Pastoral Issues

The Struggle of Prayer (3)

In the last book he wrote, C.S. Lewis made this observation:

To confess our sins before God is certainly to tell Him what He knows much better than we. And also, any petition is a kind of telling. If it does not strictly exclude the principle that God knows our need, it at least seems to elicit His attention. Some traditional formulae make that implication very clear: “Hear us, good Lord” – …As if, though God does not need to be informed, He does need, and even rather frequently, to be reminded. But we cannot really believe that degrees of attention, and therefore of inattention, and therefore of something like forgetfulness, exist in the Divine mind. I assume that only God’s attention keeps me (or anything else) in existence at all.” – C. S. Lewis, Letters To Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, 20.

The question being posed by Lewis is the seeming contradiction between God’s attribute of omniscience, His knowledge of all conceivable things, and our praying to Him. After all, why do we have to inform God of what He already knows? I think this question rears its head often in Christians’ minds. Why “go through the motions?”  What is God up to?

The answer Lewis supplies is that although God’s knowledge of us doesn’t change, “the quality of our being known can.” He explains what he means by adding, “By unveiling, by confessing our sins and ‘making known’ our requests, we assume the high rank of persons before Him. And He, becomes a Person to us.” – Ibid, 21.

It is this very personal aspect of prayer which is so crucial but is so often overlooked or minimized. We rush to tell God of our troubles and our needs (or those of others), and in our hurry we neglect to contemplate just to Whom we come. This neglect of the Person of God, of God’s personal character, in large part accounts for our struggles with prayer.


If I may offer a scenario:  Have we not found ourselves in a check-out line but in a hurry to get home or get to an event. We get to the conveyor and the lady at the register has to change the spool. More and more our impatience grows, and by the time we have slid our card and pressed out our pin number, our focus is all on ourselves, our shopping bags, and our state of urgency. And in our haste we do not give the person behind the register hardly any notice. We use them but we don’t pay attention to them.

Perhaps this scenario rings true with you? I introduce it to try to illustrate how we can pray to God without paying attention to God. We talk to God but we don’t really talk to God. Moreover, as Lewis stated above, prayer humanizes us when we come to our God in the right way. Therefore we might say, in our sojourn within this evil realm the Father has given us prayer to relate to Him in a living and dynamic way, so that in its practice we rise above what we otherwise would be as His children in the world.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us, “do not be like them [the world]; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” – Matt. 6:8. He is speaking about transparency before God in contrast to the hypocritical practices of the religious leaders. This openness, this sincerity in our worship, is what God is looking for, and it is exemplified in the famous advice which follows:

“Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name. 10 ‘Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. 11 ‘Give us this day our daily bread. 12 ‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 ‘And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.’ – Matt. 6:9-13.

The very first thing Jesus enjoins upon us in our prayer-lives is mindfulness. Mindfulness of to Whom it is we come. The first two lines of this prayer outline center, not upon us or our predicaments and needs, but God Himself. This brings us back to the question posed previously: if God knows what we need already, why prayer? My answer to that particular question is this: prayer makes us what we ought to be in this world. It makes us actively dependent upon the Triune God. And that dependence, once coupled together with our love and appreciation for Him, lifts us up to a new dignity in ongoing relationship between us, the creature, and God our Creator.

Part Three

The Struggle of Prayer (2)

a. The first voice of the creature

The first thing that prayer is is communication with God.  If language is a gift of God then prayer is, or ought to be, the first or primary use of language.  As such it is the first voice of the creature, whether audible or in silence; speaking to the Creator.  As such it is never speaking to some “god,” but is always speaking to THE God.  If in no other way (and I do not say there are not other ways) this is what sets true prayer apart from false prayer.  False prayer is a counterfeit because the god to whom it is offered is a counterfeit.  Do we offer up pleas and praise to a divinity who smiles sedately upon all our trivial worship styles and our romanticized views of the Christian Life?  That is not God.  Do we pray to a cold, distant, offended deity, who moodily withholds answers because he is upset with us even after we have repented?  Then our prayers are directed to a false god – one of our imagining.

