Years ago, our high school class read a classic short story by the American author, Herman Melville. Bartleby the Scrivener tells the story of an unusual clerk– one who begins as a good worker, efficient and conscientious, but ends up dying in prison, hopeless, ruined, and broken. His tragic downward spiral begins one day when the lawyer for whom he works asks him to examine a short document. This is a commonplace request, much like asking a writer to proofread her final draft before submitting it to the editor. However, Bartleby responds by saying “I would prefer not to.” The startled lawyer decides not to force the issue, and gives the task to someone else.
Bartleby’s refusal to do what is expected of him escalates until he no longer does ANY work. He refuses to work, refuses to leave the office, and refuses to eat. He isn’t angry or violent, but he remains defiant until the very end.
So it is with us when we are living in sin and rebellion against God. It may start out small– some little habit or attitude. We know it is wrong, but instead of obeying God’s word, we calmly say, “I would prefer not to…” not to tell the truth, not to turn away from porn, not to help my neighbor, not to agree with God about my behavior.
God is patient. He is gracious and kind. He does not treat us as our offenses deserve. He gives us the chance to repent. He offers forgiveness. And every time we say to God, “I would prefer not to,” we get a little more like Bartleby– isolating ourselves, wasting our potential to be all that God created us to be, growing more defiant and more rebellious, until we waste away into a prison of our own making, and, finally, death.
One of the things that makes Melville’s story so disturbing is that the narrator keeps trying to explain away Bartleby’s defiance–perhaps he is having trouble with his eyesight and doesn’t want to admit it; perhaps he was traumatized at a previous job; maybe there is a reason for his passive aggression. But in all of his attempts to understand, the narrator cannot save Bartleby from prison and death.
Understanding sin cannot change us. Excusing sin does nothing to stop its consequences (see Romans 6:23). No one killed Bartleby, yet he died because he “would prefer not to” do the things he needed to do to live. His small act of defiance, which seems to be singular and almost heroic (after all, who wouldn’t like to tell the boss, “I would prefer not to,” every once in awhile?), sounds innocuous. Such a little thing to refuse.
What am I refusing to do for God today? What am I refusing to give up? Refusing to admit? Refusing to listen to? Am I excusing myself? Do I tell myself I am not in rebellion because I have been polite in my refusal to obey?
10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.
John 15:10-15 ESV– taken from biblegateway.com
God has made it possible for us to be more than servants. Through Jesus, we are sons and daughters and friends! But some of us are still saying, “I would prefer not to.”
2 Corinthians 9:15 Christian Standard Bible (CSB) 15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!
I love this season of the year–as we approach Thanksgiving and prepare for Advent and Christmas, it is a good time to reflect and celebrate all the wonderful things God has done, and all the ways He has blessed us. But there is also a danger in this season. We are tempted to look around and compare our blessings (and our struggles) with others around us. We are tempted to be envious, depressed, and stressed about our circumstances. Or we look at our blessings and feel smug and self-satisfied, instead of grateful and humble.
What “Great” things am I thankful for? Sometimes I make a list of all “my” blessings–my health, my family, my home or car, my freedom (as though I had done anything to earn such blessings)–and I stop. Sometimes I make another list of all the “Great” things God has done in nature–beautiful sunsets and majestic forests, glistening snowflakes and spring blossoms–and I stop. Sometimes, I even thank Him for the trials and struggles and difficult relationships that He has allowed to refine me and build my character to be more like His– and I stop. Sometimes, I thank Him for the great things he has done for others–miracles of provision, safety, or healing.
But there is a deeper level of thankfulness– one that takes my breath away and causes me to fall to my knees– one that thanks God for WHO HE IS– truth, righteousness, salvation, mercy, wisdom, power, and boundless, unconditional love. Every great work of God has its origin in God’s Character. Every sunrise shows His faithfulness, every snowflake His infinite creativity. Even tragedy can reveal His tenderness and healing and precious promise that NOTHING can separate us from His love. In giving His greatest gift, God spared no expense; he held nothing back. Jesus defeated sin and death by becoming sin and experiencing death–FOR YOU and for ME! For anyone, for everyone, who will accept His gift and trust in His character. How often do I list all the great things God has done and stop before I let the amazement of the Great I AM to overwhelm me? How often to I celebrate Thanksgiving without ever reaching this level of true Thanks-giving?
Whether we celebrate Thanksgiving with turkey and pumpkin pie, or with beans and wienies; whether we celebrate with family, friends, strangers or alone; even if we celebrate on a different day, or in a different way, may we always find ourselves amazed by the Greatness of God. May we truly give God more than just thanksgiving this year. May we give Him all the Glory–Great things He hath done!
