When Fools Pray

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The other day we examined this verse from the view of apologetics. In that article, we learned how Christ provided a model for us to follow when unbelievers confront us about our faith. We learned how to not answer a fool according to his folly and how to answer a fool according to his folly without falling into the trap of becoming like the fool and validating the fool’s “wisdom. While I hope this article was helpful to many, this only examined the verse from an anthropocentric point of view (i.e., man-to-man).

But what can this verse teach us about prayer? How does this verse relate to the man-to-God interaction? At first, one might think that this verse has nothing to do with prayer. After all, it never overtly mentions prayer or praying, nor is there anything within the original language that would suggest it addresses prayer either. However, I believe that it can provide an insight into that central aspect of one’s relationship with God, especially when tragedy strikes.

Let’s be honest: When Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston, Stephen Paddock shot up a Las Vegas concert, or when personal tragedy unexpectedly slammed into your own life, how many of us either thought (or heard from others), “Where is God? And what is He doing?” How many people said things like, “Why would a good God allow such terrible things to occur?”

Such questions are not unusual to ask in the wake of disaster or tragedy, but such questions explain why the above verses are needed to understand prayer. For when we approach God in prayer, He is the wise person and we are the fools. (1 Cor. 1:25)

I know this sounds harsh but it’s the truth.

If you don’t believe me, look at Psalm 14:1-3, which begins, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who do good.” At first, one could read this, wipe the sweat from his brow, and say, “Whew! Glad that’s not me. I’m not an atheist.”

But then it goes on to compare this type of fool with mankind in general, saying: “The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.” (Ps. 14:2-3)

The conclusion of God is the same about all of us. Atheist or not, we are all fools, for none of us seek after God. None of us do good. Not even one.

Thus, when we approach God in prayer, there must be an expectation that our imperious, insincere, and individualistic nature will express more foolishness through our questions of and accusations against God than we could ever intend or imagine.

The question, for example, of “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people” is fraught with foolishness. 1) It establishes a scenario that accuses God of bad, one might even say “indefensible,” behavior 2) It implies that God’s goodness is invalidated because He permitted something tragic to occur 3) It assumes that a good god would only permit good things to occur to his subjects and 4) It asserts that there is such a thing as “good people.”

But when we go to God in prayer with such questions, the answer that we receive will most likely come in two forms.

First, God expresses His goodness and His wisdom by not answering us according to our folly. If He were to engage our foolish question directly, He would be silently agreeing with all of the aforementioned premises and would be trapped within the boundaries that the question defines. But since the logical conclusion of the question comes to either “God is good but arbitrary and absent” or “God is not good,” He cannot answer us according to our folly.  Instead, He must challenge our foolishness by redefining our thinking. Therefore, God’s answer to such a prayer would most likely begin with a question of His own. This was a favorite tactic of Jesus’ and it often helped expose the foolish heart of His accusers as well as their feelings and motivations for asking the question in the first place.

Such is the nature of all of God’s questions. Even a simple one, such as “O you of little faith, Why did you doubt?” (Mt. 14:31) forces the hearer to examine himself and the hand that holds the hammer. In answering God’s questions we begin to see the chasm of holiness and wisdom that separates God and us. In this way, He maintains His character without being drawn into an argument whose boundaries and definitions have been set by a fool.

Second, once we begin to see where He’s going with this, God will answer us according to our folly, so that we do not look wise in our eyes. God’s desire is to bring us to repentance. To give us eternal life and salvation in Jesus Christ. It is not just to shame us or to make us look stupid. Therefore, He will take the argument we have set up and show us why the argument we have set up is false.

For example, in the above question “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” there are several foolish things within the question itself that can help disprove it.

1) It assumes an objective moral law, which all people can agree upon, as the basis for its definition of good and bad, but if this is true there must be an objective moral lawgiver who made us humans capable of understanding this standard and applying it to our lives. Such a lawgiver (being objective and moral) would be incapable of being bad 2) Within the context of this objective moral law, the questioner’s belief that it is unjust if good people do not receive only good things and if bad people do not receive only bad things is exposed 3) But if the premise behind #2 is true, yet bad things happen to everyone, then wouldn’t the conclusion be that none of us are good? 4) Consequently, if none of us humans are good, then do we not deserve to have bad things happen to us? 5) And if #4 is true, then have we not asked the wrong question to begin with? Should not the question be “why does God allow good things to happen to bad people?” 6) Finally, if God is the One permitting good things to happen to bad people, then do not all the pleasures and joys and blessings one has enjoyed in life only validate God’s goodness? 7) And does not this expression of His goodness in these small things beg the question, “How far does God’s goodness extend to us bad people?”

