Sin isn’t a popular topic of conversation. Most of us would rather talk of victorious living; of accomplishments, righteous thoughts, life choices that “worked out” to our benefit. If we must talk of wrongs, we prefer to speak of “shortcomings,” or circumstances “forcing” us to make bad choices. We point fingers at those who could have/should have helped us, or warned us, or given us better guidance. We may even acknowledge shame or guilt for choices we’ve made, and speak of atonement, or lessons learned.
But God has provided for forgiveness–not a denial of our guilt; not a “free pass” for our actions–something beyond our capacity to give or “earn.” God alone is capable of perfect judgment. He never makes excuses; nor does he accept them. He knows every detail of every choice you’ve ever made–the motivations, the circumstances, the alternatives–and He has the power to pronounce eternal judgment AND eternal forgiveness.
We have a tendency to give partial forgiveness, because we do not have God’s perfect knowledge or judgment. We get trapped in a cycle of guilt and shame, or blame and bitterness, because we want to see a perfect justice that is often missing in our fallen world. We tend to forget the benefits of God, instead focusing on the deficiencies of ourselves and our neighbors.
God forgives ALL our sins–but we must seek that forgiveness and accept it! God heals all our diseases– some of them here and now; others in eternity. God redeems our lives from Hell–something we could never do on our own. God crowns us (read that again!) with love and compassion. He pours His love all over us– lavishly, unreservedly, undeservedly–and raises us up to eternal life.
Why do we fear to confess our sins to such a Loving God? It’s not as though He cannot see or know them. It’s not as though He is powerless or unwilling to forgive them. He wants to remove our sins “as far as the east is from the west” (v. 12) And only He can do this. When we deny or ignore our sins, they are not removed, only suppressed. When we wallow in our guilt and shame, our sin is constantly present in our mind. Only God’s perfect forgiveness can free us to make courageous and compassionate choices, confident in His love and power to heal and guide us in His ways.
Sin is ugly. And its power is too great for us to overcome on our own. Its consequences are deadly, and far-reaching– too great for us to make atonement in a lifetime. But its power is broken in the light of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. The sentence is commuted. We are reconciled to the God of Holy, Righteous Perfection. The consequences now belong to Christ yoked with us, working in and through us. We cannot perfectly atone for our actions; but we can give the burden of atonement to the One who can– and the One who can give us His power to bring healing.
When I was a child, I was something of a picky eater. I didn’t like peas, or beets, or spinach , I wasn’t fond of lumpy mashed potatoes, and I didn’t like peanut butter sandwiches, or mustard on my hamburger. Of course, my parents were not sympathetic– I had to at least try some of my vegetables or potatoes, and, like it or not, I often found a peanut butter sandwich in my school lunch bag. I didn’t have to add mustard to a hamburger at home, but if it came on my burger at the drive-in, I either had to eat it with mustard, try to scrape it off, or go without! I didn’t have to be enthusiastic about dinner, but I was taught to be grateful for it.
Now that I am an adult, I still am not fond of peas, though I have learned to like beets and spinach. I don’t eat mashed potatoes very often, lumpy or otherwise. I eat the occasional peanut butter sandwich, and I actually love mustard on my hamburgers. I have learned to like foods that I didn’t like as a child, and learned that certain foods (even peas) are good for me, whether I like them or not.
I also learned to pray as a child–we had grace at meals, family prayer time, corporate prayer at church, and bedtime prayers. I learned that sometimes prayer is spontaneous and filled with praise; other times, prayer is dragged out of pain, or anger, pride, or shame. Prayer isn’t always “palatable.” But, like eating, it is necessary and good.
Just as I needed to learn not to be a picky eater, I have to practice prayer in all its aspects. God doesn’t just want the sweet prayers of praise that I am eager to sing out. He doesn’t just want the earnest requests I set before Him. He wants the rotten, stringy, overripe confession that I’ve been hanging on to. He wants the tormented “Why?” when things are falling apart. He wants me to chew on the unanswered requests and unfulfilled longings, and swallow the pride that insists on having its own way. He wants to savor those prayers when I can’t even find the words, but I come to Him anyway, hungry for answers, but even more thirsty for His presence.
Prayer isn’t always easy. It isn’t always “satisfying” in its daily practice. But it gives life and nourishment for the soul.
So I ask myself today: What am I praying about? What do I need to bring to God in prayer? What have I held back? What have I stopped praying for (and why)? Who has been on my heart or mind, but not in my prayers? What have I been trying to do in my own way that I haven’t shared with God in prayer? What does God know about me that I haven’t acknowledged? What praise or thanks have I withheld today? What worries have I borrowed from tomorrow?
What prayer practice do I need to try, or try again? It may take some stretching, but in the end, it’ll be better than peas!
Last time Any One Who Is Without Sin…, I looked at a few verses in the gospel of John (8: 1-11), and wrote on four insights. Today, I’d like to look at some practical implications.
If I am “part of the crowd” following Jesus, how easily do I get distracted by the “Pharisees” and critics? How often do I wander off track, looking at fine points in the scriptures that fit a particular argument? How often do I get caught up in senseless debates, allowing myself to be offended or riled up? Over the past several weeks, I have seen arguments via FB , e-mail, or other social media sites where Christians are using Bible verses, Church traditions, the U.S. Constitution, and other teachings and documents to defend such things as wearing a face mask, defying executive orders, practicing (or not practicing) social distancing, and condemning family, friends, and neighbors for taking a different view. We live in a society that reacts– often instantly and with confidence in our own morality– instead of listening and contemplating. We like building strong arguments to defend…scripture? tradition? interpretation? Jesus did none of these things when confronted by this mob. He didn’t dismantle their argument with more argument– he simply got to the heart of the matter– how to deal with Sin.
How often do I come to Jesus “knowing” the answer before I ask the question? The Pharisees in the story were not really interested in Jesus’ thoughts or wisdom concerning the situation at hand. They assumed that Jesus would have to answer in only one of two ways, and that either way, he would look bad. I may not be trying to “trap” Jesus with my prayers, but often, I AM trying to seek his confirmation, rather than his wisdom and teaching. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2 Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; 3 but anyone who loves God is known by him.” (1 Corinthians 8:1b-3 NRSV) Many times, I am busier “loving” how much I know than learning how much God loves!
For me, one of the most amazing new insights about this passage is that once Jesus introduces the phrase, “Any one who is without sin…” everyone leaves– everyone except the one who has been caught in the act of sinning, and the One who has always been without sin. Dealing with Sin is a very personal thing– both confronting our own sinfulness, and acknowledging God’s perfect righteousness. Everyone in the original crowd came to hear Jesus teach. And they were comfortable letting someone else be humiliated and condemned for her sin. But when their own unrighteousness was introduced into the situation–secret sins, unconfessed sins, pride, prejudice, and more–they melted away. How often do I slink away, unwilling or ungrateful to see Jesus show mercy to someone I find “unworthy,” knowing that I am equally undeserving, knowing that I am not “without sin?” Yet the sinful woman in question is the only one who receives the full light of Jesus’ love and mercy. Dozens of others, eager to hear Jesus’ teaching, missed the greatest lesson of all. In the very next verse, at the very next opportunity to speak, Jesus makes one of the most amazing statements in the Gospels, “12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”(John 8:12 ESV) It’s not just showing up to hear him speak; it’s not just knowing the law–it’s following him that leads to light and life.
Finally, Jesus grants mercy. He doesn’t split hairs about the Law of Moses. He doesn’t dismiss the reality of Sin or guilt. He doesn’t give the woman a long list of do’s and don’ts for the future or a proscribed plan of atonement. He doesn’t give her a blank check to keep sinning. The Bible doesn’t give us an epilogue to the story. We don’t hear whether or not the woman gave up her life of adultery– we assume that she did. But why? Would she have given it up because she had “dodged a bullet” with the mob? Part of the reason she was brought to Jesus in the first place was that Roman law overruled Jewish law. The mob was not likely to stone this woman– especially within the city limits. ( In fact, in the book of Acts, we have the story of Stephen, who was stoned by a mob. He was dragged out of town, after facing trial by the Sanhedrin, and stoned because of his testimony against their unbelief. ) Would the woman’s life have changed because her guilty secret had been exposed, even though she had not been condemned? Or is it more likely that her life changed because she had an encounter with the “One who is without sin,” and found in Him a love greater than condemnation? She hadn’t planned to follow Jesus. She may not have taken his teaching seriously if she had been just “one of the crowd.” She wasn’t singled out because of her beauty or righteousness or knowledge or status. But Jesus poured out on her the fullness of His love and mercy. How would/does such an encounter change my life? Yours?
