Why We Should Have Utter Confidence in Prayer

compendiumAt the tail-end of his uncompleted Compendium of Theology Aquinas treats the question of why we must pray to God for what we hope. First, he notes that we belong to him as an effect does to a cause. He has made us with a purpose in mind which it is his aim to see fulfilled. If a pot were rational and could hope, it should hope in the potter who shaped him. “Thus we are told in Jeremiah 18:6: ‘As clay is in the hand of the potter, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel.'”

But Aquinas does not simply want us to know that we should pray to God our Maker, but how we should pray to God: with complete and utter confidence.

The confidence which man has in God ought to be most certain. As we just intimated, a cause does not refrain from rightly controlling its product unless it labors under some defect. But no defect or ignorance can occur in God, because “all things are naked and open to His eyes,” as is said in Hebrews 4:13. Nor does He lack power, for “the hand of the Lord is not shortened that it cannot save,” as we read in Isaiah 59:1. Nor is He wanting in good will, for “the Lord is good to those who hope in Him, to the soul that seeks Him,” as we are reminded in Lamentations 3:25. Therefore the hope with which a person trusts in God does not confound him that hopes, as is said in Romans 5:5. (Compendium 2.4)

Why should we have utter confidence in prayer? As it always seems to be with Aquinas, because God, that’s why.

Soli Deo Gloria

On Signalling Versus Displaying Virtue in a Trumpian Age

trumpI had a few thoughts on the notion of virtue-signalling after watching this first week of the Trump Presidency, the Women’s March, and the March for Life unfold online.

Virtue is a good thing, which is why thinking yourself or being thought to possess virtue is an attractive prospect.

This basic reality funds the critique of what’s recently been termed “virtue-signalling” (though, arguably the concept is as old as Plato’s Republic Bk. 2). In a nutshell, the idea is that in an online age, much of our public talk about justice (tweets, likes, shares, Facebook rants) is just that: public talk. We share the right links, yes, maybe because we care about an issue, but more importantly because we need to be seen to care about it. Indeed, we need to see it in order to assure ourselves.

This is one of the many factors contributing to the regular cycles of social media frenzy about everything from the silly (an insensitive tweet by a celebrity at 3 am) to the serious (President Trump’s executive order). Indeed, social media exacerbates the problem since it’s basically geared towards the practice. There’s now a digital trail of what you have or haven’t said across various formats, which can easily be compared to our peers. Having been online for a while, this seems to be at least part of the problem and a helpful tool for cultural analysis.

I know that in many instances, especially after a tragedy or an outrage, there’s a pressure to tweet or post about it to make sure everybody knows that I too care. I too am saddened, or grieved. I fear that at times when I remain silent, or have found out about something late, I’ll be thought callous for having not said anything.

Of course, with any fancy new word or concept, it can be used cynically. In which case, for those with a more jaded eye, or on the other side of a particular issue, all of the protests, tweets, and so forth are basically just virtue-signalling. This critique tends especially to be leveled by conservatives against progressives whose tribal identification seems to encourage that.

And since Newton’s Third Law generally applies to these sorts of things, I have now seen various progressives complain about the very notion of critiquing public displays of virtue. Why would virtue be anything to critique? Seems worth emulating and encouraging. Indeed, we ought to be cynical about the cynicism and see nothing but self-protection in this.

Jesus on Signalling Virtue

As Christians, it seems wise to look to Jesus at this point. Did he have anything to say about virtue-signalling? Possibly. Let’s look at the Sermon on the Mount:

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

 Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt. 6:1-6)

Note that Jesus does not condemn prayer, or giving to the needy, or even giving to the needy in public (which is probably where you have to do it). He condemns “practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.” It is the hypocrisy, the play-acting at virtue which aims at human praise for the self. It is seeking the reward of being thought virtuous instead of  the reward of having pleased the Father.

So, it seems that being wary of virtue-signalling isn’t simply a 21st Century worry, but a 1st Century one.

But, of course, that’s not the whole of the story. Take this famous image at the beginning of the Sermon:

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 5:14-16)

It seems that at one level, then, Christians ought to be concerned for others to see their virtue. When we obey, when we display the attitudes and practice the justice that Jesus teaches in the Beatitudes and the rest of the Sermon, the hope is that we will be shown to be daughters and sons of the good Father. Peter echoes a very similar thought in his first letter to Christian “exiles” living among their pagan neighbors (1 Peter. 2:9-12).

We have, then, these two streams of teaching to set in tension. Christians, at some level, ought to be concerned to display the virtue of God to our neighbors because it is right, and so that God can be glorified. But we should also be quite unconcerned with whether they think we are particularly virtuous. Their approval, their estimation of us as virtuous people should not be what we seek.

I would also add for those who pride themselves on not caring what others think, that our self-conception can fall under this ban as well. Many of us are deeply invested in the project of proving to ourselves that we are quite virtuous. Which is why it’s so exceptional when Paul says he doesn’t even pass judgment on himself, but leaves judgment to the Lord (1 Cor. 4).

As my language has already indicated, we might describe it as the difference between displaying virtue and signalling virtue.

Reflections for the Current Time

I bring this up now because it’s something I think many of us will be wrestling with in days, weeks, and years to come. Knowing how, when, and why to speak will be increasingly difficult in an online context that seems to accelerate every day. The breakneck speed at which we come to find things out, are expected to have researched, processed and rendered a thoughtful judgment, and then subsequently either acted or spoken on it seems unsustainable and unhealthy.

[As a side-note, I find it impossible that any, let alone most, of us are competent enough to have informed opinions on all the issues that matter in our world today (excepting rare insomniac journalists). It’s beyond ludicrous that we should all need to make them public.]

Returning to the issue of virtue-signalling, one thing we’ll have to wrestle with is how much we allow shame to be a motivator for our action. I can’t tell you how often I have see others putting public pressure on people to speak to an issue, to “use their voice”, etc. Now, in some cases, it may be warranted. Some may be refraining from speech out of fear, cowardice, or self-protective vanity. This is not good. God’s children are told to risk prophetic speech at the proper times.

And yet others do so out of care, a circumspect nature, a desire to not add another ill-informed voice to a conversation about which they know very little, or a wariness about getting sucked into the reactivity of the internet. Some are just busy working a job, caring for children, and the regular cares of everyday life.  In these cases, shaming someone into action can end up provoking guilty silence, cynicism, or the sort of breathless exhaustion which causes people to give up speech altogether.

Another point we ought to be wary of is the way tribal identification can play into this. We don’t just signal virtue broadly to the world, but virtues connected to shared identities within particular tribes and sub-cultures. I had one progressive friend share support for the March for Life this week, only to quickly caveat that she couldn’t be that excited since so many involved were also vocal supporters of torture. (To which my initial thought was, “Well, I’m pretty sure the dead infants didn’t support it.”) The point is that you can’t simply work for a good cause tout court, but you have carefully signal that you’re doing it in ways that align with the virtues your tribe shares.

Of course, similar examples can be dredged up the on the right.

Indeed, here I think tribal loyalties can stop us from speaking out when our conscience tells us we should. Precisely because we don’t want to be seen as the sort of person who virtue-signals about popular issues like race and sex, or participates in the “media freakout” over Trump, we curb our tongues. Ironically enough, one can signal the right sort of critical distance from the fray by refusing to signal. But this is not wise taming of the tongue that pleases the Father (Jas. 3:1-12), but posturing for a crowd.

I suppose the point I’m circling back around to is one I made recently about our work for justice in racial reconciliation. When we work for justice, we do so not for the approval of the most vocal advocates, but because we are children of God. In the current moment, we ought to speak, then, not to signal our virtue, but to display the goodness of God at work in transforming us. If this is our fundamental posture, I think that ought to change things for some of us.

Some of us will be relieved of the pressure to speak about anything and everything. Others of us will be freed from needing to make sure all of our speech conforms to the trends of our favored social group. And still others may be energized and given voice to speak freely at all.

As Christians, it should also change not only whether we speak, but how we speak. Signalling our virtue to our particular tribe doesn’t typically help us cultivate wise voices, but sharp, toxic tongues attuned to the art of the soundbite and the take-down. Of course, the take-down is appropriate from time to time (see Matthew 23). My point is that when our identities aren’t at stake every post on every issue, grace can more easily pervade our speech, even in disagreement.

