Strong Emotions and Weak Prayers

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Originally published HERE at www.desiringgod.com

Prayer is hard. It’s always been the spiritual discipline I struggle with the most. I blame it on all sorts of things — my busy life, my easily distracted mind, my loud children, my personality, how I’m better at communicating through writing rather than verbally — the list goes on. “It’s not my gift,” I say. Some people are just gifted prayer warriors while I really love reading and studying God’s word, so God must have just wired us to serve different purposes and that’s okay, right?

No.

A thousand times, no. I thought like that for a long time and believing that lie was a tragedy. It’s ignoring one of the greatest gifts ever given to us.

Prayer is the recognition of and participation with God in our life. Our deficiencies in prayer cannot simply be compensated by increased Bible reading, ministry, community, or listening to sermons. Nothing can take the unique place of prayer in the Christian life.

I can say from experience that a prayerless soul is a dead soul.

Blessed Aren’t the Poor in Prayer

Realizing my struggles with prayer, I set out to study it. I talked to people about it and read sermons and commentaries on prayer from other generations, trying to figure it out. In doing so I came to the realization not only of my own poverty in prayer, but the depth of those deficiencies in much of the church — and in particular, my generation.

While it might not be fair to generalize an entire generation, virtually everything about our western culture and way of life is at odds with prayer in ways not at the forefront in generations past. Our schedules are filled to the brim. Smartphones and technology keep us connected to everyone but God. We pour out our lives and emotions on any number of social media platforms, leaving us little to set before God in prayer.

As I poured over commentaries and sermons about prayer from over a hundred years ago, I was struck, not only by how seriously they took prayer, but how much they discussed the care that should go into our prayers in order that they not be careless and ineffectual. They really got into the specifics of how to pray and how not to pray. *not* to pray.

This can be hard for us. We live in a culture of ‘anything goes.’ We often think that prayer should be anything we want it to be in any way we want to do it. It becomes primarily about us and our preferred methods of communicating and our preferred style. We don’t like being told how to do things that feel so personal. The result, however, is that our prayers can be weak and ineffective when they are meant to be a mighty weapon against darkness and accomplish great purposes.

Does God Get Your Leftovers?

For our own sakes, and the sake of our families, churches, and nation, we must not settle for a “something is better than nothing” approach. As Charles Spurgeon said:

There is a vulgar notion that prayer is a very easy thing, a kind of common business that may be done anyhow, without care or effort. . . . We should plow carefully and pray carefully. The better the work the more attention it deserves. To be anxious in the shop and thoughtless in the closet is little less than blasphemy, for it is an insinuation that anything will do for God, but the world must have our best.

Does prayer require so little of us that we’re content to give God our careless leftovers, when there’s nothing particularly pressing at work or interesting on Facebook? If we want to revive our families, and our church, and our nation, then we must revive prayer — and it must begin with us.

A good place for me to start was to understand what prayer is and what it isn’t.

What Prayer Is Not

Prayer is not a rote and empty ritual. How often do our lips move, yet our hearts are still? We “say our prayers” so very often, and yet how often do we really truly pray? If all we are offering is words, we may as well offer them to an idol of stone. May our prayers never be less fervent than our strongest opinions and emotions and social media posts.

Prayer is not simply “chatting” with God. “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) doesn’t mean we just incessantly chatter to God about anything and everything while neglecting the act of intentionally coming before the throne of God for focused and fervent heart-searching, soul-seeking, honest-to-goodness prayer. It’d be like a marriage that consisted solely on texting. I love when my thoughts wander to God as I offer up little praises and prayers all throughout the day. That should happen, but that can’t be it — we must go deeper.

The free access which Christ purchased for us is not a liberty for flippancy before God — it is an invitation to approach the throne of almighty God. The freedom to come boldly before God’s throne of grace does not change who God is (Hebrews 4:16). It was our status that changed, never that of the unchanging King.

Prayer is not about us; it’s about God. It’s the thing that draws our eyes away from ourselves and fixes them on our good and powerful God. The recipe for weak and barren prayers is self — self-sufficiency by thinking we don’t really need prayer in the first place; self-conceit by thinking much of our goodness and little of our sin; and selfishness by thinking primarily of our own needs and wants in prayer. Adore God for who he is, not for what he can give to us. God must be the object, Christ must be the medium, and the Spirit must help us.

