Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Prayers that Please God

Which prayers does God hear and answer? Which please Him? The Bible has a consistent answer. Solomon consecrated the Temple he had built with a wonderfully God-centered prayer. Here is a representative segment:

  • "When they [Israel] sin against you [God]—for there is no one who does not sin—and you become angry with them and give them over to the enemy, who takes them captive to a land far away or near; and if they have a change of heart in the land where they are held captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captivity and say, 'We have sinned, we have done wrong and acted wickedly'; and if they turn back to you with all their heart and soul in the land of their captivity where they were taken, and pray toward the land you gave their fathers, toward the city you have chosen and toward the temple I have built for your Name; then from heaven, your dwelling place, hear their prayer and their pleas, and uphold their cause. And forgive your people, who have sinned against you” (2 Chronicles 6:36-39).
Solomon touched on all of the key areas of prayer—sin, righteousness, justice, confession, repentance, forgiveness, and restoration. What did God think of Solomon’s prayer? Evidently, He was pleased. Fire came down from heaven to consume Solomon’s offering (2 Chron. 7:1) indicating that God had received his prayer. Also:

  • The LORD appeared to him at night and said: "I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a temple for sacrifices…if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:12-14).
What did it mean for Israel to “humble themselves”? Jesus told a parable about two people who entered the Temple to pray. The Pharisee was self-righteous and looked down on everyone else. The tax-collector was despised and held in contempt by all. The Pharisee’s prayer was “about himself”—his worthiness before God. The tax-collector could only cry out, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” However, it was the tax-collector who humbled himself and confessed his unworthiness who received forgiveness. Jesus explained:

  • "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 18:14).
However, according to the faith or prosperity preachers—some call them the “name-it-claim-it preachers”—humility has nothing to do with receiving from God. Instead, it’s about demanding our rights. Pat Robertson once stated:

  • “Most people ask God for a miracle but many omit a key requirement—the spoken word. God has given us authority over disease, over demons, over sickness, over storms, over finances. We are to declare that authority in Jesus’ name…We are to command the money to come to us” (Michael Horton, The Agony of Deceit, 128).
Actually, the Bible clearly teaches us that everything God gives us is by His unmerited favor. God will never be in a position to owe us anything!

  • Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! (Romans 11:35-36) 
Since all good things come from God (James 1:17), we are always beholden to Him. Jesus instructed that even if we do everything that we are supposed to do, we must consider ourselves unworthy servants (Luke 17:10). Instead, the prosperity preachers claim that we are so worthy that we have the right to “command the money to come to us.”

Commanding God is something that we never find in Scripture. Perhaps the closest thing to this was the hubris of Simon the magician, who wanted to pay God for a supernatural gift. The Apostle Peter was horrified by such an arrogant suggestion:

  • "May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin" (Acts 8:20-23). 
To think that we can merit something from God with either our money or good deeds shows that our minds are “captive to sin” and still tainted with darkness. In contrast, Solomon’s prayer reflected a mature understanding that everything comes to us through the mercy of God.

Prior to this, Solomon had prayed for wisdom:

  • "Now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?" The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this (1 Kings 3:7-10).
The Lord was pleased that Solomon hadn’t asked for wealth and power. Instead, he asked for the wisdom to govern His beloved people. Nor did Solomon command the wisdom to come to him. In fact, no one in the Bible had such an expectation.
Solomon had learned well from his father, King David. David also knew how to pray humbly to God. He, confessing that he deserved nothing from God but punishment, found blessedness through confession:

  • Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit. When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD"—and you forgave the guilt of my sin” (Psalm 32:1-5).
David understood that blessedness was a matter of receiving the grace of God through a humble confession of his sins and not from claiming things that he didn’t deserve.

