Sermon: Giving Up OUR Prayers For Lent: Why Not Pray?
Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
Date: February 25, 2018
We are in the third week of our Lenten emphasis on prayer and my suggestion that in keeping with the common Lenten practice of giving up something for Lent, we think about giving up OUR prayers for Lent. Now in making that suggestion, I am fully aware of how strange that sounds, especially coming from a pastor. But the emphasis here is on the word “OUR”. Because when I make that statement, I am not suggesting that we give up prayer for Lent. No, I am suggesting that many of us need to give up OUR understanding of what prayer is for Lent. The way we pray. And so the first week we talked about giving up our misconceptions about what prayer is. And then last week I talked about giving up prayers that don’t come out of our relationship with God, that aren’t where our hearts intersect with God’s heart, and that don’t seek to place us and all the situations and circumstances of our life, whether they be good or bad, in the good will of God for our lives. We pray in the conviction of Paul’s words when he writes that all things, not some things, or just good things but “all things work for good for those who Love God and live according to His will for our lives.” You see, I think the vitality and power of our prayers depends heavily on how we view God. Do we understand God as a partner, a friend, a good parent who is present with us always, and loves us no matter what? Or do we understand God as a rescuer, who most of the time is like an absentee parent, except when the bad times come, and then if we ask, He will come and make all things right again.. In essence, He rescues us from our messy world. And so, when Paul writes that “we will be joyful always, if we pray continually” and offer thanks “in all circumstances” we’re not really sure that’s how we want prayer to work. After all, aren’t there some things that happen to us in this world that are outside the will of God. And the answer is yes. Things happen to us and we do things outside the will of God, but if you don’t hear anything else I say today, hear this: there is nothing that can happen to us or that we can do, that will place us outside of God’s Will. And so we think if we just pray about those bad things: whether it be family troubles, or illness, or failure, or sin – whatever burdens the world has placed on you – then somehow those things will miraculously get better. Our understanding of prayer is that it is our attempt to bring the will of God into our earthly struggles. That God will intervene. Rescue us. Make things better instantaneously. Heal us. Put our families back together. Remove our burdens. But through prayer we commit our earthly lives to God and so we place all of our burdens and struggles into His will. Too often we pray from just a worldly perspective. Finite. Immediate. We can’t see anything beyond the present and so through prayer we seek to bring God into those present circumstances. But God sees our lives as eternal, not finite. His will for us is beyond just our lives on this earth. And so, through our prayers we need to seek to place our worldly lives into the eternal, into His will. Whether we view God through a worldly lens or an eternal one, makes all the difference in why we pray, and how we pray, or whether we pray at all.
You see, what we believe about prayer all depends on what we believe about God. On who we think God is. And on how we think God understands us. Rick Warren writes:
Your understanding of what God is really like shapes everything else in your life, including your prayer.
So think about it. When you pray, or how you pray, or even if you pray at all, depends on who you think you’re talking to when you pray. Is your perception that God is a grumpy God, always cranky? Or is your God an angry God, upset with you all the time? Or perhaps you feel like you can never please your God, no matter what you’re willing to sacrifice. Warren goes on to say that some people think of God as a crouching tiger, always ready to pounce on you if you make the wrong move. Or some think of God as a cosmic cop, always ready to lay down the law. Or a dictator demanding more and more and even then it’s never enough. Or a Santa Claus, always handing out good gifts. And perhaps the most troubling of all – some believe God is like a lump of clay that we can mold into whatever we want God to be. The point is that how we pray, and what we pray, and when we pray really depends on how we view God. And there are a lot of us who don’t pray on a regular basis because we don’t know really who God is. If it’s true that true prayer comes out of our relationship with God, just who is it that we’re in relationship with? If prayer is conversation then who do you think you’re talking to when you pray? Our misconceptions about prayer really start with our misconceptions about God, and lead to reasons not to pray rather than encourage that prayer relationship. So before we continue in the next few weeks talking about how we pray, I thought we better talk about why many of us don’t really pray.
So the first reason is this: Many don’t pray because we can’t relate to the concept of God as a good parent, because our earthly relationship with our parents has been a troubled one. Last week I said that when Jesus starts the Lord’s Prayer with “Our Father”, He is telling the disciples that true prayer emerges out of our relationship with God which is intended to be like the relationship between a parent and child. And, you see, that’s ok as long as we have a good relationship with our parents and/or children. But especially in these days of absentee parents, single parent households and parents who make choices that don’t always put their children ahead of them, or even in safe situations, comparing those relationships with our relationship with God can be problematic for some. Our earthly angers and disappointments and frustrations with worldly relationships, especially as it concerns our fathers and mothers, can easily project on to our perception of who God is. If we’re angry with our earthly father, then often we’re angry with our Heavenly Father too. But here’s the thing we need to understand. It is not God’s will that any be bad fathers, or bad mothers, or bad children for that matter. It is the bad choices that we make in this world that can take our actions out of the will of God. Because God’s will assumes the best of what we were created to be. Jesus’ understanding of God as Father is from a heavenly perspective, not an earthly one. God’s plan for us is that our earthly relationships be modeled after our relationship with our Heavenly Father, not the other way around. In Jeremiah God says: “I know what I have planned for you. I have good plans for you, not plans to hurt you. My plans will give you a hope and a good future and when you call to me and you pray. I will listen to you.” One pastor says this: It is the goodness of God that is the basis for all prayer. If God is not a good God in your mind, you have zero motivation to pray. The only reason there’s any good in the world is because God is a good God and God is the Creator, and His goodness is in the universe. If there’s no God, there is no good, no right or wrong, no good and bad. True prayer reflects our understanding of a good God, a good Father who wants only good for His children. In Psalm 31, King David, who wrote many of the prayer Psalms, said this: God your goodness is so great! And you have stored up great blessings for those who honor you.
