Why Bother Praying?

Last Sunday in a class someone asked this, “If the prayers of a righteous man avail much, does that mean that God doesn’t listen to the prayers of an unrighteous man?” I think it’s a fair question. We should be able to ask these things and we should be willing to look to find the answers.

It is a concerning idea, that one person’s prayers might get higher priority because they behave better than someone else. It is just one of the confusing points on prayer, for me anyway.

Another confusing point that I think you will see goes along with this question is we find in Mark 11, where Jesus tells us, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours,” and the assurance from Matthew 7 “Ask and it shall be given to you, Seek and you shall find.” But how does that line up next to James 4 where we read, “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”

So which is it, when I ask, will I receive or not? If I was more righteous would I receive the same things that someone who is less righteous wouldn’t? Who judges how righteous I have to be before I receive the things I want?

It is tempting to write this off as one of the contradictions that someone determined to disprove Christianity would use to shake about and declare that we can’t get our story straight. If we just discount the James passage and go with the easier to swallow “Ask and you shall receive” bit then we can tell people who want a promotion or a new car or for people to get along at work or even less selfishly the health of a loved one, that they just need to ask.

But who among us has been on the receiving end of pouring out your heart to someone and having them look you in the eye and ask “Have you prayed about it?” and thought “Really? Of course I prayed about it, but I’m struggling to hear an answer and so I’m asking you.” How do you not walk away from those times with this worry that you’re not being righteous enough to rank or that God just might not be listening?

In order to understand these verse, we have to begin right in the hardest spot. Righteousness. Does God listen to a righteous person more than an unrighteous one? Well, sure, but not righteousness like we try to define it by human striving. Because think about this. Who is righteous when they approach the Lord and confess their need that first time, when they see that they are a sinner and accept Jesus’s sacrifice to atone for their sins? Nobody! Nobody walks into that situation with anything to offer in return for the best gift they can receive. No one can say “Lord, I have volunteered and I don’t punch my sister and I usually swear only when it’s really necessary and my mom is really proud of how I’m turning out. I will trade you this stuff for eternity.” No, all they can say is “Lord, I am without. I am a broken mess who needs what you have to offer.”

No one would EVER suggest that God would not hear that prayer even though it is offered by an unrighteous person for what could be seen as a pretty selfish gain  that cannot be repaid. If there is anything that we can all agree on, it is that that prayer will be answered, and thank God for that! If so assuredly a prayer by an unrighteous person is answered, every time, then what?

The answer to all of this we see in what the Bible has to say about righteousness. Philippians 3: 8-9 says “What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.

Righteousness is not based on our works, on how well we practice our faith, but rather it is the Spirit which allows us the strength to have faith and respond to Him. We know that the Spirit goes ahead to the lost and draws them into Him, into repentance, and so in that moment, when a person is trusting solely on His sacrifice being moved and emboldened by His Spirit there is, perhaps, never such a righteous word uttered, because in that moment they are the farthest from depending on their own works and the closest to leaning on and accepting the righteousness the comes from God.

It is no confusing thing then, once we understand that a righteous man is no well behaved man, but rather a reliant one, one trusting in the righteousness of God, that someone tucked so sweetly in the arm of His Father would be close enough to turn their head and whisper into the ear of our Lord.

Can you look at your prayers and believe that you can be broad or specific in your request, you can be humble and bold, that you can ask for something as real as new shoes or as wild as a mountain to pick up and move, and trust that God will come through just as sweetly as you did when you first asked God to rescue you? Because what could be more crazy than someone giving up their own child to be crushed by your wrongs so that you can go free….and if God will do that for us, then how can you not believe He will do things beyond our wildest dreams for the rest of our lives?

God has even provided a way for us to pray when we can’t come up with the words, in Romans 8: 26-27 we read, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” And those prayers I think must avail the most, delivered through righteousness to righteousness without our interference.  Can you get out of the Spirit’s way enough, less of you and more of Him and allow Him to speak for you?