In such an examination of the foolishness within the question we posited, we begin to discover that God’s goodness extends much farther and much further than any of us can imagine.

Indeed, it is for this reason, I believe, that the apostle Paul once wrote “the goodness of God leads you to repentance.” (Rom. 2:4, NKJV).

For God’s goodness goes beyond the supply of material blessings and it extends past the boundaries of providing us with relationships that satisfy our need for love and belonging. God’s goodness not only intervenes throughout our life history to prevent suffering, His goodness also steps into human history to become bad in our place so that we might become good and finally receive the rewards of a good person (namely, salvation and eternal life with Him, see 2 Cor. 5:21).

We must be humble, therefore, when we approach God in prayer. Otherwise we run the risk of asking unintelligible, angry, or unanswerable questions. In his book, A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis once spoke on this very thing when he said:

Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask – half our great theological and metaphysical problems – are like that.

This is why, I believe, Jesus taught us to pray in such a way that reduces foolishness and orients us wholly on God. Maybe you know it. It goes like this:

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil. (Matt. 6:9-13)

Follow this model and you will find a heart emptied of foolishness. One that is not accusing or offended at God, but one that is pursuing Him in wisdom and worshipping Him in spirit and in truth, both now and for all eternity. Amen.

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To Answer Fools

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These verses at first glance appear to be a contradiction in command. How, exactly, are you supposed to not answer a fool according to his folly and answer a fool according to his folly at the same time? For God to instruct us to such action seems like a cruel joke at best and an impossibility at worst.

So, when a Christian encounters someone using a solid biblical doctrine, such as God is love, to justify a well-known unbiblical behavior, such as drunkenness, homosexuality, or adultery, how is the Christian to respond? We run the risk of either becoming like the fool or validating his foolishness and making him appear wise in his own eyes. Either way, we lose.

Fortunately, Christ provided us with an example of how to follow these verses and avoid falling into either trap. Continue reading

The Glory of God and Kings

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At first glance, this verse seems a little odd. God conceals and man searches things out? It sounds like a cosmic Easter Egg hunt where man is continually searching for the colorfully decorated, yet hidden truths of God, while the Father watches on in amused pleasure.

But this is not the purpose of this verse at all. It is not purporting a deistic “hide and seek” relationship with God. Rather, it is reminding us of how the relationship ought to be, how far we have strayed from that design, and is calling us back to living in proper subjection to the Father.

The arrangement of God concealing and man searching puts things in its proper order. The concealing of things establishes a thirst and a curiosity and a hope that would have never existed in man. For if one sees, he will not have need of hope, and if one understands, he will have no joy in discovery. It is no secret that the value of an object or of a truth is always equal to the rarity of, the desire for, and the accessibility to that thing. For instance, gold is valued because it is rare, highly desired, and not accessible to all. But if gold was commonplace, if it was not rare, it would lose its value for it would be easily accessible and lightly desired. Similarly, if gold remained rare, but no one viewed it as desirable or useful, then the value of gold would diminish tremendously. But when an object is both rare and highly desired, the only way to establish it as having supreme value above all other similar objects is to conceal it. Thus, God and His Truth and all the mystery that surrounds them are established as that which is to be concealed in order to set Himself apart from all other gods, worldviews, and glories as supremely valuable.

Such an arrangement brings God glory. He does not want to remain inaccessible to man forever. To do so would diminish His value and His glory. Rather, He wants to be found. But if He did not conceal Himself or His Truth, the person who received Him would not properly respond to this gift. But when He is concealed and a person discovers the kingdom of God like a treasure buried in a field, then in his joy he will go and sell all of His possessions so that he can buy that field and retain that priceless treasure forever. It is this response, the one of insurmountable joy coupled with the inestimable denial of all you once held as valuable, that gives God glory. In this way, we see that the concealment is not only to elevate the worth of God in our eyes but is also to elevate our joy and appreciation for what has now become our own.

Similarly, “the glory of kings is to search things out.” Kings, in Old Testament days, were God’s representatives to the nation of Israel, just as we Christians are Christ’s ambassadors to this world. If those who represent God will not seek out the concealed things of God, then they will be unable to share the value of God to others. But if they pursue God and His eternally unfolding mysteries, they not only benefit but also the people under their charge. Although the joy these people will express for having received the gift of God and His salvation will first glorify God, the kings’ glory comes in the giving to his people of that which is rare, desired, and was once inaccessible to many.

