The biggest problem with prayer

This is an issue about prayer that almost never gets addressed. It was put to me by my friend Nancy. Her note, almost verbatim:

Someday I need you to help me understand why we are told when we pray and believe our prayers will be answered. Then people die in spite of our pleas for health. I know it is within God’s will but why ask if His will is what is going to occur anyway? I know thousands of prayers were said for (a friend who died some years back) and for my friend I saw buried today. Thousands are being said for (a friend with cancer) yet she is in a battle for her life.

We are told “you have not because you ask not.” Maybe this would be a good blog topic. I can’t be the only one who struggles with these thoughts.

If you only knew, Nancy.

Let’s start by this upfront admission: When it comes to prayer, things are not as simple as they may seem at first.

Frankly, as one who likes things simple and cut-and-dried, this is painful to admit.

True, the Bible actually does say things like: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives….” (Matthew 6:7-8) And it says: “Whatever you ask in my name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:13-14).

There are plenty more similar texts, but those two are sufficient to establish that the blanket promises are out there.

What are serious disciples of the Lord Jesus to make of such prayer promises? Here are some aspects of the subject that should help…

1. The disciples clearly did not understand these as blank checks.

Had they interpreted such promises as “get-out-of-jail-free” cards, they would have cashed them in. At the first sign of trouble, they would have “named it and claimed it” and poof! all is well.

That is not what we see happening in the early church.

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Man is basically good. Try saying that with a straight face.

A pastor friend says he was checking into a website responsible for a series of “believe-in-yourself” television commercials that had been airing. When he checked to see who was responsible and what their values were, he found this: We believe in the basic goodness of all people.

One wonders what kind of number a person would have to do on himself to convince himself of that misguided philosophy.

True, we want to believe that. It’s part of our sinful nature to believe that everyone is all right and no one needs forgiving or saving. A major strain in our sinful system holds that all we need to do is release everyone from restraints and preachers should quit laying guilt trips on unsuspecting audiences.

Yeah, right.  But one wonders how many people were killed last night by those who were resisting restraints and determined to have their own way.

In two rather unexpected places, I came upon discussions regarding the contradictory nature of man. One was a western novel and the other a biography of a longshoreman philosopher from over 40 years ago.

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Revelation, fabrication, and make up the “truth” as you go

“For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses….”  “For prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:16,21).

I’ve been reading books again.

That explains a lot of things.  It explains where my mind is these days, what’s been bugging me, and where I’ve been searching the Word.

I’ve been reading “The Story of Ain’t.”  This is mostly the story of struggles to decide what goes into dictionaries, culminating in Webster’s Third Edition.  Author David Skinner brings us into the inner offices of G. and C. Merriam Company and tells how decisions are made concerning the English language.  If you like that, you’d love watching sausage being made.  (It’s a difficult book to read and only the wordsmiths among us should “rush out and buy this book.”)

I’ve been reading “The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844.”  Author John L. Brooke takes us back into the context of the birth of this American-made religion to show that almost everything about it was the product, not of revelation, but of ideas floating around when Joseph Smith was a young man.

I’ve been reading the Bible.

The contrast in these three is enlightening.  Reflecting on them resulted in the following observations….

1) Some things we make up as we go. Language is that way.

I’m the product of an educational system (1946-1973) that taught students to turn to the dictionary for “the real meaning of that word.”  English teachers assured us that “will” and “shall” are used in different ways, and that educated people knew the difference.  Infinitives should not be split and prepositions should not end sentences. Nouns must not be used as verbs, otherwise they might (ahem) impact us wrongly.

We were left with the impression that these things were set in stone, that somehow somewhere a high council handed down iron-clad rules on proper English usage.

And then we learned otherwise.

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Perfectionism: The cruel burden we place on each other

“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect….” (Matthew 5:48)

First, let’s get the theological argument out of the way.

Let’s make this perfectly clear: God knows you are not perfect and will never be this side of Glory.