In either of these scenarios it is ignorance which is the problem.  And here I am addressing people with a Bible and a profession of faith in Jesus Christ.  I say it again, true prayer can only be given to the true God; the God who reveals Himself in His holy Word.

We have already seen from Exodus 34 how God, even on Mount Sinai on the day the Tablets of the Law were cut, first proclaims those qualities of His essential goodness which promote our sanguine hope:

“compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; 7 who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin.” 

This is a God to whom we can come with eyes open and hopes raised.  Let us be encouraged.  This is the covenant God of hesed – of steadfast devotion to us; sinners in a fallen world.

It is not impious to say plainly that unless God were like this it would be pointless to pray to Him.  Our attempts to converse with Him would dry up in despair of receiving anything but a steely glare from the place where we least wish find it.  As Owen rightly says.

This legal diffidence and distrust in our approaches unto God, which shuts up the heart, straitens the spirit, and takes away the liberty of treating with him as a father, is now by Christ removed and taken away…From an apprehension of God’s greatness and terror there arises a dread in persons under the law; and from the consideration of their own vileness there arises a distrust in sinners, accompanied with fear and despondency, as though there were no hope for them in him or with them.  This also the apostle would remove, upon the account of the priesthood of Christ. – John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Vol. IV, 429-430.

We see God in the work of Jesus Christ for us!

Here is God:  The LORD is good to all, And His tender mercies are over all His works. – Psa 145:9


God looks down upon what He has made with beneficence.  He calls the world as it is an evil world, but He has not turned His back upon it: He values it; He loves it still.  How much more does God care for those made in his image?  And how much more than that is God well disposed to those who are renewed in the image of His Son?  If His “tender mercies” are over the creation, we ought to confidently persuade ourselves that we can indeed come boldly before the throne of grace at any time.

Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. – Matt. 11:28


In this evil world we cannot find rest from anything in the world.  But we can find it in the One who made it and who watches over it.  He knows our frame; that we often are weary and heavy laden.  Our world is never going to be right – not until it is Christ’s world, with Christ Himself governing it in uprightness and equity and peace.  God having left us to shine in this world for a time understands that it will “get to us” and He has ordained prayer so that we can transcend this realm in relationship and experience and reality.

Although I shall return to the subject, it should be emphatically stated that there is a great difference between the head and the heart in matters of prayer.  I don’t say the head is not involved.  I shall insist that it must be.  But where the heart and soul are uninvolved, we are not praying.

Bishop Ryle said it well:

The great point is this, – whether you can speak to God as well as speak about God.” –  J. C. Ryle, Practical Religion, 68. 

And how can we speak to God if we do not contemplate who He is?

He is a “Come unto Me” God!  That is why prayer exists!

He is an “I will give” God.  That too is why prayer exists!

Next installment…

The Struggle of Prayer (1)

 My title is taken from Donald Bloesch’s book, which is one of the best books on the subject.  I want to mention here that in my view the best book on prayer is either Prayer by John Bunyan, or How to Pray by R. A. Torrey.   Both books get to the heart of what it is to pray, though Torrey hits the nail on the head more quickly than the great Puritan.

a. Just what is Prayer?

Prayer is the most important aspect of the Christian’s daily life.  Above all else we should be praying Christians.   I do not pretend to know all its mysteries, nor indeed do I think we need such information in order to pray.  I do not understand how my computer works, but that does not stop me from typing out this meditation on it!  God has not whisked us off to heaven the moment He saved us.  He has left us to represent Him in “this present evil world” (Gal. 1:2); at least for a time.

Since we remain here and are not immediately in God’s heavenly presence, our communication with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit cannot be like our communications with other people.  When conversing with others we can hear their voice or read their words directed to us.  There is a clear sense of reciprocation based upon sight and sound.  But God has not called us to walk by sight, but by faith.  Faith does not have five senses to tell us we’re in contact.  Rather, faith trusts, and prayer articulates that trust in its constant reaching out to the God who is there.

b. The Character of God

The kind of trust which faith exercises depends upon the understanding of God we have before our minds-eye.  God’s character is holy, just, gracious, loving, faithful, and true. He deigns to call us His children in Christ.  We must always have this in mind when we pray.  We pray to a good God, and it is He who has ordained prayer.  Prayer is a gift of God.

