WHAT AM I DOING THAT'S SO AWFUL?
††††††††††† I used to think of the relationship between sin and prayer was a sort of bargain with God:
††††††††††† "If I do what You want, then You've got to do what I want," I said.
††††††††††† In those days I felt that in prayer the deck was stacked against me. I† felt God was being unfair.
††††††††††† Like he was saying, "OK, John, if you don't do exactly what I say, then I'm not going to answer your prayers -- and it will be all your fault."
††††††††††† That way of thinking views God as a cosmic child who, if we don't play by his rules, will take his ball and go home.
††††††††††† This is not the God of the Bible.
††††††††††† The real relationship between sin and prayer is this:
††††††††††† God is not answering our prayer because our underwear is on fire.
††††††††††† Yep. That's the truth.
††††††††††† We don't see the danger behind us. We hardly feel any heat yet. We're just a trifle uncomfortable, but the God who stands behind us sees the smoke, knows the danger, anticipates the pain, and he moves to put out the flames before they consume us.
Some things take prescience over our specific prayers.
††††††††††† We usually pray about the concerns we see, the things we want, the people we love (or who aggravate us), the futures we anticipate, the sins we're worried about.
††††††††††† These things -- while valid things to pray about -- are not necessarily our most immediate and pressing needs.
††††††††††† In the second chapter of Mark's Gospel four men bring a paralyzed friend to a house where Jesus was teaching. The crowd gathered to hear was so dense that they could not get close. They carried their friend up on the roof and dug through the clay making a hole big enough to lower the paralytic inside to where Jesus was teaching.
††††††††††† What a picture of determined prayer. What unity and agreement these five men displayed. What yearning for healing. What serious faith they demonstrated.
††††††††††† "When Jesus saws their faith, he said to the paralytic, 'Son, your sins are forgiven'".
††††††††††† They had not broken through the roof to hear that.
††††††††††† They† expected an answer to their prayers concerning healing.
††††††††††† Can you doubt that they were disappointed?
††††††††††† Mark tells his readers that they eventually did get what they prayed for -- but first things came first.
God keeps his priorities straight.
††††††††††† While we pray about new clothes, He's concerned about putting out the fire in our pants.
††††††††††† While we pray about whether or not to have cosmetic surgery on our pretty faces, he's dealing with the undetected cancer in our lungs.
††††††††††† His priorities are not ours.
††††††††††† He ignores our babble and strives to save tender portions of our anatomy from getting scorched.
††††††††††† And we pout and wonder why he does not answer our spoken prayer!
††††††††††† But the Bible says that certain specific things are such a clear, present, immediate and† horrible danger to us that God places them FIRST on the list of things to be dealt with. Everything else -- even our most heartfelt prayers -- takes a back seat.
††††††††††† If we keep on doing them, the Bible tells us our prayers will not work as we might expect otherwise.
††††††††††† What are these things that demand priority in prayer?
††††††††††† What looms so large that even our best, most innocent and what would otherwise be perfectly good prayers are put on hold and hindered?
Let's look at a few specifics and let's start close to home:
††††††††††† "Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.
††††††††††† "Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing for... the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil"-- I Peter 3:7-11 NIV
THAT MEANS TO GET ALONG WITH PEOPLE!
††††††††††† While these verses at first appear to be addressed specifically to husbands, a complete reading of the passage beginning back at chapter 2, verse 13 reveals that answers to our prayers, whether we are married or not, are related directly to how well we get along with the people closest to us.
††††††††††† You see, while our prayers are concerned with getting certain results and things, God is concerned with making us into a certain kind of person.
††††††††††† And no gauge measures what kind of person you are as accurately as the people who live closest to you every day.
††††††††††† John Wesley, founder of Methodism, once said that when a man becomes a Christian even his dog knows it!
††††††††††† Peter says to treat your wife with honor and respect as a partner lest your prayers be hindered. How can you be cozy with God and a slob with your own wife?
††††††††††† Look at the alternative to being the kind of person Peter is talking about: If you are not the kind of guy he describes, then you'd be inconsiderate, disrespectful, un-sympathetic, proud, vengeful, insulting, petty, unholy, evil -- and praying for God to give you a new car!
††††††††††† Hey, we're just doing what comes natural to us.
††††††††††† But God calls us to the supernatural.
††††††††††† Be a decent man and husband first, starting today -- then see how your prayers come out.
††††††††††† Don't snicker, Ladies, while he is getting his scriptural licks; the shrew's voice is no louder in Heaven than the slob's.
††††††††††† And let's not think that we're home free if we don't happen to be married. There are still people who live close to you that you must treat decently in order to avoid hindering your own prayers. How do you treat your roommate, your parents, your little sister?
††††††††††† Oh, but these folks are just family. They take me as I am. When I get home I can kick off my shoes, unwind and be myself.
††††††††††† You can be yourself with the people closest to you. You can safely disregard some of the common courtesies and manners you have to display to strangers in order to keep your job or make your way in the world; therefore, the people you live with bear the brunt of you being yourself without restraint.
††††††††††† The flames of hell are fueled with such unrestrained selfdom.
††††††††††† We all have a tendency to treat the people we live closest to as the less important members of our circle, as a base to move up and out from, stepping stones to more important people and things.
††††††††††† Jesus inverts that mental structure.
††††††††††† He says "the least of these my brethren" are as important as Christ himself. And by "the least" -- what make you think he means someone other than the person you consider least and show the least consideration to?
††††††††††† Beware. The least people in your life often speak with the very voice of God.
††††††††††† In my own experience, I believe that I've heard God's voice in the mouths of my wife and children more often than from any other source. In fact, when my wife says, "John, that the dumbest thing I've ever heard of", I can almost bet she speaks with divine inspiration.
††††††††††† (Incidentally, when I think I've heard the voice of God through another person, it has always been in some common remark made in general conversation. I'm very leery of the person who comes to me saying the Lord told them to tell me something. I consider such folks kooks and nothing's ever happened to make me think I was wrong).
By the way, who answers your prayers?
††††††††††† There's another, more practical, thing to consider when thinking about how the sin of mistreating those closest to us hinders our own prayers:
††††††††††† In my 30-some years as a Christian, never has some stranger popped up out of nowhere and answered one of my prayers.
††††††††††† With virtually every personal prayer that I have seen answered, the human agent instrumental in answering my prayer has been someone close to me!
††††††††††† My wife, my children, my parents, my in-laws, my friends, my church, my neighbors, my associates -- these people are the ones who have provided answers to the prayers I have seen answered.
††††††††††† Treat the people closest to you with holiness and awe, sin not against them, lest you actions and attitudes hinder your own prayers.
Why should I forgive that dirty rotten creep?
††††††††††† Here's another scripture passage to think about when considering the relationship between our on-going sins and our prayers:
††††††††††† "This is how you should pray:
††††††††††† Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
††††††††††† Give us today our daily bread.
††††††††††† Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.
††††††††††† And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one.
††††††††††† For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."-- Matthew 6:9-15 NIV
††††††††††† Of the different elements in the Lord's Prayer, Jesus chose to elaborate on only one: Forgive me my sins just as I forgive those who sin against me.
The shameless hussy's mother
††††††††††† Once I meet an elderly woman who raged against her sorry, no-good daughter. "That girl's just street-trash," she told me. "She lived with that no-good, drunken lout for two, almost three, years before she got pregnant and they had to get married. She was raised better than that. Mark my words, she'll rue the day she took up with that no-account bum -- Never worked an honest† day's work† in his life. The shameless hussy, I raised her better than for that sort of carrying on..."
††††††††††† Latter that same day, I meet the Shameless Hussy and her No-account Husband for the first time; the couple had been married for 42 years!
