Presumptuous Prayers

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Do I Think I Am?

I was struck the other day by the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16: 19-31). I’ve heard sermons and talks and done Bible studies on this passage, and the focus is always on the rich man. In life, he did nothing to help the poor beggar who was literally on his doorstep. In death, he ends up in torment, and seeing Father Abraham with Lazarus in Heaven, he tries to strike a bargain with Abraham to ease his own tormented soul.

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But I was struck by several things I had never considered:

  • Jesus named Lazarus, but not the Rich Man. This is a parable– a metaphorical story– so Jesus did not need to have specific names for any of the characters. He often told such stories with no names. This one contains a specific person, Lazarus, and very specific details about his earthly life. He was not just a beggar, but a beggar covered with sores and starving. Jesus even related that the “dogs came and licked his sores” (v.21). And Jesus makes it clear that the rich man recognized and knew Lazarus by name. Yet he had done nothing to help Lazarus when he had the chance. We never hear in the story whether or not Lazarus was ever cured or helped; we don’t know if he had been a wealthy or prominent man at one time, of if he had always been a diseased beggar. The point is that Jesus, and Abraham, and the rich man all KNEW Lazarus. He mattered enough to call by name. The Rich Man in this story also had a name. He probably was well-known in the town or city where the story took place. And we know that he had five brothers who were likely well-known and highly respected. But NONE of them are named in the story. Only Lazarus.
  • The Rich Man looks up into Heaven. He can see and recognize Lazarus and Father Abraham. But he never looks for, sees, talks to, or wonders about the Heavenly Father. He never asks for comfort from God– he doesn’t even ask a favor of the Patriarch– he only considers that someone like Lazarus should be made to help him and/or his brothers.
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  • Abraham explains that Lazarus cannot and will not be allowed to do as the Rich Man requests– but the parable does not tell us that Lazarus can either see the Rich Man or hear his requests, nor does it say that Lazarus is unwilling to help.
  • Jesus tells this story in a straightforward manner, even though it is a Parable and has hidden meanings. The Rich Man wants help in his hour of torment, even though he was unwilling to help others in their need. But he isn’t without feeling or pity– he loves his brothers enough to try to warn them. Jesus could have used this parable to say much more about Social Justice, and the plight of the poor and the wealthy. He could have said much more about greed or apathy. He could have pressed the point about loving one’s neighbor. He did NOT make some of the connections we add to this story. We often assume that the Rich Man is in hell only because he did not help Lazarus during his lifetime, and that Lazarus is in Heaven solely because he was oppressed and afflicted in life. But is that really what Jesus says?
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What struck me the most about this story is that I always look at it as an outsider. I don’t relate with either of these characters. Of course I don’t want to think that I am cold and selfish like the Rich Man in this story, but neither do I think I am Lazarus. So who do I think I am when I read this parable? Do I pat myself on the back for sending a check to a charity a couple of times a year, or speaking up for the poor or marginalized in my community? Do I indignantly point out all the “others” who are not doing their part to help? Do I see myself, not as a poor diseased beggar, but as someone who has been “oppressed” by nameless, faceless rich people– someone who deserves to be rescued and comforted while “they” suffer through eternity?

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I don’t have any answers as to how I “should” see myself (or others) in this parable. But I think Jesus wants us to grapple with some of the realities it presents:

