Friday, January 19, 2007

The Prayer Conundrum

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For some reason, over the past few days there have been several occasions in which the subject of
prayer and its efficacy has come up. Perhaps it is pure coincidence, but on the other hand, maybe it is a subtle hint that something needs to be written about it. I will hedge my bets and continue with this essay.

To many people, it is a head-scratcher to consider the vagaries of answered prayer—or should I say "unanswered prayer"? That is precisely the puzzler: Why are some prayers answered and some not? Why are some people miraculously healed of a dreaded disease, while others with the same affliction suffer ghastly declines and die? Is there rhyme or reason to having one's prayer answered, or is it just the luck of the draw?

So far, we have not mentioned God, yet it is our understanding of Him that either provides us the answer or leaves us confused, dejected, and perhaps in doubt. In fact, to true believers, prayer is a prime example of God's existence and providence. On the other hand, skeptics almost invariably bring up the "prayer question" when spreading their disbelief, saying, "How can a loving God allow those who pray to Him to suffer so much?" Or, "Statistically, praying people are only a little more fortunate than non-praying people when it comes to overcoming normally fatal illnesses." Or, "There is no proof whatsoever that one's prayers rise any higher than the ceiling. Didn't Solomon say, 'Everything occurs alike to all' in Ecclesiastes 9:2? So how can we know that a so-called 'answer to prayer' is more than mere happenstance?"

No one who knows God would utter such cynical things. The Supreme Being revealed in the pages of the Bible is not capricious, uncaring, distracted, respecting of persons, or absent without leave, as these doubting comments suggest. To the contrary, Scripture shows Him to be reliable, loving, alert, just, and involved in the affairs of His creatures. If not even a sparrow can fall to the ground without His notice, how much more involved is He with the well-being of humanity—and individual humans? Thus, the mystery surrounding the answered-prayer question cannot be solved by finding fault with God or by doubting Him or His existence.

The fault lies in us, in our understanding of His purpose and in our expectations of what He will do.

At its most critical level, the solution to this prayer conundrum begins with the fact that God tells us to pray to Him. If we believe that He is reasonable and purposeful, we must conclude that He has determined that praying is meaningful and helpful to us. By itself, praying to God benefits us whether or not any of our requests are fulfilled. This has little to do with such things as whether we live longer or are healthier or happier because we pray. All things considered, God is less concerned with our length of days or our joie de vivre than He is with our eternal life and spiritual character, though He certainly wants us well and joyful. Therefore, the reason God commands us to pray to Him is fundamentally spiritual in nature and so the benefits of praying are also mostly spiritual.

Jesus teaches in John 17:3 that eternal life is knowing "the only true God, and Jesus Christ." This informs us, then, that true spirituality, true religion, revolves around a relationship with God the Father and His Son. Communication is vital to the success of any relationship, and prayer is fundamentally a form of communication. Through the sacrifice of our Savior and the facility of the Holy Spirit given to all true Christians, in prayer we have an open line of communication with the very God of the universe! Prayer allows us to maintain and deepen our relationship with our Father and Elder Brother despite the distance and the differences in our natures.

In addition, Jesus came to reveal the Supreme Being to mankind as a Father (John 1:18), and He instructs us to come before Him in prayer as children to their Father (Matthew 6:9). This sets the basic bounds of the relationship: of a loving, faithful Father to his obedient and adoring children. It is not a relationship of equals, nor is it a business partnership or trade association. It is a family relationship, in which God is the ultimate Superior and the other, the Christian, a humble subordinate. In all relationships of this kind, the will and purposes of the superior always take priority. As even Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, after asking for His cup of suffering and death to pass from Him, "Nevertheless, not My will, but Yours, be done" (Luke 22:42).

To summarize these factors:

  1. God's character is unimpeachable.
  2. God commands us to pray, so it must be for our good, first spiritually, then physically.
  3. God desires an intimate, eternal relationship with us, and prayer allows us to communicate with Him.
  4. God's relationship with us is as a loving but authoritative Father to His children.

These are not the only principles we need to understand about prayer, but they are among the most important. What do they imply?

First, prayer is not simply a means of getting things from God. In fact, if that is our approach to prayer, we are working counter to God's purpose for us, for He is trying to instill His giving, outgoing character in us. Until we change our motives for praying, we will find prayer to be frustrating and ineffective.

Second, prayer is just one facet of a far larger, spiritual relationship. It must be seen in its place in God's purpose in our lives. We may be praying from morning until night, but it will be just a string of empty words if we are not also conforming the rest of our lives to the will of God.

Third, prayer requires faith. The world's view of faith is cheap and simplistic, but biblical faith—real confidence in God's goodness toward us—is an essential part of Christian prayer. A Christian who prays in faith makes his petitions known to God and trusts that he is not only heard but answered to his ultimate good. Whether the answer is "positive" or "negative," he can smile and say, "What You decide on this request is the best for me right now."

This final point is what Paul concludes in Romans 8:23-30: God knows best what will bring us to eternal life and glory in His Kingdom. So, in the end, to those who know God, there really is no prayer conundrum. Our prayers are heard and answered, and all things will work out for the good of those whom God has chosen to have a loving relationship with Him.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Hijacking Our Language

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The English language is a huge, vibrant, beautiful tongue. No language on earth can compare to its breadth and depth. The definitive
Oxford English Dictionary, the unofficial but accepted authority on the language, lists and defines more than a half-million words, far more than any other language spoken today. Thousands of words are added each year through the coining of new words, the combining of old words, and the borrowing of foreign words, although the curmudgeonly among lexiphiles grumble about these additions, declaiming that the language already contains words that mean what the new words attempt to describe.

Far more pernicious, however, is the purposeful twisting of common words' meanings to fit and promote a particular political point of view. This came out during the recent debate over President Bush's deployment of 21,500 additional troops to Iraq. The Bush administration and its backers said this was a "surge" in troop levels, spinning the policy as a positive push to wrest control of the region from the insurgents and bring peace and victory.

Its opponents, however, described it using a different term: To them, it was an "escalation," bringing back long memories of a similar troop buildup in Vietnam—and of the disastrous results that ultimately followed. (It should be noted, however, that the additional soldiers in Vietnam did not cause the ignominious retreat from that country; it was a lack of political will to defeat the Viet-Cong.) The two sides have also volleyed the terms "withdrawal" and "redeployment," as well as "terrorist" and "insurgent," among others.

Another example of language abuse is the oft-heard term, "homophobe," used as a pejorative for anyone who opposes homosexuality. It is a total misnomer, as its intrinsic meaning is "fear of sameness" (homo- "same" + phobia "fear"). As can be easily seen, it is similar to words such as "arachnophobia" (fear of spiders), "altophobia" (fear of heights), and "xenophobia" (fear of strangers or foreigners). "Homophobia" has been hijacked by the liberal left and distorted to mean "hatred of homosexuals" in order to paint its opposition as irrational, untrustworthy, and even dangerous. Not content with morphing gay from "merry" to "homosexual," the left has violated the English language to its own debased ends.

Similarly, a further distortion of language has occurred with the usage of "tolerant" and its negative, "intolerant." In its original sense, tolerant means "inclined to forbear or endure," implying that a person would put up with something known to be morally wrong, dangerous, annoying, etc., for an indeterminate time. However, the word is now being used to mean "accepting without bias of what is different" or even "welcoming" of the same. The politically correct crowd demands that society "tolerate," not just cultural differences, but also sexual perversity and religious deception as if they were normal and morally equivalent to what is good and true. A person is considered "intolerant"—and likely to be ridiculed, hated, and perhaps persecuted—if he expresses any opinion that does not grant full normalcy to any unbiblical belief or deviant behavior, including pederasty, Wicca, terrorism, same-sex unions, children’s rights, Islam, feminism, or whatever the liberal cause of the week happens to be.

Speaking of belief, another word that is becoming warped is "fundamentalism." Originally, this word was coined to describe a twentieth-century Protestant movement that stressed a literal interpretation of Scripture as "fundamental to Christian life and teaching," as Webster's so succinctly phrases it. Although not Protestant, the church of God would generally agree with this approach. However, "fundamentalist" has been turned against those who practice fundamentalism, becoming a derogatory term meaning "fanatic, right-wing religious nut."

Incredible as it may seem, this definition has been helped along by the rise of Islamic terrorism. These terrible acts of violence have been perpetrated by Muslims adhering to Wahhabism, a literal, ultraconservative, and quite belligerent interpretation of the Koran. Rosie O'Donnell and others of her ilk have made ridiculous public statements in which Islamic fundamentalists and Christian fundamentalists are equated—as if Jerry Falwell has a global network of militant Christians devising havoc against innocent civilians throughout the Muslim world.

What is occurring to the English language recalls the prophet's cry in Isaiah 5:20, "Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!" The malicious alteration of language is one more black mark against a society descending rapidly toward a disastrous fall, weakened first by its own suicidal behavior before succumbing to its encircling enemies. Isaiah broadens the principle of distortion to include not just words but also morality, ideas, impressions, and even sensory perceptions. When black equals white in so many areas of human life, all distinctions disappear—and rather than the world coming together in bliss and harmony, it produces weakness and eventual dissolution. Such is the theme of the decline and fall of most of the great civilizations.

Words are important, for through them come all ideas, good or bad. In the end, they are but symbols whose meanings can often be distorted to suit intent of the author, and we need to be attentive to their use so that we are not deceived. Remember Jesus' first warning in the Olivet Prophecy: "Take heed that no one deceives you" (Matthew 24:4). In this day of politically correct language, it is very good advice.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Big-Picture Thinking

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It has become traditional as we flip our Gregorian calendars from December to January each year to assess the old year and resolve to amend our faults and shortcomings in the new. Unfortunately, the assessing has devolved into a series of meaningless "Best of" and "Worst of" lists, while the amending of our ways chiefly concerns foods we
love to eat, liquids we like to drink, weight we need to lose, and exercise we ought to do. As for real soul-searching and determination to improve one's character, for most that has passed from the scene with the dodo bird and the passenger pigeon.

In the church, we often relegate these exercises to the run-up to Passover, as we follow the dictate in II Corinthians 13:5 to examine ourselves. We consider our spiritual growth over the past year—or lack thereof—and resolve to pursue real change with zeal and humility. This is all to the good. As anyone who has ever tackled a long-term project knows, frequent evaluation and subsequent course-correction help to keep the project on track and focused on the goal. The process we are involved with in cooperation with the God of the universe is essentially the same with the exception that it is far more important.

Most of us, it seems, tend to approach this annual self-evaluation from a micro rather than macro perspective. In other words, we ignore the big questions of life to focus on the details of our personal circumstances. Instead of stepping back and trying to see how the whole fits together, we stoop down to examine the minutest pieces individually and separately. As Jesus instructed on an entirely different topic, "These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone" (Matthew 23:23).

This oft-repeated tendency is not surprising, since the world routinely takes the same path. It is, frankly, an offshoot of the selfishness, the self-centeredness, of human nature. We are so often involved in our own thoughts and feelings—all of the time, really—that we naturally gravitate toward I, me, and mine to the nth degree. And I, me, and mine so interest us that we are likely to pursue what we think is best for them with such attention and devotion that all else is diminished, ignored, or even forgotten as of little account. Thus, our age is marked with the stain of narcissism, and its blot has bled through into God’s church to no small extent.

A few decades ago, the church was frequently reminded of some of the big issues of life through the preaching of Herbert W. Armstrong. Each holy day, or at least each Feast of Tabernacles, he would force us to ask ourselves, "Why are we here?" He meant, not just "Why are we celebrating this holy time?" but also "Why do we exist?" "Why has God called us?" "Why have the events of our lives, ordained and manipulated by our sovereign God, brought us to this point?" "Where are we headed?" "Where does God want us to go, and what is He doing to get us there?" Too often, having heard the sermon many times before, we listened politely but took little of it to heart.

How true is the saying, "If you don't know where you're going, you'll probably end up somewhere else"! Pursuing the answers to the big questions should determine the goal. If we fail to revisit the overarching principles from time to time, we are liable to stray from the most direct course toward their achievement. Once we begin to wander from the path, sin—missing the mark—enters into the picture.

In Old Testament times, God commanded Israel to do certain things so that they would remember that they were part of a people who had made a covenant with God and that this agreement constrained them to live differently than all other peoples on earth. For instance, God ordered the people to wear tassels on the corners of their garments to remember who they were, how they were to behave, and who was their God:

Speak to the children of Israel: Tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a blue thread in the tassels of the corners. And you shall have the tassel, that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the LORD and do them, and that you may not follow the harlotry to which your own heart and your own eyes are inclined, and that you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy for your God. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the LORD your God. (Numbers 15:38-41)

Under the New Covenant, Christians are not required to do this, but the principle it expresses is still apropos. We need to be reminded frequently to take a step back, to remember our place and mission before God, and to evaluate how well we have followed His lead. This points out the tragedy in the loss of the Sabbath in the Christianity of this world, for though Christians do not have to wear tassels, the fourth commandment reads, "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy" (Exodus 20:8). The Sabbath day is a weekly reminder of God, His creation (both the physical creation and the ongoing spiritual creation), His holiness, and our participation with Him in His plan. These are all big-picture items.

Once each year is not enough to evaluate our course. God provides us an opportunity once each week to do some big-picture thinking, to take a measurement and re-orient our prow toward the one point on the horizon that will bring us to our predetermined destination, the Kingdom of God.