A widow contacted a local church to come pick up an old rusty car that belonged to her late husband. He had one request– that the car be kept in the old garage at the church parsonage and that anyone who wanted to could stop by and work on it. He had purchased it years before with the intention of restoring it to drive around in during his retirement. But time and ill-health had robbed him of his dream. His hope was that someone might enjoy working on it, and if no one came to work on the car, perhaps the church could sell it to scrappers and at least get some money for it. An ad was placed in the bulletin, and another in the local paper. Hours were set up, when people could stop by to work on the car.
Soon, there was a great stir– several members of the congregation came forward to protest. Some were concerned about the safety and liability involved in having the car in the garage where anyone could get to it. Surely, it would be in the church’s best interest to have the car locked away, so only members of the congregation could get to it. Others were arguing about how to restore the car properly– what was the original color of the chassis and the interior? Could they find the exact parts for that make and model? Who would work on the engine? The interior? The frame? Surely the old man didn’t mean for just anyone to come in and work wherever s/he felt like working…how would the job get done? Detailed schedules were posted and discussed; re-posted and opposed.
Weeks, and even months went by. The church was divided; some threatened to leave. And none of the church members had even visited the old car in the garage– it sat forgotten. Except…
A young man in town had seen the notice in the newspaper. He wrote down the original work schedule and followed it, quietly coming every Tuesday and Friday night after work, and patiently working to restore the car. He cleaned and oiled parts, “tinkered” with others, sanded off rust, fixed hose lines and checked all the panels. He patched upholstery and polished up the old tires. He painted the chassis and found matching window wipers to replace the old ones. He worked on the motor and the exhaust, and even the old AM radio. He made sure the mirrors and windows were not cracked or chipped. He even hunted around to find the right hood ornament to replace the one that was lost. Only the pastor knew of his work, and even he had never joined the man or asked about his progress– he merely opened the garage door every time the young man arrived, and closed it when the young man left.
After eight months, the division in the church had reached a fevered pitch. One group demanded that the car be removed to a secure location and that the labor should be divided based on an elaborate chart that focused on how long someone had attended the church, their skill base, what time they were available to work, and whether they were currently an elder or deacon (or had ever served as an elder or deacon).
When the group arrived at the garage, they were shocked to discover that the car was completely restored, polished and glorious in its restoration. Shocked and angry, they attacked the pastor– How could he have allowed this to happen “behind their backs?” When the pastor admitted that he was as surprised as they were, their attention turned to the young man. They hunted him down and demanded an explanation. How dare he come and work on the church’s car without their knowledge or approval! Who did he think he was?!
The young man’s answer left them stunned. He said, “I read an invitation that said anyone who wished could come and help restore an old car to help out a local church. I came every week, and no one else ever showed up to help. No one from your church did any work on this car. No one ever came to check on it or see if any work had been done. No one from your church gave me a word of encouragement, no one had a helpful suggestion or even constructive criticism. No one offered me a word of gratitude. No one helped hold a lamp or flashlight so I could see the hidden damage as I made repairs. No one helped when I had to hoist the motor or clean off the grease and grime, or polish the chrome. The invitation was clear– whosoever will, may come. I came. I followed the directions I was given– I came on Tuesdays and Fridays, and I cleaned up each time before I left. I put a lot of work into this car, and now I’m done. I hope your church can decide on a good use for it; she’s a beauty, and I think she’ll run really well– I didn’t take her for a spin, but I hope someone will be able to enjoy her for many years to come.”
The crowd from the church still had one question– Why had the young man come in the first place, and why did he keep working on the car all those months? Did he want the car for himself?
“No,” the man said; “when I first read the ad in the paper and I saw the word ‘restoration’, I was deeply moved. Not too many years ago, I was living a very wild and dangerous life. I felt alone and abandoned and I was filled with anger. I was restless and destructive. But one man in town took me under his wing. He gave me a part-time job, and made me promise to stay in school. But much more than that, he and his wife invited me over for dinner several times. They made time out of their busy schedule to come and watch me play basketball after I finally made the team in my senior year. When I joined the army, they sent letters and care packages. The old man used to tell me that I reminded him of an old car he bought and kept in his garage. He said it was an amazing machine that just needed restoration– he said I was an amazing person who just needed some restoration. He told me that Jesus came to bring restoration to anyone who wanted to come to Him.”
