Prayer: Resigned and Stubborn

Matthew 5Writing on prayer is not a task lightly undertaken, mostly because it might give the impression that I believe my own prayer life is impressive or worth imitating. I do not think it is either of those things. But in my own Christian life and meditation on Scripture, I have learnt that our attitude towards prayer should reflect a biblical antinomy, which J. I. Packer defines as an unavoidable and insoluble tension between two undeniable truths. What is this antinomy? It is that God invites us to pray boldly yet in humility, or as my title states, resigned to his sovereignty yet stubbornly imploring him to answer our pleas.

Both of these approaches are present in the book of James. In James 1 we are called to ask God for wisdom so that we might persevere in steadfast faith through trials; there is no promise these will be removed for God uses them to mature us. On the other hand, we are told that our Father is generous (1:5), giving perfect gifts to his children (1:17), so we must ask him without doubting (1:6). We might contrast the two biblical characters employed by James to further his point: firstly, James tells those who suffer to imitate Job, remembering that the Lord is compassionate and merciful even when we are enduring testing and hardship (5:11); secondly, Elijah is presented in relation to prayer for he fervently prayed against rain for over 3 years and then God watered the earth when Elijah prayed for the draught to end (5:17-18). Below I will explore these two biblical attitudes towards prayer.

Prayer should be resigned

Book of JamesSt Bernard of Clairvaux, a French monk from the 12th century, has written a short devotional work titled, The Steps of Humility and Pride. Naturally, the discipline of prayer can be found under the subsection on humility. He says the Christian is called to a “spirit of obedience”, patiently enduring hardship and discerning God’s will. Citing John 2, when Mary informs Jesus that the wine is finished, Bernard points to Mary’s approach, which demonstrates devout humility in seeking Jesus’ will rather than the testing his power. Now you may or may not agree with Bernard’s exegesis, but in the same section he writes this: “We prefer to wait patiently for his will rather than daringly to demand what may not be his pleasure to give. In the end our modesty may perhaps gain for us immeasurably more than we deserve.” There is great wisdom that ought to be heeded in Bernard’s writing, for God gives according to his pleasure and will, not ours. Therefore, our prayers must be humbly resigned as hearts full of faith rest in their Father who knows infinitely better than his children.

Prayer should be stubborn

There are numerous places in Scripture where bold and persistent prayer is mentioned (Luke 11:8; Acts 12:5; 1 Thessalonians 3:10; 1 Peter 3:12; 1 John 5:16), but let us turn again to James “You do not have, because you do not ask” (4:2). One of the problems experienced in the church James wrote to was what Motyer calls “the deadly sin of inconsistency”. This was manifest throughout their lives as the letter attests but specifically, for our purposes, affected their prayer lives. Earlier James says Christians must approach God in faith, without doubting or double-mindedness (1:5-8). When they brought their requests before God they were to do so in confidence, assured that their God is powerfully present and attentive to their needs. Expectant petition can appear impious, but as D. A. Carson reminds us, in The Call to Spiritual Reformation: “[It] honours him because he is a God who likes to give his blessings in response to the intercession of his people.” Remember Paul’s words to the Ephesians, ‘In Christ we have boldness and access with confidence through faith’.

Christians, who prayer regularly should struggle with this biblical antinomy, these apparently conflicting attitudes that God expects from us, as we bring our petitions and intercessions to him. However, far from discouraging prayer they should both ease our anxieties embolden our faith.

The Horse and His Boy: Having Faith when it is Hard

CS Lewis - NarniaThe Horse and his Boy is my favourite of the series, but also many people’s least. This is due to a few reasons, of which I will highlight just two: most seriously the charge of racism; and, from a literary point of view, its marginal overlap with the rest of the series. But we must remember the metanarrative of Narnia, which Alister McGrath says is set between two great “advents”, the past redemption (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardobe) and future restoration (The Last Battle). Recalling our point from The Magician’s Nephew, that C. S. Lewis invites readers to inhabit and experience the Christian story, The Horse and his Boy explores the tension of living between Aslan’s first and last coming in a world beset by evil and characters burdened by doubt.

CS Lewis - NarniaThe first character we will explore is the Horse, Breehy-hinny-brinny-hoohy-hah, better known as Bree. Bree grew up in Calormen and lived as an enslaved warhorse. Though he longs for the North and freedom, he has much to learn. His strength, military success, and self-assured confidence make him the natural leader in the journey northward, but also cause him to be full of hubris. Towards the end of the narrative, his pride threatens to keep him from Narnia; Hwin realises Bree is apprehensive about venturing beyond the Southern March because his tail is damaged (p298). After their flight, Bree grieved his cowardice in the pursuit that saw him abandon the party for safety (p275). He concludes that he is disgraced and unfit for Narnia, but the Hermit incisively addresses Bree’s problem, “You’ve lost nothing but your self-conceit…You’re not quite the great Horse you had come to think…as long as you know you’re nobody special, you’ll be a very decent sort of Horse”. Aslan punctures our self-confidence; Bree had to learn that we are all unfit to approach Aslan, and abandon acceptability on his own terms. He needed to hear Aslan’s comforting invitation, full of tenderness, “You poor, proud frightened Horse, draw near. Nearer still, my son. Do not dare not to dare” (p299).

CS Lewis - NarniaThe second character I will unpack is the Boy, Shasta. One might call him the unlikely hero for, unlike Bree, he is unimpressive and by far the least imposing of the travelling party. However, there is a lesson to be learnt from this observation. As Shasta plods along the misty and frigid mountain pass, Aslan walks alongside and speaks with him. Shasta is miserable and lost, “Being very tired and having nothing inside him, he felt so sorry for himself that the tears rolled down his cheeks” (p280). But Aslan tells Shasta that he was the one behind all of his misfortune and terrible luck (p281). When Shasta returns across the treacherous path, with the Archenlanders, he reflects on his conversation with Aslan, “I was quite safe. That is why the Lion kept on my left. He was between me and the edge all the time” (p290). This realisation, I think, is indicative of Shasta’s entire life, for Aslan was always with him in the confusing cloud, guiding the events in order to bring him back to Narnia, and himself. Reflecting on this brought another of C. S. Lewis’ works to mind, in Perelandra we read, “God can make good use of all that happens. But the loss is real.” Shasta’s life is full of unfortunate happenings, yet he is the unlikely hero, for unknown to him Aslan is mightily at work in his world to make all things right.

A repeated motif in Lewis’ narrative is Aslan’s insistence on telling the characters their story and no one else’s. In To the One who Conquers, Sam Storms reflects on how the biblical story has a remarkable capacity to challenge and overcome our misconceptions about who we are. Bree revealed the common combination of pride and guilt; he needed to learn that belonging to Aslan he could neither earn his place in Narnia nor  jeopordise his security. Shasta, on the other hand, could not believe that the many misfortunes of his life would end in anything but tragedy, because he was unaware of the sovereign and loving presence of Aslan who worked through all things to bring him closer to himself. Aslan is the person in whom all stories connect, but everyone needs to approach him as they are, alone.

The Epistle of James: Wisdom and Works

Martin-Luther-SketchFor whatever reason, perhaps stemming from Martin Luther calling it a ‘right strawy epistle’, James is not a book many Christians are familiar with. If you know anything about James then you have most likely heard it called the ‘Proverbs of the New Testament’. However this is not necessarily a kind comparison, since anyone who has studied Proverbs probably found the book dislocated and quite perplexing. Added to this proverbial nature, James draws dangerously close to the ‘Papist heresy’ of self-merited righteousness: justification is by works, not faith alone (2:24), much to Luther’s distaste. But cleverly tying these two issues together, Graeme Goldsworthy offers a clear way forward, in Gospel & Wisdom: James is concerned with the wisdom of old, which comes from God and shows itself in a good life; wisdom is both a gift for and expectation of the community of faith. So in this post I want to explore the idea of James as wisdom literature and how the emphasis on both wisdom and works fits with salvation by faith.

In an overview of James, Daniel Akin provides a very helpful definition of wisdom: seeing the world from God’s perspective. In order for us to become “mature and complete, lacking in nothing” we need wisdom from God (1:4-5). As Christians endure their fallen world the wise Christian recognises that suffering produces steadfast faith (1:2-3), wealth and comfort will fade (1:11), and those who remain faithful to the end will receive the crown of life (1:12). A sure faith, without doubting or double-mindedness, approaches the only wise God and petitions for wisdom not merely to persevere through trials but also to perceive the ruined creation as God does, awaiting its glorious restoration. And the community of faith are the “firstfruits” of that recreation (1:18).