What Prayer Is

Prayer is the turning of our soul towards God. It is communication with our heavenly Father, and the powerful force that links child and Father, earth and heaven, man’s impotence and God’s omnipotence. This direct contact is only made possible through Christ Jesus, whose righteousness covered us and provided us unlimited access to confidently approach a perfect God. It is accomplished by the Spirit’s groaning within us and supplicating on our behalf (Romans 8:26–27).

Prayer is the unified work of the triune God to connect with us himself — the Holy Spirit within us communicating through Christ the Son, to God the Father. When God feels distant, more often than not it’s because we are neglecting the very thing that spans the distance between Creator and creature. It is we who are distant, refusing the vital breath of our souls, without which our spiritual life cannot survive.

Lord, Teach Us to Pray

May our prayers not be careless or weak but powerful instruments of change through which the Spirit moves and breathes and eternity is impacted. Our Father is holy and good and worthy of excellent prayers, and he loves giving good things to his children:

Lord, teach us to pray! Against all odds, may we become mighty prayer warriors who in turn teach the next generation, because we have no hope of change apart from youin the name of your Son, for the sake of your church, and for the display of your glory. Amen

[Read part two that covers practical ways to do this HERE!]

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The Post-Election Calling of the Church

post-election church

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I’m just going to say it, this election has been horrible. And the anger and division and conflict did not magically disappear on Wednesday morning—in a lot of ways it got worse. It has stretched the church in ways I have not seen before. We had the chance to show the world a people with a single alliance and a single purpose to demonstrate our utter need for that alliance, and if we couldn’t figure out how to do that leading up to Tuesday we must figure out how to do that now. In fact, we have one of the biggest opportunities the church has ever had to be the healer and the helper it was designed to be. So many are in need of healing and help at this moment. There haven’t been a whole lot of winners here.

For once we actually have common ground with much of the world on something. They’ve seen in leaders the blatant sin and character flaws that are utterly opposed to the character of God. Don’t waste that. Don’t try to minimize it and shove it under the rug merely because it might weaken some political agenda or give more validity to political alliances we may hold. How many opportunities have we had to rally alongside the world and tell them, “You are right, this is disheartening! This is not the way this world should be and we are sorrowful with you.”

Let’s not throw phrases at them like “God is on his throne!” and “Let’s all pray for our new president!” as a way to illegitimize their fears and shut down conversation. Yes, those things are completely true and bring comfort to God’s children as they rightly should, but not the world—especially when our words are saying that God is all-powerful while our actions are saying that political positions are. Storms are scary and dangerous when you have no anchor of hope; let’s not ignore their cries for help.

Who we’ve been

I fear the church is forsaking their ability to be an influential voice of truth to our culture. There is a great opportunity before us that is lost when our political allegiances are stronger than our heavenly one. We say they’re not but actions and internet comment sections speak louder than words. After shouting at them (and each other) about politics what makes us think they’ll want to stick around to hear our far quieter message of salvation? The church was designed to be the representation of Christ when he left, and our purpose is to carry on his work not to get more votes for our personal political party regardless of what truths they do or do not stand for. While not mutually exclusive, we cannot forget our highest calling or in any way impede the former with the latter.

The danger of the church being entangled in politics is we become complacent and distant which does not lend itself to being a voice of truth. Relying on politics and ballots to fight our battles just makes our functional deism more palatable, as our opinions and Facebook posts far outnumber our prayers. It makes us feel as if we have more control than we do while fooling us into thinking that change requires little cost or effort.

Who God is

As Christians our battle cry should never be to “Make America Great,” as if we’ve learned nothing from Babel: “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name” (Genesis 11:4). We all remember how that ended.

It is God who raises up kings and nations and people like Daniel and Esther and Moses, but never us. It is God who tells his people: “And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing” (Gen. 12:2). As participants in this world who are blessed enough to be able to be involved in our country’s political process, God can use us for his purposes and impact politics, but let’s not pretend like he cannot do it without us. Let’s not pretend we know who will be a Nebuchadnezzar or a Daniel. Let’s not assume America is Israel when we could be Babylon.

