There and Back Again

As Bilbo was preparing to secretly leave the Shire forever, a hobbit asked him, “Mr. Bilbo, where are you off to?”  Bilbo answered, “I’m already late.”  “Late for what?” replied the inquirer. “I’m going on an adventure.”  These were the last words spoken to his admiring townsfolk.

“There and Back Again” was the original title of Tolkien’s “The Hobbit.”  It was the title of the book Bilbo would compose about his first adventure.  Well, like Bilbo, I have to bid you a farewell, for I must go on an adventure of my own.  As was Bilbo, I am late.  For years I have been perplexed with a nagging desire to search the depths of Covenant Theology.  For me there is a treasure of truth hidden in the riches of God’s promises annexed to his Covenant of Grace.  I am confident that the downgrading or downright denial of Covenant Theology by the visible Church, has hindered the spiritual growth of many believers. From the Protestant Reformation until the mid 19th Century, the majority of those saints who struggled before us, mostly in much more difficult situations than we have, relied on the God’s faithfulness in his promise keeping.  As my intent has been to encourage my fellow travelers on the journey through this foreign land, Middle Earth, if you will, and who seek to follow Christ into Glory, I have touched on my strong position concerning this doctrine, in order to show you from where I look for strength.

Being categorized as middle-aged, I feel more like Bilbo on his “eleventy” first birthday when he left on the final adventure.  There is no time to waste.  I must leave my blog for now and focus on this quest.  However I will be back again full of the tales of my adventure.  God willing, I may be able to share with you what I have found.

Farewell for now,

The Reformed Agonist

Soli Deo Gloria

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Be Logical

While attending my music theory class a few months ago, you know, riding on the tractor with my ear buds, I had one of my lyrical discovery moments.  I wasn’t sure what I would do with my thoughts, but now seems as good of a time as any to pontificate.  So here is an attempt to spew a little vitriol without alienating anyone.  Bordering on the edge of cynicism, or maybe from your perspective full-blown criticism, I possibly leave the safe harbor of encouragement for the believer.  However encouragement can come in different forms.  My brother taught me to dive from the diving board by pushing me off.  He encouraged me by helping me see how much better a self-controlled decent would be than a flailing plunge.

The song I heard that spoke volumes to me was “The Logical Song” by the 70’s British band Supertramp.  Written by keyboardist Roger Hodgson and released in 1979, this song turned out to be the biggest hit for the band.  Going to the top ten in the U.S. and the U.K.  There was much more accomplished by this song than charting.  A message behind the music spoken from a truly broken heart.

Supertramp – The Logical Song Lyrics
When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful,
A miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical.
And all the birds in the trees, well they’d be singing so happily,
Joyfully, playfully watching me.
But then they send me away to teach me how to be sensible,
Logical, responsible, practical.
And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable,
Clinical, intellectual, cynical.

There are times when all the world’s asleep,
The questions run too deep
For such a simple man.
Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned
I know it sounds absurd
But please tell me who I am.

Now watch what you say or they’ll be calling you a radical,
Liberal, fanatical, criminal.
Won’t you sign up your name, we’d like to feel you’re
Acceptable, respectable, presentable, a vegetable!

At night, when all the world’s asleep,
The questions run so deep
For such a simple man.
Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned
I know it sounds absurd
But please tell me who I am.
Songwriters: RICHARD DAVIES, ROGER HODGSON
The Logical Song lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

Obviously I’m no existentialist,  but as a follower of Christ to ask oneself, “Who am I,” is a necessary question.  To delve into the deep discoveries of origins, causes, and forces and how I relate to them is an age-old practice of all man. The recurring theme for Hodgson is “Who am I.”  What is the meaning of life and how do I fit in?  Shakespeare asked the binary question, “To be or not to be?”  The fallacy is in the premise of our “being” anything.  We are “becoming.”  He should have asked the question, “How to be or not to be?”  That is the question that everyone asks at some point in their life.  You really don’t even have to ask because it is presumed that you wish to know and there is no shortage of people and institutions out there to answer it for you.