And even clearer: “God does not expect sinlessness out of you and me. He is under no illusion about us.”  See Psalm 103:14 “He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust.” And Romans 3:10 “There is none righteous, no, not one.”

Got that?  The illusion of sinless perfection is all ours, my friend.

We read Matthew 5:48 and come away with the erroneous conclusion that God ordered us to be perfect, that perfect means sinlessness, and therefore we can be sinless.  But since we cannot achieve perfection–no one you know has ever pulled it off–then He has given us an impossible standard to live by, one that crushes us and frustrates us and forever disappoints Him.

The result would be that we forever live with a disgusted God and in fear of the celestial woodshed, the destiny of children who bring in failing grades.

Yuck. What kind of theology is this?  And yet, you and I know people who believe this and call themselves Bible students, serious disciples of Jesus, and even evangelists (“sharers of the good news”)..

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This guy found a problem in the Bible and thinks he can now disprove God

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

I was reading comments on a friend’s Facebook page on something she had written about the Bible.

After a number of statements from one critic in particular–each comment shallow and several of them insulting–she patiently responded with kindness and reason.

But nothing worked on that guy.

When one is determined not to believe, no amount of truth or reason or logic can penetrate the protective armor of alibis, arguments, excuses, and slander in which he clothes himself.

What was the “contradiction” he had found in Scripture?

He said, “In one place the Bible says an eye for an eye and another place it says turn the other cheek.  What do you say about such a contradiction?”

I found myself wondering if this guy was serious.  My 13-year-old neighbor could answer that.

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Pastor, don’t lie to us

“Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices” (Colossians 3:9).

“Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord” (Proverbs 12:22).

Lying is unattractive in anyone, but almost unforgiveable in a pastor.  If anyone should set the standard for truth and righteousness, it’s the pastor.  And yet, some seem to have not gotten the word on that.

1. Do not lie to us about your resume.

If you say you went to school there or pastored that church, we want to believe you.  If you earned a degree, say what it was. If the degree was honorary, but not earned, say that also. What you must not do is give the impression you attended a school which you did not or served a church which you did not serve or possess a degree you don’t.

Why would anyone lie about their resume? Obviously, to enhance their prospects for a job. But any position acquired as a result of a falsehood is worthless in the long run.

Regularly, we hear of high-profile executives, educators, and coaches being caught for padding their resumes, for claiming degrees they did not have, for professing honors they did not earn.  Perhaps the most shameful is the man who claims to have been a war hero, who wears the uniform and sports the medals, but who, it turns out, is a consummate liar.

Tell us the truth, pastor.

2. Do not lie to us about your testimony.

I heard a certain pastor’s testimony on more than one occasion. It was so moving that when he went to Heaven, I paid tribute to him on these pages by telling his story.  Sometime later, his brother found the eulogy by googling his name, and called me. “You know there’s not a word of truth to it, don’t you?”

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How religious cults operate

After a few days of trying in vain to get Russians to talk with her, Cowles found out why they were afraid. Stalin had just killed untold millions of his own people for what he called anti-Communistic actions. Some of those actions were nothing more than studying a foreign language or befriending a foreigner. Consequently, people were afraid to speak to any stranger.

Cowles then gives us her analysis of life in that sad country:

The chief distinction between man and animal is the critical faculty of the human mind. In the Soviet Union–just as in Germany–the critical faculty was carefully exterminated, so that the mass might sweat out their existence as uncomplainingly as oxen, obedient to the tyranny of the day. Truth was a lost word. Minds were doped with distorted information until they became so sluggish they had not even the power to protest against their miserable conditions. The ‘Pravda’ never tired of revealing to its readers the iniquities of the outside world, always pointing (out) how blessed were the people of the Soviet Union.

This is precisely how religous cults operate. They cannot stand for their people to think for themselves, have independent opinions, or ask troublesome questions. Dissension is treated as rebellion and rebellion gets you ousted.


By the word “cult,” I do not mean bad people. In fact, personally, in using the word I don’t mean all those off-beat groups that appear on the religious landscape from time to time. By “cult,” I mean variations of Christianity that claim they and they alone have the truth and all the rest of us are either deceived or deceitful.

