Are “Thoughts and Prayers” Useless?

It has become fashionable of late to disparage “thoughts and prayers.” When a public tragedy takes place, whether a natural disaster or a shooting, people and pundits alike take pot shots at praying men and women, suggesting that prayer to “an invisible sky deity” is folly.

In one sense, I agree. Somehow mere thought became lumped together with prayer. These are not the same so let’s separate them. Let’s agree that merely thinking something positive about another person does that person no good. Let’s agree that there really is no such thing as “sending” a thought to another person in another place. None of us is a telepath, and thoughts don’t possess wings.

Prayer, however, is a different thing entirely. Prayer proceeds from the conviction that God is. If God is not, then prayer is indeed folly. But if God is not then no one should be upset about hurricanes or murderers. Survival of the fittest specimens of an accidental species inhabiting a random blue dot in an ocean of space should not concern any of us. Unless of course, like Ebenezer Scrooge, you think it best to “decrease the surplus population.” After all, we humans are destroying the earth, altering its temperature, polluting its oceans, and ruining its rain forests. If there is no God, then maybe you should hope for more natural disasters. Maybe mass shooters are doing us all a favor.

But of course they are not doing favors. They are wicked, murderous, and evil, and in their wickedness they do not destroy a random species of valueless ape on an accidental planet. They are killing human beings. And human beings have value, for God exists, and he created us in his own image, and therefore we matter. Profoundly. Even though many deny God’s existence, those same people who deny him still value God’s image bearers—they call human death a tragedy—for the reality that God exists is burned into their souls, and they cannot escape it.

That means that prayer offers access to enormous power. Power to heal. Power to comfort. Power to supply material relief. Power to bring justice. Power to move mountains. James 5:16 teaches: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working,” not because the righteous person is a powerful person, but because the God to whom the righteous person prays is a powerful God. Jesus prayed, and he taught his followers to pray, and to trust the power and character of the God to whom they committed their prayers.

To suggest that prayer is useless is to deny the existence, personality, and providential care of God, all while valuing those who bear his image, despite the fact that atheism provides no reason to value a human being more than a slug or a weed.

So I’ll continue to pray for wounded families. I will pour out my heart in compassion before the living Savior, who knows what it means to suffer. I will trust that the “man of sorrows” who was “familiar with grief” is able to care for the broken hearts of shattered men and women. And I’ll also do very practical things, like teach anyone who will listen that God is, that you bear his image, and that you and every other human being have value—inherent, God-given value. I will teach everyone with ears, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and, “You shall not murder,” and, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” I’ll keep preaching that you are your brother’s keeper and that you must take care of the least among you. I will continue to sit with the dying at their hospital bedside, meet with their grieving family members in their homes, and weep with them as they lay their loved ones to rest. I will ask God to change the world the only way it ever will change or has changed: one heart at a time, as he graciously rescues us from the guilt and power and consequences of our own sin.

Let the atheist pundit disparage prayer. He is only disparaging his own value. Let him believe that prayer drifts ever upward to a non-existent sky deity. Christ reigns and the earth is his footstool. Let him fancy that solutions to the problem of the human heart come from better legislation.

Christian, let him do all that. And then, “Continue steadfastly in prayer.” In fact, pray also for the pundit, for he is unable to pray for himself, and he needs the very prayers he disparages.

The Poverty of “Consent”

Recently I read an article in which the author argued in favor of granting legal status to polygamous relationships on the grounds of “consent.” His argument went like this: “They’re consenting adults, so what’s the big deal?” Consent has become our only moral requirement.

In the name of freedom, and of casting off the sexual “repression” of former generations, American culture has morally and legally erased 3500 years of Judeo-Christian ethical teaching, casting it aside in favor of the morality of “consent.” We now deem that no sexual act is deviant or immoral so long as those who participate in it “consent.”

Let’s think about that for a moment.

You can only consent to give another person that which you have the right to give. I can “consent” to give you methamphetamine, and you can “consent” to receive it, but I have no legal right to give it and you have no legal right to receive it. You see, “consent” always stands or falls on a deeper law. The law that forbids the manufacture, sale, or use of methamphetamines precludes you from “consenting” to the manufacture, sale, or use of methamphetamines. Try arguing this before a judge: “Yes, I sold him meth and yes he used it, but we’re both consenting adults.” It won’t work.

But we, as a culture, have come to expect that God, who is Judge, will accept such arguments. The law of God forbids all sexual unions outside of a biblical—one man, one woman—marriage, which means that you have no right to offer yourself sexually to any but your biblical spouse and none but your biblical spouse has any right to receive you. Mere “consent,” devoid of a deeper law to gird it, is bad enough. It cannot offer an intelligent sexual ethic. But “consent” that rebels against a deeper law, which explicitly forbids the very conduct to which we “consent,” is far worse, for it invites men and women to stand before our Judge, armed only with the empty defense: “But we were consenting adults.” It will not work with a human judge, and it will not work with our Divine Judge either.

Given that “consent” is now our only morality, it will not be long before polygamy—as well as incest, prostitution, and even bestiality—gains legal and moral recognition in America. And why shouldn’t it? If “they’re consenting adults” they can do whatever they want, right? The evangelists of “consent” will drown out all Christian voices, celebrating new forms of “love” as the sexual revolution rapidly descends into sexual devolution.

And it will happen in the name of “consent.”

The Indefensible Senate

Indefensible: incapable of being maintained as right or valid; incapable of being justified or excused. So says Miriam-Webster.

Today the United States Senate made an indefensible decision.

Sometimes, an abortion fails. Despite the efforts of the abortionist, the baby is instead born alive. The Senate voted on legislation intended to protect newborn, living children—the living miracles of botched abortions. The bill was simple: require physicians to offer medical care to a living newborn baby. In other words, the legislation, if passed, would have forbidden an abortion doctor to allow a newborn child to die from lack of medical care.

But the bill failed to pass. A bill to forbid physicians from engaging in passive infanticide could not muster the requisite 60 votes.

This decision is a moral abomination. It is barbarous. It is savagery. It is stomach-turning. It is, in a word, indefensible.

Slow, All-Too-Human, and Inefficient

With that title, you’d think I’m about to address government bureaucracy, geriatric yoga classes, or land wars in Asia. But really I’m talking about the Church. The progress of the Church on earth is slow, all-too-human, and inefficient. But it’s also supernaturally-empowered, relentless, and miraculously effective.

Recently I watched a video of lava. No, not the bright red, fast-flowing kind that you always imagined when, as a child, you jumped from couch to chair to couch across your living room, but the slow moving, crumbling, inexorably consuming everything in its path kind of lava. This particular video featured a time-lapse record of a sloth-like but unstoppable wall of lava consuming a small car. Inch by inch it advanced, taking ground, while burning and grinding under its heat and weight any and every object in its path. It wasn’t fast, but it was effective.

The Church is often a mess. It moves slowly. Sometimes in the providence of God great winds of revival blow across the land and the Church advances quickly. More often, however, the Church is crumbling lava. Its movement is barely perceptible, and its advances stand nearly invisible to the naked eye. But that type of advance, viewed through the lens of 2000 years, boasts of profound victories. From a small band of disciples, the Christian Church now inhabits the globe. Its missionaries relentlessly seek out unreached people groups. Its pastors continue slowly and methodically to teach men and women to love God and their neighbors, and to share the reason for the hope that girds the heart of every Christian. Nations rise and fall, governments come and go, and cultures ebb and change. But the Church remains. Word, sacraments, and prayer. Repeat.

In America today, Christians seem to have lost sight of this long view. Sometimes, the slow, steady work of gospel ministry gives way to rapid advances. At other times the Church appears to recede. But in the long view, the Kingdom of Christ ever advances, inexorably, inch-by-inch taking ground. Because Jesus himself empowers the work of the Church, his supernatural influence guarantees that his Church never can be, in the long run, unsuccessful. It will accomplish all that he has designed it to accomplish. No obstacle will thwart its advance—not men, nations, ideologies, or cultural changes—not even the abject failures and sins of the Church itself.

When tortoises run they do not excite us in the same way a bounding jackrabbit does. But maybe there’s something to be said for slow and steady. It works for lava. And it works for the Church.

On Education and Humility

When, as a child, I imagined adulthood, I assumed that my sense of self would match the calendar—that I would feel as old as my birthday suggested. But, like many before me, I have navigated much of my adult life feeling little different inside than I did when I was seventeen. What I expected from adulthood is very different from the reality.

In the same way, when I began a PhD program I assumed I would feel educated upon completing it. But, not unlike my assumptions about adulthood, the reality has proven different from the expectation.

