Rev. Shane on Prayer (Part VI)
There is an incredible and most disturbing story relayed to us in Genesis 22. Long ago God had promised a young wanderer named Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation. Abraham and his wife Sarah were now old; sin had invited complexity into their lives and the promise seemed more a distant memory than a pulsating future. Consistent with God’s sense of timing, about six minutes after everyone had given up, the son of promise arrived and his name was Isaac. Connectivity went from poor to excellent and salvation history seemed again on-line. One day God and Abraham were talking, praying if you will, and God asked Abraham to offer his son to Him as a burnt offering. Abraham, who had just negotiated for the lives of the immoral people of Sodom and Gomorrah in chapter nineteen, did not say a word to negotiate for the life of his innocent son. He awakened early, loaded up the supplies, packed his knife and traveled to the holy mountain with Isaac by his side. He prepared the place of sacrifice and tied his beloved son to a piece of wood. A lifetime of promise, wandering, prosperity, deception, impatience, and obedience suddenly culminated into this one convulsing moment in the time continuum of salvation history. Did this impatient and pragmatic wanderer have the mettle to be the Father of a Great Nation? Did Abraham love the promise more than the promise giver? It was a test of faith with an uncertain outcome as are all true tests of faith. He lifted the knife above him as his horrified son looked into his eyes. “What kind of story is that? I remember the first time I heard it as a kid and was horrified every time my dad asked for me to go somewhere with him. All I can think about is how long Isaac must have needed counseling before he could talk again.” If this story teaches us nothing else, we are reminded that the ways of God can not be fully understood.
We know almost nothing about the book of James. We don’t know precisely who wrote it, when it was written or the historical context that led to its writing. What we do know is that it was not a part of the earliest compilations of Scripture that later became the New Testament, it is more about morality than theology, Martin Luther called it an “epistle of straw” and it just barely made it into the Bible. It is addressed to Jewish Christians scattered throughout the Roman Empire. Jewish teachings on prayer emerged from a very specific Jewish tradition who viewed prayer most uniquely. Author Philip Yancey in his book Prayer writes about the prayer culture that produced Jesus. “The Romans of the time prayed to their gods as one might finger a good luck charm, not really expecting much. The skeptical Greeks derided prayer, their playwrights weaving foolish, ridiculous and even obscene prayers into their plays to provoke the audience to uproarious laughter. Only the stubborn Jews, despite their tragic history of unanswered prayers, contended that a supreme and loving God ruled the earth, listened to their prayers and would someday respond.” Let’s take a look at James chapter four verses one through ten.
James 4: 1-10
V. 1What is causing all this fighting among you? Isn’t it your evil desires? It is clear there was conflict in James’ church. It had to break the heart of Christ who prayed for unity in the church above all things. Now, instead of fighting evil and spreading the Gospel, the church was fighting each other and spreading dissension. They were still connected to the water source of God and attempting to offer ministry to the world but there was a major kink their hose and the water was only dripping out. It appears the battle front was established on the line of discipleship. Some in the church had given their entire lives to Christ. For them, being a part of what God was doing in this world was their number one core value and they passionately offered their prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness to serve Christ and his church. But others were only attempting to maneuver God into doing what they wanted Him to do for them.
If evil sounds like a strong word to use here, it is a theologically appropriate one if we define evil as that which stands in direct opposition to the will of God. If what we want is more important to us than what God wants, then our desires are evil, even if they are not intended for harm. Selfishness is a serious evil precisely because it does not seem intrinsically evil. These people believed God existed to do their will. Their prayers consisted of them telling God what they wanted Him to do, when they wanted Him to do it and how they wanted it done. Hear me! God is not a household servant in our employ, a genie in a bottle to grant us three wishes or a Santa Claus who exists to bring all the good boys and girls really cool presents.
V. 2 You want what you don’t have so you sin to get it There were apparently some folks in James’ church who wouldn’t take “No” for an answer from God. They were like kids who ask their parents for something in the store and when the parents say “No” they steal it. The reality is that “No” is a very proper response from a loving parent to the requests of a child and “No” is a very proper response from a loving God to a prayer of petition. You see, God is not limited to time and space. God can not only see the outcome of the decisions we have made in the past but can also see the outcomes of the decisions we will make in the future. We can pray for something that may make good short-term sense to our limited perspectives but only God knows what is truly best. If your prayer for the physical recovery of an elderly loved one is answered “No”, could it be that God knew that to go on living would mean months or years in a vegetative state in a nursing home? If your prayer for a promising relationship to prosper is answered “No” could it be that God knows choosing that road, no matter how good it looks right now, would only be one of pain for you? If your prayer for that new job is answered “No” could it be that God knows that job will do harm to your soul or has something better for you just around the corner? We may never understand God’s response to our prayers but He never asks us to; He simply asks that we trust Him to know what is best. We must trust God enough to take “No” for an answer.
