Spiritual Disciplines: Prayer (Part 2)

In one of my previous posts (from a long time ago), I started talking about prayer as a spiritual discipline and I ended up discussing some of the pitfalls of prayer. Well, because I am trying to follow Jesus, I very quickly find myself asking, “How did Jesus pray? Under what circumstances? How did he teach his disciples to pray?” So today, I would like to take a quick look at some of Jesus’s prayers and what we learn from both his teaching and his example. Note that this is not exhaustive.

Luke 5:16 (Persistence and Consistency)

From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was a celebrity in his day. When he traveled to a town, many crowds would come out to hear him speak and to receive healing from him as he traveled. In other words, everywhere he went there were people who wanted to knock on his office door (if he had had one) and talk to him. Yet according to Luke, Jesus “often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” Whatever he had going, whatever pressing concerns or tasks he had to do, Jesus understood that speaking to and hearing from God his Father was essential for the health of his own heart and mind, not to mention that he could not accomplish his mission on Earth without the power of his Father.

John 11:1-44 (Building Up the Faith of Others)

In the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, we see a particularly striking passage where Jesus, having asked that Lazarus’s body be exposed to the light of day for his impending resurrection, Jesus prays out loud to the Father: “Father, I thank you that you have heard me.  I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”

This seems like a strange prayer to say. Is this not similar to how the Pharisees prayed – out loud, in public, for all to hear? The key difference here is the motive. The Pharisees prayed out loud so that their particular brand of hollow piety could be admired by their listeners. Jesus wants to reassure his audience that yes, he really is a representative of the Father, and yes, the miracle he is about to perform is endorsed and empowered by the Father. In so doing, his motive is to build the faith and trust of others and give ultimate glory to the Father.

Luke 6:12-13 (Making Important Decisions)

After referring to Jesus’s consistency in prayer with God, Luke then reports to us that Jesus spent one whole night away from the disciples in prayer. When Jesus returns, he then proceeds with selecting his Twelve Disciples, those who will follow him more closely than any others for the rest of his life, both as his disciples and his closest friends. Although we are not privy to what Jesus prayed, it is natural for me to suppose he was praying about this very important decision he had ahead of him, likely asking for wisdom as he chose his closest followers. It sounds strange even to my mind that Jesus himself sought wisdom in order to make the best decisions, but I think that is in this text: we see that Jesus looked to his Father for wisdom in making difficult decisions.

Matthew 26:36-46 (Emotional Struggles)

When Jesus was going through his darkest moment in the Garden of Gethsemane, his reaction was to pray. The most extraordinary part of this prayer is that he says, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” He knew what was coming, and he wanted to avoid it. If you believe in love as a feeling or an emotion, then it doesn’t seem right for Jesus to be so emotionally conflicted about giving his life. This is how we know that love – true love – is a choice. Jesus was laying down his life, and in that moment he knew his future was going to bring a lot of pain and suffering. Not only was he confident and trusting enough in his Father that he was willing to go through with this, but he willingly put his life in the hands of God.

Luke 23: 33-35 (Forgiveness from the Cross)

Arguably, one of the most important prayers for a Christian is what is said in the Lord’s prayer: “Forgive us our debts (or trespasses) as we forgive our debtors (or, those who trespass against us).” Jesus taught us in the Lord’s prayer that our salvation is conditional on our forgiveness of those who have wronged us. Jesus modeled this for us on the cross. He asked the Father to “forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.” Who is “they?” On one hand, it’s easy to see: the Pharisees who had conspired to get Jesus crucified. But it could just as easily be Pilate, who saw that an unjust execution was going to take place and literally washed his hands of it. Or it could’ve been his disciples, who abandoned him at the most difficult moment in his ministry. Or it could’ve been me, since before Christ I lived in such a way that was as much of a betrayal of Jesus as the disciples.

I think that “Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” was for all of us. That was the institution of the new law of grace – the new covenant. If nothing else, that tells us a great deal about the power of forgiveness and the power of prayer.

Spiritual Disciplines: Prayer (Part 1)

When I was younger, I learned prayer from my older sister and my parents. They encouraged me to pray the Lord’s prayer before I went to bed, after which I would pray about the things that were on my mind. I remember praying in a lot of different situations throughout my life: when I was in elementary school and the tornado alarm went off, I remember praying. I would pray on the way to and from classes in high school; I prayed for friends, for family, for good grades, for a girl to like me. Suffice it to say, prayer has been a large part of my life.

That being said, prayer is also one of the areas that I think I have the most to grow in. Somewhere between my youth and today, I figured out the language of prayer, the special words you are supposed to use if you want your prayer to sound really spiritual. I learned that there are certain things that I can ask others to pray for, and there are things I should probably just pray quietly to myself. In short, I learned a very Pharisaical form of prayer that made me look more holy. I don’t like admitting that but it’s the truth.