Two factors contribute to this feeling. First, deep study in any given field reveals to the student just how much knowledge comprises that field. The more educated the student becomes, the more he realizes just how little he knows. Second, deep study in any given field requires the student to remain ignorant of many other fields. James W. Alexander once quipped that to master a given field of study the student must “heroically . . . determine to be ignorant of many things in which men take pride.” During the time in which I focused my energies to master one discipline, my ignorance of many others necessarily grew.

As a result, my reticence to speak authoritatively—to declaim as if I know something—has increased as my education has increased. In the past I have spoken, blogged, and engaged on social media, often fancying myself some kind of expert or authority. Never mind that everything I know of economics or art or nuclear physics could fit into a thimble with room to spare. I read an article on Facebook. Hence, I was an expert. If further academic work has taught me anything, it has taught me a much-needed lesson in humility. Going forward, I hope to bite my tongue far more than I use it.

Sometimes a person who possesses genuine expertise in one field mistakenly fancies himself an expert in all fields. I knew a man whose expertise resides in the field of fluid dynamics, but who nevertheless spoke confidently about theology, law, and a variety of other fields in which he possessed no training whatsoever. I found him slow to learn and apt to argue. Although I had enjoyed far more training in theology, he could not learn from me, for he fancied himself more an expert than me. I hope not to repeat his error, and to remember that my particular expertise is profoundly limited in scope and non-transferrable to other disciplines.

In short, more than any fact I learned or expertise I gained, my education has given me a healthy dose of caution about the limits of my education.

 

Abraham, Isaac, and a Skeptic

In 1 Corinthians 2:14, the Apostle Paul asserts: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

I recently read an article about Genesis 22 and Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son, Isaac. The author is a self-designated “skeptic,” and the article suggests that buried underneath the biblical account is an older, more authentic account, in which Abraham goes through with the sacrifice of his son. Speculation, not scholarship, fuels such suggestions, and articles like this occasionally surface, usually claiming that some ancient fragment of text, recently unearthed, may overturn previously held beliefs. The “evidence” rarely amounts to more than bald speculation.

This particular skeptic’s desire to find scraps of such evidence to bolster and justify his pre-existing unbelief was not, however, what fascinated me about the article. Rather the conclusion he drew testified to his blindness. He claimed that “people are willing to worship a god no matter how morally abhorrent.”

Ponder that for a moment. He acknowledges that in the biblical account God stays Abraham’s hand and provides for him a sacrifice in place of Isaac. To this skeptic, that God is “morally abhorrent.” He almost takes giddy delight in the notion that an older version of the story makes Abraham sacrifice Isaac, for it “takes a pretty despicable tale and makes it worse.” A despicable tale?

That supposedly despicable tale is nothing less than the Good News that God himself will provide the sacrifice necessary to cover your sin. It is the story of a God who is willing to kill his own Son that you and your son might live.

But spiritual things are spiritually discerned, and the blind man sees only night, even when the noonday sun is shining in his face. If the story of a God who will save your son at the expense of his own is a “despicable tale” then it maybe it is not God who is “morally abhorrent.” Maybe the darkness is in you.

Thy Will Be Done

Thy will be done.

Four little words. Only four. But they are hard words to pray if you really mean them. When I pray, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” I find it easy to ask that God’s will be done on earth per se, in a generic, non-specific way.

But I find it hard to pray for His will to be done in me.

Most often I struggle with this during times of pain, or when I don’t understand His will. During such times, I rarely pray for His will to be done. Instead, I pray for Him to alleviate my pain or to alter my circumstances.

And yet as I look back on crises past I realize that more often than not God intended to change me through the struggle, and the very circumstances I wanted Him to remove were His instruments for my growth in Christlikeness. It was not His will to remove me from difficult circumstances. It was His will to remove sin from me by walking me through difficult circumstances.

If I truly desire His will, then I must reckon with 1 Thessalonians 4:3, which says, “This is the will of God, your sanctification.” And if I pray for His will to be done, not just in the world in general, but in me specifically, then I should expect trials and difficult circumstances. God uses these for “the testing of your faith,” which “produces steadfastness,” and which makes the Christian “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

Do you mean it when you pray, “Thy will be done?” Even if His will is to use difficult circumstances to refine you, to burn away the dross, and to sanctify you? Even if His will means that you experience pain?

When Jesus prayed for His Father’s will to be done, He meant it, and even during the greatest suffering any human has ever endured He desired His Father’s will above all else. And I am glad He did, for the Father’s will was for Jesus to die for my sin so that I might live for God. Had Jesus sought to escape His circumstances rather than obey His Father through them, then there would be no salvation. Eternal life itself depended upon Jesus’ submission to God’s will.

