Thursday, January 13, 2005

Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 6

Over the next several posts of this series, I'm going to address myths about prayer.

Strictly speaking, of course, a myth was a legend or tale created by ancient peoples to explain the origins of things. They were tall tales and so we often apply the word, myth, to falsehoods.

I'm going to deal with some falsehoods people tell about prayer or that we tell ourselves about prayer.

Myth #1: "I can't ask God for anything until I have a stronger faith."

Wrong! I know what the New Testament book of James says:
If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord. [James 1:5-8]
When you read that, you may think that our first myth isn't a myth, but the truth. But hold on!

An important principle for understanding Scripture is this: Let Scripture interpret Scripture. In other words, don't isolate a piece of the Bible and ride it like a hobby horse. If you do, you're likely to be riding in the wrong direction. Instead, look at individual passages of the Bible in context. That includes not just the context of the book and chapter of the Bible in which you may find it, but within the context of the entire Bible. Ask yourself: Is the inference I'm drawing from this passage fit with the witness of the whole Bible as I know it? Does my first-blush interpretation fit with what I know about God, Who is ultimately and definitively revealed in Jesus?

The concern of James' short New Testament letter seems to be how Christians conduct themselves in the face of persecution for their faith. He commends an enduring faith in which believers treat each other well and are ethical in all their dealings. James is interested in believers being genuine and that includes living their faith in Christ authentically. And so, it's understandable why he tells Christians to be resolute and genuine in presenting their prayer requests, believing in God and His ability to deliver on the things for which we ask.

But does that mean we must scour our brains of every scintilla of doubt before we present our requests to God? Let's let Scripture help us to interpret Scripture by looking at another spot in the Bible.

In the Gospel of Mark, we're told about a father desperate for healing for his son. The boy is afflicted by a spirit that set him off into seizures. The father is at his wit's end. Any parent whose child has been seriously ill in any way will understand this man's agony. At first, he goes to Jesus' disciples. But they shrug their shoulders in helplessness.

When the father tells Jesus that the disciples had been unable to help his son, Jesus upbraids them, expressing frustration with them:
"You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to Me!" [Mark 9:19]
After the boy is brought to Him, Jesus watches the child have yet another fit and learns from the father that the boy has been doing this since childhood. In desperation, the poor man says, "If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us." Then we're told:
Jesus said to him, "If you are able!--All things can be done for the one who believes." Immediately the father of the child cried out, "I believe; help my unbelief!"
Jesus then made the boy well.

Now there are two interesting things to note here, especially in light of what James says about believing prayer.

First: In spite of having spent time with Jesus and knowing that they could seek His help, the disciples were sure that nothing could be done for the boy.

In other words, they were like the double-minded people against whom James rails. Such people may be very religious people who say their prayers regularly. But their prayers are hollow habits.

They remind me of the true story a friend once told me about the experience of his son-in-law when he was about ten years old. A person at church had given an impassioned and compelling talk about the work of overseas missionaries. My friend's future son-in-law was so moved that he approached the speaker after worship and asked how he could give some of his allowance to support this exciting project! The man said, "Don't worry about it, son. It was just a talk."

That was a double-minded person. Another term for it might be, "two-faced." (Of course, we all can be double-minded sometimes. Even preachers. We're all human beings, after all.)

Religious folks are prone to hypocrisy, even with God in our prayers. We're like the people in an old Bruce Cockburn song in which a character tells God, "I put on my dog mask and howl for you."

The disciples couldn't imagine themselves going to bat for this afflicted family because, even if they piously pretended otherwise, they hadn't yet learned that prayer is more than masks and howling!

They thought that all religious people were two-faced and duplicitous. No wonder that Jesus lost His patience with them!

Second: In spite of his doubts, the man had a stronger faith in God's power to change his circumstances than Jesus' disciples.

"I do believe," he tells Jesus, "but there's a war going on inside of me." Nonetheless, he had enough faith to know that no one but Jesus could help him.

I'm convinced that most of what we call prayer isn't really prayer at all. That's why so few of our prayers may seem to be answered---whether with Yes, No, Maybe, or Wait. We're disinterested in our prayers; so, why would God be interested in them?

We're disinterested in our prayers because we see God as just a cosmic back-up plan for concerns that, truth be known, we feel confident that we pretty much have under our control anyway.

But faith doesn't really come into play until we realize that there is almost nothing in life that we really control. Or when we know that only God can make a positive difference in the things for which we pray.

The disciples thought that not even God could make a difference in the boy's situation. In spite of his doubts and even though the restoration of his son seemed a possibility too good to be true, the father made his desperate request for help from Jesus.

If you and I have the faith to ask God for something despite our doubts, that's good enough for God. Jesus in fact said that we only need the faith the size of a tiny mustard seed.

Faith after all isn't some frame of mind that we create. Faith is simple surrender to the God Who is bigger than us. It's putting down our dukes and letting God take the punches for us.

If you can surrender--even if you simply want to surrender, the God we know through Jesus can hear your prayers.

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