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Posts Tagged ‘prayer’

Live Like an Atheist

A prayerless life is one of practical atheism.

Gordon Fee, Paul, the Spirit and the People of God, p149

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A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers.  I’m slowly but surely making my way through many of D A Carson’s books.  It is a rare skill to be exegetical and devotional in the same book, or even on the same page, yet Carson pulls it off.  This book came at just the right time, as I need a pick-me-up in the prayer department.  It’s interesting, and a bit disheartening, to see how little we allow Scripture to shape our prayers.  While this book doesn’t answer every question regarding prayer, it does provide a biblical framework with which to start, and contains numerous bits of practical advice along the way.  My wife is currently reading this as well, and has also benefitted greatly from it.  I’ve quoted from this book once in a previous post.

Paul, the Spirit and the People of God.  Have you ever had a book that you’ve never read from beginning to end, but probably read the whole thing in chunks over a long period of time (for many of us, that’s the Bible)?  That was me and this Gordon Fee book, until recently.  I finally made the time to read through the whole thing, and I’m glad I did.  Stemming from his work in God’s Empowering Presence, which is 900+ pages of detailed exegesis and theological reflection, Fee offers this manageable 200ish page volume.  I think this would make an excellent book for a small group to study if they are interested in learning more about the Holy Spirit in Paul’s letters (and in the NT as a whole).  Much of the church today lacks a robust understanding of the Spirit, including my own charismatic circles.  It will be hard to read this book and not be challenged to see just how central the Spirit is to biblical theology and practice.  From eschatology to ethics to spiritual gifts, Fee does a tremendous job of making accessible what a lifetime of research has taught him.

From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya.  We read this Ruth Tucker book (affectionately known as FJ2IJ) in our missions training school.  It is, as the subtitle indicates, a biographical history of missions.  Tucker runs through the history of missions by looking at various important figures, with some historical setting for a little context.  Reader beware- she pulls no punches.  The history of Christian missions is mixed with triumph and failure, and she’ll let you know about it.

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A Biblical Vision for Prayer

Brothers and sisters in Christ, at the heart of all our praying must be a biblical vision.  That vision embraces who God is, what he has done, who we are, where we are going, what we must value and cherish.  That vision drives us toward increasing conformity with Jesus, toward lives lived in the light of eternity, toward hearty echoing of the church’s ongoing cry, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”  That vision must shape our prayers, so that the things that most concern us in prayer are those that concern the heart of God.  Then we will persevere in our praying, until we reach the goal God himself has set for us.

– D. A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers

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Prayer is a rather large topic, one I’ve intentionally avoided writing about simply because there’s so much to say.  How in the world do you narrow down the Bible’s teachings on prayer into one post?  Or even a few posts?  That’s a lot to ask.  But last year as I was teaching on the Sermon on the Mount at church, I realized that I could at least narrow it down to cover this particular section of Jesus’ teachings.

 

In Matthew 7:7-11, we read these words of Jesus (TNIV):

 

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives; those who seek find; and to those who knock, the door will be opened.

 

Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?  If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good fits to those who ask him!”

 

I’ve often heard these words used by those in the “prosperity gospel” sector of the church to claim that we can pray for financial blessings and expect that God will grant us our requests.  After all, He loves to give good gifts!

 

However, when you look at these words in light of what precedes it in the Sermon, you’ll find that what we are expected to pray for is narrowed a bit more than many realize. 

 

Consider Jesus’ words in 6:25-34.  Here, Jesus instructs us not to concern ourselves with food and clothing, God will provide those as He sees fit.  In fact, worrying about these things is in line with the pagans, “for the pagans run after all these things…” (v32).  Instead, we are instructed to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (v33). 

 

Immediately preceding these words, Jesus instructs us not to “store up for yourselves treasures on earth” (v19).  I would think this would directly contradict the idea of praying for wealth.  And you can’t take “treasures” to be solely metaphorical, since Jesus in v24 goes on to say that you can only serve God or Money, not both. 

 

In the “Lord’s Prayer” (v9-13), we see the type of physical need that we are to pray for.  In v11, we’re encouraged to pray, “Give us today our daily bread.”  Instead of praying for riches, and all the comforts that come with it, we’re instructed to pray for enough to get through today.  This is a call to trust God to provide us with what we need, not necessarily what makes us comfortable and at ease.

 

But you’ll also notice an alternative focus that is given here, praying for God’s name to be hallowed (the NET Bible translates it “may your name be honored”) and for His kingdom to come here on earth.  Rather than riches, or even a “comfortable living”, we are to pray for God’s kingdom to be made manifest on this earth.

 

So, notice the juxtaposition throughout chapter 6 on what our focus is to be. 

 

1. Pray only for enough “bread” to get through the day.  Pray for God’s kingdom to come to earth.

 

2. Do not store up treasures on earth, because it will one day be destroyed.  Instead, have a mindset that seeks to serve God, rather than Money.

 

3. Do not worry about food and clothing, because providing those is God’s job.  Instead, we are to seek the kingdom of heaven and the righteousness of God.

