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:
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.
Psalm 103:10-12New International Version (NIV)
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.
Of course, we can’t literally pray all the time– we need to eat, sleep, work, travel, and talk with other people as we go through our days. But we always have the ability and the access to cry out to God. There is never a time when God is too busy, or we are unable to formulate a prayer in our hearts and minds. Even if we can’t find the words!
This was borne to me again in the last few months of my Mom’s life. As her health deteriorated; as she started to have trouble remembering names and seeing faces, she still remained committed to prayer. She was always eager for information– who was traveling; who was celebrating a birthday; who was in the hospital; who was in the middle of a divorce; who was moving to a new community, or had just moved here from elsewhere? Even if she couldn’t send a greeting card, or attend a wedding or other event, she could pray.
I know several moms and dads whose lives are hectic. They don’t have the luxury of hours to devote to prayer and Bible study. They may have minutes! Their lives are filled with the morning commute, with cleaning up small disasters everywhere, with trying to balance family life and work life. But they can pray– they can pray as they ride the train, or at their desk; they can pray as they sweep up the latest mess, or as they take a precious (and too-short) bathroom break! They can pray with their children, for their children, or surrounded by co-workers. They can pray silent, desperate prayers or short bursts of praise.
I know several others who are in my mom’s situation. They are aging, or ill; they are bedridden and in pain. They can’t get up; they can’t DO the things they would wish to do. They can’t give hugs or write letters or make phone calls to encourage others. Many of them cannot feed themselves or talk. But they can pray! They have the same access to God’s comfort, wisdom, and Love as everyone else. They can pray with groans and thoughts– even scattered and burdened ones.
I know some people who “don’t know how” to pray. They are new to Faith, or they have strayed so far, they just can’t seem to concentrate on what they want to say to God. They are plagued by guilt, shame, or unresolved bitterness. They feel unworthy, or unclean. Yet, they can still pray. They can cry out in lingering doubt and despair– “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24) They can ask the difficult questions for which only God has the answers– questions about forgiveness, injustice, pain, and grief.
I am fortunate. I have a lot of “down time” at our shop. It’s not a very busy (or very prosperous!) shop. But it offers me the opportunity to pray, and to write about prayer. I have the time to think about prayer– what it means, how it works, why it is so vital. And even after a lifetime of praying, I still get surprised by new opportunities for prayer. The other day, a customer walked in, very upset. She was a stranger to me, but I was prompted to ask if I could just take a minute to pray for her. Suddenly, her heart spilled out. The details are her story, and not for this blog post, but God gave me the opportunity to offer encouragement and hope and (hopefully) wise advice as she has many life-changing decisions to make.
I can continue to pray for her situation today. And I can lift up prayers for family, friends, neighbors, and so many others throughout the day. I can pray for Estonia– a nation I’ve never visited and know very little about, but one that God knows and loves dearly! I can pray for K____, one of our “regulars” who stops by the shop to talk and look around, and occasionally to buy something small that he can afford. I can sing praises for all the many attributes or our Amazing God! I can thank God for His many blessings, including a praying mother! I can seek wisdom for the days ahead, and forgiveness for the sins of the past.
I can pray from my seat behind the counter. I can pray in a booth at the local fast food place, and with my husband at our dinner table. I can pray while I wait in line at the grocery. I can pray as I sort through my Mom’s papers and clothes, or as I clean around the shop or at home. I can pray in bed. And yes, I can even pray in the bathroom! I can pray whether I am happy or sad; whether I am under stress or breezing through the day. I can pray in English or “Spanglish” or with groans or snatches of song. I can pray with my eyes open, with my fingers flying across the keys of my computer, or as I walk to the post office.
Children can pray; prison inmates can pray; patients in hospitals can pray; soldiers and construction workers and chefs can all pray. Sewer workers and surgeons, clowns and corporate CEOs, gardeners and guards, taxi drivers (eyes opened!) and teachers– all can pray. Moms and Grandfathers, sisters and uncles can all pray. Those who are blind, lame, mute, or mentally challenged can all pray. Wise men and fools can pray. Strong or weak, rich or poor, king or captive– all can pray.
whose sin the Lord will never count against them.”