Prosperity preachers claim that we can establish heavenly merit through good deeds and then demand payment. Joyce Meyers claimed:

  • “It says in Romans 4:17 that…we have a God who gives life to the dead and He calls things that be not as though they already existed…If there’s something in your way, speak it…When I talked with Dr. Roberts today and we talked about this seed-faith thing, he said…when you give you get a receipt in heaven that when you have a need you can then go with your receipt and say ‘You see, God, I have got my receipt from my sowing and now I have a need and I’m cashing in my receipt’” (Christian Research Journal, Joel Hunter).
Meyers is right about one thing. God will answer us according to our deeds or righteousness. However, this doesn’t mean that God owes us anything (Romans 11:35) or that we have a heavenly bank account in the black from which we have the right draw. Rather, if we want to draw from God what we rightfully deserve, it is nothing but condemnation! Instead, it is by the mercy of God alone that we receive anything good from Him.

Jesus taught that we don’t even deserve a “thank you” from God. Instead, we are to consider ourselves as unworthy servants (Luke 17:6-10), not deserving anything from Him.

Well, how is it that He blesses us according to our obedience? Because it is the fruit that He produces through our obedience (Philippians 2:12-13)! Paul confessed he couldn’t take credit for any of his labors, let alone make demands on God, because of his heavenly account:

  • But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me (1 Corinthians 15:10). 
God even gets the credit for our labors. Sound confusing? Well, it is! God produces the fruit, and yet, we must still take full responsibility. Can we understand this fully? No, but we shouldn’t expect to!

If we deserve anything from God, it is death:

  • For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)
While our heavenly account will always be in the red, our Savior has given us life.

Meyers is mistaken about Romans 4:17 in another way. Yes, God has the power to call things into existence from nothing. However, there is nothing in this verse to suggest that we have such a power. Claiming that we do places us on the same level as God. This represents a denial of God’s revelation.

Instead, the prayers that move God are characterized by a humble brokenness—the acknowledgement that it is all about the mercy of God. King Hezekiah had been a good king. However, because of his success and wealth, he became proud and distanced himself from God. However, God struck him down with a fatal disease. Hezekiah did not pray as some of the faith preachers recommend: “I am healthy and will live to be 100!” Instead, he “wept bitterly” (Isaiah 38:3) and God answered his prayer for life. As a result Hezekiah thanked God:

  • “Like a lion he [God] broke all my bones; day and night you made an end of me. I cried like a swift or thrush, I moaned like a mourning dove. My eyes grew weak as I looked to the heavens. I am troubled; O Lord, come to my aid! But what can I say? He has spoken to me, and he himself has done this. I will walk humbly all my years because of this anguish of my soul. Lord, by such things men live; and my spirit finds life in them too. You restored me to health and let me live. Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish. In your love you kept me from the pit of destruction; you have put all my sins behind your back” (Isaiah 38:13-17).
Hezekiah’s illness restored his humility.  He acknowledged that God’s ways are just and that He, in His mercy, had struck His servant down.

In contrast to this display of appropriate humility, TV megachurch pastor, Joel Osteen, claims that our words have “enormous creative power”:

  • “Our words are vital in bringing our dreams to pass. It’s not enough to simply see it by faith or in your imagination. You have to begin speaking words of faith over your life. Your words have enormous creative power. The moment you speak something out, you give birth to it…Just look in the mirror and say ‘I am strong, I am healthy. I’m rising to new levels, I’m excited about my future.’ When you say that, it may not be true. You may not be very healthy today, or maybe you don’t have a lot of things to look forward to, but Scripture tells us in Romans [4:17] we have to call the things that are not as if they already were” (Christian Research Journal, Joel Hunter).
Scripture gives us no indication that we have such power. Rather, God wants truth in our inmost being (Psalm 51:6). We have no right or authorization to play fast and loose with the truth. All truth is God’s truth. Consequently, we are not free to manipulate it.

James chastens those who speak arrogantly, who say that they will make a financial killing:

  • Instead, you ought to say, "If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that." As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil (James 4:15-16).
Our words have to conform to God’s reality and not to our imaginations and dreams. Claiming that we can shape reality with our words is boasting. Instead, we have to acknowledge that it’s all about “the Lord’s will.” James claims that we need to realize that we are no more than a “…mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14b).  We are incapable of succeeding at anything apart from God.

King Manasseh of Judah was the worst of the worst. He reigned for 55 years in Jerusalem and bathed the city with the blood of the righteous. Scripture informs us that he was worse than the Canaanites. However, Manasseh was captured by the Assyrians and thrown into jail. There he humbled himself in prayer before the God he had hated:

  • In his distress he sought the favor of the LORD his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. And when he prayed to him, the LORD was moved by his entreaty and listened to his plea; so he brought him back to Jerusalem and to his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD is God (2 Chronicles 33:12-13).
Amazingly, God restored Manasseh to the throne! Had Joel Osteen counseled Manasseh in prison, he would have instructed him:

  • “The moment you speak something out, you give birth to it… Just look in the mirror and say ‘I am strong, I am healthy. I’m rising to new levels, I’m excited about my future.’”

However, such an assertion cannot be found in Scripture; nor would God have responded to such a prayer!

The Chapter Nine Prayers of the Hebrew Bible

All of the great prayers of the Bible are characterized by humility—the acknowledgement of sin and the overwhelming need for mercy. Now, let us regard the three great “Chapter Nine prayers” of the Hebrew Scriptures: Ezra’s, Nehemiah’s and Daniel’s.

In each of these prayers—all found in Chapter Nine of their respective books—there is found a confession of sin.  There is a recognition that Israel deserved nothing from God but judgment. Ezra’s prayer starts this way:

·       "O my God, I am too ashamed and disgraced to lift up my face to you, my God, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens” (Ezra 9:6).

Far be it from Ezra to minimize the weightiness of Israel’s sins or to make light of them. If sin is not trivial in God’s eyes, then it mustn’t be trivial in our eyes. We must treat sin with the seriousness with which our Lord regards it. The sins we commit are so weighty that only His blood could atone for them. Therefore, Ezra didn’t say, “OK God, we sinned, but what do You expect of us mere mortals living in this fallen world!”
In contrast with Ezra, the modern-day “mystics” seem to have an inadequate appreciation of sin and its utter offense to God. Instead, they believe that they can do an end-run around God’s concerns—repentance, confession, humility, and righteousness—in favor of gimmicks and methods which they claim will usher them into the presence of God.

Deceased Catholic priest and mystic, Henry Nouwen, reduces prayer to the repetition of a single word:

·       “The quiet repetition of a single word can help us to descend with the mind into the heart…This way of simple prayer…opens us to God’s active presence.”

Many mystics believe that the mind is an impediment to experiencing God or receiving anything from Him. Therefore, many of their techniques, like the repetition of one word, are designed to quiet the mind. However, these practices find absolutely no sanction within Scripture.  Instead, Scripture tells us that, in spiritual matters, we should not venture beyond what is written (1 Cor. 4:6-7; Isaiah 8:20).  In fact, we require no further instructions other than Scripture:

·       All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Nouwen’s method is not only non-Scriptural but anti-Scriptural, according to Jesus:

·       And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words (Matthew 6:7).

In, The Signature of Jesus, Brennan Manning offers the same suggestion:

·       “The first step in faith is to stop thinking about God in prayer…Contemplative spirituality tends to emphasize the need for a change in consciousness…we must come to see reality differently…Choosing a single, sacred word…repeat the sacred word inwardly, slowly, and often…Enter into the great silence of God. Alone in that silence, the noise within will subside and the Voice of Love will be heard” (Ray Yungen, A Time of Departing, 83). 

How does Manning know whose “voice” he has encountered? By not “thinking about God,” he has cut all ties with Scripture, something we are encouraged to be meditating on both day and night (Psalm 1; Joshua 1:8). Manning has rejected God’s priorities and has embarked on his own spirit quest into the un-mapped and uncertain world of mysticism. What is he hearing? What is he experiencing? Where is he going? He has no compass or GPS. What then guides him? Perhaps his own baseless confidence that he has the intelligence to sort out the shadowy beings he might meet along his journey!
We used to talk about a drug experience as “blowing my mind.” LSD blew my mind. Admittedly, I could not understand or make use of any of it. It was an unnavigable river, from which I promptly fled.