“I finished my time in the army; I came back and started my own business. I got busy and moved on with life. I never came back to thank that man for his kindness, and he never asked for anything from me. I guess I expected to thank him some day, but I found out that he had died. I went to see his widow. She was so gracious, asking about my family and wishing me the best, and then she mentioned her husband’s last request. And when I saw the ad in the paper, I knew this was a way for me to thank the old man, but also to experience what restoration really means. When I came to God, I was rusty, filthy, and broken. God has sanded off the rust in my life, mended broken relationships, and given me new life. It’s an honor to be able to bring restoration, no matter the circumstances. God has done so much to restore my life, it’s the least I can do to help restore an old car. I hope that somehow, this car can inspire renewal in someone else’s life the way its owner helped bring restoration to my life.”
I wish I could say that the young man’s story changed the hearts of the angry deacons and elders. A few of them were touched; some even convicted of their pride and selfishness. But most were simply put out.
What have I done with the precious gift of restoration in my life? God, lead me to someone today who needs to hear, and SEE, the miracle of restoration and Grace.
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.
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.
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.
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!
7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
9 “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
I’m really bad about asking for help. I don’t mind asking for advice or opinions– I can listen and take the advice or ignore it; accept someone else’s opinion or not. But asking for help puts a certain obligation to accept whatever help is given. It also announces that you have a need; that you are struggling and can’t do “it” on your own. This is especially true in situations where we are embarrassed to admit to shortcomings, inabilities, or perceived failures.
Asking is difficult for most of us. Not just because we must swallow our pride and admit to a need, but because we must hope that whoever we ask will be willing or able to meet that need. Asking becomes more difficult when we don’t know who we can trust. Admitting weakness to someone who is kind is a small risk–it may bruise our pride, or cause the other person to pity us. Asking for help from someone who is deceitful, arrogant, incompetent, or abusive is a recipe for disaster.
Sometimes, we are afraid to ask for help because we sense that there is no help to be given. We wallow in despair, thinking all is lost or hopeless. But fear and despair are not wise counselors–they cannot help us out of our problems; they can’t even see beyond the current chaos or the next panic. Sometimes, we are too proud to ask someone else to do what we feel we should be able to do– others can manage, others can triumph “on their own”– not realizing that they had help along the way, or that they need help in other areas where we are strong.
And sometimes, we don’t want the kind of “help” that is offered. We want help to stay in our comfort zone, even if it means bondage to addiction, or losing an opportunity that comes only with hard work or sacrifice. We want someone to lie to us, keep us comfortable, or flatter us, when our greatest need is someone to challenge us, coach us, and give us the truth, even when it stings. In fact, if we have grown lethargic, entitled, and arrogant, we won’t ask for help– we will demand a lesser form of help that enables us to stay as we are, and not help us become who we were meant to be.
So consider this as you pray today– the God of the Universe– creator of galaxies and microcosms, ruler of eternity, the God who hears every sigh of every human on the face of the planet and knows who made it and why, the God who gave His only Son to fulfill the law and restore your soul–this God is waiting for you to ASK Him for help, for guidance, for wisdom, for your daily needs, for forgiveness that only He can give completely. And He promises to give good gifts– joy, peace, hope, love. He will not scorn us in our need– He already knows it, Why are you waiting?
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 11:30-31New 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.
In contrast, we see another prayer in 1 Chronicles:
1 Chronicles 4:9-10New American Standard Bible (NASB)
9 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.
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.
Gossip and judgment are nasty habits– what happens when they creep into our prayer life?
I’ve sometimes struggled with the idea of praying for those who have hurt me or mistreated those I love. We are commanded to do it, but often, I am tempted to pray about my enemies instead of praying for them. As if God didn’t know what they had done; as if he needed me to alert him to their bad behavior, and remind him of how I was slighted, misunderstood, or powerless to bring justice to my friend or family member who was wronged. I want to tell God how to treat them– how to punish them, or abase them, or bring them to feel remorse. I want to hang on to the indignation and sense of victimhood–after all, God is going to make it right in the end, vindicating me and humiliating them, right? Except that’s not how it works in God’s economy…My vindication does not come at their expense, but through the blood of the truly innocent Lamb of God. Let that sink in. God is not in the business of torturing others to make himself feel more righteous. If I want to follow Christ, my actions, and my prayers, should be full of his Grace, not my bitterness.
I am not alone in this– and I’m sure I have been “prayed about” often enough. Even saints and matriarchs of old have done it. And King David was guilty of it as well–several of the Psalms include angry, even vicious rants against David’s enemies. It’s understandable; it’s only natural for us to feel indignant, angry, and hurt in the face of injustice, unkindness, hatred, and abuse. And it’s not inappropriate for us to cry out for justice, or pour out our hurt and frustration. But it is wrong to stand in judgment and unforgiveness when we come before the throne of Heaven.