Finally, some of us might be moved to do more than just speak. If we’re less concerned about displaying than signalling virtue, we’ll allows ourselves to step away from a screen long enough to do something tangible about those issues that trouble our world.

Purified Speech and Prayer

For all of this, I think Christians will need to be particularly attentive to their prayer lives. In reading Sarah Coakley’s stimulating work, God, Sexuality, and the Self, I’ve become convicted that I haven’t payed enough attention to the disciplines of contemplation and prayer in my theological studies. These disciplines shape and form us, make us attentive to the Spirit, and pliable to hear the voice of the Lord in the Word.

How much more do I need that for my online engagement, where I am bombarding with manifestly unholy voices?

It seems now more than ever, for those of us who live much of our lives online, we need to take a disciplined step back and engage in practices that will purify our souls. To curb the influence of the toxic, frenetic voices, as well as protect us from becoming cynical and jaded.

We come around again to Jesus’ injunction, “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” It is he who is our reward, and it is only by spending time with him that we will learn to become sons and daughters who display virtue, without merely signalling it.

Soli Deo Gloria

Loving Your Political Neighbor in an Age of Trumpian Anxiety

trump

For some context, you should know that I am a recovering political junkie/idolater. Many who’ve only known me the last few years wouldn’t have picked up on it. Because of my job at church and my own dive into theology, I really haven’t commented on it much, nor given myself over to it in-depth recently. I used to be obsessed as a kid, though.

My dad and I used to follow politics instead of sports and loved it–I still love talking politics with him. I remember the ’92 election and every Clinton scandal from Whitewater to Lewinsky and all the smaller ones everybody forgets (Filegate, Travelgate, Campaign Finance, pardons for money, etc). I remember the Contract with America–not from books. My dad used to print off articles from the WSJ, the Times, the Post, etc. and I’d read them in class when I was bored (and that was in Jr. High). I was downright wonkish. Heck, I even edited the opinion page for my high school paper.

For years the plan was law school, become a prosecutor, then jump into a politics and help gain the Nation back for Christ. Or something like that. And then, through a long, roundabout series of events, I got the call to pastoral ministry and theology around my freshman year of college and a bunch of that changed. Essentially, I went from thinking about the Nation to the Kingdom, and from political commentary to biblical studies, philosophy, theology, and so forth.

At that point, things moderated for me. I began to cool towards the overtly political, started reading the news less, and sort of when into a political detox mode. It was sort of necessary because—as a bit of hot-blooded young fella—things had gotten all tangled up in a fairly unbiblical, “God and country” sort of way. So the break was healthy.

Of course, I realized that at some point I probably went too far in the other direction. There’s a sort of danger that happens when you’re repenting of some error to see-saw over in the other direction. So, instead of being obsessed with politics and identifying the Church with the Republican or Democratic party, or America as the New Israel, you turn into the guy who loves Jesus-juking every political concern. There’s a sort of apolitical attitude some pious types get that forgets that much of the political instinct isn’t just power-plays and over-realized eschatology, but a real concern to love your neighbor by pursuing the common good of the cities, states, and nations God has placed us in. In essence, the confession that “Jesus is Lord” no matter what, becomes hard to distinguish from burn-it-to-the-ground nihilism with a Jesus-fish slapped on it.

Since then, I’ve been trying to figure out my theology of political engagement that takes into account our creation mandate, the corruption of the Fall, God’s redemption, the unique role of the Church in the World, and even my own place as a theology student and possible, future teacher in the Church. As simple and obvious as all that sounds, I haven’t nailed it down.

I know this because I feel myself getting sucked back into some of the same old patterns of thought and mind that were part of the unhealthy element of my former, political self.

To be honest, the 2016 election is so manic and anxiety-inducing. ISIS, Scalia’s death, the eroding middle class, racial tensions, religious liberty after Obergefell, the Donald, and everything else just seems to be bringing out the worst in everybody. The paranoia. The anger. The consternation and confusion that so many of these sheeple (i.e. my fellow citizens) are so obviously wrong about what matters!…Again, I don’t have this down.

