Presumptuous Prayers

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14 ESV (via biblegateway.com)
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“Father, help my neighbor see her sin. Change her heart, Lord Jesus.”

“Heavenly Father, I know it is not your will that I face this diagnosis of cancer. Help the doctors to see their mistake.”

“God, this job opening is a perfect opportunity– I claim this job in Your Name.”

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I’m not saying that the above examples are all about presumption, especially taken out of context, but I think it is easy to fall into a dangerous habit of thinking that our will must also be God’s will, and not the other way around. What if God is waiting for me to reach out in Love to my “sinful” neighbor? What if it is MY heart that needs to be changed? What if God’s plan for my life includes cancer– or a miraculous healing from it? What if my response to cancer is an opportunity to show God’s peace? What if God has a better job, or better timing for that job?

I actually had that experience. When I was first out of college, I applied for many teaching positions– nothing was open the first year, and I ended up working at a public relations firm as a proofreader. I was laid off nine months later– just in time to apply for teaching positions again. The “perfect” job came up at my old high school, where they needed an English teacher. I interviewed well, and thought I had the job. But they went with a teacher who had more experience. So I signed up to do substitute work– not what I wanted, but it paid for my room and board, and not much else. It was late January when I got the call. The other teacher had been chronically ill, and they needed me to “substitute” for the rest of the year, with a possibility of a contract the next year. When I arrived, the classes were in chaos. The students were unruly and way behind in their studies. It wasn’t the “perfect” job– it was difficult. But I prayed– agonizing, humbling, needy prayers. I stayed at that position another seven years. Any I prayed through every day. But what if I had gotten the job at the first try? Would my prayers have been as pure, or would they have been laced with presumption?

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I pray every day. I read God’s word every day. But I am in need– every day– of God’s mercy, His wisdom, and His Holy Spirit to guide my thoughts. Too often, I presume when I pray– that God will do what I want, that He will see things from my perspective, that He will not ask me to go through hardship or disappointment, or pain.

Our prayers don’t need to be as arrogant as that of the Pharisee in this parable to hold certain prideful presumptions.

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“Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner! Give me strength to face the day ahead, grace to share Your Love with those around me, and eyes to see Your hands at work. Thank you for Your salvation, for Your promises, and for Your faithfulness. Amen.”

Praying “Around” My Enemies

I didn’t pray for my enemies. I didn’t pray for their health or safety. I didn’t pray for their spiritual well-being. I didn’t pray that God might show me ways to bless them, or encourage them.

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I prayed that they would be stopped. That they would be exposed as frauds and liars. I prayed for “justice” to be done– to them. That they would be humiliated. That they would get all that they deserved.

And perhaps that is what they prayed for me, as well. That I would “see the light”, and change my mind. That I would be punished for my words and actions that didn’t agree with theirs.

I prayed “around” my enemies. I didn’t pray for them. I didn’t lift them up before the throne of grace. I didn’t pray that they would be shown mercy– I certainly didn’t pray to meet them with humility and grace…

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Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.

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God, forgive me for holding bitterness and anger in my heart. I will never meet a human “enemy” that you didn’t create in Your own image. You have commanded that I am to love my neighbor– even one who disagrees with me; even one who considers me an “enemy.” I cannot delight in evil, or rejoice at injustice; but I must reach out in Love and not Self-Righteousness.

My Cup Runneth Over

“Are you the type of person who sees the glass half-full, or half-empty?” Amateur psychologists like to ask questions like this, to determine if others are optimists or pessimists. But what happens when you realize your cup or glass is really full to overflowing?!

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Often, we look at our lives and circumstances with a pessimistic attitude. “I’m stuck at home during the pandemic– I can’t be with my friends, I can’t visit the gym, I can’t go to work..” We think of our “full” lives just weeks ago, and we miss all the things we took for granted– even the things we were complaining about before! And we worry and panic about tomorrow, or next week, or later today! But this is not God’s view. All that we are “missing” right now, God knows. He knows what we need, what we want, and what is best for us to have (or not have) during these days. Even if we are suffering from COVID-19, or waiting and praying for a loved one who is isolated and struggling, God knows. He listens for every breath– even the labored ones; He knows all that has come before this moment, and all that will happen in the next. If our glass is truly half-empty, we need only ask, and God will give us wisdom, patience, strength, and whatever He knows we need for the next breath; the next step.

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Sometimes, we carry an overly optimistic mindset–taking pride in our half-full glass, and not allowing God to finish filling it. We sit safe in our houses, confident that we will survive any threat and defeat any enemy, especially a tiny virus. We don’t need God’s help; His abundance of wisdom and grace. We’ve got everything covered with our half-full arrogance. But this is also not God’s view. God doesn’t want to fill our cup so that we can be smug and self-satisfied. God wants to fill us to overflowing, so that we can bless others, and see the incredible riches of His mercy and love! Some people look like they are “half-empty” from the outside– they are poor, or tired, or weak– but they are overflowing with God’s love; gushing with grace, lavish with love, exuding excitement, and overflowing with joy. Meanwhile, the optimist who is smug and self-serving, may seal up her “half-full” glass, refusing to share her hope and joy with others who need it.

