04 July 2019

Four reasons prayer sometimes "doesn't work"

I recently spent a few weeks reading 1 Peter in the mornings.  It had been some time since I'd last studied this epistle, and I found myself engrossed in the text's vividness and its careful attention to specific themes.  There are a ton of thoughts still percolating in my brain, but I decided to take a few minutes and record one thing that convicts me in particular.

Prayer, as I use the word and understand its purpose, is a fellowship-based communication with the Almighty through the person of Jesus Christ.  In other words, it is an expression of my relationship with God, not a "long distance phone call" to heaven.  As a Christian, I don't pray to get stuff, I pray to entrust my hardships to Him; to demonstrate my humble submission to, dependence upon, and adoration of my God; and to be shaped by my interaction with Him.  So when I say that, in my reading of 1 Peter, I've found four reasons prayer "doesn't work" for Christians in the modern context, I'm talking about obstacles of our own fashioning that tend to obstruct our fellowship with our God.

Reason #1 prayer "doesn't work": lack of compassionate care for others

1 Peter 3.7: Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.

In this verse, Peter draws a direct connection between prayers being hindered and a husband neglecting to care for his helpmeet in a compassionate, respecting, and honoring manner.  The phrase "weaker vessel," as applied to a wife, is clearly not using "weakness" as a fault, but rather to illustrate the type of vulnerability inherent to precious things.  Why else would Peter urge husbands to "show honor" (aponemontes timen) to their wives -- literally "assign value" to them?  It's because Christian wives are joint-heirs with Christian husbands, both of whom have inherited the same grace from God.  Therefore, living "in an understanding way" (kata gnosin -- literally "according to knowledge") is not compensating for feminine emotional instability, as English readers commonly assume, but rather based on the knowledge of God's lavish grace upon all His children, a grace uniquely shared in a marital relationship.  Here's my paraphrase of the veres, tracking back a little further in the passage for some context: Because you are travelers and not residents on the earth (2.11)... husbands must show compassion and respect to their wives as supremely valuable, because they share an eternal destiny (3.7).  Failure to live according to this understanding, according to Peter, hinders a husband's ability to pray and spiritually lead his wife the way he was intended.

While this reason for prayer "not working" is primarily about the correlation between husbands failing in their marital duties and failing in their spiritual devotion, I think we can also tease out a parallel application that isn't just for husbands.  A resounding theme across the New Testament is that those who have received mercy from God will show mercy to others.  We are to love our neighbor as Christ loved us (John 13.34).  A failure to forgive others their sinful actions against us is a reflection of our lack of forgiveness from the Father (Matt 6.14-15).  Judgment is without mercy upon those who have shown no mercy to others (Jas 2.13).  In other words, only a heart that acknowledges the depth of its own need and receives grace from God is also capable of showing a God-pleasing level of compassion for others.  How can Christians withhold forgiveness from others yet expect forgiveness from God for their own transgressions?  If such is the case, there is a fatal error in that individual's understanding of grace.

My point is this: any Christian who fails to truly love and value other human relationships -- choosing instead to degrade or use other people in self-serving ways -- will find him- or herself in a position where prayers "won't work" -- not because God can't bless or operate in that scenario, but because that individual has hardened his or her heart toward God, a hardness reflected in his or her lack of love toward others.  If you are experiencing the symptom of "prayer not working," your first check should be evaluating the level of compassion you show toward your wife, your kids, your coworkers, etc, and then to check your level of adoration for God as well.  Somewhere in the chain, there is a disconnect.

Peter's focus is certainly on husbands.  As a husband, it is my solemn and joyful duty to one day present my wife to Christ "without spot or wrinkle," "holy and without blemish," in the same way He will present the Church to the Father (Eph 5.27).  I can't fulfill that duty if I fail to show my wife compassion and understanding.  To be in such a deplorable state both results from and also contributes to a disconnect in my fellowship with God.  Husbands: Peter charges us to love our wives well, and so grow in our relationships with Jesus Christ.  Because you and your wife are one flesh, and together one flesh with Christ, you can't neglect one without neglecting the other.

