Psalm 37:1-6, Matthew 6:25-34
August 22, 2010
Before I left last week for Jenny’s wedding, I offered you some thoughts about “Faith.” Maybe you remember that. I used the great words of the Apostle Paul from his letter to the Hebrews. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Those are great words! I hope you have them memorized by now!
I said that day that having faith is a matter of choosing to have faith, and that growing in faith is a matter of “learning to trust” God by “trying out” that trust and then experiencing God’s faithfulness. I hope you’ve been giving that some thought – and prayer. I hope you’ve been thinking about your own faith. How well do you “practice” faith? Is it growing?
Well, after that sermon, my dear wife suggested that I consider a “follow-up” to faith. And I realized that after almost 30 years of doing this, (a number which seems totally unreal to me!!) in all that time, I had never before gotten a sermon suggestion from my wife. So I thought, maybe that’s not something I should ignore? What do you think??
Actually, what she suggested to me was very good. She suggested that I give some thought to the times in our lives when faith doesn’t seem to “work?” I think that’s an important thing to think about. What about those times when we’ve chosen to have faith in God, when we’ve taken the “steps of faith,” when we’re working on “learning to trust” God more, and then something bad happens, and it seems like God has forgotten us?
That’s an important question. Because I do not want to give you the impression that as we learn to trust, as we learn to have faith, that things will always improve and grow, and that life of faith will always become better and better! As I’ve said before, having faith doesn’t mean our lives will be trouble free! There will be those times when we “walk through the valley.” We cannot avoid it. For some reason, God allows those valleys in our lives.
That’s what I want us to think about for today. Because you know, we all have those times, don’t we? We pray for help, we pray for solutions to problems, we’ve even taken the steps of faith and it seems God has let us down. What are we to think about that? Has God really let us down? I want us to think about this, because when those times do come, I don’t want us to conclude that our faith is bad, or that it’s not “working.” And I don’t want us to conclude that God does not have the power to do anything about our problems anyway! Those would be two bad conclusions.
Think about prayer for a moment. Sometimes it bothers me, and please forgive me if this is you, but it bothers me when someone says “prayer works.” Now, first of all, I believe that! But what does that mean when we say it? Does it mean that when we pray we get what we ask for, if we just pray “right?” After all, Jesus said, “Ask whatever you will in my name and it will be done for you.” But is that literally true – with no other qualifications? Can I expect to ask, in Jesus name, that I would win the lottery, and then go ahead and order the yacht? (What color curtains would you like, Dear?)
I have to believe that’s not what Jesus was trying to teach his disciples that night. That wasn’t a stand alone statement. It came along with a lot of other things. In fact, it came from the longest speech of Jesus in the Bible! So there were a lot of other things that went along with it. Jesus was teaching the disciples about their relationship with God. He was teaching them about trusting in God. He was telling them about looking to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and about being in tune with God’s kingdom. And that statement came from the same Jesus who also said, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and [then] all these things shall be added unto you.”
So when we say “prayer works,” are we simply implying that if we ask enough or properly, eventually we’ll get what we want? The reason that bothers me is that sometimes seem to reduce prayer to a sort of “mail order” system. But God is not EBay! Prayer is not just a way of getting our “will.” In fact, one of the most frequent prayers that most of us will repeat throughout our lives contains the words, “thy will be done.” The purpose of prayer is talking with God! And God wants to be our friend and our father. He wants to live among us. He wants us to have daily “give and take” with us as we share our lives with him – our joys and our sorrows and our frustrations. The end conclusion about whether or not prayer “works” should not be based simply on a list of things we asked for and whether or not we got them.
Whenever we reduce prayer – or any other part of our life of faith – to a formulaic system designed simply to control the results, as though we are the center of things and meeting our needs and supplying our desires is the main purpose of it all, then we’ve missed what God really wants for us. Besides, with the “mail order” understanding of prayer, God really doesn’t have to be in the picture at all – as long as we say the right things that get us what we want.
By the way, Yes! I believe prayer “works.” But, I try to say that keeping in mind the purpose of prayer, which is close, intimate communication with God. It’s not only about asking for things and getting them. And I think you’ll agree.
I may have shared this before, but I think it’s great, and it bears repeating. In the movie “Shadowlands” C. S. Lewis was praying for his wife Joy who had cancer. And when she went into remission, his friend Christopher said, “I know how hard you’ve been praying. And now your prayers have been answered.” And Lewis said this. He said, “That’s not why I pray, Christopher. I pray because I can’t help it. I pray because it flows out of me, day and night, waking or sleeping. Prayer doesn’t change God. It changes me.” I love that thought! It’s not the only conclusion about prayer, but it’s a good one, and it’s often true. Prayer changes us! If we’ll let it!
Having said that, what about faith? I think they go hand in hand. The purpose of prayer, the purpose of faith as well, is not about making sure we have everything we need, or about making our life “trouble free.” As I’ve said before, God may not save us from troubles, but he wants us to know for sure that he is with us – even through the valley of the shadow! I say all of this because there will be times that we go through that valley. And no matter how well we’ve learned to trust God, there will be times when it doesn’t seem he’s doing anything. There will be times when our faith doesn’t “seem to be” working. I’ve had those times. I’m sure you have too. So, what then?
“What then” is that we keep going! We keep going because we know God is trustworthy – despite what our feelings might be at any particular time! Even though we experience a setback, we still strive to move forward. And this is where we help and encourage each other! That’s more important than you know! Then, what we work towards is not a faith that makes everything happy and trouble free, but a faith whose goal is drawing closer to God. Then, even though things might not always be trouble free, we will know more and more that God is with us no matter what! And in the midst of that, prayer will change us, and we will learn to “trust in God,” and to “commit our way to him,” as the psalmist said. Then, we will “take delight in him, and he will give us the desires of our hearts.” But that doesn’t mean he’ll give us what we think we want! He’ll give us what the deep down desires of our heart really are!
Now does that mean that we won’t ever be frustrated with God? No. I’m sure we will. But don’t worry. He can take it! Does that mean that we will never experience times when our faith doesn’t seem to be “working?” No. There will be times we will have been learning to trust God, and the trust doesn’t seem to be answered. But let me caution you, again. When God does not do something, let’s be careful not to draw the conclusion that he can’t, that he doesn’t have the power. We know he does! And when we’ve trusted God and that trust seemed to go unanswered, let’s also be careful not to draw the conclusion that God is not trustworthy! He is!
Remember that faith is a growing process, and like any relationship, there are times when we have setbacks. And by the way, we can be pretty sure that when we have those setbacks in our faith the weakness or the problem lies with us, not with God! When we “press on,” when we persevere. God will prove himself to us!
So let us continue to grow, no matter what. Let us learn to rejoice in our life of faith! Let us know God is with us. Let us commit our ways unto him. Let us delight in him! Let us grow in our faith! Let us pray.
Eternal God, you know our hearts! You know our longing for you that we can’t even put into words. Help us to see more clearly your kingdom. Help us to know you are with us, and help our faith to grow in you. Help us to delight in you and in the joy of your kingdom. We love you! And we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.