Because these things are true all our petitions to the throne of grace must be brought with thanksgiving.  We must always acknowledge the great character of the Lord when we come before Him.

C. H. Spurgeon said,

“This blending of thanks with devotion is always to be maintained. Always must we offer prayer and supplication with thanksgiving. No matter though the prayer should struggle upward out of the depths, yet must its wings be silvered o’er with thanksgiving. Though the prayer were offered upon the verge of death, yet in the last few words which the trembling lips can utter there should be notes of gratitude as well as words of petition. The law saith: “With all thy sacrifices thou shalt offer salt;” and the gospel says with all thy prayers thou shalt offer praise. “One thing at a time” is said to be a wise proverb, but for once I must venture to contradict it, and say two things at a time are better, when the two are prayer and thanksgiving. These two holy streams flow from one common source, the Spirit of life which dwells within us; and they are utterances of the same holy fellowship with God; and therefore it is right that they should mingle as they flow, and find expression in the same holy exercise.” – Sermon: Prayer Perfumed with Praise

In Exodus 34:4-9, when Moses is told to come up Mount Sinai, we read,

“So he cut out two stone tablets like the former ones, and Moses rose up early in the morning and went up to Mount Sinai, as the LORD had commanded him, and he took two stone tablets in his hand. 5 And the LORD descended in the cloud and stood there with him as he called upon the name of the LORD. 6 Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; 7 who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” 8 And Moses made haste to bow low toward the earth and worship. 9 And he said, “If now I have found favor in Thy sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go along in our midst, even though the people are so obstinate; and do Thou pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us as Thine own possession.”

The Lord God who makes the covenant with Moses proclaims His own name to the prophet.  Look again at verses 6 and 7.  What wonderful attributes these are!  How they encourage us to approach Him.  Prayer “works” because this is who God is!  But notice the reaction of Moses.  He quickly worships God.  Doubtless there was praise involved, since what is worship without praise to God?  But then he asks God for what he wants, and what he wants is for God Himself to go with Israel. (more…)

Review: “Counseling the Hard Cases,” (eds) Stuart Scott & Heath Lambert

Review of Counseling the Hard Cases: True Stories Illustrating the Sufficiency of God’s Resources in Scripture, by Stuart Scott and Heath Lambert, editors, Nashville: B&H Publishers, 2012, xv + 308pp., hdbk, $32.99. 

This book is a much needed fillip to those of us who try falteringly to help hurting people by pointing them back to Christ and His Word.  There are many resources now available to the biblical counselor to guide him or her in their attempts to become better and more effective at what they do, but I know of no resource of case studies to compare with this one.  Although the book deals with “Crisis” cases, the principles given out are applicable to every situation.

The book has an introduction, eleven chapters, and conclusion.  Each chapter is written by a seasoned biblical counselor.  All the contributors consent in pointing to the solutions residing in the Bible and the Christ of the Bible.  Much stress is laid upon the giving and sustaining of hope to counselees, and many of the authors say that, unlike the aloofness recommended in secular therapy, the biblical counselor cannot do their ministry aright if they do not openly sympathize with the counselee, or on occasion even share their own struggles to obey God.

The Introduction by Heath Lambert provides a strong foundation in the doctrine of the Sufficiency of Scripture.  I was very pleased that this subject was not consigned to a short preface but got full treatment at the head of the case studies (many of the authors subsequently reiterate this central theme).  Lambert also takes the opportunity to outline the book’s purpose and use.

The first writer up is Laura Hendriksen, writing about a particularly distressing case involving sustained parental abuse.  “Mariana” was the product of her grandfather’s rape of her mother.  She was rejected by her mother and given to her father as a sex object when she was only seven years old (26).  Not only did she have to endure the continual sexual abuse of the father, but her troubles were compounded by the mother who hated her and abused her emotionally and physically.  One can hardly imagine what it would be like to live with such ongoing wickedness from early childhood into young adulthood.  How does Dr. Hendriksen describe her encounters with Mariana?  Well, there is no simplistic and sentimental treatment to be found.

Indeed, one of the refreshing things about this book is the way the writers admonish the reader of the need to treat each case with the seriousness it deserves.  Hendriksen recalls the failure and harmful effects of psychologists’ advice (27f.), including unreliable attempts to evoke “lost” memories (31), and the well-meaning but ill-informed help from friends.  Her prolonged counseling eventually, by God’s grace, enabled Mariana to overcome the devices and victim-mentality she had developed (and in some cases been encouraged to develop), and which were destroying her and her marriage.

The importance of sound doctrine, of reminding the counselee of what is true about Christ and what is true about them, comes through again and again in this chapter (e.g. 32, 36, 38, 44).  It is almost worth the price of the book alone.

Steve Viars writes the next chapter on “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.”  When he drives his car “Brian” will not turn left.  Viars relates competent biblical counseling to thorough data-gathering (69), and whole-person ministry (70).  He says, “I often start with what is occurring emotionally because that is where people in crisis are living” (71).  That is a wise observation.  Emotions are not guides to truth, but they are a place to start and move back towards the problem from.  Through listening intently Viars discovered that Brian’s bizarre behavior was a kind of self-inflicted punishment to atone for the sin of lust.  Not that Brian understood his behavior that way; Viars had to make the connection.  Once the sin was uncovered, steps toward repentance could be taken (74, 82).  (more…)

The Maxims of Leonard Ravenhill

The link above is to David Bercot’s short Bio of the Evangelist Leonard Ravenhill.  We have been reading his book Why Revival Tarries at our midweek study.  Though somewhat dated and not always in line with my own theology, this work always stirs up my spiritual torpor and makes me feel uncomfortable.  I need that!

Ravenhill lived in Lindale, TX in the last years of his life.  Once a month I take a Bible Study in nearby Mineola, and have to pass through Lindale on the way.    I often think about him when I drive through that little town, as I did this past Tuesday.  Anyway, I thought I would reproduce Bercot’s list of memorable sayings of this man of God.  They are as direct as they are edifying.

He writes,

One of Leonard’s gifts was his ability to spontaneously create insightful spiritual maxims as he spoke. These were short, memorable observations about God, the church, and the world. I always took a notebook with me to these meetings to write down some of his observations and maxims. Here are some of Leonard’s spiritual insights from those meetings:

“A popular evangelist reaches your emotions. A true prophet reaches your conscience.”

“The last words of Jesus to the church (in Revelation) were ‘Repent!’”

“A true shepherd leads the way. He does not merely point the way.”

“You never have to advertise a fire. Everyone comes running when there’s a fire. Likewise, if your church is on fire, you will not have to advertise it. The community will already know it.”

“Your doctrine can be as straight as a gun barrel—and just as empty!”

“John the Baptist never performed any miracles. Yet, he was greater than any of the Old Testament prophets.”

“I doubt that more than two percent of professing Christians in the United States are truly born again.”

“Our God is a consuming fire. He consumes pride, lust, materialism, and other sin.”

“There are only two kinds of persons: those dead in sin and those dead to sin.”

[Concerning the darkness that has enveloped most of Christendom:] “When you’re sitting in a dark room, you can either sit and curse the darkness—or you can light a candle.”

“Children can tell you what Channel 7 says, but not what Matthew 7 says.”

“Some women will spend thirty minutes to an hour preparing for church externally (putting on special clothes and makeup, etc.). What would happen if we all spent the same amount of time preparing internally for church—with prayer and meditation?”

“Maturity comes from obedience, not necessarily from age.”

“What good does it do to speak in tongues on Sunday if you have been using your tongue during the week to curse and gossip?”

“Would we send our daughters off to have sex if it would benefit our country? Yet, we send our sons off to kill when we think it would benefit our country!”

“The only time you can really say that ‘Christ is all I need,’ is when Christ is all you have.”

