Back in 2010, I was asked to preach at a small, traditional church in Virginia that was considering to call me as their pastor. I had a well-rehearsed and “tried-and-true” sermon all planned out to preach, and was decked out in my best “preaching suit” (yes, that’s a thing). My wife even made sure that my socks matched that day. I was ready to knock it out of the park, and wow the audience with my adept preaching. I was meditating on my sermon when interim pastor stood up to conduct the “prayer time” of the worship service. He asked the audience for requests. After each request, the interim pastor took down a written note in his bulletin. I was so focused on rehearsing the sermon that I tuned out the 20 or so requests that seemed to drone on forever.
So to my surprise, the interim pastor turned to me and politely asked me: “Pastor Higgins, would you be willing to specifically pray for each of these requests?” And the emphasis was on the word “specifically.” As in pray for each one of these requests that I hadn’t been paying attention to whosoever. What followed was probably the most awkward (and shortest) prayer in the history of pastoral prayers:
“Oh Lord … um … You’ve heard everything these people have said … um … Please answer their requests … um … Yeah … Amen.”
Lots of awkward looks at the end of that prayer. So much for my well-rehearsed sermon.
That worship service was really my first initiation with a sacred cow entrenched in many traditional churches: The mid-week “prayer meeting.” Why so many Christians have such an inexplicable warm sensation about these crazy leviathans I’ll never know, because most of these meetings seem to have a rather loose connection to Biblical prayer. Many meetings seem to devolve into “organ recitals,” where the emphasis of prayer is healing so-and-so’s hearts, belly buttons, appendixes and other remarkably vital organs. At other times, prayer meetings can devolve into glorified opportunities for gossip: “I know you haven’t seen sister Suzie around church in years, and I know you’re all really, really concerned and need to know what happened … So I really need to tell the church to really pray hard because she’s run off to Paris with a Swedish romance novel model … At least, that’s what I heard at the hair salon.” And then when the act of prayer actually begins, there’s always one or two people keen to pray long-winded Shakespearean prayers laced with 1611 KJV “thees” and “thous” that seem more attuned to impressing the congregation than moving the heart of God. Now, I’m all in favor in bodies of believers gathering to corporately pray, but much of the perfunctory of the traditional “prayer meeting” is a theological headache.
So let me get to another related admission (and the point of this blog): I don’t really pray for myself much. That might like a strange admission for a pastor, but go with me here. I think that response has been a knee-jerk reaction to what prayer has become in many churches: Unadulterated selfishness.
The biggest proof of the church’s obsession with the selfishness of prayer is found on the shelves of our Christian bookstores. Over the past twenty years, some of the biggest sellers in the Christian book genre have been books that (supposedly) inform believers how to get stuff out of God in three simple steps. The easiest target is Bruce Wilkinson’s 2000 book The Prayer of Jabez, which transformed an obscure prayer for 1 Chronicles 4:10 into a best-selling formula for getting consumer goods out of God. For other popular books on prayer, the teaching is often clumsily grounded in obscure Bible passages (i.e. and Stephen Furtick’s Sun Stand Still) or extra-Biblical stories (i.e. Mark Patterson’s The Circle Maker), but these books continue to be gobbled up by Christians. Similarly, prosperity Gospel books claiming you can have $60 million dollar jets or have “every day a Friday” (whatever that means) if you simply have faith or “claim God’s promises” sell outrageously. But don’t blame the writer … Blame the readers buying these $20 hardcovers. Such works only tap into and legitimize our sinful desire to infuse selfishness and consumerism into our prayer lives.
Back in 2006, Derek Webb wrote a scathing song, entitled “Wedding Dress,” about the church’s warm embrace of Bruce Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez. The song is based on Ezekiel 16, which describes the people of God as engaging in prostitution against her honorable husband, God. It’s a common theme of Scripture (see Hosea 1-3). The accusation was that the church tends to pursue material possessions through prayer instead of simply seeking the treasure of Christ alone. Honestly, the controversy over the song had more to do with Derek’s use of the provocative (but Biblical) words “whore” and “bastard” to describe the church. Frankly, I love the honesty and sound discernment of the song. The interview below featuring Derek about the writing of this song (and the actual song) is compelling:
Convicted by the Gospel and own human depravity, I identify with the faithless bride of Ezekiel 16 and “The Wedding Dress” song. I often desire earthly treasures and personal comfort in prayer over the simplicity of having the love of Christ. So I must repent of my faithlessness to God.