What I have been doing, though, is trying to remind myself of a couple key doctrines as I continue to process my broader theology of political engagement and this election season in particular. I suppose they’re my list of truths that, as an average citizen with moderate levels of political efficacy, will help me stay engaged without becoming obsessed, or forget Jesus’ basic commands to love. Since I figure I’m not the only one who’s been getting sucked in this season, I offer some of them up to you as a brief encouragement as well.

Image of God, Fall, and Neighbor-Love.

The first is quite simply remembering that we’re created and fallen Image-bearers. I recently read that now, as a nation, we are more likely to date and marry someone of a different religion than of a different political party. This is partially because in a secular age, politics becomes our religion.  Whatever the reason, though, the result is that it’s becoming more difficult to relate to people across the political aisle. We’ve become so emotionally and relationally distanced from our political opponents that we have trouble empathetically entering into their intellectual space and understanding their points of view.

This sort of dynamic makes it that much easier to treat them as more than simply political opponents, but ideological threats—the “Other” (sorry for the trigger word). We demonize and thereby lose the ability to dialogue, tolerate, much less love people that disagree with on complex issues like economics, religious liberty, sexuality, and so forth.

Focusing on the doctrines of the Image of God and the Fall help me in at least two ways. First, whoever I’m talking to, no matter our disagreements, is a bearer of the Image of God and is to be treated with dignity, respect, and charity—certainly not with cursing (James 3:9). That doesn’t rule out argument, a sharp joke, or robust rebuke, but it does rule out the contempt that has come to characterize much of our online discourse. In other words, love your neighbor as yourself applies even to Trump supporters.

Second, the doctrine of the fall reminds me that disagreement really can be the result of a sinful refusal of one party to see the truth. And that party just might be me. The fall reminds me that I too have fallen short of the epistemological glory of God and just might stand in need of the correction of my interlocutors. It also sets a curb on my self-righteousness in general, even if I do end up convinced that I’m right on a subject.

Of course, that doesn’t rule out making judgments of character, wisdom, and so forth on the basis of someone’s political engagement. For instance, I’ll be blunt in saying, along with Matthew Lee Anderson, that supporting someone who retweets white Supremacists, won’t repudiate the KKK, breaks up marriages, grossly mocks women, minorities, the handicapped, etc., while there are any other options for an office with access to nuclear codes is a serious lapse in moral judgment. Especially if you call yourself a Christian pastor…But these considerations require that I make that judgment only in the broader context of regarding them as one of God’s Image-bearers, loved by God, and the object of God’s saving activity in Christ just as much as I am.

Penultimacy, Principalities, and Providence.

Paul urged his readers in the church in Corinth to engage in life in the world in something of a counter-intuitive way:

29 This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (1 Co 7:29–31).

While there are a number of quirks we could get into here, what I see Paul doing is advocating something of a doctrine of “penultimacy.” I don’t see Paul arguing that we should totally cut ties with the world, act as if our marriage vows don’t matter, or that death doesn’t cause us pain. If that was the case, then he wouldn’t spend as much time as he does in his letters addressing all of these issues. He’s saying we should act in such a way that remembers these aren’t the final realities. It’s not so much a matter of whether or not to do these things, but how we should.

In other words, God has acted to redeem the world in Christ. There is a New Creation coming. Yes, what we do in the body and in the world matters for that New Creation life (1 Cor. 6:12-20), but this version of the world is not all there is. Death is not the final word. This marriage is not the final relationship. And—this is where it counts for us—this political order is not the final kingdom of God. These things matter, but they matter in a penultimate way—not in an ultimate way.

Another way of thinking about it is repenting from the heresy of Americanism, which tends to treat America as a new Israel, a chosen nation in some sort of redemptive covenant with God, upon whose shoulders the fate of the Church depends. I believe in providence, so yes, I believe God has plans for America, just as he has for all of human history. I also love my country. But to be blunt, while America is a world-historically significant country, it is not a redemptive-historically crucial one. The Church and God’s plans survived the fall of Rome, the Holy Roman Empire, the sidelining of the British Empire, and every other nation identified with God’s unique purposes for history. The Church will be here long after America is gone.

Obviously, I don’t want to see the Republic I love and have grown up in (or even the Party) go down—and I don’t think we’re there—but putting the drama of American politics into a broader, theo-dramatic perspective allows us to pump the breaks on our anxieties before they carry us away into thinking we’re involved in an obvious battle of darkness and light, with the sides clearly and neatly drawn into black hats and white hats. No, we forget that our ultimate battle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers that span both parties and every political configuration and nation (Eph. 6).

It also reminds us that, no matter the details along the way, we do know where it all ends—exactly where God intends it. We forget too often that God’s eye is on the sparrow and he knows how many hairs are on your head—do we think he’s unaware of the primaries? I’m not saying this with a Pollyannaish view of political providence. Reading the court histories in 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings is sobering stuff. All the same, God’s providence is a doctrine for sober times—for prophets living in the midst of sinful Israel as much as for Daniel in Nebuchadnezzar’s court. Even on the far side of the worst disaster and death we can imagine, lie hope and resurrection.

Prayer: A Better Way

Again, none of this is meant as a sort of Jesus-Juke to create apathy to the real, political concern and involvement we are all called to in our various roles as neighbors and average citizens on up the line to elected and appointed officials. If this world and its politics did not matter, then Paul wouldn’t tell us to pray for all of our political leaders, whether kings or elected officials so that they might govern in a way that enables a peaceful and quiet life (1 Tim. 2:1-2).

Instead, it is meant as a reminder that part of what makes Christians holy is not simply that we do different things than our neighbors, but that we do the same things our neighbors do differently. We vote, we argue, we serve, we engage, but we do so in the broader perspective of the gospel of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension to the throne of the universe from whence he will return to judge the living and the dead. We do it to love our neighbors, not simply triumph over them.

That said, I suppose it is appropriate to close with Paul’s encouragement. Though much of our holiness is caught up in doing things differently, sometimes the different things we do are what enable us to do so. Prayer is one of them because prayer reorients us to all the truths I’ve been outlining.

Praying for our neighbors, our nation, our leaders, our activities puts them in their proper, spiritual perspective. Prayer acknowledges that these things are right objects of our concern—indeed, we are bringing them to God for his concerned action and discernment. Prayer also—since it is for all people—treats our neighbors, our political opponents, and our leaders as worthy of God’s attention and our respect, honoring them as Image-bearers alongside ourselves. Most of all, prayer acknowledges our dependence upon God in Christ for wisdom, for his mercy, and his good, sovereign will.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Prayer for My Niece, Siena Joy Stewart on the Day of Her Birth

Siena Joy Stewart. My precious niece.

Siena Joy Stewart. My precious niece.

My sister Valerie and her husband Shawn are two of my favorite people on the planet. So far, they have produced another one of my favorite humans, my nephew Jack. At 2:36 pm, after many hours of heroic labor, my sister gave birth to a little girl (20.5 in; 7 lb 11 oz.) who I’m quite convinced I’m going to be a big fan of: Siena Joy Stewart. Yes, she was a week late, but I’m sure that’s just a matter of the extra quality in preparation involved. She’s going to be a very special young woman.

When Jack was born, I wrote him a prayer because I realized, besides smashing cars with him, prayer is probably my main responsibility towards him. I’m going to do the same for Siena. My wife and I have been praying for her daily for some months now and I’m sure there are years of prayer to come, but these are just a few hopes and dreams, blessings and pronouncements on her.

Holy Father, thank you for your many gifts. Thank you specifically for this new blessing of a wonderful little girl, Siena Joy. Thank you for your providence that has brought her to us. Thank you for this grace on the life of Shawn and Val as parents. I anticipate that we will not stop giving thanks to you for her all of our days.

Thank you, gracious God, for the promise contained in her name for who this little girl will be one day. Already she is a deep joy to her family. I do pray that you make that a continuing reality. That Siena Joy would fill the lives of all she knows with that deep, cavernous joy that comes with being in the presence of one graced with the gifts of God. I also pray that she would live into her name, “Siena”, whose character reflects that warm, earthy depth of her mother and father.

Beyond that, I want to pray some specific things for her.

Salvation. As I prayed for Jack, God, you are her maker, I pray that you would become her Father in Christ; adopt her by your grace. Let her come to repent and believe the Gospel early and deeply, be united by faith to Christ, and given the gift of your Spirit. I pray that someday quite soon she could answer Heidelberg’s first question, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” with the proper answer, from the heart:

“That I am not my own, but I belong– body and soul, in life and in death–to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven:  in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”

Father, as much as I love having her as a niece, I want her as my little sister in Christ. Let this be the reality that forms the core of who she is.