In contrast, the elders under Nehemiah didn’t trust that they could connect with God through their own techniques. Instead, they prayed in a way that accorded with God’s truth. They started by confessing “their sins and the wickedness of their fathers” (Neh. 9:2). This was followed by praise (Neh. 9:5-15), contrasting God’s faithfulness with the unfaithfulness of Israel:

·       "But they, our forefathers, became arrogant and stiff-necked, and did not obey your commands. They refused to listen and failed to remember the miracles you performed among them. They became stiff-necked and in their rebellion appointed a leader in order to return to their slavery” (Neh. 9:16-17).

Years later, Israel returned to their sinful ways. However, Nehemiah made absolutely no attempt to justify Israel’s sins and no suggestion that perhaps God had been unduly harsh with Israel. In the view of both Ezra and Nehemiah, God had been perfectly just, even though Israel had endured extreme hardships at His hands. Why did these men retain such a view in light of Israel’s suffering? They had no doubt that Israel’s sins deserved even worse!

Today, we lack a biblical awareness of the seriousness of our sins and the extent of our guilt. We tend to trivialize our sins with many rationalizations:

·       “Well, God knows my heart. He knows that I am trying as hard as I can.”
·       “God is love, and so He doesn’t want us to feel guilty.”
·       “God knows that I’ve been through a lot.”
·       “I’m more spiritual than most people!”
·       “I am a good person, and people like me!”
·       “No one is perfect!”
·       “Well, this is a fallen world! What can God expect of us?”

Of course, if we trivialize our sin like this, we also have little respect, taste or understanding for the righteousness and judgments of God. Instead, we might regard Him as slightly tyrannical. How then can we wonder why we do not feel intimate with a God we regard as a tyrant?

When we minimize our sins, we also minimize God’s forgiveness and the massive price He paid for us on the Cross. How grateful are we then going to be towards God? Instead, we will feel that we are deserving of His mercy. And will God continue to give His blessings to the ungrateful – to those who believe that they are entitled to them?

The mystics lack any sense of the enormity of our sins. They believe that we can come into the presence of God through the practice of various gimmicks. Mystic Tony Campolo, writes:

·       A theology of mysticism provides some hope for common ground between Christianity and Islam. Both religions have within their histories examples of ecstatic union with God… Could they have encountered the same God we do in our Christian mysticism?  (Roger Oakland, Faith Undone, 108)

According to Campolo, we all can plug into God through mystical techniques and experiences, irrespective of faith in Christ. He claims that he has been able to achieve “intimacy with Christ” through “centering prayer” (113)—the repetition of the name of Jesus. However, he suggests that Muslims—and probably others—may also be able to achieve this same “intimacy with Christ” through the use of similar mystical techniques.

This raises several questions: What is an “ecstatic union with God?” The Bible makes no mention of such a thing. The biblical silence is suspicious, especially in light of the fact that Scripture claims to provide everything that we need for a relationship with God.
If mysticism is the means for world unity and peace, we should expect that Scripture would say something about this!

If anyone had experienced an “ecstatic union with God,” it was Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. However, instead of teaching His disciples about how to have an “ecstatic union with God,” He instructed them to not tell anyone about what they had seen (Matt. 17:11). If there ever had been a teachable moment to introduce mystical methods, it was then!

Moses also had a fantastic mountain-top experience. Even his countenance had been transformed. However, instead of telling the Israelites about how they too could experience God, he taught them God’s words (Exodus 34:29-34).

Campolo fails to recognize that there is a steep price to be paid for genuine experiences or revelations from God. God had taken Paul on a journey to heaven. However, lest he become proud about what he had learned and experienced, God chastened him severely (2 Cor. 12:1-10)!

However, it is important to realize that each one of these transformative experiences had been the product of God’s initiative and not human manipulations. In fact, the idea that we humans can coerce an “ecstatic union with God” is sheer arrogance.

At a low point in his ministry, Moses did request a divine revelation: “Show me your glory” (Exod. 33:18). However, God delivered in the form of doctrinal content rather than an ecstatic experience. He placed Moses in “the cleft of a rock,” while “His glory passed by” (33:22) and He honored him with a doctrinal Self-disclosure (33:19).