However, the glory of God in concealment is not for our benefit only. As the scripture tells us, such concealing is also for God. “It is the glory of God to conceal things.” As the supreme God and the supremely valuable One in all the universe, He alone holds the authority to reveal or to conceal. Both actions bring glory to God.

In revelation, God chooses to bridge the gap between Himself and man and provides man access to the character, will, words, emotions, and person of God. Such vulnerability allows a man to see God for who He truly is, instead of making “educated guesses” from the workings of a depraved mind. Plus, this vulnerability permits him to have the opportunity to reconnect with God in the pure and holy way God originally designed and desired for man to relate Him. For this reason, we are told, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you.” (Mt. 7:7) So, in revelation, God gets the glory by being sought and found.

Whereas revelation includes mysteries that can be understood, concealing does not. In concealing, God chooses to hide parts of Himself to maintain and emphasize His separateness from man. The mysteries unique to concealing are those things that are unique to God alone. They include, but are not limited to, God’s majesty and dignity, glory and splendor, His sovereignty, wisdom, and unfathomable knowledge of creation. (Job 38 – 42). His grace. His love. His predestined plan from the foundations of the earth. Such are the things that force a man to his knees and compel him to proclaim, “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.” (Job 41:4-5)

If God were to reveal all things to man, man would mistakenly assume that he was relating with an equal. Such a belief would only repeat the fault of original sin whereby man presumed to be like God and set himself in opposition to God through the assumption of the knowledge of good and evil. Therefore, God conceals some things from man to protect us from both His wrath and the folly of our depraved minds. He conceals things so that we may always live in a proper relationship to Him, knowing that He is infinitely holy and sovereign and good and wise, and we are not.

To challenge the concealed things of God does not glorify God nor does it engender praise. Such behavior only rebels against Him and demands an answer where none is permitted to man. Thus we are reminded “who has known the mind of the LORD, or who has been his counselor?” (Rom. 11:34). But when God conceals these things from man, He surrenders nothing of His uniqueness. All things remain from Him and through Him and to Him (Rom. 11:36), calling man out of his ostentatious existence and back into the original design where man is subjected under God, “that God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). And where the heart of man may continuously proclaim “To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.” (Php. 4:20).

Thus we can say with Solomon: It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.

The Glory of Prepositions

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God abides in us to perfect His purposes through us. This is an interesting and a comforting thought. This God of love lives in us, stays with us, and flows through us to accomplish His desires. But we are not passive partners in this process. We have our own role to play. And this role is primarily practiced through the act of obedience.

But, if you’re like me, obedience can sometimes be a slippery thing. For years I used to flounder in frustration when reading verses like Proverbs 3:5 (Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding) or 1 Cor. 10:31 (Whatever you do, do all for the glory of God). These types of verses seemed to excel in telling me what to do but appeared to fail in explaining how. It felt as if God had wedged me between my desire to do the right thing and my ignorance of the process.

But God had done no such thing at all. In fact, when I looked at these types of verses more clearly, I realized that in every instance God had provided a hidden instruction so that my obedience could be carried out as He intended. The answer, though, came in those small connecting words we often overlook in scripture. Tiny words that race past our eyes and hide within the shadows of metaphors and expansive revelations. These are the words we imagine revolve around the center of a sentence’s solar system, while in reality, they are the stars whose gravity holds all of the other words together and maps the circuit of the ideas within.

What are they?

They are the prepositions. Words like “in” and “with” and “for.” And without them, no Christian can ever obey God.

Consider the following:

“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” – Php. 4:13

“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” – Eph. 2:10

or

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me…apart from me you can do nothing.” – John 15:4-5

Obedience can never be done without the prepositions. In fact, it is the prepositions that empower the obedience. If we are honest, we know we cannot do what God commands us to do in our abilities alone. But when we embrace the belief that it is Christ working in and through us, we can boldly step out and proclaim, “With God we shall do valiantly; it is he who will tread down our foes.” (Ps. 108:13) This gives a whole new dimension to prayer and obedience. For once we have completed the process of following and have synced our heart and mind up to God’s so that we know His will, He command to go and do changes our requests from scavenger hunts to discover His will into requests to perform His will. We can step out in power and in confidence because it is He who is doing the work, not ourselves. Like an arrow shot from the archer’s bow, we do not set the aim or the trajectory or the target. Our objective is to only fly straight and true, piercing the bullseye according to His will.

