All of Nothing is Still All

What do I bring before God when I pray?  Awe, gratitude, requests, confession, what’s on my mind, my heart…there are many things I can lay on the altar.  But what do I bring God that doesn’t originate with Him?  What do I bring that has value independent of God? Nothing.

My relationship with God is completely uneven.  God is the provider of everything I need.  I owe Him everything, and have nothing to give that can begin to “repay” Him.  What a blow to my pride, my self-sufficiency!  What is the point of pretending I have anything to bring before an all-knowing and all-powerful God?  All of nothing is still nothing.

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But wait…

What do I bring before God when I pray?  Awe for the beauty and power that inspires and uplifts me; gratitude for the blessings He has poured out so lavishly– life, health, family, joy, peace, grace, love…  I bring requests, not idly, spewing them out to the wind or to random passers-by, but purposefully, to a God who hears.  Confession, not coerced through torture, not met with unbearable punishment, but given freely in the knowledge that there is forgiveness and restoration on the other side of confession and repentance.  I can bring thoughts, fears, hopes, dreams, joys, pains, disappointments, and frustrations and lay them on the altar–not as a reluctant sacrifice of a servant, but as the outpouring of love from a child to her beloved Father.

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I can’t out-give God.  But that’s not a fault or a lack.  Instead, it is the mind-blowing reality that God is able to GIVE abundantly above all that I can hope or imagine.  And even though He needs nothing, He eagerly desires to share with me all the awe and wonder, all the beauty and grace, all the majesty and power of who He is, and to accept from me the joy and humble acceptance of His gifts–nothing more, and nothing less.

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I could give God nothing– no time, no credit, no joy, no love.  Instead, I want to choose to give all.  Because even all of nothing is still ALL, thanks be to God!

“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…”

Why Ask Why?

I’ve been asking myself “why?” a lot lately in regards to this blog.  Why am I spending my time writing about prayer?  Wouldn’t I be better served to spend my time productively– making something useful, keeping the apartment cleaner, going to the gym–even spending more time in prayer instead of dissecting it and babbling on to an invisible audience?

But the truth is that I began writing this blog in response to another question, a more basic question thrown at me (not personally, but thrown out to all who believe in the power of prayer)–  “WHY?”  They weren’t asking the question because they really wanted to know my reasons for praying; instead, they wanted to make me feel ashamed and embarrassed, to doubt God’s goodness and my faith.  In fact, they weren’t asking “WHY” so much as asking “HOW”.  How can you continue to believe in God and continue praying in light of random shootings, manifest injustices, rampant corruption, and senseless tragedies?  How can you say that God is good, when people continue to get away with evil?  If God exists, where is he, and how can you just sit back and trust in him?

The fact that I DO continue to trust God doesn’t mean I don’t have questions and concerns, and even righteous anger about the state of the world and the tragedies that fill it.  The questions come pouring out, sometimes keeping me awake at night, sometimes catching me at a raw moment and they are important questions.  To pretend that I never wrestle or struggle with the questions is to say that good and evil, justice and mercy, that God himself– none of it really matters enough to seek an answer.  God forbid!!

But there is a vast difference in asking “Why?” and asking “How? or How come?”

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Consider a small child who asks, “Why is the sky blue?”  (Don’t you just love the inquisitiveness of small children?)  “Well…” I can explain that the sky itself isn’t really blue…I can go on to talk about scientific principals– the property of light, refraction through water molecules and dust particles, and more..I can point out that the sky doesn’t always appear blue, etc.  At the end of my long and factual discourse (assuming the child hasn’t already interrupted), s/he is likely to simply shake their head and ask, “But, why?”  WHY?  Because I haven’t really answered the heart of the question.  I explained HOW, not WHY.

Now suppose I don’t feel like being pedantic, and I answer “Because.”  You can guess what comes next.  The child will ask, “Because WHY?”  Because “Because” isn’t a sufficiently satisfactory answer.  The child wants more; he/she yearns for more comprehension; more understanding.

As an adult, we find this kind of questioning frustrating and annoying.  I think it is because we have been conditioned to think that questions either have a “How come” explanation that sweeps away much of the wonder and mystery, or a “because” answer that leaves us unsatisfied.

As an adult, I may well ask, “Why is there evil in the world?”  This is an important question; one I should be asking.  Experts can and will give me all kinds of “how” answers– how the brain is wired, how emotions work, how society has failed various groups of people, how political structures create oppression, how religion teaches intolerance, how poor diet or lack of sunny days … there are a million explanation of “how” evil exists or why it persists.  And many of these explanations contradict each other, so they can’t even give a conclusive answer.  But just throwing up my hands, and saying, “just because” does nothing to answer my question OR provide understanding that could help alleviate the effects of evil in the world.  “Because” communicates my powerlessness to comprehend.

BUT

Something amazing happens when I stop merely asking people for answers to these questions and start asking God.  I don’t get a magical, comprehensive, incontrovertible answer to life’s thorny questions.  God doesn’t send me a “cheat sheet” with all the “right” answers.  I’m not suddenly an expert on good and evil or what should be done to eliminate crime and disease and poverty.  I still have to wade through the “how come” explanations and use my limited judgment to decide what course of action I can take to try to make a positive difference.  And I will make some mistakes along the way.  But when GOD says, “Because”, there is an authority, a majesty, and a wisdom that can never be present in my answer.  I say “because,” because I have no more to say; no better answer.  God says, “Because,” because HE IS the cause!  And he gives explanations in his word for many of my questions– even if I don’t like the answers!  He doesn’t explain “how come” the sky is blue– he causes it to be blue.  “Why is the sky blue?”  God says so.  “But why?”  Because He is God and I am not.  God explains “how come” there is evil in the world– it’s called SIN–but he doesn’t leave it there.  “Why?”  Because we have the free will to choose good or evil.  “Why?”  Because God wants willing obedience and loving companionship with us.  “Why?” Because God is love!  “So why does he allow evil to continue?”  Because he has a plan that involves redemption and restoration and renewal.  He is the cause of this plan, it’s author and finisher.  Moreover, he is the cause of my desire to ask “why?”, to seek for a more fulfilling answer, to yearn for a solution to the very evil that prompts my questions.