Reason #2: Lack of moral integrity

I'm fascinated by New Testament writers' usage of Old Testament passages.  1 Peter 3.12 is one of them.  Here, Peter uses Psalm 34 to illustrate the blessing of righteous living, which is its own reward even in the midst of persecution.  This is such an effective citation, because 1 Peter 3 and Psalm 34 both describe the life of righteous integrity that God's children pursue even in the midst of affliction.

What man is there who desires life and loves many days, that he may see good? Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it. The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous and his ears toward their cry. The face of the Lord is against those who do evil, to cut off the memory of them from the earth. When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. (Psa 34.12-17)

In the ESV Bible, the topic heading for Psalm 34 is the phrase from verse 8: "taste and see that the Lord is good."  A life based on the pursuit of moral integrity could sound like a laborious drag if the reason behind doing so wasn't so good.  The Christian pursues moral integrity because he or she has received the incredible gift of grace from a righteous and merciful God, who does not deal with us as our sin deserves.  For this reason, we live the type of life that God commands because it means closeness to Him.

Any Christian who fails to exemplify moral virtue, according to the standards of God's holiness as described in the pages of Scripture, will unsurprisingly experience a disconnect in prayer.  It is impossible for me to live however I see fit, with some type of "all things are lawful for me" mindset (1 Cor 6.12), and still attempt to maintain close fellowship with a holy God.  My prayers will not "work" if I am my own moral authority in the place of God's own commands -- either because I live a life of hypocrisy (demonstrating good conduct in public, but living a secret life in private) or because I insist on my right to living however I want in the "freedom of grace."  Paul said "may it never be," and Peter too draws the conclusion that personal integrity before God is a necessity -- not to earn something from Him, but because He has given us righteousness as a free gift, and His ear is inclined toward those who walk in His prescribed way.  In order to be in proper fellowship with Him, we therefore should live accordingly.

Reason #3: Lack of proper thinking

The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. (1 Peter 4.7)

A lack of self-control connects back to our previous point, but sober-mindedness is something additional.  Sober-mindedness means alertness, a head free from any kind of intoxicating influence, able to think free of any distraction.  Riveted attention to God's redemptive program is what Peter admonishes the believer to possess -- that is, His saving work through Jesus Christ, effective in the Kingdom of Priests today, to be fully realized in the retrun of Christ.  Living with this mental context brings sobriety and sharpening clarity, and directly impacts my manner of praying, because my fellowship with God takes on a new dimension: though I cannot yet see Him, one day soon I will, and all the things of this earth with its pursuits and pitfalls will be judged with fire, and renewed to the state in which God initially created them to be.  So instead of praying merely for that promotion and the health of my neighbor, my sober-minded prayers focus far more on my own sanctification and that of others, the salvation of my neighbor, my opportunities to be a gospel witness despite persecution, and God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

James takes up a similar refrain, because he addresses in his epistle the impossibility of being duplicitous -- that is, divided in our loyalties -- and states that a prayer of doubt (literally, lack of faith) is an obstacle to properly seeking wisdom from the Lord (Jas 1.5-8).  As Christians, we face the constant tension between living in this world, which is not to have our loyalty, and living for eternity with Christ.  It is very easy for us to become distracted by "alternative priorities" -- the things that seem so meaningful right now, and sometimes cause us to doubt because they seem so tangible in contrast to the promises of God that often linger just out of sight.  However, when we relegate earthly things to their proper context, eternity is properly magnified, and doubt is eclipsed by the incredible bedrock of faith.

If we maintain a spirit of sober-mindedness, we are keeping a proper perspective on the things that matter, and we are putting away the doubt that comes from magnifying our current existence.  Practicing sober-minded faith will radically impact the effectiveness of my prayer discipline, because I will begin praying according to God's will.  As a result, my own will begins to change to match His.

Reason #4: Lack of humility

Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5.5)

In this final example, Peter doesn't make a direct correlation to prayer.  However, given the rest of the epistle, and taking into consideration that James seems to also be alluding to the same passage (either Prov 3.34 or Psa 31.23 are both possible citations; both treat the Lord's staunch opposition to pride), it follows that a lack of humility is an enormous obstacle to effective prayer.  It should be obvious, but the unfortunate reality of pride is that it is one of the most blinding sins at work in the heart.