As someone who is trying to follow Jesus, I would hope that my hypocrisy in prayer never outweighed my authentic wish to speak to the God who created me. I may never know the answer to that, but I bring this up for a purpose. Prayer for the Jesus-follower, seemingly so simple, is actually a rather difficult thing to learn. For instance, what should we pray about, and when? Should we pray for certain things more than others? What is the purpose of prayer? When we pray, do we speak to God as though he is the Almighty Creator and Master of the Universe, or do we pray to him like a child speaking to a father? These questions often have less-than-simple answers and I hope to discuss these issues.

However, as I usually try to do, I hope that this talk of prayer isn’t exclusive to Jesus-followers. If you are not trying to follow Jesus, I hope to address some of the questions that people often have about Christian prayer. For instance, there have been a number of tragedies in the news lately, many related to the weather. I have heard of some lately who are frustrated by the fact that Christians seem only to pray for victims of a tragedy without doing anything. I also know some people who have made the implication that Christians only pray to get stuff we want. Are these things true?

To close out this introductory post on the issue of prayer, I want to go through some of those issues, specific problems with prayer that are mentioned in the Bible. These are prayer pitfalls that not only make Christians look foolish; the Bible indicates that these things can really hinder our ability to communicate with God.

  1. Praying publicly – most notably, Jesus was very critical of the Pharisees for praying in such a way that they could be praised by others. Jesus also warned against just praying long prayers for the sake of praying long prayers. Instead, Jesus instructed that prayer should be done in private and then he gave a very simple model of prayer (Matthew 6:5-13) This is not to say that Christians can’t or shouldn’t pray publicly; both Jesus and his followers prayed publicly throughout the New Testament. The point of this teaching was the attitude. We are not to pray as a way of making ourselves look better; we pray as a form of humbling ourselves before God. Whether we are alone or in public, the praying Christian should be responsive to only one audience: the God to whom he or she is praying.

    Jesus told a parable of a Pharisee and a tax collector praying. One stated all the reasons he was better than the other; the other confessed his unworthiness. The latter is closer to how Jesus-followers are meant to pray.
  2. Praying for stuff – I’m sure that when some people hear those of us trying to follow Jesus pray, they only hear us asking for things that we want, as though God merely exists to give us what we want. Let me be the first to apologize if you have ever gotten that impression. We are encouraged by the Bible to pray “without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:16-18), not because we simply want something but because God hears us and, in talking with him, we are focusing less on what we want and more on what God wants us to become.
  3. Prayer changes stuff – After my second point this might sound like a retraction, but hear me out. We believe that, when we pray in the name of Jesus (John 14:13-14) – that is, praying for things that he would pray for if he were alive today – things change. I have prayed prayers that God answered for me. That being said, I’ve also prayed for things that haven’t happened. Why? I don’t know and I might never know. I pray anyway because even when God doesn’t answer my prayers, He always has a way of answering the emotion behind those prayers. If I was afraid before praying, I’m not so afraid after. If I was angry and fuming before I prayed, I’m in a much better place after. So maybe more importantly than changing the stuff I have, prayer changes who I am.
  4. Prayer without action – In the wake of recent tragedies, I have heard non-Christians accuse Christians of simply praying for those in need and not doing anything to help them. Is that true? Frankly, I’m not the person to answer that. I don’t know everyone. What I will say is this: faith without deeds is dead (James 2:26). If someone only prays for the poor yet never goes out of his way to help them, he is not really following the Biblical command. If prayer changes you from the inside out, then prayer should lead to more people giving money, volunteering for disaster relief and everything else.

Do some Christians only pray and never do anything outside of their comfort zone to help others? Sure, I’d say there are some out there. Even so, let me warn against making such hasty generalizations. For one, it’s a logical fallacy to generalize about an entire group based on the actions of a few. Two, a lot of assumptions go into it. Maybe you know someone who never seems to help other people but they are helping in ways that you don’t see. Maybe they go days at a time without food so they have money to give to those in need. Maybe they don’t. The point is, they could do a lot of things to help others that no one except God will ever know.

This is simply a request from someone who is trying to follow Jesus to those out there watching us try: if you think that we are praying too much and not doing enough, remember that we might be doing a lot more than you can see and constructively criticize us. Offer us ways to put our prayers into action. It might sound strange to consider, but what if non-Christians can help the rest of us follow Jesus better?

What are your thoughts on prayer and the questions surrounding it?

Spiritual Disciplines: What’s the Point?