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I won’t stop asking “why.”  Not because I don’t have any answer, or because I don’t know the answer.  It’s just that the answer is so much bigger, so much better, so much MORE than I can handle in the shortness of this lifetime.  And it’s important that I not only keep asking the question, but that I keep defending the answer.

 

1 Peter 3:14-16 English Standard Version (ESV)

14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.

 

Jephthah or Jabez?

There are many great examples of prayer throughout the Bible, but there are two that are often used out of context and applied wrongly.  One is found in the book of the Judges; the other in the Chronicles.

Jephthah was a mighty warrior– the son of a mighty warrior and a prostitute.  He had several half-brothers, but they wanted nothing to do with him.  He was an outcast for much of his life, but when things got tough, the people of the region changed their tune and begged him to be their leader and help deliver them from the oppressive Ammonites.   Before going into battle, Jephthah prayed, and made a tragic vow.  In fact, his vow has become a model of what NOT to do in approaching God.

Judges 11:30-31 New American Standard Bible (NASB)
30 Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If You will indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand, 31 then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.”

Upon returning from his success in battle, who should come out of the door of his house, but his only daughter, singing and dancing in celebration of her father’s victory!  Having made such a rash vow, Jephthah now has to fulfill it, and sacrifices his only child on the altar.

Many people read this passage of scripture and are shocked– how could God be so cruel?  Why didn’t he stop Jephthah from making such a rash vow?  How could he hold Jephthah to such a vow?  Doesn’t this prove that God is either clueless or deliberately cruel?  Either God knew that the tragedy would happen, and failed to prevent it, or he had no idea  of the outcome.

But I think this is a misreading of events and a misrepresentation of God.  Just before Jephthah makes his vow, the text states that “the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah.  He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced upon the Ammonites.”  People make note of the first part of verse 29, that the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah prior to his making the rash vow.  But we should note that God’s Spirit did not require Jephthah to make ANY vow.   Jephthah’s vow was rash and ill-considered– these are not attributes of God or of His Spirit.  And God’s Spirit came upon Jephthah before he crossed his own native territory– territory he had fled early in life.  In crossing back through lands that now welcomed him after making him feel unwanted and ashamed, Jephthah gets cocky.  His vow is not about saving his nation from harm and oppression, or about bringing God glory.  It is about himself.  He mentions himself five times; his enemies, God, and his sacrifice, each twice; Israel never.  Jephthah had an incredible opportunity, not only to save his nation, but to redeem his reputation and become a leader of might and integrity.  Instead, he is remembered for his rash vow.  I believe that God could have stopped Jephthah from making such a vow, or kept his daughter from coming out of the house that day of her father’s return.  But I don’t believe it was cruelty that prevented him from acting.  I believe God is both omnipotent and good.  Jephthah learned the hard way that his rash self-promotion had disastrous consequences.  His daughter, who was innocent, could have berated her father, or cursed God– instead, she honored them both in a way that reflected her culture and teaching.  We are given a shocking reminder not to play games with our unknown future.  God does not keep us from our own folly, nor from its consequences, when we fail to seek His wisdom above our own pride.

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In contrast, we see another prayer in 1 Chronicles:

1 Chronicles 4:9-10 New American Standard Bible (NASB)
Jabez was more honorable than his brothers, and his mother named him Jabez saying, “Because I bore him with pain.” 10 Now Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, “Oh that You would bless me indeed and enlarge my border, and that Your hand might be with me, and that You would keep me from harm that it may not pain me!” And God granted him what he requested.

Once again, this prayer is sometimes taken out of context and misused to suggest that God is like a genie in a bottle, and that a pain-free life and expanded riches are ours for the asking.  If we pray the prayer of Jabez, and we don’t see an immediate change in our circumstances, we sometimes question God’s goodness and His provision– doesn’t He care about our needs?  Doesn’t he hear our prayer?

Jabez, unlike Jephthah above, is described as honorable.  His prayer is more balanced and conscious of God’s sovereignty.  Jabez mentions himself five times, just like Jephthah; but he mentions God three times in supplication– asking God to be with him, help him, and bless him, rather than vowing what he can do for God if God grants him victory.    Notice also the context of the preceding verse.  His prayer is partly asking God to remove the sting and curse of his name, which meant “pain.”  He is not asking for enormous wealth or power, so much as asking for God’s presence and blessing.  There is a subtle, but important difference here.  Jephthah is playing at making a deal with God– If you grant me a victory, I will make it up to you by offering whatever comes out of my house.  Jabez comes with nothing, and asks God to be his portion and protection.  He makes no bargain with God contingent on God’s answer.  There is nothing in this prayer that assumes God’s riches will be his or that God owes him anything; only the faith that God is able to bless him, and that God, in his goodness can keep him from harm.

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Jephthah, or Jabez?  Two examples…two very different outcomes.  May we have the wisdom not to confuse the two, or lose the lessons they teach.

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