But do we really encounter God through mystical techniques, and what assurance do we have that we aren’t really plugging into something malevolent? The mystic Richard Foster…

·       …claims that practitioners must use caution. He admits that in contemplative prayer “we are entering deeply into the spiritual realm” and that sometimes it is not the realm of God even though it is “supernatural.” He admits there are spiritual beings and that a prayer of protection should be said beforehand—something to the effect of “All dark and evil spirits must now leave” (Roger Oakland, 99).

Foster is presumptuous if he thinks that just a “prayer of protection” will suffice.  In view of these spiritual threats, he should be asking if he has taken the wrong path, an unbiblical one—one that has taken him outside God’s protective hand! In view of the fact that the Devil poses as an agent of the light (2 Cor. 11:14), what guarantee does Foster have that he hasn’t been deceived?

This leads us to the next question: “Can people of other religions employ mystical techniques to experience God?” For one thing, God is the last Person that the unredeemed want to experience. Naturally-speaking, we hate God (Rom. 8:8:6-7) and can’t stand His presence:

·       This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed (John 3:19-20).

Even the children of Israel couldn’t tolerate His presence:

·       When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die” (Exodus 20:18-19).

The last thing they wanted was a more intimate encounter! Surprisingly, God was pleased that Israel had this awareness and, therefore, wouldn’t try to pursue a mystical union with Him. Without what Jesus had accomplished on the cross, He too did not want to be in Israel’s presence. He explained that He might destroy them if He were to come into their presence:

·       I will send an angel before you and drive out the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way” (Exodus 33:2- 3).

Campolo suggests that Muslims might also be experiencing God, apart from faith in Christ. However, if they were to experience God, they would be experiencing His wrath:

·       The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness (Romans 1:18).

It is only through faith in Jesus that we have been redeemed from the wrath of God.  It is only through Him that we can enter boldly into His presence:

·       Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water (Hebrews 10:19-22).

Mysticism would not be quite so offensive if it only claimed to influence our personal experience. However, it also claims to influence God! Campolo writes:

·       The constant repetition of his name clears my head of everything but the awareness of his presence. By driving back all other concerns, I am able to create what the ancient Celtic Christians called “the thin place.” The thin place is that spiritual condition wherein the separation between the self and God becomes so thin that God is able to break through and envelope the soul (114).

The god of the mystic is not omnipotent. He requires our help through the use of our techniques. Also, the mystic shows little appreciation of the impassible gulf between us and God. This is a serious problem for many reasons. When we minimize sin, we minimize grace and our dire need for it. Daniel certainly didn’t and prayed:

·       "O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes and our fathers, and to all the people of the land. Lord, you are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame--the men of Judah and people of Jerusalem and all Israel, both near and far, in all the countries where you have scattered us because of our unfaithfulness to you. O Lord, we and our kings, our princes and our fathers are covered with shame because we have sinned against you. The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him; we have not obeyed the Lord our God or kept the laws he gave us through his servants the prophets” (Daniel 9:4-10).

Is God pleased with such prayers? Evidently! While Daniel was still praying, the archangel Gabriel appeared and informed him:

·       “As soon as you began to pray, an answer was given, which I have come to tell you, for you are highly esteemed” (Daniel 9:23).

Why was Daniel “highly esteemed?” Have you ever tried to relate to someone who thought he had the intelligence of an Einstein? It is hard to relate to people who have rejected reality in favor of their own delusions. By rejecting reality, they have rejected the common ground so necessary to any relationship. They are in a different world and require that you affirm their world in order to enter it.

The mystic also inhabits a different world. He believes that the only thing that separates him from God is the use of his mystical techniques. Once he applies them, “God is able to break through and envelope the soul.”

Poor God wants a mystical union with us but needs our help to break through. Instead, Jesus often warned against such beliefs of our self-importance:

·       "I tell you that… everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 18:14).

What does it mean to humble ourselves? In the preceding parable, Jesus gave us an example of humility in the form of a sinner who leveled with God:

·       [in shame] “he would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'” (Luke 18:13)

Techniques will never be able to replace the genuine confession of sins, along with a desperate plea for the mercy of God.

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