A Remedy for Routine Prayer
Is anyone besides me tired of the standard prayers typically prayed by Christians? Perhaps you can relate to what I am talking about: “Dear God, please bless so-and-so with (health, a job, salvation, a renewed spiritual interest, an easier life, etc).” Not that there is anything particularly wrong with these things. They may indeed be legitimate matters for prayer. It does strike me, though, that we Christians often settle for so little when we make requests of God.
Maybe the problem is that we don’t really understand what is permissible to ask God for. Maybe we just get caught up in responding to the urgent felt-needs of those around us. Maybe we have become creatures of habit, falling into the set patterns of our particular circle of friends and church associates. Whatever the reason, I sometimes find typical evangelical prayer sessions to be insipid and all-too predictable: the same categories of prayer; the same focus on immediate physical and material needs; the same salvation requests.
Prayer sessions can easily be dominated by two or three people who don’t mind being either the center of attention or the perpetually needy ones. Maybe you can relate to feeling like this at a prayer gathering, “Here we go again. Brother Sam has been feeling upset again this week. He is requesting that God will remove the source of his frustration. Beside him, brother Ned needs a job for the third time in the past six months. Sister Sue is asking for her son’s salvation just as she has since we have first known her. Another sister has urgent health issues and can hardly function in her daily routines. (But, if so, how is she well enough to come to this prayer-gathering?) Across the circle, sister Mary is sharing another compelling story she came across on the internet this week. She wants prayer for an individual a continent away who has been “on her heart” for days but whom none of us has ever met. So we bow our heads and ask God to intervene.
Let me be clear: I am not condemning such prayers or the people who pray them. In my experience, the motives of those who make these kinds of requests are usually good. They care about people and they want God to bless them. Yet I have become increasingly discontent with prayer requests which go no further than this. It is entirely possible that, as a pastor, I am simply jaded by attending many dozens of these prayer sessions. Maybe I am also frustrated by the lack of discernible growth in these dear folks whose prayers seem to be on the same level year after year. It could be argued that these types of prayers simply reflect poor biblical teaching on the part of their leaders, including me. What I do know is that we ought to be asking God for much more than this.
So, I have put together a collection of prayer requests, which I believe are more in line with those modeled in scripture. I am urging that, along with praying for jobs and protection and the solving of various problems (all of which may be valid) that my fellow believers should consider praying “outside the routine box”. But what does a biblical, yet edgy prayer request look like? Let me give some examples. Try praying that people:
- Develop a deep love for God
- Have thoughts, words and actions controlled by the Holy Spirit
- Become willing to accept a life-changing direction from God
- Experience a sacrificial attitude in marriages, families and other relationships
- Come to genuine repentance
- Be a voice for Christ’s Kingdom when one is needed
- Develop the mental commitment and toughness to resist temptation
- Become competent in applying the truths of scripture to their own lives
- Desire personal excellence as a visible result of honoring God in all they do
- Be known as models of tolerance in situations in which tolerance pleases God
- Model godly family living
- Face their own blind spots
- Decide to be content with what cannot be changed
- Develop consistency and skill in their work
- Respond to conflict with truth, righteousness and mercy
- Acquire the ability to persevere through hardship and failure
- Learn true forgiveness
- Grow in their ability to speak about their faith in ways which ring true with the unchurched and unbelieving people around them
- Discover joy in giving to others
- Commit themselves to basic spiritual disciplines
- Develop healthy eating and exercise routines
- Stop judging others’ motives
- Learn the difference between explicit biblical teachings and their own inferences based on certain verses of scripture
- Become amazed at God’s care and provision in their lives
- Find God to be the beauty and acceptance they have been looking for
- Find God to be tougher and smarter than themselves
- Desire to become more than they have dreamed possible for God’s glory
- Find deep enjoyment in the life God has blessed them with
- At all times show themselves as models of the grace of God
I could add many more requests, which seem biblically true and yet relevant to the society we are currently living in. It could be that if we consistently prayed for ourselves and others like this, we might indeed turn the world upside down!
I Thought It Was All About Jesus
It has become my personal belief that there is something very wrong with aspects of Christianity these days. The problem, as I see it, goes beyond the periodic scandals involving unethical or immoral behavior by clergy or high profile Christians. The problem is deeper even than the fact that, in Western countries, Christianity is either plateaued or declining in numbers. It seems to me that we Western Christians are in danger of being like the man who attended the inauguration of one of the U.S. presidents: he enjoyed the band, the flags and the pomp and circumstance, but when asked afterward, he couldn’t remember who it had all been for. In a word, we are in danger of missing the point in all our Christian talk and activity.