  • Our world is filled with situations like that of Lazarus and the Rich Man–situations of injustice, struggle, disease, poverty, inequality, suffering, and luxury. And while it is clear that we should do what we can to help others, and to bring justice and mercy, and to reach out and connect with our neighbors in love, it is also clear that such situations are not for us to make blanket judgments. I know many who see poverty as a judgment– those who are poor are lazy or unworthy. And I know others who see luxury and wealth as a judgment–those who are wealthy are greedy and selfish and unworthy. God will not judge us by our circumstances or the injustices done against us. He WILL judge us by our response to Him– when we look toward Heaven, do we see Him, or do we see the place we think we deserve to be?
  • Our ultimate situation has very little to do with our earthly circumstances. Are we sick, poor, suffering, grieving, or in pain? God is aware, and He offers eternal comfort. We can endure and hope because we know that this is not all there is to life. Are we blessed with comfort and ease right now? We should not take our circumstances for granted, but be willing to share in our abundance, knowing that our future is sure, and that God will care for our needs as we care for others. But wealth or poverty, status or shameful circumstances, do not predict our eternal destiny.
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  • God sees us! He sees our circumstances, and He cares! He sees our heart and our motives. He knows our every thought.
  • We need to look with God’s eyes. The Rich Man in this story thought he was important– in life and even in the afterlife. He thought Lazarus was worthy only to serve him or stay out of his way as he enjoyed life’s luxuries. But he also thought he was more important than Heaven! Sitting in eternal torment, he was not humbled or repentant– he was still trying to see the world through his own self-importance. Lazarus may have spent his life thinking that he was NOT important– a beggar, alone, forgotten, and unwanted. But God knew his name and saw his suffering. Lazarus could have been bitter, cursing God for his circumstances, or spending his days trying to steal or take revenge on the Rich Man.
  • I need to look with God’s eyes, not only at who I am in relation to God and others, but at OTHERS in relation to God and to me. I may see someone like the Rich Man– selfish, pompous, self-important– and dismiss them as unlovable and unworthy of mercy or grace. But God sees someone He created; someone who is needy and lost– someone He loves enough to die for. I may see someone like Lazarus–hurting and forgotten– and think they are a lost cause or fear that they will prove to be “undeserving” of my help. But God sees someone He created; someone He aches with; someone He loves enough to die for!

Mustard Seeds..

He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”

Matthew17:20 ESV (via biblehub.com)

Faith is a vital part of life, and especially a life in pursuit of prayer. If I don’t believe that God exists, and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him (Hebrews 11:6) then my prayers are little more than wishes made on a star or empty dreams.

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During Jesus’ ministry on earth, He lamented often that His disciples had so little faith. And yet, He said that if they had “faith like a grain of mustard seed,” nothing would be impossible. In fact, Jesus used seeds in a lot of His teaching. He talked of seeds scattered on different types of soil; mustard seeds growing into large plants; seeds in good soil yielding exponentially large harvests. There is something about seeds that can teach us about the nature of faith. And, according to Jesus Himself, we need to learn about and practice faith in greater measure!

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So what are some of the seed lessons we still need to learn?

  • Seeds start out small. Jesus used a mustard seed, mentioning that it is one of the smallest of all seeds. So often, we want to start out “large” in our faith. We see our doubts as failure, rather than immaturity. We see our slow growth as weakness–and it is! It is that very weakness that God wants to use to show HIS strength. When Jesus “lamented” that the disciples had so little faith, He wasn’t condemning them– instead He was pointing out that faith is a process–that seeds GROW into larger plants.
  • Seeds do not produce plants unless they are planted! I see websites and Christian bookstores selling jewelry featuring a small glass case with a tiny mustard seed inside. It’s a nice reminder of Jesus’ teaching about faith, but carrying around a mustard seed is NOT the same thing as having faith like a mustard seed. Faith that is never planted and rooted in good soil will remain nothing more than a seed– useful as a piece of decoration, perhaps, but dormant and unproductive. If I have faith “like a mustard seed” in money, or power, or in my own wisdom and skills, it is no more effective than if I throw it on the sidewalk, wear it around my neck, or put it in my pocket.
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  • Seeds need soil, light, and water. Faith doesn’t grow in isolation. I need to listen to others, share with others, and, most of all, live in the good soil of God’s word. I need to pray for others– and I need the prayers of others! I need to talk to God daily; but I also need to read His words to me daily!
  • Seeds are designed to produce a harvest– fruit, grain, trees, and new seeds! I get distracted, thinking of how faith impacts MY life and my Christian walk. God wants me to grow stronger in my own, yes. But He wants my faith to be multiplied by being visible. Even a root vegetable sends a shoot or a plant above-ground, so there is evidence of growth underground. In doing go, the original seed will disappear! There are days when I cannot see my “mustard seed.” But that is (I hope) because the seed is becoming a mustard plant– producing evidence of God’s sustaining power and love, and providing “seeds” for others to plant.
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There are days when my faith may feel small and dead. But I need to remember that the power is not in the “seed” of faith– no matter how small; no matter how large its potential–it is in planting that seed and letting God’s power transform a seed into fruit that will last!