If you haven’t come to that point where you’ve turned to God, admitting your brokenness and trusting in His righteousness, that’s the right place to start. If you already have, take a minute and remember that time that you had no doubt that you were unrighteous, and allowed yourself to take in His righteousness to cover you, and were in return granted an immediate and complete and perfect response to your prayer. Return to that sweet submission and relying on His righteousness, tuck yourself into His embrace and whisper your requests into His listening ear and long for His answer which will give Him the most glory and that will be for your good.

 

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Watch Your Mouth!

There are lists in the Bible, lists of things that make ladies with very styled hair clutch their pearls and thank the sweet Lord that they don’t do those things on those lists. What an imagination the New Testament writers must have had, because such depravity would never cross their minds. Maybe it would cross their lips, while they lean in to speak in those dropped voices referencing those people who would find themselves in those sort of deviant situations. It all wraps up nicely with a promise to pray for that person, but as the week slips by, so does the promise to pray, and by the time Sunday rolls around there is only this lingering sense that there had been a promise to say something to God about someone truly wicked, but what was that? And the prayers go up for health and happiness for themselves and their family, the hurt that drove the subject to the brokenness that landed them in that list gone from anyone’s mind, except that poor soul’s own mind.

Now going into this, I want to be transparent. While some people pound the pulpits and cry out against the very obvious ills of the world, it is not often that I hear a sermon telling me to watch my mouth, and truly, truly, I need to hear that more than I need to be told not to drink or fight or cheat or steal. The moment I take my focus of God, I know it because I can hear it in my speech. I am harsh and hateful, and I am 9 times out of 10 pointing out the flaws in others as my language gets nastier and nastier.

There is this sense that words are just words and that vulgarity is just sort of something that humanity assigns in an attempt to separate us from them. In high school, I learned from my theatre teacher in a lesson on language and story telling that many of the words we consider to be vulgar came about because they were simply words used by other rougher cultures and so those guttural sounding words, associated with those barbarians, were labeled as vile. Not because the words themselves were evil, but because they were associated with the enemy.

Yes, that is a part of the development of language, but it isn’t the whole picture. We live in this space between words are just words and the very real truth that words have value and weight. If words are just words, then why would we dive deeply into a fictional word able to see the tiniest detail in that land of one book, but in another we read a few paragraphs and nap it shut. Why do people put words and not simply images on protest signs? Why do we repeat seemingly sacred groupings of words at important life events, like weddings or graduations? Why would it matter if your parent called you their sweet baby, light of their life or if they called you that brat who won’t shut up?

It’s easy to recognize that words are not just words. They are representations of what we think and what we feel, what we hold as truth and what we hold as valuable. They make change and they mark change. You see, if words were just words, they would start in your mouth. But words aren’t just words, they begin in your heart. We turn them over in our minds, arrange them in an order, put them out in the world and hope for the best, because there is no taking them back, not really.

One of the hardest lessons of my life I’ve had to learn is that I can’t weigh out other people’s words on my own scale. The level of anger and hatred it would take for me to say some of the nastiest things I can think of is not the same level it would take for someone else.

When a child is mad at their parent and screams “I hate you!” a parent doesn’t scream that back at their child, because they understand that the child doesn’t mean it and that the weight of the parent saying that to a child would be devastating blow, but the weight of a child saying it to the parent is a tiny flick, something that can be ignored.

I had a friend who saved “I love you” in its romantic use for when she got engaged. Did she not feel love before that? Of course not. But she held those words to a higher weight than most, because she recognized the impact on her heart if she used them lightly.

The Bible has spoken few words so true to my life as the message “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” I have been brought back time and time again to this concept over the past 2 decades, and while I believe that God perfects us and gives us the power of the Spirit to overcome our struggles, I have the sense that I will be reminded of this for many years to come.