As much as I joke in the presence of my friends and family about being old, I know that I’m really young. On the grand scale of life, I’ve only been an adult for a moment. As I am maturing, I am still learning a powerful principle of life: how you spend your time is a reflection of what’s important to you. If you can frequently be found in a gymnasium, people just might get the impression that health is important to you. If you spend a lot of time a work, that’s probably something that’s important to you. There might be other motives at work, but what you do still says a lot about who you are.

Why do people trying to follow Jesus end up coming to churches, reading the Bible and other things?

For those who are not trying to follow Jesus, I’m sure that we who are trying to follow Jesus might seem a bit odd in how we spend our time. We go to this thing simple known as “church,” and sometimes we do it in spite of everything else we need to do. There are some people who believe that following Jesus means that they shouldn’t do any work on Sunday, which probably seems really odd to those outside of faith. Then, we’re supposed to do this thing called “prayer,” where we talk to a divine God about stuff, and then we’re always told that we’re supposed to read this book called the Bible that was supposedly written thousands of years ago so that we could understand this thing called following Jesus. And these are just the beginning of what we Christians call “spiritual disciplines,” which is a big, nebulous word that probably doesn’t sound very self-explanatory.

What’s the point behind these things, behind spiritual disciplines? Well, first of all let’s talk about what spiritual disciplines mean and don’t mean. For example, doing spiritual disciplines does not make you holy, nor will you get to Heaven just because you prayed a prayer or read a book. You can read your Bible everyday while never getting anything out of it. If you are just going through the motions when you read your Bible, you’re missing out. The Bible is very clear on that point. You can read the Bible and not even be a Christian who is trying to follow Jesus. I’d bet that there are a few people out there who enjoy reading the Bible just because of the history or literary aspects of it.

Catholic churches during the Middle Ages used stained glass images to help teach their illiterate congregations the stories of the Bible. That way, they didn’t have to be able to read a Bible in order to understand the Bible’s stories.

However, even if you are a follower of Jesus, you don’t have to read your Bible everyday. Think of this: for the first 1,500 years of the Church’s history, not everyone could read and access to any reading material was very limited. Historically, that’s why the Catholic Church started using images of common Bible stories as teaching tools for their congregation. So, if they had a stained-glass picture of the baby Jesus in the church, any passerby could see that image and be reminded, “Jesus came down to Earth to dwell among us.”

So, the point of reading your Bible – or any spiritual discipline – isn’t to get on God’s good side. The story of Jesus is that God loves you, period. Even if you’ve been a total punk, God just flat loves you. But for most of us, we come to Jesus understanding that much of our life has been spent on useless, selfish things. That’s a fundamental part of sin: sin wastes. God gives all men and women energy, strength, and time to bring good things into the world, to make God’s presence known in the world. When we use those energies on ourselves instead, we are being sinful. We are wasting what God has given us on things that do not have any lasting significance.

So, when you come to the point where you can admit to God that you are a waster – that you have misused the gifts he has given you – then you come the point where you ask God’s forgiveness for your waste and you repent. Repentance is us saying to God, “God, help me to not be a waster anymore. I want my life to matter. I want what I do to count towards something worthwhile.” That is what spiritual disciplines accomplish. By reading your Bible, you start putting God’s words and thoughts into your mind so that they can change you from the inside out. By praying, you start interacting with God and asking him to use you in such a way that the world is a better place.

But the real point of spiritual discipline? Jesus said, “Remain in me, as I also remain in you.” (John 15:4) Let’s say that someone who was both really famous and also someone you really admired moved in next door to you and they said to you the next day, “Hey, let’s be friends.” As you build a friendship with that person, you start to learn who they are. You learn what makes them laugh, what disappoints them, what angers them and so on. You begin to “remain” with that person so that throughout the day, you hear their voice in your head. Not in a psychic way, but you begin to think to yourself, “Here’s what this person would say to them” or “Here’s how she would respond to that.” That, I think, is the true essence of remaining in Jesus. As you follow Jesus and you remain in him, you begin to think like he thinks, respond how he would respond so that you would begin to look like Jesus in the middle of your boring, mundane life.

And make no mistake, that is what spiritual discipline is all about. It isn’t about getting to Heaven; that’s already taken care of. It isn’t about going through the motions. It isn’t about just becoming a better person, though hopefully if you are committing yourself to Jesus in spiritual disciplines you will start to become a new person. It isn’t even about making a difference in the world, though if you are following Jesus and becoming friends with him you will start to change you world for the better. Spiritual disciplines help you spend time with Jesus. As you do that, you come to know Jesus, and then you start becoming a better person and then you can start changing the world for good.

This is the first in a series of posts that I would like to do where I discuss the whats, wheres and hows the spiritual disciplines.

What is your understanding of spiritual disciplines? If you aren’t a follower of Jesus, is there something in particular that we do that seems odd or weird?