30/06/2015 Talk One:
Prayer is Struggle
Genesis 3.6-24; Col 3.1-4
On a church week end away we look at topics that go to the heart of our faith, like the cross and the resurrection: key topics that take us to the very heart of the gospel, that help us to understand the big story of the Bible and shine light on the Christian life.
This year is no different. Prayer takes us to the very heart of the faith – prayer is faith in action, it flows out of a right understanding of who God is and what he is doing in the world, locates us as individuals within Gods universal story; and affects us right down at the level of day to day life. Prayer is foundational to everything we do as Christians.
So I've long wanted to look at prayer with. But over the last year in particular I have been ever more deeply convicted of the need for pray. So I've been working to transform my prayer life. And I've been studying prayer in Jesus' life and Paul's life and the life of the early church. And I've been reading books on prayer, and driven home to me how significant prayer has been in the life of the church for 2000 years, and in the lives of those who have been most used by God. I have had to repent of a prayer life only half committed. And I've had to make changes in my life to make prayer a greater priority. And it's changing me. It's changing how I think and feel about God, about God's word and about the Christian life. And it's exciting. And I want to share that with you this weekend.
I can't promise this weekend will change your life. But I pray that it will. This weekend I'm not going to try to answer all of your questions, my aim is much more important – I want to help you to pray. I don't want to stuff you full of information about prayer, but I want to plant a seed of longing, of desire to pray. My prayer, which I have prayed much, is that God would lead us to pray, to pray as Jesus did, to pray without ceasing, to pray earnestly, to wrestle with God and man in prayer and to overcome…
And that can't come from me, so please join me in praying to the Great God who loves us each and all and ask him to help us as we come to his word now..
So if we're not going to produce a thorough-going theology of prayer, what are we going to do? I want to look at prayer from three angles, three aspects, that I have found have helped me to pray and I hope will do likewise for you. What are they? They are:
Prayer = Struggle
Prayer = Intimacy
Prayer = Power
Talk 1: Prayer is Struggle
It's a truism to say that prayer is a struggle – its hard, we all fail at it as much as – if we're honest, more than – we succeed. Almost every book I've read on prayer starts here, or gets here pretty quickly: we struggle to pray. I do, and I know you do too… why is that?
It's more than just because we're bad people and we need to be ashamed (!?!) it's because prayer is by it's very nature a struggle, it's hard for us to do – because in prayer we struggle against sin and temptation, against our very selves and our deep and dark desires; and because in prayer we even struggle with God. Sin is not just a struggle, it is struggle, wrestling, a fight. This is the language of the NT – Paul urges the Romans to join him in his struggle by praying for him; he tells the Colossians he struggles for them with a mighty struggle and so does Epaphras, who is always wrestling in prayer for them!
So the big idea for this talk is that in prayer we struggle against sin and temptation and our alienation from God, and with God as we seek his blessing. Did you get that: in prayer we struggle against sin and temptation and our alienation from God, and with God as we seek his blessing.
I've broken that down into three points:
1) We're Deeply Alienated from God
2) Redemption Brings Tension
3) Struggle is Good
Point One: We're Deeply Alienated from God
We heard Genesis 3 read earlier. I hope this is familiar ground for you. Over the years we've come back to it again and again because you can't understand yourself, the world or what God is doing if you don't grapple with Genesis 3. To recap: Genesis 1-2 shows us the world as God made it, as he designed it – a good world, without sin, fear, anger, violence, deceit or death; a world ordered for productive work and satisfying relationships, in which men and women reflected God's own likeness and glory in themselves, in their relationships and in their rule over God's creation.
But Genesis three lands us in our world of sin. We move from creation as made and very good, to creation as it is, only poorly reflecting God's good design because marred by sin – no longer properly ordered, no longer safe or satisfying or giving God glory.
And the problem is us. It starts here in Genesis three with a relationship breakdown.
Look at verse 7 and 8:
Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realised that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. 8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden.
Adam and Eve have just eaten the fruit God told them not to – they've rejected God's authority to rule them and asserted their own right to choose – 'we'll decide what is good and what is evil for ourselves: we choose to do what we want; God has no right to decide for us'.
Now they've rejected God's rule and God's comes to them.
What is God doing there? It seems that God comes to walk with them.
Just think about that for a moment. God comes to hang out with them. It may be that they regularly walked with God in the cool of the day. Why not? There was nothing negative between them, only love. Can you even imagine a world in which we could go for a walk with God? I love walking Evie to school because it's an intimate moment. She takes hold of my hand and tells me what she's thinking, I get a moment's access into her world. It's a precious time that will pass all too quickly. Soon she'll be too old to hold my hand and she'll be too guarded to let me into her world … but imagine walking hand in hand with God. Imagine a world where he came by to take you for a walk.
That must have been magic.
We're getting a glimpse here of a world where God and his people enjoy an intimate and beautiful relationship. And of all the privileges that have been lost in the fall this is perhaps the greatest – we loose the ability to live with him, to be his people, to enjoy open and free relationship with him.
Up till now God doted on them, delighted to provide for them, produced a wife for Adam and rejoiced in Adam's rejoicing. Adam and Eve were like children who delighted in the company of their Father. And they had no idea what a privilege it was to know God intimately like that. They threw it away on the promise of a snake.
Verse 7 again: they eat and immediately they're afraid. Before they revelled in God's love – now they hide. They're exposed, instead of becoming like god they cower from him among the shrubbery.
And they're right to dread God because He's angry with them – he is gracious, he doesn't destroy them on the spot, but he curses them – verses 12-19. Under the curse work will be frustrating; satisfaction fleeting; relationships power struggles; child rearing painful and they will experience loss, fear, shame and ultimately - death; and Satan will be their enemy.
And to top it off God casts them out of his presence, banishes them from the garden and prevents them from ever coming back.
This is three levels of alienation from God:
1 they dread him
2 God curses them and
3 they're banished from his presence.
And don't miss the fourth level of alienation. Because they listened to the snake their hearts are twisted against God – they've taken on board the wicked cynicism of the snake. Their instinct now is to doubt God's word and to accept the lies of sin and temptation. This is the world we live in, where we're enemies of God in our minds because of our evil behaviour – as Colossians 1.21 says; where our minds are hostile to God and will not, indeed can not submit to him – as it says in Rom 8.7.
This is us, right? This is the fundamental problem that we have now in any relationship with God – we dread God and instinctively feel He's keeping the best stuff from us, anything God offers or instructs us is automatically suspicious; and anything God keeps from us, is automatically desirable.
This is us right? It doesn't make any sense, but even when we agree with God's good laws, we still want to break them. Temptation is tempting because at a deep level we believe the lie that sin will give us something better, something we'll miss out on if we obey God.
We're bent towards sin and away from God. Our desires are disordered – we don't want the things that are good for us, but we desperately want the things that will do us harm. Our loves are disordered – we love things that hurt us and hate the one who loves us.
By rights this should be the end of the story, but it isn't; the rest of the Bible can be characterised as God's gracious work to bring us back into intimate loving relationship with him, a work that climaxes in the new creation.
I hope you can see what this has to do with prayer: Prayer is the exact opposite of that movement in the garden – in prayer we turn away from rebellion and back towards God; casting off fear and suspicion we come to him in simple trust. In prayer we experience now a reversal of the curse, a restoration of beautiful intimacy with God.
That's point one, our starting point with prayer – by nature, in our hearts and minds and hopes and dreams and desires we are deeply alienated from God. To pray requires overcoming our own instincts. That's the starting point, the bad news; but there's good news: Jesus has redeemed us from sin and brought us near to God. But sin isn't removed from us yet so this proximity to God increases the tension. This is point two.
Point Two: Redemption brings Tension
Jesus brings us near to God – consider Col 3 verse 1: Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
We're as close to God as that, tied up intimately with Jesus as he lives in God's presence. But the issue of our hearts and our wrong desires, loves and hopes remains. God has brought us right up to his very throne in Jesus, but the inner rebel comes with us. We're still suspicious of God; sure he's holding the best stuff back from us.
So do you see how redemption produces an ongoing tension? We know God speaks the truth, but the desires of our hearts are still so tied up with sin. We suffer a gospel gap – we know the truth, but we struggle to put it into practice in our lives; we agree with God about what is good and right and noble, but we're pulled away by that which is neither good, noble or right – we can see that it's wrong, but we can't stop loving it. That's Romans 7 isn't it?
The bible compares us to the Israelites wandering in the wilderness after the exodus (1 Cor 10, Hebrews 3). You can see that suspicion twisting their minds against God. God rescues them in a great contest with Pharaoh, 10 plagues show God's power and Pharaoh releases them, God leads them out beside the red sea. And from there when they look back and see Pharaoh coming after them they go – 'ah, this is why God led us out – so we could be slaughtered here!' God parts the very sea to rescue them and now they're on the desert side and they say 'God has led us out in the desert so we will die of thirst' and so it goes on. God takes them to Sinai to make a covenant to say that he will be their God and they will be his people and he will live with them; and Moses goes up on the mountain and doesn't come back for 40 days and they're all: 'right, don't know what happened to Moses let's make some new gods – and that did, they cast idols and bowed down in worship, then got up to indulge! They were redeemed, bought out of Egypt, but their hearts were far from God!
And that's us. Even as I'm writing this I'm constantly facing temptations – I want to stop because its hard, I want to go and do something easy, to read the cricket or the newspaper, to pick up a book; I want to go comfort eat in the kitchen … and many worse things besides… what's going on? I know sin is making promises that it can't keep… but still I want what it offers. At the level of my desires, my affections even, I actually think that those things will give me satisfaction, I long for them, yearn for them in a way that's very different to how I try and please God – I've internalised the idea that sin is more satisfying than holiness. I know that doing good is better, but I don't feel it, what I feel is that I need the short cut, the easy satisfaction now. I know it won't satisfy me, but even so in that moment of temptation I believe that it will satisfy me.
What am I like? See if this helps: when I was in year 11 one of the lads from another high school crashed his car with a bunch of other kids on board; the driver was killed and a girl had her leg amputated, there were people in hospital for weeks, it was awful. They'd been coming home from school sports and took a detour to coast the saddle of a local hill when it all went wrong. One of the lads in my class was the driver's best mate, they got up to all kinds of stuff together. And I'll never forget what he said to me at school just after the funeral– he said something about how horrible it all was, but then he said 'but I still know I'll probably die in a motor bike accident one day'.
What was he saying? He was saying he knew this wouldn't change his behaviour. He was a thrill seeker, he knew the risks and he knew it wasn't worth it. But even so – even after burying his best mate – he knew his behaviour wouldn't change. He thought it would get him killed, and it scared him. But that wasn't enough to make him change!
And that's us; sin is so deeply ingrained in us it controls the way we feel, it operates far deeper than just our will, it works at the level of our hopes, our dreams and our deep longings.
I hope you see yourself here. There is something deeply wrong with our desires and our loves. We love the things that are worst for us, and we want them deeply. We can't just turn those desires off. That makes holiness a matter of denying ourselves the things we want most of all – and the more we earnestly try to resist, the more these desires well up inside of us.
Now put prayer into the equation. God commands us to pray, God instructs us to pray, God urges us, exhorts us, encourages and tells us to pray. And what do we do in response? Our instinct is to reject it completely, our desires and hopes are a mess…
This feeling that God is some one who keeps the good stuff from us, that we should hold him at arms length, that's going to make prayer a struggle isn't it? (and I haven't even mentioned that we have an enemy who works to make it even harder!)
Are you feeling discouraged yet?
Don't be, hope is just around the corner… Prayer is a struggle – it's true, we feel it – but turn that around… if we struggle so much, if we think it so terrible, and we're back to front so that we love the things that break us but hate the things that help us, then prayer must be very good indeed – and it is!
Redemption increases the tension: we come up close to God and our hearts rebel even as we see how good and gracious and loving he is.
So we need to learn to be suspicious of our own hearts, not of God. If prayer seems dull and uninteresting, if it seems to promise nothing and other things seem so much better – then we need to take hold of ourselves and determine to pray even against our instincts, our feelings, our desires. Prayer isn't just a dull alternative to genuinely good things; in fact it is a very good thing in itself, in this life it might just be the best thing... The more we manage to bring ourselves to prayer, the more we discover the joy that it brings.
So we are deeply alienated from God and suspicious of him so that even after being saved we experience this tension, this struggle. It sounds completely negative and yet there is an up side. And this leads us to point three:
3) Struggle is Good!
In Genesis 32 we come across a strange and wonderful passage about prayer... We don't have time to read it now, but perhaps you might like to make a note and read it later. In it Jacob meets God for a wrestle. Jacob's on the run from his uncle from whom he has taken two daughters numerous grandchildren and great flocks and herds. And he's running back towards his brother, from whom he ran away years earlier after taking his birth right and his blessing as the eldest brother. He's between a hot current feud and a simmering old one. He sends everyone else ahead of him while he prays. As he does a man arrives who wrestles with him all night. In the morning the man says 'it's morning, let me go' but Jacob will not let him go unless he blesses him. So the man blesses him: he changes his name from Jacob (which means grasping) to Israel (which means he struggles with God) because, the man says 'you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome'.
I think this one of the strangest passages in the bible. And I'm not sure I can make sense of it all. But it's clear that Jacob has in fact been wrestling with God. And this is a picture for us of prayer: we receive God's blessings by prayer – but only through struggle. It is in fact part of God's plan and design that his blessings are not easily won, but they are hard fought, we have to struggle and wrestle because God will not give them to us without it. It's not that through our labours in prayer we earn blessing from God, we can never earn God's favour, we know that; but the struggle itself is good for our soul. Don Carson quotes a famous missionary I've never heard of who said 'Prayer is the gymnasium of the soul'. If prayer were a magic vending machine that always produced the result we were expecting as soon as we asked we wouldn't learn to trust God, we wouldn't learn patience and we wouldn't develop any sort of relationship beyond the relationship that we have with a vending machine.
No, the struggle is good for our soul.
Is this only taught here? Am I being too speculative? Didn't Paul wrestle and labour in prayer for the Colossians? Didn't Epaphrus do likewise? Aren't we told to pray without ceasing? Didn't Jesus tell us to be like the persistent widow who continued asking the corrupt judge until the judge relented, not because he was righteous, but just to keep her from pestering him (Luke 18.1-8) and didn't Jesus tell us to ask and seek and knock – like a man who needs to bother his neighbour for bread in the night, the neighbour will give him the bread because of his persistence (Luke 11.5-10)
And in the garden of Gethsemane didn't Jesus tell the disciples to watch and pray so that they would not fall into temptation. Three times Jesus knelt down and prayed in great anguish, so that his sweat was like great drops of blood. Three times. Surely once would be enough? For Jesus, the Son of God. Doesn't God know what we need before we ask for it? And yet, here is Jesus labouring, toiling in prayer so that the flesh would not fail him as he faced the great challenge of the cross. And his word echo down to us don't they: 'Watch and pray so that you do not fall into temptation for the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak'!
Prayer is struggle – not just against sin and temptation, not just against our inner rebelling voices, but with God – struggling in prayer to receive from God good things which he holds for us and which he gives to us only in the midst of that earnest labour and toil of persistent prayer. And this is good that we learn obedience only in the midst of struggle. That we grow in faith as we see God answer our prayers. That we are constantly reminded that we are utterly dependent on him. And as we slowly discover just how deep his goodness and love goes.
If all this is true what should we do? Can I suggest four brief starting points:
1 start praying, expect it to be hard, but get on with it – just like you would an exercise programme; as part of you prayer ask God to help you to pray, teach you to love praying, to change your heart's desires to want to come near to him.
2 expecting it to be hard enlist help, get a prayer partner, write down prayer requests at home group and come back to them through the week, take one of the HTG prayer diaries;
3 pray the bible, not just what you feel like praying – pray through the psalms, each in turn, pray the Lords Prayer and the 10 commandments (we'll come back to this) pray for the fruits of the spirit, pray the prayers of the NT letters and so on
4 make time in your diary daily to pray – it's struggle, the blessings of prayer are not easy fruit plucked from low slung branches, they are hard to reach and attained by continual effort … we look back at the puritans with their hours of prayer each day and think they're mad – but they would look at us and say we're missing out, we're loving the world and ignoring God, they would weep for our lack of prayer.