Romans 4:7-8 (NIV) via biblegateway.com (See also Psalm 32:1-2)
Ask me about my most embarrassing moment, or my greatest failure..better yet, ask one of my friends or relatives! We tend to hang on to our past, especially our mistakes, our hurts, our missed opportunities, and our shortcomings. When I taught public speaking in a local high school, I heard horror stories about why “I can’t get in front of people and talk.” The fear of public speaking rates higher in some studies than the fear of Death! And often, the fear is based on an incident from early childhood of people laughing at a small, but very public mistake. Such moments haunt us.
As we grow older, we let our regrets live large– those things we “would have, should have, could have” done, or the things we shouldn’t have said, but can never un-say. And even if we try to move on or forget the past, there always seems to be someone who cannot let go, cannot forgive, or cannot forgive. Lives have been stunted and ruined by the ghosts of “what happened” when…
God is all-knowing. There is nothing we’ve ever done, said, or even thought, that He “missed,” ignored, or “lost track of.” God has total recall over all the centuries and eons of time– past, present, and even future! And yet, God offers to forgive ALL our sins, and to “remember them no more.” God will never bring up “that time when you disappointed me…” God will never look at you with condemnation over anything you have confessed and repented over. It’s not that God will never be able to recall what happened; but He will no longer “charge it to your account.” He has chosen to pay the consequences in His own Blood, so that you can be debt free.
Imagine if you had no bills. If all your mortgages, utility payments, credit card debt, medical bills–everything that you were responsible to pay– all were stamped “Paid in full.” You never had to worry about interest payments, late fees, repossession, evening phone calls from bill collectors, credit scores, etc. What a weight off your shoulders! Imagine if you had no reason to fear getting in front of a room full of people to speak or sing or give a presentation– no fear that others would judge your every hesitation, or whether your tie was straight, or your hair was mussed, or you stumbled over a word or phrase or tripped on the steps leading up to the podium. Imagine being accepted and embraced by the very one who, by rights, should be your most severe critic.
Sometimes, when we see God as our critic, our judge, or our opponent, we’re not seeing God as He really is– we’re seeing a reflection of ourselves– harsh, judgmental, unwilling to forgive others; unwilling to forgive ourselves. The very first deception of the Enemy was to distort God’s image from Creator and Sustainer to Judge and Tyrant. Yet Satan is called “The Accuser,” not God. God’s Holy Spirit may convict us of Sin– causing us to see that we have done wrong– but His purpose is always to correct and restore us, not to haunt and condemn us. Even the “worst” sins are not beyond God’s ability or willingness to forgive. Jesus forgave His accusers, His betrayers, and His executioners from the Cross!
Forgiveness is not easy. Sin is real; it has real and terrible consequences. Sin hurts, humiliates, victimizes, and traumatizes. And its effects do not simply vanish if we say, “I forgive.” But hanging on to the pain and anger keeps us from finding and experiencing the healing and wholeness that Jesus offers. Forgiveness does not mean that the sin, or the pain, never happened– God will not “forget” injustice just because we forgive the unjust. Forgiveness means that we no longer need to try to collect the debt from someone else– because God has already promised to pay it back with interest! And forgiving yourself doesn’t mean that your past actions didn’t happen or didn’t cause pain. In fact, whenever there are opportunities to atone for past actions, or ask forgiveness from those we have wronged, we should take them. But where such opportunities are impossible for us, even when we cannot see how such pain could be redeemed or relationships restored, God has promised that we can move beyond our past mistakes and live a new , blessed, and debt-free life.
When we approach God in prayer, we come as we are– people with past mistakes, very human emotions, including doubt and fear, and unworthy to stand on our own before a perfect God. But it is God who invites us to come to Him– debt free and embraced by His limitless Grace!
I could have welcomed that visitor at church this morning… The one who looked a little lost; a little overwhelmed.
I could have smiled when I paid my utility bill the other day– When the clerk asked if she could help me, and thanked me, and sent me on my way.
I might have offered my unused coupons to that young man who was shopping– The one with two boisterous kids in the cart, and very few groceries. Maybe he would have been offended. But maybe it would have given him an opportunity And a little hope.
I thought about calling an old friend and asking if we could pray together. Maybe we could have met for tea or gone for a walk together.
I had planned to clean out the closet and set aside some clothes to take to a local shelter.
I considered calling my sister, sending a card to that widower from church, or e-mailing my cousin…
I really needed to spend a little time in confession and repentance, and cleansing. I needed to be renewed, recharged, and transformed. At least, I thought I did. But something else claimed my thoughts, and my good intentions. Now, I just feel worn and guilty and unworthy.
And the “thing” is– I didn’t do anything horrible. I didn’t make anyone cry, or rob a bank. I didn’t burn dinner or break the speed limit. I didn’t break my marriage vows or embezzle a fortune. I didn’t break the law– I didn’t even break a sweat!
I just Didn’t.
Lord, today, I pray that you would light a fire under me. Help me to see the opportunities all around me– tiny acts of kindness, and truths that I need to hold tight. Show me people who need a listening ear, or a helping hand, or a word of encouragement. Help me to move “at the impulse of your love.” And when You direct me to be still, help me to be still and KNOW that You are a God of purpose and hope; joy and abundance. Help me to BE first–to Be obedient, to Be humble, to Be available. But then, help me to DO what you would have me do for Your Great Name. Thank you for second (and third) chances to BE and DO all that brings You honor. Amen.
I won’t waste space to analyze all that I think is wrong with this scenario– but I will say the following:
$2,500 is a lot of money for most Americans, let alone many others around the world It’s more than most people spend in a month for groceries, utilities, and more, let alone one meal.
Talk is (according to the old phrase) cheap.
If having difficult talks over a plate of overpriced pasta and wine could really solve major problems, I’m shocked that we still have so many problems in the world!
I’m dismayed by this article. I hope that some good comes from these efforts, but I don’t expect such tactics to end racism, bigotry, or ignorance. These women are paying for a privilege on top of all their other privileges– the right to feel righteous and “woke” to lingering problems that have never personally touched them. It would not occur to them to invite 10 women who don’t look like them, don’t live like them, don’t speak like them, and don’t dress like them to come and share their dinner. They would not share their hospitality, their fine china, or their fancy dessert with a working-class woman with olive skin and an accent, or a single mother fighting to make ends meet and losing the battle– of any skin color. They might give another $2,500 to a homeless shelter or soup kitchen across town– they would not befriend anyone who needed those services, however.
Most importantly, they are likely to believe that by “owning” their prejudices for an hour, they are absolved of their responsibility to “love their neighbor as themselves.” They can be comfortable in the belief that their feelings “do them credit” and make them better than others who “are in denial” about their “subconscious biases” and “micro-aggressions” toward the people with whom they interact (or routinely ignore). They may take high-minded actions to force the government to “deal with” people less fortunate than they, but they will take no steps to get involved personally with the families who suffer from injustice and poverty just outside the gates of their exclusive communities.
But another more insidious problem with the article is the way I can choose to respond to it. Articles like this are designed (on some level) to create anger, division, and a sense of disgust toward those who are considered “privileged.” I look at the hypocrisy outlined in this article, and I may assume that “privileged” rich white people are all alike. I may assume that the “problem” is their affluence and their indifference– that if they could be “made to” care more, or made to pay “their fair share”, poverty would disappear, and with it, prejudice and other issues that separate the “privileged” from the “rest of us.”
But poverty, prejudice, injustice, and other issues are symptoms of a much greater problem– Sin. And Sin is a problem that can never be solved by sitting down over a meal or writing a large check or even learning empathy with others who suffer. In one very large sense, we all are “paying a price” for Sin. We live in a broken world, where Sin and its effects are felt by all. Even wealthy, healthy, “privileged” people suffer heartache, betrayal, loneliness, confusion, addiction, and loss. None of us has the “privilege” of being untouched by Sin.
And while each of us can and should be active in helping to mitigate the effects of Sin, we cannot eliminate them. We can never “pay” enough to make Sin and its consequences “go away.” Only the shed blood of Jesus Christ can do that. The real “privilege” in life is not great wealth, or social standing. It isn’t comfort and the ability to shell out a month’s wages for a single uncomfortable meal. It isn’t the temporary feeling of being more “virtuous” than one’s neighbor–and that brings me to reflect on my own actions and beliefs.
What “privileges” do I take for granted? What makes me feel “virtuous?” What makes me feel guilty or ashamed, that I would “pay” to have someone else make me feel “enlightened?” Jesus doesn’t call me to “feel” virtuous. He calls me to follow Him and become more virtuous. He has already paid far more than a month’s wages (or even a lifetime’s wages) to redeem me from Sin’s curse, and allow me to live with peace and joy– no matter my financial or social circumstances! I have the very real “privilege” of knowing Him! And so can anyone else who puts their trust in Him. Through Him, we have riches that cannot be sold, bought, lost, or traded. But they can be shared! I cannot rid the world of poverty, prejudice, greed, injustice, or death. But I can help others find strength, hope, relief, and joy in their journey, as I point them to the Savior. I can’t give a thousand dollars, but I can give a few dollars to a local food bank, or volunteer time to help others. I can share food or water or clothes with someone who is in need just down the street. I can listen to someone who needs a friend, and I can offer to serve where someone needs a helping hand. I can also give the benefit of a doubt instead of harsh judgment– even to those who seem hypocritical or “unenlightened” in their earthly “privilege.”
Lord, my prayer today is that I would pour out compassion– even on the ladies in this article–and on all who need it most. Your heart is that all of us would live in peace and lovingkindness. Help me to see my neighbors as you see them–ALL my neighbors. All the time.
The real privilege is not of wealth or comfort. The real privilege is to learn to love and be loved as Jesus loves– freely, sacrificially, whole-heartedly and without limit. May we celebrate in that privilege today.
12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses [who by faith have testified to the truth of God’s absolute faithfulness], stripping off every unnecessary weight and the sin which so easily and cleverly entangles us, let us run with endurance and active persistence the race that is set before us, 2 [looking away from all that will distract us and] focusing our eyes on Jesus, who is the Author and Perfecter of faith [the first incentive for our belief and the One who brings our faith to maturity], who for the joy [of accomplishing the goal] set before Him endured the cross, disregarding the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God [revealing His deity, His authority, and the completion of His work].
Hebrews 12:1-2 (The Amplified Bible, via biblegateway.com)
My first job out of college was in an advertising/public relations firm. I was not a copywriter or an executive. I was a proofreader. It was not my job to write ad copy, or even edit it. But it was my job to see that the end product was perfect– no spelling or typographical errors, no missing punctuation or wrong spacing, no missing or “covered” text near the graphics.
Most publishers don’t use proofreaders anymore. In this age of spellcheck and computer grammar programs, they no longer feel the need to hire a person to do such a mundane job. And it wasn’t a thrilling job. It was boring and repetitive to look over the same copy several times to make corrections or to sign off on corrected copy. Sometimes, I would look at the same few lines of text five or six times–a misspelling here, a missed comma there, or a client wanted to change the word order or the font, so I had to check if the typography matched the written specifications, and if the font change made any difference in the spacing and word divisions at the ends of lines.
One day, a mistake got by me, and made it into the final product. It was a “small job,” one that I had looked at near the end of a busy day. I looked at the changed copy, but not the entire text. I was distracted, and I signed off on it without giving it a complete study. The client caught the new mistake, and brought it to my boss’s attention. Suddenly, my obscure little corner of the office was a hot spot. The initial mistake wasn’t mine, but because I had not caught it, the print run would have to be destroyed and a new print run ordered at the company’s expense– a $14,000 mistake! I was not fired, but I was given a chewing-out, and I lost my chance at a raise and a promotion. Just one little mistake, but it ruined the message our client wanted to create!
In Hebrews 12:2, we are told to “fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” (emphasis added) Instead of fixing our eyes on imperfect text, or being distracted by what we see going on around us, we are to study the life and words of Jesus– to be “proofreaders” of His perfect words. As we listen to, and read, and live out His words and follow His example, we will see– and become– “proof” of His wisdom and righteousness. As we study His perfection, we will also see how many of the world’s “answers” fall short.
Jesus is the author of our faith– not us. We cannot write our own story of obedience and faithfulness without falling short. We cannot live a perfect life; nor can we “perfect” the life we have already lived. We cannot undo our own mistakes; nor can we undo the wrongs that have been done to us. Finally, we do not have the authority or the power to create life, or establish the principles needed to have abundant or eternal life. We cannot create purpose or arrange circumstances to give our life meaning and perfection. Jesus writes the story; Jesus, by His blood and power, edits our story.
Jesus is also the perfecter of our faith– He gives us wisdom, and helps us build self-control, perseverance, goodness, patience, and love for others. He brings us through trials and sufferings, and allows us to see His faithfulness in the midst of even our worst pain. He redeems us, transforms us, and gives us the power to grow more like Him in Holiness. He sanctifies us, and readies us for our future life with Him in Glory. We can’t do any of this in our own power or strength of will. We still have a role to play in living out our own story, and our own faith–but the power and the results come from God’s work through our lives.
God doesn’t make mistakes. God never needs an editor. He doesn’t “need” a proofreader. But WE need to see the “proof” of God’s promises, His provisions, and His perfection. God sent His WORD to live among us– that is what we celebrate throughout this Advent season– God’s WORD is sufficient; it is perfect; it is true. And it is for ALL who believe!
What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus; What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. Oh! precious is the flow That makes me white as snow; No other fount I know, Nothing but the blood of Jesus. For my cleansing this I see— Nothing but the blood of Jesus! For my pardon this my plea— Nothing but the blood of Jesus! Nothing can my sin erase Nothing but the blood of Jesus! Naught of works, ’tis all of grace— Nothing but the blood of Jesus! This is all my hope and peace— Nothing but the blood of Jesus! This is all my righteousness— Nothing but the blood of Jesus!
What Can Wash Away My Sin (Nothing But the Blood of Jesus) by Robert Lowry (emphasis added)
Last week, I was out shoveling snow. It is not unheard of for us to get snow at this time of year, but it is not usual to have this much, this early. I don’t like shoveling, but I love watching the snow fall– thousands of individual flakes floating around, glinting in the light, and turning everything a pure, sparkling white.
It doesn’t last– the snow gets blown around, and the snow near the streets gets brown and dingy from the traffic. It turns slushy or gets piled up into heaps like so much garbage. The snow in the country gets crusty, even if it stays relatively white. It looks colder, harder, more brittle. There is something pure and magical in new-fallen snow that even snow itself can’t replicate. Artists have tried to capture it in paintings; scientists have tried to study it and replicate it; Hollywood has tried to use substitutes in movies (sometimes painted corn flakes, or sometimes soap flakes). There is still something about real, new snow that is unique and fragile and filled with promise–even in its coldness, it speaks of laughter and joy. (Maybe not while I am shoveling it, but…)
God is the creator and sender of snow. He has storehouses of it (Psalm 135:7; Job 38:22) And it is the image God gives us of forgiveness. (Isaiah 1:18) The purity and softness; the glimmer and weightlessness; the crisp, other-worldliness of falling snow–that is the picture of a forgiven heart! Just as God sends snow to refresh the earth when it looks the most bleak and dead, so God sends forgiveness to hearts that feel cold and dead inside, weighted down and dirty with guilt and shame and Sin. God covers our sins with His forgiveness– and He brings renewal from the inside; new growth, new blossoms, new fruit from what was empty, barren, and used up. And even when snow gets dirty, or crusty– a fresh blanket of new snow revives, cheers, and brightens the landscape.
God’s forgiveness is compared to snow, but it is far more powerful. White snow can cover up brown and barren trees and gray streets for a f, but God’s forgiveness comes, not in white, but in bright red. It comes through the shed blood of Christ, freely and lavishly given to wash away the scarlet stain of Sin. Red cancels out red, leaving purity and newness that comes from no other source. No artist can capture it; no scientist can discover its makeup; no Hollywood studio can recreate it; nothing on earth can compare or compete with its wonder and power.
Today, I am thankful for the message of snow, and even more thankful for the forgiveness that God offers. He may have storehouses for the snow, but His power to forgive is beyond measure, and His mercies are new every morning! (Lamentations 3:23)
God’s ways are NOT our ways. And often, we can become discouraged by things that have happened in our past or things that seem like obstacles in the present. But our vision is limited by both time and space. We can’t see things from the outside looking in, and we can’t see things unfolding before they happen. Instead, we use our imagination, which can give us a vision that is wildly out of perspective.
Take the case of Jonah (see Jonah 1-4). Jonah was given a clear mission from God– go to the great city of Nineveh and give them a message of judgment. Jonah could not “see” the outcome, but he could imagine a lot of things that made him run in the opposite direction! Nineveh was the capital city of his arch-enemies. The Assyrian armies had swept through Jonah’s land, and had very likely killed several of his family members. They were notoriously violent and Jonah must have presumed that there would be great danger involved in traveling into Nineveh, let alone proclaiming a message of certain doom!
Jonah didn’t just ignore God’s command– he went as far as he could in the opposite direction. He wasted the opportunity to see what God had planned, choosing instead to run away. He boarded a ship for Tarshish. He probably thought that God would have to use someone else, or that He would bring judgment upon Nineveh without any warning. At least he, Jonah, would be safe. But God’s ways were not Jonah’s ways. God brought a fierce storm that threatened to sink the ship. The sailors were terrified, but Jonah felt the weight of his guilt. He told the sailors to throw him into the sea, and God would save them from the storm. Though the sailors probably felt they were sending Jonah to his doom, they obeyed. And they were amazed as the storm disappeared! Nothing about Jonah’s words or actions caused these sailors to see God’s glory, but see it, they did. And they worshipped
Jonah missed the opportunity to see how God worked “around” him to amaze the sailors– instead, he got another lesson in how God’s ways were not Jonah’s ways. Jonah may have expected to drown, but God sent a big fish to swallow him, instead. Jonah spent three days inside the fish, being saved from the icy waters of the sea, and transported back to land, where the obedient fish “spit” him out onto the shore.
God did not find someone else to send the message. God did not change His plans. God simply changed Jonah’s situation and gave him a second chance. This time, Jonah obeyed. And God performed another miracle. Instead of killing Jonah or ignoring his warning message from the Lord, the Ninevites believed. And they repented– from the King down to the lowest citizen. God relented and showed mercy in the face of such repentance. Jonah had the opportunity to see God’s mercy and wisdom.
But Jonah wasted this opportunity, as well. Instead of seeing the gracious hand of God at work to change the hearts of his enemies, Jonah only saw that God had not acted with vengeance and harsh judgment. (Later, when the Ninevites returned to their old ways of life, God DID send destruction, but Jonah missed that, too.) In fact, Jonah was angry with God, and threw a temper tantrum as the Ninevites celebrated God’s kindness and mercy. Jonah was a prophet– he very likely had a long career doing God’s work. He probably had many successes, but the Biblical account we have of him tells only of his failure. In spite of that, we can see in the story of Jonah how God can use even failure to bring salvation and redemption to the lost. God’s ways are not our ways!
Today, I want to be encouraged by Jonah’s story. So often, I get bogged down in the mistakes of my past–missed opportunities and failures, things left unsaid, or actions that can’t be undone. It is important that we acknowledge our sins and mistakes; that we do what we can to make amends, and that we repent. But we must also acknowledge God’s power to make all things work together for good (Romans 8:28) and remember that “He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it.” (Philippians 1:6) Know too, that God knows the plans He has for you (Jeremiah 29:11) even though you and I cannot see the end of the story. God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8); they are higher and Holier. His wisdom and power are infinite, and His plans are ultimately for our Good.
“Wasted” opportunities need not lead to years of guilt and self-torture. Instead, they should be learning experiences that lead us to greater faith, quicker obedience, and greater joy!
When I was a child, my Mom used scripture to teach and correct me. One of her favorites was found in Numbers 32:23b “..you may be sure your sin will find you out.” This was a warning not to try to hide or excuse bad behavior. I could lie about cleaning my room, but sooner or later, Mom would find out. I could pretend to eat my peas at dinner, but sooner or later, my pile of uneaten veggies would show up as evidence. And I could be nice to my little sister around company, but that wouldn’t fool those who knew us well, or convince my sister that I wasn’t going to be bossy after they left. Most importantly, God would know what I did– and I would know that God knew!
Sin is more than just a simple action, or an accident. Sin is an infection–a poison. And it leaves traces, and scars, and has consequences– not just in actions or consequences, but in the shaping of our minds, attitudes, and character. Sin– concealed, denied, ignored, or excused–breeds and grows; it poisons our thoughts and emotions. Instead of reacting openly and honestly, we become defensive, secretive, paranoid, and apprehensive.
Praying involves communicating openly and honestly with God. Sin will get in the way of that communication. Not on God’s part– He is unchanging. But on our part– we will not be fully open with God. We will be suspicious of His goodness, and doubtful of His mercy. We will try to hide our guilt and our true motives. As early as the Garden of Eden, this is the pattern. Adam and Eve tried to hide from God after they had eaten the forbidden fruit. “Where are you?” asked God (Genesis 3:9). Certainly He knew where they were, and why they were hiding. But Adam replied, “…I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” (Genesis 3:10) When God asked Cain about his brother, Cain tried to cover-up the murder with distractions. “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”(Genesis 4:9) God never asked Cain whether or not he was responsible for his brother. But God already knew that Cain had killed Abel; Cain’s attempts to redirect the conversation did nothing to hide his guilt– it merely confirmed that Sin had wormed its way into his thoughts and attitudes. Cain never asked for forgiveness. He never confessed to the murder of his brother. Instead, he received the punishment for his sin– banishment and isolation. Later, Cain’s descendants even bragged about their family history of murder and exile! (Genesis 4:23-24)
Of all the people we might try to impress, God cannot be fooled by our false righteousness. He cannot be impressed or distracted by arguments or justifications. And He can’t ignore how Sin is poisoning us, and leading us toward death– both physical and spiritual death. Even “little” “secret” sins will infect our relationships– with God and with others– and cause us to grow emotionally and spiritually numb. Unfortunately, the poison of Sin can cause us to withdraw further from the very source of healing. We attempt to bargain with God; to justify or excuse our actions in our own eyes, asking Him to ignore our condition. We may even be defiant, knowing we deserve punishment, but doubting God’s willingness or ability to bring about justice. We march boldly in the opposite direction, doubling down on our bitterness, anger, or shame.
We need to seek God’s mercy and grace through confession and repentance. God is faithful to forgive and eager to restore to us the joy of His salvation (Psalm 51:11) He will do what all our mind-games and excuse-making cannot do–He will remove our sins from us as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). And once the poison of Sin is drawn off, we can see and hear, think and act with a clear conscience, free of guilt and shame; free of secrets and excuses. We may still face the earthly consequences of our actions– punishment for things we’ve stolen or lives we’ve hurt, broken relationships or changed circumstances–but the eternal consequences of death and separation from God have been erased by the Blood of Christ and removed forever.
And that will lead us to prayers of worship and thanksgiving, freely and joyfully raised!
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
Matthew 5:44 (ESV)
The obvious answer to the question in the title is that Jesus commands it. But what practical and spiritual reasons are there for such a counter-intuitive action? Jesus himself continues:
43-47 “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the supple moves of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.
Matthew 5:43-47 (The Message)
If we are following Christ and asking His Spirit to help us grow in Godliness, we should be acting– and reacting– like God. God makes the sun shine and the rain to fall on everyone. He is Mercy and Grace personified. That takes away nothing from His ability to exact justice. But His true desire is to show mercy– and that includes mercy THROUGH us!
But there are other good (and related) reasons to pray for our enemies.
Such prayers put things in perspective. If I focus on the injustices that my enemies have done (or continue to do), they become larger than God’s power to restore and redeem. If I focus on God’s power, the injustices, while still real, take their proper place. God is bigger; God is greater; God is wiser; God is Sovereign.
Such prayers remind me that I am not immune from causing pain and distress to others. It is natural for us to see our enemies as completely different from ourselves. “They” are evil, callous, and deserving of punishment. But, if we are honest– we are also deserving of punishment. We, too, have been callous, careless, selfish, angry, or bitter with someone, somewhere, at some time. God has dealt with us mercifully. How can we be grateful for His mercy and fail to pray for others who need it?
Praying for our enemies may not change them, but it will change US. Praying for my enemies forces me to release my anger and bitterness, so that I don’t become trapped in a cycle of letting my enemy become my obsession or even my role model. I say this from negative experience; NOT praying for someone I considered my enemy led to me say and do things that were unkind and vicious– because I thought she “deserved” the same treatment she had given me and others. One day I woke up and realized that I was slowly becoming like her– letting her behavior determine who I was in return: suspicious, hard-hearted, critical, and vindictive.
Praying for others reminds us that our true enemies are not other people. Once again, it is easy and natural to create a monster out of the person who is our “enemy.” They have often caused very real and very intense pain and suffering– personal, physical, psychological, emotional, financial, and sometimes chronic and catastrophic–sometimes, they show no remorse; sometimes, they refuse to accept responsibility for their actions. God knows all this. He sees all this. He aches for our pain– and for their rebellion. But the root cause is not a person– no matter how involved they are in delivering the pain. The real cause is Sin and Brokenness. That’s why WE can’t fix it. That’s why WE don’t have the power or authority to administer righteous judgment over it. And that also means–
Such prayers can free us of the burden of guilt, shame, bitterness, and hurt of the past. That doesn’t mean that we must deny the very real hurt we have felt. But we no longer have to be bound and shackled by it. When we can lift up our enemies and our past, and give them to God– really let go and give them to Him–He will carry that load, and let us run the race before us.
One caveat here. Loving your enemy; praying for them– these are not the same as believing their lies or consenting to their abuse. There may be people in your life that you must pray for– from a distance! You can love someone, and still set clear boundaries to protect yourself and others. God will never abandon us. But He doesn’t call us to enable others in their evil actions. This is especially true in cases of domestic violence. Love your enemy, but get help and healing. And continue to pray!