Hold Fast

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you--unless you believed in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:1-2, ESV)

Location: Cochrane, Alberta, Canada

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Prayer and the State of One's Heart

How does the state of our hearts affect prayer? What factors in our lives are spoken of in the Bible as having an effect on prayer, besides faith? Though not exhaustive, here are a few thoughts to ponder.

One thing to consider when approaching Almighty God in prayer is our motive:

You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. (James 4:2-3)

If there is one way to waste our time in prayer, it is by asking for things we have no need for. God did not create us for our own pleasure, or to glorify ourselves; He created us to glorify Him, in fellowship with and service to Him. No matter what the Word-Faith teachers claim, God is not glorified when we ask for Rolls-Royces for ourselves when a Chevy will do; He is not glorified when we build expansive houses for ourselves when others shiver in the streets. As James said, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world." (James 1:27)

The Word-Faith idea that God will give us anything we want, because He is glorified in our earthly prosperity, is one that has become far more popular in the evangelical church over the past couple of decades. According to this view, God wants us to be materially successful, because we are the "King's Kids," and we are entitled to such benefits by virtue of our faith. As such, earthly blessings beyond measure are available to us - if we only claim what is rightfully ours! And so Word-Faith teachers and churches focus overwhelmingly on "positive confession" - that is, declaring with confidence that one will receive what he wants, and avoiding any negative thoughts or words about the matter. And many of the leading lights of this movement are incredibly wealthy (due primarily to the so-called "seed" offerings of their followers) and flaunt their wealth in their lifestyles and sermons.

But this greedy and materialistic worldview reduces God to the level of a cosmic vending machine, spitting out the tokens we want if we put in the appropriate number of "faith-filled words." In this view, God serves us, not the other way around. Many Christians do seek material wealth out of an honest desire to do good with it, but in far too many cases it turns out to be a subtle trap of the devil. Because of our sinful nature, it is far too easy to make that pursuit of success our god, instead of focusing on glorifying God Himself.

Another motive that offends God in prayer is pride:

"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." (Matthew 6:5-6)


He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 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. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.' 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!' 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)

In these two examples, Jesus heavily criticized those who pray for appearances. The Pharisees, Sadducees, and other religious leaders of His day made a habit of flaunting their piety. Jesus challenged His followers to be different. Praying in public can be edifying to others (1 Corinthians 14:13-17) but if done as a "show" to others, then our focus is no longer on God but on ourselves. And that is idolatry.

The second example also points to a self-righteousness in prayer. None of us deserves to call himself righteous before God; we are all sinners. God seeks humility in His children (Luke 7:7-10). Righteousness is our duty - that is, something expected of us; we deserve no special recognition or reward for doing what is simply our duty. And because, as sinners, we cannot even be righteous of our own ability, we should be all the more humble before Him who credits His own righteousness to us!

Besides our attitudes towards God, material things, and ourselves, our relationships with others have an impact on the state of our hearts – and thus on our prayer lives. Jesus told His disciples: "And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses." (Mark 11:25) We are to forgive others their sins – as the passage in the Lord’s Prayer affirms: "...and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." (Matthew 6:12) Our relationship with God centres around his forgiveness of our sins, and God expects us to forgive others in the same way. If we do not, on what basis can we expect God to listen to our requests favourably?

One other thought relating to prayer may be found in 1 Peter 4:7: "The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers." Paul alludes to two important concepts here. Sober-mindedness has to do with the fact that we are called to edify our mind as well as our spirit through prayer (1 Corinthians 14:15). Our mind is a gift from God; our capacity to reason and think is one of the things that sets us apart from the animals, and is part of the "image of God" that we reflect. Our spirits and minds are to be of one accord in worshiping God.

The other concept Paul speaks of in 1 Peter 4:7 is that of self-control, an idea that he, again, spoke of elsewhere in his writings. Paul speaks of self-control being a "fruit of the Spirit":

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. (Galatians 5:22-25)

Here Paul speaks of "walking by the Spirit," an idea that closely parallels the concept of "praying in the Spirit" spoken of in Ephesians 6:18: "...praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints..." Praying in the Spirit is also spoken of in Romans 8:26, 1 Corinthians 14:15, and Jude 20, and essentially means that a Christian who is right with God will be filled with the Holy Spirit, exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit in his or her life. That Christian will naturally seek, in prayer, those things God the Holy Spirit wishes him or her to ask of God the Father.

All of these factors and considerations may be summed up by one short verse, Psalm 34:15: "The eyes of the LORD are toward the righteous and his ears toward their cry." This verse is quoted in 1 Peter 3:12. We are called to righteousness in every aspect of our lives, including in prayer. God listens to the righteous.

And this is why prayer calls for humility: our righteousness, the very reason God listens to us and is inclined toward us, is not our own.

It is His.


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