Thus, obedience in Christ is not only praying in the name of Christ but it is also acting in the will and the power of Christ. The man who forfeits the opportunity to obey the calling of God because he is unable to accomplish the vision in his own strength is both missing and understanding the point all at the same time. He is so close to the adventure of God he teeters on the edge of understanding and faith, but he is so focused on himself that the distance between his usefulness and impotence in Christ has become immeasurable. If he would accept that God only wants him to be remembered as a useful tool and not a glorious building, then he would be able to yield himself to work in the strength and will of the Carpenter’s hand. But the one who does not empty himself of grandiose visions of glory or depressive visions of failure can only experience God’s desires for his life as an observer, not as a participant. His heart is focused too much on what he believes he can do in himself.

But God does not want us to obey within the the limitations of our abilities. He wants us to obey within the infinite realms that His prepositions provide “so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.” (1 Peter 4:2) For since we have been crucified with Christ, the only thing that should remain in the obedient servant is a willingness to be used and a hopeful expectation to see God do immeasurably more than we could ever ask or imagine (Eph. 3:2).

Remember, when God calls us to obedience, He calls us to future action. Sometimes that action is milliseconds in the future (will you defend your faith or deny that you know me?) and sometimes it is months or years in the future (lead my people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land). Either way, our faith must rest in God’s future grace in order to propel our obedience. Too many times we want to focus on the now because that is the one aspect on life’s timeline we can control. But God is a god of tomorrow as much as He is a god of today. Our faith need not be in what we can control now but in what God is controlling next, whether it be seconds or eons to come. If we cannot trust that God is there (in the future) as well as here (in the present) we cannot believe the calling and vision He has placed on our lives will be fulfilled. Everything will be left up to random chance. But a God who lives in the future is a god who calls us forward.

He is a god who secures the outcome in the power of His might. He is a creating god, ensuring the chaos of today is ordered into the fulfilled promises of tomorrow. A god of the future is a trustworthy god. An unsurprised god. A victorious god. And an unchanging god. He has no need for variance because as a god of the future, He has no need to react.  He is always out in front of us, creating, planning, coordinating, and inviting exactly the right person(s) to accomplish His purposes, of which we are a part. As an elected member of this future god’s tribe, our job is not to worry about today (for He has planned this day and its events from long ago) nor is it to ask about the what-ifs of tomorrow (for He has already arranged those outcomes as well). Our job is to boldly follow this god into the future He has designed and to exchange our anxiety for security. When we work in Him and with Him and for Him we no longer need to question what will happen. We only need to seek the when.

In this way our obedience demonstrates that “we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” (Heb. 10:39) For we know that whether our obedience leads to another event that fulfills God’s plans or a death that glorifies His name, we will always be stepping into the future with God.

Reflections on Psalm 145

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The one who extols and blesses and praises God’s name continuously is the one who maintains a high view of the holy standard God exemplifies in both His words and His actions. This helps a person remember that there is a standard above himself, an unflinching and unbreakable law that calls one to a higher code of conduct than anything we could imagine. Keeping God’s holiness constantly in view helps us remember that we are not the first cause to our morality, nor are we the end of the argument (i.e., the last person to whom we are accountable) for our choices. There is someone superior to us who holds us to a higher standard than we have ever held ourselves. Praise reinforces this knowledge and provides the kernel of submission we require to live a life rooted in the stability of this truth. To be a person full of integrity, whose actions and words align.

The continuous practice of praise allows us to conform our lives to God’s will and provides security even in the darkest times of life, for the truth of God does not change. His words and deeds are continuously consistent (He does not change like shifting shadows). Therefore, in verse 18 this is why it says, “The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.” God is not nearby, like a player waiting to be called off the bench to enter the game.

God is near.

He is personal.

His words are hidden in our heart so that we might not sin against him. Those words define us. They construct our habits and thoughts. They provide a path of righteousness to walk in for His name’s sake. And when our actions and deeds match the holy standard of His actions and deeds it gives our prayers gravitas because this alignment is what it means to “call on Him in truth.” It is speaking out of an integrity and a righteousness that He has designed in us, based out of His perfect character, not out of an identity that our broken pathologies have defined. When we see God as superior and continually exalt and extol His name above all other names (especially our own), we then understand our position in relation to Him. We can respect and revere and love Him as we ought. And as a result, God fulfills the desire of those who fear Him and preserves those who love Him (v. 19-20). Not so that we may benefit materially, but so that our lives may proclaim the goodness of His name and be an eternal echo of that old hymn that says:

Oh, come to the Father, through Jesus the Son,

And give Him the glory; great things He hath done.