The point I, and to some level Hodgson, want to make is who do you want answering this question for your children or grandchildren.  Hodgson made it plain that the institution given to him to implant wisdom and knowledge was not best choice.  He spent ten years of his childhood in an English boarding school.  This was not out for the norm for a child growing up in mid 20th century England.  Though the public school system was sufficient, boarding school was the best of both worlds for parents.  They had someone else educate, feed, cloth, shelter and everything in between, in their stead.  For Hodgson, it was a most regrettable experience.

You can feel his pain as you read the first stanza.  The sweet things of youth, the safety and security of home and family are taken away and you are plunged into a foreign world, dark and foreboding.  Life as the child knows it is over.  New standards, quite alien, are thrust into their life.  You might say, “Okay, I can agree that sending a child off to boarding school is horrid, I would never do that, but what is wrong with teaching the child to be sensible, logical, responsible, dependable, clinical, or intellectual?  Weren’t most of the greatest thinkers, including theologians, educated in boarding schools?  Wasn’t your hero, Thomas Boston, attending college at 15?”

You make a very good argument for sending your budding scholar to school.  However, what other option did oppressed, turn of the 18th century Scottish villagers have if the opportunity presented itself?  Take Boston for instance. His father, a cooper, a man who builds wooden barrels and buckets, working from before until after the sun, looses most of his customers due to his position on Church polity.  He is imprisoned even for his belief.  They live in a world where in order to worship, they have to meet secretly in a barn, half a day’s wagon ride from their home.  Oh, and no internet. No Amazon. No public library. Kind of a difficult situation.  I’m certain, had I been the father of young Thomas, I would have elected to send my son to get an education away from that mess too.  For what good is an apprentice cooper who could potentially speak four languages, three of which are dead and have a command for the forth that exceeds rare?  He had a just cause for sinking all of his savings in his sons education.  What is our justiufication today?

In an interview Hodgson says, “Throughout childhood we are taught to behave, yet we are taught very little about the deeper purpose of life.  We go from the wonder of childhood to the confusion of adolescence to the disillusionment of adulthood.”  Do you see the underlying helplessness in the tone of this man.  During his time away he would also feel the destruction of the last vestiges of security when his parents divorced.

I don’t know anyone personally who sends their children to boarding school.  However, I know mostly people who send their children away every day to have their question about who the are, and what is the origin and meaning of life, addressed by someone who they can only hope has the truth.  I am not against public school.  I am not against Christian schools.  I am not against college. They are all perfectly viable means of educating children.  In fact they are all very effective ways to educate.  That’s the problem.  If you send your children to school, any school, there is a 100% probability that they will be educated.  Schools have a perfect success rate. Children will have their questions answered.  That’s the problem.  What will those answers be?  Will they be the truth?  How will you know?

Seems to me like a good place to stop.

 

 

Prayer Done Aright: Part Five

We have given much attention to the necessity of the Holy Spirit for us to effectually pray.  When we think of prayer, most often the picture is a sending up or flowing outward of our words or thoughts or even our incomprehensible utterances.  How often do we consider just the opposite, the returning to us or, if you will, the speaking of God to us.  What are the communicable gifts of the Holy Spirit through prayer?

Boston does in no way intend that God communicates to us outside of his already spoken word, the bible.  There is no revelation of God by the Spirit other than what is included in the cannon of scripture and is represented in his creation. I tread carefully here because I am aware that there are those who believe that God at some point speaks personally to them.   What Boston is intending by way of the Spirit’s communicating is more in the inaudible yet clearly comprehensible and convincing revelation of how we see ourselves in relation to God.  The Spirit speaks to us in prayer by impressing upon us the truth.

To list a few examples that are helpful for us to consider, in the light of this blog’s intended purpose of encouragement to the struggling believer,  let us begin with Holy reverence.  To help illustrate this I will use the elements of prayer sequence acronym A.C.T.S: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving,  and Supplication.