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More more on this topic, see:https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/bible-study/what-does-jesus-mean-by-faith-as-small-as-a-mustard-seed.html

Come Home

It’s Football season again here in the U.S. (American Football, that is). High Schools and colleges across the country are having “homecoming” festivities, as their teams return “home” after playing games on the road. Elaborate floats, dress-up days, pep rallies, parades, ceremonies, homecoming princes and princesses, dances, tailgate parties..homecoming is a big deal. There is something about the idea of returning home that captures our emotions and brings out joy and excitement.

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One of the most famous of Jesus’ parables involved a son who comes home after living a life of dissipation, folly, and dishonor. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+15%3A11-32&version=NIV. As he is making his way home, but is still “a long way off,” his father sees, him, has compassion on him, and runs to meet him and welcome him. He then commands that clothes should be brought, and a feast prepared to welcome his son back home.

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What a beautiful picture of God’s love for us–it overcomes shame and disgrace, dishonor, and ruin. God watches for us to change directions and seek His face. But He doesn’t demand that we crawl home in defeat and beg Him to take us back. He runs to meet us with joy and excitement even greater than all the parades and floats and dances of any homecoming celebration. All of Heaven rejoices over every one who comes to repentance!

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But there are two sons in this story. The “other” son does not want to join in the celebration– he is resentful and bitter over his brother’s behavior and his father’s willingness to celebrate. We do not get to know all the reasons why he might be resentful, but his father gently reminds him that he is loved and secure, and still has his inheritance. The return of the brother doesn’t change any of that.

In prayer, we should remember this parable and some of the lessons it can teach. Let’s ask ourselves:

  • Am I making some of the same mistakes as the “prodigal son?” Am I running away from “home” and God in selfish pursuits? Am I asking God for an “advance” on my inheritance–wanting blessings and rewards before God’s time or outside of God’s will? Am I wasting time or resources or talents that God has given me? Am I stubbornly refusing to return home, even when it’s obvious that “my” way isn’t working? Do I think I need to work my way back to God by bargaining my good works?
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  • Am I making some of the mistakes of the “other” brother? Do I resent God’s mercy toward people I think of as “unworthy?” Do I refuse to celebrate and welcome my brothers or sisters who have come “home?” Do I blame God for “withholding” blessings, even though I never sought them? Do I doubt God’s love for me because my life story isn’t dramatic or filled with miraculous demonstrations of grace (apart from the ultimate miracle of the Crucifixion and Resurrection!!!)
  • Am I watching and running with the Father to welcome others “home?” Am I joining in the Homecoming festivities for those who are being rescued from ruin and death? Am I filled with joy and excitement about the Gospel?
  • Am I anticipating the ultimate “Homecoming” –the indescribable joy of spending eternity with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, along with all the saints in Glory?

Lord, help me to see the faces of my neighbors and friends, and enemies, and even strangers, as you do–help me to delight in their redemption, ready to celebrate and share in the joy; help me to search for them, run to them, and lead them to You! And help me to never take for granted the amazing love you have for me–even me!

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  1. Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,
    Calling for you and for me;
    See, on the portals He’s waiting and watching,
    Watching for you and for me.
    • Refrain:
      Come home, come home,
      You who are weary, come home;
      Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
      Calling, O sinner, come home!
  2. Why should we tarry when Jesus is pleading,
    Pleading for you and for me?
    Why should we linger and heed not His mercies,
    Mercies for you and for me?
  3. Time is now fleeting, the moments are passing,
    Passing from you and from me;
    Shadows are gathering, deathbeds are coming,
    Coming for you and for me.
  4. Oh, for the wonderful love He has promised,
    Promised for you and for me!
    Though we have sinned, He has mercy and pardon,
    Pardon for you and for me.

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