Can Prayer Help?

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Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.

Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.

Colossians 4:2-6 ESV

The wrapping paper flew off in a rush of anticipation that only childhood can provide and floated to the ground. The colorful box was about the size of my torso and balanced on my tiny lap. Two bright words beckoned me to a world of boyish adventure, implanting visions of secret experiments, startling discoveries, and minor explosions within the bowels of my house. And for weeks these visions fueled my persistent play with the tiny vials in my brand-new chemistry set.

But as the days continued, my enthusiasm waned. Most of the experiments in the manual seemed either too simple or too complicated and none of them taught me how to explode stuff, which, if I am honest, is what my 11-year-old self really wanted.

So, I did what any child would do. I kept the manual for reference but put it to the side and began to gradually mix a combination of the chemicals to see what I could make. Surely it couldn’t be that hard. I had seen science shows on TV and most seemed to easily result in at least some sort of harmless bang. But regardless of what chemicals I combined, I could not even produce a smidge of smoke. All my experiments resulted in either green or yellow solids, stuck stubbornly at the base of a limited supply of test tubes.

“This stuff doesn’t work,” I finally concluded.

Many of my chemicals were gone. No startling discoveries had been made. And all I could produce was ruined test tubes.

In despair I made sure all the vials were in their correctly labeled space, laid the unused manual on top, softly slid the box top over the bottom, and buried my chemistry set on a shelf, never to be touched again.

But failure is a bell that never rings only once. Its echoes hoard disappointment, sadness, and shame. These resounded so often throughout my schooling that a hard, stubborn bias formed at the base of my unguarded soul against science. It was too hard. I was less Louis Pasteur and more Larry, Mo, and Curly. And no matter how hard I tried it was always easier to blame the repeated failures on the science than it was to blame myself (the scientist).

The reality, of course, is that I struggled with science because there was something wrong with my assumptions, methodology, logic, or understanding that prevented me from being successful in this field. It was not the science that was flawed. It was me. To hold any other position would be irrational.

Interestingly, the experience I had with science often parallels the experience others have had with prayer.

The gift that God has given us to boldly “draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16) and the promise of “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (Matt. 7:7) fill our uninitiated souls with visions of victories, blessings, and pain-free lives.

But then we are told, or we experience, that God is not our personal genie. We look at His manual, the Bible, for guidance and instruction in this incredible gift. Some of it seems relatively easy and straightforward. Other parts are hard and complicated. And if we are truly honest, what we want the most is an immediate alleviation or extinction of our pain, not a lesson in theology.

So, we put the manual aside and begin to experiment as best we can with the gift He has given. We include elements of other faiths or worldviews to help us understand how to use prayer effectively. We embrace concepts that are not taught in scripture, but because they sound like truth and are used by millions of people across the world, we mix them in our test tubes of prayers and hope to a harmless bang in our answers. Instead, all we receive is a hardened green or yellow rock as the result of our experiment. Nothing has changed. Anxieties and stressors and suffering seem to come and go of their own accord until one day we survey the landscape of our prayerful experiments and exclaim “This stuff doesn’t work!”

So, when Paul writes in Colossians 4:2 “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving” people who believe that prayer does not work dismiss the comment outright.

But is this being fair? Is it truly a problem with God or prayer? Or does the problem reside in the assumptions, methodology, logic, or understanding of the one who is praying?

The only rational position is that prayer works, but it is impeded in several ways. It does not work when we try to fulfill our selfish motives (James 4:3). And it is hindered through our preponderance of doubt (James 1:6-7) and pride (Job 35:12-13). Our unwillingness to obey God’s law (Pr. 28:9), to disenfranchise the poor (Pr. 21:13), to cover our hands with blood (Isa. 1:15), to fill the land with violence and to provoke God repeatedly (Eze. 8:17-18), to refuse to listen to God’s call and to ignore His hand of discipline (Pr. 1:24-25), to turn a stubborn shoulder and stop our ears from hearing; to make our hearts like flint so that we cannot hear His law or His words (Zech. 7:11-13)…these are the things that hinder our prayers.

It is not prayer that is flawed. It is us.

As a man whom Jesus healed from blindness once said:

 “We know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is God-fearing and does His will, He hears him.”

John 9:31

Therefore, it is only right that our leaders and pastors call for and encourage prayer during a national crisis where stores are being looted and burned due to generations of unchecked racial injustice, and a pandemic has forced us to consider and protect our mortality.