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God is never stingy with His riches. Paul reminds us that God’s Grace is sufficient https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Corinthians+12%3A6-10&version=NIV, that God can meet all our needs out of His abundance https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Philippians+4%3A19&version=NIV, and that God is able to do more than we can possibly imagine https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians+3%3A20-21&version=KJV; the Apostle James writes that every good and perfect gift is from above https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=James+1%3A17&version=ESV . However, we must be open to accept them, and open to share them with those around us! This is especially true when God’s riches may be hidden by clouds of doubt, worry, and fear.

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So today, I need to see, not whether my cup is half-full or half-empty of energy, or money, or health– I need to see where my cup is overflowing with God’s Grace, His Peace, and His Love!

Prayer in the “Off-Season”

World Cup fever is at a high this week.  England was stunned by Croatia in the semi-finals–Croatia will face France in the finals on Sunday.  Teams have played hard all season to make it to the World Cup– most of them will go home disappointed (at least a little).  Fans will have to wait until next season to see their favorite team make another attempt at winning it all.

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In the meantime, the players will be in the “off-season.”  Some will take well-earned vacations, and spend more time with their families.  Some will spend time with doctors and physical therapists to work on injuries sustained during the regular season.  Some will be working with coaches and trainers to develop in areas where they feel they need extra help.  Others will cut back on their training schedule.  Still others will spend time with agents trying to get traded to another team (or avoid being traded to another team).

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People who study sports often say that what happens in the “off-season” can be as important to players and teams as what happens during the intense training of the regular season.  Habits form, attitudes develop, team chemistry alters– any or all of these factors can change for better or for worse.

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The same is true in our prayer lives.  When we are facing struggles or heartaches, we pray with intensity and passion.  But when things are going smoothly, sometimes we let our prayer lives “take a break.”  We pray with less frequency, less intensity, and less focus.  I’m guilty of this; even though I know it can happen, bad habits creep in, and suddenly, my prayer life is haphazard and lackluster.  Using a journal helps, in that I have a focus for each day already written in, and a place to write in new requests, and even answers.

However, a major part of staying on course is to commit to the discipline of prayer.  “Discipline” sounds boring and constrained–something I do out of obligation and not out of love.  But that’s not true of all discipline.  Athletes are disciplined– because they love their sport, and they want to develop and play at the best of their ability.  Musicians are disciplined– because they love music, and they want to develop their art.  Professional athletes and musicians often have a contractual commitment to stay in practice and develop their talents.  When athletes are part of a team, or musicians are part of a band, orchestra, or chamber group, they have an additional reason to be disciplined– to play more effectively with others.

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In my personal life, there are disciplines– hygiene, sleep habits, diet, and exercise, that I practice, not because I love saying, “NO” to that piece of chocolate cake or walking that extra mile, but because I want to stay healthy, clean, and active.  Prayer is no different– except that it is for my spiritual health– and it is part of my relationship with God.

Instead of slacking off during the “off-season”, many athletes and musicians will use this time to step back and look at what they have learned, what they would like to do better, and how they can develop their skills.  I think this offers a great opportunity in prayer, as well.  After a season of grief, struggle, doubt, or testing, it is good to take some time to make some assessments.  Sometimes we don’t know all the reasons for the times of testing or trial we have just faced.  But that doesn’t mean that we can’t look back and see whether we have grown, or if we need to make some adjustments, or if we have developed new habits or skills (good or bad).  It is a good time to “count our blessings”, “pray without ceasing”, “ask, seek, and knock”, and look at the ways God has been faithful (and hopefully ways that we have been faithful!) over the years.

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Some of us are in the struggle of a busy, harsh, or painful season.  Let’s not let that struggle go to waste.  Some of us will be facing trials next week, or next month–spending time training in the “off-season” will make us stronger for the fight!  And the best news– we already know the outcome!  Let’s pray harder– pray stronger–and go for the win!

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Why There Are No Do-Attitudes…

In Jesus’ Sermon On the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus listed what have become known as “The Beatitudes”.  Each phrase begins with “Blessed are..” or “Happy are…” (depending on the translation).  The blessings are specific, but they are also reserved for those who do not appear to be due for blessings– the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the persecuted, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Each group seems pitiable, not suited for accolades and celebration.  They’ve done nothing to deserve blessing.  Yet Jesus calls them “Happy” and assigns them amazing gifts and blessings– not for their hard work or achievements, but because of their emptiness; their need and their ability to receive the blessings of God.