††††††††††† For decades the mother's bitterness, disappointment and pride had festered inside the older woman souring her spirit.
††††††††††† Surely you've seen this dynamic at work yourself: the student who still complains about what the professor did last semester, the professor who is bitter about the other professor, the retired man who seethes over what management did years ago, the young woman who resents her parents' divorce. Just about everyone you meet, including the person you see in the mirror each morning, falls prey to an un-forgiving spirit.
††††††††††† An unforgiving spirit is one of the few things Jesus said could be a cause for unanswered prayer!
††††††††††† This is the straightest path to spiritual death.
We all grow ripe or rot.
††††††††††† It's just a matter of time.
††††††††††† You see, we become more and more of what we already are. We move closer to God, or we move further away from him each day. The person who refuses to forgive the wrongs done to him by others, who holds on to the hurt, who relishes the resentment, who lets the bitterness (even if the wrong suffered was real in the first place) curdle inside -- this person sours. Look in any retirement home to see what a grouch such a person becomes in only 70 or 80 years. On the other hand, the person who forgives the wrongs suffered at the hands of others -- this person mellows and sweetens as the years progress. Have you ever had the pleasure of meeting such a pleasant old saint? And think, they got that way in only 70 or 80 years too.
††††††††††† Now think of this: you will live somewhere for all eternity!
††††††††††† If you let an un-forgiving spirit sour you, what will you be like 30 years from now? 300 years from now? 3,000!
††††††††††† If you forgive, you can sweeten for the next 30 years. For the next 300. Eternity will see you glow with the grace of God.
I have three thoughts about forgiving others in prayer:
††††††††††† First, realize that the wrong they have done you is real. They really did sin against you. The professor really did you dirt. The salesman really cheated you. The rake really did seduce you and leave. The boss really discriminated against you. So, do not attempt to minimize the sin when you tell God about it. Who knows betrayal better than Jesus? Don't lie to him about your outrage in order to appeared cultured, refined -- nice --in his sight.
††††††††††† Second, realize that while your feelings on the matter are perfectly valid, forgiveness is not a feeling. It is an act of your will. Therefore, when you pray, do not try to feel sentimental about the person who sinned against you. Believe it or not, that person is worse than you think! They have done this to you, they have done the same thing to other people, they are likely to keep on doing it again and again! Read the psalmist's imprecatory prayers, such as Psalm 137 (blessings on the man who bashes a Babylonian baby's head against a rock) to see how sentimental he felt about Babylonians.
††††††††††† The third thing to realize is that you and I have already done the same quality of thing that we resent so earnestly to someone else. We have caused the same kind of pain that we feel. We ourselves have broken someone else's hearts and dreams. We have cheated. We have belittled. We have cheapened. We have stolen. We have betrayed. We have manipulated. We have let down. We have disappointed. We have lied to. We have dampened joy. We have made someone's life harder than it needs to be. We have sinned.
††††††††††† And we are just as dense about it, we justify it, we excuse it just like the person who has offended us does!
††††††††††† And we do it again and again.
††††††††††† Somebody out there -- probably several somebodys -- either holds a legitimate grudge, or struggles to forgive you and me just as hard as we do to forgive those who have trespassed against us.
I am the Babylonian in somebody else's prayers!
††††††††††† But I don't feel like a Babylonian.
††††††††††† Nobody does.
††††††††††† Even the Babylonians didn't feel like Babylonians. If your were to ask one, he'd say he was just an average guy, maybe a little bit superior to, but certainly as good as anybody else.
††††††††††† And he's right; he is, you and I are, just as good as anybody else.
††††††††††† But as the Prophet said, "All of us have become as one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags."-- Isaiah 64:6 NIV
††††††††††† Unclean, with filthy rags as our banner, we prance in before the throne of the High and Holy One who Inhabits Eternity and expect him,† in the purity of sinless, eternal light,† to answer our prayers -- on the double.