In actual fact, the point is a person. His name is Jesus Christ. He is the one we are called to honor, trust and follow. He alone offers eternal life, cleansing from sin, inner peace and a life with purpose. Jesus is the crux and focal point of the Christian faith; it is absolutely meaningless without him. All our church attendance, preaching, Bible study, worship, missions and service activities are about Jesus. If we lose sight of this, these things are nothing.
Why do we sometimes miss the point? For one thing, we can easily overlook Jesus in all of our activities because the things we are doing are good and often successful. We are running programs which help people on one level or another. We enjoy the success which accompanies effective programs and we want that success to continue. Successful programs and ministries generate a certain excitement, which stimulates growth in numbers, finances and facilities. So it isn’t hard to see that what began as a genuine effort to serve Christ and minister to people, can become something with its own agenda and goals. Unchecked, these things can eventually take on a life of their own.
Another reason we may miss Christ in our Christianity is that we get stuck in the details of our faith. Let me be very careful how I say this so that I am not misunderstood. I have spent a good portion of my life either in receiving or imparting theological training. I believe strongly in being as precise and accurate in study and teaching of the Bible as I can possibly be. As I have served with various organizations over the years, I have put my signature at the bottom of some very evangelically orthodox statements of faith. So my credentials in the area of biblical knowledge and doctrine are solid. Yet I do believe that, at times, the details of our doctrine obscure what should be its focal point, namely Jesus and our faith in him.
Certainly we must accurately understand Jesus as the Bible reveals him. It is also true that other key doctrines play a huge role in the correct understanding of the Christian faith. But what is all that worth if we never get around to worshiping Jesus out of awe and gratitude for his sacrifice? What does all that precise doctrine amount to if we bludgeon one another over hairsplitting doctrinal or stylistic nuances? What does it mean if we do not bless people? Why would outsiders be impressed with our message when they see us stressing over things that ultimately accomplish nothing? I cannot help but be reminded of the Parable of the Sheep and Goats in which Jesus condemns seemingly religious folks because they never fed the hungry or clothed the naked or visited the prisoners. Jesus’ point is that, in neglecting these people whom he died for, they revealed their true attitude of disdain for him.
A third reason we may miss Jesus in our practice of Christianity is because we assume that what we do is for our own benefit. A popular recent study program correctly reminded the church that its not really about us. How refreshing. If my Christianity is for my benefit alone, then I have indeed missed the point.
Now I am going to take a chance and say something else risky: In my observation, I see a very significant segment of the church practicing Christianity as a means of self-protection. Regardless of how some of us began our Christian faith, it has become a tool for keeping ourselves and those we care about safe from the outside world. We have come to believe that almost everything outside our own circles is, if not outright evil, at least gravely sinister.
Maybe it began as a genuine desire to remain true to our faith and uncorrupted by the world, but as time has gone by we have steadily built a fortress for ourselves. Stone by stone, gate by gate, bastion by bastion, we have worked to make our position impregnable. Ironically, the higher our walls and the more strongly our gates are defended, the less secure we have felt. Whatever happened to, “..go into all the world and make disciples..”? We have come a long way from our Lord who was often criticized for associating with the riffraff of his society and for being a drinker and a glutton because of his association with them. Truth is, many of us hardly know anyone outside our safe evangelical circles well enough to have any kind of a meaningful conversation.
Our Christianity will never be right until we snap out of the delusion that programs, success, doctrinal precision, or self-protection–valid as they may be–are in any sense the point. Only knowledge of and devotion to Christ himself makes any eternal difference. If I read the holy scriptures correctly, that is precisely their point.
“Ladies and gentlemen! The President of the United States!” This is the introduction given by a person at the entrance to the Floor of the House of Representatives just before the President gives his State of the Union Address. This official’s job is to announce clearly that the person the assembled dignitaries have come to hear has arrived and is about to ascend to the podium.
It is possible, though highly improbable, that this person could make their announcement in a drunken state, or in tattered clothes, or that he or she could hog the limelight in such a way that the president might be overshadowed. But one thing is for certain, if that sort of thing happened, the announcer would not hold their job for very long. The announcer’s only function at that point is to introduce the President and let him speak.