Courage. It takes courage to follow the call to whole personhood out in a world broken by sin and evil. I pray that Siena Joy would be marked with a fearlessness that is grounded in her assurance that her heavenly Father is for her and keeps watch over all her steps as she seeks to follow you.

Mercy. We live in a graceless culture where judgment consistently triumphs over mercy. I pray that Siena Joy would be a woman of great mercy, whose tender heart towards the broken and afflicted by sin would be a sweet balm that blesses all she meets.

Holiness. Please, Father, set her apart. Set her apart all the days of her life, so that her life may shine with the beauty and glory of holiness. But not a holiness that keeps its distance, but the contagious holiness the draws others in to your arms of grace.

Insight. Give Siena insight by the Spirit–eyes to truly see. Give her vision through the veil of lies and deception that so often clouds the eyes of the heart and stops us from beholding your untamed goodness. May she live with a vision of her God, the whole of her life.

Assurance. May this vision then give her assurance. Both of her salvation, but also of her calling to glorify you in all the particular gifts that you have graced her with. She has been fearfully and wonderfully made, with eternal purposes in mind. May she plant her feet firmly and step forward in confident assurance.

Hope. May this assurance be the substance of a deeply hopeful character. I have no idea what our world holds, but I pray that Siena Joy would look forward and know that her future is determined, not by the powers of the world, but by the mighty, gracious power of her Lord Jesus Christ.

I ask these things with great faith and anticipation, grateful in advance for what you’re going to do, in the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Soli Deo Gloria

Why Pray? Because God is a Forgiving God

Praying manReading through Keller’s book Prayer, I was reminded of one of the most fascinating and comforting passages in all of Calvin’s Institutes. Many don’t know that one of Calvin’s longest chapters in the Institutes is his section on prayer (Book III, Chapter 20.) in which he discusses all sorts of disputed questions, comments on the Lord’s Prayer, and gives out a bunch of practical advice. Keller notices the heart of it are his five “rules” for how to properly approach prayer in the presence of God and so he devotes an entire chapter of his book to exploring them (chapter 7, pp. 97-107).

The first is that we are to approach God with reverence, or holy fear. By fear, yes, there is the element of being afraid, but it’s not the sort of fear that comes with a terror of punishment. As Keller points out, we have no fear of that for Christ is our mediator. Rather, it’s the joyful fear that comes with not wanting to offend someone you greatly admire and love. We should approach God, the Holy King, with no less a sense of awe and careful delight. (III.20.4)

Second, we need to get rid of any sense that prayer is unnecessary or that we are sufficient for our own lives. We need to come to him with a sense of spiritual humility, dropping the false face that wants to perform for God, or present our own spotless record. We need to come utterly dependent, alive to the reality that we need God and are here because of our great lack. In other words, God isn’t interested in fake prayers, but truth. (III.20.6)

Then, there are two more rules that Keller lumps together. The first is to come to God with submissive trust. God is God and so we pray to him as Jesus did in the garden, submitting our will to his. We are to honestly ask for what we want and need, and yet still acknowledge that God is wise beyond our wants and needs. He may do something different and that’s not just okay, it is good. (III.20.8)

But, fourth, we must also not let this submissiveness turn into apathy or a lack of faith. We need to trust that God will actually answer us. Much like Kierkegaard’s knight of faith who will accept whatever God gives him, he nonetheless goes to God hopefully and confidently, knowing that God is a good Father who wants to answer prayers. We mustn’t think him grudging, bitter, or unwilling, but generous and powerful to answer. (III.20.11)

With these rules in mind, we come to Calvin’s the fifth rule, the rule that Keller calls the “Rule against the Rules”, and we are to remember in all of this that God is a gracious God. In other words, there are proper ways to pray, but Calvin doesn’t want you to stop praying just because you’re inevitably going to get it wrong. God is a forgiving God. So pray anyways. I’ll quote him so you see what I mean:

This also is worth noting: what I have set forth on the four rules of right praying is not so rigorously required that God will reject those prayers in which he finds neither perfect faith nor repentance, together with a warmth of zeal and petitions rightly conceived.