††††††††††† Be honest with God. Pray and tell him that so-and-so has hurt you, that so-and-so is a modern day Babylonian, that you have been injured, that you feel outrage; then as an act of will deliberately forgive so-and-so. Pray for good things to happen to so-and-so.
††††††††††† Then do it again and again as often as it comes to your attention.
††††††††††† Jesus said, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven."-- Matthew 5:44-45 KJV
††††††††††† Ask to be forgiven for your sins just as you forgive so-and-so because you are at the roots just like so-and-so, only your victims are different.
††††††††††† Prayers get nowhere without forgiveness.
††††††††††† It's obvious why, isn't it.
Don't give = don't get
††††††††††† So, making life harder than it needs to be for people we live with hinders our prayers. And not forgiving people who have sinned against us stifles our prayers. And the Bible teaches that there is another on-going sin which will flatten our prayers like a frog on the highway:
††††††††††† Jesus said, "Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For the measure you use, it will be measured to you." -- Luke 6:37-38 NIV
††††††††††† This scripture passage links the words "forgive" and "give", the concepts of forgiving and generosity. A lack of generosity is a sin which hinders our prayers.
††††††††††† Does it make sense to expect God to be generous in answering our needs while we act stingy about the needs we see around us?
††††††††††† We must help others if we expect God to help us! We must meet the needs of the needy!
††††††††††† But aren't the poor and homeless just useless winos and bums?
††††††††††† Literary agent Curtis Lundgren tells me that the Orthodox churches have a legend which says seven golden flaming angels walk invisibly in front of every human being scattering flowers, carrying banners,† blowing trumpets and crying, "Make Way! Make way for the Image of God!"
††††††††††† If you have anything of this world's goods and see someone in need and you close your heart and do not help that person, then what makes you think the love of God abides with you?
††††††††††† We dare not ask God Almighty to help us when we refuse to help others.
††††††††††† Such prayers are an abomination!
††††††††††† We determine the measure with which our own prayers are answered.
††††††††††† For God's sake -- and your own -- be magnanimous in giving: feed the hungry from your own table. When you plan a special meal, bring home a hungry hitchhiker. That guy in rags ought to be wearing your other shirt.
††††††††††† Shelter the homeless. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Visit the imprisoned. Care for the sick. Comfort the feeble-minded. Spend time with the elderly. Play with the children. Write your mother. Water the dog. Teach the illiterate to read. Listen to a pest. Tutor the slow. Give blood. Bestow dignity. Do justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God.
††††††††††† Good heavens! It looks like I've stopped thinking with you and started to preach at you... Please practice a little of that forgiveness we were just thinking about. Whenever I'm "discussing" something with Jennifer, my oldest daughter, and I drift into a preaching mode, she will listen patiently till I get to a pause and then she'll assume a deadpan expression and recite, "For a tape of today's message, send $19.95 to Box..."† That always breaks me up but I hate for her to have to do that! So I'll try to be careful in future chapters -- OK?
††††††††††† Anyhow, for Heaven's sake, and your own, live Christian. In such a life you forge the measure God uses in answering your prayers.
††††††††††† But wait one minute here. This stuff is plain old good works. Salvation comes by faith and it is the prayer of faith that is efficacious. Right?
††††††††††† Don't forget what King David said about Trust and Do:
, "Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pleasure.† Delight yourself in the Lord; and He will give you the desires of your heart."-- Psalm 37: 3 NIV
††††††††††† You see, what we grandiosely call the "ship of life" is in reality a rowboat and it takes two oars to move the boat on a straight course. Works is an oar, faith is an oar. A person with only one oar in the water splashes around in crazy, erratic circles.
††††††††††† In the next chapter, let's think about the oar called faith and its relationship to answered prayers.
†You have been reading Chapter †Nine of the book Why Donít I Get What I Pray For? by John W. Cowart †(IVP, 1993)
Click here for Chapter Ten