If Jesus pursued God’s will to the Cross for me, then surely I can pursue it for His glory.

Thy will be done, in me.

Soup without a Spoon

Christianity in America is a soup sandwich. Yes, you read that correctly. Coming from my days in the Navy, few metaphors more vividly conjure a genuine mess than the image of a man attempting to hold soup between two pieces of soggy bread.

Celebrity-ism, moral confusion, biblical illiteracy, political entanglements, juvenile worship, rampant materialism, gluttony, apathy, consumerism, and general shallowness plague the Church in America. The Church presents a sad picture, a veritable rogues’ gallery of sinners and scandals.

Why do so many wounds fester in the body of evangelical Christianity? Many explanations could be offered, but no silver bullet answers adequately.

What follows is just one observation that may—or may not—help.

Evangelicalism obsesses over cultural decline. Our Puritan forefathers viewed the nascent nation as a covenanted people, holy before the Lord, and therefore accountable to reform every aspect of society in light of Scripture. Our post-Revolutionary fathers carried forward that ethos, clothed it in representative government, and viewed America as a holy Republic, a burgeoning beacon for other nations. Still today Christians in America take public morality seriously. Since its birth, the American Church has therefore proven incapable of resisting a moral crusade, for the Church believes—to its core—that it is supposed to make the world moral. If it sees a sin in society, the Church must fix it. Never content for Christians to behave like Christians, the Church is convinced that the world must behave like Christians as well. Hence the obsession with culture.

Here’s the rub: The sequoia sized log in evangelicalism’s eye seems to offer no hindrance to the Church’s obsessive focus on the speck in society’s eye. Said another way, the Church in America is so busy trying to make the culture holy that she has forgotten to pursue holiness herself.

Maybe Christians should expect unregenerate people to act like unregenerate people. Maybe we should expect the world to act like the world and concentrate on the Church behaving like the Church. Instead of engaging in social moral engineering, the Church could strive to remove the sequoia, and model holiness. If evangelicalism pursued its own holiness half as vigorously as it morally polices society, the Church might find itself healthier and more influential.

Or she could continue eating soup without a spoon.

Holiness is Easy with Coffee Creamer

When Christians think of sanctification, we tend to think of “getting better,” or of becoming more and more like Christ. And it’s true. The Holy Spirit progressively burns away the dross, such that we “are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory.”

But we often overlook another facet of sanctification: seeing just how needy we truly are. I want to believe that my walk with the Lord displays consistency, and that no matter the circumstance, I will behave as becomes a follower of Christ. I want to believe that, but if I’m honest I can’t.

Give me chronic pain—something as innocuous as a stiff neck—and my behavior deteriorates. Add gray weather and my attitude suffers. Deprive me of sleep and it’s over. All my pretensions of holiness melt away when I run out of creamer for my coffee.

A Christian is not simply one who recognizes that salvation comes by the grace of God. Christians also understand that we need His grace all day, every day in order to walk in a manner worthy of the calling we have received. I am weak and needy beyond my imagining.

And coming to that realization is a part of my sanctification. Because holiness is easy with coffee creamer.

Seasoned Speech

Addressing President Trump’s history of crude comments about women, former Vice President Joe Biden recently stated that he would have “beat the hell out of” the President had he and Mr. Trump attended high school together. Mr. Trump has fired back that Biden “would go down fast and hard, crying all the way” were the two to scuffle.

This is statesmanship in America in 2018.

Proverbs 15:1-2 says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly.” Each of us has spoken both wisdom and folly. Rashness overtakes every kind mouth sometimes, while even the worst of us occasionally stumbles upon a soft answer. I regularly pray that my words would more often represent wisdom and less often represent the fool who lives just below the surface.

I am reminded that Jesus said in Matthew 12:34-35: “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.”

If it is true that my words reflect my heart, then my heart has a long way to go, and I rest in the knowledge that Jesus is in the business of transforming hearts. Even as the Prophet Ezekiel foretold, Jesus has removed “the heart of stone” and has given “a heart of flesh.” Moreover, Christ has promised that “Every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven” to those who seek Him in faith. Forgiveness is a good thing.

But I also am increasingly aware that if I desire for American political and social rhetoric to improve, I ought to begin with myself. If society collectively cringes when septuagenarian politicians sling around the empty bravado of locker room bullies, how much more so when Christians speak this way?

“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt.”