Monday, March 2, 2015

Prayer is more than just Words, Gimmicks, and Formulas

Prayer is not primarily about words. Ultimately, it’s about a genuine and honest relationship. Reciting a prayer formula is of little value. Formula is not the substance of relationship. Jesus warned that a mere repetition of words will not incline the Father to hear our prayers (Matthew 6:7). Then, what will? Instead, prayer must arise from a heart aligned with the Lord.

Consequently, the very nature of the person has a great bearing on whether or not God will respond. Proverbs teaches us that “the LORD detests the sacrifice of the wicked, but the prayer of the upright pleases him” (Proverbs 15:8), and that “if anyone turns a deaf ear to the law, even his prayers are detestable” (Proverbs 28:9). No prayer formulas would overcome this liability.

In contrast, Jesus was in perfect communication with His Father. At the rising of Lazarus, He prayed:

  • "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me…” (John 11:41-42)
Why did the Father always hear the Son? It had much to do with the nature of their relationship than with words:

  • During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. (Hebrews 5:7) 
Instead of “reverent submission,” the King James Version translates “was heard in that he feared.” What does it mean to “fear” God? In either case, it means to put His will and Word above everything else (Mat. 6:33; John 14:21-24; Luke 22:42; Psalm 130:4; 34:11-14; Prov. 8:13; 29:25; 23:17-18; 10:27; 14:26-27), embracing and identifying with those things that the Father embraces.

We shouldn’t think of the “fear of God” as oppressive. Instead, for the Messiah, it was a “delight” (Isaiah 11:2-3) and a service of love:

  • The world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me. (John 14:31) 
His joy was a matter of serving the Father:

  • "My food," said Jesus, "is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. (John 4:34) 
How did Jesus do this? By abiding in His Word! All the testing that He endured involved one question - whether or not He would submit to the Word of the Father. When the Devil tempted Him to break ranks with the Father’s plan and change the stone into bread, Jesus responded:

  • "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'" (Matthew 4:4)
God, the Son, could have answered with His own words. Instead, He submitted to the Words of the Father by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3. In doing so, He acknowledged that Scripture is God’s very Words and that life depended upon living according to these Words. Because life depended on “every word,” there could be no picking-and-choosing. Jesus didn’t place Himself above the Father’s Words but submitted to them all! Had He instead chosen the words He liked and rejected those He didn’t like, He would have made Himself lord over the Words of the Father. This wouldn’t have been “reverent submission” or the “fear of the Lord.” Instead, He would have been like Frank Sinatra – the captain of his own ship!

Then the Devil tested Jesus again. He quoted Psalm 91 and twisted it to suit his purposes:

  • "If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down. For it is written: 'He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'" (Matthew 4:6)
And once again, Jesus quoted the Father’s Words against the Devil:

  • Jesus answered him, "It is also written: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" (Matthew 4:7, quoting Deut. 6:16)
Had Jesus thrown Himself from the mountain to prove that He is the Son of God, He would have sinned by forcing the hand of His Father. Instead, He demonstrated that His entire life was to be lived for the glory of His Father and not His own. This is love! And when we draw near the Father in this manner, He draws near us (James 4:8). Therefore, it is about the heart and not merely a recitation of words.

When the Devil offered Jesus all of the kingdoms of the world if He would worship Him, Jesus again answered with the Words of the Father:

  • "Away from me, Satan! For it is written: 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'" (Matthew 4:10, quoting Deut. 6:13) 
Jesus didn’t have to limit Himself to the Words of the Father. However, this demonstrated His “reverent submission” – what was in His heart. These quotations didn’t represent an attempt to manipulate the Father in order to get what He wanted. Instead, these words represented what Jesus is all about in the core of His Being. It was also the love for the Father that drove Him to the Cross to seek His glory (John 13:31-32):

  • I will not speak with you much longer, for the prince of this world [Satan] is coming. He has no hold on me, but the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me.” (John 14:30-31)
When we too have humbled ourselves to our Savior to seek His will above everything else, we too will be heard for our “reverent submission” as opposed to mere lip-service:

  • But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. (Matthew 6:33-34) 
Let me guess what you are thinking:

  • I am just not capable of this kind of “submission.” I guess then that I can’t expect that my prayers will be answered.
 None of us are capable of this! Instead, our Lord will draw us near:

  • When we were overwhelmed by sins, you forgave our transgressions. Blessed are those you choose and bring near to live in your courts! We are filled with the good things of your house, of your holy temple. (Psalm 65:3-4) 
Without Him, we can do nothing (John 15:5). He must do the heavy lifting. However, we must pray. We “have not because we ask not” (James 4:2). We have to cry out to Him (Psalm 62:8). Of course, this process is very painful. There is no way around it. How did Jesus learn “reverent submission?”

  • During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered. (Hebrews 5:7-8) 
According to Scripture, there is no way around suffering. If we want to be like Jesus, we have to suffer like Jesus:

  • We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. (2 Corinthians 4:10-11)
In order to enjoy a more intimate relationship with the Savior, we have to become more like Him, and this will not happen without suffering. If Jesus had to learn obedience through the things He suffered, how can we expect otherwise!

What will suffering accomplish? Many things! For one thing, it will cause us to despair of the self. Only by learning to distrust ourselves can we begin to learn to trust in God – the most unnatural thing in the world. The Apostle Paul also needed to learn this lesson:

  • We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8-9) 
When given the choice, we will always choose self-trust. It’s just too comfortable – the ultimate drug! Therefore, the addiction to self-trust has to be burnt out of us. This can only happen through the most painful process – despair of self!

However, when we are humbled in this manner, prayer becomes more vital. It is no longer a necessary obligation. It becomes a life-line – our only hope. We can only become fervent in prayer when we see that prayer is our only hope.

Through suffering and the resulting self-despair, we learn that feeding on Scripture is a necessity. When we find that all of our thinking is wrong and sin-stained, we long for the pure milk of the Word so that we can grow.

Suffering is also like refining steel. The fire must melt the iron ore so that the impurities rise to the surface. There, they are skimmed off. The more refinement, the more the impurities rise to the surface! When this happens, we begin to see our impurities, the things we have hidden from sight, even from ourselves:

  • Now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith--of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire--may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Peter 1:6-7) 
How can suffering produce praise? Suffering humbles us. The ugliness and unworthiness within comes to the surface, and we are appalled. We cry, “How can God love someone like me? I am totally unworthy of Him!” In desperation, we are driven to the Word to see if offers us anything that we can cling to in hope. Our Savior begins to show us that He is far more gracious than we had ever thought. Now that we understand that we need His mercy more than ever, we find that it is available and unlimited - that He has died for us, procuring for us a gift that we could never deserve or earn. He must first humble us so that He can exalt us.

This produces a gratefulness we would never had learned had we not been confronted with our utter unworthiness and His overwhelming love (Eph. 3:16-19). This is how suffering produces praise and gratefulness.

Only those who have humbled – even broken – by the sight of their unworthiness are ready to be exalted by the pure knowledge of the Gospel. We must first be humbled before we can be exalted, lest we boast (Eph. 2:9; 1 Cor. 1:29).

Joseph’s brother first had to be humbled before they too could be exalted. Joseph first had to test them to see if they were ready to receive the incredible blessings that he wanted to give them.

Out of jealousy, they had hated Joseph. Their father Jacob loved Joseph more than they and had given him a stunning robe of many colors. However, instead of killing him, they agree to sell him as a slave to a caravan heading into Egypt and lied to their father, claiming that Joseph had been killed by wild animals.

In Egypt, Joseph suffered many disappointments and years in jail. Finally, Pharaoh, the Egyptian king, elevated Joseph to his right-hand. God then revealed to Joseph a future seven year famine, and so Joseph made great preparations to store grain for the famine.

After enduring the famine for several years, Jacob sent his sons to Egypt to procure grain. It had been so many years, that the brothers didn’t recognize Joseph, and Joseph didn’t disclose himself to them. Instead, he imprisoned them, falsely accusing them of being spies. They protested that they weren’t, explaining that the father remained behind in Canaan with his now favorite and youngest son, Benjamin.

After three days, Joseph released them, keeping one brother in jail, and told them that if they didn’t return with their youngest brother - the one other son of Rachel, Jacob’s deceased beloved - they would never see Simeon again.

They returned to their father with the life-saving grain and explained that they would never be able to return for more without Benjamin. However, this famine persisted and Jacob relented, allowing Benjamin to accompany them. However, he warned that if Benjamin failed to return with them, he would surely die.

When they returned to Egypt, Joseph – his identity still remaining hidden – threw them a great banquet, while he remained distant from them. However, he purposely tried to incur their jealousy by giving Benjamin five times what he had given the brothers.

After they left with their packs filled with grain, Joseph’s servants caught up with them, accusing them of stealing Joseph’s silver goblet. They searched and found it in Benjamin’s pack. The servants therefore brought the brothers back before Joseph:

  • Joseph said to them, "What is this you have done? Don't you know that a man like me can find things out by divination?"    "What can we say to my lord?" Judah replied. "What can we say? How can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered your servants' guilt. We are now my lord's slaves-- we ourselves and the one who was found to have the cup."  But Joseph said, "Far be it from me to do such a thing! Only the man who was found to have the cup will become my slave. The rest of you, go back to your father in peace." (Genesis 44:15-17) 
However, they knew that they couldn’t return home to their father without Benjamin. It would kill their father! Therefore, Judah pleaded:

  • "Please let your servant remain here as my lord's slave in place of the boy, and let the boy return with his brothers. How can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? No! Do not let me see the misery that would come upon my father." (Genesis 44:33-34) 
How different from the way they had treated Joseph many years before! They now were willing to sacrifice themselves for the favored son, Benjamin!

  • Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, "Have everyone leave my presence!" So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh's household heard about it. (Genesis 45:1-2) 
Why hadn’t Joseph revealed himself earlier? He had wanted to. He had also wept on their first visit. He loved them and wanted to bring the entire family under his protection, but were they ready for receive such a blessing? Would they instead be consumed with jealousy as they had been before? If they weren’t ready, such a blessing would have been counter-productive. It would have enflamed their jealousy even more as they watched their beloved father fawning over Joseph.

However, they had now grown. They had learned “reverent submission” unto their father. Joseph had tried to inflame their jealousy over the favoritism he showed to Benjamin. However, this ploy failed to prevail over their devotion to their father.

When Joseph saw this, be broke down and revealed himself. However, he first had to send the Egyptians out of the room. They were not ready for such a revelation. Even then, the brothers were terrified.

Ask our Lord to provide for you a “reverent submission,” and He will grant it! It is His will to conform us into the image of His beloved Son. Just keep on asking!

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