Learning a Reflex of Prayer

Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. 

Ephesians 6:18

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I’m in college again (yay!), specifically the Baptist College of Florida. One of the classes I’m taking here is Spiritual Formation 101. This class is about spiritual disciplines, training in Christian growth. Yes, it does feel weird to take a class about such matters, and to study formats and theory behind daily devotions. But it actually is a good class for me, because I am required to do a devotion daily, including a certain number of parts, and log it in a spiritual journal, which I will have to turn in at the end of the semester.

This is, to be honest, just what I’ve always needed. Accountability and structure is very good for me, and helps me, paradoxically, to feel like I have the freedom to actually accomplish what I’d like to do. And a set time of prayer in the mornings is quite good.

But I’m not here to babble on about my SF 101 devotions. I’m more interested in its effects on me. Becoming consistent in my prayers, along with my Scripture reading (which has been in Ephesians and Philippians so far), has been seemingly affecting how I think and respond throughout the day. More and more I find myself thinking when various things happen: I should pray.

It’s often a little thing. I’m about to go to work, and I feel like I should pray for provision (I work for tips, remember!). Sometimes at work I feel prompted to pray for the safety and fortunes of all the drivers. When people barely tip or don’t tip, I often feel like I should pray for God to bless them financially (Quite often the people who don’t tip don’t seem to have much extra cash, and while that makes me wonder why they’re ordering expensive Papa John’s pizza, I nonetheless feel they need prayer). 

Of course, some of these habits started earlier, but they’ve all been more pronounced as of late. More various and new prayers come to mind, too. Recently I delivered to a man in a rehab clinic who was missing most of his fingers. Certainly I was prompted to pray for him. I regularly deliver to nurses in a nearby hospital, and I usually go in the ER entrance. The last time I did this it struck me that the people sitting in the waiting room probably need my prayers, too, so I prayed for them as well.

None of this is, of course, to brag about my prayer life. In fact, it would be quite foolish of me to do so, for I believe I am still drastically weak in prayer. I wanted instead to emphasize the direction that more prayer and Scripture reading has been shaping me (or, to be more accurate, where the Spirit has been moving me through prayer and Scripture). I’ve had prayer continually impressed on my heart. Verses like Ephesians 6:18 above just keep grabbing my attention and convicting me. And it’s changing my thoughts. I’m starting to think more in general about prayer as a response to the many things I see in my day, whether for thanksgiving or for request.

This is, I believe, an important work of the Spirit which I have been waiting for and hope (and pray!) will continue, and one which I believe we all need. It’s about developing a reflex of prayer. I hope to reach the place where my natural response to whatsoever I see is to approach the throne of grace through Jesus Christ my High Priest. That kind of reflex, that instinct, is something Spirit-led and Spirit-given, and can only draw you nearer to Christ and to all of the people you find yourself praying for. This reflex is something Paul seems to have had himself, and something he wanted to see in all of the churches he served.

Honestly, at this point I can’t think of anything much more to say about this, so I suppose I will let Scripture speak, and pray that God will bless us all with this reflex of prayer.

Pray at all times in the Spirit with every prayer and request, and stay alert in this with all perseverance and intercession for all the saints. Pray also for me, that the message may be given to me when I open my mouth to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel. For this I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I might be bold enough in Him to speak as I should.

Ephesians 6:18-20

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

Philippians 4:6

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Learning a Reflex of Prayer

Prayer Help from Old

The early church has a few awesome things to offer us. Like this prayer from St. Basil the Great:

Almighty Lord,
God of the Powers and of all flesh,
Who lives in the highest and carest for the humble,
Who searches our hearts and affections,
and clearly foreknows the secrets of men;
eternal and everliving Light,
in Whom is no change nor shadow of variation;

O Immortal King,
receive our prayers
which at the present time
we offer to You from unclean lips,
trusting in the multitude of Your mercies.
Forgive all sins committed by us
in thought, word or deed,
consciously or unconsciously,
and cleanse us from all defilement
of flesh and spirit.