“The Bible is either absolute, or it’s obsolete.”

“Why do we expect to be better treated in this world than Jesus was?”

“Today’s church wants to be raptured from responsibility.”

“Testimonies are wonderful. But, so often our lives don’t fit our testimonies.”

[Concerning one of the new “movements” in the church that was causing a stir among Christians:] “There’s also a stir when the circus comes to town.”

“My main ambition in life is to be on the Devil’s most wanted list.” (more…)

Timely Thoughts on ‘Survivor Blogs’

Fred Butler has been writing some good stuff about Christian ‘Survivor Blogs.’  He is not without sympathy for those who have been on the wrong end of overbearing pastors who “lord in over the sheep,” in contravention of 1 Peter 5.  I myself have suffered at the hands of proud, control-freaks in ministry (twice), and I have counseled several couples who have been battered and bruised by Christian “leadership.”  It happens far too often, and these men will answer for it.

But anyone who has counseled biblically (and there are lots of Christians who don’t), knows the watchword of Biblical Counseling:

The first one to plead his cause seems right, Until his neighbor comes and examines him. – Prov. 18:17

This important truth is the reason why it is unwise to follow survivor blogs.  Another reason, as Fred brings out, is that they are frankly mostly void of redeeming and spiritual qualities.  Whether we have been hurt or not, we are under obligation to react properly in a Christ-like way.

Here is the post:

Beth Moore and Spiritual Dumpster-Diving

The link above goes to Chris Rosebrough’s “Fighting for the Faith” radio program.  It’s worthwhile dropping by there once in a while to see what’s going on in the crazy world that is “American Evangelicalism.”  Recently, for example, Rosebrough and a friend were escorted out of Elephant Room 2 before even getting a chance to sit down.  It seems some of the elephants didn’t want Rosebrough in the room!

Anyway, this piece is about the nonsense regularly spewed out on the unwary by Beth Moore.  Moore has one of those annoying but inevitable “I wanna tell ya, Girl” fast-action deliveries which, for reasons which elude me, many find spiritually authoritative.  She is incredibly “me-centered” and incredibly successful and incredibly wrong!  Here she twists a passage from Hebrews 10 out of all recognition.  She uses it to get her listeners to rescue their lost self-confidence out of the dumpster.   In reality, this rubbish belongs there!

LISTEN and learn.

Dan Phillips reviews MLJ’s “Spiritual Depression”

Dan Phillips has been getting a few mentions here recently, but I couldn’t refrain from recommending to you his review of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s Spiritual Depression; a book which has had a huge influence on me.

First, like Dan, this book gave me solid meaty counsel when I was depressed (for many years).  It gave me more than a few fluffy proof-texts and made me see that God knows!

Second, it showed me how powerfully the Bible could be expounded and preached.

I highly recommend anyone who has not read this book to buy it and read it!

James MacDonald’s Resignation – D. Phillips

I regard myself as pretty old school.  I don’t much care for the evangelicalism of the 21st Century.  I feel much more at home with D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones or J. C. Ryle than I do with John Piper and Wayne Grudem.  I know many people don’t see much of a difference, but I believe (like Peter Masters) that Lloyd-Jones and Ryle would.

For one thing there is the charismatic emphasis: something older evangelicals would have had no truck with.  Then there is the lack of discernment, the stress upon experience, the vulgarity of some YRR leaders, and the cult of personality and its horrid attendant, the publishing prostitute.  Then there is the seeming underhand Calvinizing going on in the SBC (I would find Arminianizing just as objectionable).

The problem has once again been highlighted with Reformed scholar Michael Sudduth’s defection to, of all things, Hare Krishna!  And still more telling of the state of much evangelicalism today is the kerfuffle surrounding the resignation of Pastor James MacDonald from The Gospel Coalition.

I regard myself as several removes away from MacDonald and his ministry, and I believe older evangelicals would too.  If you want a little insight into why I say that, you ought to read Dan Phillips’ thoughts on MacDonald’s resignation.  Dan has his own opinions and he does not necessarily agree with everything I’ve just said.  But I really like this piece.