 

So, when we reach Jesus’ words in 7:7-11, given above, we ought to have it in our minds already that Jesus isn’t talking about money and the luxuries this world offers.  The “good gifts” we are to seek can hardly be said to be wealth, fame, etc.  He just spent most of chapter 6 telling us not to seek those things! 

 

So what are we to pray for?  How about that God’s righteousness and justice be revealed?  How about for His Name to be honored in all that we do?  How about praying for enough to get through the day, so we can have the strength and resources necessary to live these things out?  Even stepping back a chapter earlier, how about we pray for our enemies and for those who persecute God’s people (5:44)?

 

There is, of course, so much more to be said about prayer, even within the Sermon on the Mount, but I hope this quick look gives us some perspective as we pray.  We cannot forget Jesus’ words in chapter 6 when we reach His words in chapter 7.  Jesus had already laid out limits for His followers in terms of their focus, and had already demonstrated the proper way to pray.  When we keep that context in mind, we should find it intolerable to misuse His words in Matthew 7:7-11.

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This week, the Marchionni household has experienced a number of light and momentary afflictions, each of which have conspired to keep us from getting a good night of sleep for nearly a week.  “A good night” here means “more than 4 hours.”  One source of this sleep deprivation, which will come as no surprise to the seasoned parents among my readers, is my 15-month old son, who has taken ill this week with some flavor of virus.

Whenever my son is suffering, even from a simple cold (and praise God that it’s naught more serious than that!), the cerebral circuits devoted to Christian suffering always turn on in my head, giving rise to a panoply of reflections and questions.  Last night, I was especially struck by the words of the excellent Craig Blomberg in a post he wrote some time ago dealing with the particularly American response to suffering.  Says Blomberg,

At an international evangelical consultation on contextualizing the gospel this summer in Oxford, the Asian representatives agreed that one of the biggest theological differences between Asian and American Christianity was that Asians assumed suffering was a normal part of life, especially if you were a believer, whereas Americans were always trying to avoid it or end it. One Chinese theologian explained, “The typical Chinese Christian, when suffering, asks, “How may I acquit myself in a God-pleasing way as I suffer?” The typical American Christian asks, “How may I get rid of the suffering?”

When was the last time you heard a public list of Christian prayer requests that included prayers for people to be good witnesses in the midst of their suffering rather than for God to take away everything from terminal cancer to the common cold?

Clearly, in the case of my son, there isn’t much he can do yet to be a faithful witness to God in the midst of his suffering.  But what about me?  How do I respond to my own suffering, or the suffering of others?  Like a “typical American Christian,” I usually ask God to take it away.  As I reflect on this, however, I am increasingly convinced that I am due for a rearrangement of priorities.

I cannot address all of the dynamics of suffering here, nor will I attempt to introduce a theodicy.  However, I do believe that the question of the Chinese Christian above ought to be ours as well.  Specifically, our first priority in prayer concerning suffering ought to be bringing God glory, as opposed to bringing ourselves relief.

Consider Jesus’ miracles:  Many of Jesus’ healings are explicitly explained as being performed to bring glory to God (e.g., Jn. 9:3; 11:4).  Other miracles have a clear pedagogical purpose in revealing Christ’s identity (e.g., Mk 2:10; 3:35-41; Jn.15:24), which is another way of bringing glory to God.

Also consider that in the first instance, Jesus’ healings are about the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God; they are an eschatological annoucement (c.f., Mt. 11:2-5).  Part of that eschatology is the restoration of all things back to the way they were meant to be, viz. people aren’t going to be blind, or lame, or subject to acute bleeding  when the Kingdom of God is fully manifest on earth.  Note the subtle distinction between healing somebody to relieve their suffering, versus healing somebody in order to reveal the coming Kingdom, which includes the relief of suffering.

Scanning deeper into the New Testament, I have trouble finding many prayers aimed only at taking away suffering.  When Paul prays for the suffering Thessolonians, his prayer is that they are good witnesses in the midst of it; that their faith is strengthened (2 Ths.1:11-12).  A plea for relief is nowhere to be found, but a promise for it is included in the eschatological encouragement preceding his prayers (vv.5-10).

So then, what is our proper response to suffering?  Ought we pray for relief or healing?  Of course!  But, the effort must be framed in terms of a bigger priority: God’s glory.  Consider Christ’s example as he predicted his torturous death on the cross (Jn. 12:27-30), or his agony in Gesthemane (Mt. 26:39-43).  His first focus is God’s glory and submission to His will.  Our prayers for healing or relief should therefore start with the same focus:  “God, be glorified; thy will be done.  If it pleases you to bring relief, please do so quickly, only be glorified by it.”

Suffering, as C.S.Lewis notes, is often God’s megaphone.  Within hard times, opportunies upon opportunies avail themselves to be redeemed to bring glory to our Creator.  May this be our priority at all times, because God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:8-10).

Coming in Part II:  The broader categories of suffering.

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