From time to time, it seems that there are some “announcers” in Christian circles who have done this very thing. I am talking about men and women in Christian ministry who have grabbed attention for themselves, sought to represent the Kingdom of God and somehow have forgotten that the whole issue is not them at all. In so doing these folks have reflected badly on the one they should have been drawing people’s attention to.
As a preacher and Christian leader myself, I understand how tempting it might be to hog the limelight. Though I have never achieved celebrity status, I can imagine that when such a person finds himself (or herself) with power, popularity and access to wealth, it must be tempting to believe that they are somehow a cut above others and that the attention they are receiving is deserved. If they dwell on that sort of thing long enough, it is not difficult to see how they might begin to feel that they are above the standards that everyone else must keep. Perhaps some of these “announcers” may have begun with the best of intentions; others may never have had pure motives or even really understood the gospel from the beginning. God alone knows.
Be that as it may, I think we need to be reminded of something very important: no matter how shabby or disreputable the announcer may be, it is Jesus Christ that we need to hear. I am not excusing Christian people who bring shame on Christianity. To dishonor Christ’s name is very nearly inexcusable. But even if all those who proclaim Christ were dishonest, Christ would still be as good and true and powerful as ever because he is perfect.
So I am calling us all to remember that it is Jesus who died for sin; who offers forgiveness and new life through faith; who claims lordship of our lives. It is Jesus Christ who will judge the heart of each person. In other words, Christ is the all-important issue.
I for one am glad when a man or woman of God announces Christ clearly and reflects his image brightly. When they do not I mourn, not only because it reflects so poorly on the rest of us announcers, but mainly because it discourages people from seeing Jesus in all his truth and grace and glory.
So I urge us all to remember: announcers have their job to do. If they do it well, be glad; if they do it poorly you may have a right to be disgusted. But either way, don’t focus on them. It is Jesus who is the real attraction. Whatever you do—hear Him!
The philosophical movements of the Enlightenment (roughly the 1700s) were a fundamental questioning of the certainties of the Middle Ages and a reaction to the clashes over truth during the Protestant Reformation. Traditional views in religion and culture came under severe inquiry and even open attack. For example, Rene Descartes questioned everything, except his own existence, then built the philosophy of Rationalism from one presupposition. “I think, therefore I am.”
Enlightenment thinkers reasoned that unless something made rational sense (rationalism) or can be tested and proved to the senses (empiricism), it should not be accepted. The Cosmos was seen as merely “the product of cause and effect in a closed system.” Enlightenment thinking obviously had a dramatic impact on religion, excluding the supernatural as a factor in real human experience. Religious dogma and doctrine were often questioned and discarded, not only by those of marginal religious commitment, but by some in both Christianity and Judaism.
In the early 1800s the philosophy of George Hegel took the next logical step. Hegel asked some basic questions: If the supernatural is not a factor in the routine workings of the Cosmos, how did things arrive in their present state? Are things moving in the direction of progress? If so, what mechanism causes things to progress?
Hegel’s answer was his dialectic process, which stated that the Cosmos is a closed system of cause and effect, driven by the conflict of thesis with antithesis (opposite forces, ideas, etc.). The interaction of these forces produces a blending of the two, which Hegel called synthesis. This process was thought of as a manifestation of Absolute Mind, which was thought to be the source of reality (similar to Brahman of Hinduism). Hegel’s basic philosophy quickly became the dominant theory in Western intellectual and academic circles. Variations of the Hegelian Dialectic were adapted to other disciplines, such as:
- Politics, in which Karl Marx preached the Communist theory of history and social change (1848).
- Biology, in which Charles Darwin posed the theory of Evolution as the explanation of life in its diversity (1858).
- The study of the Bible as a document in the Higher Critical Movement (beginning in the late 1700s).
Higher Criticism. The Higher Critics were led by German scholars such as K.H. Graf and Julius Wellhausen, who studied the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy) using a theory called the Documentary Hypothesis, which was based on Hegel’s basic theory of progress and development. The premise of the Documentary Hypothesis was that the Pentateuch couldn’t possibly have been written in the form in which we now know it. The documents must have “evolved” over time into their present form, through a process similar to Hegel’s Dialectic, from primitive religious ideas and practices, ancient oral stories and legends and early written fragments of questionable historical value.