I have said that, although prayer is an intimate conversation of the pious with God, yet reverence and moderation must be kept, lest we give loose rein to miscellaneous requests, and lest we crave more than God allows; further, that we should lift up our minds to a pure and chaste veneration of him, lest God’s majesty become worthless for us.

No one has ever carried this out with the uprightness that was due; for, not to mention the rank and file, how many complaints of David savor of intemperance! Not that he would either deliberately expostulate with God or clamor against his judgments, but that, fainting with weakness, he finds no other solace better than to cast his own sorrows into the bosom of God. But God tolerates even our stammering and pardons our ignorance whenever something inadvertently escapes us; as indeed without this mercy there would be no freedom to pray. But although David intended to submit completely to God’s will, and prayed with no less patience than zeal to obtain his request, yet there come forth—sometimes, rather, boil up—turbulent emotions, quite out of harmony with the first rule that we
laid down… (III.20.16)

Calvin goes on to list a number of ways that we fail in our prayers and the need for God’s forgiveness at every step of the way, otherwise we would have no hope of being heard at all. He says that he recounts all this, not so that people give themselves a pass, but :

…that by severely chastising themselves they may strive to overcome these obstacles; and although Satan tries to block all paths to prevent them from praying, they should nonetheless break through, surely persuaded that, although not freed of all hindrances, their efforts still please God and their petitions are approved, provided they endeavor and strive toward a goal not immediately attainable.

What we have here is the difference between leniency and grace. Many of us look at Calvin’s rules, and then Calvin’s assurance of forgiveness and might be tempted to think that Calvin is making too big a deal here. The reason we can pray is that God doesn’t mind us coming to him without holy fear, submission, and so forth. God just likes that we come as we are and pray as well like.

But while that initially sounds better, Calvin knows that we need a deeper assurance than that. Most of us, deep in our guts, know that the way we pray matters. It has to matter. So this picture of a lenient God who doesn’t care isn’t comforting. We’ll still, in the back of our minds, be terrified to pray incompletely, or inappropriately, and so we’ll shy away. Calvin wants us to build our prayer life on a deeper foundation than leniency. He wants us to build it on the foundation of God’s grace in the Gospel.

Yes, you’re going to get this wrong. Yes, you’re going to pray like a proud idiot sometimes, but that’s no reason to stop praying. It’s only as you go to God with confidence that he hears your prayers even as he forgives them, that you will grow in your walk with God. As you grow in prayer, and you grow in your knowledge of God’s forgiveness, and eventually lose your pride and begin to pray to him the way you ought to. It’s a virtuous cycle.

So, why should you be confident in prayer? Because God forgives them.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Matter of Life or Death: Prayer

prayerThis year, my wife and I have committed to sharpening up our prayer life. Our church just went through a series on power and necessity of prayer, and the current season in our lives has been impressing upon us our greater need to be personally and jointly devoted to prayer. We’ve been praying together in the mornings, but we both had been sensing a desire and weight to pray. Plus, Tim Keller just came out with a new book on prayer, aptly entitled Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God,, so I figured this could be a good reading project to help us out.

Well, right off the bat, Keller opens with a story that convicted us we needed to step out on this path with boldness and resolution. Here’s what I mean:

“In the second half of my adult life, I discovered prayer. I had to. In the fall of 1999, I taught a Bible study course on the Psalms. It became clear to me that I was barely scratching the surface of what the Bible commanded and promised regarding prayer. Then came the dark weeks after 9/11, when our whole city sank into a kind of corporate clinical depression, even as it rallied. For my family the shadow was intensified as my wife Kathy struggled with the effects of Crohn’s disease. Finally, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

At one point during all this, my wife urged me to do something with her we had never had been able to muster the self-discipline to do regularly. She asked me to pray with her every night. Every night. She used and illustration that crystallized her feelings very well. As we remember it, she said something like this:

Imagine you were diagnosed with such a lethal condition that the doctor told you that you would die within hours unless you took a particular medicine–a pill every night before going to sleep. Imagine that you were told that you could never miss it or you would die. Would you forget? Would you not get around to it some nights? No–it would be so crucial that you wouldn’t forget, you would never miss. Well, if we don’t pray together to God, we’re not going to make it because of all we are facing. I’m certainly not. We have to pray, we can’t just let it slip our minds.