Often, the biggest reason I fail to maintain an effective discipline of prayer is because I feel, on some level, like I don't need prayer -- or, as 1 Peter 5.5. implies, like I need to submit to my authorities, or be dependent upon other Christians.  "I've got this!" I think, sometimes in actual words and sometimes just in my gut.  It seems better to be a problem-solver, a crisis-manager, a diehard plan-ahead-er, and live in the power of my own abilities, rather than entrust my very steps to the Lord.  This, however, is sinful, because it puts me in the driver's seat and relegates the Holy Spirit to a backseat driver, whose advice is only sometimes wanted and -- more often than not -- ignored.

A lack of humility will hamper any prayer, because not only does the attitude of our prayer shift away from reverence, dependence, adoration, and submissiveness, but the object of our prayer shifts as well.  That's why James told those in the dispersion that, contrary to the promise of Christ, they "ask and do not receive," not because Jesus had lied to them, but rather because they "ask wrongly," intended to "spend" what they received on their "passions" (Jas 4.2-3).  This, James says, is the epitome of worldliness, and pridefulness is the root of it.  In fact, pridefulness, if not addressed, will render any prayer ineffective -- even if I earnestly and endlessly repeat it.  Suddenly (it seems), a tremendous chasm will have sprung up between me and the One to whom I am praying.  Pridefulness will then -- if still not addressed -- find some way to blindly uphold my own sense of self-righteousness and seek to blame God for the chasm rather than acknowledge the sinful, pride-based desires of my own heart.  Humility, on the other hand, is quick to acknowledge wrongdoing, and facilitates the fellowship of prayer, because it helps me properly see myself before God, and in submissive unity with other believers.

_ _ _ _ _

To conclude, these are just four observations.  There are certainly more to be made.  It would behoove each of us to re-evaluate what exactly it is that we consider prayer to be, and what exactly we expect prayer to do, because if the premises are wrong, then so is the conclusion.

If you're a Christian reading this and you're in a position where prayer doesn't seem to be "working," the good news is that, as a Christian, your relationship with God remains unbroken, even if there is a disruption in your fellowship with Him.  Repentance begins with the humble recognition of wrongdoing, the realization of the depth of my sinfulness, and the appropriate renouncing of my own self-righteousness.  In fact, a healthy discipline of prayer is restored by the discipline of prayer: repent and turn to the Father, who has not been deaf to your erroneous prayers (or total lack thereof), but has rather chosen in mercy to allow you to acutely feel the disconnect, in order to address your own hardness of heart and be restored to right fellowship with Him.

May God give to each of us the ability to call upon Him, the need to call upon Him often, and may we relish such an available opportunity to fellowship with Him.

10 June 2019

Remembering David Powlison (1949-2019)

Since my introduction to him in 2011, one of the most impactful teachers in my life has been Dr. David Powlison, the Executive Director of Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation (CCEF).  Back in October, David received the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and began keeping a log of his health journey. The posts and updates may still be viewed here, and while they bring tears to my eyes, they are a treasure trove of insight, tender care, and unshakeable faith in the God who provides.  Through the ups and downs of good news, bad news, deceptively positive test results, and the debilitating side-effects of chemo, David maintained an incredible testimony of trust in the Lord, compassionate care for his wife and family, and devotion to his ministry. On Friday, June 7th, David went home to be with the Lord.  Appropriately, the announcement from CCEF came with a citation of 2 Timothy 4.7: "He fought the good fight, he finished the race, he kept the faith."

Briefly, here are just a few of the more significant treasures of wisdom I've gleaned sitting under Dr. Powlison's teaching, whether it be at conferences, listening to podcasts, or simply reading any of his numerous published resources.  I've added emphases, but the words are all Dr. Powlison's.