The book that I have read over and over throughout various periods of my life is R.C. Sproul’s “The Holiness of God.”  If you read anything beyond the Bible you should read this book.  If you read the Bible you may not need to read this book,  but long before I read the bible I read this book.  A bit circular you might say, but so is the bible.  Understanding the Holiness of God is a prerequisite for understanding anything about God.  You cannot know the love of God unless you know the holiness of that love.. Pick any attribute you want; goodness, righteousness, gracefulness, mercifulness, all are just human concepts unless you understand the holiness of the one who possesses them.  The Spirit of God is who impresses upon you the nature of the holiness of God.  We know he does it through the word of God by illumining our minds.  He also does it through prayer by granting us the remembrance of who it is we are speaking to.  Without the Spirit we might be able to conjure up a dreadful fear of God.  On the flip-side we might easily possess a light vanity, a careless petitioning  of a wishing well.  Never would we ever be able to harmonize the majesty and sacrificial love of the creator and sustainer of all the universe, and thus give adoration to God in prayer, telling him what we believe him to be, unless the Spirit impress upon us those beliefs.

When we confess our sinfulness to God, the Spirit gives us humility, a view of our unworthiness.  The Popish confession of sin still exists in the hearts of Protestant believers.  The notion that confession of sin in prayer in some way exonerates us from those sins, still holds many believers in bondage.  For many years I thought that in order for God to forgive a sin we have to confess it.  I think that this is taught from many pulpits today.  If we are in Christ, our sins yesterday, today, and forever are already forgiven.  The purpose the Spirit of God uses confession of sin in prayer is humiliation.  His gift to us in prayerful confession is a sense of putting us in a right understanding of our place.  We cannot repent of sin unless we acknowledge our sinfulness.

By granting  Holy reverence and humiliation, he then gives us a thankful heart.  It seems only obvious that we should be thankful, but without the Spirit’s convincing us of the two previous conditions we cannot properly advance to a posture of thanksgiving.  The most important element of this Spirit infused thankfulness is a high view of Christ.  We, being shown who Christ is as King, what he does as Priest or Mediator, the Spirit makes known to us, by Christ’s office of Prophet, all that we should be thankful for.

All the preceding gifts from the Spirit, being confirmed to us in the ascent of our prayerful progression, we approach the throne of Grace with a Spirit confirmed confidence.  We are gifted with confidence that a Holy God hears us, that he is faithful and just to have forgiven us, and that he will continue to supply us with every good gift that is in heaven above or the earth beneath.  Without this confidence we shoot blindly in the dark only hoping that we hit our mark.  We have confidence that our Father when asked for bread would in no way give us a stone.  Most of all, this confidence assures us that God will give us what we need whether we acknowledge our need or not.

As this is the last part of this series, my prayer for you, the reader, and for those who are in the household of faith might know more fully what is this Spirit that we know so little about, and how we must depend on his work in our prayers.  As we are told to pray without ceasing we cannot rightly understand what this means.  We may, however, know for sure that the Spirit never stops praying for us.  Though we may drift far from him in seasons of decline, and for our own good he may suffer us to be insensitive to his presence, by the Son’s Word, the Spirit will never forsake us.

 

Prayer Done Aright: Part Four

Spiritual indwelling is the last thing on our minds.  Well for me it is.  When I rise up, long before the chickens, but not before the cats,  which is often why I rise up, I do not think first off about spiritual indwelling.  First thought is “Wow it hurts to move.”  Next is feed the cats, hit the coffee button, get the dogs out, etc.  Why is that?  I don’t know for sure but like Boston mentioned regarding our mistaking and going wrong in our prayer, there is still enough darkness in me to keep me stumbling around as if the lights were out.