Maybe it was the power of the illustration, maybe it was just the right moment, maybe it was the Spirit of God. Or, mostly likely of all, it was the Spirit of God using the moment and the clarity of the metaphor. For both of us, the penny dropped; we realized the seriousness of the issue, and we admitted that anything that was a truly no-nnegotiable necessity was something we could do.

Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, pp. 9-10

Reading that passage, the penny has ‘dropped’ for my wife and I as well, and we know that 2015 is going to be a year where we take prayer more seriously than we ever have before. Prayer is a matter of life or death; it is communication and communion with the Triune God who is the source of every breath in our lungs. What could be more important than that?

I would invite you to consider placing it at the center of your priorities this year as well. There are any number of prayer programs or approaches that can help you. Here’s one simple way to pray you can take up easily.

Also, I would encourage you to maybe take up Tim Keller’s book on prayer as well. Many of us don’t pray for various reasons. Some of us have theological reasons. We don’t understand what’s going on, or we have questions about God’s willingness to answer or how it all works. I’ve talked with enough students and friends to know that theology can actually be a significant roadblock for many.

Others have practical questions. We simply don’t know how to begin, or what even the most basic prayer life would look like. We start to pray, but we just end up fumbling about, wondering if we’re doing it right, or if we’ve simply been talking to ourselves.

Finally, some of us have been praying for a while, but we have hit stagnant stages in our walks. In that case, many of us need to be led down more complex paths because we’ve fallen into spiritual ruts.  Or, we need to simply be reminded of the beauty and glory of what’s actually happening in prayer.

Keller’s book is helpful in that he aims to tackle the various dimensions of the issue to prayer, whether theological, practical, or what-have-you. There’s something for everyone there, whether young or old in their walk with Christ.

Either way, whether with Keller’s book or through some other prayer plan, I’d encourage you to take up prayer with a renewed vigor this year. It could be a matter of life and death.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

How (American) Christians Ought to Respond to the Midterm Elections

flagMany wouldn’t guess this by my writings here, but I am a recovering political junkie. From childhood on, I used to be frenetically concerned with all things politics. Reading the Wall Street Journal’s opinion page by junior high, my dad kept me informed by printing out reams of political analysis every week for me to take to school and read in boring classes. It was fun. I like the horserace elements, the ideological battles, the speculation, and everything that went with it. It was like sports for me, only with old white dudes not doing anything. Kind of like golf, I guess.

These days, I’ve cooled off a bit. Not because politics aren’t important, mind you–they are. I’ve simply had a shift in intellectual priorities. Most of the time, the day to day quirks of my job don’t require a detailed knowledge of which piece of legislation got passed today. Still, right around now, midterms and the presidential elections, some of the old fire comes back and I care again.

Now, I’m still not going to say much about the meaning of what happened on Tuesday. The internet is full of political speculation about whether or not these elections favored conservatives or only disfavored Democrats, what implications this holds for the next two years, or whether Kim Kardashian will make a run in 2016. (Though, I do think I have some solid thoughts on that last one.)

What I will do is ask all of my politically-concerned brothers and sisters one question: Are you praying now?

I don’t mean to be a self-righteous pontificator, Jesus-juking everybody who’s more tightly caught up in this, but I really want us to honestly ask that question. When I was a political junkie, even though I was a Christian who read, prayed, and cared, I didn’t really think to obey one of the only truly clear commands in Scripture about Christians and the political process:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:1-4)

Republican or Democrat, whoever did or didn’t win  in your district, whatever idiotic ballot proposals did or didn’t pass, you as a Christian have at least one clear command about how to respond to the midterm elections: pray for whoever’s coming in.

Pray for wisdom to conquer folly.

Pray for righteousness to trump pragmatism.

Pray for bravery to overwhelm cowardice.

Pray for a vision of the common good to overcome personal greed.

Pray for the shalom of the city to bury its violence.

Pray for the salvation of whoever has come to power so that they may know the joy of Jesus Christ and then be guided by God’s Spirit to govern in ways that reflect the goodness of God’s kingdom for the sake of all.

Soli Deo Gloria