On the true nature of God's unconditional love (taken from the book Seeing With New Eyes, a 2003 publication):

If you receive blanket acceptance, you need no repentance. You just accept it. It fills you without humbling you. It relaxes you without upsetting you about yourself -- or thrilling you about Christ. It lets you relax without reckoning with the anguish of Jesus on the cross. It is easy and undemanding. It does not insist on, or work at, changing you. It deceives you about both God and yourself. We can do better. God does not accept me just as I am; he loves me despite how I am. He loves me just as Jesus is; he loves me enough to devote my life to renewing me in the image of Jesus.

Addressing the way Christians may practically meet the needs of fallen people (from the 2011 conference on Psychiatric Disorders):

  • We can always bring steady human kindness
  • We can always say something that is relevant; therefore, we must speak with clarity about hardships and realities
  • We can always speak to and about that Someone who is merciful and powerful -- prayer is sanity

On learning to acknowledge our deep spiritual need (from the 2012 conference on Guilt & Shame):

If you know your guilt, then you can be forgiven.  If you know your weakness, then you can be strengthened.  If you know your brokenness, you can be made whole. If you don't know these things, then they cannot be corrected.  Knowing is the first step to overcoming.  The humility of knowing our need and asking for help is the necessary principle toward restoration.

On being rightly angry but loving well (from his 2016 book, Good & Angry)

Charity does what the recipient doesn't deserve... you can fiercely disagree with a person and actively dislike what he or she is doing -- all the stuff of anger -- and yet you can still do genuine kindness. Anger grips tightly a wrong, points it out, prosecutes it, punishes it. Mercy acts generously toward a wrongdoer, rather than claiming your pound of flesh. Anger things this way: "I've been wronged, so I will deal out fair and just punishment to the malefactor." But generosity, like patience and forgiveness is "unfair." You treat with purposeful kindness someone who treated you or others badly.

On biblical sexuality (from his 2017 book, Making All Things New)

Our culture asserts that any consenting object of desire is fair game for copulation. Individual will and personal choice are the supreme values. But Christ thinks differently, and he will get last say. That's important. "Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience" (Eph 5.6). Each of the distortions makes sex too important (and makes the Maker, evaluator, and Redeemer of sex irrelevant). Sex becomes your identity, your right, your fulfillment, your need. This is moral madness.

On a very personal note, learning to face your own mortality (from his Feburary 1, 2019 blog update)

The more precarious life is, the more pertinent all that Christ is, does, and says. One particular significant encouragement came from Psalm 138:3: “On the day I called you answered me, and you made me bold in my soul with strength.” That clarity, focus, purposefulness, and inner strength has been a sweet gift of God, and a reality for which I am very grateful. Before sleep one night, Nan and I read 2 Corinthians 4–5 slowly and aloud. We are looking death in the eye, while wanting to live, and live well. This passage is utterly candid about the most profound matters of life and death, of living a purposeful life, of how to face suffering honestly and hopefully. 

My lasting impressions of David are of a man who deeply loved the Lord and who treasured the opportunity to help others love Jesus in the same way.  I know from his testimony that David was rescued by faith from a cynical, secular worldview into a new perspective. He came to see men and women as people broken by sin but supremely loved by God, in need of rescue, in need of truth, and made biblical counseling his life's work.  He was a faithful servant from the moment of his conversion, and remained a devoted husband and an exemplary follower of Jesus Christ to his homegoing.

It is my prayer that I may be to my wife and son, and to all those under my care, the type of committed, forthright, and spiritually wise man that David Powlison exemplified for me.

08 March 2019

Threads & Grace

I currently own just two pairs of jeans.  Maybe that's absurd, I'm not sure.  It also says something about just how long I tend to wear pants without washing them.  Just this week, I managed to successfully rip new holes in both knees of one of those two precious pairs of denim.  Which means a trip to a thrift store is in order.

Ralphie and Randy will know better in just a few years.
Going out to buy clothes is one of my least favorite chores.  Consequently, it's one of Tara's favorites, which means the Lord is clearly working on our marriage.  To be fair, my in-laws have been keeping my wardrobe stocked since 2012, which proves my theory that being an adult can be boiled down to one thing: actually being excited to receive clothing for your birthday or Christmas, primarily because it means you don't have to spend that money yourself (or go out shopping yourself).

