I have two items for my Church Write-Up this week.
A. Last Sunday, I visited a Missouri Synod Lutheran church. The theme of the service was lament. Preaching about Psalm 31:9-16, the pastor said that the Psalmist offers to God his sadness. The pastor remarked that this is odd: Are we not supposed to offer God our best? Why is God willing, even eager, to take the Psalmist’s sadness? The answer is that it’s because God loves us.
The Psalms are raw and honest. The Psalmist does not always manifest a joyful, forgiving attitude! And this is ironic, considering that God in the Book of Leviticus desires pure, unblemished sacrifices. Moreover, Jesus in Mark 11:25 tells his disciples to forgive as they stand praying, and God will forgive their trespasses. Does this imply that God needs to forgive us to hear our prayers, and God will forgive us only if we forgive others? On that note, see Tim Challies’ Six Ways to Hinder Your Prayers.
Is there tension within the Bible, on this issue? On the one hand, God hears imperfect people, with imperfect attitudes. On the other hand, God desires perfection.
Christians may respond to these questions in a variety of ways. One way is to say that God hears the prayers of sinners when they are covered with the blood of Christ. We are imperfect, but Christ our sacrifice is perfect, and that is how God hears the prayers of sinful people. Another way is to say that God will hear us if we are on the right track, or at least try to be on the right track. To refer to the Challies post, many Christians will find that they fall short on that list. Their obedience is partial and imperfect. Their forgiveness falls short. They cannot eradicate every trace of doubt. They fail in being perfectly kind to others. But are they at least trying to do the right thing? Are they growing in doing the right thing? For many Christians, God honors such an attitude and hears the prayers of those who hold it.
Speaking for myself personally, I know that I fall short, even in trying to have the right attitude and to do the right thing! I am grateful for God’s law because it challenges me and upholds a righteous standard, but I know that I need God’s mercy. I do not know if my attitude is good enough for God to hear my prayer, but my policy is to pray, and whether God listens to me or not is in God’s court.
B. I also listened to a sermon delivered at the church that I normally attend. The pastor was continuing a series on prayer. He was baffled that a person can be a Christian and yet not pray.
I have actually thought about this issue before. Years ago, I read a blog post by a woman who had been a Christian for decades, and yet she confessed that years went by in which she did not pray or read the Bible. That baffled me. How can one be a Christian without cultivating one’s relationship with God in prayer, or deriving nourishment from the Scriptures?
I can ask that question, and yet other Christians can look at me and find my Christian practice deficient. Prayer and Bible study come easy to me because I can do those things by myself: they do not necessarily involve interpersonal interaction. But I struggle with the practices that involve interpersonal interaction. Consequently, Christians can ask: How can James be a Christian and not reach out to others with love? How can James be a Christian and not be motivated to serve?
I learned a while back that there are plenty of Christians who struggle with prayer. They do not know what to say to God. It is awkward for them. They may excel at serving or reaching out to others or witnessing, but personal prayer is a challenge to them. That Christian woman who went years without prayer may have felt that she was practicing her faith in other ways: by being a kind, loving person, and by basing the way that she lives her life on the love of Christ.
I am reading a book called The Teaching of the Buddha. On page 178, we read: “Therefore, to believe in the Dharma and to cherish the Brotherhood is to have faith in the Buddha, and to have faith in the Buddha is to believe in the Dharma and to cherish the Brotherhood.”
The Dharma is the path that the Buddha commands, and the Brotherhood is a group of people who are committed to following those commands.
That passage reminds me of certain Scriptures. Love for God entails love for one’s brother or sister (I John 4:21). Jesus in John 14:23 says that those who love him will obey his teaching.
It sounds automatic, doesn’t it? And, on some level, that makes sense. If I love God, I will value those God loves, God’s people. If I am secure in God’s love for me, that will enable me to love others, even if they hurt me. In Buddhist terms, if one walks the Buddhist path and becomes clean of greed and covetous desires, one will get along better with those in the Brotherhood. The human flaws that hinder relationships will not be a problem.
But this is easier said than done, and people, in their own lives, may not find that B naturally follows A, assuming one can even get A right in the first place!