For a while, we are using themes suggested by Scripture Union. Today, we will be looking at: ‘Prayer – Smug or sorry’.
‘Smugness’ in prayer is made clear in one of Christ’s parables, at Luke 18.
Being ‘sorry’ in prayer: is not quite so clear from the Philippian’s text. I hope to clarify one aspect of it, by looking at Christians being ‘sorry’ for prayers based on doubtful foundations where lesser qualities than love and faith influenced and directed what was prayed about; and being ‘sorry’ for those prayers that God may have to ‘put on hold’, until we learn to offer them afresh, in better ways.
The Latin root of 'Prayer', means 'Obtain(ed) by entreaty': and can be defined as: 'An earnest request'.
Set prayers, such as ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, tend to be collective; ‘our’, ‘us’ and ‘we: and cover matters being prayed about, in broad, general terms.
Because set prayers make little allowance for particular, and personal, wants and desires; extemporary prayers; those of immediate importance to us; have always formed part of Christian life.
True prayer; acceptable to God; expresses either a need; to be helped, forgiven, blessed, or whatever; or else a powerful desire to offer love, praise, thankfulness and so on.
Prayers that are less than ‘true’, can express selfish qualities and desires; such as the need to be recognized; approved of, and rewarded; and are unlikely to be acceptable to God in that form.
In his first letter to the Corinthian church, and at chapter 2, St. Paul shows two levels of prayer: on the one hand, words based on human wisdom; and, on the other, words given to us by the Holy Spirit.
Paul shows that there is no ‘either/or’ division between the two; and that, instead, each can work in harmony with the other.
Such harmony indicates that where ordinary human language cannot fully cope with deep spiritual matters: then God himself will take over, give us the necessary words and, in that sense, do the praying.
A familiar example of how this works; is the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ that God, in Christ, gave to the Church: because every time it is meaningfully prayed, the Lord listens to his own prayer and, we trust, will answer it.
This concept: of where our human understanding and language does not suffice; then God takes over; is broadly known as ‘Praying in the Spirit’.
St. Paul adds to this concept at Romans 8: 26–27, saying that there are times when we don’t know what to do; let alone what we ought to pray for; but that God does not leave us to struggle on our own.
At such times, if we do nothing to prevent it happening, ‘…the Holy Spirit himself intercedes for us, with sighs too deep for words’, as Paul puts it.
That is; Christ, our Advocate and Mediator, approaches God the Father on our behalf, in mystical, spiritual ways that are beyond our understanding, and which do not need words.
All of these concepts and teachings in relation to prayer, point to reliance upon God, and not upon self. However, according to the gospels, this was not the way of the Pharisees: as we read in the text from Luke 18: 9-14.
V.9: ‘to some who were confident about their own righteousness, and looked down on everyone else, he (Jesus) told this parable…’
Who were these ‘confident ones’? Almost certainly, they were Pharisees.
The ‘Scribes’ and ‘Pharisees’ often appear in the gospels. The ‘Scribes’ were the scholars of their day, who worked hard at understanding and interpreting the requirements of Old Testament law.
The Pharisees took upon themselves a different function; that of living out the requirements of the law; thus teaching the people by example, as well as by the spoken word.
The Pharisees disagreed with much that was allowed by official secular and religious leadership. Disliking much of the ‘modern life’ of their day, they set themselves apart: and their title, ‘Pharisees’ means ‘the separated ones’.
Their original intentions were good, but pride set in. Not only had they separated themselves from the common people; but they also came to see themselves as being above them, in terms of holy living.
Believing themselves to be rather special; they were quick to say so. The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, said: ‘I am not like other men (who are evil) I do good things: I fast twice a week, and pay a 10% tithe on my income’.
Despite them ‘looking down on everyone else’, as Jesus put it; the Pharisees wanted to be recognized, and approved of, by the crowds, as being devout, holy and so on.
Jesus called many of them ‘hypocrites’; which, from the ancient Greek language, means ‘actors’.
They struck prayer-poses on street corners; where they could be seen by many; and rubbed white powder onto their faces; pretending to look pale and weak from fasting, and so on.
In his parable, Christ said that the tax collector, who admitted his sins, went home justified in the sight of God, but that the Pharisee did not do so.
Essentially, to 'justify' is to absolve, vindicate, set right, and make valid once again. We cannot do this of ourselves. St. Paul wrote that: 'It is God who justifies', who absolves...vindicates...sets right...and makes valid once more. (Romans 8:1 and 31-39. Ephesians 2:1-5).
Through justification, he puts our past offences out of his mind, accepts us afresh, and brings us back into close, personal relationship with himself.
'Justified' is best explained as: 'God's gracious acceptance, and forgiveness of me; in Christ; makes it: ‘just (as) if I'd not sinned'.
So far, we have a Pharisee; so full of himself, that his prayer was unacceptable; and a sinner, who prayed for forgiveness, and whose prayer was not only acceptable, but also, was answered with great blessing.
But, what of us? From what standpoints do we offer our prayers; and what attitudes accompany them? Our second reading: Philippians 4: 2-9, gives some helpful guidance.
In verses 2–3, Paul asks two women, Eu-o-dia and Syn’tyche, to stop squabbling, to be reconciled to each other, and to restore unity.
Paul’s concern was not for their spiritual standing; for he went so far as to say that their names are written in the ‘Book of Life’. What did he have in mind? Almost certainly, that a bad witness to Christ was being given; within the church fellowship, and to the world around it: coupled with his strong desire that peace, and effective witness be restored, through re-establishing unity.
Unity of faith, hope, purpose and intention, is the finest base from which to offer prayer to God.
Verse 4 says: ‘Rejoice in the Lord, always; again I will say, Rejoice’. An evangelist looked at a large, Christian audience for a while, and then said: ‘The joy that you talk about, must be deep, deep down inside you; for there is no sign of it on your faces’.
True joy finds many ways of expression, including smiling faces. How joyful are we? Does it show to those around us; and to God, through our prayers?
Verse 6 says: ‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God’.
There is a great difference between anxiety and concern. Anxiety tends to cloud the mind, and allow thoughts to go round and round: but proper concern can have the ability to clarify thinking… to see what options are available… and to direct thoughts and prayers to a particular end.
Verse 7 says, that the peace of God, which is far greater than our perception and understanding of it; will not only be a blessing to us, but will also ‘guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus’.
I would like us to take this concept home with us; that of God’s peace keeping us strong and safe; and to be prayerfully thoughtful about it, during the week.
Meanwhile, in closing, the remaining words from Philippian’s 4: 2-9.
Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent, or praiseworthy – think about such things…
and the God of peace will be with you’. ‘Amen!’ to that.