Irritated by God’s Glory: Adventures in Overthinking Prayer, Part III

I wasn’t planning to make this a series. This should be the final installment. Feel free to read Part 1 and Part 2 if you’re really jonesing for a flying leap down the rabbit hole.

irritated

I used to be really irritated whenever someone mentioned God’s glory.

It took years of reflection, but thanks to God’s kind insight, I figured out why.

Part of the problem was that whenever I heard “glory of God”, I heard distance. Detachment. Dismissal. A far-off God who couldn’t care less about my heart or my issues, who basks in a shower of others’ praises while I toil down here, forgotten, or kinda tolerated. I feared getting lost in the shuffle.

I believe this is actually an enormous conundrum for my generation, one I’d like to talk about eventually – the collision of soli Deo gloria with the masses of millennials wounded by damaged families, abuse, neglect, self-hatred, addiction, and every other ill stemming from being grandchildren of the sixties, and then being told that a Christ-centered gospel means that their struggles are unworthy of attention. (Yes, we hear that. All the time.)

For now, the irony is, that definition of soli Deo gloria doesn’t glorify God. Scripture tells us instead of a gracious, compassionate, and involved God who goes to great lengths to come through, even arranging for trials so that we can learn of his power (2 Cor. 1:9). He is repeatedly described as a healer all through the holy book. It’s no wonder that many of my quiet times with God were unsatisfying and tense; I didn’t have the right image of him. Approaching God without accounting for every aspect of his character is a pointless exercise, and affords him no glory.

This has been a relief. God has reconciled vast territories of my heart to him through these Scriptural discoveries and opened new avenues of worship and intimacy.

But there was a deeper issue.

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Co-Opted by Fear: Adventures in Overthinking Prayer, Part II

fearThe Neurotic Self-Examination Department is still hard at work, somewhere back there in my brain, outperforming their quotas for the 131rd quarter straight. I’d love to know what productivity methods they’re using, because I could make millions sharing them – I just cannot stop thinking about stuff. For example…should I include the nine months before my birth in that quarter count? If so, it’d be 134.

Anyway…

My pastor belted out another terrific sermon last night. I could sum it up in one sentence of his: “Gratitude doesn’t just sit there. It accomplishes something in our hearts. Gratitude gives way to hope.” It was about reminding oneself of God’s previous works and displays of power in our lives to gather hope for the future – relying on his prior and proven faithfulness to reassure ourselves for tomorrow.

And  thought, that doesn’t work for me. Not for matters in this life.

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Adventures in Overthinking Prayer

thinkingI have no guarantee that God will grant my prayers.

Disruptive statement, no?

This is not me fishing for reassurance in your comments, by the way. I’m trying to speak honestly about a stark reality. Except for a handful of explicit promises in Scripture (salvation, peace, heaven, etc.), there’s no guarantee that God will grant any prayer of mine. Like the missions opportunity I’m currently examining, or the kidney healing for a friend.

First, to be perfectly frank, my very audience before him is an undeserved gift.

Second, it’s hard to know whether certain prayers – for myself or others – are optimal for the person being prayed for. That can be a huge hangup to prayer confidence. Why invest months or years of heartfelt prayer in something when you don’t yet know God wants it?

Third, I know my theology of suffering too well. Christianity is a call to come and die. If you think it’s about getting your dreams actualized, you’ve got another thing coming. Even Jesus didn’t get all his prayers answered – and there was glory in that (Matt. 26:39). Dare we think that a servant is greater than that Master?

Finally, Scripture gives us every reason to think that God might deny our prayers for our spiritual benefit (2 Cor. 12:9). I wholeheartedly believe that he leaves to each of us at least one lingering heartache, a thorn, a cross to carry all of our days without resolution (do you not have yours?) so we’ll remember that this isn’t our home. Denied prayers transform us; they provide opportunities to allow God to become our all; they lift our gaze to heaven. There is no greater treasure. So why would God grant a lesser one by answering my prayer?

You might begin to suspect that I have an overthinking problem.

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A Little Forgiveness to Try if Your Prayers Aren’t Answered

A year ago this week, I received a gargantuan answer to prayer. I and many others close to me were quite giddy about it.figs

The fascinating thing is – it came very shortly after a week spent forgiving people.

In Mark 11, after seeing a prayer of Christ’s answered (surprise), the disciples receive a glimmer into the mystery of prayer.

“Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” (Mark 11:21-25)

This is one of those stories that we don’t quite know what to do with. One look at the world around us confirms that not all prayers are answered. That and our fear of disappointment has made us cautious of prayer. We know we’re commanded to do it; most of us pray over our meals at the very least. But to really dive into deep prayer – to really hit our knees and spend a season there, emotionally invested and powerfully engaged – is like jumping into a new workout program. The thought makes us groan. Will it really be worth it?