Bible Black and WhiteAlong with praying for wisdom, we are also told to practice not manmade religion but the pure religion of God our Father (1:26-27), which produces the righteousness of God in our lives (1:20). Therefore our faith must be shaped by listening to God’s word, which is able to save our souls (1:21), and becoming a community of faith characterised by obedience to God’s words (1:22-25). Wise faith that comes from enacting God’s words, as well as prayerfully acquiring God’s view of wealth and poverty (1:9-11), will be impartial towards those who poor in the eyes of the world, remembering that only those who are rich in faith will receive the kingdom (2:1-7). Thus mistreatment and calloused apathy towards the impoverished and disenfranchised might reveal that our faith is dead (2:17). The lives of Abraham (2:21-24) and Rahab (2:25) demonstrate saving faith that justifies, since living faith will result in works of righteousness (2:26).

Following on from James’ contrast between God-given faith and manmade religion, he further develops this point in showing two kinds of wisdom: earthly, unspiritual wisdom (3:15-16; 2:5) and “wisdom from above” (3:17-18; 1:5). The former causes disorder and disharmony while the latter creates peace. In the context of 3:1-12, James’ most renowned passage, scrutinising our tongues, the obvious link to make is this: God’s gift of wisdom is closely tied to how people speak. The untameable tongue is destructive, harmfully effective despite its size. So, as James says earlier, we should be quick to hear and slow to speak (1:19). This is wisdom. Furthermore, living faith that is seen in wise living will be exhibited as we are peaceable, gentle, open to reason, and full of mercy (3:17). On the other hand, earthly wisdom is revealed in jealousy and one-upmanship (3:16), tongues that bless God yet curse people (3:9-10). And as James says, “My brothers, these things ought not to be so.”

Considering the preceding chapter, we already know the answers to James’ questions in 4:1. It is worldliness, or earthly wisdom (3:16), that causes quarrels, fracturing the community of faith. So his repeated exhortation is towards humility (4:6-7). In some ways this section, specifically 4:4, presents the reader with an ultimatum: friendship with the world or God. Abraham, “who was called a friend of God,” possessed saving faith and godly fear or wisdom (2:22-23). Friendship with the world on the other hand, is evidenced by what Peter H. Davids calls the uncompromising desire to get ahead. It is proud and presumptuous (4:13-16), forgetting that all of us are nothing but a momentary mist (4:14), a wildflower beneath the scorching sun (1:10-11). Humility is a mark of biblical faith, wisdom gained from the vantage point of God’s grace towards those in the community of faith. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (4:10).

jobFinally, in 5:1, 3, 6, 9, and 12 (also see 2:12-13; 4:12) we are admonished to consider that our fleeting lives are carried out before the returning Christ, to whom all hearts are open. This signifies judgment for those who have lived as if Christ is not their impartial Lord, arrogantly presuming upon their wealth and status (5:1-6); on the other hand, it will result in vindication for the steadfast, the innocent sufferers, as in the case of Job and the Lord’s prophets (5:7-11; 1:4, 12). The latter group illustrate wisdom, similar to the farmer, in observing the “firstfruits” of restoration in their own lives and the life of the Christian community (1:18), patiently waiting for the Judge who is standing at the door (5:9). Coming full circle, wisdom is marked by prayerful faith that without doubt or double-mindedness commits all things to the Lord (5:13-18; 1:4-8). If we claim to belong to the community of faith then there must be evidence of it: godly wisdom and good works that necessarily entail saving faith.

We started with a helpful suggestion from Goldsworthy, that James deserves its comparisons with Old Testament wisdom due to the book consistently drawing the link between the good life (or godly wisdom) and the gift of faith. In closing I want to tie this point in with another made by John Calvin (in his commentary on James). Drawing comparisons between wisdom literature and the Psalms he writes: “the former was intent on forming the outward man and teaching the precepts of civil life, the latter spoke continually of the spiritual worship of God, peace of conscience, God’s mercy and gratuitous promise of salvation. But this diversity should not make us to approve of one, and to condemn the other.” James certainly emphasises “the outward man”, godly lives and wise living, but this accentuation is grounded in a biblical and saving faith.

