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Prayer right and wrong

November 2009

Dear Friends,

There is an attitude around, these days, of claiming things in prayer. It is bad thinking and I wish to commend a rather different approach to the Almighty. Prayer that is in accord with holy scripture will for the most part humbly cry out to a gracious but sovereign Father, trusting him to say Yes, or No, or Wait, as he knows best.

I would like to explain why the former approach is so harmful that this is not just a matter of the two approaches being equally commendable or equally Christian.

The contemporary reasoning that distresses me is usually expressed something like this: ‘the Bible tells us that Jesus carried away our diseases. Healing is therefore included in the atonement, therefore we may claim healing here in this life.’

That is nonsense. He died our death too, but we all seem to end up dying in this era between the two comings of Christ. So the idea ‘the atonement includes this, therefore I can have it now’ is both false and harmful.

Think of the apostle Paul. He suffered greatly from a serious, unattractive, painful and limiting illness of some sort. He engaged in substantial prayer about it for three sustained periods, knowing fine that God answers prayer; and he received an answer all right: -

"No, my gracious favour is all you need:
My power works best in your weakness"

And notice in what spirit Paul – Paul the great Apostle! – prayed:

“Three times I pleaded with the Lord”

Not much ‘claiming’ there. But we can go further. If anyone ever had the right to just ‘name it and claim it’ then the Divine Son, Jesus of Nazareth, did. Now it happens that we have the immense privilege of knowing how he prayed:

“My Father, if it be possible, may this cup (crucifixion) be taken from me; yet not as I will, but as you will.”
And a little later,
“My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may Your will be done.”

God the eternal Son didn’t name it and claim it. He didn’t come near claiming it. He reverently submitted a heartfelt cry to the Father, Whom he had seen answering his prayers time and again, trusting him to say Yes, or No, or Wait, as he knew best.

Don’t imagine I write from disappointment or from a steady experience of unanswered prayer. Week by week we pray and time and again we bless God together for prayer plainly answered. (If you don’t come on a Wednesday whenever possible, whatever are you doing?! It’s the most exciting if battling part of Sandyford’s life and, as God pleases, the avenue of His power supply to all our ministries). On occasion, as members have taken up the invitation in the letter of James, we have called on the elders, examined our consciences, confessed our sins, anointed with oil and interceded in respect of the serious illness of members for whom the medical profession have found themselves unable. We have experienced both Yes and (so far) No in answer. So I am not writing from a position of unbelief.

No, those prayers of Paul’s and Christ’s were not one whit inferior to the commands to the Almighty (God have mercy on us) which we hear people using. But there is a more crucial reason yet why we do well to put the answering (or not) of our prayers into holier and wiser hands than ours. Consider:

“God’s intention for us – the destiny which he has in mind for us in – is to be conformed to the likeness of his son.” (Romans 8.29)

The aim of the Christian is to become Christ-like.

Now, do you and I know whether that will be better furthered, in respect of any given instance of intercession, by a Yes from God rather than by a No or a Wait? No, we have absolutely no idea. We haven’t the wisdom and even if we had, we are not in the business of giving God orders.

It behoves us, therefore, humbly to leave with Him our grateful requests and our heartfelt tears and cries. He might – as in the cases of St Paul and of Joni Eareckson – wish to beget Christ in us through the submission, patience and character development involved in receiving a ‘no, my grace is sufficient for you on this one’. Or perhaps he will do it through a mighty intervention. But so pray as to let Him decide, and let our desire be for what really matters most.

And what matters most? – as I’ve said, to become more Christlike. The American Christian counsellor Larry Crabb records a fine good example of this in a book dedication (the book is ‘Finding God’ – isn’t that attractive?):

“To the memory of Dr Charles Smith, a mentor who prayed for his cancer to return if it would bring him closer to God. In his last year he found God in a measure he had never known before. And then he died – of cancer.”

Contrast that with the last months of the wonderful Christian David Watson, whose shoes I am not worthy to have untied but who in the 48 hours before his death came to a remarkable change of opinion. You can read of it in his final, autobiographical book ‘fear no evil’. All through his cancer he had made public, including on radio, his expectation that God would miraculously cure him. Then a page from the end of the book he writes most poignantly: words penned just before his death and published posthumously. He says he wishes he had used those months learning from his circumstances – learning especially a closeness to Jesus through them – instead of asking God to change them. So much that God had given it for, he said, wasted because he was looking for something different.

Crabb makes a telling point in this whole area. The church used to teach that the chief end of people is to glorify God, he writes; but now it’s teaching that the chief end of God is to gratify people.

That distinction struck me particularly some years ago when we had a visiting speaker at the Bible College and he brought his wife who was in a wheelchair. What a thriving, abounding Christian she was! They were saying to me, what a waste of response it would have been to keep looking for a miracle when God had given a peace and a ministry from accepting his providence and making the most of it in Christ. There’s the distinction: is the chief end of God to gratify people, or the chief end of people to glorify God?

I repeat: I’m not against prayer. I depend on God 100% and especially in respect of my Christian walk and my Christian service. I’d be a nut to do anything different. I thank God for a praying people and beg you to be one of them. But not in an attitude of commanding and claiming; rather, of opening our hearts and of pleading, with thanks, on the grounds of his assured love and wisdom.

Bad things happening are often permitted as an opportunity to trust God. As Crabb says right at the end of his book, the world is too bad a place, and too uncertain, to make it our home and count on enjoying it; but it’s the perfect place to find God. That’s what we’re here for; let’s not discover that just 48 hours before we die.

Yours sincerely,

C Peter White

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