V. 2b-3 The reason you don’t have what you want is because you don’t ask God for it and even when you ask God you don’t get it because you have the wrong motive. You want only what gives you pleasure. Jesus instructed us to ask for God for our needs. When I ask God, I realize that he is God and I am not, I affirm that he has the power to provide and I submit my life to his ultimate control. Prayer is a process of readying ourselves to be used by God; not readying God to be used by us. God is not a vending machine who is obliged to spit out a Snickers bar every time we put in the right amount of money and hit B6. Have you ever noticed how people react when they put in their money, hit the code and the candy bar does not come out? They push the coin return button and then frantically push it again and again. When that does not work they rock the machine, stick their hands up the shoot or start beating the machine with their fist. Many people treat God the same way! We must realize that God is not broken when he answers a prayer with “No.”
V. 4-5 Adulterers! Wanting the things of this world is to reject God. God is jealous for us. As Abraham leads the world from polytheism, the belief in many gods, towards monotheism, the belief in one God; adultery is a consistent metaphor used to denote human rejection of God. God is portrayed as a faithful and good husband and Israel is portrayed as an adulterous woman who wantonly pursues other lovers. For God, if love is not a choice, then it is not love. The Old Testament book of Hosea is a living metaphor were the prophet Hosea marries a prostitute named Gomer who is a serial adulterer and constantly rejects his faithful love. Gomer pursues other lovers until they tire of her and Hosea keeps taking her back when no one else will have her. Finally she has been sold into slavery and right about the time no one could blame Hosea for rejecting her forever, he buys back what is already his. Hosea is a laughing stock but his faithfulness and steadfast love will not allow him to let Gomer go. She is unfaithful but he is faithful because faithful is all he knows how to be! That is how God is with us!
In the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20, the Second Commandment is a prohibition on worshipping other gods. It is followed by a Third Commandment which prohibits the making of idols. An idol in ancient pagan religions was an object of manipulation. Like politicians of the 1920’s the gods were not only there to serve you; they were expected to entertain you as well! The ancients prayed to their mischievous gods as good luck charms, priestesses told R-rated stories about their otherworldly and lewd escapades and then led the faithful to the sacred brothels for a little fund raising and encouraged them to upgrade their idols in the gift shop on the way out. The God of Israel absolutely refused to be treated in such way. He would not be worshipped as a god among gods. He was the one, true God. He was holy, not promiscuous; He was righteous, not mischievous and he was spirit, not material. He abjectly refused to be the star of the latest reality series, do the talk show circuit, appear as musical contestant on Palestinian Idol or be represented by fashioned bits of stone or wood. God was “wholly other.” He did not exist for human entertainment and refused to serve as an object of manipulation. You could embrace His will to your salvation or reject His will to your demise but he was no trifling object. The first four of Ten Commandments clearly spell out the fact that God desires our whole hearts. God declares himself to be a “jealous God who will not share our affection with any other God.” God desires our exclusive love!
V. 6-7 God gives strength to stand against evil desires. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Here, James gives us the best piece of advice for devil fighting in the whole of the Bible: Resist. All Satan can do is advertise; he can’t make you buy anything. Temptation is not a sin, Jesus was tempted; temptation is a natural condition of living in a fallen world.
Here is the deal: We are all flawed. It is nothing personal; it is just a virus in our human operating systems that entered when Adam and Eve bit the forbidden fruit and no matter how hard we try to remove its effects, the juice still runs down our chins. Yet, I believe that by the sanctifying power of God’s Holy Spirit we can receive the strength to stand upright and holy. The old Methodists called it “going on to perfection” and it simply means we can trust God to give us the strength to live the life to which He has called us! Remember the Greek word for “perfect” does not mean flawless; it I much closer to our concepts of mature or functional. In order to stand against evil desires we must do one thing and then we must ask God for one thing. The thing we must do is think. We must always ask ourselves when we are tempted to trade short term pleasure for long term pain, “Is there any way this possibly ends well?” I believe a little human grey matter empowered by the Sprit of God can make flawed beings functional for the work of Christ in this world. Getting it right every time is not a realistic expectation of people living in a fallen world but getting it wrong regularly is not an outcome we have to accept as a norm in our lives.
I think our motives in prayer matter. It is the moral aspect of prayer. It should not surprise us that in a moral play like James there is an expectation that as we mature in the faith that we will become more honorable people with purer motives. He said, “Faith without works is dead.” We must remember we are not saved because we are good but we are becoming good because we are saved. James reminds us that when we stop being selfish, stop fighting with each other, stop wanting things that aren’t ours to have, stop lusting for what the world has to offer and stop refusing to take “No” for an answer from God; THEN we are about ready to pray. The mature person comes to prayer with no motive other than to know and serve God.
Abraham took a deep breath, blinked the sweat from his eyes, steadied his hands and drove the knife downward toward his beloved son. An angel from heaven shouted, “Abraham, Abraham, lay down the knife for I know that you truly fear God.” Abraham cast death away, untied his son, found a ram stuck in the thicket and offered sacrifice to the Lord. In verse 15 the angel says, “Because you obeyed me, I will bless you richly. I will multiply your descendants into countless millions, they will defeat their enemies and through you all nations on earth will be blessed.” Jesus said in Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.” That is what James was trying to tell us all along. Put God first and everything else will find its proper place. Put yourself first and nothing will find its proper place.