The two groups that qualify more than any others in my mind are the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

 

Watchman Fellowship is an outstanding organization which seeks to inform people about modern cults. Their website is www.watchman.org. I recommend them highly.

Watchman Fellowship says on their blog, “Cults have shifted their theological point of authority away from God’s full and final written word, the Bible, to their own unique, self-promoting opinions about the Bible.”

These groups take one of three positions regarding the Bible, according to WF.

–1) The Bible is merely a good book. Groups taking this line include Hare Krishna and Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church.

–2) The Bible is the Word of God but has mistakes. The Mormons (Church of Latter-Day Saints or LDS) and Christian Science take this position.

–3) The Bible is completely true and accurate, but only our group has the correct interpretation. Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unity School of Christianity fall into this group.

The primary thing to bear in mind about cults is this: each one has a central authority that sets all the rules, interprets the Bible, and allows no deviation from its “revelations.”

No independent thought. No criticism of its leadership. No dissent, no questioning, and therefore no sense of humor.

I’m old enough to recall when the Brooklyn headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses handed down a new rule prohibiting the open-book studying and teaching of the Bible. Until that time, members could gather in Kingdom Halls and study the Bible for themselves. But from that moment on, only official materials could be read with the Scriptures and counted on for the proper interpretation.

I’ve had more than a few run-ins with both groups–Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons–over the years. Nothing about it was fun. I’ve read the books of Christian writers with their insights and principles for witnessing to members of these movements, but I always came away feeling I had failed the members of the sects and done a poor job of representing the Truth of Christ.

As a seminary student and part-time pastor of a small church on a Louisiana bayou, I learned that two children who had started attending our church lived in that house on the highway. So one evening, a deacon and I called on the family. The father welcomed us in and proceeded to inform us he was a backslidden Jehovah’s Witness. For reasons long forgotten, he had fallen out of favor and had been ousted. But he could argue circles around me. I was so green and completely unacquainted with his religion.

That sent me to the library to start learning. The next time, I determined, I would be ready.

I was far from ready.

Several years later, a man in our town told me his teenage son was being pulled into the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He asked if I would talk to the boy. We set up a meeting for the next Monday night at my church.

It was a set-up all right. And I was the bait.

The man and his son were accompanied by the leader of the local Jehovah’s Witnesses hall and an apprentice or two. In no way was I expecting or prepared for this. I know now, I should have ended it right there and called off the meeting.

But I was young and this had never happened before.

The JW leader put on a show before his understudies. He gloated like a young Mussolini whenever he spotted an area where I had to say “I don’t know,” flaunted his arrogance with a smirk, and left me speechless.

One does not forget such an experience.

I have no further memory of anything coming out of that little confrontation other than a complete revulsion in my soul ever since for such people. Looking back, I wonder whether the man and his son were more revolted by my ignorance or by their leader’s arrogance. Both were pretty overwhelming.

Over the years since, I have made an in-depth study of both Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormonism. I’m no expert on either. I have found, however, that they share a disdain for one another. And no wonder, since they use so many of the same tactics: door-to-door work, we-alone-have-the-truth, the Bible-is-true-only-as-we-interpret-it, and policies are set by a small group of men who alone receive revelations from the Almighty. Everyone else is expected to tow the party line and leave their eternal destinies in the hands of the authorities.

As with Communist Russia, these groups exist only by squelching dissent. Raise embarrassing questions and you’ll get a come-to-Jesus (as we say) visit from your superiors. Question the authority and your standing is quickly in trouble.

There is a certain security in belonging to such a religion. It keeps you from having to think. Your salvation and eternal destiny are in the hands of other people.

If you like that sort of thing, that those are the religions for you, I suppose.

But mark it down in big letters: such cults will always have mass defections from people who were sucked in and then found out that they were expected to leave their critical faculties (their brains!) at the door.

The bad thing about those who leave such cults, I have sometimes found, is that many have been forever poisoned against belonging to a normal Christian church.