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There are wonderful sermons and analyses and studies on the Beatitudes, but in relation to prayer, I want to look at this aspect.  There are no blessings in the list for the doers– the movers and shakers, the revolutionaries and the organizers and life-changers.  Throughout the Sermon, Jesus spends more time on attitude than on action–Murder is an action– forbidden by the Ten Commandments– but it is based on attitudes like hatred, disdain, envy, and rage.  Clearly, Jesus does not want us to be unproductive or isolated from the needs of others, but our busyness, our stress, our huffing and puffing and scurrying about, does not impress Him, nor does it bring us the kind of happiness only God can offer.

He gives the same emphasis when he discusses prayer– prayer is not about public eloquence or long strings of words or excessive emotional outbursts.  In fact, effective prayer has little to do with who is praying, what words or word order or language they use, where they pray, or when they pray.  It IS about how and why and TO WHOM they are praying.  And the only active verb not assigned to “Our Father” is found in the phrase, “…as we forgive…”

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God does not command us to pray seven times a day, or to have a prayer list a mile long, or to pray only when we are in great need.  He wants us to “pray without ceasing”, not as a recurring action, but as a constant state of being aware of and responsive to His presence.

I have a niece who has spent several years in dance.  When she was a beginner, it was both comical and sad to watch as she and many others agonized and counted the steps out as they performed– often getting all the right steps, but a slight beat ahead of or behind the music and/or the other dancers.  But what a delight to see the development of young students into graceful dancers– seeing the transition from just doing the right steps at the (approximate) right time to internalizing and coordinating the music and movement into art.

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I have friends who are runners, and while I don’t run, I have watched those who do…there is a difference in the stride, the posture, and the face of someone who is “a runner” and someone who is just “running.”  It’s not the action, but the attitude that makes the difference.

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Prayer is a gift; a privilege; a sacred meditative conversation with our Creator, Our Father, and our King.  I don’t want to just pray– I want to BE in Prayer!

“Hallowed Be Thy Name…”

Christians have a lot of confusing “jargon”.  If you grew up in the church, there are certain words and phrases that are supposed to be intuitively understood.  If you didn’t grew up in the Bible Belt, or in an old-time church, you may feel like you’ve been dropped into a parallel universe where people speak the King’s English– but it’s King James’ English!  Words that would fit neatly into a Shakespearean monologue are flung at you:  “Thou shalt not,” “graven images”, “begat”, “beseecheth”, “whosoever believeth,” “Hallowed be Thy Name.”

As a child, I used to think the phrase was “hollow-ed be thy name”– it was confusing.  Why would God want his name emptied and hollow?  Why would I do that?  Of course, it was explained to me that “hallowed” meant holy, or honored, or revered.  That made more sense, but I think in some ways we have done more “hollow-ing” and less “hallow-ing” of God’s name in our churches lately.

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And it’s not just the argument I hear a lot about actual language usage.  I hear some people complain about those who pray to “Daddy God” or “Papa God” or those who use “OMG” when they text, or “Jeesh!”  To me, these are “splinter” arguments (another Christian jargon term, referring to Jesus’ example of someone trying to pick a splinter out of someone else’s eye when they have a plank in their own!).  The real trend I see is that we are losing our attitude of AWE in God’s presence.  We use words, and carry attitudes that devalue the one who is most worthy of our absolute best.  Or, we try to put ourselves, our own efforts, and our own attitudes in His place.

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God wants a relationship with us; he loves us with an extravagant, boundless, and everlasting love.  He doesn’t want us to run from him in fear or hide from him behind big, empty, but important-sounding words.  In fact, in his time on Earth, Jesus walked side by side with his disciples, he ate with people, embraced his friends and family, danced, burped, wiped his nose,  held children on his lap, laughed, and lived among us.  But he is eternally GOD.  Yahweh– the LORD–I AM.  Almighty, all-powerful, omniscient and completely HOLY.  And his Name is to be revered.

When we say that we follow Christ;  when we call ourselves Christians, we bear that name– we take on that name–we strive to be ambassadors and representatives of that name which is above all names.  This isn’t just about saying his name, “Jesus”, “Father”, “Savior”, “Heavenly Father” in a less-than-honorable fashion.  It’s about how we represent His Name as his ambassadors.

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We’re not perfect; we will not always live up to the Name we carry– that’s part of the Gospel message–Jesus came to show us how we ought to live, and to give us victory over the reality that we can’t do it in our own flawed state.  But in praying “Hallowed be thy Name,” we are not asking for God’s name to become more honorable.  We are asking God to give us the wisdom, the power, and the desire to bring him the honor and worship he so rightly deserves.  And that only happens when we live transparently, humbly, and in a manner worthy of His Name.

“Our Father, who art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name…”

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