But there’s also a danger in unwittingly believing the oddly equal inverse of The Prayer of Jabez: As an unrighteous sinner, I should not ask anything from God in prayer. It’s one thing to believe that our own faith and righteousness merits a response from God in prayer … But the inadvertent polar opposite is believing that our lack of faith and unrighteousness merits no response from God in prayer. In both circumstances, the false belief is that the heart of God is moved simply by our belief, doubt, righteousness, sinfulness or works. Both circumstances are wrong … But the inverse deceptively seems Gospel-centered, because it emphasizes the remnant of our sinful nature. Either way, God simply becomes a glorified vending machine: If we have the right change (or behavior), out pops whatever we desire.
I think I often fall into this second category of false belief whether I admit it or not. Sure God is my Father in Heaven … But why bother to ask the Father for anything if His child has messed up in so many ways?!? As an abject failure of a pastor, husband and father, I have no right to stand before God until I get my act together. I’m not worthy.
Essentially, I do not ask because I don’t deserve to ask for anything.
That belief is wrong too. Because it represents only “bad news” portion of the Gospel. The Gospel is incomplete in this view of prayer.
Here’s why it’s wrong: Yes, we are unrighteous and unworthy sinners apart from Christ (Romans 3). But our standing before God is based on Christ, who is our meditator and advocate in Heaven (1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 9:15). Because of the work of Christ, we have been also adopted as the children of God (Galatians 3:26-4:7). So our adopted Father in Heaven longs to hear from His children, because He cares for them like a perfect Father (Matthew 6:5-6, 7:7-11). Our Father listens to His prodigal kids, and never gives them snakes, stones or destructive presents. Therefore, God does not act like a crabby neighbor at midnight who won’t get out of bed to answer the door when his children knock on the door of Heaven (Luke 11:1-13). All because of Christ, we now have a new relationship with God.
And so the effectiveness of our prayer is based on what Christ has already done and not what we do. In his fantastic book about prayer It Happens After Prayer, H.B. Charles Jr. declares:
I believe in the exhaustive sovereignty of God, which is just a fancy way of saying that God is God. That is, God is God alone. This means that our prayers do not God under obligation to do whatever we ask. It does not matter how long you pray. It does not matter how loud you cry. It does not matter how many verses you quote or promises you claim. It does not matter how many so-called positive confessions you make. As you pray, you must remember who God is.
So much of modern Christian teaching about prayer is wrong because Christ is not the foundation. Instead, the foundation is whether we behave … Whether we get the words right … Whether we have enough faith … Whether we claim promises … Whether we hold onto our special double-blessed “prayer shawl” … Whether we financially give … Whether we spend 3+ hours in a “prayer closet” … Whether we say “thee” and “thou” … Whether we can “pray well” (whatever that means) … Whether we’re fervent and get our “prayer sweats” on … Whether the kids would just shut up enough for us to think … Whether we jump up and down and dance the Watusi … Whether I stubbornly and petulantly draw a circle around what I desire … Whether we’re our “prayer posture” is correct. As a result, our church members tend to be more focused on the gory sausage-making mechanics of prayer instead of the person of Christ. If the process of prayer is more dependent on our persona than Christ’s performance, we make a mockery of prayer. As with all of the Christ-life, prayer is truly dependent on Christ alone.
Sure, some might argue from James 5:16 (“The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working”) that our righteousness leads to the efficacy of prayer. However, the Gospel argues that our righteousness is wholly founded the work of Christ on the cross. If prayer were answered apart from Christ and solely based on my filthy rags of unrighteousness, I’d be doomed … And so would you. But Christ brings hope to our prayer.
Getting the whole Gospel message correct is the solid foundation of prayer. Yes, we don’t merit asking anything from God due to our own unrighteousness … But we can freely ask from God because of Christ’s imputed righteousness. The efficacy of prayer is based on Christ. Therein lies the checks and balances of prayer. Knowing that you are unworthy to approach the throne of grace but being still bid to come is thoroughly humbling (Hebrews 4:16). And so we humbly genuflect to God’s kingdom and His perfect will in prayer while still being bold enough to ask in prayer. And there’s nothing wrong with asking for blessing as a prodigal child so beautifully loved and forgiven by His faithful Father in Heaven.
So come let us approach the throne. Our Father is waiting there to listen to us and love us.
All because of what Christ has already accomplished.