There is going to be some hard accountabilities at Judgment, friend. It’s not only the Hitlers and Stalins who have a lot to account for when they stand before the Almighty. The leaders of the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are in deep trouble.

Remember you heard it here.

Kate has given me permission to tell of her experience with the Mormons. She grew up in a town where I pastored for many years, and we’ve reconnected on Facebook recently.

She grew up Episcopalian. “I had no idea who Jesus was.” In college, “I went the Methodist route, but still didn’t connect.” She married Brad, they moved to another city, and one day the LDS missionaries knocked on the door. “At the time, they were a nice diversion for me.”

Brad was violent and abusive and Kate felt safe with the elders. “We became close friends, which is actually frowned on between male missionaries and female investigators.” She says, “When they were teaching the lessons, I thought they were crazy.”

“Even thought I did not have a connection with God at the time,” Kate explains, “I did have enough biblical foundation to know their teachings were out of line with that.”

So why did she join the Mormon church? “I felt pressured and I felt guilty because they were friends and needed this to happen. I remember being offended when they put me with other women to learn from. I wanted to hang out with the two elders and no one else. So joining was not about the doctrine at all.”

Kate was baptized in the Mormon ward on Mother’s Day of 1990. “I just never could accept the LDS faith, though. It was bizarre to me. I thought they were wonderful and delightful people, but doctrinally off the wall.”

“As strange as this seems, even though I wasn’t saved and did not have a relationship with Christ, I knew they were wrong. But I was so desperate to escape my bad marriage to Brad. The violence at home escalated over time. I cannot tell you how many times the missionaries would take me to the emergency room or comfort me when I went to their apartment with black eyes, cuts, bruises, or bloody lips.”

“Brad left me in 1990 over a private conversation I had with the LDS missionaries. I told them something about my marriage and they called him. He was humilated I had discussed our life with them, so he beat me again. He left me for dead this time, he cleaned out the house, and he moved out. I felt completely betrayed by the missionaries.”

“After I was released from the hospital, we set up a meeting with the Mormon bishop. He warned me to have a sweet spirit when I came in. He said if I had a spirit of dissension, Satan would enter the room with me.”

“The young missionaries told the bishop that they knew what was best for me and that God had told them to call my husband.”

Kate says, “That might have worked had Brad been a member of the church and not a sadistic lunatic.”

Eventually, Kate moved back home. Her mother rejected her. “You made your own bed, now lie in it.” From there, she moved to Florida.

There, Kate re-connected with the Mormon church. It was all she knew.

Eventually, a member of the ward who was a psychiatrist had her committed to a padded cell in a strait jacket. That’s when she moved once more.

In her new town, she met a guy. He said, “I’d love to date you but there’s something you need to know. I’m a Christian.”

“He brought over a Bible, some tacos, and a Keith Green CD (still my fav). He said, ‘Start reading in Matthew and call me after you get through John.’”

Long story short–and there is much more to Kate’s saga–the Lord used the witness of this friend to penetrate her heart and get her straight.

At a particularly low point when she thought about jumping off a bridge, God reminded her of Psalm 68:5 (A father of the fatherless and a judge for the widows, is God in His holy habitation). “It just blew my mind.”

“I said out loud to the Lord, ‘I will be your child if you will be my Father, but if you aren’t real, then I’m coming back to this bridge and I will jump off it and I don’t want you to stop me.’”

That did it.

“I had an overwhelming sense of peace right then, went home, burned all my ac/dc, black sabbath, secular music and said, ‘I trust you to provide what will help me grow as a Christian.’”

Two days later, at a get-together of Christians, Kate heard the testimony of a young woman who told how Jesus saved her from a life of drugs and partying.

Kate says, “I prayed the sinners prayer right then on their deck and started going to church.”

She wrote the LDS church, demanding that they remove her name from their rolls. “It only took them 8 years. I just got the letter that I have been officially removed. As for how I feel about the church right now, I still think they are lovely wonderful people. I live in a western city which is nothing short of little Salt Lake. I have many friends still in the church, but their doctrine is absolutely and totally incorrect and I don’t mind being quite vocal about it.”

“Their doctrine is dangerous,” Kate says, “I don’t allow them to pray with me or to pray anywhere in front of me or on my property. They are not praying to the same God I am. I know Mormon doctrine well. I have the Book of Mormon here, the pearl of Great Price, Doctrine and Covenants and I know them well.”

Kate says, “A Mormon will tell you in a heartbeat if you try and quote that last verse of the Bible (not to add to the Word of God) that Revelation was not meant to be the last book in the Bible. However, they don’t have much to say when I tell them that the God of Creation, the One who spoke this world into existence, He would know what order His Holy Word was supposed to be in.”

“I am extremely opinionated about the Mormon church, even angry about it sometimes. I pray every day for this deception to fall like a house of cards.”

I’m asking our readers to pray for Kate. She’s a precious young woman and even though she has joined a good church, she needs to be in a small group of believers who will encourage her.

She does not need anyone to dominate her life, however. She’s been there and done that. The Lord Jesus Christ has set her free. We give Him praise and glory for the peace and salvation she knows right now.

Kate is one of the Lord’s jewels. We rejoice in what the Lord has done in her and for the person she is in the process of becoming.

People do love their illusions

“For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust” (Psalm 103:14).

God is under no illusion about us. He knows we are made of humble stuff.  He knew He was getting no bargain when He saved us. When we sin, the only one surprised is us.

Whether we are under false conceptions, i.e., illusions, about God is another question.

One thing is sure. We sure do love our illusions, our pipe dreams, our false ideas and wrong impressions.

No one should see how sausage or their laws are made.  The internet traces that quote to Otto von Bismarck, German chancellor of the late 1800s, who is supposed to have said it more like “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.”

Leave us with our illusions.

I grew up on Southern Gospel music and my family frequently attended their concerts.  In adulthood seeing some of the groups up close and off stage, the profanity and carnal lifestyles forever ruined me.  In time, I was able to enjoy some of their music, but without attending a concert or becoming a groupie.  I had lost my illusion about these people.

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When a pastor misrepresents himself, is it lying?

“Lie not one to another, seeing that you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of Him that created Him….” (Colossians 3:9-10).

I hate to admit this, but it needs to be done.

Preachers sometimes misrepresent themselves. 

Some claim to have degrees that sound authentic but were bought on the sly somewhere for the simple reason that they have learned laypeople in our churches are unsophisticated about that sort of thing but are impressed by high-sounding degrees. Some ministers claim to have been places they merely flew over, to know people they shook hands with, and to be more than they are.  Some give the appearance that they know the original languages when they are merely quoting something they picked up in a book.

There is no substitute for integrity in those called to preach the Word and lead the Lord’s flock.

A surgeon must have cleanliness in all he does; a teacher must have a love for the students at the heart of all she does; a carpenter must have the blueprint at the heart of all he does; and a pastor must have integrity at the heart of all he does.

Integrity. Truth. Honesty.  No deception. No embellishment. No twisting of the fact. No irresponsible reporting.  No claiming what is not so, no declaring what we do not know, and no using what belongs to another.

The temptation is ever with us to do otherwise.

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Things that “simply could not happen!” Oh no?

“Keep back thy servant from presumptuous sins” (Psalm 19:13).

In the months leading up to the U.S. involvement in the Second World War, our country broke the Japanese secret code.  This means that Army and Navy personnel were reading Japan’s messages. We actually knew where their forces were most of the time and what they were planning.

All signs indicated they were going to attack the U.S. at Pearl Harbor.

And yet, when they did just that–December 7, 1941, that day of infamy–we were completely unprepared. Our battleships were parked side by side close up and made a great target for the Japanese torpedo bombers.  Our planes were parked in rows, as though for the sharpshooters at the county fair.

The Japanese had a field day.  A turkey shoot.

How had this happened?  How had they managed to catch us so completely off guard when we were reading their coded messages and knew what they were up to?

We did not believe what we were reading. This could not possibly happen.

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