In my early morning walk once I saw a man jogging on the levee beside the Mississippi River. As he approached, he seemed to be tilted slightly, running just a tad off balance. Then I realized one sleeve was hanging limply at his side. The absence of his left arm threw his body off balance.
Veteran Bible teacher Warren Wiersbe used to say there ought to be one more beatitude: “Blessed are the balanced.”
When Rick Warren of Saddleback Church said the key issue of the 21st century church would be not church growth but church health, someone asked his secret of church health. “In a word, balance,” he said.
Rick Warren explained, “Your body has nine different systems (circulatory, respiratory, digestive, skeletal, etc). When these systems are all in balance, it produces health. But when your body gets out of balance, we call that ‘disease.’”
He added, “Likewise when the body of Christ becomes unbalanced, disease occurs. Health and growth can only occur when everything is brought into balance.”
In Matthew 6, our Lord showed His concern that the disciples find proper balance in their spiritual lives. On the one hand, they should not follow the example of religious hypocrites and theological play-actors who pray and give and fast in order to impress other people. On the other hand, they should avoid the practice of the pagans who pray for hours using chants and meaningless repetition in an attempt to impress God. Both are ditches to be avoided. In between these two extremes lies the “road,” the path of balance.
In what we call “The Lord’s Prayer” and our Catholic friends refer to as “The Our Father,” Jesus gives a wonderful pattern for balance in the prayers of His people.
1. A balance between intimacy and community. “Our Father.”
What could be more intimate and wonderful than to know the God of the universe as Father. And yet, He is not mine alone. He is “our” Father, yours and mine. All who come to God through Jesus Christ are brothers and sisters.
When I pray in private, I say, “My Father.” When I lead in public prayer, recognizing that I am praying on behalf of my friends, I say, “Our Father.”
Somebody somewhere has set himself up to undo this. I keep hearing people pray publicly, “I make my prayer in Jesus’ name.” I never do, but think of saying to them, “Friend, please go back and study the Lord’s prayer. It’s our and us and we, not I, me, or my.”
The 23rd Psalm with it’s “my, I, and me” would be more of a private meditation, whereas the Lord’s Prayer is about community, praying with the family.
2. A balance between the imminence and transcendence of God. “Our Father who art in Heaven; hallowed be Thy name.”
As “our Father,” God is close and near, someone we can almost reach out and touch. However, He is in Heaven. He is both near and far, imminent and transcendent.
Some of the founding fathers of this country are said to have been Deists who believed that God had created the physical universe, then gone off to other matters, leaving it to run on its own. To them, God was transcendent only, “out there” somewhere. Today, some Christians have lost the transcendence of God’s reality and believe that not only is God close to them, but He is just like them. Bad mistake. (See Psalm 50:21) They need the balance of “Our Father who is in Heaven” and the reminder that He is “hallowed” or holy.
The word “holy” means “other than.” In Christ, God is with us (the meaning of ‘Immanuel’). However, He is far more than we are and different from us. He is holy.
3. A balance between today and tomorrow. “Thy kingdom come (future), thy will be done on earth (future) as it is (now) in Heaven.”
Some with their charts and timelines are interested only in the future, while others seem to focus only on today, ministering to people, settling disputes, working for justice. We need balance between our commitment to the world around us and our hope for the world God has promised.
In my opinion, conservatives tend to emphasize tomorrow and liberals today. Each is a ditch to be avoided. In between lies the path of balance.
Practically every Christian knows Jeremiah 29:11 where God says, “I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for calamity, to give you a future and a hope.” However, it’s worth noting that four verses earlier, He tells His people, “Work for the welfare of the city where I have sent you and pray on its behalf, for as it prospers, you will prosper.” God has a future for us, yes, but He also has a job for us today.
4. A balance between heaven and earth. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”
God reigns over the entire universe and calls the stars by name. At the same time, He is responsible for the life across this entire planet and for the ripening of the grapes in your back yard. He is both here and there. He has not gone off and left us in charge; He is still involved. When God came to earth in Jesus, He did not empty Heaven. “If I ascend to Heaven, you are there; to hades, you are there.” (Psalm 139:8) He is Lord over all places.
5. A balance between the physical and the spiritual. “Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us….”
People want to relegate God to one realm or the other. Liberals tend to pen Him up in the physical, conservatives in the spiritual. Some pray about spiritual matters but not physical; some only about physical, mundane matters. We need both.
