Thursday, April 07, 2005

Fasting from Prayer?, Part Two

I began this series of posts because of an interesting piece written by Rob Asghar on his blog (the cleverly-titled, Dimestore Guru). In it, Rob revealed that he was fasting from what he called "gimme, gimme" prayers, under which he included prayers of intercession for others.

(By the way, in a post today, Rob revealed that he broke that fast in order to pray for the health of a friend's family.)

It may have surprised Rob that I didn't condemn him for engaging in such a "fast" or, horror of horrors, actually mentioning it publicly. But I honestly believe that there can be sound spiritual reasons for not praying.

For one thing, our prayers can become perfunctory and less than genuine. We can go through the motions or even worse, pretend to be going through the motions, of prayer with the idea of impressing others. I take prayers offered under these conditions to be as disingenuine, faithless, and ineffective as the long-winded prayers of religious leaders condemned by Jesus.

It's easy for even the most devout of people to fall into perfunctory praying for others or into the pretense of prayer for others. Once you get a reputation for being a pray-er, I've found that everybody asks you to pray. Often, the requesters are people who never pray themselves, viewing prayer as the arcane discipline of the terminally weird or of people who are into religion or spiritual stuff.

Whether the weird among us are asked to pray for the relief of Aunt Polly's bunions, Joe's performance on the CPA exam, the fairness of an election in a nation shaking off dictatorship, or a cure for a brother's cancer, these pray-ers, if they're as honest as Rob Asghar, are likely to not always welcome the requests, but to go through different attitudinal seasons about being the resident prayer freak. The pray-ers may have (but rarely, if ever, utter) one of the following sentiments:

1. "I'm happy to pray for people."

2. "Do they really want me to pray or, because they know that I'm religious, do they just think it's the polite thing to ask of me?"

3. "Do they really want me to pray or are they trying to impress me with how religious they are? "

4. "Why can't you pray about this yourself, goombah?"

5. "Does my Volvo need an oil change?"

There are good times to knock off intercessory prayer, I think. I'd list two major ones here:

(1) C.S. Lewis wrote of the phenomenon of "spiritual undulation," the ups and downs in one's faith life, which has periods of spiritual zeal interspersed with periods of "dryness" and uninspired living. The five reactions catalogued above--and countless others we might mention--reflect a similar and attendant undulation in our prayer lives. There are times when, for whatever reasons, some intentional and some not, that all pray-ers engage in fasting from prayer. Indeed, during times of spiritual dryness, I find that I'm almost incapable of praying anything other than, "God, help!" (By the way, God has always answered that prayer.)

I admit that while, for the most part, I enjoy prayer, I sometimes get tired of or distracted from my intercessory praying. My mind wanders as I pray and I ask myself, "Am I really praying or am I just going through the motions?" It seems to me that the most responsible thing for me to do then is to stop "praying" the way I've been doing it (which is to day, praying without actually praying) and honestly tell God what I'm thinking and feeling, asking him to help me to pray rightly. (Check out Psalm 51:17.)

Getting real with God is a great way to recalibrate our prayer lives and our lives, generally.

(2) Another good time to call a halt to our intercessory prayers occurs when we find ourselves actually lying about praying. Lying may be too strong aword. Fibbing might be more correct. But no matter what you call it, it describes a kind of dishonesty about prayer.

At times, I unintentionally fib when people ask me to pray and I tell them that of course, I will. The fib part is that I don't always pray and the unintentional part is that I sometimes just forget.
One reason for the forgetting is that people usually ask me to pray when I'm rushing to do something else or when I'm without a pen or a piece of paper so that I can write down the requests. Particularly as I get older (I'm fifty-one), the very best way for me to remember prayer requests is for people to send them to me via email or to call me on the telephone, allowing me to jot the requests down.

But I'm not really addressing honest forgetting here.

There are times when, feeling like a prayer factory churningout widgets--er, prayers, I've grown tired. I have a list before me and I work through it with all the joy that Ebenezer Scrooge must have had as he trudged home from the counting house on that Christmas Eve before his transformation.

I suddenly realize that while I may be uttering Aunt Polly's name, asking for relief for her bunions, and even asking in Jesus' Name, I'm more like a tape recorder than a man of faith talking to the living God. I'm not condemning a lack of emotion in prayer, mind you. While my faith in Christ can surely engage my emotions, neither my faithor my prayers should be held hostage to my feelings. God is still God whetherI get goosebumps when I pray or not. No, I'm talking about engagement. If Aunt Polly's plight doesn't engage me, I'm probably not praying as I should.

