Thoughts on Prayer (November 16, 2018)
Dear VICC family,
For the longest time in my Christian walk I had a fundamental misunderstanding about prayer. I thought the harder I prayed, the longer I prayed, and the more I said in my prayers, the more spiritual I was and the more pleased God would be. I held the subconscious belief that I was at my most spiritual when making myself the most miserable. This belief was based on some partial truths badly applied. First of all, prayer really can be hard work. Maybe it’s not supposed to be. I don’t know. But I find sometimes that it certainly can be difficult to pray. And second, it is true that comfort can be the enemy of spiritual vitality, much like a cozy bed can be the enemy of a morning jog. But the fatal flaw in my thinking was to think of Jesus’ call to self-denial as essentially a call to self-rejection, even self-punishment. And it came from the idea that salvation and spiritual growth were really up to me. God may have provided the instructions and a few tools, but the hard work was going to be mine.
One of the most important messages of the New Testament, and of the Bible as a whole, is that it is God who saves, not we who save ourselves (or each other). We are “saved by grace through faith,” the apostle Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:8. That means that we are saved by God’s kindness and condescension toward us, and that our part is to believe and trust in that fact. God has reached out to the world in many ways: through the majesty of creation, the history of Israel, and the words of Scripture, among other things. He has fully and most completely reached out to us through the Living Word, his son Jesus Christ, who came to reveal the true nature of God and to defeat all that separates us from God at the cross. When Jesus returned to the right hand of God the Father, he sent the Holy Spirit into the church and into the world so that all people might be drawn into a saving relationship with their creator through faith. It is the very nature of God to reach out to us. It is God’s nature to save. And as the cross shows us, even God’s judgments (and the warnings thereof) are acts of love, as strange as that may seem.
One of the reasons the church gathers together for worship every week is to remind ourselves that salvation, in every sense of the word, is something we receive, not something we produce through our own activities. We are certainly involved, of course. We bring our prayers, our confessions, and even our sins. We bring our needs and desires. And we bring our gifts. But we also come to hear a Word that isn’t ours, and to partake of a meal (the communion meal) that we did not prepare. In the singing and the praying, we participate. In the sermon and the meal, we receive. And all of this because of the invitation of God.
It is from the received nature of our faith, expressed perhaps most beautifully in the worship gathering, that we then go out into the world to live our individual lives of faith. We go to our homes and workplaces. We go to school. We live among family and friends and neighbors. Sometimes we get the chance to tell someone about Jesus. Sometimes we just get to enjoy the giftedness of life in its various ways. Sometimes we enter into suffering, our own or someone else’s. But in it all, we get to pray. The prayers don’t need to be long. Sometimes they really shouldn’t be. Sometimes they are requests for help. Sometimes they are simple acknowledgements of God’s goodness, our own gratitude, or even our frustration. But what they never are is an attempt to climb up to God, or to pull God down to us. God is already with us in the person of his Spirit, and he has saved us in the person of his Son. God bends down low as an interested Father who gives what is good and withholds what will not ultimately be of help. When we travail in our prayers it should be because of the emotions that we bring, not because we think God likes to see us miserable. We never put on a show for God, because we know he sees us as we are. We come to God “by grace through faith,” and anticipate good things at his hand.
Your partner in the journey,