God promises terrible things to His people if they will not obey Him, and we may be witnessing the bud of God’s justice beginning to open.

But God is not a god of judgment only. He is also a god of redemption and peace. A god of healing, not hatred. And ultimately a god of love, salvation and eternal life.

Therefore, God has promised that when He sends pestilence on the land or allows it to be devoured that “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2 Chron. 7:14)

We must understand.

This is not a call to prayer only.

This is a call to repentance.

Isaiah 1:16-19 says:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.

Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

The first step in this repentance is humility. God wants His people to humble themselves. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Ps. 51:17) We Christians must bow down, weep and intercede before our Lord on behalf of our country. We must boldly admit any implicit or explicit culpability we hold as individuals or as the corporate body of Christ for God’s judgment upon this nation and turn from our wicked ways. It is not enough to be outraged at injustice or depravity. We must be bold witnesses who engage the culture with the transforming power that the Gospel and discipleship in Jesus Christ can bring. Therefore, humble yourself.

Second, we must pray. But how?

  1. Center your prayer not around your will or your wants or your selfish desires. Center your prayer around God’s will both for us and for this nation. “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.” (1 Jn. 5:14).
  2. Do not trust in your power or man’s ability or any earthly strength. But ask God to exercise His strength and to exhibit His power for the glorification of His name.
    • “Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually!” (1 Chron. 16:11)
    • “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” (Ps. 20:7)
    • “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.” (Zech. 4:6)
  3. Pray in the Spirit, not in yourself. And make prayer a continuous practice, regardless of the occasion. You do not have to wait for a crisis to pray. But be alert. God’s people need continuous prayer. We can fall into sin just as easily as anyone else.
    • “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17)
    • “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” (Eph. 6:18 NIV)
    • “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” (Jn. 17:15)
    • “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mt. 26:41)
  4. Renew your mind every day with scripture. Let this be the filter through which you engage the world and discern God’s will, so that God is glorified among the unrighteous. The world looks at life through a competitive lens of “us vs. them,” which invariably leads to increased aggression, pain, and suffering. Do not fall into this trap.
    • “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12:2)
    • “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.” (Php. 1:27)
    •  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Mt. 5:16)
  5. Don’t give up. Don’t lose heart.
    • “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:7-8)
    • “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)

Third, “seek God’s face.” This is where one’s Christian life becomes less of a intermittent activity and more of a continual pursuit of His presence.

  • “Seek His face continually!” (Ps. 105:4)
  • “Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world” (James 4:8 NLT)

The fourth and final step in repentance is to turn from your wicked ways. Godly, humble, contrite, repentant prayer is not only a passive action one does on his knees; it is also an active public expression of faith he takes among his people.

  • In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 5:16)
  • Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” (Acts 3:6)
  • For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. (2 Cor. 7:10)
  • Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy. (Pr. 28:13)
  • Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. 10 For “Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit;11 let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. 12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” 13 Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. (1 Pet. 3:8-17)

Come, let us not be children, playing with prayer as if it some chemistry set. But may we get ourselves right with God. Then we can work together to lift our nation, our cities, our leaders and our enemies up to the Lord with prayers that conform to His will and cannot be hindered. Then we will see healing come to our land.

“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. (James 5:16 NIV)

Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!

A Little Nudge

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Yesterday we prayed that God would remove the spirit of slothfulness within us. That we would use the days He has given us well and that He would help us live an unwasted life.

But let me ask you: How did you follow up on this today?

Did the love of God overflow into actions for God? Did you look at your Sunday and postpone what should have been done so that you could take a nap? Or watch Netflix? Or play a video game?

Did you think about the prayer we prayed yesterday, consider the time you have left, and ask, “What can I do today? How can I spend today for God’s glory?”

I don’t ask this because I want you to feel guilty.

I ask this because, personally, I failed.

I went to church today. I read my Bible. I prayed. But when I looked at my backyard, I thought, “I’ll get my son to do that later.” And when I realized that he wouldn’t have time, I thought, “Well, it can be postponed at least one more week.”

Umm. No, it can’t.

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And when I considered the letter I got from my HOA a week ago about alleged mildew on the side of my chimney, did I go buy the Spray and Forget like I knew I should?

No. I didn’t.

You know what I did instead?