Who we could be

As the hands and feet of Christ in this hurting, messed up, politically-charged world we have an enormous opportunity right now to be the salt and the light. We must be both. We can’t be the salt that preserves a decaying world without being the light that leads them to it—anymore than we can be their warmth and comfort while choosing not to provide them with the true solution to their dying. We can be really good at throwing salt because that’s the easiest thing to do from a distance and it costs us little, but the last thing the church should be doing right now is rubbing salt on the open wounds of the world. It is beyond me why we would rather be part of some moral majority that shouts our righteousness and others’ sins from the rooftops, than a loving minority that understands our own depravity apart from Christ and seeks healing for us both. Jesus offended the “established church” far more than he offended sinners.

There is a trend within the church of sacrificing truth for love and this travesty cannot be ignored, but church listen—the worst possible response we could have to this is to forfeit compassion and love. We need to seek the Spirit in this and pray for a real and effective outpouring of love that’s built on a foundation of truth, but we can’t remain at a distance and expect to impact others for eternity. It is not easy or without cost or comfort, but our light could shine so brightly right about now.

Thanks to this tumultuous election season we literally have a list of issues and areas where the world is hurting and in need of help:

  • There are people feeling cheated and lied to—we must display truth and transparency because Jesus is truth (John 8:32; John14:6).
  • There are youth feeling disenfranchised and hopeless—we must find ways to encourage and give them a reason to hope because Jesus is hope (I Peter 1:3; I Thes. 2:19).
  • There are women feeling devalued and victimized—we must figure out how to protect and value them because Jesus valued women in a culture that didn’t (Luke 7:36-50; Luke 13:16; Mark 8:48).
  • There are minorities carrying the weight of prejudice and discrimination who feel that their lives aren’t valued as much as another’s—we must understand how and what we can do to stop this because Jesus sought out the discriminated and fought for their equal worth (Gal. 3:28; James 2:8-9).
  • The LGBT community is feeling ostracized and hurt—we must figure out how to love them so much better in order for there to be healing because Jesus was a friend to the marginalized. Jesus was a healer (Mark 12:31; John 8:7; Rev. 21:4).
  • There are immigrants and refugees feeling oppressed and invisible—we must figure out how to protect them, and help them, and clothe them, and feed them because Jesus was a protector. He cared for the aliens and fed the poor  (James 1:27; Gal. 2:10; Matt. 25:40).
  • There are mothers facing abortion and women fearful of a reality without that option—we must figure out what is creating an environment so broken that a choice like that would be made and how we can improve it as well as care for these mothers because Jesus cares for the weakest—whether an unborn baby or a hurting mama. He is the reason we have nothing to fear (Matt. 18:10; John 14:27; Matt. 11:28).

This is not the first time the church has had to navigate being a light to a dark culture in need. The Christians in fourth century Rome set out to so love and care for those around them—the poor, the refugee, the sexually deviant, the murderers of babies and the disabled, the victimized women—that the pagan emperor, Julian the Apostate, had to brainstorm ways to create government programs—not out of need, but out of embarrassment that his people relied on the Christians rather than their government. He complained that their benevolence to strangers, their compassion, and their holiness were causing his people to turn from their pagan Roman gods. He goes on saying:

“These impious Galileans not only feed their own, but ours also; welcoming them with their agape, they attract them, as children are attracted with cakes… For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us. …Then let us not, by allowing others to outdo us in good works…Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity… See their love-feasts, and their tables spread for the indigent. Such practice is common among them, and causes a contempt for our gods.”

Salt and light. Their light of true love and compassion for all drew the world in like hot cakes, while their salt of truth and personal holiness eventually led to the salvation of many.

It wasn’t a voted in leader, or a ballot, or a governmental program, or a new or repealed law that led to change (while all potentially very good things)—they didn’t wait for the government to do what the church was made for. We were made for so much more and our impact should be far greater. Let this nasty, loud, depressing election of 2016 be a turning point for the church. In our love, may we point ourselves and our hurting world to the only source of truth and hope and change.

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