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Praying is testing God (sometimes)

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Being bold in prayer is tricky.

Don’t get me wrong: boldness in prayer and a faith to move the mountains are good things. There are also practical ways to increase boldness in prayer. But in all of that, there is a difficult balance to strike, between expecting our prayers to be answered and considering that as a right that we have come to acquire.

The danger is there, that we start demanding things from God, as though he were indebted to us, rather than the opposite. The Israelites did:

They tested God in their heart
by demanding the food they craved.
They spoke against God, saying,
“Can God spread a table in the wilderness?”

Psalms 78:18-19 (ESV)

And God got angry at them for it.

I wouldn’t be quick to dismiss this as God being angry at some form of lack of faith on the part of the Israelites. Or to think that the Israelites wanted to make sure of God’s power before they went on and trusted Him. After all, they had all left Egypt on the basis of that faith, the power of God had just been shown them when they were thirsting for water.

Yes, their prayer was a test; but one that we can be led to put God to in our own prayer life, without noticing that we do. We test God in our prayers when we allow our faith to depend on the outcome of the prayer.

Expectant prayer becomes tricky, then: we want to both be  bold in the assurance that God will provide, but we need to not let our faith depend on it. Prayer, and our relationship with God, cannot become a utilitarian thing. How do we achieve that, though?

In remembering that our prayer comes from faith and relies entirely on that faith. Yes, answered prayers can feed a little into faith; and both may grow together. But we must not allow ourselves to turn to a system where faith relies on answered prayers.

The Lord’s prayer, rightly, starts with a statement of praise of God. This is not only a statement of what is the most important, but also a way of giving us the right state of mind for prayer: one that looks at God first, and  then allows us to respond and ask for our daily bread expectantly.

To conclude, though, let us remember that after being angered, God still provided the manna. He still answered the prayer, even when it did not rely on faith alone. Prayers born out of necessity, prayers born out of strife, or those where we doubt our own worth in God’s eye and therefore God’s answer – these are all acceptable. But let’s not make a habit of them ;-)

10 ways in which listening to God is like waiting for luggage

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Photo: Agus Munoraharjo, reused under CC license.

1. You’re actively looking for your item of luggage. It’s not like waiting for, say, Christmas or the bus. Once you see the conveyor belt moving, your eyes will be searching for your item of luggage. In the same way, when I’m praying, I am in “expectant waiting”. I’m actively listening for God, looking out for what he has to tell me.

2. You know it’s going to come.
You are right to expect its arrival. And that changes the dynamics of waiting – it turns it from a dreadful chore into joyful and excited anticipation.
(Well, it does for prayer. Not too sure about waiting for luggage :-P)

3. You can’t increase (or decrease) the speed of the conveyor.
Ultimately, “expectant waiting” is waiting. I could tell the Holy Spirit to hurry up, mind. And that prayer might work. But in prayer, and in listening, I have to recognise that I’m not setting the agenda. That I am not praying in order to be holy and show myself up for hearing from God; and that God .

4. If you miss it the first time around, it’s no big deal. It can go round the conveyor belt again.
In the same way, it’s never too late to start praying. Or to start listening. Or to start it all again.

5. Luggage comes in different shapes and sizes – but it’s always luggage! Different people will recognise the Holy Spirit in their own way. Judging people because of the way they respond to God, or because of the  way they worship, is not only arrogant – it’s also fundamentally misguided.

6. Even though others may not recognise your luggage, you know for sure when it comes that it is yours. But, if pressed for an explanation as to how you know it’s what you were waiting for, you will find it hard to explain.
The same goes with what comes from God – there is a distinct recognisability of what comes from God in prayer.
That said, a child may not go and pick up their parents’ suitcase unless prompted to do so; and on occasion, further scrutiny is appropriate.

7. You don’t randomly look for your luggage everywhere in the airport. But if you see it sitting in an unexpected place, you still know it as your luggage.
In the same way, I’m not in contemplative prayer 24/7. And I’m (mostly) actively seeking God when in prayer. But at the same time, God may talk to me at other times, and in other ways. In those cases, I (hopefully!) will recognise God’s word and  pick up my luggage where I find it! Although it has to be said, in those cases, I would very carefully check that it was mine…

8. You have a baggage reclaim tag. You know, just in case it gets lost.
We have a promise. And a trace of that promise. That means that if things go wrong, for whatever reason, and I don’t hear from God straight away, I need not worry.