Dan Phillips: Even Better Than The Race Card {tm}

Review: “Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites” by Bradley Wright

Review of Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…and Other Lies You’ve Been Told, by Bradley R. E. Wright, PhD, Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010, 249 pages, pbk

I am not one to read many books written by sociologists.  The occasional work by Os Guinness and the obligatory few by Peter Berger are about it.  I recall breezing through one of Barna’s books about ten years back.  Quite honestly, though such reading has been profitable, I have come away wondering just how much I could trust the work I had just read.

So when a friend gave me Bradley Wright’s book to read, I wondered whether I would ever get around to it.  Well, a gap in my schedule opened up and I cracked it open.  And I have to say, I’m glad I did.  I found the book at once diverting, encouraging and informative. Wright writes about statistics, but it’s not a big yawn.  There are a few good reasons for this.  Firstly, the author has a sense of humor.  This winsomeness is enhanced with many examples of self-deprecation, such as the inclusion of an 80’s photograph of himself with the comment: “There I am on the right, with a scowl, longish hair, and a disco-print shirt.  Now look closely at that picture – do you think the adults of that generation had any faith in the future based on teens like us?” (59-60).

The book is an agreeable conversation all the way through.  Yet it is more than that.  It is also a serious bit of scholarship by an expert in the field based upon the best sources.  No wonder it carries some impressive endorsements by Rodney Stark, Philip Jenkins and others.  Wright tells his readers something about good and bad statistics, and lets them know where he’s getting his information from.  He has some words of criticism for popular pollsters and certain Christian writers who paint a dreary outlook for evangelical Christianity based on less than stellar research.  His own research gives the lie to many of the common myths about Christian declension that have been doing the rounds.  He writes,

Essentially, people who associate themselves with Christianity, as compared to the religiously unaffiliated, are more likely to have faithful marriages, commit less crime, interact honestly with others, and get into as much trouble with drugs or alcohol.  What’s more, the more committed Christians are to their faith, as measured by church attendance, the greater the impact the church’s teachings seem to have on their lives. (152).

The chapters in the book address topics of interest and importance to believers.  They bear such titles as, “Is American Christianity on the Brink of Extinction?”; “Are Evangelicals All Poor, Uneducated, Southern Whites?”; and “What Do Non-Christians Think of Us?”  These questions are answered with historical and demographic data, which make it extremely helpful for pastors.  Add to this the fact that Wright sees no good reason, if his statistics mean anything, to sound the death-knell of evangelicalism, and the book may be a bit of a tonic for those in ministry who are feeling increasingly embattled by the onset of secularism and relativism.  The news is not as grim as we have been told.  

Another commendable thing about this author is that  he doesn’t go in for extrapolation.  He just repeats his findings.  But on the whole he believes the church is not doing too badly at all.  Indeed, even when it comes to the worrying question about the youth in the church, Wright gives evangelicalism a B- and not an F.  

An interesting factoid which emerged from Wright’s research is that the name “Evangelical” conjures up more negative vibe among unbelievers than, say, the word “Baptist.”  I’m not sure what one would do with a fact like that, but it might give some Christians pause if they are thinking of following the trend of taking the word “Baptist” out of their church name.

I shall not report on the author’s specific findings because I want you to buy the book and read it for yourself.  Perhaps it will encourage you as it did me.  I only wish I had picked the book up before giving some talks recently in which I dispensed some of the bad news about the demise of the church in America and the defection of our young people from their Christian upbringings!  We live and learn.

What he does confirm is that the most likely place to come across intolerance and animus against evangelical Christianity is among college and university faculty.  No surprise there, but it’s nice to have the feeling confirmed by the evidence.

This book will not stop me from bewailing the state of our churches and its shepherds: social science does not present us with the whole picture.  And Wright himself does not say that the picture is very rosy in some important areas such as our tolerance of others, and the  issue of race.  But at least I shall not feel as free to “prove” the general declension via poorly gathered research.  And I take comfort in Wright’s reportage of an evangelicalism that is not quite the imploding phenomenon I have been believing it was!