PRAYER, FAITH, UNANSWERED PRAYER, AND TRUST

All of us who are Christians would agree that prayer is an important aspect of the Christian life. While driving to a meeting yesterday I realized my prayer life had waned. Right then I acknowledged it to the Lord (without bowing my head and closing my eyes!) and resolved to get back on track.

This morning I read in C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters Screwtape’s observation that if his subject [a Christian he was tempting] was attending to God Himself, both he and Wormwood would be defeated. Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood was that the simplest way to prevent such a thing was “to turn their gaze away from Him [God] towards themselves.” I wondered if that is what I had done. Later I was reminded of one of the great testimonies in the Old Testament about this matter.

Most readers will remember the account of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3. These three young Jewish men refused to obey King Nebuchadnezzar. He had set up an image and ordered on his command everyone to fall down and worship it. In keeping with the king’s mandate, because of their refusal, they were going to be thrown into a blazing furnace.

Daniel 3:16-18 tells us their response to Nebuchadnezzar, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power, Your Majesty. But even if he doesn’t, we want to make it clear to you, Your Majesty, that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.”

Even in their trying situation Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were clearly attending to God Himself and did not turn their gaze away from God toward themselves. Even though we are not told they prayed, we can assume they did. And I think we can be encouraged and learn from their response.

  1. Note their commitment expressed by telling the king they didn’t have to defend themselves to him.
  2. Note also their faith that God was able and could save them
  3. Note finally their acceptance of whatever God decided.

In his book Eyes Wide Open Terry Lewis observes their words even if he doesn’t “is not a lack of faith, it is the acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty.” Lewis then makes application for us, “What God does about our situation is up to Him, but we do know that He is able!”

In terms of the title of these thoughts – PRAYER, FAITH, UNANSWERED PRAYER, AND TRUST – I’m suggesting it takes faith to pray as well as trust in accepting it when God says no to our prayer requests.

(For those who may be interested, I recommend the new collection of C.S. Lewis writings on prayer entitled How to Pray: Reflections and Essays.)

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COMPLIMENT HIM OR CRITICIZE HIM?

Most people, whether they go to church or not, know something about the New Testament account of Jesus walking on water. We all have probably heard jokes that assume we have some knowledge of Jesus doing so. Many of those who know something about the account of Jesus walking on water also know that Peter joined him.

Both Matthew and Mark tell about Jesus, but only Matthew tells us about Peter. Both tell how the disciples went ahead of Jesus in the boat, how they were having trouble going into the wind, and how Jesus walked on the water to them. Both tell how the disciples saw Jesus, thought he was a ghost, and were afraid. And both quote Jesus as saying, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.”

Only Matthew tells that after Jesus identified himself, Peter answered, “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” Jesus invited Peter, and he responded by walking on the water to Jesus. Matthew 14:30 and 31 report, “But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?’”

Here’s a question to ponder: should we compliment Peter or criticize him? In my experience I have heard a lot more criticism of Peter than I have compliments. And I don’t think that is fair, do you?

No doubt, there is a note of scolding in Jesus’ words to him afterwards: Peter’s faith shrank and doubt entered. And there is certainly a challenge for us today in hearing what Jesus said to him. All of us probably need to cultivate more faith and chip away at our doubt.

But I want to compliment Peter. He did ask Jesus to call him to come to him. And Peter did walk on the water. I admire Peter’s courage for getting out of the boat. There were 11 others in that boat that night who did not ask Jesus to call them and who did not walk on the water. Peter’s faith was not as strong as it could have been, and the wind did cause him to doubt, but he walked on the water.

I’ve tried to imagine the discussion in the boat later that night among Peter and the others. I seriously doubt if anyone was critical of Peter. I’m confident they wanted to know what it was like to walk on water; and other than Jesus, Peter was the only one who could tell them.

Should we compliment Peter or criticize him? I’m perfectly willing to let Jesus do any correcting that is necessary, and I’ll compliment Peter.

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GETTING IT RIGHT

Last week while reading Frederick Buechner’s memoir The Eyes of the Heart, an observation he made about his deceased younger brother got my attention. Comparing his brother to himself he wrote, “I want to get it right about the way he took life as it came instead of, like me, brooding about the past or worrying himself sick about the future.” Read what he said again and consider which brother you are most like.

I wish I was more like his brother, but I am clearly more like the older Frederick. I wish I was better at taking life as it comes, but the truth is I spend too much time, energy, and heart brooding about the past and worrying about the future. How about you?

You and I both know people who are robbing themselves of a fulfilling life in the present because of what happened in their past. To get a better sense of its meaning I looked up brood in the dictionary. It means “to think a lot about something in an unhappy way” or “to dwell gloomily on a subject.”

We all have things in our past that negatively impacted us. The challenge is to keep those hurts and failures from destroying our present. It doesn’t mean we are not sorry for what we did or deeply hurt by what happened to us; nor does it mean we cannot learn from the past. But for our own good we need to deal with the past so that in the words of the Apostle Paul we can “forget what is behind” and “press on” (Philippians 3:13 and 14). Admittedly, for a lot of us that is easier said than done; but as trite as it sounds, we can’t go back. I do know, however, that talking with a counselor can be a great benefit for some who are so wounded by their past they struggle in the present.

We also know people who are too focused on and concerned about the future that they are treading water in the present. For me this is a bigger issue than brooding about the past. One morning last week after my prayer time I jotted down this question to myself: “Am I worrying so much about the future that I am not enjoying today?”

When I think about this habit I am reminded of Jesus’ teaching about worry in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:23-34. After a commonsense discussion about worry Jesus concludes in verse 34, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” In this teaching Jesus is not forbidding our planning or preparing for the future. In the words of Archibald Hunter, Jesus is giving us a principle of living that “taking reasonable care, we are to face life trustingly, accepting each day fresh from God, and leaving the unknown in his hands.” In others words, rather than living a life of worry, we are to live a life of faith.

If I can borrow from Buechner, I too want to get it right about the way I take life as his brother did—as it comes. Both yesterday and tomorrow can be enemies of today. We can’t live either in the past or in the future. To get it right we must live in the present.

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