But, you see, the goodness of God often stands in contrast to the brokenness of our world. Sometimes there is so much brokenness around us: in our planet, our relationships, in our physical body, in the way we think and act. The world is far from good. And so instead of our prayers coming out of our relationship with a good God, too often they come out of our relationships to a broken world. But God says that even in the middle of all the brokenness, I still have a good plan for your life. Even when the choices you make are bad, I am greater than the choices you make and I can fix the bad decisions you’ve made into a good plan.” After all only our God can turn crucifixions into resurrections. Death into life. When Paul tells the Romans that everything works together for good for those who love God and are called according to His will, he is writing to a people who are under intense persecution, a time of persecution that would eventually take many of their lives, as well as the lives of both Peter and Paul, and so he is not saying that God takes good and works it for better. Instead our God brings wholeness to our brokenness. Jesus says pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. We need to give up prayers that are based on false perceptions, worldly understandings of the goodness of God. A.W. Tozer wrote: what comes to your mind when you think about God is the most important thing about you, because it affects everything else in your life. Especially your prayers.
And then sometimes we don’t pray because we perceive God as judge and we fear that our prayers leave us vulnerable to be judged in front of God and the world. When we pray we open our lives before God and place it all in God’s will. So we don’t pray because we fear that if God sees us for who we are, he will reject us. Through prayer we acknowledge our shortcomings, confess our sin, and according to Jesus we turn the other cheek. Jesus says pray for forgiveness and pray that you will forgive others. Prayer requires that we stand completely transparent before God, but also transparent before others. But in true prayer we don’t stand vulnerable before God so that He can judge us. No, it is through our vulnerability that God knows how best He can love us. I have watched with fascination as the young people who survived the shooting at the school in Florida have channeled their fear and anger and grief into activism. It has been inspiring. But I must confess that I was sad to hear an interview with one of the young men who is leading the movement who was asked if he could ever forgive the shooter, and his response was that he couldn’t even think about forgiveness only how to stop other monsters from killing his friends. But you see, through prayer we’ve got to deal deal with the issues of the soul before we take on the circumstances of the world. Because through prayer we acknowledge that not everything that happens in the world or in our lives is good. That because of the fallen nature of man not everything that happens in this world is going to be according to God’s will. That we do not always act in a loving way towards one another or even ourselves. Because we have the choice to reject God’s will. We are often caught up in a tug of war of wills with God. His great gift of free will, given out of His love can also be our greatest curse. And it is so hard to admit to God and the world that we have made wrong choices. You know in all of scripture, there was probably no one who stood more vulnerable before God then Job. He considered himself a blessed man. The Bible tells us He was blessed above all others, at least in the eyes of the world. But then He lost it all – family, wealth, crops, livestock, property, and ultimately his health. He stood naked and vulnerable before the world and yet he was able to pray: “God, you give and take away but still my heart will choose to say, Lord blessed be your name.” True prayer takes us to that place in our relationship with God.
And then many times we don’t pray because we don’t think we are worthy to be in a prayer relationship with God. We don’t think that God will answer our prayers because answered prayers are the extension of God’s love and the truth is that we are not good enough for God to love us. But, you see, we don’t pray out of our goodness. We pray because God is always good, and in prayer He puts our good above His own good. The writer of Hebrews put it this way: Jesus understands our weaknesses, for He faced all the temptations that we do, yet He did not sin. So let us come boldly with confidence to the throne of our gracious God, our good God. And there we receive mercy.
One pastor writes: This is what makes our faith different from every faith in the world. God says yes you’ve sinned, yes you deserve punishment, yes you deserve to pay for your sin.but because I’m a good God and I love you more than I love myself, I am going to pay the price for you. I will die for you. You’re not dying for me, I’m dying for you. You aren’t worthy, but I Am.
Many theologians call this the great or divine exchange. And here’s the thing. Not only did Jesus die to pay for our unworthiness but He took all the bad out of us and through His grace and love, puts all His goodness into us. We are not worthy because we are good, we are made worthy through the goodness of Christ. And so through prayer we are made worthy. Listen to what the Apostle Paul said about the divine exchange. To the Corinthians: God took the sinless Christ and poured into Him our sins. Then in exchange he poured God’s goodness into us. And then to the Romans he wrote Jesus died for our sins and rose again to make us right with God. Because of Christ, God does not see any sin in our life, not the ones we did today, or yesterday or tomorrow. All He sees is Christ’s goodness poured into us. What Christ did on the cross makes true prayer possible. The cross takes away all our guilt and invites us into a new relationship with God in which the bad in us is poured out like Jesus’s blood on Calvary, and in exchange all of God’s goodness is poured into us. It’s the divine exchange. It’s the Lenten Exchange. We give up worldly things so God can pour His goodness into us. That’s what happens when we pray in the name of Jesus.
And here’s the bottom line. When the God whom we misperceive doesn’t respond to our prayers as we expect Him to, then we think our prayers have gone unanswered. God fails to live up to our expectations and so we just stop praying. But here’s the thing, prayers that are offered to the god of our misperceptions are counterfeit prayers. We need to give up those prayers that emerge from our misunderstandings of who God really is, so that He can fill us with all the good that He desires for us.