The imagery of being "clothed in" something is biblical terminology.  The passive voice in this often-repeated phrase is critical.  The first man and woman, for example, were clothed by God with the skins of a slain animal to cover their shame in nakedness (Gen 3.21).  The prodigal son in Luke 15 is clothed in a new robe by his father's servants.  Moses is commanded to clothe Aaron in the robes of a High Priest (Lev 8.7), and the believers are similarly called to a priestly role in God's kingdom, having received mercy and special anointing from Christ (1 Pet 2.9).  The book of Revelation repeats the imagery in multiple locations: the Bride of Christ is granted the right to dress in white (19.8); the martyrs are likewise given white robes as their consolation (6.11), and those who "conquer" are promised similar vestments (3.5).  Job speaks of God clothing him with skin and flesh (Job 10.11).  Jesus reminded the crowds that the Heavenly Father clothes the grass of the field, and likewise provides clothing and other necessities for His children (Matt 6.30).  Furthermore, in the Great Commission, Christ promised the disciples that they would be clothed with power that came from the Holy Spirit (Luke 24.49).  Isaiah, however, makes my favorite statement of them all: "My soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness" (Isa 61.10).  This messianic statement is a direct contrast to the clothing of the self-righteous elsewhere in the book of Isaiah, which the prophet decries as "filthy rags" or "polluted garments" (64.6).

Each of these instances communicates the reality of man's absolute dependence upon the Lord's provision: we can't clothe ourselves -- literally OR figuratively -- so God must do it for us.  He is the great provider for all of our physical AND spiritual needs.  That means we aren't truly in control of providing for ourselves -- regardless of the fact that I'm the one physically buying the pants from Goodwill.  Likewise, I'm not the one securing my eternal destiny by my moralistic living.  In fact, living like it's my inherent goodness that gains me heaven is what Isaiah explicitly calls revolting to a Holy God.  It's not flippantly that Jesus reminds the Pharisees that "there is only one who is good," and that "one" is God alone (Matt 16.17).

I've heard the sardonic expression, "I'm not impatient.  I just don't like to wait."  I sometimes make a similar quip: "I don't struggle with anxiety.  I just don't like not being in control."  The convicting reality is that ripped knees in my jeans are never a point of anxiety for me -- well, that is, until I check the bank account and see that there's no wiggle room in the budget for a new (or slightly used) pair.  There's never any anxiety in my heart... that is, not until the car is breaking down and I know I'll have to swipe the credit card to cover the repairs until the next pay period.  I don't struggle with worry until suddenly I have to pick and choose which bills get paid in full for the month.

I'm sick of the trite "God never gives you anything you can't handle" philosophy that Christians regurgitate to one another, giving themselves a paltry substitute for real reassurance.  God gives us more than we can handle all the time, and the point is that He calls us to trust HIM, not in our wallets or our abilities.  I must learn to trust Him and Him alone, or I make an idol out of one misplaced sense of security or another.  That's the lesson on anxiety that Jesus gives in the Sermon on the Mount: our Heavenly Father not only cares for the realm of nature, He also cares for the specific needs of the saints.  It's therefore our responsibility to surrender our illusions of control, and trust instead in His goodness.

God clothes me when it comes to matters of immediate necessity.  But more importantly, He has clothed me in eternal security.  The Christian is "clothed" in the very righteousness of the Messiah, by the Messiah, which makes us eternally acceptable before God the Father.  So when our cups seem empty in this life, we still have the ability to see God's incredible blessing -- a gracious and incomparable provision that surpasses any immediate trial -- and see that our cups are actually full when viewed in an eternal context.

I might have holes in my jeans, but there are no holes in my righteousness.  I might need to buy a new pair of threads every now and again, but I never need to replace the holy vestments given to me by my Savior.

I think it's appropriate to conclude this post with the words of the classic Christian doxology, because He alone DOES provide, and He alone is worthy of my worship.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise Him, all creatures here below
Praise Him above, ye heavenly hosts
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost