Saturday, November 28, 2009

"I cry out to you, O God, but you do not answer."

As part of my daily devotional practice over the past few months, I have been reading a chapter or two from Mike Mason’s book The Gospel According to Job. This morning’s reading was especially helpful to me in light of my present circumstances. For those of you who have been reading my personal blog, you will have known that I have been experiencing severe pain in my lower torso and left leg for over two weeks. Job’s words in 30:20 have been my cry as well, just as I know that they are the cry of God’s persecuted children worldwide. I hope that you find these words a blessing as I have.

True Prayer
"I cry out to you, O God, but you do not answer." (30:20)

In the Bible we often read of people "crying out to the Lord." But what does it mean to "cry out"? Does it mean to express oneself demurely to God, with polite restraint, using the well-worn, time-honored phrases of the conventional prayer meeting? Or do the words "cry out" suggest more the sort of sound a man might make whose legs have just been caught up in a piece of machinery? "Surely [God] will save you from the fowler's snare;" sings the psalmist (91:3). A snare is a leghold trap, a contrivance designed to catch an animal and hold it until it dies of shock or starvation, condemning it in the meanwhile to hopeless struggle and horror. Is this not the sort of situation that might bring a human being to the point of crying out to God?

There is no true prayer without agony. Perhaps this is the problem in many of our churches. What little prayer we have is shallow, timid, carefully censored, and full of oratorical flourishes and hot air. There is little agony in it, and therefore little honesty or humility. We seem to think that the Lord is like everyone else we know, and that He cannot handle real honesty. So we put on our Sunday best to visit Him, and when we return home and take off our fancy duds we are left alone with what is underneath: the dirty underwear of hypocrisy.

Why do we flatly refuse to bring real emotions to our prayer meetings? Do we think that the public humbling of ourselves before the Lord should always be a pretty and an enjoyable thing? Do we think the Lord is only honored so long as our own public image and personal dignity are in no way compromised? But the truth is just the opposite: only when we ourselves are prepared to lose face can the Lord's face begin to shine through. It is for Him to exalt us; our part is to humble ourselves. "If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land" (2 Chron. 7:14).

Even in our private prayers, let alone in our public ones, we Christians have a way of tiptoeing around the throne of God as if He were an invalid or a doddering old man. But who do we think we are kidding? The Lord always knows exactly what we are feeling. He knows all there is to know about us. There is not a shadow of doubt or anger or hate in our hearts but God sees it. So why not just lay all our cards on the table? Real prayer is playing straight with God. If we have never cried out to the Lord, perhaps it is because we have not realized the true horror of our situation. We need to be careful that we do not grow so preoccupied with maintaining our spiritual equilibrium that we regard it as unseemly to cry out to God.

At bottom, probably what we are most afraid of in prayer is that no answer will come, and that then we will be left worse off than before. But true prayer has two parts: first there is the crying out, and then there is the waiting for an answer. If we are the sort of people who insist on having instant answers, then we shall certainly lack the courage to cry out. Though we might continue to go through the motions of prayer, we will have given up on the real thing.

Towards the end of the book of Jeremiah, the nation of Judah was on its last legs. It had been conquered by the Babylonians, and most of its people had been led away into captivity. Only a small remnant was left under the puppet governor Gedaliah. But when Gedaliah was assassinated by a rebel, suddenly even these survivors were in peril, for everyone knew that a brutal reprisal could be expected from the Babylonians. So what were they to do? What they did, surprisingly, was to go to the prophet Jeremiah and beg him to consult the Lord for them. Furthermore they bound themselves to obey God's Word no matter what. Their situation was desperate. They were crying out. Jeremiah agreed to pray for them.

At this point, we read one of the most astounding understatements in the Bible: "Ten days later the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah" (42:7). Imagine! Ten days later! Who could possibly wait ten days under such circumstances? Did the Lord not understand that this was a dire emergency? After ten days, naturally, the people had already made up their minds to ignore God's answer and to do exactly what they felt like doing: run like crazy down to Egypt. When the pressure was on, they performed the first requirement of prayer admirably: they cried out to the Lord. But for the second half of prayer they had no stomach. They could not wait for an answer.

[Mike Mason, The Gospel According to Job. Crossway, 1994: 309-310. Available to order from The Voice of the Martyrs]

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Friday, November 13, 2009

Forsaking the kaafirs and not being unequally yoked

The message of segregation that goes on in both the mosque and the church

Earlier this week, Tarek Fatah in his commentary on November 9 in the National Post “Spreading intolerance, one fatwah at a time” noted the teaching of influential Islamist clerics that the Koran forbade Muslims from making friends with non-Muslims (kaafirs) or even living among them unless the objective was to convert the non-Muslim to Islam. The purpose of such teaching, Fatah suggested, is to convince young Muslims to view their non-Muslim fellow citizens with suspicion and derision. No countervailing effort is being made, he said, at any level in the West to counter the Islamists’ hateful message of isolation, segregation and hostility.

As I read this article, the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:14 came to mind:

Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?

I recalled how, in my youth, I was taught that this verse meant that I, as a Christian, should not have close friends who were non-Christians. I especially should not date a non-Christian girl! Such a relationship was doomed to drag me down spiritually, it was said. And for the years, that is how I have tended to view this verse, as I suspect many have. A letter to the editor on Thursday in response to Fatah’s article referred to this same passage, in fact, the author proposing that the Bible actually teaches the same type of isolation and segregation as the Koran did. The only difference, he said, is that Christian churches have learned to ignore such exhortations!

I’m not so sure that this writer is correct, but I do think that Christians have been torn as to how to practice these verses if they are understood to be teaching a strict separation between Christians and non-Christians. I wonder if perhaps we have misunderstood Paul’s words, especially in light of the persecution that Jesus experienced for hanging around with sinners. And so I dug into 2 Corinthians 6 this week and was surprised to see how this verse, when taken out of context and viewed separately from the rest of the book, could be used to instill fear, suspicion and isolation in Christian youth in a similar way to how Koranic verses are being used to create Islamists.

It is vital that we see Paul’s words in the context of the book itself. In chapter 5:11-6:13, Paul is speaking of his being entrusted with God’s message of reconciliation, the Gospel, and urges the Corinthians not to receive this message in vain. The Corinthians risk doing this due to their propensity to embrace teachers whose message and methods run counter to Paul’s. Their gospel is not the gospel of Christ suffering on the cross to bring reconciliation with God and their ministry methods are not those of sacrificial service and a readiness to suffer (and even die) in order to bring this message to others.

It is in this context that 2 Corinthian 6:14-7:1 appears and should be interpreted. What Paul is calling for is for the Corinthians to recognize that they cannot follow Paul’s message brought to them sacrificially and in much suffering and follow these other false teachers whose message and methods are so diametrically different. The Corinthians are trying to yoke together two incompatible animals to the same plow. “Stop trying!” Paul says. The call here is to disassociate themselves from complicity with those who would attempt to propagate a false gospel within the church.[i]

Hence, the call here is not to pull away from the world or unbelievers in general, but from those who would seek to contaminate the church with false teachings. Indeed, only a church committed to such segregation can hold forth the true message of reconciliation to a needy world and be willing to sacrifice themselves in order to bring such a gospel to those who need it. Find me a church that is unwilling to sacrifice and suffer and you will likely have found one that is yoking together the gospel of Christ and false teaching similar to that which Paul’s opponents were teaching in Corinth.

[i] c.f. R. Kent Hughes, 2 Corinthians: Power in Weakness. Crossway Books, 2006: 141; C.K. Barrett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians. Harper’s New Testament Commentaries. Hendrickson Publishers, 1973: 194-196

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