The Pharisees saw this woman as a pawn worthy of stoning; worthy of condemnation. They brought her, intending to throw “sticks and stones,” accusations, and painful, even fatal words. Jesus used words of healing and hope. May we do the same today– as we approach our neighbors and friends, and as we approach the Sinless one who died in our place.
139 O Lord, You have searched me and known me. 2 You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off. 3 You [a]comprehend my path and my lying down, And are acquainted with all my ways. 4 For there is not a word on my tongue, But behold, O Lord, You know it altogether. 5 You have [b]hedged me behind and before, And laid Your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is high, I cannot attain it.
7 Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? 8 If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in [c]hell, behold, You are there. 9 If I take the wings of the morning, And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, 10 Even there Your hand shall lead me, And Your right hand shall hold me. 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall [d]fall on me,” Even the night shall be light about me; 12 Indeed, the darkness [e]shall not hide from You, But the night shines as the day; The darkness and the light are both alike to You.
13 For You formed my inward parts; You [f]covered me in my mother’s womb. 14 I will praise You, for [g]I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Marvelous are Your works, And that my soul knows very well. 15 My [h]frame was not hidden from You, When I was made in secret, And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. 16 Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, The days fashioned for me, When as yet there were none of them.
17 How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! How great is the sum of them! 18 If I should count them, they would be more in number than the sand; When I awake, I am still with You.
19 Oh, that You would slay the wicked, O God! Depart from me, therefore, you [i]bloodthirsty men. 20 For they speak against You wickedly; [j]Your enemies take Your name in vain. 21 Do I not hate them, O Lord, who hate You? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? 22 I hate them with [k]perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxieties; 24 And see if there is any wicked way in me, And lead me in the way everlasting.
We can’t hide from God. We can ignore Him, deny His existence, even rage against Him. But we cannot escape His Spirit. We cannot hide who we are or what we think from Him. And we cannot flee from His goodness or mercy; we cannot run beyond His ability to restore us, heal us, or save us. He knows the worst about us, and He calls us to the very best we can be. Which begs the question– Why would we want to escape from God? Why do we try to hide from Him? What is it about God that would give us a reason to flee?
There are many terrifying things in this world–right now, we are faced with a global pandemic; a plague that brings sickness and death. Now THAT is something worth hiding from! Many of us are “sheltering in place,” trying to hide out until it is safer to interact with others. The disease seems to be everywhere–but it really isn’t– it cannot go where there are no hosts to carry the virus. It can be spread wherever we find other people who are infected, or where the virus lingers on surfaces. The disease does not seek us out or come searching for us if we stay put. Unfortunately, “sheltering in place” comes with its own dangers. We cannot survive long in a bubble. We are interdependent. We need food, medicine, fresh air, and interaction with family and friends to survive and thrive. Hiding away from a tiny virus is only effective in the short term. And there are other diseases from which we cannot hide– cancer and heart disease, and even other viruses that are active, but haven’t been traced or identified.
There are other terrors that we try to escape by fleeing– hurricanes, fires, floods, war, etc. And we may escape immediate danger from such terrors–if we have advance warning or if we have the means to escape. But there is no place of absolute safety: no place on earth where such dangers cannot exist. There is no Utopia– no earthly dwelling, community, or settlement where there is only goodness, harmony, peace, and plenty. There is no place to hide, and no place of escape.
It is understandable that we should want to hide from danger or flee bad things, even if such escape is impossible in life. But why should we wish to hide from a loving and merciful God? Is He as bad as COVID-19? Is He as threatening as a hurricane or an air raid?
Certainly, He is as powerful (and even more) than any of the dangers we fear. God has the power, and the authority, to judge, punish, and destroy all who live on the planet. He has the power to obliterate all of His creation, and none of us could stop Him or challenge His right to do as He pleases. And if we should challenge God’s authority, we would be wise to want to run away, hide, or escape the consequences of such foolishness.
Adam and Eve tried this long ago. After they sinned by eating the Fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they hid from God. And God’s response was not instant obliteration. He didn’t storm through Eden, destroying everything in His righteous anger before torturing Eve, making Adam watch in horror before He killed them both. Nor did God negate His Holiness by changing the consequences of sin. Death DID enter creation– along with disease, pain, guilt, envy, hatred, lying, greed, destruction– they all exist, persist, and continue to plague all of God’s creation to this day.
But God’s first act–His first words to Adam and Eve after their rebellion– was to seek their presence. God came to walk in the Garden; to meet with Adam and Eve. He called out to them, “Where are you?” He wasn’t asking because He didn’t know that they were hiding. He knew where they were, and why. And even in assigning their punishment, God did not throw extra guilt and recrimination at the fallen couple. He didn’t shout, “How could you do this to ME?!” “How dare you!” “I wish I’d never made you!” “You’re worthless. What a waste of time and energy. Get out of my garden! I never want to see you or hear from you again!”
God’s Spirit is always seeking reconciliation, communion, restoration, and love. God is Holy, and God is Merciful. Holiness desires Whole-ness. Mercy desires Peace. God pursues us, not because He wants to infect us or devour us or destroy us– God wants to hold us, heal us, and give us Life.
The danger is not in God’s presence, but in our ability to reject it. God is everywhere, but not everyone will see Him, accept His authority, or welcome His mercy. Some will spend a lifetime hiding and fleeing, only to discover that God will, reluctantly, give them what they want– an eternity without Him. Without Grace, without Love, without Peace, without Wholeness, without Hope.
That is a fate far worse than waking up to “shelter in place,” or even suffering through a virus that can separate us from loved ones for weeks, months, or even a short lifetime.
There are many things worth fleeing in life– But we can find joy, hope, and peace in the presence of a Loving and Omnipresent God.
We’re getting ready to enter the Lenten season–six and a half weeks of reflection and preparation before Easter. Lent is not a celebration in the traditional sense– it is solemn and reflective, personal and, sometimes, painful. It is a time of getting “real” about our sinful condition. The Bible says we have all fallen short of the Glory and Holiness of God (Romans 3:10) and deserve God’s wrath. The natural consequence of sin is death (Romans 6:23), and permanent separation from the goodness of God.
There are many ways we can react to this reality. I know many people who resent God’s Holiness and His laws. They do not want to face God’s righteous judgment; they believe that God’s laws are cruel and unjust, and that they do not have to answer to anyone greater then themselves.
Others want to bargain with God. They feel that if they relent– if they set a goal to do more good than harm, if they strive to be better than “the next guy”–God will weigh their good deeds in the balance and judge them in comparison with how bad they “might have been.”
But God doesn’t judge on a curve– He doesn’t judge us by our measure, but by His. And none of us “make the grade.”
If that were the final word– the end of the story– there would be no reason to relent, and it wouldn’t make any difference if we were resentful. But God, from the very beginning, designed a different outcome. His judgement is just, but it is not without hope or remedy. God Himself has given us the chance to change– to repent. Repentance is agreeing with (not resenting) God’s judgment, and responding (not bargaining) with changed behavior and a changed attitude.
Lent begins when we confront the great gulf between God’s Holiness and our sinfulness. It stretches through the realization that sin and its consequences surround us, hem us in, and poison our world. It is a time of sadness and gaping loss, when we long for healing, for hope, and for a home we’ve never seen. It is a time for reflecting on the cost involved–not just in human suffering, but in God’s suffering as a human. God, who could have, in His righteousness, destroyed even the memory of mankind, chose to share our sufferings– hunger, cold, exhaustion, rejection, heartbreak, betrayal, death– to that we could be delivered into everlasting life.
Lent ends as we remember Jesus’ death and burial– His ultimate sacrifice for our debt. It ends with a shattering trumpet-blast of hope and joy on Easter Morning. Our sadness and loss is NOT the end– Sin’s power and poison are illusory. They have no power over our Great God.
It can be tempting to respond to our present circumstances with resentment. It can be tempting to relent in our rebellion– trying to bargain with God, and minimize the cost He had to pay, trying to pay the price ourselves with a show of good behavior and a superficial devotion.
But God’s great Love and Mercy should draw us to worship and true devotion. As we reflect on the great gulf between sin and holiness, it should cause us to gladly repent– to lay on the altar all the substitutes and lesser things that keep us from full communion with the Lover of Our Souls.
Our prayers during this season may be difficult. They may be filled with grief, loss, and pain. But they may also be filled with hope and joy as we anticipate the gift of Grace. And they should be filled with praise. After all, Lent is a season; a season to reflect, a season to repent, a season to mourn, but a season with a beginning and an end; a season that gives way to celebration and a sure hope of resurrection!
In “Pursuing Prayer”, I want to explore ways to develop my prayers; to become “better” at praying– more confident, more Christlike. But along the way, I have found that “better” doesn’t always mean what I think it ought to mean. Sometimes, becoming “better” requires becoming broken.
I don’t like being broken. I don’t want to be shattered, ruined, like a broken vase. I don’t want to pray like a broken record– sending up the same failures, the same weaknesses, the same painful memories. I don’t want to be pinched, and cracked, and mangled. I don’t want to be stretched and molded and squeezed. I want to have comforting chats with God, not drawn-out confessions, or rebukes, or unanswered questions.
It is tempting to avoid brokenness–cover it up, pretend, deny, ignore its existence. I don’t want to bring God my questions, my fears, my hurts. I don’t want to open up the dark places of my soul. I want to wear a smile and make small talk with God–“How are you today?” “Just lovely, Father, and how are you?” “Fine weather we’re having.” “Yes, thank you for the breezes yesterday. And could I just put in a plug for my neighbor’s gall bladder surgery? I told her I would pray for her, so could you just give her a speedy healing? That’d be great. Well, gotta run. Talk to you soon…Oh, and I’m sorry for the way I blew up at the kids the other day. I don’t know WHAT got into me. You know I’m just not that way, right? So I’m just asking for grace to kinda cover that up and make it ok again. Thanks.”
God is not fooled. God is not impressed or amused at our shallow righteousness. He’s not impressed or overcome by our brokenness, either. But He wants it, anyway. He wants all of it. Because He wants to build honesty, intimacy, and most of all, restoration. God doesn’t want us to wallow in our failures, any more than He wants us to gloat in our false perfection. He wants to break the bondage they have over us. He doesn’t get tired of hearing our voices, even in guilt or shame, rage or despair…if they are raised to Him. He doesn’t want us to stay shattered and ruined. But He needs us to be redirected, refreshed, rebuilt, rekindled, and renewed.
There are many things that need to be “broken” to become better– we “break” in shoes, we “break” ground to create a new field or prepare for a new building. We “break bread” to eat it and share it with others. We “break” horses in order to prepare them to run or work more effectively. We “break” bad habits. We even “break” the ice in a new friendship. The point is not to stay broken, but to “break through” whatever is keeping us oppressed and held down.
When I am feeling broken, and I cry out to God, He doesn’t deny my brokenness; He doesn’t turn away in disgust; He doesn’t stick a hasty bandage on my wounds. God acknowledges my pain, He listens to my questions. He loves me enough to come and stay with me through the worst moments–even when others have gone; even when I deny His presence and turn my face to the wall–and He begins the process of turning even those scars and cracks and tears into treasures.
Brokenness is inevitable in our fallen and broken world– God is not out to break us; people and time, circumstances, and even our own good intentions will cause us to fall and fail–am I willing to uncover my brokenness and need, and allow God to reshape my shattered dreams?
I try not to bring current events into my writings on prayer. That said, I feel compelled to discuss some recent events in light of a growing trend–instant and polarizing reactions to small events, petty arguments, and even non-events.
Recently, a celebrity–one whose entire career has been predicated on her whining, hateful, politically incorrect rhetoric–was fired and her TV show cancelled over a single “tweet” she sent making fun of a former White House employee. The TV show in question was a regurgitation of her popular sitcom from 30 years ago; a show that was controversial then because of its irreverence and foul language. The new show quickly invited controversy by seeming to support the current president– also known for making offensive and cringe-worthy tweets.
There is more than enough finger-pointing, blame-sharing, and shaming in the wake of this incident–but there is even more hypocrisy. The people who are celebrating in the wake of this comedienne’s downfall are the very ones who were supporting her three decades ago– then she was “bold” and “brave” and “real.” These same people were likely watching the new version of the TV show just last week. Now she is “racist” and “abhorrent” (I guess the word “hateful” is suffering from overuse, and needs a stand-in– it was used in at least two of the tweets from her boss and colleagues) and “unacceptable”. The people who are defending her now were the ones calling for boycotts of her show in the late ’80s for its flippant tone and dysfunctional family morals. They are calling for more shows to be cancelled– shows they still watch; shows they discuss freely on social media; or maybe shows they don’t watch, because their friends tell them how they should react to what they’ve missed.