I have been made keenly aware in the past few weeks just how many verses there are in the Bible warning against using words carelessly. In fact, in many of those lists of actions the Bible warns against that make those ladies faint end with a warning about gossiping or slander, about lying or stirring up trouble. Don’t murder. Don’t steal. Don’t cheat. And watch your mouth.

I was back and forth for years speaking and apologizing, or talking and justifying before it finally became clear to me. I can’t get my tongue in line. It’s just not possible. If I am a sailboat, I will never be able to control that sail and that can be a terrible thing because it directs my route. The only thing I can do is to tether the line to the Word and let Him hold it.

God gives us His Spirit and along with that His power, but over and over, more times than I can count, when The Spirit is mentioned in the Bible, the very first evidence of His presence is a change in speech. The spirit comes and the people praise. They speak about God. They rejoice. They spread His message. And if they are doing that, they aren’t gossiping, fighting, lying, or any of the rest of it. It are almost always the first result of being filled by His Spirit.

Because I see that so clearly, it has shown in my life that when I lose control of my speech, the first thing I need to do is re-tether that line. If this is something that you see as a struggle for you, if you have an interest in seeing if there is something to this, if there is even the slightest needling in your mind that maybe you need to evaluate the weight of your words, then let me challenge you to take these steps and put them into practice over the next week.

1. Open your Bible. Put your mind on Him. If you think you don’t have the time, think about your commute. That’s plenty of time to listen in. You can use the internet to play sermons or read books or to just read straight scripture.
2. When someone asks for prayer, stop everything. Don’t say “PRAYERS!” and stick a little hand emoji and move on with life. That is not praying. Stop and pray for that person right then and there. Better yet, ask someone how you can pray for them. It will occupy your mind and it will use your words for something positive.
3. Just be quiet. If your words aren’t ripe, don’t pick them. If you need time to respond to someone, just say that. . A wise saying is “Better to stay quiet and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.” It’s better to wait and say the right thing than say something you have to do damage control over later.
4. Ask God to prepare you conversations in advance and to help you listen for His voice throughout your day.

In fact, as I close this, I want to share a prayer that I pray which helps me refocus. Feel free to take it and form it to your language and give it as your own.

God,  give me the conversations You want  me to have today. Help me hear what You have to say to me. Use our words to encourage each other and to glorify you. It’s in Your name I pray. Amen.

Invisible: Part 4

Does God even care about me? I mean, really? I get that He is big beyond what I can imagine. He is all-knowing, every where, He designed the world with a plan and a purpose and that He is unfathomably glorious. I understand that submitting to Him means wrapping my mind around the concept that I am  submitting to the idea that even if it means my own ruin, I want God’s glory.

I want God’s glory. I absolutely want to be where that is, because every time I’ve experienced those moments where life plays out to bring Him the most glory, I am never disappointed and never caught by the costs it took to get there. But approaching those moments, there is a lot of this question. “Where are you?!?! Do You see me? Can You hear me? I want You, Your glory, and I’m willing to go through whatever that takes, but seriously right now….where are you?”

From that first moment in the garden where man falls and God speaks that question into our world “Where are you?” asking Adam and Eve to be aware that now there is separation between man and God, and asking man to be self aware to examine what we’ve done and what has happened to cause that separation, we’ve been screaming it back at Him. Whether we are hiding from God like Adam or whether we are standing surrounded by death like Mary and Martha outside of Lazarus’s tomb, this is where our hearts go.

Where are you, God? Do you even care about what I’m facing? Have I done something to make you ignore me? Do you even care?

And this is where we find Hagar, once again finding herself at the most desperate place. Let’s read from Genesis 21: 9-21.

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Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.”

Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Beersheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob.

God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.

God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.