I read a few pages out of Eric Metaxas’ book Martin Luther, told myself I should finish writing a new blog post on the marriage blog I have, and then…

I turned on my computer, logged into the website of my favorite baseball team “just to see what the score was” and wound up watching the last few innings of what turned out to be an incredible ballgame.

By the time that was done, it was almost supper time. I knew my wife had been feeling ill all day and that I would most likely be in charge of cooking, but it was late now and I had NO idea how to make a chicken pot pie.

I mean, I could try.

I’m smart.

I could’ve probably done it, had I bothered looking for the recipe. Instead, I ordered pizza for the family, watched an episode of Seinfeld, and used a piece of key lime pie “to erase that thirsty feeling pepperoni makes in your mouth.” (No, really.)

And that’s when I finally slowed down my procrastinating long enough to hear a still, small voice remind me about yesterday’s post, specifically about how I had typed the following words as a sincere prayer to my Lord: “Kill the spirit of slothfulness that has strapped itself to my soul.”

I wanted to say, “Hey. That’s not fair, God. Using my words against me?”

But I knew He’d just shrug and say, “You prayed for this.”

And He’d be right. Because that’s the way it is with prayer.

Prayer is not only a problem I lay at God’s feet to resolve but also an invitation He lays at my feet to become more involved in His work. Prayer is not a package I drop off at God’s post office. It is a process of God shaping my heart so that I may publicly demonstrate His goodness and perfection to others.

It is not a singular event I engage in for five minutes every morning. It is an unceasing, persistent pleading, an intentional listening to the Spirit’s urgings, and a fearless obedience to follow Him wherever He may lead.

But, prayer is also failing.

It is staying in the boat while others walk on water. It is being lazy when we should be at war. It is loving ourselves more than we love God. It is exchanging infinite joy for finite pleasures, water for dirt, holidays for prison, and it is fueled by rationalization, justification, intellectualization, and good ol’ procrastination.

Yet, God still looks at us and says, “You wanted this change…So, let’s change.”

Prayer is confession. It is repentance, an intentional turning away from all that has trapped us in sin. It is working out our own salvation with fear and trembling. In short, prayer is a daily battle.

So, if you’re like me, and you failed today at what you prayed for yesterday, look at your calendar for tomorrow. Look at your wants and your needs. Pull up in your mind who you will be meeting with at work and the deadlines you have to meet.

Spread your day and your fears and the tauntings in your mind out before the Lord like Hezekiah, begging God to take your day and use it for His glory (2 Kings 19:14-19). To incline your heart to His testimonies, not for selfish gain. (Ps. 119:36) For there will be many enemies to fight, the most cunning of which is ourselves, but although the day will be a battle, “the victory belongs to the Lord.” (Pr. 21:31)

 

 

Quick Thoughts: Wisdom and Understanding

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Then he saw it and declared it;
    he established it, and searched it out. And he said to man,

‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom,
    and to turn away from evil is understanding.’” (Job 28:27-28)

God saw and declared wisdom. He established it and searched it out. He knows its depths. No part is a mystery to Him. But to help Man in his limitations understand, God reduces it totwo instructions: 1) the fear of the LORD and 2) turn away from evil.

But if the truth is that “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10), how then do we turn from evil? The answer is provided in Matthew 7:11, which says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

In this verse we learn:

  1. We are all evil.
  2. Evil people can do good things, even  in the midst of their depravity. In other words, depravity may exclude a person from saving himself but it does not exclude one from doing good acts. The conscience is still intact and able to choose between right and wrong. We are like the schizophrenic whose condition does not preclude him from hearing real (or right) voices, but it also doesn’t dampen the unreal (or wrong) voices that influence their decisions.  Evil can be compelling, but it can also be turned away from.
  3. Turning away from evil is a discipline one must continually practice in order to understand or have discernment. Just as repeatedly turning towards evil breeds more evil and corruption of mind (Romans 1) so turning away from evil removes the scales and increases the ability to do more good deeds (1 Cor. 9:25-27)
  4. Turning from evil provides discernment but it does not remove the stain evil has left on us. The more we turn from evil, the more we realize how hopeless our condition is without God. Self-improvement through continual washing never wholly absolves us of the need to bathe again. We can never be whole or perfect without God.
  5. That is why the fear of the LORD is wisdom. We must fear God, both in trepidation and respect, to approach Him in boldness and to ask Him to do what we cannot accomplish, i.e. to cleanse our soul and lead us into the deepest depths of wisdom that only the pure can travel.

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