Veteran missionary Rosalind Goforth told her prayer group that earlier that morning the Lord had helped her locate her hat pin before leaving home. When someone scoffed at the silliness of bothering the great God over so trivial a matter, she answered, “The God of the infinite is also God of the infinitesimal.” She had balance in her theology.
6. A balance between me and others. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
I have my own personal needs, yes, but I have a duty to help others with theirs. A few years back, millions of people read Bruce Wilkinson’s book, The Prayer of Jabez, based on I Chronicles 4:10. “O that thou wouldst bless me indeed, and enlarge my coast, and that thy hand might be with me, and that thou wouldst keep me from evil, that it may not bring me pain.”
If there is a flaw in that prayer, it is simply that all his requests are directed toward himself. Now, Jabez was a man with some serious needs. Accused by his mother of causing him pain in childbirth and given a name to make certain he never forgot, and thus perhaps shunned by his brothers, he comes to the Lord with a prayer that God would be with him, bless him, enlarge him, and protect him. And, we read that God heard his prayer, so clearly the Heavenly Father thought his requests were just fine. Overall, however, he could have used some balance in his praying.
It’s not enough to pray for myself, as important as that may be. I must love others and pray for them. We must watch out for imbalance in our prayers.
7. A balance between fear of evil and confidence in God. We pray “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” on the one hand, being on guard against the evil one. Then, “thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory” brings out the victory and glorious reign of the Father. He is in charge. Balance.
In Scripture, we find this balance all way through. The 19th Psalm begins: “The Heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament declares His handiwork.” It ends with this prayer: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to Thee, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.” From the universe to my thoughts.
Great and small. It’s all there. Infinite and infinitesimal.
The first time I met Jennifer, she and her mother were visiting our church. At the invitation time following the sermon, this six-year-old walked down the aisle to me and said through her tears, “My little bird died today and I am so sad.” I sensed something of how our Heavenly Father must feel when His children hurt. If it matters to us, it is important to Him. Jennifer and I prayed together and I gave her a big hug, and have treasured her ever since.
In a sermon, I said a mother’s prayers receive a special welcome in Heaven, that they go straight to the head of the line. A mom in the congregation took that as a word from the Lord. She had just been on the phone with her adult daughter who needed mom’s intercession over a matter. Then, something wonderful happened.
The next night, that mother walked into our fellowship hall where a small group were assembled to make phone calls and write post cards to missing class members. She took a chair, sat down, and reached into a pile for a post card. The picture on the front startled her.
In the picture, a mother was on her knees praying at her child’s bed, surrounded by the clutter of a pre-teen’s life–raggedy ann dolls, lacy pillows, posters. In the foreground loomed the shadow of the daughter, wearing twin ponytails, clearly watching her mom intercede for her.
This mother said to me, “My daughter’s room is filled with raggedy ann dolls. And she wore her hair just that way. That could have been a picture of us.”
That is one mother who knows that God welcomes her prayers, even as a mother receives her child.
In her wonderful book, Legacy of a Pack Rat, Ruth Bell Graham tells of a letter that arrived at their office one day from a very serious four-year-old. “Please pray I’ll catch a lizard.” Mrs. Graham loved that and wrote, “Not once has God ever said, ‘Don’t bother me. Don’t you see I’m busy?’ And He so well could–with a world in its present condition.”
She continues, “Each person is special to Him, who calls every star by name, who has the hairs of our heads numbered, and who knows the number of grains of sand on the ocean shores.”
Mrs. Graham shared a little poem by Amy Carmichael which you will treasure–
And then a little laughing prayer
Came running up the sky,
Above the golden gutters, where
The sorry prayers go by.
It had no fear of anything,
But in that holy place
It found the very throne of God
And smiled up in His face.
Let me close with this prayer:
“Our Father. You have invited us to pray about everything. The fact that we haven’t always done so is no reflection on your greatness or your love. We just have a hard time believing you could love nobodies and failures like us. The cross of Jesus says otherwise, doesn’t it. Says it loud and clear.
“Since you love us fiercely and desire only to bless us, would you forgive us for all the sorry prayers we have sent your way and which are clogging Heaven’s golden gutters. Help us to believe in your goodness and your grace and your willingness to bless us. May we begin today praying seriously about the things and the people who matter most to us. Through Jesus our Lord. Amen.”