Grant us to pass the night of the whole present life
with wakeful heart and sober thought,
ever expecting the coming of the radiant day
of the appearing of Your only-begotten Son,
our Lord and God and Saviour, Jesus Christ,
when the Judge of all will come with glory
to render to each according to their deeds.
May we not be found fallen and idle,
but awake and alert for action,
ready to accompany Him
into the joy and divine palace of His glory,
where there is the ceaseless sound
of those keeping festival
and the unspeakable delight
of those who behold
the ineffable beauty of Your Face.

For You are the true Light
that enlightens and sanctifies all,
and all creation sings to You 
throughout the ages.
Amen.

Prayer Help from Old

Glorifying God the E-Z Way

“Glory, hallelujah! Praise Jesus!” This kind of talk is naturally a common part of church life, especially in the more energetic places. And that is good. When we are loved by so great a God and called into His service, for us to offer what Scripture calls a “sacrifice of praise” to Him is only fitting. To God be glory forever! Amen.

Yet sometimes this seems to be the only glory we feel the need to offer our Lord. And while this often can be sincere and heartfelt, glorifying God this way can be something else, too. Praise with our words can be all too easy and comfortable, requiring no real commitment or action. No matter how loftily we speak of God, or how much we call others to worship Him, we can do this all as merely an outward religion, either for show and glory or maybe even just to tide over our own conscience as it tells us to think beyond ourselves.

Beyond this, maybe we’ll read God’s word or pray to Him. We might even make an excellent habit of both, though most of us don’t. Even if we do, how easy is it to simply use these disciplines to fulfill the demands of religion on our conscience, so that we don’t feel guilty? Personal communion with God is rich and vital, but is also so intangible, so invisible, that we can easily just pretend or use “devotion” for our own purposes.

Really, doing piety—respect of God—is easy if we see God as a distant figure, a big and separate Deity a million light-years away, whom we can keep happy with our exalted speech, dedicated devotions, and constant prayers. Even though we usually wouldn’t admit or even realize this tendency, we often look at God this way. That can lead us to taking devotional activities—good activities that are God-blessed and right—as a kind of checklist righteousness which calms our conscience’s demand for higher living.

But our God is not that distant Deity. He is not a king who lives aloft from his kingdom, content to see his subjects give him due honor and taxes. Our God is the King who acts like a member of His own kingdom. He cares for and identifies with everyone under His rule, treating them as though they matter more than He does. This Lord is love. He’s so invested in the people beneath Him that He actually became one of them. He lived, died, and rose again as a human being for human beings. Our great God and Savior Jesus Christ calls us brothers and sisters, since He has become like us in every way, except without sin.

Because of this, there is no possible way to glorify God if you aim exclusively for His direct and immediate glory. God has bound Himself to humanity in Christ. In His covenant with us, He is happy to be “man’s God” and to share His own life for our benefit. This means that He is deeply invested in the situation of all people. As we know from the parable of the sheep and the goats, He identifies with us so closely that He counts what we do for others as what we do for Him. He counts what we do not do for others as ignoring Him. So to glorify God we have to treat the people He loves with the same great importance that He does.

Since God is so invested in love with people, and since people bear His image, we cannot glorify Him without being interested in people. Praising the Creator means nothing if we curse people He created. Prayers to our heavenly Father are insulting to Him if we refuse to speak with our earthly fathers He gave His only Son for. Dedicating ourselves to serving Christ’s church is a lie if we are too selfish to serve everyone Christ died for.

To sum it all up, God freely chose to create us, make a covenant with us, become one of us, live for us, die for us, rise for us, and delay His coming for us, all so that He could share His eternal life of love with us. If this is truly God’s passion in history, then in order to truly honor Him, worship Him, and give Him the glory He so richly deserves, we absolutely have to share that passion and devote ourselves to the same cause He champions. To glorify God, we must love human beings.