In the Christian community there exists a whole bevy of ideas about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit of God.  There is probably more disagreement among believers about what the role of Holy Spirit is than any other person of the Trinity.  For our purposes here, I will only use Thomas Boston’s list as they are all consistent with the scriptures.  First of all, we must agree that in some form the third person of the Godhead is united with our spirit.  Paul says in Galatians 4:6 that this form is the Spirit of his Son.  We see many examples in scripture where the title Spirit is described with an object of the preposition “of.” He is called Spirit of Truth, Spirit of Repentance, Spirit of Grace, etc.  For his role to assist us in our prayer there is no better description of his name than Spirit of His Son.  In fact Paul tells us that we are given the Spirit because we are sons.  Because this very same Spirit indwelt Jesus, the begotten son of God, we, being adopted as sons, have access to the Father only through this same Spirit.  This is a dangerous notion to the church of Rome.  For to have direct access to the Father without the intercession of the church, the Saints, the mother of Jesus, or the sacraments in anathema.

As I write this article, I can’t help but think of the significance this idea would have had 500 years ago, as Martin Luther and all of the reformers struggled to provide this and other truths, hidden for so many years, to the believers of their time.  For to the Christian of that day you could not have access to God except through the church approved avenues.  When they rose up in the morning they did not think about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit because they were taught that he was not in them.  They had an excuse. As Protestants we have none.

If you have been regenerated, born again, you and you alone have the right to call God Abba, Father.  This has ramifications that go so far beyond prayer.  I am having to rein myself in to keep from going down rabbit trails that we may never get back from.  Allow me one peek down one hole.  If we cannot have access to God apart from Christ and the Spirit; for no one comes to the Father except through Christ and his Spirit( Ephesians 2:18).  Then how do those who believe the sinners prayer is heard apart from the sinner having been given the Spirit of sonship first?  This is not some simple chicken or the egg dilemma, this is critical to your faith.  Those who are not believers do not decide to accept Christ and then ask him to save them.  God saves them by giving them the Spirit so that they might be able to ask him anything, for only a Son may call another Father. I promised, only a peek.

The term lust gets a bad rap.  I don’t think I would have ever used that term in conversation with my mother.  However, I would have been perfectly truthful if I had said that I lusted for her Caramel Cake.  Just like everything else we do, we Americans had to mess up a perfectly good Middle English word meaning strong desire. Maybe it wasn’t all our fault since the Roman Catholic Catechism defines lust as “an inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure.”  I won’t touch that one. The problem comes in when our lust is tainted by sinful desires.  The Holy Spirit cleans up our prayers.  He makes pure what is foul.  When we have a strong desire for something, and that something in itself is not sinful but is good for us, and is within the secret will of God, the Spirit lusts for us.  When our lusting is contrary to the Spirit’s, then he covers our desires with his.

Another sullying of good words by the Church is the notion of the Spirit’s leading.  Charismatics, those whose hold to the continuation of miraculous giftings, have extended the meaning of Spiritual leading beyond what was meant by men like Boston.  Boston would describe Ephesians 2:18 as an application of Spiritual leading.  That is that he gives us a portal to Christ.  However, Boston also uses language that if misconstrued can “lead” us into danger.  He says that the Holy Spirit “impresses our spirits with a sense of Divine call to prayer, and binds our consciences as to it being a duty to God.  There is an inward sense in the Spirit empowered believer to pray and not to pray would be disobedience.”  If you stop and think hard on that statement, you have to conclude, as I did when I read it, that we must give more consideration to the relationship of our intellect and our will.  We know we should pray.  Our intellect can determine that much; but what to do about our will.  How sensitive are our intellects and our wills to our conscience.  Someone I knew, was taught by their Sunday School teacher that the Holy Spirit was our conscience.  I was deeply concerned for that person’s following of that line of thinking.  That certainly borders on blasphemy.  If however that teacher meant that the Holy Spirit has influence over our consciences then he may have been on to something.

The Spirit motivates our prayers out of a combination of giving us a reverence and a love for God.  He causes our intellect to acknowledge the holiness and love of God, he causes our wills to respond to our intellect, and the two working in tandem drive us to prayer. Remember when we were talking about the foolishness of unsaved persons, particularly our children.  This is the picture.  There is a disconnect between the intellect and the will.  There is not the ability for the will to properly respond to the intellect.  Foolishness is knowing what is right and not doing it.  The Spirit helps us respond to the evidence that we must pray to a holy loving God. Do you ever have spontaneous prayer?  Someone comes to mind and you pray for them.  You may have a strong desire to come to God in prayer, maybe for no apparent reason.  I’ve seen children playing on the playground suddenly run over to their mother and just get a quick hug.  If you sense a need to pray, like a child seeking the comfort of a mother, not out of guilt or boasting, then this is the Spirit’s leading,  This is his exciting us to prayer. You may be convicted of sin, you sense the disapproval the Father, and you flee to the mercy-seat of Christ.  This is the Holy Spirit’s leading.  The overpowering realization of the majesty of God draws you into His presence with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise.  It is the Spirit that takes you there.  If you desire to cast your burdens at the feet of Christ and fall down and worship him for his loving kindness toward you, a mere worm of the dust, it is the Spirit who gives you access.

Considering all this, we have cause to reevaluate our prayer life.  I think that is what Boston most desired for his congregation to get out of his sermons on prayer and the Holy Spirit.  We must gain a sense of our necessity for this metaphysical work.  However, we must also gain some relief that we are not left to ourselves in our efforts.  To see the Spirit coming to us, like beggars on the street, incapable of providing for ourselves, and offering us gifts that will make it possible to help ourselves is the picture that Boston paints for us in the next part of this series.

 

 

 

Prayers Done Aright: Part Three

I always get a kick out of church message boards.  Today I saw one that said “Prayer is the Perfect Wireless Connection.”   Well as far as attention getters go, that’s pretty good.  I love catchy titles for my posts too.  However, I always wonder, what will be the point of the preachers sermon.  Probably not that, generally, our prayers are primarily static cacophony.  I’m sure that the pastor of that little country church will do his best to edify and incite his congregation to prayer, but how he might benefit them most is to tell them, as Thomas Boston did me, why we are apt to mistake and go wrong in our prayers.

Last time I touched on the fact that remaining within us are the remnants of darkness, the old man.  Yes we are being made more and more in the image of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  The key word is being.  Unlike the mafia we don’t have the luxury being “made” men.  The huge gulf between the Christian and Christ is so great, we can’t even fathom it.  I once heard R.C. Sproul, probably the greatest theologian of our generation, say that if he compared himself to Jesus and Adolf Hitler in the area of righteousness, he would be vastly more near to Hitler than Jesus.  Do you ever consider how wretched you really are?  Look at R.C.’s example.   You think more like Hitler than Christ.  If I wrote a book it would be more appropriate to find it in the same stack as Mien Kampf rather than with the bible.  Pretty dark, eh? (For you Canadian followers)

In the book of Job you find one of the best examples of setting your mind for praying rightly in light of your remaining corruption.  Elihu, Job’s friend who encouraged him in suffering well said, “Tell us what we should say to him; we cannot draw up our case because of our darkness.”(Job 37:19NIV)  The legal language here paints a picture of an attorney, trained in the field of law, being required for the purpose drawing up a legal case or writing a brief.  As the client, we may think we are capable to represent ourselves, but as anyone who has had much experience with the justice system knows, you are out of your depth trying to represent yourself.

We have such little knowledge of our own case, that we can’t even know how to ask, let alone what for. We are all much like children in the fact that we are driven by our need to please ourselves, self preservation.  We can plead or argue our case quite well.  We can reason what is best for us.  The problem is not with our reasoning ability but with the facts we are reasoning with.  We just don’t have all the information.  There is so much doubt in the Church about the omniscience of God.  If we say that God is omniscient we are saying that his knows all things.  Many would affirm that God knows all things but what they mean by that is that God can look into the future, like a fortune teller, and see what is going to happen.  This of course is true but incomplete.  His omniscience is also also directly and actively working in conjunction with his omnipotence and his omnipresence, thereby controlling the future.  This is an anthropomorphic concept because it only touches on the reality of what it contains.  God’s knowledge of our situation and what is good for us requires an infinite amount of data that even makes quantum physics elementary.  If we pray for even the simplest request without that omniscience we are like babies crying for no apparent reason.  They don’t even know what the need.

The scriptures are full of examples of prayers.  We see the disciples asking Christ to teach them how to pray.  In what we call the Lord’s prayer, we find a model from which we should construct our prayers.  I remember as a boy playing sports, the coach would always have us huddle up before or after a game and put our hands on a bat and say the Lord’s Prayer.  Back then the main thing I thought about was let’s get this over with because A) these guys stink, and B) I’m not big on touching them in this manner.  Even back then I had a pretty large personal space bubble.  I know for sure I knew not why we were saying those words.  I figured it was so God would smile on us and keep us safe and maybe help us to win, and thereby keep us from having to run laps if we lost.  I’m still not sure why even today a preacher might have the congregation pray in unison the Lord’s Prayer but if asked to provide a good reason, I would say that it is a good way to acknowledge our lack of wisdom in what is good for us.  When we speak God’s very words back to him we are dependent on his wisdom and not our own.

This takes me to Boston’s final reason why we are apt to err in our prayers.  We lack acquaintance and a working knowledge of scripture.  Have you ever sat under the ministry of a preacher who knows the scripture?  Well, I hope we all can say yes to that one.  What I really mean is that he truly knows, eats, sleeps, breaths, bleeds the word of God.  What impressed me most about our last pastor was his ability to pray God’s word back to him.  He had a scary memory, photographic even.  He could pray for fifteen minutes and every word from his lips was as if he were reading from the pages of the bible.  You could almost sense a special hearing by God.  I used to think of the unction or indwelling of the Spirit when a preacher preached, but these prayers were almost mystical in that sense.  As if God could forget, you are reminding him of what he said.  Now put together the triune picture of this praying the scripture.   Christ is the Word of God, the Spirit is the author of the codified Word by his inspiration, and the Father is the origin of it all.  Do you see the full orbed cycle.  So if we “knew” scripture how much nearer would we be to accurately joining in that Holy council.  We are literally participating in the very providence of God by entering the mechanics of it.  Envision the very language of God, interpreted by the Holy Spirit, and presented by the Mediator, our elder brother, to the Father.  I think this was the symbolism J.R.R. Tolkien intended by his mysterious Elvish language.  We have a real power in prayer that we fail to utilize.  By not speaking the words of God back to him we deny their power.

On the other side of the coin without a working knowledge of scripture we don’t stand a chance of even approaching praying God’s will for us.  If for no other purpose, knowing the principles taught in scripture through the accounts of those who are examples can teach us not to assume we know what is best for us.  Most people in the bible would not have chosen to have done nor to have been done to the way that God elected to do.  Job would have preferred a good talking to.  Paul would have preferred one less thorn.  For that matter I would have preferred to be a rock star.  Though I don’t think I ever prayed to be a rock star but I may as well have because much of what I have prayed earnestly for was certainly outside of God’s revealed will.  You get the picture.  God gives us parameters in the scriptures of what we should be praying for.  Contentment, for example, is something that if we were familiar with the scriptures is always right to pray for.  “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” (Phil 4:13 NKJV) is not the verse to quote before you climb Mt. Everest or decide to loose a few pounds.  It is about being content in what ever your situation. (4:12)  I heard Dr. Steve Lawson say “Your spiritual life will not grow beyond you biblical knowledge.”  I think Thomas Boston would contend that your prayer life would as well be bolstered by your acquaintance with scripture.

Even the most devout learned believers, have only a small amount of wisdom as to what is best for them or theirs and are apt to mistake in prayer.  Praise be to God that he has not left us to ourselves.  He has given us the bridge across the great divide, his Holy Spirit.  What do you believe concerning this third person of the Godhead?  Have you considered lately just what he does for you to make your prayers effectual?  Next we will look at what Boston considers to be the role of the Spirit in our prayers.

 

 

Prayer Done Aright: Part Two

“To err is human, to forgive divine.”  Alexander Pope, an early 18th century poet wrote these words in his work “An Essay on Criticism.”  Having to do with his belief that we should be slow to pass judgement on whether a writer is talented or not, this phrase has been used by us as a wisdom phrase, often to make excuse for mistakes we or others make.  Whether we take it out of Pope’s original context or not the truth is error is human.  Pope’s poem also is credited with popularizing the phrase, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”  That one is always looming over my head when I write or speak about our faith.  That’s why I usually turn to a proven source.

Thomas Boston, while exegeting Romans 8:26, makes two things perfectly clear.  We are prone to error in our prayers and this is primarily due to how little knowledge we possess.  If we consider our own spiritual condition it is not hard to believe this to be true.  I have a pretty sound hold on how insufficient my knowledge of God and his ways are.  At least I do until I go probing around what I believe to be best for me.  Then I tend to think I have some special insight that no one else has.  If you know me or have read much of my writing, you must have concluded that I am opinionated.  Well, I’ve been around and seen a lot of things.  I’ve read the bible and a lot of other stuff.  Hey, I have a college degree for Pete’s sake. (Pete is short for Peter. Which is in the sense used here as a substitute for “Christ’s sake;” and most appropriate due to my own impetuosity by saying all this, and sometimes believing it. Sorry, I digress.)  Why can’t I simply pray rightly, since I do everything else so well?

Self, cheer up.   You’re in good company.  Boston gives us two examples from scripture that had the same problem.  Job had a little more excuse than we do for having a reason to lose focus on what was best for him.  He literally prayed against his own God given mercy.  He prayed that God would take his life.  Well, under the circumstances you might say he had a valid point.  However, Boston points out that under the state of mind he was in, it would not have been appropriate for Job to enter into his eternal rest doubting God’s wisdom for him.  Job had given up on God.  He had given up on humanity.  He had seen his friends as foes and had called what is good evil.  His prayers were not coherent, in the sense that he knew not what he was asking.  Only the Holy Spirit could have knowledge complete enough to know what was best for him.

Paul had issues.  What it was has been debated by men much more informed than I, so I won’t speculate; but it is self described by him as a “thorn in the flesh.”  How something so small can cause such agony is a physiological mystery to me.  Thorns are the worst. For Paul however it was no small thing.  Whether it was a physical ailment, an emotional disorder, or other disability it must have had a noticeable and debilitating effect on him.  He was evidently no easy on the eyes Joel Osteen.   Joel does have this tick thing with his eyes, but no one is perfect, right?  Anyhow, Paul says that he prayed that God would take away whatever it was that plagued him.  God answered his prayers with wisdom only God could give.  Paul said God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9)  Probably not the answer Paul was looking for, but according to Paul it shut him up on the matter.  What Paul thought would be good for him, God thought better of.  Not that Paul was wrong in praying for healing but that he did not know what was best for him.  In fact it was best for God that Paul be halted so that he might not have that Osteen affect.  God wanted to be the star not Paul, and rightly so.

Job and Paul prayed for relief from suffering.  In principle, we are not wrong for doing the same for ourselves or for others.  However we are also to consider that suffering might be what is good for us.  We are most often apt to seek what would hurt us more.  Boston gives the analogy, “As a foolish child seeks a knife which can do nothing but hurt him, so we are apt to seek from God what in mercy he keeps from us.”  What might seem most logical to us to ask for in petition to our Father, might be most illogical when compared to His providential will for our lives.

We are apt to seek food for our corrupt lusts and ambition.  Even in the most hoary headed saint there exists enough of the sin nature, the old man, to cause us to lust after that which is contrary to holiness.  We do it everyday, mostly unaware.  The world teaches us that ambition is a good character quality and so it is if that ambition aligns with God’s will.  We are often asked to pray for others.  I sometimes struggle with prayer requests from the Church prayer chain or prayer meetings.  Salley needs a scholarship for college.  Bob needs a better job.  Boston, in no uncertain terms, seems to have the same struggle as I when he says,  “Men go so wrong here and not see the error till the Lord corrects it; for they mistake their lust for God’s love and seek to feed their enemies whom they should starve.”