These diverse sources were then woven together over time by various editors, who blended and changed them into distinct religious documentary traditions (Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist and Priestly) within Israelite tribal groups. Finally, these four documents were further edited and combined into the current form of the Pentateuch. The Documentary Hypothesis opened the door to other Critical approaches to studying and understanding the biblical documents of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.
The basic flaw of the whole Critical approach is in making certain arbitrary assumptions:
1. History and religion should be understood as fundamentally naturalistic. True to its Enlightenment roots, the Critical view explains reality in purely naturalistic terms, dismissing the possibility of the supernatural. Miraculous accounts in the Bible are seen as embellishments made to gain credibility and power by certain groups and individuals, or merely legends perpetuated by simple tribal people.
2. Critical methodology is assumed to always be superior to other approaches. Wellhausen and other early critics took almost no notice of archaeological discoveries in their day, which sometimes disproved their assertions. Since then, the basic gist of Higher Criticism has never been revised despite a wealth of new information and findings, many of which have tended to support the accuracy of the biblical accounts.
3. The ancient Israelite peoples were ignorant nomads. For instance, the early Critics asserted that writing was extremely rare in ancient times and unknown to ancient Israelites. Yet ancient writing and documents are routinely uncovered by archaeologists. Egypt, Sumer, the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia and Meso-America all had writing early in their histories. However it was expedient for the Critics to take the position that ancient Hebrews had little or no access to writing so that they could argue that, if figures like Moses and the other greats of the Scriptures existed at all, they couldn’t possibly have written a document of the stature of the Bible.
4. The Patriarchs are essentially legendary figures. Critics see Abraham, Jacob, Moses and the others as folk heroes, developed by people who needed to see their founding fathers as larger-than-life. Critics believe that the biblical stories of the Patriarchs actually tell us nothing about the Patriarchs themselves (including whether they actually existed). All that can be learned from the biblical accounts is what the times may have been like when the stories were first told, and what the composers of those stories thought life may have been like in earlier times.
Traditionalist Reactions to Higher Criticism. Traditionalists were initially caught unprepared by the critical onslaught of the late 1800s. At first, those loyal to the inspiration of scripture simply responded with vehement opposition to Critical views and denouncements of these new theories. This initial emotional reaction was followed in the mid and late Twentieth Century by more thoughtful scholarship, factual defense of the Bible and interaction with the views of critically-oriented academia.
Jewish Reaction. The more conservative groups within Judaism either defended the divine origins of scripture or took the approach that the origins of Scripture were irrelevant because the traditions have become a time-tested glue holding Jews together. The more liberal elements of Judaism have been influenced to large degree by Critical thought. Hence, they are freer to redefine traditional observance of the Law and accomodate the society around them.
Roman Catholic / Eastern Orthodox Reactions. The Vatican and the various Eastern Orthodox bodies have maintained their longstanding positions on the divine inspiration of scripture, though there is much internal debate on unofficial levels. The issue has not been quite as major among Roman Catholics or Orthodox as for Protestants, because both of these groups have other sources of divine authority besides the Bible. For example, both groups also accept the decisions of various ecumenical church councils on a par with the teachings of the Bible. Roman Catholics further accept the pronouncements of popes as binding.
Protestants. Protestant Christianity has been deeply divided on the issues raised by Higher Criticism.
Fundamentalist groups have flatly denied the arguments of the Critics, refusing to become involved in academic debate and becoming increasingly isolated culturally.
Evangelicals have been more willing to dialog with the larger culture. They have attempted to defend scriptural inspiration and reliability based on the disciplines of textual criticism and manuscript study. Since the mid Twentieth Century, Evangelicals have entered the debate over the reliability of scripture with growing confidence. However, the ascendancy of postmodern thought in the years just prior to the dawn of the Twenty-first Century has changed the focus of the debate away from the factually-based defense which Evangelicals have labored so hard to assemble.
Modernists have attempted to accommodate Christian faith and doctrine to the viewpoints of academia and of the larger society. In doing so, they have become culturally mainstream, but have tended to lose some of their Christian distinctiveness. This trend is attested to by their dramatic losses in church membership, as people have either ceased to think of themselves as particularly Christian, or have migrated to churches which emphasize distinctive Christian teachings.
The increasing influence of Postmodernism is moving all of the parties in this controversy toward a larger debate over the nature of reality itself. It will be interesting to see how each of them.