Friday, November 26, 2010

Prayer and Listening to God Part 3: How We Got Here and Why It Matters

(This is Part 3 in a series of posts on Prayer and Listening to God. Click here for Part 1.)

In the previous post in this series, I said I would talk next about how we in the Church came to believe we should listen inwardly for God's voice in prayer; and I said that I would talk about why it matters. So to begin, here's a quick (and incomplete) history on how we got here.

Over fifty years ago, something was happening in the theological academies that most in the pews knew little or nothing about. In many seminaries, including Southern Baptist ones, liberal theology imported from the German schools had taken hold; this theology sought to do away with belief in the inerrancy of Scripture, and sought also to do away with the historical-grammatical method of reading and interpreting Scripture. After all, if the historical-grammatical method could be done away with, then anything in the Bible could be reinterpreted, denied or explained away. And this is just what happened.

Young men trained in these American seminaries became pastors with a more liberal understanding of what the Bible is and how we are to view it, an understanding that was shifting dangerously away from historic Protestant Christianity. The "new understanding" did not necessarily show up in ways that people noticed. There was still preaching from the pulpit that at least gave lip service to the gospel, there were still professions of faith, baptisms, Sunday Schools and training unions. In a way, things seemed much the same. However, much had changed. Slowly, the churches began to forget about some of the important things that had once been widely understood, including a basic knowledge on understanding and interpreting Scripture.

In the 1950's and 60's a charismatic "renewal" with roots in an earlier Pentecostalism and mysticism began to influence the beliefs of churches. The combination of the liberal views on Scripture and the highly subjective tendencies of the Charismatic/mystical movement resulted in sea changes that left much of the Church more vulnerable to new doctrinal ideas. The way was paved for acceptance of the idea, among many other new ideas, that Christians were supposed to seek to know God's specific will for their lives (what job to take, who to marry, and other specifics of everyday life) by listening inwardly for God's voice. This new teaching (new, at least, since the Reformation) was supported by its proponents with misinterpreted biblical texts, often with isolated verses lifted out of their contexts. And now the idea that we are to seek to know God's will for our lives by listening inwardly for God's voice has become widely accepted as normal and Scriptural.

(You may be thinking by this point that if all this is true, how did people 'discern' God's will for their lives 100 years ago, before all these doctrinal changes took place? The answer is, basically, that Christians did not generally seek to find that out. They understood that the Bible tells the believer everything he needs to know about God's will for him. As far as the specifics of God's plan for their lives, Christians of stouter times widely understood the doctrine of God's providence, which is His "governing and preserving of all his creatures and all their actions", as taught and illustrated in Scripture. They also understood that the Bible teaches us to make our own wise decisions like a grownup! For more on this, you could do worse than start here.)

At stake in this issue of whether or not we are to listen for God's voice in prayer is the sufficiency of Scripture for our thinking and for our practice. It may take some patient pondering and study to see why this is true, and to see what it means that the Bible makes this claim of sufficiency. For instance, the Bible claims to be the only source of revelation of God's will, and that its pages contain all we need to know of his will for his people (Psalm 19:7-11, 2 Peter 1:16-21). The Bible claims, as well, that many things are for God alone to know (Deuteronomy 29:29). For making life choices in regard to these unrevealed things (what jobs we will take, who we will marry), the Bible claims to provide abundant wisdom from its own pages. The Bible holds the place of honor in our lives for teaching us the wisdom we need to make life's decisions (Proverbs 1).

All this hopefully raises good questions: "What about Paul--what about the Old Testament prophets? They heard God's voice and were directly guided by him. So were others in the Bible. Are you saying that in those narratives, the Bible isn't teaching us to expect such guidance ourselves?" Those are exactly the sorts of things we'll look at in my next post. In it, I'll offer a few quick guidelines for interpreting Scripture, and then look at some Scripture passages that have been used as "proof" that we should expect God to speak directly to us.

The  news that we aren't told in Scripture to listen inwardly for God's voice-- or to find out his specific, day-to-day will for us-- is actually very good news for God's people. There is a "God's will for us" that is far better than anything contrary we may have believed. Proverbs 25:25 says, "Like cold water to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country." The good news of how we may know what God wills for us, and how we are to think about guidance and decision-making, brings relief and freedom from the anxieties of wondering whether we've missed God's will, or if we've "heard" him right. It offers a cure for the hyper-individualism of our culture that is so contrary to peace and well-being. This good news offers the hope of greater freedom in Christ, and the hope of a wisdom that "adorns the doctrine of God our Savior" (Titus 2:1-10). Oh, yes, and and the right knowledge of this good news can bring great benefits to your spouse, your children and your church as well.
(Click here for Part 4).

Monday, November 22, 2010

Prayer and Listening to God Part 2: A Biblical Definition of Prayer (What the Bible Teaches [and doesn't] About Prayer)

(This is Part 2 in a series of posts on Prayer and Listening to God. Click here to begin at Part 1).

In my first post in this series, I explained my purpose for writing on this topic: the Church's need to know whether listening for God is part of biblical prayer. Are we taught in Scripture to listen for God's voice speaking directly, apart from Scripture, to us? By "God speaking", I mean his giving us messages directly into our thoughts--nudgings and inner promptings about decisions we need to make, for instance. Our thinking on these things needs to right, so that we can know if this is something the Bible does teach us to expect, or not. If the Bible does not teach this, how in the world did we come to believe it? What's the harm in trying to practice hearing God's voice outside of Scripture? And also, if we are not to do so, how can we discern God's will in the decisions and choices of life?

We need to go to the Bible for insights and answers to all these things. But in order to give the Bible the "final say" on these matters we must see Scripture as our "only rule of faith and practice". We have to come to the Bible willing to agree and submit to its teaching as the very word of God, the source of all our doctrine. The Bible's teaching trumps everything, even our own experience. That's what Scripture claims for itself (2 Timothy 3:16), and to fail to submit to it is to fail to submit to God. So with that said, we soldier on to a biblical definition and look at prayer.

A Biblical Definition of Prayer

It'll be helpful to first take a look at a couple of definitions from two respected Bible study tools, Easton's and Baker's Bible Dictionaries. Here’s how Easton’s defines prayer:

Prayer is converse with God... not in contemplation or meditation, but in direct address to him. It is a "beseeching the Lord" ( Exodus 32:11 ), "pouring out the soul before the Lord" (1 Samuel 1:15), "praying and crying to heaven" (2 Chronicles 32:20), "seeking unto God and making supplication" (Job 8:5), "drawing near to God" (Psalm 73:28), and "bowing the knees” [Paul’s euphemism for petitionary prayer] (Ephesians 3:14).

So prayer is here defined not as listening, meditation or contemplation, but as our talking to God.

Baker's makes this point:

Though prayer also includes adoration (Psalm 144-150; Luke 1:46-55), confession (Psalm 51; Luke 18:13), and thanksgiving (Psalm 75 ; 1 Thessalonians 1:2), Christian prayer has always been essentially petitionary… The immediate source of this confidence came from the teachings and examples of Jesus himself, such as the model prayer he offered (Matthew 6:9-13 ; Luke 11:2-4) and his assurance that one had only to ask the Father in order to receive what was needed (Matthew 7:7 ; Luke 11:9) (italics mine).

On this petitionary character of prayer in the Bible, Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne say helpfully, "...people today may refer to any number of different activities as 'prayer' but when God speaks about prayer in the Bible, he is really only talking about one thing. In the Bible, prayer simply means 'asking God for things'... prayer in the Bible is unashamedly and universally verbal."1

Is Listening to God Part of Prayer?

Missing from these descriptions of prayer is the idea of our listening for God to speak. And that, of course, fits exactly with the whole testimony of the whole Bible. Nowhere in all the accounts of people praying in the Bible, nowhere in all its teachings on prayer, nowhere is a listening mode in prayer ever modeled, taught or implied. That probably needs to be read again, digested for a moment and considered. The idea of waiting on or listening for God to speak, to impress something in the way of guidance for decisions on our minds during prayer, is unknown in Scripture.

I hear the protests, I really do. You may be wondering about all the Scripture verses that are quoted as proof we should be quiet and still and try to hear God speak into our hearts. There are many helpful things to know concerning those various passages in the Bible, and we'll get to those as we go along.

For now, consider just these two things about Christ's prayers and what he taught on prayer. When his disciples came to Jesus for instruction on how to pray, Christ did not describe listening as part of prayer; rather he taught his disciples to make requests that were in accord with the Father's revealed will (Matthew 6:7-13). In his Gethsemane prayers, Jesus spent no time listening for his Father's voice and asked for no answer from him, but rather made requests: "In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence" (Hebrews 5:7). Christ petitioned; the Father heard (and acted). This is the model and pattern of all prayer in the Bible.

I realize this idea may be a surprising, even an offensive claim. We're steeped in decades, now, of being taught that it's normal to expect God to direct us by inner promptings, whispers and nudgings; that listening is as important a part of prayer as our speaking. I'm not saying we have no warm communion, no fellowship with God in prayer, of course not! But what we have come to mean by "fellowship" with our heavenly Father needs a more biblical light shined on it, which I'll also attempt in a later post. For now, I'd ask you to prayerfully and with an open Bible consider the things I'll be talking about. With your Bibles open you'll see texts that hopefully will raise honest questions, and addressing some of those will be the topic of my next post: why did we come to believe we should listen this way for God's voice? There are very understandable, and fascinating, reasons this view has taken hold in the Church! We'll also talk about why it matters.

Click here for Part 3

1 Phillip D. Jensen and Tony Payne, Prayer and the Voice of God: Listening to God's Living Word Will Transform the Way You Pray (Kingsford: Matthias Media, 2006) pg. 15

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Chasing the Wind and the Words of the Preacher

I needed Ecclesiastes this week. Life is real and life can be painful, and God was good to let me hear Alistair Begg on the radio teaching a little from that book the other day. So I decided to turn to its pages once again and am so glad I did.

The message of Ecclesiastes is a confirmation that no, you're not crazy, and yes, the creation is in trouble and all our lives reflect that. It is because of the fall of Adam in the garden, because of the disastrous effects of sin. We're all now subject to the vanity of all worldly pursuits. They are all "fleeting, ephemeral, and elusive," as the ESV Study Bible introduction to the book puts it; the word translated "vanity" (over 38 times) in Ecclesiastes is literally "vapor." It is the same word and idea Paul uses in Romans 8 as he explains that in the Fall, the "creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it" (Romans 8:20).

We all know this, deep down. We may forget it for periods at a time, we may push it to the backs of our minds, but it only takes the right difficult circumstance to remind us vividly that the world is broken, and so to a great extent are our lives. It is a fact too painful to be acknowledged apart from hope. Some of the philosophers acknowledged it and came up with observations and solutions that lead nowhere but to a stoic bearing up under it all until death comes in relief. Some of the philosophers ended in despair. But that's not where Ecclesiastes goes. Thank God!

The message of Ecclesiastes is the greatest of news for the weary, the hopeless, the one who has "eyes wide open" and does not want to sugar-coat this life. The good news is this: God has told us all that he expects of his people (Micah 6:8). It is not too hard for us! (Deuteronomy 30:11-14, Romans 10:6-8, Matthew 11:28-30). That is because of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh who "came near" to make a way for us to heaven and to the resurrection (John 14:6). (Yes, I know Ecclesiastes doesn't know all this yet, but this is the way the Bible interprets itself.) More good news, straight from the pages of Ecclesiastes:

"He [God] has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I [the Preacher] perceived that there is nothing better for them [the children of men, that's us] than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil--this is God's gift to man" (Ecclesiastes 3:11-13). Isn't that such kindness from God?

God is sovereign over all our affairs, whether we have abundance (materially) or little: "In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him" (Ecclesiastes 7:14). Quit trying to play God, and relax! Trust him who holds all these things in his sovereign hands.

Don't labor and toil for vain things, but do toil: "Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot [there's God's sovereignty again!]. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil--this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart" (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20).

The message of Ecclesiastes is that there is so much about God's ways and his decretive (secret) purposes we don't know, that therefore we should live the short life we have on this earth humbly, in recognition of that, but in gratitude for the blessings of work, and family and God's provision for us (Ecclesiastes 9:7-9), whether little or a lot (it's always enough!). We should not be puffed up and "think more highly of ourselves than we ought to" (Romans 12:3). All mankind is in the same boat--the end of us all is the grave (Ecclesiastes 9:1-2). All this wisdom and truth of Ecclesiastes is to be understood in the New Testament revelation of Christ and what God did through him to win our salvation. For those who have received the truth of the gospel there is Heaven to look forward to.

Ecclesiastes ends with this: "The end of the matter: all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment with every secret thing, whether good or evil" (Ecclesiastes 12:13). This is the key to living. Life is complicated and fraught with difficulty, even evil, but God has given us a compass that points true North as we journey through: "Fear God and keep his commandments." He gave us the best motivation to do so, as well: "For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil." In between those two things lies our life, to be lived in simple, glad obedience, trust and gratitude.

I'm so thankful for Ecclesiastes. It's words are like "goads" (Ecclesiastes 12:11), the sharp, pointed sticks that keep the flock to the right path, and they are like "nails firmly fixed" (12:11), providing "moral and intellectual stability" (from the ESV Study Bible explanatory notes). It has been that for me over the past few days. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity apart from Christ. All flesh is as grass; the grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of the Lord, it lasts forever (1 Peter 1:22-25).

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Going About It Our Own Way

What a tragedy in the Church and in the families in the Church! Our Lord gave us the model to pray and what could be more clear? It is "our" Father and give "us" this day "our" daily bread; forgive "us" our trespasses and deliver "us" from the evil one. It's a prayer, and a model for prayer, meant to be prayed together with other believers.

I'm sad that we don't pray together like that; sad that we don't feel the need to.

(Maybe one day we will!)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Prayer and Listening to God

“I believe that prayer should be as much about listening to God as it is about talking to him.”

Listen to popular Christian radio, take a walk down the aisles of most Christian bookstores, or do a Google search on the topic and this is the sentiment and belief you're sure to hear. But is this really what the Bible teaches us to believe and to expect about prayer and about listening for God's voice? It's certainly what a large segment of the Church has come to expect. But believe it or not there was a day, not so long ago, that the claim that we are to listen for God's voice would have been soundly rejected. Why not these days? Has the church learned something new-- or have we forgotten something we used to know?

I believe that the latter is true. I'm not alone in saying so; the record of Church history, and (I believe) the Bible, and fortunately a growing number of people speaking on this issue today, agree. We're up against a battle in trying to shed light on and correct this wrong view, though. Popular teachers and speakers hold conferences and write books that promote just the sentiment quoted above. It's a difficult and emotional issue to talk to people about, because the effort to convince of a better way necessarily involves pointing out a bad, but very accepted, way.

But the Bible tells us, if we are willing to hear what it says, just what God wants his people to know about prayer and listening to God. What God's people believe about prayer and about how to hear God's voice is very important. What we believe about it will determine how, and why, we pray. We must gain the knowledge from God's word we need to discern whether popular authors and speakers are right in what they are claiming about listening for God's voice. We must determine if it's possible that the wool has been pulled over our eyes concerning this whole idea of hearing God's voice in prayer.

It's not a simple issue in our day and time. Much has been mistaught (as I'll provide examples to show in later posts). It takes a lot of words, and patience, to accurately convey what the Scriptures teach on this. As with all doctrine, the doctrine of prayer and of how God guides his people won't be grasped simplistically or overnight. But over the course of some upcoming blog posts, I'd like to offer some things for people to consider, chew on, go prayerfully to key Scriptures about. I hope you'll consider reading them and interacting with me, if you'd like, in the comments.

Next post, "A Definition of Prayer," something we may think we've had down pat, but could find surprising in some ways.

(This is Part 1 of a series of posts on Prayer and Listening to God. Click here for Part 2).