Jesus, on the other hand, seems to see prayer more like a pursuit whose ways must be learned, like sailing or creating pottery. The Bible drops hints about prayer being affected by our holiness, by our maturity, and by the kingdom of darkness. Yet even the most basic of these hints – praying with persistence – is not practiced by many Christians, despite the fact that you can’t get through an honest reading of the Gospels without seeing it everywhere.

So it comes as no surprise that the harder “keys” to prayer are neglected also. One of them is forgiveness.

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Thankful For My Life – 12/26/02

Fourteen years ago next month, Interstate 10 tried to kill me.

It had an accomplice: my own stupidity.

Fortunately, God is greater than even that. He decided he wasn’t finished with my earthly sojourn, and this week, I stand in gratitude of what he did that day. For it could only have been him.

Many of us speak of our first car with fondness. I am foremost among them. It was the day after Christmas, 2002. I was driving south in my Dodge Intrepid from Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix, where I was stationed, to visit my grandfather in Tucson. A nap attack arrived – I swear it’s always around 1:35pm – and being an inexperienced driver, I figured I could fight through the fatigue and keep driving. Older and wiser now, I give you this advice for such a situation: for Pete’s sake, pull over and nap. It only takes twenty minutes to reset your body.

That day, somewhere north of Casa Grande, I nodded off. The freeway curved to the right; I did not. The rumble strips on the road’s left side woke me up and I swerved hard right to correct – too hard. The back end of my Intrepid swung out left and took the rest with it. I remember only skidding into the median thinking “This is like a really loud, really fast, really big bike accident multiplied by ten.” It remains the most terrifying 1.5 seconds of my life’s memory.

I don’t remember hitting the median. The next thing I remember was lying face up on the ground, outside my car, blood streaming down my face as I stared up at the sky, scared, wondering what had happened.

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3 Reasons You Must Pray For Your Heart’s Desire

This isn’t going where you think.

prayerYou probably had one of two reactions upon reading the title of this post.

The first was a groan. I don’t want to, Brandon. Not again. I’m tired of bringing these things before God and being met with silence and inaction week after week, month after month. I can’t keep doing that.

The other was a sharp intake of breath. That’s dangerous, Brandon. Don’t write that. We’ve got too much bad theology out there to risk this sort of thing. Talk about holiness and surrender instead.

Actually, you probably had a bit of both reactions.

Indeed, I cannot guarantee that praying for your heart’s desire will get you what you want. I know Psalm 37:4 seems to say it will. But we must guard our hearts. One look around the world should reveal that God isn’t exactly handing out heart’s desires like candy; there must be something more to that verse.

But…

What if that’s not why we pray for our heart’s desire? What if there are other reasons?

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Can You Be a Realist and Still Have Faith?

Public domain image from www.public-domain-image.comI saw a friend ask this question on my Facebook feed recently. Given that God has seen fit to grant me a minuscule glimpse of an understanding of prayer during my few adult years, I immediately thought of a crucial Scripture that addresses the question.

We all struggle for things in this life. Victory, deliverance, breakthrough, blessing, healing, bounty, hearts’ desires. It’s a tricky high-wire to walk, for no matter what some people tell you, the Christian life is not all about these things. George Herbert wrote,

To be in both worlds full
Is more than God was, who was hungry here.

Are we to believe a servant is greater than his master? The Bible doesn’t stutter: not every prayer will be granted in this life, not every hardship averted. And that is both curse and privilege. We simply must start there. If you can’t accept that word, your life will be a shattering staccato of foiled expectations. If you can, you’ll have room to turn to Jesus, finding him to be the ultimate prize that can never be stolen.

However.

I’ve also learned not to put limits on God’s generosity. He is scandalously generous. Sometimes the church, in its frustration with the masses grasping for “prosperity” and deaf to all else, will race to the other extreme and quietly throw cold water on blessing of any kind. (This really is a thing. Just observe your reaction if I write the phrase “bold prayer”. You instantly pull up and worry: Is this right? Respectful? Scriptural?) But it buries a great truth: God does answer prayer. The Bible speaks of many such times, and seems to hold them out to us rather excitedly. God can teach us about himself through a “yes”, grow closer to us through a “yes”, as well as a “no”.

But this merely yields another problem: our cynicism. Where is this generosity? Our experiences don’t match up to the awesome power God wields in the Bible – yet. “This is reality,” we want to say. “God doesn’t do that stuff anymore.”

I certainly want to believe. What is reality, really, if God is your God?

But regardless of how many stories we hear about provisions and breakthroughs that are tough to pass off as science or coincidence, something in our hearts has a hard time with faith. Some of us have been left feeling fed up with hope; some of us are just down-to-earth by nature. We feel stuck between reality and faith, between hope and surrender. “If I’m going to undertake any long season of hope and prayer about something,” we say, “then I want to know I’m grounded in reality. I want to know I’m not losing my mind.”

You could have been friends with Abraham. God gave him a crucial key to faith in the midst of realism (or is it the other way around?)

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