Urinal Art & T-Shirt Preaching

Duchamp's FountainIf there’s any piece of art that typifies postmodernity and repeles modernists everywhere it must be Duchamp’s “Fountain”: a urinal. Not only disgusting, how does a mass-produced chunk of porcelain made for human waste ever qualify as art? Duchamp’s point was that everything is art.

We like things to fit neatly into their own little boxes; urinals are for men’s bathrooms, portraits are for art museums, t-shirts are for weekdays, suits are for the Bible. So when someone stands up to read the Bible, preach or play the piano in church, s/he had better be dressed for the occasion. My suggestion (in actual fact, my affirmation) is that this is the same as rejecting the Fountain and my point is that in your life, everything is Christian (not just on Sundays, while reading the Bible, or managing to wear a feigned smile).

Duchamp’s piece is crude but it’s crude to convey a truth: Art doesn’t fit into a box – it doesn’t fit into a box because someone made the box and so it too is someone’s art. Everything you see can be looked at and appreciated and so is, in that sense art.

tshirtThe point is that the Bible doesn’t belong in a box somewhere with suits and formality. Often we think it does, and so we demand that reader wear a tie. In actual fact the Bible should be the first thing we realise transcends every box – long before we realise anything about art.

So next time I preach during the traditional prayer book service in a t-shirt instead of the surplus or read the Bible wearing shorts and no tie, perhaps it will be to remind you that normal people are supposed to read the Bible as part of their day to day lives – not only ministers on Sunday.

Unpopular Christianity

Secular ChristianityJesus was not a popular man. In the 1st century, throughout history, and today people have struggled not just in coming to him but also in going with him. I have written elsewhere on the cost of discipleship, so in this post I want to remind us of just one of Jesus’ stinging statements about following him, and then pick up a few challenging points from John Calvin. If you avoid the slew of secularised ‘Christian’ teaching that promises you your best life now, through pearly white smiles atop expensively tailored suits, you meet an unpopular Jewish rabbi, despised and rejected. Though there are many reasons Jesus was insulted, spat on, and ultimately executed according to the wishes of his own people, we might say that his enemies were threatened by what they did not understand about him, while his followers were offended by what they did. As Samuel Rutherford wrote in one of his letters, “‘Lord’ is a cumbersome word; and to obey him, and to work out our own salvation, and to perfect holiness, is the cumbersome and stormy northside of Christ; and that we eschew and shift.”

Duccion di Buoninsegna - Christ taking leaveOne of Jesus’ most disturbing statements comes in Luke 14, ‘If anyone comes to me does not hate his own life he cannot be my disciple.’ Our immediate reaction is to shrug off the remark and conclude that Jesus was having a frustrating day. But Jesus’ point is that our love of and allegiance to him should dwarf our affections for this life. It is when we grasp this meaning that Jesus’ words really sting, for we love this life and its splendid pleasures. Our sight is constantly drawn from the glory of God to his gifts. But Jesus thought following him was worth more than our entire life and the sum of its contents. It is because we are so enamoured with this life that Jesus’ forceful words insult us. We must be careful not to love our lives so much that we begin to hate Jesus and his call to discipleship.

Golden booklet of the true Christian life - Calvin

The danger in over applying Jesus’ words is that we recoil from God’s good gifts in a mood not dissimilar from ingratitude. Thus the Christian life is poised on a knife-edge. As Calvin says in the fourth chapter of his Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life, our love for this world must be broken, and our hope for the new cultivated. The struggle is to learn proper appreciation of all we enjoy now, without those things displacing our affections for Jesus. Everything we enjoy comes from God and is a divine blessing to be gratefully received. But Calvin thought we needed to be constantly reminded that this world is merely a signpost to God’s glorious restoration of all things. We must be weary of vainly clinging to our lives and what is passing, and grateful for the brief and generous hints of what is to come.

I will conclude by returning to something I said above: Jesus’ enemies were threatened by what they did not understand about him, but his disciples were offended by what they did. Those who do no know Jesus cannot comprehend this tension, loving our Lord so affectionately that we appear to hate this world. It is only when we comprehend what Jesus has done for us that our gratitude and love for him will dwarf this life. So Calvin writes, in the Institutes (3.7.1), “We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours.”