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This is legitimately one of the hardest passages in the whole Bible for me. Right here in this story that fascinates me so I find God allowing Hagar to once again be mistreated and cast out, and the advice He gives Abraham to encourage him to do this to her, to do this deed which would have been illegal, to ruin her, is more or less “It’s alright, because I get my glory through Isaac. I’ll take care of Ishmael, too.” It’s that middle sentence that catches me up so much that I can hardly hear that He sandwiches the message between comfort and a promise.

Hagar is cast out and with her, Ishmael. They travel again out into the desert, one foot after the other walking towards death. When they can’t take another step, when they are at utter ruin, Hagar hides the boy, from the sun and from her sight and she sobs. Her only thought is to make his death slightly less painful and to make it invisible, to disappear into what she came from. She rose from the unknown and she is prepared to die in the same way, a life unnoticed, a death unnoticed. She doesn’t speak to the God who saw her. She doesn’t cry out to the God who named her son as a reminder that He hears. She can’t even bring herself to address God at all.

That silent moment is a rare despair. It goes so far beyond “Where are you?” and “Do you care?” It is the deep fear taken root that you already believe there is no point even bringing it up to god, because He isn’t listening, no matter what you’ve believed about Him for years. It is a despair that walks around the edges of the room when death enters or alongside the path that extreme victimization travels.

What happens next should answer our questioning. What happens should remain as scripture that we can return to again and again when we don’t know if God cares.

For years I have wondered, and it’s not a pretty question, I know it, but if God is all knowing, if He knew that from Hagar, from Ishmael would come people who would persecute His people for generation upon generation, and from this mother and son would come a religion which would stand against His people, why does He save them? If what brings God glory is Isaac, if Ishmael was born out of Abraham’s doubt and Sarah’s control issues and the victimization of an unknown slave girl, why preserve them? It is an ugly question. There’s no two ways around it, but it comes to my mind when I read this passage, every time.

Their past is dirty. Their future is messy. They are willing to become invisible again. But God saves them and allows their story to play out. Why?

Because, first, He promised He would. He gave His word in the first place that Hagar would be free and that Ishmael would be the father of nations. He gave that promise knowing the big picture of human history and the intimate details of Hagar and Ishmael’s lives. He gave that promise knowing that there would be a moment that Hagar would be so grieved she would not cry out to Him, only sob wordlessly. He gives His word already knowing He will not take it back, because He is already in those moments when we question His promises. We say, “Do you still mean it now?” He says “I did, because I already knew.”

Secondly, and certainly equally importantly to our ability to take God at His word, is because, not only does God sees at Beer Lahai Roi, not only does He remind her God hears through Ishmael, but God sees HER. God hears HIM.

It is amazing and mind blowing to know that God sees and hears everything, but what makes a difference in our putting one foot in front of the other as we walk towards what is certain ruin, what calls us back to our feet when when we have given up is that God sees you. God hears you. There is no one so damaged that God will be able to turn His eye.

Time and time again, God steps in and pulls people from the edge and gives them hope and a future. Don’t miss this, not everyone is spared. Not every life is preserved. But when we trust in Jesus, we lay claim to a hope and a future greater than another 100 years on Earth. That’s very hard to comprehend when we sit begging for the life of a loved one or for our own life, but I trust it’s true, because He’s promised it, just like He promised to see Hagar, just like He promised to hear Ishmael.

But there are times we are given more days. There are moments we walk away from hospital beds where our hearts are torn out while we watch those we love fill with deadly fluid connected to life by wires and beeps, only to wake up the next day to find they are still with us and are improving against all odds. There is reason to hope, my friend, even when you can’t stand to look death in the eye anymore, He can.

No matter what you’ve come from and no matter what lies ahead of you.
No matter who has wronged you or cast you aside.
No matter if you are certain you aren’t apart of God’s big picture.
No matter if you’d rather just be invisible.

                                 He sees you. He will rescue you. He will come. 

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Reflect

  1. When have you been so broken that you haven’t been able to form the words to tell Him about it?
  2. How did He rescue you?