My point is that controversies and “outrages” like this are becoming more common, more polarizing, and more hypocritical every week. In the rush to judgment, we are losing our focus and missing the bigger picture. What this comedienne said was offensive– it was juvenile, personal, hurtful. It wasn’t funny, it wasn’t appropriate, and it wasn’t fair. But it also wasn’t shocking. The reprisal was swift and harsh, but that wasn’t really shocking, either, except in the context of the show’s success (it was the highest rated show of the season). In the days and weeks that follow, some will regret that this action left dozens of other actors and staff without jobs, and others will cry foul at those who continue to “get away” with bad behavior and hurtful language. But few of us will turn the spotlight on our own faults, our own use of social media or hateful language, or our own contributions to the cut-throat culture that surrounds us.
Before I cheer or protest or react to this recent event, I want to ask forgiveness–for losing my focus. I invited that TV show into my living room, along with those characters and their skewed values. I watched video clips of interviews and failed attempts at the National Anthem and other scandals, and I chuckled. I clicked on the news stories about the sitcom “reboot”, and considered watching it because it would be controversial– something to talk about, yell about, or laugh at. And I clicked on the “news” of this comedienne’s downfall, consuming it like popcorn, and being entertained by the fallout.
Forgive me, Father, and restore my focus. Create a clean heart in me, and be my pure vision. Help me to stop pointing fingers at others and point others to you.
Hebrews 12:1-2New International Version (NIV)
12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
We experienced some storms last week, and while we didn’t have a lot of damage from the winds and rain, my husband and I lost our internet connection over the weekend. No wireless internet meant no Facebook, no WordPress, no e-mail, and no cash register at our little shop downstairs. We had to do every transaction by hand until we could rig up something so our smart phone could accept cards; no new chip cards, no Apple Pay or PayPal. And while our phone could begin to accept limited credit payments, it could not provide any printed receipts, nor could it do double duty– we either had a phone or a point-of-sale device, but not both!
It was an inconvenience, but not a disaster. I thought about thousands of people who are stuck in the aftermath of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, and blizzards who have no electricity, no phone lines, no cell service, no roads, no water or sewer lines–cut off from common necessities and basic communication. Suddenly, an emergency becomes even more tragic because of the isolation, and the inability to ask for help or to hear any message of hope. (Of course, my husband would like me to put in a short plug here about the advantages of amateur radio– the radios can run on battery power and still connect over hundreds of miles!)
Isolation is an earthly concept. God is eternally Triune. He created us for relationship; from the very beginning, he declared that it is not good for “man” to be alone (Genesis 2:18) God instituted marriage, and families, and communities so that we would stay connected, and he himself came to walk and talk with mankind in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. It is mankind who hid from God and broke off communication– one of the effects of Sin is the desire to run away, to separate, to isolate and cut off relationships and break off contact.
That is one reason that prayer is so basic; so essential. It is a lifeline to the one who loves us best, who knows what we need, and has the power to hear us, to help us, to lift us up wherever we may be, whatever our circumstances.
But sometimes, even when we want to talk to God, it seems impossible to speak or feel like he hears us. Sometimes, we are the ones who can’t come up with words, or can’t settle our minds to seek his face. Sometimes, we pour out our hearts and wait in silence for an answer. Why should it be that just when we need it most, prayer seems the hardest?
I wish I had a pithy, perfect answer. I don’t know. I have a few incomplete thoughts, though:
what comes easily has less value to us. Cheap and pointless conversation doesn’t make us work hard, but it also leaves us empty and unsatisfied. Crying out to God is hard–it humbles us, it strips us bare and uncovers all our pretenses and subterfuge. The true depth of our need is ripped out of us like a tumor, and it hurts, but it is a healing hurt. Waiting in silence can cause us to become restless and to doubt, but it also can cause us to listen more attentively– we strain to hear the answer; we stop the white noise of busyness and half-hearted hand-wringing, and listen with our whole being. And the smallest whisper– that still, small voice– has the power of the first rain after a long drought. We are revitalized and our strength renewed as never before.
sometimes, though not always, we find prayer difficult because we have not really prayed for a long time (if ever)– we have developed a habit of saying words to the empty air and thinking that the words themselves hold some power of hope or magic or self-fulfilling prophecy. When life’s realities cannot be wished away with simple words, we search for distractions, for other types of words, for other “realities”, when we should be searching for our maker and the lover of our souls.
sometimes, it is a matter of unacknowledged or unconfessed sin that keeps us from breaking through in prayer. However, there are many people who will use this as a default position, and that, too, is wrong. Jesus had such difficulty in praying at Gethsemane that he sweat drops of blood— NOT because of unconfessed sin, but because his heart was that overwhelmed. Still, we should examine ourselves to see if we have started to move away from God– better to turn back than to go father afield.
sometimes, as with Christ in the Garden, our hearts are just overwhelmed in the moment– it’s hard to breathe! It’s hard to go on; it’s hard to ask for help; it’s hard to keep the faith. Just because it’s difficult, don’t give up– even if all you can do is groan or whimper–even if it feels like God has closed up the heavens and left you alone–don’t give up. God DOES hear, he DOES care. Sometimes, we are inches from victory– don’t give up!
And what can we do during those times? Again, I wish I had better answers, but what I have, I want to share– some from my own experience, some wisdom from others, some of both:
Learn to “pray outside the box”–
Sing–sing the blues, sing an old hymn, sing along with the radio, sing like nobody else is listening
Write it out– write a letter, write an angry letter if you have to– write a rant, write a poem, write out all your questions
Move– dance, pace, run, punch a pillow, do some sit-ups, mop the floor, scrub the sink– as you get a rhythm going, add your thoughts or questions to your movements
Cry it out– it’s ok to cry, moan, sob, weep, or just stare into space and rock yourself to sleep after all the tears have dried up. Jesus wept (John 11:35)– what makes us think that we can’t?
Count your blessings
Make a list of what you have; what you have to be grateful for; what you have experienced and enjoyed now or in the past
Make a list of your questions, concerns, needs, wants, wishes–Now think back ten years and make a list of what you wanted then, and how many of those concerns have been answered, altered, or forgotten.
Put yourself in another time or place– what do you have here and now that others lack? How do your present troubles compare to what others have had to deal with?
Ramp up your pursuit of God in other areas–
Search for answers in His word
Seek the companionship of someone you trust who will help you keep on going
Seek out counselors, web sites, and/or a church group or family who can keep you from becoming isolated
The single most important thing is to continue the pursuit– seek God with all your heart–and you will find him sufficient through the silent times, as well as through the roaring of the fiercest storms.
In blogging about prayer and in keeping a prayer journal, there is one type of prayer I don’t dwell on very often. Prayers of confession and repentance are very important, but I don’t include them in my journal and I don’t spend much time analyzing them. It’s not that I want to ignore them or that I want to give a false impression that I don’t say them.
I’m a saint–but only in the sense that Christ’s blood is my atonement and my only hope of salvation. He who started the work is still working, and there’s a lot of work yet to be done. So, while I include prayers of confession and repentance in my practice of pursuing prayer, I don’t write them down or share them publicly.
Here are some of the reasons I don’t spend more time talking about confession:
Confession is not meant to be a public spectacle. It is generally private and very personal between an individual and God. Apologies may be public, and repentance may include public atonement or recompense, but those are not prayer; rather they are the actions taken in conjunction with and as a result of prayer and confession.
Confession is fundamental– it’s not a prayer option, or a stylistic preference–every one of us has sinned, and we all need to admit to our sins, bring them before the throne of God’s grace, and ask for his forgiveness. Hiding sins, denying sins, or lying about them will get in the way of all our other prayers.
Writing about past sins keeps them alive and keeps the focus on me and on my faults, rather than on God and on His Grace.
Making confession public has a tendency to devolve into gossip and self-justification. Descriptions of my sinful actions will necessarily be from my incomplete and very biased point of view. Other people can be misrepresented and hurt.
But the last reason is my favorite– I don’t waste time writing down and discussing past sins because GOD HAS FORGOTTEN THEM! Writing them down, rehearsing them, analyzing them–even analyzing how I might approach confession won’t change God’s response.
Psalm 103:10-12New International Version (NIV)
10 he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. 11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; 12 as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
The key is that we DO confess– humbly, consistently, and with a heart of true repentance. What follows is a free and forgiven conscience, no longer weighted down or pulled off focus by guilt and doubt.