9. You didn’t get your luggage onto the conveyor belt. But you’re the one who has to pick it up.
In the same way: we have teachers whom we can trust to direct us to the right conveyor belt. We have encounters along our life story that get our faith from one place to the next. And ultimately, it’s God who sends us his messages – and not just us.
If I don’t listen, then I won’t hear God’s word. If I don’t respond to it, the transformative power of that word won’t work in my life, and I won’t grow. Just spotting my item of luggage and leaving it on the conveyor belt would be a bit stupid, wouldn’t it?

10. If you skip that part of your journey (assuming you had checked in some luggage) you won’t be able to go through your day quite as easily.
And feel quite foolish too, probably.
In the same way, contemplative prayer sustains us and helps us in our daily lives.

The conundrum of seeking forgiveness


Forgiveness is at the heart of much Christian practice. Communion liturgy mentions it, as the blood of Christ washes our sin away. Some widespread evangelism strategies give it a prominent place, going something like this*:

  1. We are all sinners and deserve the wrath of God.
  2. Jesus took on our sin on the cross and bore the penalty for our sins.
  3. We therefore stand justified and forgiven in the eyes of God.

The direct link between sin and justification makes it sound easy. It looks as though repentance automatically leads to forgiveness. And in a way, it does – because God’s nature is always to have mercy. But it makes it look silly too. On its own, it’s petty. Arrogant. Why would God want us to say sorry for our sins in order for them to be forgiven?

Photo: Roger Davies, reused under CC License

Behind this question, there is a double misconception: firstly, about the place of forgiveness in Christianity: we cannot think of sin or forgiveness without placing them in the context of God’s incredible love for us – lest we make that forgiveness a mechanical thing. Secondly, a misconception as to what being sorry actually means.

When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

(Luke 7:37-38 NIV)

Is that the attitude we take when we pray for forgiveness? When I realise my sin, I sometimes say “oops! Sorry God”. The assurance of forgiveness makes me treat the grave matter of forgiveness and repentance very lightly. It is actually very rare for me to have that broken and contrite heart. But where that happens – when I do feel contrite, it feels too big to bring to God. Too big to be forgiven. This is the true conundrum of seeking Jesus’s forgiveness: either the guarantee of forgiveness makes it so I don’t come forward with a contrite spirit, or my contrite spirit stops me from coming forward. This is why the sinner in Luke 7 is weeping. This is why the prodigal son goes back to his father’s as a hired servant. This is why the tax collector cries out in the temple: because they have all grasped the grave matter of their sin, and seek forgiveness without thinking they will get it. The reaction is overwhelming. The relief is great. From that relief, comes the joy of dwelling in Christ and true repentance.

I’m not arguing that we should make a show of being contrite. I don’t think we have to weep to show true anguish or sorrow. I don’t even think we should feel much anguish or sorrow. But we should not trivialise sin by making it commonplace (yes, we all do sin, in word thought or deed, but should we lump all our sin together?). In the same way that God is not a vending machine when it comes to petitionary prayer, He is not a vending machine when it comes to asking for forgiveness. Approach asking for forgiveness with humility and with a contrite heart, but also with the wisdom of the Psalmist who said

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

(Psalm 51:17 ESV)

How do we do that? To be honest, I don’t really know, and would be grateful for any pointers. All I can do is to turn to Jesus (rather than, as I often do, my own mind) as the convictor of my sin, and pray that the Holy Spirit create in me a contrite heart. Not for the sake of being sad – that would be stupid – but for the joy of being truly forgiven.

How do you seek God’s forgiveness?

* It’s easy to criticise any evangelism strategy; but that is not the point of this post. It would, after all, be too easy if I didn’t offer anything to replace this approach (which I may attempt in a future post). The main purpose of this post is to reflect on forgiveness of sins – and even then, I only scratch the surface. What about our commission to forgive sins? What about sinning against the Holy Spirit? Sin and forgiveness are vast subjects which could (and do) fill up books! If you’ve got some to recommend, please let me know!