I believe that these are the difficult prayers that teach us to know God better– as well as ourselves. To pray for those who have hurt us means that we must move beyond what they have done– not to deny it, or to excuse or forget about it, but to give it over to God –and deal with who they are. They are lost exactly as we are lost, but for the grace of God. They are redeemable, not because they can undo or atone for what has happened, but because God says that whosoever trusts in Him can be saved. They are precious in God’s sight. When we stop focusing on who hurt us, and how, we can instead focus on who heals us, and how he wants to heal others.
These prayers also serve to remind us that our true “enemies” are not the people who say or do unkind or even wicked things. Our true enemies are not the ones who can hurt our feelings, or even our minds or bodies. Our true enemies are the ones who would steal our souls– who tempt us to hold on to rage and despair, to hopelessness and doubt, to bitterness and shame.
It is so easy to write these words, and to “know” the right thing to do. But it is a painful, heartbreaking, humbling, stumbling uphill climb to DO the right thing. I still catch myself so often praying about certain people, instead of praying for them. God knows my heart–he knows if my prayer is sincere. And, as I struggle, I am reminded that the change I would wish to see in someone else mirrors the change I should wish to see in me The same Grace that God sends to heal and comfort me is the same Grace he offers to everyone who will take it–even when they choose not to accept it.
So I hope I am learning to pray for those who sneer at me; those who lash out in their own pain, anger, or thoughtlessness. To pray for their health and safety, their well-being, and their wholeness. For their sake–for the sake of the One who loves them eternally. And in the hope that healing and restoration will triumph over what lies in the past.
When I first felt the urge to blog about prayer and prayer life, I held off a bit. I think prayer is many things– important, impactful, practical, personal, holy, and humbling. I finally decided to start writing, not because I am an expert on prayer, or that I have mastered the practice, but because I feel passionate about growing in my prayer, to pray with more knowledge, focus, and impact. I’m sharing in the hope that you will be encouraged, challenged, and equipped to do the same. I want to explore the many aspects of prayer, and learn all that it can be. But one thing prayer should never be is a bludgeon.
I find it embarrassing to be in the company of certain fellow Christians when I hear them try to stop a discussion or argument with the phrase, “I’ll pray for you.” Occasionally, they say it in love and mean it as a sincere gesture, but most of the time it is as condescending and insincere as a Southern, “well, bless your little pea-pickin’ heart.” “I’ll pray for you”, in this context, suggests that you (and only you) have a problem. I don’t need to listen to, reconsider, or even try to understand your argument, because I have already determined that you have no valid point and I have no obligation to hear you out. But more than that, it suggests two horrible things about prayer that are untrue and misleading. First, it suggests that my only interest in you is to “fix” you. In other words, I can’t convince you to see things my way, so I will reluctantly spend some of my precious time praying that you see things my way. I won’t listen to you, try to understand you, or give you any of my respect, but I will do my best to bring your bad behavior and/or faulty beliefs to God’s attention (in contrast to my.own). Prayer should never be a threat, or a weapon to be used against another person. Secondly, it suggests that prayer is leverage; that I have God on some kind of leash. I pray when things aren’t going my way, and God “fixes” them–including people who don’t share my theology or doctrine or worship preference.
One of the dangers of writing and talking about prayer in a public forum is the risk of seeming to or actually to impose personal preferences, practices, and beliefs on others. I hope to suggest many prayer thoughts and practices that I find true, helpful, challenging, or even dangerous, but I don’t want to insist that there is only one way to think about prayer or to practice it. Prayer is our way of communicating with our creator. He didn’t make us all the same; we don’t all like the same things, we don’t all interact the same way; we don’t have the same talents, passions, or responses to the world around us. The one constant in prayer is God. What I believe about God will determine how I pray, why I pray, maybe even when or how often I pray. But it won’t determine God’s character or his actions toward another person. I cannot make God make you do anything. I cannot use God as some kind of enforcer or hypnotist or brain-washer– nor should I wish to.
I do pray for people who dislike or despise me, who dishonor or deny God. I pray for their health, their safety, and their redemption. I pray for family and close friends and complete strangers. But I should do so knowing that God cherishes each person–gave his life for each one. God is not a bully, even though he has been characterized as such by some. God wants us to pray for everyone–not with pride or bitterness or an agenda, but with his compassion, grace, and love.