I was recently speaking with a friend who is going through some career change decisions.  Pressure, worry, and emotional fatigue were literally weeping from his pores.  He had to make a decision whether to resign a position that he had taken only recently, as the job had turned out not to be what he had anticipated.  Sensing his frustration with not having had clear answers to his prayers, I saw an opportunity to address this very subject.  I told him about my own similar experience and how I had viewed God’s sovereignty and his revealed will for my life.  He simply did not have enough information to even know how to pray rightly.  God was not going to give him a sign as to what he should do.  His best prayer, and how I told him I would pray, is that God would teach him, and be glorified by whatever his decision was.  The center of his request should be that the Holy Spirit would use the scriptures to help him evaluate his choices in the light of whether sin was behind his decision to take the job in the first place or behind leaving the job now.  Rooting out his motivation one way or the other was the only truth that God would reveal to him.  The Holy Spirit knows precisely what is best and will speak on your behalf as His office of  interpreter allows.

When we finally realize that we cannot know what is agreeable to the hidden counsel of God’s will we are actually freed from captivity.  In a certain sense, this is an outworking of our sanctification.  For before, we are bound to trying to know and interpret what it is God would have us to do based upon looking for his seal of approval.  Now through the working of the Spirit by prayer and God’s revealed will, the scriptures, we are free to allow the Spirit to take our requests and purify or strain out the dross.  In the next post I will use Boston’s thoughts to flesh out why we are apt to go wrong in our prayer.

Prayer Done Aright: Part One

Is there a particular book that had a profound impact upon your life?  For me it was a book my daddy gave me when I was a young man.  “The Power of Prayer in a Believers Life” by Charles Haddon Spurgeon was that book that reached a special place in my soul.  Honestly, I don’t remember one single thing that was said in the book and I’ve read it twice.  All I can say is, at that particular time in my life,  prayer was not high on my list of Christian duties.  What I do remember about the book is that God used whatever Spurgeon said to stir me up to prayer and the Spirit has been faithful since to remind me.

We all have occasion to require a little stirring up.  I prefer to be stirred not shaken, and it is best that it be done as often as I can find someone to do it.  Whenever I sense a separation in my own amalgam, I go back to one of the dead guys I love to read.  Over the past two years the voice I have found always faithful is Thomas Boston.  In Volume Eleven of his “Complete Works” I found the inspiration for my next series of articles.  In Etterick, Scotland, in the year 1727, Boston would preach a series of sermons on the work of the Holy Spirit.  His treatment of the Spirit’s function in our prayers was of particular interest to me.

You have probably read Romans 8:26 “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness.  We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”   This is the passage that Boston unpacks for us and I hope to repackage his work in easy to digest portions for you.  Not that you cannot do this for yourself, or that you lack the skill, but not everyone has time nor inclination to read these obscure old sermons.  Frankly, I realized a great deal about my own lack of skill by working on this project.  Boston started out by putting me on notice of that fact.

In describing the “weakness” Paul refers to, Boston says, “Such is the weakness of God’s own children, that they have not the skill to manage even their addresses to God by prayer aright, without the Spirit.  For we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us. They are like children putting their hand to a work, but with so little skill, that they need have one to stand over them and direct them at every turn.”

When we think of the duties of our faith, praying would seem to be the most natural for us.  There is little skill required to speak.  We do it all the time.  But according to Boston we are inept.  Thankfully, the solution to our inadequacy is found in the implications from this passage of scripture.  Children of God pray not alone but with and by the Holy Spirit, without which we cannot pray aright.

Over the next series of posts I hope to provide the same encouragement I received from studying this topic.  In fact, this passage in Romans, if set back into the context from which it was taken, is all about comforting believers.  The whole of chapter 8 of Romans is about living by the Spirit and sanctification.