some sections from Lewis will help you too.

In an imaginary conversation written by Lewis, we hear an elder demon (Screwtape)  correspond with a younger demon (Wormwood). Screwtape gives constant warning and admonition to the young tempter demon. There is such incredible insight to be discovered when we eavesdrop on a conversation between these tempters, even though we know it’s imaginary. For example,

“The Enemy [i.e., God] . . . has this curious fantasy of making all these disgusting little human vermin into what He calls His ‘free’ lovers and servants—‘sons’ is the word He uses, with His inveterate love of degrading the whole spiritual world by unnatural liaisons with the two-legged animals. Desiring their freedom, He therefore refuses to carry them, by their mere affections and habits, to any of the goals which He sets before them: He leaves them to ‘do it on their own.’ And there lies our opportunity. But also, remember, there lies our danger. If once they get through this initial dryness successfully, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt.” (23)

Do you see the point Lewis is making? Evil tempts us through our changing moods. If only we make it through the “dry” periods, our need for fuzzy feelings diminishes, and that’s crucial!

But why doesn’t God just sustain in us a constant state of joy and presence? Lewis tells us why in another correspondence between the demons. I hope you’ll read it well.

“Merely to override a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. . . . He is prepared to do a little overriding at the beginning. He will set them off with communications of His presence which, though faint, seem great to them, with emotional sweetness, and easy conquest over temptation. But He never allows this state of affairs to last long. Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best. . . . He cannot ‘tempt’ to virtue as we do to vice. He wants them to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles. . . . Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks around upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.” (41-42).

Oh, thank you Jesus for these insights! God is deliberately trying to form us into the image of His Son: a Son who did the right thing even though He didn’t feel like doing it. Obedience to the reign of God must—I say again, must—be this way. How else would we know that we are growing in the virtues of God if we are never able to demonstrate them in situations that require them?

If God does it all through me, then I’ve not grown at all. In that case, I’d only be a glove, or worse, a puppet. God inspires; He encourages; He grants wisdom, yes! But “walking” in Christ requires—yes, requires—that God take away His hands (= immediate feeling of His presence) from us except in the most severe times of stumbling.

This is why we must keep what we believe constantly in our mind. We must keep God in our focus, not ourselves. We cannot set our faith—our prayer, our devotional life, our worship, our service, our love—on our moods.

Again, Lewis says it perfectly in Mere Christianity (ch. 11). I encourage you to read carefully:

“Now Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. I know that by experience. Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable. This rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway. That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods ‘where they get off,’ you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion. Consequently one must train the habit of Faith.

The first step is to recognize the fact that your moods change. The next is to make sure that, if you have once accepted Christianity, then some of its main doctrines shall be deliberately held before your mind for some time every day. That is why daily prayers and religious reading and church-going are necessary parts of the Christian life. We have to be continually reminded of what we believe. Neither this belief nor any other will automatically remain alive in the mind. It must be fed. And as a matter of fact, if you examined a hundred people who had lost their faith in Christianity, I wonder how many of them would turn out to have been reasoned out of it by honest argument? Do not most people simply drift away?”

Yes, they do. Most people just drift away. “Drifting” has nothing to do with Christianity being “false,” just that they don’t find it interesting anymore. Evil tempts us in our troughs, our dry spots. Evil introduces the thoughts: “Shouldn’t you feel like God’s present every second? It’s been a while since you’ve felt warm fuzzies. And look at all the evil in the world. They can’t be feeling God’s presence either. Surely this must mean that God’s not really here after all.” Just typing this gives me chills. It strikes at home with me.

We cannot set our faith—our prayer, our devotional life, our worship, our service, our love—on our moods. So what do we do?

Make up your mind. When you pray, get to praying. Talk to God and then listen to God. Stop trying to muster feelings during prayers. Stop being disappointed that you haven’t felt anything after you’ve prayed. When you read the Bible, get to reading and journaling. Talk to God and then listen to God. Stop being disappointed that you haven’t felt anything after you’ve studied the Bible. When you worship, do the same thing. There is simply no reason to get “riled up” before you worship. Just worship. Worship is expressing to God how awesome He is. It's expressing adoration. God deserves to be worshiped because He’s God and because He’s saved you. We don’t deserve to be alive at all, but we are. Tell Him how thankful you are. Who cares if you can sing the notes? Just saying it out loud makes it real.

This might be very difficult to do. Even monks who have had fifty years of practice still must force their minds into submission. So, give yourself some grace when your mind starts to wonder or if you start focusing on your mood instead of God. But don’t give up. Don’t ever, ever give up. There’s too much at stake.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

A means to an end

A man sees a woman from afar. He finds her very attractive. He asks around and finds people who know her. He learns things about her. The more he learns, the more he likes what he discovers. In fact, he begins to love those aspects of the woman he learns. From afar, he has already begun falling in love.

Then the day comes. He finally meets her face-to-face. Sparks fly. Everything he learned was right: she is awesome. Her aspects and character are a perfect match for him. Perfect. They fall in love completely. It changes his life.

He abandons all other loves and commits himself just to her. They get married and he’s thrilled. He tells all his friends about her. He plays with her, makes decisions with her, and spends every second he can with her. He simply can’t get enough of her. He says no to friends he used to say yes to. He turns down invitations to things that take him away from her. She is the object of his affection.

Then a little times go by. She notices that he doesn’t talk much anymore. He starts to fade away. After months, then years, of this they finally have a conversation:

“Honey, why haven’t we spent more time together? We used to be so close.”

“What?  . . . Well . . . to tell you the truth, I’m just, you know, busy.”


“Yeah, busy. And, really, honestly, I’m just so tired of emailing and talking on the phone, you know. I’m just so tired of that.”

“You’re tired of talking and reading? Really? You’re telling me that busy-ness and not wanting to read or talk means that you’re done with me?”

“Oh no. I’m not done. I still love you.”

“Based on what evidence? In what possible way can we have a healthy relationship if we never communicate or spend time together? You spend more time reading Facebook, watching TV, or whatever, than you do with me. You clearly want to spend more time with these other things more than me. You used to do whatever it took to be with me. Now, spending time with me is a chore and hassle.”


This is a parable. We’re the man; God is the woman. For too many, I’ve just described the love relationship we have with God.

This is the chief problem concerning devotional habits for Christians that I’ve encountered all my life (including myself): the average Christian thinks that devotional habits are the ends themselves, not a means to an end.

Do you understand this? Do you think that reading the Bible is the point? That praying is the point? If so, then you’ve totally missed the point.

That’s like saying I write emails to people just to say that I’ve written emails. That’s not why I write emails at all. It’s like saying that I have a conversation with my wife just to say that I’ve had a conversation with my wife. That’s not why I have conversations at all. That would be nonsense.

We read the Bible and pray in order to love God with our whole selves. We do it to get God. That’s why we do it. That’s what a love relationship is all about. It’s about getting the other person. Don’t you see that? Reading and prayer is just a means to an ends—getting to know and love God. That’s it. He’s the goal. He’s the end. He’s the object of our affection.

Imagine having a conversation with your spouse or friend and feeling so proud of yourself because you managed to converse for a few minutes.

“Do you love your spouse?”

“Oh yeah, we talk at least twice a week.”

“What? That’s all?”

“Yeah. That’s what a love relationship is all about—finding a few minutes a week to squeeze in.”

“No it’s not!”

If you’re burnt out on reading the Bible or having closet prayer it’s probably because you think that doing these things is the end or object or goal. That is, these are things to mark off your To Do List. This is just like—just like—being burnt out on a love relationship with a spouse or friend because you just don’t want to talk (your throat is too tired) or read anymore. Talking has become such a hassle . . . the other person is no longer worth it. Imagine abandoning your healthy, thriving love relationship because you’ve decided that time spent with the person is just a hassle.

God is the goal—God is—not a task, but God. A love relationship is just waiting to mature. And the way to have this love relationship grow—the way to get to know and love the God who is—is in regular Bible study, prayer, worship, and service.

Devotional practices are like a phone conversation. They are just a means to an end. That’s it. A means to an end. They lead you to God. And of course, being led to God changes us into His Son. We always change into the object of our love.

If you love your spouse, no one has to beg you to do things to nurture your relationship. No one. You’ll do whatever it takes to get to know him/her more.

If you love God, no one has to beg you to do things to nurture your relationship. No one. You’ll do whatever it takes to get to know Him more.

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