It's then that I tell God, "Lord, I'm putting all these people in Your care, trusting You. Your will be done" and I close the books on those particular requests. I suppose that constitutes a kind of "fast" from prayer, although I've always regarded it as a release for other praying.

Like Rob, I do fast from perfunctory praying then, prayer that's become more like the recitation of a year's worth of lottery numbers than genuine seeking of God's intervention in people's lives.

But I do keep interceding for people--and it appears that Rob does as well--for a simple reason. Richard Foster, the Quaker theologian who has written several wonderful books, asserts that there are good things that are going to happen because we pray for them and good things that won't happen because we don't pray for them. That seems a frightful thing and almost a denial of God's sovereignty and omnipotence. But I believe Foster is right.

Do you remember the story in Genesis of when God and two angels (or, according to Saint Augustine, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) paid a visit to Abraham and Sarah before their son, Isaac, was born? After Sarah and Abrahamserved the Lord dinner, He and the angels were off for Sodom. God had heard how awful the town was and was intent on destroying it.

There began this amazing story of Abraham negotiating with God. Lord, he starts out, if there are fifty people devoted to you in Sodom, would You please not wipe it out? God agrees.

And so it goes, Abraham bargaining with the Lord of the universe as though they were buyer and seller in some ancient bazaar, trying to arrive at a mutually-agreeable price. Finally, God agrees to Abraham's request that Sodom not be destroyed if there are ten righteous people left in the city. Maybe Abraham figures that he's pressed his luck as far as possible: he ends the negotiations there.

It turns out that there weren't ten righteous people in Sodom and God destroyed the city.

The haunting question with which we're left at the end of Sodom's story is this: What might have happened had Abraham simply asked God to spare Sodom? What if he'd just said, "God, I know about Sodom's unrighteousness. But I ask You to spare it anyway."?

We don't know what the outcome would have been, of course. And yes, any student of the Bible must eventually conclude that the loving God of the universe has established certain boundaries around our behavior. Whether on earth or in eternity, there will be consequences in the lives of those who unrepentantly violate God's will.

During this lifetime, there are often consequences which issue from our actions, consequences that the Old Testament labels wrath, like the consequences meeting a person who decides, just for the fun of it, to stick a wet finger into an electrical outlet. The citizens of Sodom may have been breaching the boundaries God had set around them for some time and wrath was the rightful consequence of their rebellion.

But the Bible says that Abraham was a righteous man. That doesn't mean that he was perfect, far from it. Genesis recounts more than a few of Abraham's sins. But he was a repentant sinner. And the thing that made this repentant sinner righteous was that he believed in God and in the promises of God. (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4)

It's a funny thing about the prayers of people who believe in God and are therefore, right with God. God hears their prayers. "The prayer of the righteous ispowerful and effective." (James 5:16)

Abraham might well have changed the fate of Sodom through his prayers, not because a puny human can manipulate Almighty God. Rather, because in prayer we open our hearts, wills, and minds to God, we allow ourselvesto become conduits for His goodness to come into the world.

God may have structured the world to mete out consequences for both the evil that we commit and the evil that's simply resident in our imperfect world. But through Jesus Christ, we see that God wants to overcome that sorry system.

There is, in Lewis' wonderful phrase found in The Chronicles of Narnia, a deeper magic at work in this universe. Jesus overcame evil and death through His cross and empty tomb. All who believe in Jesus are God's agents, holding up the torn, suffering, or even evil people and places on this planet and asking God to bring healing, or hope, or even more time for the unrighteous to come to know Him and His forgiveness. Through Christ, God enlists those who believe in Him to become co-conspirators with Him in the transformation of the world and when we call Him, He will come to help.

However one decides to do it and whether we must fast from it for a time for whatever reasons, intercessory prayer, even by those not "gifted" for it, is a pretty important component in the life of faith. So, after my times of fasting from intercessory prayer, I get back on that horse and ride. I don't understand why prayer works or how. I just decide that today, I'll offer up my prayers for others and then see what God will do.

Tomorrow, God willing, I'll tackle the question about "abiding in Christ" that Derek raised in his comment earlier today.

1 comment:

Alex said...

The thought has crossed my mind that "some" people are asked to pray for others because the "others" think "some" people have an "in" with God. I also was thinking that for increased "praying" efficiency you should use a "prayer" wheel. My approach to "praying" is that I simply ask God if he thinks it's a good idea. If it doesn't fit into his plans as far as his overall scheme for me and /or what he wants me to do then he says "no".