Back to my original point, though, this is a very hard task. Loving others is a radical way that actually honors the time and effort God puts into people is terrifying and exhausting. So what do we naturally do? We substitute what God say fulfills His whole law—to love your neighbor—with just the basic stuff that is easy to do to an invisible God. We skip caring for other people—which James says is the heart of pure religion—and substitute inexpensive sacrifices of praise, Scripture, Facebook shares, and prayer. But Jesus said to go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”

So we should continue to rightly worship our glorious God. We should never stop praising and communing with Him in song, prayer, and devotion. But we also have to radically and completely love our neighbor. That is what fulfills the law. We must insist on doing the latter despite its difficulty, without neglecting the former. For this is what Jesus taught us Himself. Amen.

Glorifying God the E-Z Way

Election, Israel, and Yahweh’s Consuming Fire: Part 2

In the first part of this post, I tried to Biblically ground a concept of “holy love” which integrates what we know of God’s love with the revelation that He is also a consuming fire and has sometimes enacted terribly violent judgments. Now I move on to apply that to the problems we see in the Old Testament.

When Holy Love Elects a Beloved

All of the problems we will be looking at deeply involve Israel, so to make a strong foundation I’ll need to examine who and what Israel was in God’s plan. What was the point of Israel as God’s chosen people? I think God’s concluding line in His promise to Abraham holds the key: “All the peoples on earth will be blessed through you”1. God elected Israel because He had already freely chosen to love all humankind2. He did not choose them for their own sake, as though they deserved anything more than the rest of us3, but so that they could be a kingdom of priests4.

See, if God only chose humanity in general, loving everyone in some abstract equality, then His love could not be completely real for each individual person in their concrete existence. But by placing His electing love in a particular way on a specific human family in Abraham, He gave His love a real form in the human world of space, time, and matter. Therefore Israel was born as God’s chosen people, a microcosm of all humanity before God, and priests of God before all humanity.

This covenant relationship, though, is a relationship not of soft love but of holy love. An utterly sinful people filled with rebellion5 was called to draw near to a God who is holy love. He gave and revealed Himself to them as who He is6, and that meant danger. For if God’s holy love, as we mentioned before, opposes and condemns all self-love, then sinful people are in for disaster when drawn near. God made this clear when He appeared at Sinai, in the burning bush, and in a pillar with the form of a consuming fire7. If they lived with the holy love which God possesses, they would experience His life and blessing8. But if they continued resisting God’s love by wronging their neighbor and forsaking God’s redemptive purpose for their election, then His holy love would bear down on them with painful pressure and cause curse upon curse9.

The God of Love vs. The People of Hard Hearts

Having given Biblical grounds for these ideas of holy love and Israel’s election, I propose that God drawing near to a people in His holy love is exactly how we must understand the frequent application of violence in Israel’s history. God in His holy love is a consuming fire, yet He brought Israel close to Himself10. In doing so their sin and rebellion found opposition in the Lord’s presence. Yahweh’s relentless love became painful and torturous when they dashed their hard heads and hearts against Him. Capital punishment and spectacular judgments were not the result of an irritable God losing His temper11, but in fact were the historical actualizations of God giving Himself to a people who couldn’t and wouldn’t open to Him.

We must remember that for God to really be anything in relation to flesh-and-blood people, He must be Himself in a tangible way12. The God of people who exist in space, time, and matter can only reveal Himself in ways particular to space, time, and matter. This means that the conflict between God’s holy love and Israel’s sinful resistance had to take physical form. So when God’s wrath was kindled against His beloved by their own self-destructive self-love, He chastised them with tangible consequences of death, plague, and exile. What else could He do if He wanted to make real changes on human existence?

This concept reaches the sharpest expression in worship. The system of worship God gave Israel was His own design. Apart from Him, the Israelites had nothing good to offer, so God provided them within His covenant with sacrifices and rituals by which they could approach Him13. This was to be a constant reminder to them: they were sinful, but God was gracious enough to provide a way to Himself. So important was this truth, so necessary for Israel to know, that the most severe punishments were reserved for violating right worship. If God in His holy love is a consuming fire, then sinners who approach Him on their own terms cannot avoid being consumed. Thus the fate of Aaron’s sons who offered unauthorized fire on the altar, high priests who came unclean into the Holy of holies, and the Korah’s rebels. Only in Christ is there a safe way to the Father (on this, see the end of my post on law and evil), and the only way for a pre-incarnation people to approach God through Christ is by faith which uses the types and shadows of Him which God provided in the OT priestly system. All other ways brought death as the sinner approached the fire of God’s holy love in their sinfully flammable state.

Mediation and Holy War

Now that we’ve looked at the harsh penalties of the law, what about holy war? Why did God order such extreme destruction against the peoples of Canaan? I do not expect there to be one straightforward answer. I do, however, believe that the concept of Israel’s election and God’s holy love might be able to shed some light on this question. Yet I tread lightly, because holy war really is a minefield, with wrong and destructive answers hidden under every other step.

If I was right to say that Israel was elected to be a kingdom of priests to the nations, what would that involve? Priests must mediate; they bring people to God and God to people. So I suspect that this is precisely what happened in holy war. Israel brought God Himself to the nations.

Unfortunately for the nations, they were in even worse shape than Israel to meet God. Israel could approach God despite their sinfulness because of the safe way He provided in the covenant, but the nations had no such covenant. Unless they repented of their sins, God’s coming to them could only mean judgment14. As long as they were steeped in the flammable sins which oppose all that holy love is (such as sacrificing children to idols), an encounter with God, mediated through Israel, had to mean they were burned up. And as I’ve been saying, all that God is and does to humanity must be done in a tangible, flesh-and-blood way if humanity is to be affected or care. So God commanded the Israelites to kill them all.

Of course, the most difficult part of all this is the children. I’ve personally been able to cope more or less with the adults deserving their execution by Israel, but what about the babies? Why did God even have them kill the babies? I definitely can’t say much about this, because clearly the horror is deep and complex, but as present I mainly think this: as Israel brought the adults of the nations to God, which led to judgment, they also brought the children to God. They ushered them into God’s immediate presence by the only way possible before the end—namely death—and in that presence I do believe God saved them. Instead of these children growing up among immoral people to become even more immoral and be judged, God rescued them while they were yet ignorant.

Naturally, any answer I can provide on this last point can’t be completely satisfactory. I am only somewhat okay with this conception. But thinking this way does help me, and I do hope I am not the only one. But God is God, after all. While my application of holy love, mediation, and election might be able to help get my mind around OT violence, ultimately He did what He did and I can only pray that I’ve honored Him for who He is in my theology. And with that said, I’m left with nothing but Paul’s praise to handle my ignorance:

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments and untraceable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been His counselor? Or who has ever first given to Him, and has to be repaid? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.

Romans 11:33-36

Election, Israel, and Yahweh’s Consuming Fire: Part 2

Every Lucid Moment

Hazy. That’s  the best word I could think of to describe many of the hours in my average day. I’m not sure what all I did or how much I enjoyed it. During the day I tend to slip into a mode: doing what I do. And at the end of the day I find myself wondering: what have I even been doing?

See, when I think about it, there is quite a bit I’d like to change about my life. I’d like to spend less time on the computer doing mostly nothing and more time enjoying the family God has entrusted to me. I’d like to pray more, and spend more time reading Scripture. While I read lots of random articles and blog posts online, I know I would benefit from reading more real books. 

Beyond habits and time management, I have character issues and virtues to work on. I want to become less self-centered and more aware of others. In my relationships I want to be more genuinely interested in what other people say, do, and care about. I’m too arrogant in my knowledge and could use some humility. Perhaps my most practically difficult flaw is my grand introspection, where I inflate my every last mistake into a life-scale issue by tracing out all the flaws in my heart and worrying about my ability to fix them into the future.