What does it mean… presence?

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It is easy to talk about God’s presence. I’ve heard it said many times that “the presence of God” or of the Holy Spirit was with us.

Until I heard a sermon about a month ago, though, I only took it at face value: God is in this place, He is ordaining what is being done, He is inspiring us. All three do hark back to God’s presence, yes, but in a way which does not do justice to the importance of God’s presence.

Photo credit: Mauro Cateb, under CC license.

As I’m starting to write this, though, I realise it is impossible to describe it theoretically, or with words. For, in fact, God’s presence depends on us – on our own response. Old Testament occurences of the word “presence” usually come hand in hand with our response. Talking of “God’s presence” as a mere indication of His physical, geographical location, independently of us, would be tantamount to saying that sometimes, He isn’t there.

So in order to write about God’s presence, I need to talk about how I feel it. To me, it is a deeply rooted knowledge that He is with me – that I can pray and He will listen. It does not always mean receiving divine inspiration or ordination; it is not always supernatural. But it is like having a housemate in the house, next door, with the knowledge that if I want a cup of tea, he’ll be there to have one with me; with the knowledge that if something is wrong with me, he will look after me. Ultimately, God’s presence is here whenever I turn to Him and remind myself that He loves me.

That’s important:

  • because God’s presence is everywhere, everywhen. A couple of years ago, as I went through a rough patch, I wanted to be left alone. I fled from God’s presence, in a way. But even during those few lonely months, I knew God was just a stone’s throw away.
  • but its benefits depend on us and our response. Even though God knows our every thoughts, we can still shy away from His presence. Knowing that makes it easier to tune to it.
  • because expectations of the supernatural to always happen in “God’s presence” makes us miss much of God’s presence.
  • because it puts God’s love right back at the centre of prayer, which is the pure expression of God’s love.
  • because it helps us understand Jesus’s plight when He cries out to God “why have you forsaken me?”

How do you feel God’s presence?

What other expressions have a deeper meaning than meets the eye?


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Picture a tug-of-war. A rope that’s being pulled by both ends. One word describes that situation: tension.

Image credit: Andy Beercroft, re-used under CC license

And we’re often in a similar situation, where we have to choose between two opposing things. Where we’re being pulled in one direction by comfort and habit, and in the other by a calling. This can take many forms – being friendly vs challenging someone; living in sin vs dealing with it; etc. But at the root of it, where there is a tension, it is because there is a hidden, but deep knowledge of what should be done. There is always a sin vs calling dichotomy.

That tension feels natural.

It isn’t. Sin is not natural, and while we do live in a fallen world, sin should have no hold over us.

That tension can be dangerous.

You can snap. Regardless of the direction you snap in – whether it is towards the “healthy” calling, or towards the ways of habit – it will be ugly.
If the snapping causes you to go back to sin, the loss is obvious. If it causes you to abandon your past ways, there will be parts of yourself – for instance, old friends, old hobbies – that will stay behind: a chunk of the rope entirely in the hands of the sin team.

It can also be helpful.

It can lead you to explore different areas of your faith. It can highlight areas of your life that are holding you back. Thanks to that tension, you can grow stronger in your faith and give over more to God.

What you shouldn’t do:

Add more hands to what you see as the “healthy” side. This only increases the risk of snapping.
Simply forget the tension exists/has existed. For one thing, there are probably others who live with similar tensions to yours. Knowing where you are/have been and being open about it helps build real relationships and will help those with similar tensions. And while tension can be helpful, it is only so when you are conscious it exists.
Moan about the tension. Like I said, there are ways in which that tension can be helpful. But by just talking about how difficult it is to deal with that tension, you’re not actually dealing with it.

What you can do:

Talk to someone about it – not to justify your tension, but rather to make it into something that is not inevitable – something that is tangible and which you can work on.
Realise the tension isn’t natural, and welcome God to remove those hands that are pulling the “sinful” side. There is something quite powerful in the Lord’s prayer there: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil“.