Saturday, January 28, 2012

"What do you want me to do for you?" (Mark 10:51)

Or, How should we pray?

Before going into the Big Game, should an athlete pray for victory? Or should s/he pray for grace and faith whatever the outcome? Should parents pray that their investments will do well, so they can afford to send their kids to college? Or should they pray for wisdom and creativity regardless of the financial outcome?

The PC (pietistically correct) answer is to pray only for acceptance of God's will however things turn out, but that's not the biblical answer: both by example (Paul in 2 Cor. 12:7-9, David in 2 Samuel 15:31, and countless others) and by command (Philippians 4:6) the Bible tells us to pray specifically for what we want. There are of course conditions (not selfishly James 4:3; according to his will 1 John 5:14; abide in Christ and his words in us John 15:7; etc.) but God wants us to be honest with him. Yes, he already knows what we need (Matthew 6:8), yet we're told to ask. And here's the best part: sometimes he gives far more than we ask—or even could imagine asking as Paul tells us in Ephesians 3. I have a couple of examples. First, you may recall that Jesus was crucified together with two criminals.

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.[a]”

Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Luke 23:39-43
I think this a remarkable passage. The “other criminal” asked only that Jesus remember him. But Jesus replies, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

Imagine this: here's a guy who once was a little boy, playing in the fields or on the streets. Somehow his life turned to robbery (Matthew 27:38, Mark 15:27) and eventually to ignonimous execution. At the last, he realizes that his life is over; he begs for a little pity from Jesus, the Righteous One.

Imagine what light must have come into this man's final hours on earth when he heard that unbelievable good news from Jesus: today he would be in Paradise with Jesus himself!

Why didn't he say, "Lord, let me be with you in your kingdom" in the first place? (For this question I'm indebted to Mailis Janatuinen and her excellent Glad Tidings Bible Studies.) I think it's because he asked only what he could imagine. Thanks be to God, he can do far far beyond anything we can ask or even imagine.

The second example, which I must have heard some decades ago, concerns a young girl who had severe problems with her feet due to some disease. Her father didn't have much money for the very expensive orthopedic shoes she would need. I think he bought a lottery ticket or bet on some horse race or something like this. He prayed fervently that God would bless his gamble.

Or maybe he was a salesman and he prayed that God would enable him to sell more of his product, or maybe he asked his boss for a raise. I don't remember exactly what it was, but he prayed with great energy and sincerity.

Well, his horse lost, his lottery ticket didn't pay off, he didn't exceed his quota... and with a heavy heart he took his daughter to the doctor. He had no idea how to pay for the very expensive orthopedic shoes, and he didn't understand why his prayers weren't answered.

Then came the astonishing news: his little girl's feet were inexplicably healed; no orthopedic shoes would be necessary. As far as the doctor could tell, this girl would be just fine with regular shoes.

This father had prayed that his bet/ticket/efforts would succeed, but they didn't. Instead he got something so much better. Why didn't he pray for his little girl's feet to be healed?

Like the criminal in Luke 23, he could only pray what he could imagine. Also like the criminal in Luke 23, the father received far more than he could ask or imagine.

God sometimes does that, and we get glimpses of his goodness, the abundance riches of his grace in kindness toward us.

The question always arises, "Why didn't God do that for me?"—or for any number of other people who prayed and saw nothing happen? I'll tell you: I don't know. Nobody else knows, either. And here's something else: it's not necessarily your fault, and you are not alone.

They were stoned, they were sawn in two, [were tempted,] were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth.
Hebrews 11:37-38 (NJKV)
But he does answer sometimes, and gives such astonishing and extravagant gifts that we are amazed, and wonder, and worship.

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