Read Smart

Kevin Hendricks - 137 Books137 Books in One Year; no, that is not how many books I read in 2012 nor is it how many I aim to complete in 2013. It is the title of a book, which was free on Kindle for Independence Day. I am an avid reader so books about literature interest me (and free books are always worth grabbing). Now – to risk causing the collapse of our universe – I am going review a book that is about books. But this will be more than a book review, for I hope to offer a critique of the book and expand on the Christian’s motivation behind reading.

The book is extremely short so I will not spend too much space summarising its content. Hendricks is a book lover and desires to see others regain or discover their love of and appreciation for literature. It is a noble, worthwhile undertaking. Hendricks is clear that these tips for cultivating a love of books, gaining momentum with practice, have nothing to do with an impressive annual tally. He wants people to actually love reading. But I have two major criticisms of the book. Firstly, while Hendricks is adamant that the number of pages per day and books per year is not in focus, I could not help but feel volume is crucial to being a lover of books. Secondly, I felt the terse piece was as a whole unevenly weighted in favour of reading as recreational.

Firstly, while Hendricks obviously returns to things he has noted during his own reading, attested to by his free use of a multitude of other writings in this short book, as well as on his blog, reading 137 Books made me feel that progress ultimately came down to moving hastily from your present title into the next upon completion. Exhortations that reading is not about quantity are obscured by the numerous tips aimed at streamlining your reading and maximising your time. Even when it came to reflection Hendricks seems to suggest writing hurried summaries rather than thoughtful assessments and critiques. I would sooner side with Julian Morrow, in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, arguing for the merits of having single teacher as Plato did: “it is better to know one book intimately than a hundred superficially.” What is the rush? I believe Hendricks’ emphasis on volume coupled with scant time for reflection entails his reason for reading, and my second criticism, below.

Book on darkHendricks’ purpose for reading is principally recreational. Now please do not hear me as some literary-purist-type who believes all reading must be informative, and that we must engage critically with every work we pick up. Just last month I read David Gemmell’s entire Troy trilogy (almost 2000 pages of historical, heroic fiction). Yet I wish that Hendricks had emphasised something he provides only glimpses of. He writes in the introduction, “[we read] to discover incredible new worlds and stimulate creative thinking. To get out of my skin and experience something I otherwise couldn’t.” Later, in chapters 7 and 8, Hendricks encourages intentional reading that processes content, notes valuable quotes, and records brief summaries of ideas contained in the writing and reading experience. But as I have noted above, these tips are couched in the larger context of reading lots. It is hard to see this valuable approach to and aim for reading amidst the voracious consumption of books. I am convinced that we need to be responsible and critically engaged readers, to varying degrees. And obviously that will be depend on the type of literature you read. We should be weary of viewing books in the way TV has taught us to see entertainment: frivolous and disengaged consumerism.

Take notes readingWith those two criticisms in mind I will close with what I believe to be a better and healthier approach to reading, which is obviously in much need of development and discussion. For starters I would suggest reading Tony Reinke’s book Lit!, which I have reviewed briefly here. Reinke aims for 6 or 7 books a month, between 70 and 80 a year, which is modest and realistic if you plan on really reading and not merely shredding books. More important than the number is the content of his suggested reading. He provides 5 categories, outside of Scripture: knowing Christ, spiritual reflection, personal growth, professional excellence, and good stories (p95). Forget reading for reading’s sake. Read to enrich and strengthen your faith. Stop reading for the love of reading. Read in order to love God more. I am not advocating the abandonment of recreational reading, enjoying a cleverly written narrative. But when we reduce the reading of books to consumption we lose out. For, as James Sire puts it, “[great literature will] help us understand who we are as a human family in all our diverse and glorious yet fallen splendor” (p163 of Discipleship of the Mind). Literature embodies worldviews and philosophies. Engaged and unhurried reading helps us imbibe reality, as others understand it.

In his famous article, Is Google Making Us Stupid?, Nicholas Carr quotes Maryanne Wolf: ‘Deep reading is indistinguishable from deep thinking’. I do not know if the modern resistance to thinking means we no longer read deeply or if our lack of discerned reading has stunted our thinking, with regards to literature. Perhaps it is both. What I do know is we need to start at both ends. This means endeavouring to engage with worthwhile good books, even if they are hard, and engaging deeply with more of what we read.