All of this deserves my effort and careful attention as I live out my day. I can only make progress if I actually try to. But alas, I don’t usually think about these things until the hour that they become painful problems. After that’s over, I remember my lesson for a while and then forget as I get back into the groove of everyday life. Next thing I know I’m making the same mistakes again. And so the circle goes on.

What I have come to realize is how very necessary it is that I capitalize on the moments when I am thinking and genuinely concerned. During the times in which I am aware of my flaws, I have to make what progress I can before life sweeps away my focus. This is what I usually fear to do, sometimes out of the fear of what might happen if I do change, and sometimes out of the fear that I won’t be able to keep up whatever I wish to accomplish. I find myself too often paralyzed by the awareness of my impending forgetfulness. So then I lose the moment, and the pain which brought me clarify becomes vain.

Obviously, what I ought to do is very different. The lucidity which fills me with fear for my future ability to do right ought to take one more step. When I think even more clearly, I see that any progress I hope to make must start with the moments that I can see that I need it. This means taking the first act, doing whatever I can to grow, instead of doing like I normally will and waste the time fretting over my lack of willpower. I have to capitalize on the times God opens my eyes before they fall shut again.

The best way to do this is to pray. While other actions are also necessary, I must take every lucid moment to pray. After all, there is no way for me to grow apart from the Holy Spirit. My flesh can only do so much, and its fruits are always full of worms. So when I know I am nothing and in need, my immediate response must be to call on the Lord, who gives to all generously and without criticizing. He promises to be my healer, the one who sanctified me and will sanctify me. If I don’t do this, if I wait or let my apprehension keep me from moving, what hope will I have? If I don’t take the opportunity to ask, seek, and knock before I forget what I am looking for, I will only come away empty-handed.

Father, you are my only hope. In Jesus you have created the perfect human life that I so desperately need. So by your Spirit living inside me, uniting me with your holy Son, let me become the man you call me to be. Every time you open my eyes, let me make the move I must make, and pray so you can continue to move me. Then when I am back in the normal course of life, I can trust you to work behind the scenes. In the name of my only Lord Jesus, Amen.

So I find that this law is at work: when I want to do what is good, what is evil is the only choice I have. My inner being delights in the law of God. But I see a different law at work in my body—a law that fights against the law which my mind approves of. It makes me a prisoner to the law of sin which is at work in my body. What an unhappy man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is taking me to death? Thanks be to God, who does this through our Lord Jesus Christ!

Romans 7:21-25a

Every Lucid Moment

My Dog Ate My Prayerbook

If there’s one thing people are good at, it’s making excuses. I imagine we don’t even realize how many excuses we make for ourselves (and others!) in the average day.

If you’re a Christian, you probably see this most clearly and painfully in your prayer life. Well, I guess you could be one of those rare giants who prays for two hours a day in solitude plus quickly and quietly throughout your day, and if so kudos to you. But most of us are not like that. At all.

The number of excuses we use for not praying is truly impressive. We do it all the time, because we in all honesty spend a lot of time not praying when we could/should be. And the funny thing is that we don’t usually make these excuses to use on other people: we usually just tell them to ourselves!

Some of the excuses we make are downright lame and we know it. “I was just so sleepy this morning…” Really? Come on, son. “I was too busy.” Yes, those four episodes of The Waking Dead you watched on Netflix after supper were pretty urgent, weren’t they? And let’s be real, your prayers are never so long you couldn’t fit them into your 15 work break.

Some of our excuses are more sanctified, though. “I’ve messed up too bad, today, so I can’t face Him.” But that’s exactly why you need Him. “If I pray right this second, I’ll be too distracted by what’s going on for it to be any good.” Good thing your prayers depend on Jesus and not your own performance. “I can’t pray this late; I’ll fall asleep.” Where better to fall asleep then the arms of your heavenly Father?

The truth is that we know even these spiritual-sounding excuses are bunk, but we use them anyway. For whatever reason, we often put more effort into not praying than we would ever exert by praying. It’s wrong, though. We need to pray. Somewhere in our hearts as believers we do even want to pray.

So what do we do? What do I do as the worst offender? Well, the first step to solving a problem is to recognize it, so let’s call ourselves out. When you excuse yourself from praying, give yourself the look the teacher gives the “my dog ate my homework” kid. If necessary, get someone else to help hold you accountable so they can give you that look for your lane excuses. And above all, let’s position ourselves within God’s people, doing God’s work, so that we will be driven to pray. Amen.

My Dog Ate My Prayerbook

Smite Mine Enemies: Applying Violent Psalms

The Bible is loaded with violence. I mean, seriously, if the entire Bible were made into movies, quite a number of them would be rated R for violence alone. Now, most of the violence is Scripture isn’t something that we must concern ourselves with, as it is simply a historical description of stuff that happened. Some is more difficult and scary, but I’ll leave the most significant concerns for another piece. For now, I want to consider the violent psalms (also known as “imprecatory psalms”). We love the book of Psalms. They’re great poetry, inspiring and comforting, touching every part of the human experience. But then we have psalms like this one (I’m quoting it in full to make the point):

Do you rulers indeed speak justly?
Do you judge people with equity?
No, in your heart you devise injustice,
and your hands mete out violence on the earth.

Even from birth the wicked go astray;
from the womb they are wayward, spreading lies.
Their venom is like the venom of a snake,
like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears,
that will not heed the tune of the charmer,
however skillful the enchanter may be.

Break the teeth in their mouths, O God;
Lord, tear out the fangs of those lions!
Let them vanish like water that flows away;
when they draw the bow, let their arrows fall short.
May they be like a slug that melts away as it moves along,
like a stillborn child that never sees the sun.

Before your pots can feel the heat of the thorns—
whether they be green or dry—the wicked will be swept away.
The righteous will be glad when they are avenged,
when they dip their feet in the blood of the wicked.
Then people will say,
“Surely the righteous still are rewarded;
surely there is a God who judges the earth.”

Psalm 58

Whoa. Pretty harsh. The righteous will be glad when we dip our feet in the blood of the wicked? Okay…

I could write all day on why these violent psalms are written, and why they are Scripture, and how they are compatible with God’s love and the command to love our enemies, but I have no need to, because many others have already done so better than I could ever do. I would simply sum this part up with a quote from C. S. Lewis (though despite my appreciation for this statement I disagree with most of what he said from the context in which he wrote this): “The ferocious parts of the Psalms serve as a reminder that there is in the world such a thing as wickedness and that it…is hateful to God.”

What I’d rather address is how we can actually make use of these violent psalms today. If we understand them, can we pray them as well? Should we ask God to smite our those who do wrong to us, those who treat us badly and hurt us? No, we have a direct command from Jesus to love our enemies and pray for them (that doesn’t mean for their destruction, by the way). So what do we do with these psalms? Well, three things come to mind.

  1. Pray for the triumph of righteousness and justice. These psalms were directed against enemies who fought against Israel and God, nations who would interrupt the world’s redemption. The psalmists wanted to see God vindicated and the evildoers stopped. Likewise, we ought to pray that God will stop those who do evil today, and that instead justice and mercy will fill our world.
  2. Heed the implicit warnings. If you read these psalms, you should conclude one thing: God hates sin and will do terrible destruction to sinners. So if you don’t want to be judged like that, if you don’t want people to be happy if your babies are dashed against the rocks (Ps. 137:9), live rightly and obey God’s commands.
  3. Pray for the destruction of our true enemies. Paul tells us that we aren’t struggling against flesh and blood, but against spiritual powers and demonic forces. They assault God’s people every day and try to thwart the Kingdom of God, just like Israel’s enemies back in the day. The world, the flesh, and the devil are constantly assailing us, and God hates them for it. We ought to, as well, so let us pray for God’s conquest and victory to be ushered in speedily against these foes.
Smite Mine Enemies: Applying Violent Psalms