A Reflective Christian

All for God’s Kingdom

The origin of prayer routines – Part 2

Another way in which we learn to relate to God from the way we relate to others is in the form of exchange. For instance, at Christmas time, most people give an exchange of presents. The exchange is critical frequently is considered essential at many times, because the act of giving both serves as an act of service and as a symbol of unity and commitment.

This exchange mentality is not a selfish or wrong to have in a relationship. Every person needs the help and assistance from others. When one acts to help another as part of a relationship, it is not unhealthy or wrong to hope to be able to get their help in a time of need. However, this mentality can be taken to a destructive extreme. Frequently, the relationship exchange is treated as if every single favor must be returned with the exact amount of favors. In other words, all acts of kindness are strictly tabulated as a debt and expected to be repayed exactly and at the whims of the initial provider. Or, sometimes the exchange in the relationship is expected in such a way where the other can not provide, such as in a Christmas exchange where one person may not have the funds to provide the size of the gifts the other person might.  Finally (although not to exhaust all the unhealthy extremes of the exchange aspecto), some people expect the other to provide what they ask, even if there is an objection on the part of the other.

However, another unhealthy extreme is to not ask for anything from a relationship. To give and to give, but to never ask in return. Its an aspect of pride and failure to recognize our own individual limitations.

The way we relate to people in these patterns frequently becomes the pattern we use in our prayers (and in our worship). For instance, when we feel called by God to do something, many of us are hesitant to ask for a confirmation sign in exchange for the call. In part, this is due to the passage where Jesus says an evil and adulterous generation require a sign (although, there is a context to that statement and is not necessarily true for all contexts), but it it also because of the lack of willingness to ask for an exchange. However, Gideon is a good example of a man who asked for confirmation signs in exchange for obedience to the call to “Go…. and you shall save Israel from the Midianites” (Judges 6:14) and recieved one from YHWH. Three different times he asked for a sign from God, one to verify that the angel/messenger of YHWH was indeed truly the voice of YHWH, and two to verify that God will save Israel.

But one important feature in Gideon’s request is that on the last request, he become relatively meek in his request. He starts his request with “Do not be angry with me” and then says that this will be the last burden he will put on YHWH (Judges 6:39), to which YHWH acquiesces. But even in Gideon seemingly bold second request that almost seems to be a lack of truth, there is a attitude of humility and recognition of the burden (although, not in the strictest sense) that he is placing upon YHWH. Within relationships, to recognize that you might be burdening the other person and to voice that conveys that you do not wish to overburden the other person, and will frequently with motivate the other person to agree because this is probably the last time the request will be made. Likewise, one might say that this is why YHWH agrees to Gideon’s request (although the text does not say why).

Also, Gideon prayed for the sign on the basis of an exchange. In his first request, he conditions the sign on the premise that he had “found favor” in YHWH’s “sight” (Judges 6:17). Moses does the same Numbers 11:15, although in a negative complaint, and in the prayers of Exodus 33 and 34. The expectation is that if God finds a person pleasing, it is okay for them to make a request in exchange for that. Implicitly, the author of Hebrews recognizes this exchange as part of faith where he says people must believe that “He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6).

But sometimes the exchange are in a more negative manner, and potentially dangerous. For instance in Exodus 32,  Moses refuses to continue to live (and so spoil YHWH’s contingency plan of creating a nation from him, or to continue as YHWH’s prophet) if YHWH would not forgive Israel. YHWH makes a compromise (only punish the guilty, not all of Israel) in this situation, but what if YHWH hadn’t? Moses set the terms of the bargain, Israel and him or neither of them. It is a risky proposition that YHWH might accept the latter, as he is free to take either condition. Thus, in a prayer life, when one seeks to make exchanges, or maybe bargains (or maybe even extortion), one can risk moving God to accept the less desirable option. And there is no higher court of appeal to turn to if God accepts the option we wish He hadn’t.

There is a freedom to exchange with God that recieves a positive response from God, although recogizing His capacity to provide overwhelms our limited capacity to give to Him.  But in one’s own self-preservation, some bargains are risky and one must be prepared for God to accept any of the options we provide to Him (or for Him to ignore any of our options).

August 11, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

The origin of prayer routines – Part 1

Michael Halcomb and I have had a couple discussions on the nature of prayer as he has been working on his series of the theology of prayer. In his most recent post he says:

In a disingenuous relationship, someone is always trying to hide something, cover something up and prevent something from coming to light. As humans, we tend to do this when we don’t want people to know the truth or when we are scared of revealing something about ourselves. If God is the most genuine being and thus, never acts this way toward us, neither should we act this way toward Him. Yet, the truth is, many times so-called Christians do act this way toward Him. In fact, some people take these sorts of facades to the extreme! Think about the people who burst out in sheer anger towards God all the time! Think about the people who just disregard God! Think about the people who imagine that they can “name it and claim it”. Think about the people who act as if they must always be timid in their prayers and thus, never share their real thoughts and emotions with God (it’s always the same). I’ve said for years now: God is not scared of or threatened by our true thoughts, emotions and words; we can be honest with Him in these areas! Any theology that believes God is sovereign, will realize this!!! Anyway, disingenuous acts such as those above are not only unhealthy, they are also acts that, as I said, move out of the realm of “prayer” into something else.

Prayer is a communicative event that reflects part of the ways we might communicate with others. Particularly prevalent in the way we pray might be the way we are taught to communicate with those in authority. By in large, traditional manners would have us to pay due respect to people of great authority (and prestige) and to hold back or minimize any criticisms one might have of such a person. At certain extremes, this turns into the sterotypical “yes men” of the business and political world that in part perptuate the egomania of particular powerful and prestigious individuals. They agree to and compliment any and everything their superior says (and they might even mean it genuinely).

Likewise, this principle of communication protocol is exhibiting in the prayer life of many people in prayer (and worship also). Everything of the Lord is good in their minds automatically, without any thought given to what the will of the Lord actually is. Its good because it is from God, just like the “yes man” says its good because it is from the CEO, senator, etc. etc. So as one prays, one either wholly submits to the present agenda of God in a fatalistic sense (in which case, prayer becomes a merely passive event of gushy praise and weak-minded requests) or in an insincere sense only because it is expected of them by God, they believe.

But at its very root, our relationship to authority is heavily influenced by the threats other people pose to person in power. Communication to us is a potentially threatening event where we our pride may be torn down, we may discern a potential threat of actual physical harm or tearing down of one’s current power and prestiege, or everything else. As such, it is natural for those in power to silence said criticsms (frequently relegating them to the private, where they can grow even more unabated). That is especially true in presence of others so as to prevent other people joining in on the threat. But people are very limited, fragile creatures that have much they could lose by the will of others.

The belief of the Old and New Testament is of a God who is not limited (at least not by any of the considerations of the cultures that formed the canonical materials). Therefore, people do not pose a risk to Himself (the phrase “to Himself” is a rather vital clarification, as I will explain in a later post). There isn’t the inherent egocentric concern about a loss of position that a regular human might have. Expression of anger, frustration, disagreement and other such emotions we might consider a source of conflict do not pose a potential threat.

We see in Moses an example of a conflict between God and person in Exodus 32 (although, we must be careful in drawing behavioral principles from Israel’s narrative history, as description in the Holy Scriptures does not necessitate being a holy behavior). After Israel had committed idolatry with the golden calf, YHWH had designed to destroy the children of Israel and start a nation up through Moses. One can argue that this is just of YHWH, having set the terms of relationship in the Ten Commandments and a prohibition to idolatry. But Moses doesn’t buy it. He has the audacity to question why YHWH was so angry as to destroy Israel, in a questioning, not inquisitive tone. He then tries to convince God of the folly of said plan and that it would forget the promise YHWH made to Abraham Isaac and Jacob.  The narrative says that YHWH agrees with Moses.

After Moses then finds out about the idolatry (previously, God had only informed him), the next day YHWH goes up to the mountain to intercede on the behalf of Israel. There in an indirect manner he speaks about forgiving the people (which according to the Christian ethos is a noble idea), but then makes a bargaining request with YHWH in the case that said request is not fulfilled. Moses asks that he himself be blotted out  (the equivalent of asking for death) if YHWH will not forgive Israel.  It is like a child taking his ball and going home if he doesn’t like how things are working. Either Israel will be spared, or Moses will have nothing to do with continuing his life as a servant to YHWH. YHWH’s response, frequently read as if it is saying “I will not take you as a subsititute” to Moses (this substitionary view of the narrative is largely due ot the substitionary atonement theology), actually reads better as YHWH agreeing to place punishment only upon the guilty individuals within the ranks of Israel, not the nation as a whole (as He threatened to do previously).

We see in this text two things we might find ill mannered, if not morally reprehensible. First, the audacity of Moses before YHWH, but then YHWH planning to destroy all of Israel, guilty and innocent individuals alike, for the crimes of a select group. In the story, Moses succeeds in sparing Israel as a whole, against the initial wishes of YHWH. He does not simply say “What you say is good YHWH”, but complains and makes an ultimatum himself.

While not drawing the conclusion that we may be so audacious in all ways (perhaps Moses audacity is allowed because of his special position as mediator between God and the people), we see that the nature of prayer is not always merely passive, fatalistic, or purely positive. It at times takes a stand, it pleads and bargains with God. It even questions God’s plan at points and tries to argue with God why His way is not necessarily the best way to do it.

But what if YHWH hadn’t agreed to Moses bargain of Israel and Moses, or neither of them? That becomes the focal point of another principle to keep in tension in our prayer life, which I will address in the next post.

August 5, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment