Prayer – Telling God ‘NO’

Okay, so after a brief (and regrettable) foray through the swamps of sport, I return to some theology. Today, a conundrum of sorts. I think I have an answer, but as always I can be wrong, and am open to suggestions.

Here are the facts. On the one hand there are a number of passages in Scripture which indicate that God never changes his mind. This is the concept of “immutability” that is a key component of many Calvinist teachings. God’s will is permanent, unchanging, and eternal. Consider the following (not an exhaustive list!):

  • Numbers 23:19
  • 1 Samuel 15:29
  • Jeremiah 4:28
  • Ezekiel 24:14
  • Malachi 3:6
  • Romans 11:29
  • Titus 1:2
  • James 1:17

What is striking is that such passages are not isolated nor are they infrequent. There is strong evidence to conclude that God never changes his mind.

**Key interruption here – read these passages in different translations. For example, it is fascinating in the Revised Standard family of translations (RSV, NRSV, ESV) that the RSV uses the word “repent,” the NRSV uses the phrase “change his mind” and the ESV uses the totally unhelpful “relent” in a number of these passages.**

All of this would not be a problem if it were not for the following examples where God clearly does change his mind:

  • Abraham (Genesis 18:16-33) negotiates with God, and even though the end result does not match the negotiations, God does agree to spare Sodom if a mere 10 righteous people can be found.
  • Moses twice (Exodus 32:11-14; Numbers 14:11-19) pleads with God to change his mind regarding the destruction of the rebellious Israelites. God changes his mind.
  • Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:1-7) is told by Isaiah that he will die, and even before Isaiah can leave the courtyard, Hezekiah manages to change God’s mind and have 15 years added to his life.
  • Jonah 3:9 relates that the King of Nineveh believes that it is possible for God to change his mind, and God does, in fact, change his mind.
  • Amos 7:1-6 relates that Amos twice stands in and negotiates on behalf of the Israelites, and twice God changes his mind.

So, which is it – is God immutable, once God has made up his mind is it beyond variation? Or, does God say one thing one day and do something entirely different the next? Can we trust God’s word to be certain?

The solution (if you want to call it that) that I have resolved in my mind is found in two passages of Scripture: Jeremiah 18:7-11, and Ezekiel 18:23-24, 30-32. Here, in these texts, God himself reveals when and why he will change his mind regarding a previous decision: the change in beliefs and behavior of the subjects of his earlier statements. I want to stress that other explanations may exist, and by no means am I suggesting perfect insight here.

The point, as I see it, is that God has an eternal plan that cannot be altered – and that plan is revealed in hundreds, even thousands, of smaller decisions and judgments. Any of those smaller decisions and judgments can be altered based on one criterium – the heart and behavior of people. God does not want any to die – even the sinner! He is willing, and as the above passages demonstrate, in fact does alter some temporary decisions based on the response of the human subjects.

All of this relates to prayer. If we do not believe that God can, and does, change his mind, why pray? If we believe that our lives are controlled by an immutable and unyielding force that was established before the beginning of time, then why waste our time praying to a God who is incapable of acting in this world?

On the other hand, God is not some whimsical “genie in the bottle” that yields to every fantasy that we might have. While he does respond to genuine repentance, we do not control him like some puppet on a string. As one final thought, Josiah was able to postpone the destruction of Jerusalem, but the sins of Manasseh (his grandfather) were just too great for God to ignore. Eventually, Jerusalem was punished.

As always, your thoughts, comments, objections, and donations of large amounts of cash are appreciated.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

Ezra’s Prayer (Ezra 9)

I’ve been preaching on prayer (if you do not get the irony of that, let me know) and I’m finally getting around to examining some of the prayers in Scripture. This past Sunday I started with Ezra’s great prayer of confession. Some passages just preach themselves without any comment from preachers like me – but I went ahead and added my thoughts on this great chapter. Probably ruined the sermon. Here are some highlights (or low lights, depending on your perspective.)

I wrote my dissertation for my Doctor of Ministry on the topic of confession, so I guess you could say I’m kind of nerdy about the topic. Having worked for about 2 years in general, and several months intensively, on this subject, there are passages regarding confession that just jump out at me. It should be obvious that Ezra 9 relates to confession, but there are some aspects of this prayer that stand out to me as being unique – or at the very least – instructive regarding the practice of confession. Here are just a few (and you may discover others!).

First, this prayer is pure confession! There are no dodges, no excuses, no explanations, no sniveling. One of the major hindrances to our prayers of confession is the word “but.” We may have the intention of confessing, but that little three letter word sneaks in and blows the whole process up. We say things like, “God, you know I sinned today, BUT you know I am just a human.” Or this, “God, I sinned today, BUT honestly, the situation I was in was just too much for me to handle.” You will search in vain for anything resembling a “but” in Ezra’s prayer. It is pure confession, from beginning to end.

Second, Ezra owned the sins of his ancestors. He did not try to excuse the behavior of his generation by making his contemporaries look better than their fathers – in fact it was the exact opposite. He owned the sin of his ancestors, and therefore admitted to the sin of his own generation. In a common figure of speech, he admitted that the nuts did not fall very far from the diseased tree. But, look even deeper – by admitting the sin of his fathers, he actually compounded the contemporary sin of his generation. He is saying that instead of being more likely to sin the same sin, his generation should have known better, therefore are guilty of a greater sin – sin upon sin. It takes courage to admit our parents – or grandparents – were wrong. It takes monumental courage to admit that we have compounded the sins of our parents and grandparents.

In Ezra’s specific situation the sin was intermarriage with the pagan peoples surrounding Jerusalem – and therefore opening up the possibility (and even reality) that their worship of idols would soon follow. Ezra confessed the sins of his fathers, and then the sin of his compatriots. I am not suggesting here that every public prayer should include every single sin of every member – there is a clear line between confession and voyeurism. But in our private (or family) prayers I believe specificity is absolutely necessary. Don’t just say, “God, I sinned today.” Be specific. “God, you know I lost my temper and used profane language.” “God, you know I had impure thoughts and sinned with my eyes today.” “God, you know that story I told today was pure gossip, and damaged the reputation of another person.” I do believe that it is possible for a congregation to sin (read Revelation 2-3), and when that sin is realized it must be confessed as well. The point is let us be done with salving our consciences with generic prayers of confession when specificity is demanded.

Third, and this is what I ¬†find very interesting about this prayer, there is not a single word asking God for forgiveness. There is no seeking of absolution here – just pure confession (see point #1). I have been in church services ever since I was just days, or maybe weeks, old. I cannot remember a single prayer that was simply, pure, and unmotivated confession. In fact, except for the generic “Lord, forgive us of our many sins” I have not heard that many prayers of confession at all. Shame on us.

Our culture today teaches us not to make confession – it punishes those who confess and rewards those who dodge confession. Consider the most common form of apology today – “I apologize if I have hurt or offended anyone.” Did you catch what we did there – we put the blame of offense on the other person. In effect what we are saying is, “I don’t think I did anything wrong, but if you do, well, I am so sorry that you have this issue and I deeply regret your thin skin and your hyper sensitivity.” It’s what I call the “Bill Clinton Apology.” Or we could call it the “Donald Trump Apology.” (And, if you are offended that I used the name of Bill Clinton or Donald Trump, I am sorry that you are so thin skinned and hyper-sensitive.)

Just try that with God. “God, I did not do anything wrong, but I am very sorry that you were offended.”

Ezra is frequently seen as a second Moses. Just as Moses led his people out of Egypt and brought them to the mountain of Sinai, so Ezra leads his people out of Babylonian captivity and supervises the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. There are striking parallels. Just one of those parallels is the manner in which Ezra “stands in the breach” here to intercede for the people of Israel. It is a beautiful prayer, a powerful prayer, a dangerous prayer if we fully comprehend it’s import.

What we see in this prayer is the essence of confession. It is pure, it is specific, and there is no begging or cajoling of God to wheedle out a statement of pardon.

It’s what I call ascending by descending lower.

Lord, Deliver Me From Little Prayers

Have you noticed how prayer has been cheapened, belittled, trivialized? And that from those who should be holding it in the highest honor? I mean, in the Bible when people entered into God’s throne room with a request or a challenge, things happened. Mighty things. The dead were raised, nations fell, the waters parted, and enemies died. Prayer was awesome, and changed individual lives as well as the course of history.

Now, we use prayer to start football games. Really? How many of you have heard the language or the epithets being spewed on the field, or from the sidelines? Or we start some meeting in which God’s will doesn’t stand a chance of being heard – let alone of being obeyed. Or really big things like starting and stopping our “worship services.” I remember the first time someone dismissed a service with a song instead of a prayer. It took a full fifteen or more seconds before it dawned on people that he actually said, “we are dismissed.” It felt like we were cheated. Not that a closing prayer changed anything really, its just that if nobody prayed for God to “guide, guard and direct us until we meet again,” would we really be guided, guarded and protected until we met again?

All of this came flooding into my thoughts this week. I am preaching a series on (of all things) prayer. This week’s lesson crystalized into a topic I titled, “When Prayer Seems to Fail.” When everything was all thought out, I realized that the biggest reason why it seems that prayer fails is that we have utterly and totally gutted what it means to pray.

We pray to a god that is really, in the long run, just too small to do anything about what we are praying for – if he even cared. We mouth the words, but our heart is saying, “I know this is futile, but Christians are told to pray, so here goes.” In my work as a hospice chaplain I heard on many, many occasions the wonderfully faithful saying, “well, we’ve done all we can do – all that’s left is prayer.” How many times have you heard it? How many times have you said it? All we can do is pray – as a form of resignation to the inevitable, not as an entry into the palace of the one who created the world from nothing.

Or, we use prayer as a bully stick. We have no intention of changing our thoughts or actions, but our little god sure needs to straighten out our relative, or friend, or spouse, or child. So we whip out the ol’ “put ’em on the straight and narrow” prayer and then if our relative, friend, spouse, or child doesn’t change – well its that little god’s fault, not mine, because I prayed.

Or we put our little god in a Republican or Democrat or American or conservative or liberal box, and every prayer is viewed as a way for that special interest group to achieve power and prestige. I know many may tire of my Dietrich Bonhoeffer stories, but there is one anecdote that always puts a lump in my throat. He was asked, on at least one, but apparently several occasions, what would happen if the world were to fall into another world war. He said that if that event were to happen, he would pray for Germany to be defeated so that Christianity could survive. I don’t know about you, but I do not know many Americans who could, and would, pray for a foreign nation to defeat us in a war so that Christianity could survive. For many of us, Americanism is Christianity, and we cannot see any difference.

I can’t even begin to identify the irony of that concept.

Or, we pray perhaps what has become my default prayer – the complaint. This year I started keeping a record of my prayers, and after a couple of months I went back and reviewed them. It was the pathetic record of a whiny little toddler. “God, this is not right, fix this, stop this, make that happen, give me this, and give it to me now.” It was nothing but pure, unadulterated narcissism. I had completely rewritten Scripture – “Lord, not thy will, but mine be done.”

I’m sick, I’m tired, I want to be done with little prayers.

In no way do I want to suggest we should not take our cares and concerns to God – he tells us to take our cares and concert to him, and to do so relentlessly. But I just want to be done with the whiny little narcissistic, vindictive prayers that has become the staple of so much of our common culture. I want to have the faith of the psalmists who were so utterly and totally convinced of the righteousness of their position that they could honestly demand God to hear them – and to act on His promises. I want to be a part of a church that when it prays, the walls shake and everyone is empowered by the Holy Spirit to go out and speak the word of God – after having been specifically told by the legal authorities not to do so! (Acts 4:23f)

Have you ever stopped to consider that our prayers could be repugnant to God? Three times in the book of Jeremiah, God specifically tells the prophet not to pray for his people. “Just stop – don’t do it, because I won’t listen anyway.” (see Jeremiah 7:16, 11:14, 14:11) Repeatedly in the other prophetic books God tells his people that their worship – specifically commanded by God – is repugnant to him and he has ceased to pay any attention to their sacrifices or prayers. ¬†(Isa. 1:10-17; Hosea 8:11-13; Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8; Malachi 2:13-17; by no means a complete list)

I have heard the statement that America needs to turn back to God so many times it has become a cliche. While it would be wonderful if America turned to God (the word “back” is problematic, seeing as how for so much of our history we have rejected his basic ethical requirements), I am more concerned that the church turn to God. And maybe the first step in transforming the church into what Christ intended it is for its members to regain the sense of praying big prayers.

I confess – I am so guilty. But I am just tired of praying and hearing little prayers to a little god that are focused on my petty little wants and temper tantrums.

Lord, deliver me from little prayers!